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 338 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast we will tackle the massive backlog of listener questions that have piled up while we’ve been away, including the Oscars for Best Screenplay, songs in musicals, nuclear war, characters’ last names, and incorporating ad-libs into a script.
Craig: That’s serious. But I think we can do it because we have the original flavor right now. Me and you, buddy.
John: Oh, I’m so happy to back recording a podcast. It is delightful. When I saw this on my calendar it helped me get through the day to know that we were finally back doing this. So, thank you to our listeners for your patience while we cobbled together other episodes while we were out on the road. I was doing Arlo Finch book tour. You were overseas prepping for your show. But now we’re back. Well, not back. I’m in Milwaukee. But we’re still back on the air.
Craig: Now, you’re in Milwaukee because you’re still on your book tour?
John: Yes. So by the time this episode comes out I will be back in Los Angeles, but after two weeks of traveling from LA to San Francisco to Denver to Dallas to New York to Philadelphia to New Jersey to Chicago to Milwaukee, I will now have returned to Los Angeles.
Craig: Wow. That is bananas.
John: 3,000 different students I met. And a lot of other Scriptnotes listeners I met at live events different places. And some Launch listeners, too. It has been great. It has been exhausting the way you think a multi-city tour would be exhausting. And I have learned so much. It’s been really cool.
Craig: Well that’s great. Excellent.
John: Yeah. Nice. So I think it’s time to introduce a brand new branded segment which is John’s WGA Corner.
This is the segment in which I talk through small issues that are only applicable to WGA members, and I try to plow through it quickly so it doesn’t distract from the rest of the show. If you are a WGA member, you are going to get a bunch of emails in the next few weeks. They will be emails talking about sexual harassment, screenwriter issues, other industry issues. I would urge you to not ignore these emails and to come to meetings if you are invited to meetings because there’s some big stuff a-brewing. And we want to make sure we hear from you basically what you do and how you respond will determine the next couple years of the WGA. So, I would just urge you to pay attention to those WGA emails as they come in. Don’t just ignore them because they actually really matter a lot these next couple of months.
The second thing. Writers have asked me about how does the WGA know that I am a diverse writer, that I am African American or that I am Latino or that I am a gay writer. And I didn’t really know. And it turns out you tell them yourself. And so if you are a member of the WGA I would urge you to go to mywga.org and click on the little tab that says Update My Diversity Attributes. And when you do that you see what the WGA knows about you and what your background is. And maybe you filled some stuff out when you joined the WGA, but maybe you didn’t. Like, the WGA had no idea that I was gay, which seems crazy.
So, you click the little boxes. And there’s also – this is kind of cool – a little tab that says “Publish” for each of these attributes. And why you might choose “Publish” is that way if an employer is calling and saying I really need a female Vietnamese writer for this project, they can call the WGA and say like who do you have who is a female and Vietnamese. And the WGA can give them names. But only if you click “Publish.” So, I’d urge you to update those attributes in your profile.
Craig: I think that’s a great idea. And, listen, I think it’s fair to assuage perhaps fears. Because people understand that there is – the reason that we are now so concerned about diversity and self-identification is because the business has operated in a way consistent with racism. How is that for diplomatic, right? OK.
So, you might think, well, I don’t know if I want to do that because then they’ll be like, nope, I don’t want to hire her because she says she’s African American. I think right now, just my theory, that there is a net positive. There is goodwill. There is a real desire to improve and get better. And I think there is a net positive to self-identification in any of these areas.
And for those of you who think is there some sort of net negative if you’re a straight white male, I don’t think so. I ticked off the boxes for me. Straight white male, over the age of 40. I got a little something.
John: I had to tick that, too. So we’re diverse in the sense that we’re older writers now. How does that feel Craig?
Craig: It feels good.
John: You’ve lived this long.
Craig: I’ve lived this long. And I don’t mind that. I actually think that 40 feels really young for diverse age reasons. I think they need to bump that number up.
John: I think there is a 50 and a 60. So, we got space to grow.
Craig: Good. Good. Well, 50 is coming.
John: All right, end of the WGA Corner. Let’s get to some follow up. Alan writes in about Episode 332. He asks, “What does Craig mean by ‘using a lot of whitespace on a suspenseful section of a script?’ Does this mean less talking and more action description or the opposite? Could he give an example?”
Craig: OK. So whitespace is the portions of the page where there is no ink. Less talking and more action description? No. The answer is less talking and less action description. The answer is less of everything.
So, by suspenseful release and using lots of whitespace what I mean to say is you write a line that says “The box opens.” And then just do, if you want, do three carriage returns. Shift return to not get into the next element. Shift return. Shift return. Shift return. “And now we see it.” Shift return, shift return, shift return. “It’s alive.”
You know what I mean? So everything just gets quieter on the page and more intense and really focused to give it massive emphasis. We’re implying that time in the movie slows down. And we’re using text on a page to simulate that feeling.
Now, you don’t have to go quite as overboard as I just suggested. But, what you don’t want to do is hit your main revelation and go on an eight-line verbose description of it. That would undercut the emotional value of what I’m supposed to feel there.
John: 100% agree. So, I think when we talked about this the original time you don’t want to overdo this. Like this thing where you’re putting a lot of white space on the page gets annoying if you’re making this a technique all the time. But in general you want some sense of space on the page. And you want more sense of space on the page when you’re really zooming in on something. Sometimes I’ll even do the thing where here’s an action line. The next action line right below it is shorter. Then shorter. Then shorter. Then shorter. It gets down to a single word.
John: That’s a technique. You’re literally funneling down to an idea. That can work. Don’t do that twice in a script. Do it once. But if it’s appropriate, do it. And just, again, remember that the screenplay is meant to evoke the feeling of watching the movie. So think about what the movie is going to feel like. How can you achieve the same ends on the page?
Craig: Correct. And sometimes another thing that I will do to imply this feeling, and I think it is part of the white space, is if someone is trying to convey something silently that is very significant in the story and emotional or important, for instance, I’m going to sacrifice myself for you John, which I would.
John: Great. Thank you so much, Craig.
Craig: I like that you’re like, “Oh great.”
John: I applaud that choice. Let me get back to you about whether I’d kill myself for you, but I really want to thank you for that. It’s like when someone says I love you and you’re like thank you.
John: That’s terrific.
Craig: That’s terrific. So I’m planning on sacrificing myself for you, and you are shocked and you’re terrified, and you want to stop me but I’ve already made the decision. What I may do – and I’ve done this sort of thing in a script – is Craig looks at John. And then I’ll just underneath in action, but in italics, it’s OK. And then a next line. It’s OK. And then the next line, it’s OK.
So, it’s like I get it. We’re watching that moment. And it’s not just one it’s OK and then I die. It’s a moment of back and forth, a connection, a silent conversation that’s boiled down to two words: it’s OK. And we feel these things more. We allow ourselves essentially on the page to be a little poetic. You’re absolutely right – you don’t want to do this throughout a screenplay. It would become exhausting. But every movie should have one or two moments that are poetic, unless it’s Scary Movie 4. So in a normal movie, where you’re looking for that moment, when you get there do it. Do it on the page.
John: Do it on the page. And I think it’s also fascinating how often you’ve written that scene where you’re saying that it’s OK that you’re going to die for me. I think the fact that you write so much John and Craig into your scripts I think is great.
Craig: I mean, almost every script I die for you. It’s really tragic.
John: I had the opportunity to go on Brian Koppelman’s show, which was tremendously fun, and good to talk about, and would Brian Koppelman die for you? I don’t know. We’ll have to ask him.
Craig: I think Brian would, actually. I’ve always said the thing about Brian is not only – if I called Brian and I said I need the shirt off your back, not only would he give it to me, he would fly here and give it to me. That’s Brian. He really is that good of a guy. But, you know, for the two of us, I understand it’s a one-way street. Basically what I’m doing is I’m reinforcing the anti-trope of that tragic straight guy that keeps dying for his gay friend. [laughs] You know, that thing we’ve never seen in movies.
Craig: That’s all I do.
John: I like it. Well, as we talk through tropes, let’s get to our next question. This is a question from our listener Becki, back to Episode 333. She recorded her question, so let’s take a listen to it.
Becki: Last week you answered a question about Act One structure. And John you mentioned how musicals kind of spell out the structure through the songs. So for act one there’s the welcome to the world song and the I Want song. Could you guys expand on that and list out the other type songs that tell the rest of the story? Thanks.
John: Becki, thank you so much for inviting us to talk about musicals for several long minutes. Craig, kick it off for us.
Craig: Even though we hate talking about musicals. So–
John: Oh my god. Musicals are the worst.
Craig: Musicals are incredibly instructive to us because, as John has pointed out many, many times, the best songs in musicals are ones that combine a moment and an interior feeling with an advancement of plot.
So, we have talked before about the I Want song, which is obviously really translatable to screenplays. But there are lots of other ones. For instance, there’s a kind of song called an Argument Song, which is typically a duet, as you might imagine, although occasionally people can have an argument with themselves. And in an argument song two characters kind of face off and have an argument. And the argument can be an explanation of the conflict between them. It can also sort of be the beginning of a flirtation between them. But what it’s doing is it’s defining a relationship that is not yet resolved within song.
So for instance “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better,” or “Sue Me” from Guys and Dolls, or “People Will Say We’re in Love” from Oklahoma, which is two characters basically trying to convince the other person that they should stop acting like they’re in love with the other person, even though they’re both in love with each other. Very sort of typical thing.
John: So that’s a classic musical trope. But we see equivalent kind of things happen in some of our movies. Like romantic comedies, even if they’re not musicals, will have this kind of song in it where the two characters are having the argument that is progressing the story forward but they’re actually kind of on the same side.
Craig: Yeah. And so there’s the we’re having a fight, we’re yelling at each other and breaking up, and then there’s also the kind of well you know that flirtatious argument. And so songs can present that very well.
There’s also just real nuts and bolts plot stuff. There are good scheme songs where a villain or a hero outlines a very clear plan of what they’re going to do. So, for instance, in Sweeney Todd there’s the song “A Little Priest” where Mrs. Lovett outlines very clearly with Sweeney Todd what they intend to do which is get people into the shop, murder them, and then cook them into pies.
John: Obviously. I mean, why wouldn’t you do that?
Craig: Why wouldn’t you?
John: It’s just laying out a clear logical plan for cannibalism and profit.
Craig: Yeah. And in a sense “A Little Priest” or a song like “I Want the Good Times Back” from the Broadway version of A Little Mermaid, and “I Want the Good Times Back” is an amazing song, these songs are the musical theater equivalent of the scene in an action movie where the team leader pulls up a hologram of the building that you’re going to enter and starts showing you – or like in Star Wars where they’re like “This exhaust shaft leads to the reactor.” It’s kind of the same thing. It’s sort of laying out the plan.
John: Great. So, you’re discussing the scheme as being something that either a hero or a villain could do, but there’s also basically the hero laying out their vision of the world. Like how things work from the villain’s point of view. So, you brought up The Little Mermaid. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is a fantastic song that lays out the universe as seen by Ursula. And this is how things go. And that she is the benefactor of all these poor people.
So, classically a villain will get a song early on in the story which basically lays out their I Want as well. Sometimes it’s disguised a bit, like they may be lying in the I Want song, but it’s the story from their point of view.
Craig: Yeah. And you could sort of call that a Philosophy Song. And in movies we come across these characters who lay out a particular worldview which is fascinating hopefully and helps explain their actions. There are these moments in movies where a character finally in a moment of breaking down – this is a classic sort of low point kind of moment – that character expresses some profound remorse and sense of personal failure. This is a moment of honesty and of regret and it is a moment that needs to happen before they can finally unburden themselves of their pain and rise to attest and become a better person.
And these songs occur in musicals all the time. They’re songs of what could have been if only. They’re songs of regret. “On My Own,” from Les Mis. “Memory” from Cats. “Send in the Clowns.” These are all songs where people stop and basically deliver a heavy sigh of reflection on their life.
John: Yep. So the non-musical movie equivalent of this tends to be that moment where the character stops and either looks in through the window as that happy life is happening over there and they don’t have that. They might be expressing this to another character. Even a character who is not part of the main story, like that taxi driver who actually hears the story about what’s happened. It’s some ability to externalize this internal feeling.
And you have to think about all songs in musicals as externalizations of things that would normally be internal thought processes.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, in a romantic comedy you have just lost the guy. And you’re walking down the street. And you’re remembering what it was like. And now we’re into a montage where we see the stuff that happened in the movie before. This is in Annie Hall. So suddenly Woody Allen, I know it’s a little problematic now but let’s just go with it for cinema’s sake, is remembering having fun with Diane Keaton and the lobsters and the pot. That’s the equivalent of this song. It’s a reflection back. A remorseful reflection back.
And then the most famous category of a Broadway show tune is the 11 o’clock number. John, talk us through the 11 o’clocker.
John: This is the moment which is the pinnacle, it is the great sort of breakthrough. It happens very late in the story. Classically I think it’s called the 11 o’clock number because it’s near the end of the show. Like if the show starts at eight, this would be at 11 o’clock back when the shows were longer. This is the sort of centerpiece moment where the character is breaking through. So this is “Rose’s Turn.” This is “Being Alive.” This is a character finally achieving an internal breakthrough in their experience. Is that fair?
Craig: That is fair. And in movies we tend to see these things not so much in the framework of talking, but rather a character finally standing up and saying I’m not going to do this anymore. I’m going to fight. And I’m getting right back in there. And this is something that musicals do with song, but they do it in a way where you understand this character at the beginning of this song is this person and at the end of the song is who they’re supposed to be.
And sometimes it’s sort of a sad downward thing, like for instance “Rose’s Turn” which is tragic. But that notion of a transformation or sometimes a collapse. That is something that we do all the time in movies. And it’s actually as I think about this and I talk this through, Becki, you know what’s interesting is a lot of the equivalents to these songs in movies are kind of montage-y things. I never really thought of that before, but there’s a rough equivalent.
John: When Oprah Winfrey’s character finally stands up at the end of The Color Purple, is that an 11 o’clock moment in your head?
Craig: Yeah. I think it is. I think it is. And I actually haven’t seen – I’m not familiar with the musical Color Purple, but I bet there’s a big 11 o’clock number right around that moment.
John: Yeah. That would feel right.
The other type of song I want to bring up is the sidekick song. Musicals very often have sidekicks, basically humorous sidekicks who do a thing and they do a bit. Oftentimes that song is a slightly different style. It can be a little bit more like a wink, like an acknowledgment that we’re in a musical and that these two characters are singing this rat-a-tat song.
Often these sidekick songs exist in part so that the lead actors can take a break, make a costume change, do something else. Or there could be a giant set change happening behind the scenes. We literally have our sidekicks way up front. The curtain is closed behind them and we’re changing the set behind them. But sometimes these songs are just delightful and they just give you a different sense of the world, the characters, what’s going on.
So, I think of Timon and Pumbaa in The Lion King. Other things where these minor characters get to sing for themselves for just a moment.
Craig: Yeah. And “Hakuna Matata” is a great example of that philosophy song we were talking about earlier. You know, again, in the movie versions what you find is those songs always have some greater purpose. They are integral to the storyline. Whereas on stage you will get things like for instance in Shrek the Musical, which I am obsessed with, there’s ‘The Travel Song,” which is Shrek and Donkey walking. And it very much does feel like a – OK, behind the curtain we’re switching around. We’ve got a lot of stuff to do here, so let’s just do a quick song about traveling along and our relationship roughly.
You tend to not see those things in movies. There are certain stage-specific songs that happen and stage musicals generally are much longer than typical films. So, there are some areas where it’s not necessarily a direct line. But hopefully, Becki, by talking about our favorite topic–
Craig: Thank you for letting us indulge. We have helped somehow.
John: Yeah, Craig, I’ve got to say it felt really good just to be able to geek out about musicals with you for – it’s been a month since we’ve done this.
Craig: I know. This and D&D. Why don’t we just do a musical and D&D podcast? You know what I mean?
John: Enough of the screenwriting stuff.
John: We should focus on what we actually genuinely love.
Craig: Yeah. Like what brings us joy.
John: What brings us joy. Craig, would you like to take our next bit of follow up?
Craig: Yes. This is from Steve regarding Episode 332. He says he enjoyed Episode 332 – Wait For It – “and your analysis of suspense and film, specifically the victory lap.
“I totally agree with John’s endorsement of how important it is to give the hero a moment to enjoy overcoming a challenge before moving onto the next challenge. My favorite of this is in Back to the Future. Marty McFly spends all of act two trying to get his parents to fall in love. He finally succeeds at the high school dance by getting them to kiss. Once he achieves that, thereby ensuring that he will be born, he still has to get back to 1985. He should immediately drive over to the clock tower and lightning storm because he has a literal clock to beat. If he misses the lightning bolt he’ll be stuck in the past.
“Instead, the writers give Marty a victory lap. A full scene of him on guitar practically inventing rock-n-roll. What I love about this lap is it serves two purposes. One, it gives Marty and the audience a chance to celebrate and catch their breath before the next big suspense scene. Two, it pays off Marty’s act one dream of playing in the high school band. He fails the audition in 1985 but gets a second chance in 1955.”
John: I agree with Steve. So, follow up doesn’t have to technically be a question. This wasn’t a question. It was just pointing out another example of victory laps but also setups and payoffs. And that moment only works because we set it up as a thing that could happen that we wanted to see happen. We weren’t sure how it was going to happen. And this is how he does it.
And I think Steve is right. That if we followed real story logic, yes, the character should just get onto the next thing. But emotional logic says we need to stay there for a beat and actually revel in what’s been achieved.
Craig: And this is another good example of that all-important need of irony. We talk about this all the time. If you have a character that’s failing an audition for a crummy band in the beginning of the movie, the most ironic outcome for him would be to literally invent rock-n-roll by the end of the movie. So it’s smart. There’s just a smart coming full circle.
But think about how unsatisfying it would have been if there wasn’t that victory lap. It’s just kiss, great, I got to go. It would feel a bit breathless at that point. And there are times when you want to feel breathless. And then there are times when you want to just enjoy the victory.
So, very good analysis there from Steve.
John: Great. Next up, Mark. “In Episode 334 you guys took a question about if you should use the real brand or Twitter or a made up knockoff version in a screenplay. You guys stated that you like to see the actual brand used in films and TV. However, in a previous episode someone asked about using a late night talk show host in your script and you guys said you hated to see real news anchors/show hosts in movies. They seem like very similar concepts. Basically to you use real-life brands and not in your screenplay. So, why the difference in opinion on the two questions?”
Craig: Well, this one is pretty clear to me. There’s a huge difference between objects and people. I don’t believe human beings who are real when they’re put in situations that clearly aren’t real. There’s a disconnection there. But objects – well we see objects all the time in movies. It’s not like I question whether or not a car in a movie is actually a car. Right?
So, people are driving a Cadillac in a movie and, yes, because that’s fine. But when you tell that’s the David Letterman show in the movie and a fake character is talking to the real David Letterman there’s a disconnect. So there you go. That’s the difference for me.
John: That’s the difference for me, too. I think where you fall into this murky gray line is are we creating a fake news network for this person to be on? Yes, then I’m seeing – where I should be a seeing a CNN logo then I’m seeing something else. But I try to write around those situations so I wouldn’t necessarily need to see the brand of whatever the news network is. I try to sort of keep news anchors and that kind of stuff out of my scripts as much as possible anyway.
Just the degree to which you cannot be using real people or having to create a fake network to make this all work, that to me is great. Unless the whole premise of the thing is like that you are at a news network. I say then you actually build a news network.
John: Because that’s a fundamental premise thing that you’re doing. You’re creating a whole news network for this. You’re doing Broadcast News where this is not NBC, CBS, or ABC. This is some other network. We are fine with that because that’s a fundamental premise you’re establishing.
Craig: What was the magazine called in Devil Wears Prada?
John: Exactly. I don’t remember, but I believed it. I saw what kind of magazine it was and that’s what mattered.
Craig: You knew it was supposed to be, what is it, Cosmopolitan? Is that what it was supposed to be?
John: I don’t know. Aline is going to be so upset with us.
Craig: I know. What was it supposed to be? I don’t know. But, you know, it was supposed to be one of those, and it was its own thing because obviously it needed to be its own thing. But you believed it because you understood what the point was.
John: Yep. Do you want to take our last bit of follow up?
Craig: This is the best question. This is a bummer. So Nick from Los Angeles, Re: 334 Worst Case Scenarios, one of my favorite episodes. He writes, “What if there were,” now he didn’t write that. He said, “What if there was–?” But, Nick, let’s talk about the subjunctive for a second Nick. Nick, if we use if then we need to go into the subjunctive.
John: Yes. Subjunctive is an important mood. And we don’t use it very often in English, but this is a case where really you do need the subjunctive. There are situations like if he was at the store at that time then that was crucial. Like there are situations where you could use was. This is a were situation.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a were situation. So you don’t want to say what if there was a. You want to say what if there were “a cataclysmic event that only affected,” oh Nick also misspelled affected. “Only affected the City of Los Angeles. For example, North Korea attacks the City of LA. The US retaliates and neutralizes North Korea. The US wins but LA is wiped off the map Hiroshima style.” OK.
“This is simplistic, I know, but stay with me,” says Nick. “What becomes of the American film industry if everyone in LA is dead? Would the NYC branches of Hollywood companies – studios, agencies, unions, etc. – and production heavy places like Atlanta be able to carry the torch of the entire film and television industry? How much of our business is dependent on this town and the people who live in it?”
Ooh, so a grim but interesting–
John: I think it’s a grim but very fascinating question. So, here’s what I will say. If Los Angeles were obliterated in a nuclear strike the biggest concern, of course, would not be, “Oh no, our film and our television.” The world would be profoundly different if this thing had happened. So, we have to acknowledge that we’re in a different universe when LA gets wiped off the map.
All that said, thinking about it just from our film and our television, I suspect it would recover surprisingly quickly. And it would recover because there are people in New York who write movies and who write television. There are folks in Atlanta. There are folks in Austin. There are other folks who could make this stuff. And eventually it would find its way back onto the air. We’d be making movies again. We’d be bringing in movies from overseas. It would eventually get back to something resembling what we currently have.
A nuclear strike would be horrible, but it would not be – understatement of the year. [laughs] It would be obviously tremendously devastating, but I think within five years you’d be back to something that resembled what we currently have.
John: Craig, what do you think?
Craig: I’m less optimistic than you are about that. I mean, yes, inevitably, eventually things return. But, I think the biggest issue is not so much for instance – like Atlanta is a very production-heavy place, but it’s a production-heavy place in the sense of the personnel are crew. You can’t start without the writing. And I would be worried about how many writers would be dead. Now, I’m not just saying that because I’m a fussy writer chauvinist. But ultimately all the content comes from writers.
So, pretty much most of your big shows that you love, all those people are gone. All the people behind those people are gone. When you work in movies, the people who work in this business are always looking for good people to write stuff and they’re always complaining that they can’t find them. And that’s in Los Angeles where there are 1,000 people per block who want to do this. You eliminate all the people that do do it and all that institutional wisdom, all that stuff is gone and out the door. It’s going to take a long time. I think it’s going to take a long time to replace a lost generation of talent like that.
And, yes, for better or worse, most of it is located in Los Angeles.
John: Yeah. I do think you would import talent from overseas. I think you would take things that are sort of adjacent to what we’re doing and bring it into our broadcast networks and other places. It would be different. It would be different for a while. But, five years from now will be different regardless. So, there are so many hypotheticals on top of hypotheticals.
The only thing I can say with certainty is that “were” was the correct form of “to be” in that sentence.
Craig: No question.
John: No question.
Craig: I mean, no question.
John: All right. That was all just follow up. Now we have actual brand new questions.
John: We’re going to start with Ash from Adelaide, Australia. I don’t know that we’ve ever had a question from Adelaide, but I’m excited to answer Ash’s question.
Craig: Go for it.
John: “I’ve always been curious how is the Academy Award for the two screenplays categories voted on.” That again is not grammatical. How are the Academy Awards for the two screenplays voted on. So the two categories are Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Screenplay.
John: Ash asks, “In that I mean is everyone voting based on the script alone, or are they voting based on the final film?” Craig, talk us through this.
Craig: [laughs] You bastard. You bloody bastard. Well, one of us is a member of the Academy and sits on the committee that deals with these rules and things and the other one of us could not even work at the event as a caterer. So, I think you should answer this question.
John: I will answer the question. The rules are that you are voting based on which you believe is the best screenplay. And there’s not requirement that you’ve actually read all the screenplays. That said, I would say over the last ten years it has gotten incredibly better about making sure that those scripts actually go out for the nominated films. And so of the ten nominated films I probably have received screenplays for a lot of them either as PDFs or as like physical printed bound copies.
Every screenplay that we’ve gotten online is also available right now in Weekend Read so everyone can download the scripts and read those scripts. That said, I will vote for Best Screenplay on some scripts that I have not read. I think it is great to have the ability to read the scripts because sometimes a script is vastly different than the movie. In some ways I feel like I’m voting for Best Original Screenplay or Best Adapted Screenplay based on, “Well, you know what, that was probably a good script and the director didn’t mess it up so I guess that was a good script.” Because you don’t honestly know exactly what was in the script, even when you get the script handed to you. Well, is that reflecting what the intention was of the script going into it, or is this more reflecting what the final film is? Has it basically been sort of reverse engineered from the final screenplay? You don’t know.
So, as I vote for these awards for the WGA awards and the Academy Awards I’m basing it on sort of in my experience as a screenwriter and knowing what it takes to go from the page to the screen what do I suspect the screenwriter’s contribution was to that film that was terrific. And that is honestly how I’m basing my vote.
Craig, as you’re voting on these awards, like WGA awards, what are you doing? Are you reading the scripts?
Craig: I don’t really vote on those things. I just don’t understand the whole thing. The whole awarding thing for this, I just don’t understand it. [laughs] I just don’t get it. I’ve never gotten it. I mean, it’s not that I would ever be not grateful if I got an award for something, but I just – it’s not – like I know people get really excited about it. I’ve never quite gotten it. It’s just not in my – I love what I love. I don’t know how else to put it. I love what I love.
You know, and usually when I look at the lists of like, “Well, here are the five things you’re allowed to vote on for best movie I think well the movie I loved the most isn’t here.”
John: Yeah. I get that.
Craig: So what’s the point?
John: I will say that I take nominations very seriously in the sense of like as a person who gets to nominate movies I take that really seriously because I want sometimes to call out well these five movies are fantastic. And they’re fantastic because the writing is really good. And so I want to commend those movies.
I love for a great movie to win the awards, too, but I think the nominations are incredibly important. I’ve not been nominated for an Academy Award. I got nominated for a BAFTA. That was great. But the whole award season stuff is crazy and exhausting. And as crazy and exhausting as it is to read about it and watch it, it’s like 15 times more exhausting to be in the middle of it. And you end up spending months of your life just going to different lunches and sitting around with different reporters to talk about your movie for the 15,000th time.
The only really good thing I got out of it is I got to talk to some other really great filmmakers and hang out with them because we were always doing the same panels together. So, if it gets some filmmakers together working that’s great.
A thing I think people would not understand is they always say like these movies are pitted against each other. The experience on the ground isn’t really being pitted against each other because you’re hanging out with these other nominees all the time. And they’re mostly great. And so that is a nice thing that comes out of award season is you get to hang out with other really talented filmmakers who are making something good, who made something good and are hopefully making good things in the future.
So, that’s a nice part of it. But, back to Ash’s question. We get the screenplays. There’s no requirement to have read them. We are voting based on our guesses in terms of what we think is probably the best movie based on the writing.
Craig: All right. Our next question is from Tommy Lastname. We’ve gotten a question from Tommy Lastname before.
John: Yeah. He’s going to be big. I mean, with a name like Tommy Lastname you’re destined for greatness.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, there’s not too many Tommy Lastnames out there.
Craig: Tommy Lastname from LA writes, “A little background. I’ve been given a chance to write something for money. Not much money, but the producers have a movie coming out this year that I expect will do well and I feel I’m taking a chance on them as much as they’re taking a chance on me. My problem is that I feel like the script is not living up to the kind of work I’m used to writing.
“Frankly, I think it might be a bad script and I have a due date coming up. Is there any advice either of you can offer on the subject of turning a less than stellar situation like this around? I would like the ability to reach out to them in the future and possibly work on other things that are more in my wheelhouse, but I’m afraid a bad script might burn this bridge.”
John: Uh-oh. Craig, start us off with some advice for Tommy Lastname. Like, do you turn in the bad script? Do you email these producers to say these are the problems I’m having? What should Tommy do?
Craig: Well, I don’t know anything about the situation other than what he’s told us. So I don’t know if he took this job because he just needed money. It sounds like it since he describes it as a chance to write something for money. That means, my guess, that he did this because he needs cash and so – and this happens. You don’t always get to write the things you want to write. The problem is when you are writing something, he describes it as out of his wheelhouse, but maybe we could also just describe it as something that he normally would never, ever write. The odds of you doing your best work are fairly slim.
In fact, let’s just go out on a limb here and say it’s not possible to do your best work or to live up to the kind of work you’re used to writing because you would never write this. In that sense I think Tommy you have to make peace with what you actually are writing. And you have to acknowledge that you may not be necessarily aware of whether or not this is or is not good because this isn’t something that you normally deal with. Your ability to judge it may be a little off.
That said, if there is anyone that you can have a discussion about this with, a producer, I think it’s fair for you to sit down and say, “Listen, I have some questions of things I’m not necessarily in love with and I just wanted to bounce some thoughts off of you and see if you had any ideas just to keep going and be able to revise as I go.” And see if maybe just talking it through might help you solve a few of the problems.
But, if there is an overall problem of, “Ooh, I may have been miscast in this part,” that’s not going to change from anything and you will face the music one way or another. It’s not a question of a bad script burning this bridge. It’s a question of you may not supposed to be writing this movie.
John: Yeah. I like your metaphor of being miscast. I would say that there’s a step before you turn it in that could be really helpful. So continuing with this miscast metaphor, let’s say you got cast in this part and you’re like I just don’t know if I can do this.
A thing you might try is to actually attempt the performance for somebody who is not the director, who is not the producer, and see like does this make sense at all. Like, am I being a crazy person? Should I try to get out of this? So you would actually – you perform the scene for some actor friends of yours to see like does this make any sense. And the equivalent for you would be as a writer is show some people what you’re writing. Show some people who actually this kind of is in their wheelhouse. And does this make sense? Is this actually bad? Because it’s entirely possible that you just don’t know whether it’s good or it’s bad. And you may be feeling it’s bad because as Craig said it’s just not your taste. It’s not your kind of movie.
If it really isn’t working then I think you have the conversation with the producers about this is what I’m doing and this is where we’re at.
John: But what I will say is that sometimes writing outside of your wheelhouse, writing a thing you’re not comfortable about writing, you’re doing this for the money. You’re doing this for the job, for the chance to do this. But part of doing the job is learning how to write for people. And this is something you’re getting out of this is basically “How do I do what I know how to do, which is to tell a story with words on a page, for somebody else.”
And this might be one of your very first jobs doing that. If the project isn’t great, if your writing isn’t the best it could possibly be, you’re at least learning how to do this part of the job. And that is an incredibly important part of everything you’re going to be doing for hopefully the next 30 years of your career. So suffering through this and figuring out how to make the best of a not great situation is a really valuable lesson you’re having a chance to learn right now.
Craig: Yeah. The one thing you don’t want to do is quit.
John: Yep. Just don’t quit.
Craig: No. Don’t quit. Get yourself through it. There is some pain ahead, but you get through it and you learn from it and, you know, helps you identify this particular bugaboo the next time it’s coming at you.
John: Cool. Our next question comes from Casey and Casey sent in some audio so let’s take a listen.
Casey: Yo. Hey, kiddo, I got to ask a question to Scriptnotes. Can you let me just do that? Yo. Robot John, Sexy Craig, my writing partner and I have a feature script we’re super stoked about with an eye on hopefully someday directing it, co-directing it. That is not happening anytime soon. So the next step for us, we plan on heisting the Whiplash blueprint and writing a short based on the feature script, making sure that short is something we’re confident that we can self-fund and produce on our own.
We’ve got a little bit of experience doing that, so we just need to figure out what that short script is. So any suggestions as to how best condense, abbreviate, or otherwise shortify a feature screenplay? The goal, of course, is not to just pick our favorite scene and shoot it. We want the short to standalone as a narrative and also tease the feature and the bigger arcs of our favorite characters.
So, what is a lonely, miserable writer clinging to his fading dreams to do?
John: So, what Casey is talking about is this idea where you have a plan for making a feature script so you make a little short film first as sort of a proof of concept in many ways. This is the world, the universe, the characters. And someone who sees the short, which wins awards, and then you get the money to make your feature script.
That’s actually a viable model. And you go to Sundance Film Festival every year, there will be a couple of shorts which get acclaim. Those filmmakers will go off and make the feature versions of those shorts and sometimes they’re terrific. So what Casey is describing isn’t just Whiplash. There are other films you can point to that had this as a template.
Craig: Yes. And I think – I mean, it’s a very good question. And I think the best advice I could offer you, Casey, is to think of your short film as a film. So, you have a feature film script and you’re right to say, OK, I don’t want to just lift my favorite scene, but there might be a temptation to say why don’t I just take the beginning of this scene and stick it onto the end of that one. Or, you know, and you don’t want to do that.
You want to be cinematic. I mean, short films tend to be very evocative and you can be a little more lyrical about things. You may be able, for instance, to take a scene where your character is saying something really heartfelt and beautiful and you show some other things from the movie and you play around with time a little bit.
You have to be a little inventive and the purpose of it is to give people a sense that you guys know what you’re doing. Not to advertise the movie you want to make, but rather to say we’ve made a film that – forget this other thing. It’s as if we always intended to make this short film. It is in and of itself for itself. And then if you really like it, guess what, we have a feature-length movie that is in the same world with the same characters as this.
John: Craig is exactly right on this topic. So, do not shoot this as a trailer for your feature. Shoot this as one complete thought, one full idea, one short film. Ideally, someone should see your short and say like, “Hey, have you ever thought about making that into a feature?” And you just say like, you know what, we’ve thought about that. But don’t pitch this as like here’s a short version of our feature. That’s not what you want to do. You’ve got to make the absolute best short film that you can do.
And it’s worth studying really good short films to see how they work, because they tend to be really one idea. Craig says lyrical, I’d say they’re asking one question and the character is answering that one question and we get out. And they don’t have the same expectations of hitting all those beats. Sometimes they can be really short and it’s just like it’s following almost in real time through one thing.
But ideally you’re setting up a fascinating world, an interesting character, a simple conflict that you’re going to get through in the course of that thing. So that’s why you’re not going to introduce all your characters from your feature. You’re going to introduce probably your hero and one supporting person. And sequences or scenes might not even be in your movie. Think about it like you might take that character and wind them back a few months. Or look at a sequence in the middle of your story and how could you do it simpler with different characters or different obstacles to get the feeling of that. But don’t just try to copy and paste out moments from your script to do it because you’re unlikely to get what you really want.
Craig: Exactly. You want to start a new file. You know what I mean? Like on your computer, whatever program you use, start a new file. And I think you have to at least be somewhat inquisitive about your feature script and ask what is the ultimate purpose of this movie. Where is the beating heart of this thing? What is an image or a moment that gets me? That is meaningful.
Maybe start there as an inspiration. But begin a new document. I think you will be so much freer at that moment. You will feel so much freer. And you will be able to design something that was always meant to be short.
John: Agreed. Another way to think about it is imagine that your screenplay is like the novel and now you’re making a short film based on that novel. You wouldn’t take things directly. You would take a characteristic of it and use that. Don’t use that whole document. That’s not how you should start.
All right, Craig, let’s do one more question then. Do you want to take Nate?
Craig: Yeah, this is a little quickie. Nate writes, “Do we need last names?” Not us, you know, in life, but in our scripts. “Somewhere way back in my junior college screenwriting classes I seem to recall being told to always give both first and last names for any character who has dialogue. I know we hate rules, but is there a rule on this?”
John: Oh, Nate, your junior college writing class steered you wrong. So here is what I would say about last names in scripts. Last names are useful to signal sometimes that a character is important enough that they need a first name and a last name. Last names can be useful in making a character more specific. It gives us a clue to their ethnic background, some other characteristic of that person. But, no, you can have characters with dialogue in your script who do not have last names. It’s fine. You can have characters in your script who sort of only have last names. That’s fine, too. There is no hard and fast rule about this. It should be what works best for your script and your story.
Craig: I feel like we could sell a little buzzer and we would sell it at cost, you know, because obviously I make too much money on this show. And people in junior college screenwriting classes could just hit the buzzer when their professor delivered a rule. This would be a great example of a silly rule. So, Nate, John is absolutely correct. And, you know, look, there are certain things like – let’s say you’re writing a show about a team, teammates, right. Like cheerleaders. Baseball players. Cops in a precinct. Generally speaking they kind of do the whole last name thing, you know. And that’s normal. And that’s what you would do. And, yeah, you don’t need last names. You don’t need first names.
You could call people by colors.
Craig: Tarantino did it.
John: And we’ve talked about a lot of times where characters are just identified by their job, like Clerk. And so these are characters with dialogue but especially if they’re only showing up in one scene it’s kind of better not to give them a real name because once a character has an actual real name you’re signaling to the audience this person is crucial. You have to pay attention to them. Whereas if you call them Clerk or Hairdresser, we know subconsciously it’s OK. We don’t have to focus on them so much.
Craig: Yeah. I feel like if it was good enough for Beckett to just say Vladimir and Estragon, then it’s probably good enough for us, right? You don’t need last names.
John: Yeah, again, Craig quoting the Beckett rule.
Craig: [laughs] The good old Beckett rule.
John: It is time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is an article I read this week. It is “The Bittersweet Beauty of Adam Rippon” by Richard Lawson writing for Vanity Fair. It is a great article. It’s about Adam Rippon the figure skater, but it’s not really about him. It’s about the sort of the experience of watching this openly gay figure skater out there in the world and Richard Lawson thinking back to his own childhood and how much he loved figure skating, and a friend of his, and their relationship, and finding out later on that that guy was gay, too. It’s really great. I won’t spoil stuff in it, but I thought it very much captured this really unique and interesting moment that happened this past week and things going forward.
And so these last two weeks I’ve been talking to so many school kids and some schools I’ve been talking to seventh graders and like well that’s clearly the gay kid. Like that is the gay kid. And it’s the gay kid in ways that I think when Craig and I were going through school you wouldn’t want to point and say like that’s the gay kid, but I think these kids are out. And that is so interesting and so fascinating. And so Richard Lawson’s article made me think of that as well as sort of my own youth. I thought it was just a great synthesis of this really interesting time that we’re at right now.
Craig: It is. And you’re absolutely right that kids are out now, which is really encouraging and lovely. I read this article, too, before you had listed it here. And I agree it was really, really well done. And from my point of view as coming from the outside of being straight, one of the things that I never really thought about but I thought this article did a really good job of pointing out was the value of the outness itself. Because, you know, growing up and even into my 20s and 30s and stuff, to me figure skating always seemed like, well, there were a lot of gay figure skaters.
So when they were talking about Adam Rippon I was like, really, he’s the first kind of one? Because, you know, Brian Boitano, what about Brian Boitano? What about Rudy Galindo? What about Johnny Weir for god’s sakes? Well they weren’t out. And it’s one thing to say, “Well Brian Boitano, he’s probably gay, right?” But it’s another thing for him to say, “That’s right. I am.”
It’s different. And I thought that was a really interesting point to make and why Adam Rippon is – I can see really important compared to say just somebody who else who is probably gay but isn’t saying it. That not saying it thing is a symptom of something bad, I think, in the world. And so it was great to see.
John: So these last two weeks I’ve been talking to all of these school kids, and at the end of my presentation we open for questions. And so they’re asking about the book. They’re asking about movies. Sometimes the questions just go far afield. And so this one boy raised his hand and he goes, “Are you married?” And so I said, “I am married. And my daughter is 12 and she really loves middle grade fiction.” And I transferred out of it so quickly.
And I had that moment of hesitation like do I out myself. Because in general in real life I will proactively out myself to just sort of make it clear that there’s a gay person out there in the world. But I hesitated and I didn’t say anything because these are fourth graders and it was a giant crowd. We were in like the cafetorium and there’s like a hundred kids. And I just knew it was going to be the moment where like, “Oh, it’s going to be about that now. Like that is going to be the headline that sort of comes home from this.” And I didn’t want that to happen.
At the same time, I felt bad ending myself there. So, it’s never easy. I sort of assume that I’m always out, but of course you’re never always out to everybody.
Craig: No, that’s absolutely true. And I immediately empathize with that situation as you’re describing it because I can do all the math in my head in the same way and you just think, “Well, you know, now there’s going to be a bunch of murmuring.” [laughs] Especially in fourth grade. Just some murmuring might happen.
Whereas if you were in a high school setting, no problem. Today, zero problem.
John: Easily. So, yeah, you’re always making choices. So, that was the choice I made there and I still feel kind of weird about it.
Craig: I get it. I get it. Sometimes life does sort of put those moments at you and – I mean, at least I don’t think in that moment you didn’t compromise who you were. I don’t think that happened.
John: Yeah. But it was sort of a lie of omission. And I’m always mindful of when I’m doing that.
Craig: Yeah. Listen, I’ve had moments in my past where I’ve compromised myself and I feel terrible about it where someone has said something – they didn’t know I was Jewish. And someone said something about Jewish people in front of me and I didn’t say anything. I mean, it was when I was a kid. But because I was kind of paralyzed and embarrassed and didn’t know what to do.
And, you know, there’s that thing we’re more terrified of offending people than we are of being hurt ourselves. And I think about it to this very day.
John: Yeah. What you’re describing is that same symptom of like a person is choking and they will run out of a room because they don’t want to embarrass or inconvenience people where they need to actually get the attention and become the center of attention. So, in many ways I think I’m applauding Adam Rippon for letting himself be the center of attention on this moment.
Craig: I completely agree. Good on him.
Well, I have a far less interesting but so satisfying One Cool Thing. And, of course, how could it not be The Room: Old Sins. This is the fourth Room game for iOS.
John: So excited for you.
Craig: Did you play it?
John: I haven’t played it yet. But when I saw that it was out I was like well that is clearly Craig’s One Cool Thing. There is no question that that’s going to happen.
Craig: Look, slam dunk. And I have a bunch saved up. So I’ll actually have some One Cool Things for a while. But The Room: Old Sins was terrific. It was beautifully done, as always, and I liked also they kind of changed it up a bit in the way that they did things. But overall just as always brilliantly done. I think it’s Fireproof. Fireproof Games.
John: Yeah. Yeah.
Craig: Wonderful stuff. I hope that they continue to make The Room games forever.
John: We will all hope that. And I hope we get to make our show forever. It’s nice to be back doing this with you. Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Matthew Chilelli. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can ask questions like the ones we answered today.
On Twitter, short questions are great. So Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.
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Craig: That’s amazing.
John: So thank you to all the listeners who clicked over to Launch and I’ve gotten some great feedback on that so thank you so much for that.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. We get those up a few days after the show goes up. We’re trying to find a way to get the transcripts for Launch up as well, because transcripts are very helpful and they help people find stuff in there. Also, people who can’t listen to the show can read them, which is always good.
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Craig: Yeah. That’s the most important thing. [laughs]
John: That is the most important thing. You’re making a show about Chernobyl. I mean, who knows how much screenwriting knowledge was lost in the disaster of Chernobyl.
Craig: I do. And the answer is none.
John: [laughs] OK. That’s fine. If any place is going to have a nuclear disaster and not affect the film industry, it’s Chernobyl, except now does impact the film and television industry because you get to make a TV show about it.
Craig: Good point. Good point.
John: I’m all optimism now.
Craig: I love it.
John: Thanks Craig.
Craig: Thanks John.
John: All right. See you.
- WGA members, you can update your diversity details at my.wga.org. Don’t forget to “publish.”
- John on Brian Koppelman’s podcast, The Moment
- Common musical number types include the argument song (“Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better” from Annie Get Your Gun, “Sue Me” from Guys & Dolls, “People Will Say We’re in Love” from Oklahoma!), the scheme song (“A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd, “I Want the Good Times Back” from The Little Mermaid stage play), the philosophy song (“Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid), the If Only song (“On My Own” from Les Miserables, “Memory” from Cats, “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music), and the Eleven O’Clock Number (“Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy, “Being Alive” from Company) and the sidekick song (“Hakuna Matata” from the Lion King, “The Travel Song”).
- Marty McFly’s victory lap
- Awards scripts are available on Weekend Read
- “The Bittersweet Beauty of Adam Rippon” by Richard Lawson for Vanity Fair
- The Room: Old Sins
- The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide!
- The USB drives!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
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- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
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