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 341 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast we will try to answer the question how much do you need to know before you start writing. We’ll also discuss when to take a note and when to stand your ground.
Craig: Ooh, I like that one.
John: Stand your ground! But first we have some follow up. In our recent How Would This Be a Movie segment we looked at a Bloomberg story about debt collectors. And listener Joe wrote in who said, “The writer of the article, Zeke, is a buddy of mine from back in high school in Boston. He’s very excited that Hollywood people are talking about his story. And here’s the devastating news: Zeke Faux is actually pronounced Zeke Fox. I know. I’m sorry.”
Craig: Uh, it’s not. You mean, I think what listener Joe means is that Zeke Faux is actually mispronounced as Zeke Fox. I mean, that’s Faux. It’s F-A-U-X. It’s a word.
John: It is a word. It’s a French word. But he pronounces it Fox.
Craig: That’s fine. I mean, he can pronounce it Fox.
John: Like Guy Fawkes Day sort of pronounces it.
Craig: Right. But what he should do is go with Faux.
John: Yeah. So I sympathize with Zeke because I had an unpronounceable last name, which I ended up changing. But we pronounced my last name Misey, everyone else in the world pronounced it Mease, because that’s sort of how it looks. It should have been pronounced My-za in German. There was no winning. So Zeke has chosen his cool looking name, but he’s going to pronounce it Fox. I get it.
Craig: Yeah, listen, it’s cool. Whatever – I mean, it’s his name. But I’m just saying if you’re trying to be a super hero or villain, Zeke Faux is just cool.
John: It’s a cool name.
Craig: You know who loves that name?
John: Who loves that name?
Craig: Cool Craig.
John: Ah, Cool Craig. Oh, welcome back Cool Craig. Cool Craig, like are you a cousin of that other guy who doesn’t show up anymore?
Craig: Oh no, he shows up man.
John: All right.
Craig: Yeah. Cool Craig is actually a very close cousin of Whole Foods Craig. Whole Foods Craig cares more about you.
John: That’s good. I think the thing about Sexy Craig is there’s nothing wrong with Sexy Craig as long has everyone consents to Sexy Craig’s appearance in the podcast. And sometimes I don’t consent to it.
Craig: Sexy Craig weirdly is just learning about consent. Sexy Craig – he’s into it. Believe me, he gets that the world has changed and probably isn’t as hospitable to guys like Sexy Craig as it used to be. But, no, he’s learning about it. He’s into it. But he’s evolving.
John: That’s good. It’s crucial that this fictitious persona evolve along with all of the characters out there. So many characters in stories that I love are really problematic looked at through a modern lens. And that’s just a thing we have to accept.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly.
John: Do you want to take the next one about MoviePass?
Craig: I do. I do. Here we go. So, Brian in Winchester, Virginia writes, “An interesting situation arose this weekend with Red Sparrow.” That’s the Jennifer Lawrence film that’s out right now. “The regular 2D screenings of the film were not available on the MoviePass app. Each listing was grayed out just as the premium screenings of other films are, even in theaters that accept MoviePass. The scuttlebutt is that the distributor wouldn’t sponsor or pay for MoviePass to promote the film. Users have been getting direct emails to see certain films with their subscription. So MoviePass flexed their might and leveraged its users by preventing us from seeing the film on the opening night/weekend, likely impacting the box office.
“I’ve enjoyed MoviePass. I see more films and save money, but we are getting direct promotional emails to see certain films. It seems like a very slippery slope to use us subscribers as leverage against distributors. Both are options that could drive the value of the program down.”
Well, John, oh boy, here we go.
John: Yeah. This does seem like a slippery slope. And not even a slope. A thing just happened. The classic scheme of this would be you’d have a person who comes in and says like, “You know, it’s a really nice movie you’ve got here. It would be a shame if anything happened to it.”
John: This doesn’t feel great. Now, we’ll zoom back out and say like there are people who influence the outcomes of opening weekends and movies all the time. And there’s always the sort of quid pro quo where you’re doing publicity with people and stuff like this, but this feels like a very kind of direct transactional thing. And they’re coming to us and saying like, “Hey, would you like us to promote your movie?” And if you say no then they will sort of unpromote your movie. And that doesn’t feel good.
Craig: Yeah, you can now see what they’re doing. Right? The classic Internet truism is “If you are not paying for the product you are the product.” And in this case it appears that the subscriber base for MoviePass is the product. So MoviePass very cannily is monetizing this by advertising movies to their base and, yes, it appears that if you – it may not even be as much as, “OK, well if you don’t advertise with us then we’re not going to let our people see your movies.” It may also just be these people are advertising with us and they’re in direct competition with you. So part of our deal with them is we’re sending our hordes to them. This is sort of the Groupon model of things.
If they push this a little too hard and a little too quickly, which I think they are, I could definitely see a situation where studios – and this is where they have to be careful about not running afoul of antitrust – but I could see them all just going, “This service is not in our long term best interests. Let’s stop advertising with it.”
John: Yeah. No, it’s a really interesting situation. Now, I didn’t do any research on this, but I know in the past there have been controversies over things like radio stations that will have their annual holiday Christmas concerts. And there’s that sense of like if you are a band who is asked to play that and you don’t play that, you will not get radio play on that station. They’ll cease to promote you.
That is a form of a distributor coming in and saying to the artist if you do not basically pay us by your free performance we will not support you. That kind of thing happens in Hollywood all the time where if you don’t do Entertainment Tonight they’re not going to talk about your movie. There’s always that kind of situation. This just feels much more obvious of an impasse between these two powerful parties.
Craig: And I think also that if MoviePass pursues this method, at some point their patrons will become frustrated. I mean, I don’t think it was in the user agreement – I mean, it is, of course – but it wasn’t certainly out front that you would get to see all of the movies you could see in a month, except for the ones that they don’t want you to see because it’s not good for the MoviePass company. That’s not attractive.
John: I agree. I agree. So Netflix in its heyday when it was still sending out DVDs, there were limitations. They wouldn’t always have every movie available. There was sort of some built-in shortages there, but this was an artificial scarcity that they were just creating here and that is the thing that is going to make people less happy than they would otherwise be.
Craig: You know, a movie like Red Sparrow, I mean, come on. This movie – these are the movies we need to be helping. And I haven’t seen Red Sparrow. I don’t even know what Red Sparrow is about. All I know is that Red Sparrow is not a $100 million or $500 million budgeted massive brightly colored explosion festival. And therefore it would be nice – and it stars a movie star. And it’s not a little tiny, tiny like little indie-indie movie.
Right? It’s the sort of movie that Hollywood used to make a lot of. They’re frightened to death of making them. And now MoviePass is going to choke the life out of it. I mean, that’s just wrong.
John: I agree. All right, continuing our follow up. Last week we talked about the plan or lack of a plan in Return of the Jedi. Sian Griffiths wrote in to point out that maybe the worst thing about that opening sequence wasn’t Luke’s plan, but the metal bikini. So I’m going to link to her blog post she did which was a really good analysis of sort of how in that third movie of Star Wars, the initial trilogy, so much of what we had learned to love about Leia kind of becomes undone because the Leia character is suddenly sexualized. A quote from the article is, “The ultimate crime of the metal bikini is that it turned Leia from being a force of personality into merely a body.”
Craig: Yeah, you know, I don’t know quite what to think about these things because I’m so easily swayed. I am very much a weathervane on these things, right? So I read something like this and I go, yep, yep, yep. And then I’ll see some other article where women talk about how they thought it was the most body positive thing and they love to cosplay as her in the bikini. And it’s a huge part of their – and I’m like, OK, yep, yep. You know what, I don’t know. I’m defaulting to my hands up. I don’t know.
John: Yeah. I don’t know either about Wonder Woman and her outfit versus Captain Marvel who has a non-sexualized outfit. I don’t know. I mean, I want women to be able to own and present their sexuality as a powerful part of their force. But I don’t want them to be limited to it. So, I don’t know what the right answer is.
Craig: Women disagree about things the way that men disagree about things, which makes sense because they’re human beings. When women are disagreeing about things that have to do with women, I have learned to shut my mouth. And just listen. You know, I’ll let them hash it out.
John: All right. We also had several listeners who wrote in with their own theories about what was possibly happening. We could get into this, but I don’t know that it’s really going to serve anybody to get into the more elaborate theories of why people were doing what they were doing other than to say you can make anything kind of make sense, but what we’re actually seeing on screen right now doesn’t really make a lot of sense if you stop to think about it.
Craig: No. I mean, people can torture some sort of bizarre bendy pipe cleaner explanation for this, but in general good storytelling observes Occam’s razor. Even if it’s not an explanation that you could have predicted, it’s a surprise, in the post-analysis of it you should be able to say that’s a very elegant thing that happened there. The more complicated and twisty and bendy it is, the more of a – well, just a screenwriting artifact it is to allow the writer or the filmmakers to achieve moments they wanted to achieve separate and apart from a compelling storyline or character motivation.
John: Absolutely. That actually is a perfect segue into our first main topic which is sort of knowing versus discovering. And sort of what you’re describing in terms of tortured logic to get you to a certain place. That can often come about because a writer has a plan for how things are going to fit together and that plan may not be the most natural way of getting about it.
So, this all sprung from a conversation I’m having this week and the people who are inviting me to have this conversation threw out this question, which was how much does a screenwriter need to know before he or she sits down to write a scene, which I thought was a great question and we haven’t really talked about that. We’ve talked about writing a scene, but we haven’t talked about what you really need to know beforehand. And so my first instinct of course was to make a checklist.
So, I’m going to read through this checklist, and then we’re going to throw away the checklist. And I wanted to read through sort of like what might be on that checklist.
So, you might ask, “Well, who is in this scene. What should those characters want? What are they hiding? What is the central conflict? Where does the scene take place? What just happened before this? What’s going to happen next? What’s the first image we see in the scene? What’s the first line? What absolutely has to occur in this scene in order for it to make sense and for it to move the story forward? And, finally, how does this scene change the direction of the story?”
So, these are 10, 11 points that might be on a checklist as you’re sitting down to write a scene. And I made this checklist and quickly realized almost every scene I’ve written I couldn’t answer all these questions and I think that’s good. I think if you did have the answers to all these questions you’d sort of be paralyzed. And I’m curious what your thoughts are on this checklist.
Craig: Well, it’s a good list. I think all of these are valid and I would – I guess in maybe a slightly more vague way some of the questions I ask myself are what’s the point of this scene. Why do I want this in the movie? And how will the scene be entertaining? Because I’m constantly terrified by being boring. And so those are two big things that hang over my head.
I actually try – I do try and answer as many of these questions as I can before I start writing the scene. And then I give myself permission, and I don’t even have to do it, it just sort of happens that as I’m writing things begin to occur. So I feel much more comfortable and targeted when I have a plan and I have a lot of answers.
And I think simply because I feel comfortable when I begin to do the writing other stuff starts to happen. But it happens within the context of an understanding about some hard answers. Even if part of the thing that results is a deviation from the plan.
John: Yeah. So you and I have never written on classic TV shows where there’s a room and as a room you’re breaking the story. So you’re breaking the big beats and you’re breaking the smaller beats. You’re breaking it down to scenes and often you’re breaking down sort of what happens in the scene. And there’s something wonderful about that because you have the ability to have a bunch of different brains working through something and sometimes you can come up with something really great.
Where I wonder if I would be incredibly frustrated is when I get that big document and then have to write the actual scenes that become the screenplay, or the teleplay, the kind of weird paralysis I’d feel that I was locked into the scene is going to happen the way that we broke it in the room. You’re going to have to follow these beats.
Because I have a very hard time writing a scene if I know exactly what’s going to happen in the scene. Like I have a hard time making that scene feel spontaneous and feel like the characters are making their own choices in the moment versus the scene making the choices. It’s the difference between character-driven versus plot-driven. And we always think about character-driven as like the whole movie is character-driven. The sense that these characters have a big someday wish that they are setting out on a quest to sort of get to that someday wish. They’re facing these challenges. They’re changed by the journey. That’s what movies are.
John: But I think within the context of a scene that same thing kind of happens where characters come into it with a certain goal, a certain ambition, and by their own actions they’ve changed things. And you want to feel that they are making choices within the moment, line by line, what they’re saying, what they’re doing, how they’re reacting that is causing the effect of the change of the scene.
If I came in with this sort of master plan document for exactly what’s going to happen in the scene and how we’re going to get through the scene, I don’t know if I could do that very well.
Craig: I do a master plan. And I have the opposite emotional requirement. I find it hard to write a scene if I don’t know how it begins and how it ends and roughly all these things that are supposed to happen in it. But what I find is that what I really need to know when I’m writing a scene is – it’s a bit like, OK, I’m about to throw some characters into a lake. I need to know why I’m throwing them into the lake. I also need to know that at the end of the scene they’re going to emerge from the lake at this point on the shore for this reason. So, then I feel good. I’m like, great, I know why I’m throwing them in. I know what’s going to happen when they plunge down. I have a general sense of how they’re going to struggle to get back up to the surface. But from that point to the point I know must occur at the end, let’s see. Let’s see how it goes.
John: That’s I think what I’m describing. It’s that you just talked about your goals for this scene. Basically you as the writer, the sort of meta like what is the intention of the scene. Why does this scene need to be in the movie? What is the thing that’s going to happen to it? But the characters in that scene, they shouldn’t know where it’s going to go. They shouldn’t know what’s going to happen. And to the degree that we sense that they do know what’s going to happen or where it’s going to go, we’re bored.
Craig: That’s right.
John: It has lost all of its spark or magic.
Another analogy I’d have for it is sort of like a road trip. And so you can think of a movie as being like a big road trip and you can sort of pick where the destinations are going to be on that road trip. So we’re driving from LA to New York. Are we going to take a straight route there? Are we going to stop in Houston? Are we going to stop in Bozeman, Montana? Is it going to be on a time clock like we’re in a hurry, or is it just whenever we get there that it’s going to be that? That’s the scope of the movie feels that way.
But, an individual scene isn’t like a road trip in that way. It’s more like an errand. Like you’re going out to do something. You have a very specific goal. Like you have to stop at the drug store and pick up this thing.
And within the course of that scene you could just have them go in the drug store, pick up that thing, and pay for it and leave. But you can also do so much more. And if you let the characters, give them some space to breathe and sort of make their own choices you can find a much more interesting way to make that scene work than just the functional version of it. It’s like, OK, well that scene works because they picked up the thing that they needed to pick up. Those tend to be the least interesting versions of those scenes.
Craig: I agree. And this is why so much of the fun part of writing for me is the part where I try and see as much as I can in the space of the scene. So, if I have a scene that is designed to serve a plot purpose and also a character purpose, and I know what those are. And then I’m imagining the moment and trying to make it real. And so I have two characters that are in this pharmacy and they have to go pick up medicine, because that’s the errand as you say. I’m literally using an errand to describe the errand. And one of them is eating a Snickers bar. He has bought a Snickers bar and he’s eating it. And his friend is at the counter and she’s waiting for the pills to come out. And they’re having a conversation. And I know that the point of the conversation is they disagree about something. Well, there’s no way in the world that in my master plan I would have said and this guy should be eating a Snickers bar.
That’s just something that I kind of fill in. But now that I know that he’s eating the Snickers bar, at some point I want her to slap it right out of his mouth. Because that’s exciting. And that’ll just happen. There’s no plan for that, right? So you start to like use the stuff in your environment. The only way to surprise people is to surprise yourself. And to have characters surprise each other. Life is surprising, particularly the parts of life that we find fascinating which we’re supposed to be presenting in movies.
So, there is this kind of need to plan so that your scene isn’t this rambling, shaggy dog, pointless mush, which we see a lot of from early writers. These like long runs of rambly dialogue going nowhere because they think that’s what’s real. But, then within your disciplined moment you’re just playing in this very real world. And then if you know, “Well, my purpose here is for him to realize that she is no longer going to take his crap, well now the Snickers bar is the way I’m going to do it.” And I could have never foreseen that.
John: Absolutely. So, what you described with sometimes beginning writers, or other writers who they seem to become in love with their characters’ voices, but they don’t actually have them doing anything interesting, is these characters just sort of keep wandering down these blind alleys. That it’s not moving the actual story forward. So, the individual scenes might be really funny, but they don’t add up to anything. Or even within the course of scenes there’s not really a shape to them. They’re sort of just in this moment. And a lot of times you’ll notice this in scripts where you go through a whole sequence and you realize like they basically just have been talking or doing the same thing for like ten pages. Nothing has actually progressed. And if I were to take these ten pages out we’d still be in the same moment.
So, that kind of planning problem can definitely happen. I guess you can’t let this process of discovery just lead you away from where you’re actually trying to get to. And if your whole scene became about the chocolate bar and slapping things, and then became a huge slapping fight inside this, and they got arrested, and they got taken away, well, that probably wasn’t what the scene needed to accomplish.
John: And so it does go back to that initial question of like what absolutely needs to happen in this scene? Because the scene happened, this next scene is possible. Well, what is that next scene in general? Or how is it leading us to the next thing? And I have seen many cases where people get seduced by really interesting things that happen in the moment and they get led astray. And I face that in real life all the time. Like there will be times where a scene will take me in a really interesting way and I will decide like, OK, you know what, I was going to go there, now I’m going to go here. I think I can get myself back over there. Most of the time I can, but sometimes I will have to just chuck a scene that I really do like because it really wasn’t getting me where I wanted to go. It was a really interesting character scene that couldn’t actually contribute to what it needed to contribute to the story at that point.
Craig: Oh yeah. Happens all the time. You have fun when you’re writing and sometimes you have fun in a way where you go, “Wonderful.” And sometimes you have fun in a way and go, “Yeah, no, I got to delete all that.”
Anybody that is concerned about efficiency should not be a writer. It is not an efficient process. If it’s efficient you’re doing it wrong, I’m pretty sure.
John: I was reading this blogger recently who talked about how every night he makes a plan for the next day and he has his day scheduled out to like ten minute increments. It’s called hyper scheduling. And I could, A, never do that. But I do feel that sometimes aspiring writers are attempting that in their screenplays. And probably because they’re read too many screenwriting books they see like this big macro thing, like this is what structure is, and this is what happens in a scene. Or they read some book that tells them every scene needs to flip from positive to negative, and then negative to positive. And there’s a whole way things have to happen.
And so they get incredibly granular in figuring out like, “OK, what’s going to happen in this scene before I write it.” They keep trying to optimize this unwritten thing.
So I think there’s a real danger to over-knowing. And it’s you sort of preclude new discoveries. You preclude new possibilities because you’re so determined to hit these beats that you’ve already set out for yourself. And sometimes it goes back to even like character backstory. Like a lot of times before writers will start writing a script they’ll do these elaborate bios for their characters about where they come from and how many brothers they have and what their favorite cereal is. And I’ve never found that helpful for me because if I know those details part of me wants to use it in some way which is almost never going to be helpful. And by locking down those details I’ve taken away my ability to be surprised by something that happens in the moment.
Like if I knew that Lucky Charms was his favorite cereal that’s probably not going to help me. But, how you made that decision might preclude some other interesting decision down the road. So people obsess about that stuff which is just kind of so often busy work I find.
Craig: Yeah, look, everybody has a certain amount of busy work they do to comfort themselves as they prepare to do this thing that often is miserable to do. I would say this: if you are having success – and creative success is I guess the most important thing there. I mean, the rest of it hopefully is following along. And your method is to backstory the hell out of your characters because that’s how you do sort of your running jump, your running start. That’s your running start. I’m with you. I don’t really find those things to be particularly important. And generally speaking when I get to a moment where I think, oh you know what, it would be good to know what her attitude is about blankety-blank, then I start to go back and fill those little bits of the map in.
But I don’t feel a great need to do any of that stuff myself. And I think that new writers are trying to exert control over a very scary process. Who wouldn’t? I mean, we are trained to exert control over circumstances in order to achieve results. And when you try and control things like screenplays you end up with very dead things. There is a kind of madness that is required along with this remarkable sobriety. You kind of have to have both going on at the same time or you’ll either have this very wooden thing or just a rambly, bizarro mess.
John: Yeah. I think there’s essentially a great compromise we tend to make. Because you want your characters to be free to do what they need to do, to explore themselves. And you also need to get them to go to the places where you need them to go. And so I think the bargain we make is that the characters can sort of move however they want to move, but we are the ones who are going to lay down the road for them.
So, they can go anywhere they want, but these are the roads. And so you’re ultimately going to get them to where they need to go, but exactly how quickly they’re going to do that. They still have a feeling of control, even though you are the one behind the scenes who is sort of mastering everything. And I think that speaks to also why when people do these elaborate backstories sometimes they’re describing a character who is still. They’re describing a character who is like in a museum. But the characters we see in stories are in motion. And so if you’re so focused on where the character came from and all these things, it’s like this frozen in time snapshot of who that character is. But in a movie you’re always seeing them in motion. And so be looking for what’s changing. Be looking for what’s challenging them. Try to do the work to figure out what that character is like when they’re moving and talking and curious and frightened, not just who they were when they were ten years old.
Craig: Yep. I agree with that. I think that the more you lock yourself in on that stuff the less you are concentrating on how that stuff is no longer who this character is supposed to be. And that’s what your movie is about. It’s about taking somebody from A to B. And so much of what the beginning is is establishing what you believe the audience needs to know. So, there’s the question what do we need to know to begin writing a scene and then there’s this other question which I’m asking all the time, which I suppose informs the first question: what does the audience need to know coming out of this scene?
And too much information is bad. It’s not only boring, but it starts to reduce a sense of wonder and mystery and participation. There’s that notion of active viewing. That you are leaning in because you know you have to pay attention. And it’s interesting and also things will be left out that you’re going to have to fill in for yourself.
So, another question I suppose we could put on our long list is what does the audience need to know before you start writing your scene. Because I think about that all the time.
John: Yeah. The weird things about a screenplay versus a book is that as a screenwriter we are sort of the proxy for the audience. We are sitting in the seat watching the story unfold on a big screen in front of us. So when we say we see/we hear, we’re saying that as the audience. Like this is what we’re experiencing. And so we’re always trying to remember what the audience knows, what the audience expects, what the audience is looking for. Because, if we don’t have a sense of what this story looks like from the audience’s point of view, we’ve lost.
John: All right. Let’s switch point of views to the screenwriter who is taking notes from somebody. Notes from a producer. Notes from a director. Notes from a studio executive. Craig, can you talk us through and answer definitively when should you take the note and when should you stand your ground?
Craig: I don’t know! I’ve been struggling with this my whole life. I did a talk about this at one of these creative salons that we had here in Los Angeles a while back. John, I assume you’ve read Le Petit Prince, The Little Prince, of course.
John: Of course.
Craig: So, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, wonderful book, but it opens with something that even as a child confused me and concerned me. So in the beginning of the book he says when I was a kid I used to draw. And I drew things – the idea was I drew a snake that had eaten an elephant. And so the snake – the elephant obviously is inside the snake so you can’t see the elephant in the snake – but he’s drawn a snake that has eaten an elephant and the shape when he shows it to adults he says, “Look what I drew.” And they would always say, “Oh, what a nice hat.”
But he knew that in fact it was not a hat. That’s the boring interpretation of it. And that in fact it’s an elephant inside a snake. And now he is a grownup and he’s crash landed in the desert and he meets the Little Prince who is the embodiment of innocence and child-like wonder. And he shows him his picture and the Little Prince says, “Oh, what a nice snake that has eaten an elephant.” And you’re like, ooh, finally, somebody gets it.
And as a kid I remember thinking, “But it looks like a hat?”
John: It does look like a hat.
Craig: It’s not fair. You’re not being fair. And that in fact that is a reasonable note that it looks like a hat. But I’ve always been a bit envious of people – and you and I, we know all sorts of writers and directors. And there is a certain sub-segment of our community that has absolutely no problem saying “What I’ve done here is an elephant inside a snake and if you don’t see it that’s your problem. I’m not changing it. I’m right. I have this bedrock faith in my instincts.“
When we go through this medium, this collaborative process, we are constantly getting input from people. And sometimes we think they’re right and sometimes we think they’re wrong. But the big question that I have, and I struggle with all the time, and maybe we can help people as they struggle with it is how do I know when I’m right and how do I know when I’m wrong. Because if you go too far one way or the other you end up either as a pushover or as this arrogant person. Or you could be this brave person, or you could be this weak person. And I struggle with it all the time.
How do you deal with it?
John: You know, I think a couple strategies I might employ at different times. One is just try to figure out consensus. So, if one person has the note, well, that could just be their opinion. If nine people have the note, then, OK, there’s something about that. There’s something that is hitting a lot of people a certain way and I need to really pay attention.
Another strategy might be to look back at my original intentions. Like what was I trying to do here and would taking this note change my intentions. Would taking this note bring me closer to my intentions? When I’m doing that sort of internal audit, I might also ask why am I reacting this way to that note. Is it because I’m afraid that they’re right, which is sometimes is the case. I might be afraid that they’re right and it’s going to be a lot of work, or I won’t even know how to implement that note. That might be something that I’m struggling with as I’m hearing that note.
But sometimes at the end of this assessment I’ll just decide, you know what, they’re wrong. And then I have to figure out like are they wrong enough that it’s worth sort of planting my foot and saying no I will not/I shall not budge. Or do I need to find a way to change something that addresses their concern without sort of implementing their solution if their solution is bad. I don’t know if any of these things are familiar to you.
Craig: No, they all are. And I’ve thought a lot about this. I think that there are certainly these moments where we get input and we have an emotional response. And that muddies the waters. And I’m almost saying let’s take that out of the equation. Let’s jump ahead. It’s two or three days later. You’ve calmed down. And now you can soberly look at this comment and even now you’re wondering “Am I right or am I wrong that they are right or they are wrong?”
And it’s not just about I’m right/they’re wrong. Sometimes I worry when I’m thinking they’re right and I’m wrong. And I worry about this because when we examine ourselves honestly what we will see is a lot of irrationality and a lot of cognitive errors. We change our minds, for instance, all the time. Sometimes our response to something is colored entirely by the fact that it is our first encounter with that thing.
Then the second or third encounter is a much different experience. So I’m wondering is my problem that I’ve seen it too many times? Is my problem that I just heard this note for the first time? I’m always sort of digging into this to try and figure out if I’m causing harm or not.
And over time I’ve come to the following conclusions, which are not super-duper helpful, but how could they be given the conundrum here. Conclusion number one is that there is no perfect way to do this. I will absolutely make mistakes. There are going to be times where I say no and I should have said yes. And there are going to be times where I say yes and I should have said no.
Conclusion number two: When I am particularly ambiguous or confused about whether or not I should be saying yes or no, that in and of itself is an indication of a problem. And so there’s a problem underneath all of this. Because even if there are times where I feel 100% confident and it turns out later I should not have been, generally speaking in those times my batting average is pretty high. Whether, again, sometimes I feel 100% confident that what somebody has just told me to change is exactly the right thing to do. But that happens because the writing around that spot is generally in the place it should be. And here’s a change that makes sense.
I get wishy-washy when the ground is not as firm under my feet as it should be.
John: Absolutely on all three points. And I’ve definitely been in situations where I’ve had the emotional response. I’ve stepped back. I’ve taken a look at it. I can look at it in terms of the work, the words on the page, the plan for making a movie. Obviously the screenplays we’re writing, especially if we’re not going into production quite yet, is just a plan for something that has not been built yet. And so sometimes we have difference of opinions on like well what should we build. And so it’s not a question of like is this the right way to do this thing. It’s like “Is this even the kind of thing we want to build?” And so those difference of opinions, like you have to sort of wrestle through those all the time.
Where it gets harder, and honestly I’ll say that half the notes I face tend to be in the second category, where I feel like the note is not actually about the work. The note is about something else. The note is about that other movie that opened last weekend. That note is about some other sort of defensive posture that this producer, this studio executive, this director is taking that has actually nothing to do with the work in front of them.
Those are sometimes the most frustrating notes because I have to then ask myself is it worth trying to implement this note if I will not ruin things because this is apparently something they feel they need to address in order for this project to move forward.
Sometimes you do those notes and sometimes you don’t do those notes. And I’ve been burned both ways where I’ve stomped my food and said, no, I’m absolutely not doing that. This is a ridiculous note. This is not helpful. And sometimes I’ve even said, “I can see why you’re saying that, but this is not the right thing. This is not the movie I signed on to write.” And I’ve left the project.
There have been other times where I’ve stayed on the project, and I’ve written those notes and it didn’t matter anyway. Because they were going to go in a different direction down the road. And so we’ve both been through situations where you’ve killed yourself for six months to sort of fine tune this thing and that line of dialogue on page 32 which you went back and forth over for three weeks and there was all this discussion. That scene is not in the movie anymore and they’ve completely changed how that whole thing works.
That’s the frustration, and the decisions that we have to go through, whether we’re taking a note or not taking a note. Because there’s a cost. There’s a cost to taking that note in terms of your time, in terms of your sort of pride in the work. You want to be the person who gets hired by that producer, by that studio again, because you are collaborative, but you also don’t want to just be a typist. Because that gets to be the real frustration.
Craig: Yeah. I think you’ve hit on something really interesting here. Because most of the time when I’m feeling ambiguous and wishy-washy and doing my whole Hamlet routine it’s because someone has given me a note that they believe in. And anytime someone gives me a note that they believe in I have a natural instinct to give it credence or at least give it a fair shake.
But there is this other thing that happens. And I know that we have some executives and producers that listen to us and if you are an assistant and you’re looking ahead, you’re on that track to be a producer or an executive listen well. Listen carefully to what I’m about to tell you.
You know how one of the most common notes that you guys give us is, “Um, this writing here didn’t feel quite organic.” So, in Hollywood people use the word organic to basically mean natural, elegant, realistic, flowing, it doesn’t bump you is another term they’ll use. In other words, it seems nice and smooth and connected and integrated. It doesn’t feel artificial or inorganic. Well, there are inorganic, artificial, synthetic notes. And we know it when we’re getting them every single time. You guys think we don’t. You guys think that we can’t tell the difference between notes that you believe in because they have to do with this true creative feeling you have. And notes you’re giving us because of synthetic stuff. Like we want to hit a certain audience, an older audience, a younger audience, a whiter audience, a blacker audience. We are concerned about how this will play in China. We don’t know if we can get this on the schedule unless the budget is this. There is an actor that wants to do this movie here, and if we give them this one then they’ll do this one. There’s a million of those things.
And when you guys give us notes in order to help you achieve something inorganic – the marketing department thinks that blah, blah, blah. We know it every time. And it would be great if you would just say, “Here’s something that we are trying to accomplish that is separate and apart from just pure creativity.” Just be honest about it and own it. We’re not dumb. We’re not children. If you say, “Listen, we have a problem. We need to keep this budget under blank, which means we have to shoot it over here. And right now we’re concerned that we’re not going to be able to do it that way. So, we have suggestions that will help us get there. And you may not like them, but at least you’ll know why we’re giving them to you. We’re certainly not giving them to you because we think they’re brilliant creative ideas.”
It would go over so much better with us. And we would feel so less, I think, agitated. And then you see we would have I think much more mental capacity to handle the actual creative notes that are honest and organic.
So, to sum, if you are a producer or an executive or an assistant who wants to be a producer or an executive, be aware that we know when you are giving us synthetic notes. Give us synthetic notes and acknowledge they’re synthetic notes. It will really help all of us.
John: I really agree. And I can envision the document sort of being broken into two parts. Like these are the notes that are actually about the script itself and moments in the story that we feel could be better. Opportunities that we think aren’t being paid off. Moments where we are were genuinely confused. Great. Love all of that.
A second part of the note saying like these are things that we need to talk about because we don’t have this in the budget, because this is too similar to this other movie that we’re concerned about. That there’s some other extraneous forces that we need to be looking at here. Great. I get that, too.
Rarely do I see that in notes. And so instead when I get notes, when I get like official printed notes, is a paragraph that says, “We’re so excited. This has so much great possibility. It’s going to be an exciting movie, unlike anything we’ve ever seen. That said, here are our notes.” And then they go on for like seven pages. And they’ll be broken into little sub-heads about things. And they can be better written or worse written, but invariably there’s going to be contradictions. And sometimes the contradictions are called out. They hang a lantern on it like, “We’ll we said we want to see more of this character, we’re concerned that it not distract from the hero.” Basically they’re asking for – I want to see the hat and the elephant in the snake simultaneously.
John: They’re asking for impossible things.
Craig: It’s what Lindsay Doran calls “a close-up with feet.”
John: Absolutely. That’s the best term for it. And those are maddening. So sometimes you’ll get to go in and you’ll sit down with the executive or with the producer and you’ll talk through them. And you can describe honestly like this is what I get, this is what I don’t get. Is there a plan for going ahead?
Another thing I will say that early on as I started out as a writer I loved the notes, because they’re notes. People have read my script. I will do whatever you tell me to do because I want to – not only do I want to please the teacher, I’m terrified I don’t really know what I’m doing so therefore I will just do your notes because you’ve made movies before. And I’ve not made movies. And that’s not a great scenario either.
Craig: No. No it’s not.
John: Again, you always have to be able to think about notes in terms of the context of like what the ultimate product is going to be. And that ultimate product is going to be both a movie you’re seeing on the screen, but also a movie that gets made. And so sometimes you’re balancing what this movie could be in this perfect form on the screen versus this movie actually existing. And it’s a delicate thing and you don’t quite know which side to push on.
Craig: Yeah. I wish that I could teach a class at every studio on how to effectively give notes to screenwriters. Not because I’m trying to help screenwriters, but because I’m trying to help them. I mean, their goal is to influence the work. The way that they do it, generally speaking, it’s not very – there’s a low batting average as far as I’m concerned. First of all the document, the notes document, is generally something I think we can all dismiss. Because I think even internally they’re dismissing it. Part of the reason why is that document is the result of some kind of political brokering process. There are multiple parties at a studio that are at multiple hierarchy levels. And they are all sort of throwing their opinions in. So you can have a situation where one person just keeps harping on something and everyone is like, “Well, none of us agree but that person is slightly above us. Let’s give them that one.”
John: Yeah. Let’s put it in the document even though it doesn’t match any of the other notes in the document.
Craig: Correct. Well, we don’t know that. And, furthermore, you won’t tell us that, understandably. Right? So, that document starts to get silly. Also, that document often gets really granular because just like I think rookie screenwriters try and exert too much control over the process. That’s what I think a lot of newer producers and executives do. They’re trying to control this thing that ultimately cannot by being really granular. Like when you get into these page notes it’s laughable. Page notes literally ignore how movies are made. But there I think is a process that’s incredibly useful, that I find incredibly useful, and that’s the one where we get rid of all the formalities, and I and the producers and the executives just have essentially a therapy session for the screenplay.
We just talk.
And we just listen.
And we see where it is that we really are caring. And we don’t worry so much about trying to treat this thing like it’s a broken radio that just needs a few extra diodes and maybe a piece of wire here. It’s this living, breathing thing. It’s a story about human beings. So let’s just have a therapy session about it. And more often than not, just like in real therapy, the stuff that people were saying is what they wanted isn’t really what they wanted. And then you get to the meat of it. And then you can actually make things better.
John: Yeah, you could. Craig that was probably a very dangerous thing for you to wish because you say you wish we could just like go and teach a class to all the studios about how to give notes. That feels like a thing we could actually do.
Craig: Oh, OK, I’ll do it. I mean, if they are willing to actually sit there and listen to me. Because I actually like good notes, I just want to tell them how to do it better so that they don’t end up with either frustrated, angry, miserable, demotivated, or confused writers.
John: That’s totally a doable thing. Don’t you think? It’s totally a doable thing.
Craig: Well, you know, it’s really up to them, isn’t it?
Craig: Standing offer, folks.
John: All right. Let’s wrap this up and go to our new segment which we call–
Craig: John’s WGA Corner.
John: So today in the Corner, if you are a WGA member you got an email from the WGA that’s talking about the AMBA. You probably never heard of this term before. I hadn’t. But it’s essentially the Agency Minimum Basic Agreement. It is an agreement between the WGA and all of the agencies. And there’s discussion about what the future of that agreement should be. And there are some meetings coming up. So you should go to one of these meetings because it’s actually really important.
So the two that are coming up in the future are March 14 at 7pm at the Sheraton Universal and then Tuesday March 20, 7pm, at the Beverly Hilton. So in the email you go there’s information about how you RSVP for these meetings. But it’s really good if you go. I’m going to be at the one that’s on Saturday, so it will have already passed by the time this episode comes out. But it’s really good. And there’s good information about what’s happening and what the decisions are ahead.
Craig: It’s the new hotness in the Guild. So the old hotness was getting grouchy with the studios. The new hotness is getting grouchy with the agencies. So let’s see where this all goes.
You know, I remain, John, as you know endlessly skeptical of these things, but you know the last negotiations with the companies I thought really shook out some great things. Wouldn’t have done it necessarily the way it was done, but I can’t argue with the results. And so I guess I’m kind of hoping for the same thing here. I’m not sure if I kind of get how this going. But then again me getting how something is going isn’t necessarily the criterion which matters. How about that?
John: Indeed. So if you are in the Craig Mazin camp and are not quite sure what to think of it, these meetings are a good place to start. So, we’ll be telling you more then. If you don’t get to one of these meetings, the only thing I would tell you is that most writers who are represented by agencies have never signed agency papers. Have you ever signed papers for any of your agents?
John: Never. Like 1% of WGA members sign papers with their agencies. If your agency is suddenly like this week or next week says, “Hey, we need you to sign a contract with the agency,” don’t do that. That’s probably not a great idea.
And also I’d be curious if they are asking you to do that. So just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know that, because I’m curious whether that’s going to start happening. Because we could envision a scenario in which a lot of agencies try to make their clients sign longer term agreements with agencies, which would be very unusual.
Craig: It would be. And my guess is that the larger agencies really aren’t going to go through the pain and weird awkwardness of asking their big money earners to sign these contracts because it looks weak. And if your client doesn’t want to be there, they’re leaving. It’s just not worth it. It’s not good for you. The worst possible thing in the world for an agency like CAA or UTA or WME would be to have a high profile client that hates them, doesn’t want to be there, and the agency won’t let them go. I mean, that’s just – that would be a nightmare.
John: Yeah. That would not be good. But other writers might not be in the situation where they can so easily feel like they can leave and so if this does happen, if you get this email or call from your agent, I’m just curious about that. So, just drop me a note at email@example.com.
Craig: I feel like the managers may have people signing things.
John: I think it’s more common with managers.
Craig: I’m not a big manager fan as you know.
John: Yeah. At some point we will have the manager conversation. Most of these writers who I’ve met at these screenwriter meetings have managers.
Craig: I know.
John: And it’s incredible common.
Craig: I hate it.
John: And most of them if you ask them why they have a manager they say it’s so their agent will work harder for them.
Craig: The whole – it’s just – oh man. It’s sort of like, what’s the best way I could think of this? Like if there’s a limited supply of positions. Every single artist requires an agent. So that’s one-to-one. I mean, it’s not really one-to-one because an agent, you have lots and lots. But for every writer, they can only have one agent. They can’t employ two agents or three agents, right? So this business just invented a new term. Here, now you can have two agents, because we just name this one a manager.
Well, why don’t we just have a third one now called a talent coordinator? And that will be your third agent. So I have an agent, a manager, and a talent coordinator. What else can we get in there? I mean, you obviously have a lawyer who does a very specific job. And maybe there’s a fourth thing that we can do so that more and more people can take our money.
John: That would be good. I will say that as I’ve been talking to different screenwriters at lunches and various things, people tend to like their entertainment attorneys who take a 5% commission or charge an hourly fee, and who are – I don’t know. They’re just responsible folks. And at some point I just want to give our entertainment attorneys a big hug because they’ve worked very hard for both me and for you.
Craig: Oh, listen, that’s the biggest scam of all. Is that you’ve got agents taking 10%. You’ve got managers taking 10%. Plus managers producing and getting backend fees. The lawyers are doing almost everything. The lawyers aren’t just writing up these long form contracts. They’re also negotiating the terms.
You know, typically the agent is really saying, “OK, this person wants to talk to you about doing this job. Great. Let’s talk about what the big number is that you’ll get paid. Great. Lawyer, literally do everything else.” Everything. That means it’s the big number, and how the bonuses break out, and blah, blah, and the options and the so-and-sos. The lawyers do so much more and they get half. And believe me, they know. They know they’re getting screwed. But, you know, they’re still doing pretty well.
John: But they’re not getting that big backend money.
Craig: No. Well, in that sense they’re like screenwriters.
Craig: Screenwriters just traditionally in features they’re like you guys don’t get first dollar gross, but dopey director Jim who has done four mediocre films, but he’s a director, he can get that. Why? Why? It makes no sense.
John: Agreed. Yeah. The only thing that makes sense are One Cool Things. Talk us through your One Cool Thing.
Craig: Segue Man! My One Cool Thing this week is a sequel, John.
John: You like the sequels.
Craig: I do. I like the sequels. So, there was a game a while ago that I think we probably had on as a One Cool Thing called Alto’s Adventure.
John: It’s so good.
Craig: Yeah, great little free runner for iOS and probably for that other platform that neither of us care about. And you play a guy skiing down a mountain, or a girl. Actually, you’ve got a guy, a girl, and then a big guy and a big – no, it was actually just one girl. She was the one I liked the most. I liked playing her the most because she had the tightest spin. I like a nice spinning.
So, anyway, love that game. Played it to death. Well, they have a sequel out called Alto’s Odyssey. And instead of you being in the snow, now you’re in a desert. And you’re sandboarding. So it’s a very different environment. But I thought like, OK, you know, so you changed snow to sand, and the graphics are a little updated. Cool, but what else?
They’ve come up with so many other things in this that are so much fun that build beautifully on the platform that was there. Just really very clever. And it’s such a fine line between not enough and too much. And they got it just right I thought. So, the only thing that bothers me is I downloaded it on my iPad. And then I went to my phone because I’ve got it like OK if you do it here it shows up there. And on my phone it wasn’t there.
And they’re going to charge me again. So there are those certain apps where they charge you separately. Because the iPad version I guess is slightly different than the iPhone version.
John: Yeah, sorry.
Craig: Is that a thing?
John: It’s a thing, yeah. So you can have combined bundles where it’s one bundle that can install on either iOS device, but they also have separate iPad versus iPhone versions. It’s the developer’s choice.
Craig: Yeah I don’t like that so much. So that was annoying to me. But, you know, listen, I can pay the $4, or the $5. It’s $5, I think. So, anyway, fun game. Alto’s Odyssey. Check it out.
John: And I did play through the most recent Room, per your recommendation, and it really was terrific. And so no spoilers, it’s basically all inside a creepy Victorian dollhouse and it was delightful.
Craig: It was delightful. I don’t know I would say, I mean delightful, the ending is disturbing.
John: Yeah, but they’re all disturbing endings.
Craig: I know. I love it. I’m so sad that it’s going to be another like two years. John, where is Elder Scrolls 6? What’s going on?
John: I don’t know what’s going on.
Craig: Do you realize Skyrim came out in 2011?
John: Yeah, so last year in France I started playing the up-res version of it, and it’s still just a terrific game. Like the same basic mechanics. It was still just great. But, yeah, I think they’re ready for a new one.
Craig: Yeah, like come on. Come on!
John: My One Cool Thing is simply a song and a video. It is by a band called Superorganism. The song is called “Everybody Wants to Be Famous.” It’s just good. Someone recommended it on Twitter. I listened to it. I’m like, you know what, that’s a really good song. I liked it. And it reminded me a little bit of Rachel Bloom’s version of the Scriptnotes theme where she sings When I Will Be Famous. And this is a whole song that is basically that same vibe.
So, we’re going to play this as our outro this week. So that is the music you hear underneath me as I’m speaking.
Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli.
John: If you have an outro or a question for us, you can write in to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place to send me notice that your agent has started asking you to sign a contract, because I’ll be curious if that happens.
We’re on Facebook. You can search for Scriptnotes Podcast. You can find us at Apple Podcasts. Just look for Scriptnotes. While you’re there you can leave us a review. People leave lovely reviews, so thank you 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, going back all the way to Episode One.
You can hear all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net. It’s $2 a month for all those back episodes. Or we have some of the USB drives that have the first 300 episodes. Those are for sale at store.johnaugust.com.
Craig, on Twitter, is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. And have a really good week.
Craig: You too, John. See you soon.
- Siân Griffiths’ blog post, The only Girl in the Known Universe about Princess Leia
- The Little Prince’s elephant inside a snake, not a hat.
- Alto’s Odyssey
- Everybody Wants to Be Famous by Superorganism
- The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide!
- The USB drives!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Superorganism (send us yours!)
Email us at email@example.com
You can download the episode here.