The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August. I’m the host of Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig is either in Lithuania or somewhere in Los Angeles. He’s hidden away someplace, but I’m here in New York City. I’m at a bookstore on Prince Street called McNally Jackson. And this is a special little mini episode and we have a very special guest.
Our special guest is Stephen Schiff. He is the executive producer, or an executive producer, on The Americans, one of my very favorite TV shows. I’ve seen every episode.
Stephen Schiff: Yay.
John: I have so many questions for you. So we’re going to talk about TV. We’re going to talk about writing characters on an ongoing basis. We’re going to talk about writing in general. And then I’m going to sign a bunch of copies of Arlo Finch, which has nothing to do with any of that. So, Stephen Schiff, welcome.
Stephen: Thank you. Thank you.
John: So, Stephen, I saw the entire run of The Americans just last year. I had not seen it as it was coming out. We streamed the entire thing through Apple TV while we were living in Paris. And it was amazing. If people have not seen it – show of hands out here, who has seen The Americans? OK, it is an incredible show.
Stephen: Yay. Thank you.
John: And it’s remarkably well done. What I want to ask you about is we’re living with this family for so long. You’re living with this family for so long. And when I was watching the first season I was asking myself how can they sustain this premise. This premise of like this is a family that is living undercover. Those secrets are eventually going to come out. They’re living across the street from an FBI agent. That’s eventually going to be – it was sort of like this Chekhov’s gun, literally kind of Chekhov’s gun right across the street. And yet–
John: Guns pointed in every direction. And they’re still not going off. Well, they’re going off in ways we don’t expect. So what is it like living with the Jennings family for so many years?
Stephen: I’ve strangely been thinking about this recently because the years have accumulated, and I’ve sort of been thinking this show which I’m so deeply involved in and have been living for all these years, and you know, it starts from so many weird premises. The engine of it is so absurd, right? The absurdities are these people who really can pass as Americans. The show sort of began to have its inspiration with this gang of spies that were arrested by the FBI in an operation called Operation Ghost Stories in 2010. People think of them as illegals like our illegals, but no, they had Russian accents. They would not have appeared to be Americans. These people appear to be Americans. So that’s the first thing that’s – I mean, they speak perfect American English. They live perfect American lives seamlessly.
And so if you were to pitch that to me I’d say, oh yeah right. And then what happens when an FBI agent moves in next door. Oh yeah, great. This is the most ridiculous thing ever so far. And finally on top of that they wear hundreds of disguises all of which work.
Stephen: So, it’s like, really? And yet I think we have managed somehow to put aside all of that – to suspend disbelief enough so that you can have watching this show what I hope is a profound experience.
John: Well let’s talk about that. The progress from a pitch. So, even though it was based on some real things that happened and even though there was some underlying material or things that you’ve worked on before, it is essentially a pitch. You’re going in there saying I have this idea about a family that seems like an American family but they’re actually Russian spies. And what?
So you pitch this story, but there’s so much more to figure out after that point about, like, what is the show really about. And so when you guys are in the writing room, what is the show really about? Because clearly you’re talking about, you know, there’s the international issues. There’s the issues of what secrets you keep from your family. What secrets you keep from your spouse. You’re looking at the struggle of being a parent and not knowing what your kids are doing.
Is there a big list on the whiteboard of like these are themes, these are the interesting questions we’re asking? Or is it just internalized at this point?
Stephen: Well, of course, by this point it is internalized. But really your question is perfectly germane in that it’s a spy thing, but it’s also a story about a family. And maybe I shouldn’t even say also. Maybe it’s first and foremost a family drama that happens to be about a family that kills people and has hunting traps and is actually working against America. But we are always constantly aware of basically sort of having a family in a test tube. And you subject the test tube to these extraordinary conditions and yet what you’re seeing is still a family. And subjecting the family to those conditions reveals things about all of our families, we like to think and hope.
And, you know, to the degree that we are spies – all of us spies within our own lives. You know, the show addresses that and speaks to what the complications might be and might feel like. At the same time, we’re completely tethered to the facts of our premise. And so weapons must be used and concealments opened. And people pursued. And danger is skirted.
John: I want to dig into something you just said there. We are all spies within our own lives. So, I hear two things packed into that. That sense of as spies we are always concealing something that we don’t want other people to find out about us. And at the same time we’re always trying to scrape away and find information about the people around us. We’re always fundamentally distrusting the folks around us. Are there other layers to that that I’m not catching in terms of spies in our own lives?
Stephen: No, I think that’s part of it, but also another thing about a spy is that a spy has a cover. And maybe many covers as our spies do. And you’re presenting that cover to the world. And maybe we are all – we all have a cover. And we are all sort of presenting our cover. And I think something that we really try to feel in our show is what’s it like to be inside the cover. What’s it like – for instance, I did an episode two seasons ago I think it was, maybe three, in which the idea of the sexual operations that they undergo was explored a little bit. And Philip was remembering his training, his sex training. And yet he was doing it in the family master bedroom next to his wife. And they were exploring – these people are not very psychologically sophisticated. They are not – I mean, he’s gotten into EST now but they’re not analysans and they’re not people who understand that kind of language or wish to address things in that kind of way, in the way that we might be more used to in western drama.
But they do have questions. And they do want to find out things about themselves to a certain degree. And they’re trying to figure out how do I do this. How do I get into these situations where I’m in bed with someone pretending to, you know, love them or have a relationship with them and make love to them and I’m completely false in every respect?
And then how do I take that and shed it and go into my life and perform the same actions but from someplace that if I can’t find any sincerity I’m going to be lost.
John: Well that’s the same question that writers often ask in terms of their ability to create a completely fictitious world and make it feel real, but also your actors are doing that on a daily basis. They are like how am I supposed to be in love with this other actor while the cameras are rolling and not be in love with this person when the cameras stop rolling.
Stephen: Completely right. Exactly.
John: So I wanted to take another step back and look at this idea that everyone has a cover. That all characters have covers. And so in a show like The Americans that’s really clear. That’s the premise of the show that they’re always under cover. But all characters, everything that we’ve ever written, has a cover. They have a façade they’re putting out. There’s a real thing that’s underneath it. And that’s often the source of conflict within a scene or conflict within a character. We see the journey of them coming to terms with their façade and who they really are.
What have you learned in writing these characters and writing Philip and Elizabeth for The Americans that you think you can apply to characters who are not literally spies but have to present themselves a certain way? Are there any lessons we can take from that split?
Stephen: When I’m watching our actors – our actors are just the loveliest people to work with. That’s not always the case in television or movies as you well know. But they’re just wonderful lovely people. The man who plays Philip, who of course has an American accent, is Welsh but doesn’t talk like that at all. Keri Russell who plays his wife Elizabeth is this bubbly, funny, bright, sweet, and then she turns into a murderer and a scary person. And they both do that instantaneously. They’re not method-y in the least.
It is rather like what the show is about. They are spies on our show. They’re spies on our show in so many different ways. We all are doing that. I guess, you know, are there lessons that I can articulate that I draw from this that I can sort of bring into my own life and our lives and say I have learned that this is the way to do it and this is not? Not really. But watching this process and exploring this process over and over and over again and seeing what lies are, what their nature is, what they do, the damage they do, the reasons we tell them. You know, that’s something that we all deal with our lives every single day. And we all need to confront and face.
And we don’t because no one wants to say, “oh, I’m lying.” And no one wants to confront the liarness in yourself. You know, we have a TV show to do that with. But in a way it still requires an act of courage to bring that into your life and to confront it and admit to it.
John: Well, with Philip and Elizabeth you have professional liars. They’ve been trained in how to do this for a long time. And while we see the struggle sometimes, it’s not particularly hard for them. It has a long-term damage to them, but it’s not hard for them to flip that switch.
What’s so fascinating to see is the characters who are amateur liars, who are beginner liars. So, you see Paige trying to tell a lie. You see Nina trying to figure out, navigate those worlds where–
Stephen: She’s pretty good at it.
John: Yeah, but she gets better at it. And then you have Martha who, oh my god, Martha. We just love Martha so much. She’s not equipped for it. And that – watching the tension of someone trying to play a game that they’ve not played before. It’s like – it’s as if the NFL is happening and they’re suddenly on the field and they have to run with the ball.
Stephen: So what’s the difference – one difference is that for most of our series, and not entirely for all the characters, but for Philip and Elizabeth the lies are justifiable. The lies are subsumed to a greater cause. And the greater cause whether we think it’s worth subsuming anything to or not is to them a powerful overarching reason to lie no matter what. And you see them going through this. And you see the edges of a kind of agony. Maybe not the center of an agony that you or I might feel going through such a thing. But what they’re looking for to bolster themselves is the cause.
And they have the cause. And then maybe you see in Philip’s case especially a fraying of that belief in the cause. And you see what that does to him. And then he has to turn to other things. Elizabeth can always go back to that cause. In our lives, though, going back to your question, we are always creating causes that are higher causes that are worth lying for. Easy for anyone to say, well, I didn’t want to tell her that she looked fat in that dress. That’s a higher cause for us to lie in the service of. And I think most of us would agree that that’s OK. But that’s what we’re always doing. We’re justifying. We’re trying to find the cause.
It’s very interesting again as a thought experiment, which this whole show is, to look at what happens when you have this rock hard completely mistaken – because I think we all agree that the Soviet Union was not a wonderful place – cause with which to justify all the damage you do all the time.
John: So, with Philip and Elizabeth they’re the center of our show and most of the action circles around them. I think what I was surprised to see in the show, and it’s particularly as seasons go on, is how point of view changes, or the degree to which you stop limiting POVs so clearly. In early seasons, POV was limited to the Jennings family, sometimes their handlers were allowed to have scenes by themselves, and then Stan Beeman across the street which could take us into the FBI. But over time you decided to let other characters run with the ball basically. We can go off with Oleg and to see Oleg’s family for extended periods of time. What are those decisions like and what is the negotiations when you’re figuring out internally like do we let this character drive scenes without one of our other leads in it?
Stephen: I think this is something that happens with most TV shows. That you discover as the audience is discovering that you feel differently about the characters from the way you thought you were going to feel when you were first writing and pitching and all that. That almost always is an expansion. So for instance, Martha was a character who was kind of a joke in the first season. We came in and we looked at Martha and looked at Martha and we were loving Martha. We had a wonderful, wonderful actress, Alison Wright, playing her. And we thought, you know, we thought of her as a plain Jane who was just going to be duped and ruined. And now we began to say wait a sec, wait a sec, it’s not only our duty but our pleasure to go inside this person.
Well, then we had to give her a point of view. And, you know, Oleg was someone who completely changed. He was kind of like this sort of gad about playboy wearing no socks and listening to American music. And he became I think a somewhat profound person, a haunted person, a person really torn between all of the loyalties and all of the moral decisions that he has to make. That’s just more interesting.
John: It’s more interesting, but it’s also – I think there’s an assumption out in popular culture that all those decisions have to be made before that character shows up on screen. Basically there had to be a plan right from the very start. What I hear you saying is that in the case of Martha and in the case of Oleg you created these characters with one intention and then you saw what was possible and you changed the trajectory of where they were going to go based on what you saw. Is that accurate? Is that fair?
Stephen: Yes. I think that is fair. I mean, I think you see shows where you look at the characters sort of a couple seasons down the line and you say wait a sec, wait a sec, this is not the same character. You know, and that can be – I mean, I look at a show like Downton Abbey where all the bad guys became good guys and I went with it. I was like, “OK, I hated this guy, now I love this guy. It’s hard to remember hating this guy.”
John: The Thomas problem, yeah.
Stephen: The Thomas problem as it is known in the business. And we do the same thing, I hope, in a quieter way. Our characters I don’t think contradict who they were, but certainly they’re much more alive and explored and present and multidimensional than they were. It’s a little like what happens in a writer’s room in a way. You come into a writer’s room and you have an idea. And it starts bouncing around and it starts bouncing around. And you and I are people who have done movies. Movies we’re all alone really. And we bounce things off producers and what not, but basically we’re all alone. And we in a way have to grow our own.
In this world of television and in this world of a multi-season series, they grow on their own without you to a certain degree. They start – you know, you always hear from any kind of writer, playwrights, novelists, anyone, the characters tell me what to do.
I don’t know to what degree that’s really true or to what degree that’s a metaphor, but it’s about as true as it gets when you’re doing a TV show because other people are seeing the characters differently and you’re bouncing off of that. And ideas come in and they might seem like not the right idea but they spark something and pretty soon – I mean, I think probably people here will remember a memorable tooth-pulling in our show. And that began as such a different thing. It just began as there was this action scene in which her tooth was hurt, what do we do about it? And then we turned it into this thing because it starts to grow and it’s not just one person growing it. It’s all this people growing it.
Our characters are like that, too. The actors bring something. The other writers bring something. The time brings something. The story demands something else. Our interests change. And so it’s an organic process.
John: So the TV show right now is on cable with commercial breaks. How do you think that show would be different if it were done for premium, for Netflix, for Amazon, for something streaming? Do you think you would make the same show? And to which degree are you writing towards act breaks? Because it feels like those act breaks matter in your writing.
Stephen: We do write towards act breaks, but we are being streamed.
John: Yeah, I watched it entirely streaming.
Stephen: You watched it streaming. I mean, how many people here watch it streamed? Two. OK. So not a large number, but yeah, basically we don’t make that differentiation. But we do use act breaks because they’re kind of fun to use. An act break is a place where you come to an emotional plateau. We don’t do the traditional network broadcast act break of “Oh my god bite your fingers through the commercials.” We sometimes will just come to a place where we’ve gone up a set of stairs and we’re on the landing and we’re catching our breath and we’re looking around and saying, “OK, where are we going from here?”
John: A character decision moment or resolution of an action that clearly the nature of the story is going to have to be different after that action has happened, but not the classic sort of like, oh no, there’s somebody outside the door. You’re not doing that kind of act break on your show.
Stephen: That’s right. And the nature might not be any different from how it changes after any other scene in the middle of an act, for instance, but there is a feeling of what we call an act out. Act out is the last scene before you’re done with that act. And so on our show we have a teaser and four acts. So it’s a five act show. And there’s a teaser out, act one out, act two out, etc. And there’s a feeling about it. There’s a nimbus around it. There’s a kind of – it either has the glow of an act out or it doesn’t have the glow of an act out. And it’s not something that’s defined by any set of rules. It’s defined by our shared feeling about it.
John: Can I make a guess that one of your internal rules for an act out is it can’t be a scene where people are speaking Russian? Is that actually true? Because your show has more than sort of any show on broadcast has a lot of people with subtitles. Where you can sort of – the degree to which we all watch TV sometimes, you’re checking something on the phone, but you’re listening to it. But then it gets to a Russian scene and you’re like, ugh, I have to do some reading. I have to really stare at the screen to do it.
My question for you is there’s quite a bit of Russian, and especially this last season I felt like I heard a lot and there’s Oleg. My hunch is that you will not go – an act out scene can’t be a Russian scene. Is that true or is that not true?
Stephen: That is as far as I know not true. I would have to go back and look, but it’s not something we carry around with us or consciously do.
Just something interesting about our Russian, because with very, very, very, very tiny exceptions all of our Russian speaking is done by native Russian speakers, people who really speak it.
John: My husband speaks Russian.
Stephen: Oh, is he a native Russian speaker?
John: He’s not. He learned Russian. But he would point out, I think in the first season he heard when people were trying to speak Russian and they’re not really Russian people.
Stephen: We’ve completely not done that for the last – and our translator is a woman named Masha Gessen, who just won the National Book Award, so she’s the most overqualified TV translator in the history of television.
And then we have translators on set. We have the actors sort of giving their views on the Russian they’re to speak because they’re native Russian speakers. And we also have an expert in Russia who is also looking at our translation. So all of that is a very careful process. But, of course, we write it in English.
And the way we write it in English is a little bit special only in that we try to make it so completely colloquial. We try to make it as conversational. So no one is ever saying, you know, “Yes my liege,” kind of dialogue. It’s as un-stiff as anything on our show, because we want it – for one thing that translates directly into the subtitles. And for another thing that’s the mood we want. We want it to be conversational every day Russian. But Russian remains to me a very mysterious language. And to all of us who write the show it’s this vast distant thing that we know we’ll never quite conquer.
John: So I think you just answered a question that I had which is when a character is speaking Russian in the script, what we see in subtitles is what you have in the script, not necessarily a direct translation of what those actors are saying?
Stephen: Yes, that’s right.
John: OK. Very, very cool. So it’s not a surprise to you and your editors don’t have to worry about like is that really the thing that goes at this moment.
Stephen: Well, we vet that, of course. We have basically three levels of vetting that and we want it to be true and we want it to be real. But we basically – we’ve written that dialogue. And so we’re not rewriting it because it’s turned into Russian in between. Also at our table reads, by the way, when all of our actors are there we sit there reading the script and the Russian-speaking actors have Russian to read. And so we’re sitting there, and some of these scenes as you’ve mentioned are long, and so we’re reading English, English, English, English, and then suddenly someone is speaking Russian for a couple pages. And we’re like, uh, are we done with that page yet?
John: That’s nice. Because it’s still English in the script, but they’re just–
Stephen: It’s English in the script, but they already have the translation. And they’re doing it and we want them to do it the way it’s going to be because that will give us a better idea of how it flows.
John: Talking about the table read process is one of my last questions. So you have the script for the episode that’s about to shoot, but you’re probably doing that table read while you’re – is it on a lunch break while you’re shooting?
Stephen: It’s on lunch break for the, yeah.
John: And so those actors have gotten the script but they haven’t had a lot of time to prepare. But this is a chance for everyone to sit around a table, speak it all aloud, hear what the whole thing is. What do you get out of a table read?
Stephen: I hear what’s not quite there. By the time we get to a table read we’re very much there. We’ve gone through many stages of – I mean, it is a script. So we’ve gone through all the stages that precede the script: beat sheets, outlines, the whiteboard before that, all that stuff. And then we’ve gone through many iterations of the script itself that have been brought to bear by the prep process, by preparation process. So we do location scouts. And that will change some things.
We bring in the director, because the directors are not there when we’re writing, and the directors come in basically for a couple weeks, do a show, and leave. So we have meetings with them. We hear what their questions are. We talk about what we feel the scenes mean. We go through it all that way. And sometimes the director will say, well wait, I was reading this and I didn’t get that at all, or that didn’t make sense to me, or this… So we change it that way.
By the time we have the table read, all that has been gone through. Plus props, you know, we can’t get this prop. We’ve got to do this. Everything like that. And then finally you just hear. Is it working? Does it sound the way people talk? Does it sound the way our characters talk? Does it hit the emotional notes that we’re trying to hit? And then we make little adjustments, but they’re usually quite small by then.
And we don’t – and above all, I mean, because I’ve heard about this happening at table reads, we’re not judging performance. We’re not saying, “Oh, that guy gave a funny read. Let’s fire them.” You know, we’re not doing that at all. And I think that’s an awful thing to do.
John: For a table read like this, do you bring in day players for that table read?
Stephen: Yes, if we can, when we can. Sometimes they’re not even cast by then, but sometimes they are.
John: Very good. What season are we coming up on?
Stephen: We’re coming up on sixth and last.
John: The sixth and final season starts at the end of March.
Stephen: March 28.
John: I’m very, very excited to see it. But I’ll have to watch it week by week, which is just going to kill me.
Stephen: It’s so painful.
John: It is so – how dare you do this to us. So, usually on Scriptnotes we do a One Cool Thing, and so even though Craig is not here, let’s do our One Cool Things. And you have a very One Cool Thing.
Stephen: I have a One Cool Thing that has really helped me. I discovered it when I was first starting work on the show, and I don’t remember how I discovered it. And I’d be interested to remember, but I don’t. And it’s called the Google Ngram Viewer. Do you know what the Google Ngram Viewer is? Right, nobody knows what this is.
Go to books.google.com/ngram. And what that is is a compilation that they have put together. So, one of the things that’s very important to me on the show and one of the things that’s very important to all of us on the show is that we avoid anachronism. And we want to – and I’m a stickler. I’m a crazy stickler. Everything I watch on TV I’m turning to my wife and saying, “They wouldn’t have said that in 1403.” And I’m very annoying that way. And I’m annoying on our show that way.
But I’ve got to check myself, too, because there are a lot of things that ring funny in my ear. And when they do, I go to the Google Ngram Viewer. Here’s what you can do with this. You plug in words and you plug in a range of dates, and it can go back to the 19th Century, but it goes up to – I think the latest it goes up to is 2010. You can plug in I think up to three words. And then you do all your parameters and you hit Search A Lot of Books I think is what the button says.
And it goes through all the books that are in the Google book app or whatever it is. And finds the occurrence of those words. And it graphs them.
And so if I think that reference to John August is too early, we wouldn’t be talking about John August until much later. We weren’t talking about him at all in 1983.
John: I’m a time-traveler you’ll find out.
Stephen: Oh, OK. Well I haven’t done it yet, but I’ll do it when I get home. You put John August in the Google Ngram Viewer and you see that it’s way down here in 1983, and then in 1994 it goes up there and you say, OK, we can’t be doing these John August references in 1983.
So, for anyone who has any interest in writing of any kind like this, it’s a really invaluable tool. And it’s free.
John: It’s free in the sense that all Google things are free.
Stephen: Meaning we’re paying for it every second of our lives.
John: Here is what – so it’s not just for historical things though. Here is where I use Google Ngram Viewer, and it’s so incredibly helpful. So, for Arlo Finch, I was going back and forth with the copy editor on certain words. And one of the choices was kneeled versus knelt. And I’m like, “Oh, they’re both words that are in the dictionary. Both are in use. But which one is more common and which one is on the upswing and which one is on the downswing?”
So Google Ngram Viewer can show you the trajectory of words.
John: And you can see that things like knelt is going away and kneeled is coming up. So, Arlo Finch kneeled rather than knelt because of Google Ngram Viewer. So it’s very, very helpful.
John: My One Cool Thing is – so we’re in a bookstore, and it’s bookstore staff picks, which are a very, very good thing. And so the book I’m specifically going to recommend is Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From. And I only know about this book because three days and a lifetime ago I was in San Francisco doing an event just like this and beforehand I was talking with one of the clerks about like talk me through what happens with staff picks.
And so she was talking about why she picked the books that were on the shelf that had her little tag on them. She described it and like this book sounds incredible. And so I would not have known about it except for an actual human being in a small, independent bookstore pointing me to it.
Megan Hunter’s book, The End We Start From, it’s written in this really spare style, and I’ll show it to you. The sentences – they’re just tiny little sentences and it feels almost more like a poem. I’ll read something.
“This is how it comes to be, H with his complicated knowledge again, untying ropes. Packing supplies. Making ready.“
The story actually follows some sort of global apocalypse and flood but it’s told from the point of view of this woman who has a newborn baby and basically kind of what happens next. It’s brilliantly done and it sort of feels like The Road if it was from a young mother’s point of view. Really well done. So I’d just encourage people to check out this book, but also while we’re here in a bookstore look at those staff picks. Read what they’re recommending, because those are smart people who like books. So, bookstore clerks and recommendations, that’s my One Cool Thing for this week.
Stephen: Very cool.
John: Very cool. Now is the time where we can do some questions from the audience. So this can be about The Americans, this can be about Arlo Finch, it can be about Scriptnotes. It can be about anything that we might be able to talk about. Who has a question? In the back I see.
I’m just going to repeat the question so everyone can hear it so we also have it on tape. Your question is how are you dealing with the fact that we know that they’re fighting a losing cause the whole time through in The Americans. Is that something you guys talk about as you’re plotting things out?
Stephen: We don’t, because that has hung over our heads from the beginning, and we know it as what we sleep with and live with and eat with. It does form an irony that arches over the show.
The other thing I hear behind your question and you could just say, “No, I don’t mean that all,” is the way – because we’re a period show, and I think it’s interesting to talk about period shows in general and you handle that. How you handle the artifacts. How you handle the references. And sometimes we’ve handled the references very, very directly and blatantly. I wrote an episode called The Magic of David Copperfield 5, the Statue of Liberty Disappears, which was the title of a TV show that we showed a piece of in the show.
In a case like that, we’re referring very directly and people can get all sort of warm and gooey and nostalgic about “Oh yeah I remember that, oh my god, I was there that night. I was on the couch with my parents.” Whatever it was.
I’ll give you an example though of the kind of thing we try not to do, because this just happened. Our new season, it’s not revealing anything that hasn’t been revealed to say, jumps three years and will take place in 1987. And we have a moment when Elizabeth is spying on someone and she’s in a hotel. And I had her in this scene reading a magazine. When it came time to figure out what the magazine was, and I looked at the timing and I went, “Oh, it should be Vanity Fair because I personally was a writer for Vanity Fair at the time. And it should be December because it’s taking place in December. It can be the December issue of Vanity Fair. I did the cover story of the December issue of Vanity Fair on Bette Midler.” And so we arranged everything. We were getting ready for it. We had a disguise that we call the Vanity Fair disguise to this day.
And then we got a copy of the cover, and in the corner there was a banner referring to an article inside and it was, of course, Trump. And then we said, oh, we can’t use this.
Now, a lot of shows, I think, or some people would have said, “Oh, great. That will be so cool because everybody will be…” That’s exactly what we don’t do and never do and avoid doing. And that’s part of our – that’s our taste. That’s the flavor of the show. You didn’t ask that question, but you got that answer.
John: Question right here sir. So a question about whether we would ever consider doing Scriptnotes as a book. And we’ve talked about it a couple of times. People have come to us with the idea of doing it. The closest we’ve come is we’ve taken all of the transcripts and asked our listeners to figure out which are the key episodes, like if you’re catching up on stuff right now. And so people have done recommendations. So at johnaugust.com/guide you can download the Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide, which basically highlights the best episodes of those.
We might end up packaging together those transcripts in some sort of form, but neither Craig nor I really have the bandwidth or the interest in sort of doing a physical book-book. And part of it is just because we have a bristling reaction against sort of like books on screenwriting.
Stephen: Me too.
John: Yeah. So I don’t think there’s going to be a Scriptnotes book per se, but now that I have said that aloud it will inevitably happen. So I will anti-manifest that.
Stephen: On our show we always say there are no joke pitches. Because every time someone throws out a pitch as a joke we wind up using it.
John: Yeah. Right here.
Audience Member: Hi, this is more of a craft question and I think it can apply to novel writing as well as screenwriting for both TV and features. Just sort of asking about the process of that first draft and whether that be a book or a pilot or something of the like. I guess in my own experience and I feel like this is alluded to in the show that rewriting and refining can be more satisfying than that first pass, but how do you both as writers like just get through that first hurdle of that first thing and like getting to the end for the first time and not – like I just feel like it can be so difficult to just shuffle through it for the first time. What does that look like for you guys?
John: Well, there’s always that conflict between just get it done and perfectionism. And perfectionism can be this trap where you just never actually make enough progress in something to actually get through it. And so you have to recognize that you can try your very best, but there’s going to be things you’re going to be rewriting and not be afraid to write this thing right now knowing that you’re going to have to go back and do it again.
I’ll say that when I’m writing a script for myself that doesn’t have a timeline or when I’m writing a book which had a timeline but not the same kind of timeline, I had to always just hold myself to I have to generate this amount of material. I have to sort of keep moving forward or else I’m never going to get done.
But I’m curious with you, because you have a real schedule and a timeline. You can’t be precious about this draft. Like this draft is going to take an extra two weeks for you to write, the whole train goes off the rails. So, what is that first draft like for you when it’s your script?
Stephen: Well, I have so many answers to that question, because my process is so different working on this TV show from the way it is when I’m writing a movie, for instance. I’ve worked on the TV show, we’ve gone through a group process and we’ve gone through beat sheets and more beat sheets. And we’ve gone through unblended and blended, because we have all these storylines. And we can follow individually and then they have to blend to make an episode. And we cut off the episode in different places and see how that works. And then we do outlines.
And the outlines are much more detailed and can vary a lot in how detailed they are. And so by the time you go to what we’re calling for this little thought experiment, a first draft, it doesn’t feel like my experience of a first draft at all.
John: So let’s say this is a script you’re going to write. How long is the document that you have before you start writing that script? Is it a ten-page outline?
Stephen: You mean for the show?
John: For your show.
Stephen: Well, everything about our show is a little odd that way because you always hear that, for instance, an hour-long TV is an hour’s worth of pages. Our scripts are now down to 40 pages or fewer. Very short. And sometimes a lot of scenes, sometimes not very many scenes. So that’s not a good measure of anything particularly. What I would say is that as we’ve learned our own show, we do a lot of freedoms within it. There’s going to be a scene, for instance, in one of our episodes this year that takes up an entire act, something like eight or nine pages, something we wouldn’t have considered doing because we weren’t brave enough four years ago. But now we know our people. We have the latitude to do that.
On the other hand, when I’m writing a movie script my process is completely different. And I am kind of perfectionistic. And I find myself going inside it every day and sort of going back, almost back to the beginning sometimes and going right through and then inching ahead a little bit, and then going back again. Because I need the sound of the story and the characters deep inside me before I can even make another utterance. So it’s like waves as the tide comes in. If the tide is not coming in, if it’s going out, you’re in trouble.
John: So that’s a classic thing writers describe where like the first thing they’ll do in the morning is rewrite the pages from the day before and it gets them back in the flow of things. And with screenplays, screenplays are short enough that you can kind of do that. It doesn’t take that long to sort of read through and do this.
What I realized with Arlo Finch is that the book is just so long, if I went back to chapter one every day to start working I would actually start writing again at 6pm. There’s so many words. And so for that I would write each chapter as a separate file and I don’t go back. And if I can’t remember the name of a character I’ll just bracket it and come back to it later on, so I couldn’t let myself keep getting sucked back into the past of it all.
Stephen: One thing that people describe to me very often is they do a vomit draft. It’s coming out, I don’t care how it looks, blah, blah, blah. I find that impossible. I don’t even know what that is.
John: And it’s a really bad term for it, too. Grant Faulkner, who does National Novel Writing Month, you know, that is a whole process where you’re trying to generate 1,667 words per day. But even he won’t say vomit draft because it just implies it should be shitty. It should be as good as you can make it realistically while constantly moving forward.
I see a gentleman carrying a baby.
Stephen: The question was do we use consultants and experts and whether we ever have to stop ourselves from revealing something real. And the answer is yes we use a phalanx of consultants and experts and people who are – in fact, we have one guy named Keith Milton who is one of the founders of the Spy Museum in Washington and has the most formidable, maybe the largest collection of spy paraphernalia in the world and has written many books, including – I’m sure there are books here – including this beautiful illustrated book about spy stuff. And it has pictures from his collection.
And when you see – a couple seasons ago, for instance, I wrote a scene in which Elizabeth is about to kill a Pakistani diplomat. And he’s swimming in a hotel swimming pool. And he’s swimming alone as he does every night and this beautiful woman, Elizabeth, slips in and starts swimming. And she has something wrapped in a towel. And that something is a cyanide gun. And the cyanide gun mixes cyanide with some vapor to form cyanide gas. And then she can push him under the water and when he comes up for a gulp she can shoot the cyanide gun. Well, that cyanide gun is a real KGB cyanide gun provided to us by Keith Milton.
So we do have these consultants. We also have, however, the peculiar situation that our show’s creator, Joe Weisberg, was in the CIA. So he knows a lot of stuff and he has to, by agreement with the CIA, vet the stuff through the CIA so that we know that we’re not endangering national security.
At the same time, that means we have his fountain of knowledge which is extraordinary. And we’ve always had this thing that we call the spy card, which is we can imagine Joe holding up the spy card, meaning “I was a spy.” What that means is we might come up with the most incredible, wonderful idea for a storyline. Oh my god, then this happens, then this happens, then he does this. And if Joe goes like that, it means OK but actually that wouldn’t happen in the real world of spying as he experienced.
So that’s very helpful to us and helps make our show very, very realistic.
John: We talked at the start about suspension of disbelief. And so you get a couple of those in any project that you’re doing. And the suspension of disbelief in your show is the wigs and the makeup. That somehow they are remarkably talented and fast at being able to do wigs and makeup. But there’s not a lot of other cheating in your show which I think is why it feels real and genuine while the stakes feel real. Basically this could all happen except for how good their makeup is.
Stephen: I think that’s exactly the point. I think those four things that I mentioned at the start of our broadcast are our four cheats. And once you say, all right, I’ll give you that, then you’re inside the show and everything else is very real. As real as we can possibly make it. And double-checked and back-stopped and everything else.
John: Cool. Another question?
Stephen: The question was is it hard to be a writer on a TV show in New York and do we have to pull from LA, or go to LA, or get writers from LA. You know, New York is full of really, really, really great writers. And I think it’s time that our industry realized that and discovered that. We need many, many, many more writer’s rooms in New York. We need tax breaks for writer’s rooms in New York, which we’ve been trying to get through the Writers Guild of America. But it’s been very hard with our legislature. I can’t figure out why because it would be so good economically for the city and for the state in every way.
New York is teeming with writers. What it’s not teeming with is people who have been in a lot of other writer’s rooms because they haven’t been in a lot of other writer’s rooms. I’ve been in this business of writing scripts, mostly for movies, but recently for TV since the late ‘80s living in New York. Never moving, never having to move.
I’m not saying that’s an easy path and that everybody can get along that way. But I really think there’s no innate reason that we can’t have writer’s rooms in New York, and certainly we have the talent.
John: Great. One or two more questions. That’s a great question. So the question is to what degree do you wrestle with the fact that you’re going to be compared to other things and do you make choices based on knowing that you’re going to be compared to those things. Yes. I think you do make some choices. I often talk about expectations. And so there’s expectations of genre. There’s expectations of kind, basically like it’s this kind of show. It’s a procedural, it’s this. And if there aren’t a lot of examples about them that can hold you to the most notable example of that thing.
And so most people from middle grade fiction, they’ve heard of Harry Potter. They might have heard of Percy Jackson, but anything that’s kind of like that they’re going to compare it to that.
Your show, there aren’t great comps for it. I bet when they were first looking at this show, I think like Third Rock from the Sun in a weird way is a comparison because it’s this family living with a secret they don’t want to have exposed.
Stephen: I had not thought of that.
John: You know, we’ve had other spy shows, but never from that perspective. So, are there any things with The Americans or the other stuff you’ve written where you’re dealing with – and you’ve done sequels, too – where you’re dealing with comparisons to other examples that are out there?
Stephen: I think it is a great question because we live in an age of such an explosion of storytelling, of widely-available, publically-available storytelling. And you’re going to see stuff addressed over, and over, and over again. It’s very hard to come up with new stuff. It’s hard to come up with a new pitch. And I did a movie that came out last year called American Assassin that was basically a straight ahead action movie. And how many zillions of action scenes have there been?
One thing that we look at all the time, and I’m sure you look at it in your work, we all do: is this unexpected? Or is this the expected thing? And you’re dying to eliminate that which is expected. And yet keep it real. I mean, one way to eliminate that which is expected is to go way over the top. I think in the last Fast and Furious movie there was a chase between a car and a submarine. And that was like, “OK, that I have never seen before. It was very, very cool.” But we can’t have that in The Americans or we couldn’t have that in my movie.
So it’s a big – it’s a constant factor. It really is. There’s no two ways.
John: Yeah. And you’re always asking yourself am I making this choice because it’s the right choice for this story, or am I making this choice so I just don’t get compared to something else? And sometimes you’ll see movies doing things that are just – they’re not making probably the correct choice. They’re making the choice that makes them feel cool or new or original, but it’s the expected thing.
Stephen: Yeah. I have a semi-answer to it that just occurs to me as a possible approach which is when you’re in that bind and when you’re asking that question, return to character. Because you can have a situation that’s the same in many, many, many different – I mean, how many secret CIA organizations have there been out there? I’ve definitely written that. American Assassin was that. And others were that. And they’re going to be bound to be in certain of the same situations over and over again. And there’s going to be someone following them and they’re going to turn the tables on them. How do you make that new?
In some ways you can’t make that part of it new. You can’t make the outline of it new. The pitch of it new. Maybe not even the weapons or the circumstances. But if you think about your characters and go what’s my guy feeling? What would he do? What would he pick up around him? What would he do with his clothes? What would he do because last night he had a bad experience with this? Whatever it is, you can begin to find your way out and back into some kind of originality.
John: Great. That was the most Craig answer ever, so I think we’re going to leave it there. That was a really great answer. Our show, Scriptnotes, is produced by Megan McDonnell who is fantastic. Our music is done by Matthew Chilelli. He also did all the music for Launch, the podcast, and he is remarkable as well.
I’m @johnaugust on Twitter. Are you on Twitter?
John: No. He’s not on Twitter. Don’t ask him any questions about The Americans, but do tune in to see the Americans on FX starting–
Stephen: March 28th at, what is it, 10? Whenever you recorded it.
John: Whenever your DVR finds it. Stephen Schiff, thank you so, so much for coming on the show.
Stephen: Thank you. I had a great time. Thank you.
- Stephen Schiff currently works on The Americans. Its final season premieres on March 28th.
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