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 349 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show we’ll be talking about the tools we use to get things written. For me that’s Highland 2, the screenwriting app that is finally coming out of beta. But there’s also outlining and treatments and all the other peripheral things that writers write. We’ll be talking about that. We’ll also be answering questions from the huge stack that have piled up over the past few weeks.
But first, Craig, we have guests for our live show finally.
Craig: Oh, it’s going to be a good one. Now these live shows, these are the ones we do to benefit Hollywood Heart. These tend to be our kind of biggest live shows. These are the live shows where we’ve had our Rian Johnsons. And we’ve had our David Benioff and Dan Weisses. And we’ve had all sorts of big fancy–
John: Our Jason Bateman.
Craig: We got our Jason Batemans for these. And this one, no exception. Maybe honestly our best lineup yet.
John: So what I love about this lineup is they are people doing very different things but also kind of similar things when you think about it. So our guests are Lisa Joy and Jonah Nolan, they are the co-creators and showrunners of Westworld, an HBO show that is fantastic. It’s one of my favorite shows because I am a robot and therefore I am rooting for the robots.
John: But we didn’t stop there. We also invited Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. They are the co-creators and showrunners of The Avengers franchise. So they are the folks who are writing the Captain America movies. They wrote the most recent Avengers movie, upcoming Avengers movie. So, we are going to be talking with all four of them about writing big cinematic stories that take place over multiple episodes that are hugely complicated that have spoilers and secrets. They’re under intense spotlights. I think it’s going to be a great conversation.
Craig: Just to point out that Christopher and Stephen, their movie Avengers: Infinity War I believe had the biggest opening weekend of any movie of all time.
John: Yes. So it is superlative in many senses. And I should stress that we are going to spoil things. So you’re buying a ticket that is three weeks from now, or a little less than three weeks from now when the episode comes out, so you’ve got to see the movie. You’ve got to understand what’s happening on Westworld because we are going to spoil things. So this is not going to be one of those like oh cover your ears. No, no. You are buying this knowing that we are going to spoil things.
Craig: Well, and if you are familiar with the Avengers movies and you’re familiar with Westworld, I’m going to go out on a limb and guarantee something, OK. Even if we have to cut it out of the actual episode that airs for all the poor saps that don’t show up, if you show up one of these folks is going to give you a piece of juicy info that you can’t get anywhere else.
John: Yeah. Right after we finish the show one of these four will pull us aside and say, “Can you please, please, please cut out the part where I said this thing?”
Craig: It’s inevitable. Happens every time.
John: And we will.
Craig: But if you’re there in the audience and remember this benefits kids, and I believe they’re nice children. I don’t think it benefits like jerks.
John: We only let the nice children benefit from these shows.
Craig: And so if you go to Scriptnotes.brownpapertickets.com, you can help these kids and also help yourself. And honestly even if Markus and McFeely hadn’t written the biggest movie of all time, and even if Joy and Nolan hadn’t written this incredible TV show, you would get to see me. Also John will be there. Yeah, no, John will be there.
John: I’ll be there as well. Yes.
Craig: But you’ll get to see me.
John: The show is May 22nd. It is at the ArcLight in Hollywood at 8pm. You cannot buy tickets through the ArcLight. You have to buy them through Scriptnotes.brownpapertickets.com. There’s also some special VIP tickets we found out about, so there’s going to be a little VIP after-party show thing. So if you want that that is a chance to talk with us and get more information about the things that were spoiled in the course of the episode.
Craig: I’m so excited.
John: I’m very, very excited about this. All right, next we have some follow up. So Jack wrote in about default white. Do you want to take what Jack wrote in?
Craig: Sure. Here we go. So he says, “I’ve worked in casting for more than ten years, both inside the company that releases the majority of the casting breakdowns for the industry, and as a casting director. Right now breakdowns are generally prepared in one of two ways. A casting director either submits a fully prepared breakdown ready for release, or production sends the script to the breakdown company where an in-house writer will read it and create the character breakdown which is then sent back for approval.
“If the character does not have a defined race in the script, the role is listed on the breakdown for all ethnicities.”
John: So this is a topic that Christina Hodson and I got into on Episode 346 which is basically how much should the screenwriter be defining who those characters are in the script so that the breakdown comes out the way you want it to. So, let’s continue with what Jack says.
Craig: So Jack says, “Once the breakdown is released, agents and actors begin submitting. The casting director will receive an overwhelming number of white submissions for ‘all ethnicity roles.’ Part of the reason is because the database of actors is primarily white. Another part of the reason is that agents will always submit their ‘best’ first. That’s defined as the people who will make them the most money. These actors have historically been white. And, finally, casting directors will reach out to actors they know and trust first, again mostly white.
“So if the role is ‘all ethnicities,’ chances are very good that a white person will be hired. There is no conspiracy here. No effort to deny anybody anything. It’s just people doing what is familiar and easy. I understand that it is uncomfortable to define race. If you select one race you are eliminating all others, including white, and that’s not fair. But the reality is that the odds are stacked against people of color. That’s not an opinion. It’s a numerical fact.
“If, however, a writer defines a character as Asian, agents will submit Asian talent. Casting directors will audition Asian talent. Producers will hire Asian talent. It’s that simple. Those best lists will start to change as more people of color are hired. If you cannot bring yourself to define your lead roles, please consider at least defining your day players. Describing that under-five lines’ Chatty Waitress as Asian will make a difference. And why not throw in Over 40 while you’re at it.
“There’s a Japanese actor who hasn’t had an audition all month who will thank you.”
All right, well that’s a pretty good summary there. What do you think about all that, John?
John: I thought it was great. So first off, we have fantastic listeners. So, Jack, thank you for writing in with that because that is a perspective we wouldn’t have known. So, telling us basically how breakdowns are happening and urging us as writers to just be more explicit on race because it does actually make a difference.
Now sometimes I’ll say that if we define a race in a script we can get called out for it. Basically like why are you being so specific? This gives us some ammunition on our side for why it is useful to be so specific for races in scripts because it’s going to help change things a bit.
Craig: Yeah. There’s another axis that I want to bring up just because it often gets overshadowed in the discussion about race and gender. We have something like 108 speaking parts in Chernobyl. There’s a lot. And everybody – every character – is a citizen of the Soviet Union from one of the many various republics, but primarily we’re talking about Ukrainians and Russians and Belarusians. And because we’re casting out of the UK and Scandinavia, one of the inherent biases in casting came up immediately. And that was that actors tend to be really good-looking. So when we talk about sort of historical biases, actors – both men and women – tend to be people that are attractive, they have facial symmetry, they have good hair. They don’t have – well, the quirkier facial features that you see in what we’ll call just regular people. And, of course, they are typically in good shape.
And for us we thought a lot of this is about having believable people as part of this cast. And that doesn’t mean that we’re saying we wanted a cast of people that are not attractive. It’s not about that. But it’s rather we want a spectrum of people and we’re not going to allow traditional facial attraction be our definition of what attractive is. Nor are we going to limit ourselves to certain body types. So I think as we’re writing and we’re listening to people like Jack telling us how this actually works, how the food is cooked in the kitchen so to speak, to think about body type as well and facial types. Even things like hair and hair color. All these things – anything to kind of add some flavor and get yourself out of a lot of these default positions.
You know, if we kind of come up with a bunch of defaults, let’s start pushing against them where we think it will help us out and, I don’t know, set us apart a little bit.
John: Yeah. Another way to sort of reach beyond sort of the usual people that we’re always seeing for these kind of things might be to early on bring in some folks who are interesting for a project. I’m really more talking for the writer-directors out there. But Mike Birbiglia when he was doing his movies he does these table readings – not even table readings, just like sit around in his apartment reading through the script. And it’s a useful process for him to hear his script and figure it out. But I think it’s also useful for getting a sense of what if we tried to mix things up. What if I tried some different people in these roles? What if I consider this actor who sort of seems like a reach or a stretch for this, but I can see what they can actually bring to that role?
This last week I was at a table reading for Alan Yang’s new script. And he brought in these actors who were fantastic. And it was a chance for them all to sort of hear each other and for everyone in the room to sort of experience these actors. And I made notes of some of these actors who I never would have encountered before. And like, wow, I want to write something for that person because they are great.
So, just reaching out and broadening past the first instinct on casting can be a great thing. And that can start by what you’re specifically saying about that character in the script.
Craig: No question. By the way, funny, I went to one of those readings in Mike Birbiglia’s place and one of the roles was being read by this lovely gentleman, he was an older guy, and he seemed familiar to me and his voice seemed familiar. But I don’t think he’s an actor, so I think he might just be a friend. But he did such a good job and I just thought, “Wow, Mike Birbiglia is so lucky that he just has a friend who is like a 65-year-old guy who is just really good at being a guy at a table read.” And then afterwards I found out it was Frank Oz. [laughs]
John: [laughs] That’s awesome.
Craig: Because I didn’t know exactly what Frank Oz looked like. You know, I know what he sounds like. I know that he’s Miss Piggy and that he’s Yoda and Grover. And obviously he’s a wonderful filmmaker, an amazing filmmaker. And I was just like “This guy is so great. I wonder who he is. Oh, he’s Frank Oz, one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.”
And another interesting story like the one you were just describing with Alan’s table reading was a table reading that we had all the way back in 2003 for Scary Movie 3. And when you are pretty early on and you’re still casting a lot of times casting agents will help you fill your round table by bringing in actors that are just there to read for the roundtable. That’s it. And this young actor that no one had ever heard of named Kevin Hart showed up. And we thought Kevin was just the funniest guy. And I was like let’s just make him – this guy is him. Let’s just keep writing it for him. And so we cast him in Scary Movie 3, and in Scary Movie 4, and in Superhero Movie. He’s just great.
And it was all because he just was sort of a fill in guy in 2003 at a table reading.
John: Yeah. I think what’s nice about table readings is the stakes are just lower. Because if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and the world doesn’t come crashing to an end. And it’s a chance to experiment and play a bit. And so I always wonder about sort of you don’t want actors to be exploited by being brought in for table reads where they’re not actually going to be able to land that part maybe. But what you described with Kevin Hart is a great example of you got to know who he was just because of that table reading. And that’s a great bit of exposure.
Craig: And they’re aware of the deal. They are told, listen they’re not offering you this part. This is just a show up for the day, make a few hundred bucks, get some exposure in front of some people that are making movies, and that’s it. No promises beyond that. And it’s not surprising to me that Kevin did that because he is just, I know from my own work with him but also just watching him do everything since, he’s like one of those guys that fits the hardest working man in show business category. He never stops. He’s just amazing that way.
So, that’s all pretty great. Just, you know, as people go through this and they’re writing their scripts if they can just think about – I love what Jack said about day players, too. It’s not just the big parts. That you have these roles where people run into a waiter, or a bus driver, or a delivery person and the default is going to be, oh, that’s an incredibly handsome or beautiful waiter or delivery person. But then it almost weirdly takes you out of things. I mean, Hollywood distorts the way people actually look. People don’t look like they do in movies. At all. They look how they look. You know? So what’s wrong with kind of edging back towards that reality? I like that.
John: It’s a nice thing.
Our final little bit of follow up on race and ethnicity is you had talked in a previous episode that you and Megan Amram are distant cousins. You found out through 23andMe. I just got my 23andMe back. So we just checked to see whether we are related and sadly we are not.
Craig: Well, I mean, to start with I’m an organic life form.
John: That’s true.
Craig: It was not likely.
John: It was going to be a reach. It would be a surprise.
Craig: It would have been a real shock. Also I’m Jew-y as hell. And you are not.
John: I’m not. So I’m 100% European and British and Irish and French and German. We are on different Haplogroups coming out of Africa. And I am slightly more Neanderthal than you are. That’s sort of a surprise.
Craig: I like that. I like that you’re slightly more Neanderthal. I feel that. I got to be honest with you. I sense sometimes there’s a certain kind of club you on the head rage just lurking behind your eyes. I am also 100% European, like you. I am 98% Ashkenazi Jewish. That is incredibly Jewish. That is almost like a weaponized level of Judaism.
I am 0.6% random Eastern European. So perhaps a Lithuanian in my past. And then I love this 1.1% broadly European, so from everywhere. And then 0.1% Finnish.
John: Oh nice.
Craig: Oh I like that.
John: I love that Finnish is so specific. Yes.
Craig: It is. The Finnish language is very specific. Related to the Estonian language, interestingly enough. But I like that I’m just a little bit Finnish.
John: Mm-hmm. Nice.
John: So I sent through my 23andMe kit a couple weeks ago and in the meantime they caught the Golden State Killer basically using this genetic information, which does give me some pause about like, “Oh, yeah, that’s right. Now my genetic information is in a database someplace and they’ll be able to track me down when I do something horrible.” Or not something horrible. That information could be used in ways that I would not like. So that does give me some pause now.
Craig: You know, I realize now at my age, and you and I are basically the same age, that our time for doing terrible things is essentially over. I think we would have been doing them, right?
John: I could have been doing them the whole time and just blacked them out.
Craig: There’s no maybe about that. That’s for sure.
John: People are either going to be nodding along or slightly horrified. Sometimes when you hear about a murder do you ever get that little moment like, “Wait, did I do that?”
Craig: Oh no. No, John. I don’t. And nobody does except for murderers. I am one of the people that is just starring in horror right now at my own microphone. [laughs] Because you hear about murders and go, “Oh, was that one of mine? Did I do that one?”
John: Yeah. Did I do that one? No.
John: For the record I have committed no murders that I’m aware of. But I always do wonder what if I’m that character in a movie who has no idea that they’re actually the villain?
Craig: If I am that character my villainy is definitely sort of like petty nonsense. Removing the tags from furniture before it is sold. That kind of thing.
John: I have seen you sneaking into bedding stores and cutting off those tags.
Craig: Oh, that just sent a frisson down my spine in delight.
John: Let’s get back to our Neanderthal things because I am a toolmaker and I have a tool that–
Craig: Segue Man.
John: Yes. That just came out – well, this week it’s coming out. So it may be out by the time this episode drops. It might be out Thursday of the week this drops. But for the last three years we’ve been working on a sequel to Highland, the screenwriting app my company makes. Highland 2 is still a screenwriting app, but it also does a lot more things. It’s what I wrote both Arlo Finch books in. It’s what I wrote Aladdin in. It’s pretty much the only thing that’s ever open all the time on my computer.
And it’s finally available for people to use and download. And so I want to talk a little bit about that and sort of why I built it and why I love it. But more generally sort of like what stuff we actually use to get things written. Because you’ve talked on the program about Fade In which is your preferred screenwriting app. But I’ve never actually asked you what do you use to write treatments and outlines and the peripheral documents that you’re doing for things like Chernobyl. What are you using for that?
Craig: It’s a little embarrassing, but I use Word.
John: Oh my.
Craig: I know. And the thing is I know I don’t have to. I’ve got Pages for instance which is the Apple version. It’s just become this sort of thing. And especially now, I’m such an idiot because I’m on the stupid Office 365 thing now where now I’m apparently renting software and I can’t even buy it. But when I do treatments and like the show bible for Chernobyl, I did it in Word. Possibly just because I have some sort of blah-de-blah kind of familiarity with it. And unfortunately I do get a ton of stuff in .docx format. I presume that these other applications open .docx files with ease. But, you know, then you’ve got to export it back out I guess for other people. So that part’s annoying.
John: Yeah. So I would say Word is sort of the default. I mean, sort of like we talked about casting default white, it’s sort of default Word. So for things that aren’t a screenplay it becomes sort of default Word. And even for Arlo Finch I turn in all my early drafts as PDFs and I get notes back on the PDF. But at a certain point it goes into copy editing and I have to turn in the book in Word. And it’s just so horrifying because a thing I hadn’t really realized until these last two passes on Arlo Finch and having to convert the document is Word is really slow. Word is really slow at long documents. Not even just converting it, but actually opening it and scrolling through it, it lags even on a fast machine.
John: I’ll put a link to the video. I did in a speed test I downloaded from Project Gutenberg the text of War and Peace. And I opened them in Word, iaWriter which is a plain text editor, Pages, and in Highland 2. How long do you think it would take to open War and Peace in Word? Just a plain text document.
Craig: Um, what’s my benchmark here? A MacBook Pro?
John: A recent iMac desktop computer.
Craig: That’s a pretty good computer. Well, just knowing the way it is with all the dumb baloney it has that you never use, I’m going to say it takes eight seconds.
John: It took six minutes and ten seconds.
Craig: Wait, what?
John: There’s a link here in the video for it. It took so long that I actually ended up putting a little marker in the video so people can speed through to where it gets done. It’s crazy.
Craig: That’s insane.
John: So Pages took 47 seconds. iaWriter takes a minute ten. Highland opens in less than eight seconds. And that’s what it should be.
John: I mean, it’s just text. It should just be able to speed through it. And that’s – and Arlo Finch is only 80,000 words, but when you deal with big documents you realize like, man, that is just brutally slow.
Craig: It is brutally slow.
John: It’s just not a good way to work.
Craig: I presume it’s because Microsoft Word is bloatware. I mean, it’s the definition of bloatware. It’s essentially offering you every possible freaking thing that you would ever theoretically need and then some. And so it’s got to chug all the text into its own proprietary burdened/over-burdened document format with all of the metadata that it’s generating.
I mean, Microsoft Word is – I find it useful when I’m dealing with tracking.
John: That’s the only reason why we have to do the Arlo Finch last changes in it, because it has this track changes and the copy editor will change things and I’ll say yes or I’ll rewrite them or I’ll stet them. And that’s a process, but brutal. Just brutal.
Craig: Yeah. Wow. That’s really freaking long. So maybe I should get Highland 2. And how much does that cost, John?
John: Highland 2 is a free download.
John: And if you like it then it’s a $49 in-app purchase to unlock everything, or $29 for the first week. So it is a much cheaper application. And it’s a one-time purchase. It’s not rental.
Craig: So if I buy it today it’s $30.
John: If you buy it today it’s $30.
Craig: I’m buying it right now. It is on the store?
John: It will be on the Mac App Store.
Craig: It is on the App Store right now? It is available now?
John: Not as we’re recording this, but it will be either by the time the episode comes out or afterwards. But I sent you an unlocked version. So you already have it.
Craig: Oh. I should really go through my emails.
John: We talked in the episode before on conflict of interest, and this is so clearly I need to disclose a conflict of interest because I’m talking about this thing that I love but also I’m the company that makes it and profits from it. So, full conflict of interest disclaimers here. But I want to talk about why the app is the way it is because it’s just basically I wanted the app a certain way and it’s very particular to sort of my taste in how things should be. But there are also just tools in there that were useful for me.
So, here’s an example. Craig, as you’re working through stuff if you have things you want to cut but you want to hold on to what do you do with those things? Like a scene or a line of dialogue?
Craig: Sure. So I used to take that scene or dialogue, open a new file, for instance in Fade In, and then dump it into a new file, retitle that something, some descriptive word, and snip it and keep it in the same folder. But now Fade In, because I asked Kent to do it and he just did it because he’s a cool guy. Now there’s this kind of versioning alt system where I can create an Alt within the document itself, and so it’s holding it there.
John: So you’re just doing that for dialogue or you’re doing alts for like a scene?
Craig: I can do it for anything. But yeah, if there’s a scene that I’m like oh, you know what, this doesn’t belong in this episode anymore. I’ll just kind of alt it out. So it’s in there but it’s not visible or printable. I have options but that’s kind of what I do.
John: So for me I was always frustrated that when you use video editing software you have a bin where you can just throw all the little clips and bits and bobs and stuff. And so we added that for Highland 2.
John: So you can take any bit of text and just drag it over to the side and it sticks in a bin. And it holds there. So it’s useful for those things you want to hold onto, but it’s also good when you need to rearrange a lot of stuff. Because I’m sure you’ve been in situations where you have to move this scene and this scene and that scene and the copying and pasting of it all becomes quite ornate, because you have to remember what is going where, where are things.
So this way you can just drag that scene over to the bin, then move it and drag it back out where you want to do it. So it’s useful for sort of the rearranging function as well.
Craig: I like that. Here’s the truth. There are times in my life where I suddenly go, “Oh my god, if I don’t break out of this rut of some tool, like Microsoft Word, I’m just going to become the annoying person for my kids when they’re an adult.” Like I had to get my mother-in-law off of AOL. And I failed.
But, yeah, I don’t want Jack and Jessie to be like, “Oh god, Dad still uses Microsoft Word. It’s embarrassing.” So maybe I’m just going to switch over and use Highland for like–
John: Yeah, use it for that stuff first. And then if you like it for that stuff you might try writing some scenes in Highland. See if you like how it feels for that. Because it’s just very different underneath your fingers.
Craig: Now I’m very dizzy.
John: So two other tools which I think you might find useful, even if you’re not using it fulltime. Highland’s sort of big marquee feature when we first launched it, version 1.0, was that you can take a screenplay PDF, drag it onto Highland, and it will basically melt the PDF down and give you an editable script.
And so since we did that, I think Fade In can do that.
John: Final Draft still can’t do it. We’re still the best, and I’ll say that pretty confidently, because between Highland and Weekend Read we just do it a lot. So we just have a much bigger database of how to work through those scripts and so our algorithms are just sort of tighter on that.
But a thing we added for this most recent version, which is also fun for people to play with, is gender analysis. And so you can take a script you’re working on, a Final Draft script, a PDF, anything and throw it on Highland and underneath Tools there’s a new tool called Gender Analysis. And so it goes through your script, it takes a look at all the characters. You can flag them whether they are male/female/or undefined. And it will give you a chart showing the breakdown of the dialogue in the script, who has the lines, whether two female characters are interacting with each other in any scenes.
Craig: Ah, the Bechdel Test section.
John: Yes. And so it gives you a quick look at sort of what that is. So two scripts I looked at recently, first was La La Land. And so where do you think the breakdown is going to be for La La Land? Do you think it’s going to be equal male/female? What are you guessing?
Craig: I’m going to say that La La Land edged toward female.
John: You are correct. So character wise, La La Land has 20 male characters, 11 female characters. I left ten unspecified. These are people like waiter or things that are just not necessarily clear or it doesn’t have to be one way or the other. But in the actual dialogue spoken it was basically even. Men had 49% of the lines, women had 48% of the lines. When you actually look at words spoken, which Highland can also track, it’s exactly equal. So 49%/49%. That’s a pretty useful thing.
If you take a look at Thor, 2011 Thor, what would you guess the split is there?
Craig: It’s going to be weighted quite male.
John: Yeah. You are correct. 70% of the lines spoken are by men. So even though there’s two female characters – well, there’s more than two – but there’s two principal female characters in Thor, it’s Thor and he does most of the speaking.
Craig: Oh, god, wait until you run Chernobyl through this thing.
John: Well, you can.
Craig: Well, I could tell you what the answer is. I mean, we’re talking about a situation in a male-dominated society in a power plant full of men and an army full of men. We’ve tried to put women everywhere we can. We really have. We’ve made the best of what we can. We’re also like weirdly by definition the whitest show that’s ever existed because they were all white.
But what I really like about this is in a sense the value that you’re providing with this feature may be in the use of the feature rather than the output of the feature. Just having to do it forces you to think about it and you might even start changing things before you even do it just because you kind of know what you’re in for if you haven’t really, you know, kind of thought it through right.
John: Yeah. So I wanted it to be sort of not a scolding kind of thing but actually a tool you can use along the way. So because you can click and change a character from male to female you can say like, “Well, what if I took this character and made it female. Oh, that actually does balance things out a lot more.” Or if you see that the chart is just wildly off and it doesn’t feel like you’re making a Chernobyl where it’s very difficult to adjust those things you might say, “Oh, this is a thing I could do to get you through this.”
This all came from, you know, over the past year there have been these big studies of going back through past scripts and you talk to them about how they actually did it and they were going through and hand-coding all this stuff to figure out whether things are male or female and counting lines individually. That’s something computers should do.
John: So we’re doing it.
John: Excellent. What are you using for outlining or do you outline?
Craig: I do. Oh, yes.
John: I started using Workflowy for some outlining stuff, but what are you using for outlines?
Craig: Microsoft Word. [laughs] Well, so–
John: All right.
Craig: Again, one of the things I actually like about Microsoft Word is when I’m doing a proper outline it does have a very simple kind of scheme to roman numeral to number one to letter to little roman numeral. It kind of does that for you. And it does that well with tab and return.
And then sometimes I might make an outline where I just go Act One, and then it’s 1….and then the next 2. And it does lists automatically. And if I go back and stick something between 2 and 3 it knows to bump everything down. So things like that kind of make it easy so that’s what I do for that stuff.
John: Yeah. I’ve started using Workflowy which is what we use for our podcast outlines. For some of that stuff and also just making lists of these are the things I need to make sure I fix in this next pass of Arlo Finch.
John: I like it. I don’t love it. It’s not my sort of most favorite tool. So I think I’m still looking for an outliner. Inevitably I’ll probably have the company build it for me, but I’m still looking for a thing I really like for that.
Craig: Put Nima to work, you know? He’s just sitting around with nothing to do. Let’s go, Nima.
John: Absolutely. A thing we haven’t talked about at all so far is Final Draft. So, if you want to hear the history of John and Craig and Final Draft you can go back to the one with the episode, the one with the guys from Final Draft.
I had to use Final Draft this past year for – I did a small little rewrite on a superhero movie that was in production. And so there was no getting out of just dealing with the Final Draft file they sent. And so I could have converted it and like, nope, it was going to make everything much worse if I tried. So, I did it in Final Draft with revisions on. It reminded me of why Final Draft is so maddening.
Craig: So bad.
John: To try to move stuff around, it was just not a good experience.
Craig: Ugh, the worst. I just went through it myself. I was rewriting something. The director had written a draft and was asking me to do a new draft. And I just needed to stay in Final Draft for them. And, first of all, you feel like you’re going back in time.
Craig: For sure. There were moments where I would delete something, or I would say, “Oh you know what I’m going to do, I’m going to take this line of dialogue here. It’s the second sentence of this dialogue block and I’m going to actually add it in front of the first sentence of this” and it thinks, “Oh, you’re trying to make a character name that’s 14 words long.” And I’m like, what? Why would you think that’s what I want to do? Why would you think that? Who adds things onto a character’s name with cut and paste? It’s the dumbest – oh god.
John: Yeah. So in general I find trying – after working in Highland I get really frustrated sort of going back to that stuff because it is – every line has a definition of like what it is and you’ve had to declare like this is a character name, this is dialogue. And it’s not doing any logic about what could you actually be intending here.
John: And that just gets really frustrating. And sometimes trying to delete across things gets to be hard because–
Craig: The worst.
John: Because you’re in different spaces. Or you get stuck in a parenthetical.
Craig: Oh, that’s another thing. You delete a bunch of stuff and then it just changes the format of what comes next. Why would it do that? Why would any – oh my god! What’s wrong with you, Final Draft? Why do you do that?
John: Yeah. It is maddening. And so these are some of the reasons I made Highland 2. If you want to see it and download it it’s for the Mac. It should be on the Mac App Store this week as we are recording this. So, I hope people enjoy it.
Craig: I think that’s fantastic. And I have just downloaded – now I have the beta. But, you know what John? I’m kind of beta. I’m OK with it.
John: [laughs] I’ll get you a magic unlock code so you can get the full power version. I will say one last thing about pricing on it is that we were trying to figure out what to price it at. And so the reason why we went from $30 to free because I wanted just a lot of people to be able to use it and try it. And we always had problems where like schools would say, “Oh hey, we want to install it on all of our school computers.” And then it was like, ugh, like we couldn’t find – you had to make a special version for them. It just got to be a whole deal.
So I wanted students to be able to use it for free. It prints a little watermark saying Made in Highland, but otherwise it’s the full app. So I wanted people to be able to try it.
John: So we’re going broad.
Craig: Well, I’m rooting for you.
John: All right. Let’s do some questions. Noah writes, “I’ve just been reading William Goldman’s screenplays lately and it’s hard not to take note of his formatting, in particular how he writes his scene headings. He doesn’t use INT or EXT, nor does he use day or night. Just whomever or whatever he’s directing the camera to focus on. It’s aggravating when I think about the times I’ve been instructed how to properly format while writing and then see Mr. Goldman’s work.
“There’s even a spot in Princess Bride where a scene heading is Something We Hadn’t Expected, on page 64. When I read that I laughed and swore out loud. But honestly what’s an aspiring writer to do when he’s trying to get the form right and yet he reads that?”
Craig: Here’s the truth. Noah, if you write like William Goldman then you just write whatever you want. William Goldman, I suspect when he was writing, as we sometimes write as like service people, you know, so you and I will be hired to help on something and then like we were using Final Draft because that’s what the production was using. When you help you stay in their format. I don’t think William Goldman was unaware of the format. But when William Goldman is adapting his own novel, The Princess Bride, into a screenplay The Princess Bride, he can write whatever the hell he wants.
And it’s also a different situation. That’s a situation where it’s sort of like, “Hey, let’s all make a movie together with this incredibly highly accomplished screenwriter adapting his own novel.” It doesn’t matter. And the truth is none of it really matters anyway. Even if you’re not William Goldman, you’re not adapting your own famous novel, and you haven’t written anything, if you write some amazing – if I just pick up your script, I open the first page, and the first three lines are gorgeous, I don’t care. In fact, at that point if you’ve just decided to reinvent the format entirely what do I care? The most important thing is as I’m reading it I have to ask this question: can I shoot this? Right?
And if you can shoot it, then it works. Something we hadn’t expected is shootable. It’s actually really interesting information. You and I say this stuff until we’re blue in the face and it doesn’t really matter. We are essentially just howling at the moon because there are a million people out there who undo the work that we do on a daily basis. Go, John, just wander over to Reddit screenwriting and witness the weekly conversation about how no one should ever write “we see”. It just blows my mind and there’s nothing we can do to stop it except to just say to those of you out there willing to come along in faith and trust us, this stuff is not that important. OK? It’s just not
If you’re writing a screenplay, probably you’re going to want to stay in the format that everybody is comfortable with. But if you want to experiment a little, or if you want to just pick a moment, a sequence in your screenplay where something wild is happening and you want to unmoor yourself from this stuff, go for it. Be creative. Have some fun for god’s sakes. This is a dumb format invented for stupid typewriters in 1920. You know what I mean? Whatever. Go nuts.
John: Yeah. So I would say what is important about the standard formatting is there’s just an expectation. And it’s simple and it’s clean and people sort of get it. And so the degree to which you can just stay in the format that everyone already gets, basically it’s free. Like INT and EXT and all that stuff just come for free and people don’t even notice it anymore, which is useful. So as long as you’re just doing the stuff that nobody notices they’ll actually read your words.
If you are doing something that’s really weird and strangely formatted and it doesn’t seem like you know what you’re doing and you don’t seem confident and it doesn’t seem like this is going to be worth their time, that’s when you have a problem if you’re doing strange formatting stuff. So just write brilliantly and then your formatting just won’t matter as much.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, look, 99% of people are going to write a bad screenplay and then it doesn’t matter if it’s properly formatted or not. And 1% are going to write to write a great screenplay and it doesn’t matter if it’s properly formatted or not. That’s basically my attitude about this.
John: Do you want to take a question from Lee?
Craig: Yeah. Sure. Lee writes, “I wrote a dark comedy horror. A guy, someone I know at a management company, liked it and thought it worked as a sample for a director who wants a co-writer on a project he’s already got sketched out. I had a call yesterday. The director is sending a beat sheet my way next week. Question number one: any advice on how to write a draft from someone else’s beat sheet?
“Question number two: they also like the piece I originally sent and seemed like they may be interested putting that together, too, if I can deliver on this one. Any general advice for a person in my situation? I want to take full advantage of this opportunity.
“And, question number three: what should I look out for misstep or danger wise?”
John, we’ve got one, two, three. What’s your answer for Lee?
John: My answer for Lee is that the thing that you’re thinking about doing with the director, great. And go with god and try to basically sit down with that person, figure out if there is a common vision for this movie that you’d be writing I guess together. He’s already got this beat sheet. If you agree with the approach of the movie that probably goes beyond just what this beat sheet is, I say go for it. You don’t have a lot to lose from working with somebody who probably already has some stuff happening.
In terms of this management company may want to represent you on this script, that’s great. And so I would just say let that be a separate thread of your relationship with this management company and this manager. They may not be signing you right away as this whole process begins, but get their honest feedback to see if you could work with them as a management company. And let those two things sort of go separately.
A question will naturally come up like if you do decide to write this thing with the director are you guys just working on this together? Is this your joint project? Is that person hiring you? That you’re going to have to figure out. But it’s not quite clear yet how real any of these things are.
Craig: Well, yes. So it says that the director wants a cowriter on a project he’s already got sketched out. So, with that in mind I think one thing to look out for, Lee, is you’ve received a beat sheet, but a beat sheet is not tablets from the top of Mount Sinai. It’s a beat sheet. And if you’re going to be a cowriter, you’re a cowriter. That means you’re an equal writer. And that means you don’t have to go down this path if you don’t quite get it.
It’s fair to say, “OK, I’ve read your beat sheet. Let’s just have some conversations. Let’s start talking about this. If we’re going to write together, let’s feel these things out. And let me tell you what I’m loving. And then I have a bunch of questions I want to ask.” That’s the way I always pose, by the way, I don’t talk about problems. I talk about questions. And sort of take that beat sheet and make a new beat sheet that is instead of His, Ours.
And then talk about how the writing is going to work before the writing happens. How does he see that happening? You do ten, I do ten, we swap? Or we sit in a room together? Here’s what you don’t want. “Oh, you’ll write a first draft and I’ll just come and sprinkle some of my magic dust on it.” That’s not actually co-writing.
John: That’s not writing, yeah.
Craig: That’s something else. So if that’s a situation then it’s story by the two of you, screenplay by you, directed by him. So these are things that are just good to work out. Do not rely on the manager to advocate for you here. If the manager is representing the director then the manager will advocate for the director. You’re going to have to advocate for yourself. Gently, but firmly.
John: Yep. And good luck. Again, let us know a year from now what’s happened with this. I’m really curious what happens next.
John: Nick writes, “I recently finished the first episode of a TV show I’m writing. When I started the second episode I realized I didn’t know if I needed to re-highlight or capitalize the name of the first appearance of already established characters from the first episode in the second episode. Is this something I need to do or can I just leave them un-highlighted or un-capitalized?”
Craig, what would you do? What are you doing in Chernobyl? In Episode two, the first time we see one of those recurring characters are you upper-casing his name?
Craig: No. I uppercase the name just the first time we see them in the first episode. I don’t re-uppercase because it just seems silly. But, you could. I don’t think it would be – I mean, in the end what we’re really talking about is one instance of capitalizing, so do it or don’t do it. Generally speaking, no one is going to read the second episode if they didn’t like the first, which means they’ve seen this character and they read about them. No one is going to pick up the second one without reading the first. So there’s no concern there.
Hey, you know something I didn’t know, John? I’ve learned so many things about television all at once because I had to. So, they asked me to number the scripts. Obviously this is quite some time ago. Put scene numbers on. And so I put scene numbers on each script and we had this for all. And then eventually when we had our first AD on he said, “You know, we generally start like in episode three the first scene is scene 301, not 1.” Well, I didn’t know that.
John: That would make sense.
Craig: I did not know that. And it’s a very simple thing to do in any normal screenwriting program. But it’s so useful. And like, duh. I didn’t know. Silly me.
John: So even if you end up moving a scene from one episode to another episode, like that scene 302 might end up in episode two for some reason in post, but it was 302. That makes a lot of sense.
I have two things I want to address with Nick’s question here. So, first off, I want to distinguish the type [unintelligible] he wants to distinguish between capitalization and uppercase. Capitalization is the first letter of a word being capitalized. So you can say “all caps,” but really uppercase would be the better way to describe when everything is the capital letters.
Uppercase of course comes from typography where in old middle type there were two cases, the case above, the case below. The case above had all the uppercase letters. The case below had all the lowercase letters. The capitals and the lowercase. I just think it’s neat that it was actually a physical case.
In terms of uppercasing the names in that script, I bet different series do different things. And I can imagine some series, their house rules are that the first time a character appears in any given episode you uppercase it so you know that’s the first time we’re seeing that character. I bet other shows don’t do it all, more like what Craig is doing with Chernobyl.
Craig: Yeah. In the end – you’ll be fine, Nick. Don’t you worry.
Oh, Colin O’Connor tweets – oh, I like this, he’s tweeting. “Do you have good advice for interesting characters who are onscreen but not important yet? How about intro-ing during a heavy action scene when a character is important but you don’t want to take a break from the urgency of the scene?”
All right, so you get what he’s going for here, John, right?
John: Absolutely. So basically you’re trying to plant some sort of flag saying like pay attention but not too much attention to this character because we’re going to come back to this person later. Sometimes you’ll end up saying kind of that. Where it’s just like obviously you’re uppercasing their name because it’s the first time we’re seeing them. I would give the quick description and like, comma, becomes important later. Just because you want to clue into the reader like this is the first appearance of that character and it’s helpful if you remember that he existed there.
The scene in which the character is actually doing something important, you may want to actually then do the bigger description of who that person is if you didn’t want to break the flow of the action beat for example to put in a real character description of that person.
Craig: Absolutely. There’s a character at the end of episode four that we meet in the middle of just the final bits of that episode. And there’s no dialogue or anything. We’re just moving around, sort of a montage of different people and different places and we haven’t seen him before. And he’s going to be a big part of episode five. I’m sorry, it’s the end of three, he’s going to be a big part of episode four. And I just write here’s a young man, he’s 21, and then in parentheses “we will see him again.” That’s all.
Craig: And then we do. So that’s all. You know, in general, I have to say folks not that – we love all these questions. We love all questions. But you know just general common sense in a weird way. Not that you guys don’t have common sense. I think you do. I think the problem is so many of you are scared of your own common sense because the screenwriting amateur net has freaked you out that you are running through some sort of minefield and your script is going to explode in your face and shrapnel everywhere if you miscapitalize or don’t introduce somebody. It’s not like that at all.
In general, I think you should take some good deep breaths. These things will never kill you. Never.
John: Yep. Our final question comes from Josh in Seattle. He says, “I’m reading the script for Logan in Weekend Read and I’m curious if there’s a term for the establishing material that writers insert on page two after the first instance of violence. Here’s the quote, ‘Now might be a good time to talk about the ‘fights’ described in the next 100 or so pages. Basically, if you want a hyper-choreographed gravity-defying, city block destroying CG F-athon, this isn’t your movie. In this flick people will get hurt or killed when shit falls on them. They will get just as hurt or just as killed if they get hit with something big and heavy like say a car. Should anyone in our story have the misfortune to fall off a roof or out a window, they won’t bounce. They will die.’
“I’ve never encountered this type of contextual prose in a script but I really liked it when I read it. Can a first-time screenwriter get away with this type of technique in a screenplay? Are you aware of other examples of this type of creative license?”
Craig: No, you can’t. I forgot to mention this is the one mine that if you step on this you will explode. Your family will die. Your pets will drown. Even if they’re not near water. And children all over the world will have nightmares.
You can do whatever – ugh. So, there’s a paragraph that I did like this for Cowboy, Ninja, Viking because it’s a weird concept and you have to explain the cinematic language of what’s going on. When I call the character this, when I call the character this, this is what you’re seeing, this is what you’re feeling. It’s just description. It’s like an aside, essentially.
In journalism sometimes you’ll see a parenthesis and then N.B. for nota bene, meaning here’s a note from the author to you on how to read this. You can do that. I tend to put these things in all italics to discriminate between onscreen action and, oh, I’m talking to you.
Let me rephrase your question, Josh, so I can give you a different answer. Can a first-time screenwriter get away with blank? The answer to you is yes.
Craig: Put anything you want in the blank.
John: 100% yes.
Craig: That is legal. That does not violate laws. Yes.
John: Nice. All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing came out of a sort of YouTube hole I fell down in. I’m doing some research for a period movie I may be working on. My first period movie, actually. I’m not a big period movie person. But this thing that I might be working on takes place in the ‘50s. And so I was looking at a bunch of ‘50s videos and I came across this video called Welcome to Southern California.
It is produced by the Santa Fe Railroad. It is a tourism video about how great Southern California is. And I’m going to play one little clip here because I found it absolutely fascinating.
So I find this pronunciation of the city I live in, Los Angeles, I pronounce this Los Angeles. And it’s like who is this person talking? And then as you do more research you realize like, oh, that actually was a very common pronunciation of the city at the time. And so obviously this is a Spanish name. It’s been converted a bunch of different times. We’ve finally come to a consensus that it’s Los Angeles. But at this time there was a real controversy over how to pronounce the city. And the pronunciation in this video, which is Los Angle-ease was really common. And it’s just really strange that a city that I’ve lived in all this time is that way.
I also love that he puts four syllables in California. Cali-for-nee-ah.
Craig: I know. I love that.
John: Cal-eh-for-nee-ah. Oh, five syllables. I’m sorry. California. It’s just so odd. And so he does it through the entire video. And so it’s just so funny – first off, to see these places that I know so well, but to have them narrated as if it’s some sort of alien landscape. It’s just great. I loved this video.
Craig: When Barton Fink shows up to the hotel in Barton Fink, the bellhop who is played by Steve Buscemi says, “Welcome to Los Angle-Ease, Mr. Fink.” And I love that Los Angle-Ease. But we have these now in Los Angeles. And my wife points them out all the time because she is fluent in Spanish, so obviously she knows how to pronounce things properly.
And these phrases grate on her all the time. Like, for instance, Los Feliz, that’s just insane. We all know it’s Feliz. There’s the song Feliz Navidad. Why are we calling it Los Feel-Is. That’s nuts. Why do we call it San Pee-dro? That’s crazy. It’s San Pedro, obviously. It’s San Pedro.
Sepulveda is Supple-Veda. We do this all the time.
John: And we’re also not consistent about how we change things. And so two major north/south streets in Los Angeles are La Brea and La Cienega. Both of those are “La”s. They’re both “laws.” But we’ve decided it’s Le Brea but La Cienega. Why? Who knows? But that’s how we’ve done it.
Craig: Right. Like why isn’t La Brea?
John: Because it sounds crazy to say La Brea. You could totally tell somebody does not know the name of the street if they say La Brea.
Craig: Do you know when I first moved to Los Angeles I was driving around looking for an apartment in North Hollywood. And I came across this very large thoroughfare and the street sign said Laurel Cyn. And I thought, oh, is this like a Welsh name? And it’s Canyon.
John: It’s just short for Canyon.
Craig: It’s just short of Canyon. I’m like, “Oh, Coldwater Cyn? Huh.”
John: Yeah. Even in sort of your neighborhood is also Cañada or also Canada? Some things have the Ñ and some things don’t. And I don’t know whether the Ñ got dropped off just because of the sign or if it really isn’t there. And sometimes you’ll see the Y put in there to make the sound for the Ñ. So it’s all frustrating.
Craig: It’s really weird. So La Cañada, the official name of La Cañada there is a tilde over the N. And usually people will include it, but when people are typing things, you know, filling out forms and such sometimes the tilde will freak out poorly designed forms. And so you’ll see like when they spit your address back it’s got some crazy ass characters shoved in there.
But my street, they just shoved a Y in because I guess–
John: Just because.
Craig: Yeah. Like back then somebody was like I don’t understand this tilde thing. Let’s just put the Y in. That’ll make it easy. No. It’s made it really hard. It’s really super annoying, because I’d love to be able to just say Canada and be done with it to the people on the phone that I’m trying to order something from. But, no. So, yeah, no, what can you do.
Craig: Well that’s excellent. My One Cool Thing is a bit – I’d like to read you something.
Craig: It’s a short little clip. So I’m reading this book called Less. Have you heard of this book, John, Less?
John: I have heard of Less, but I don’t know the context of it, so tell me.
Craig: It just won the Pulitzer Prize. Well, I’m fairly early on. I’m say about a quarter of the way in. And it’s about a novelist who is suspicious that perhaps he might just be mediocre, but he does write things that have gotten some notice. And he was in this very long relationship with a poet who actually was really, really good, but when that guy dies he’s kind of now – and this guy was much older than him. And now he’s approaching his 50th birthday. He’s starting to panic. His younger boyfriend has gone to marry somebody else. He’s alone.
And, so you know like John we get invited to seminars and these like, “Oh, come to the such-and-such festival and be a judge at the Wichita Best Screenplay.” He decides, “Screw it, I’m going to accept all of these and just go around the world from one of these baloney things to another, whether it’s a symposium or being a judge, or having my book up for an award.” And so that’s where I am in the book.
But there’s this wonderful paragraph that he wrote that I thought was, oh my god, just so beautiful in terms of how it described the torture of writing. And he’s talking about his life living with his former lover who was this brilliant poet who won a Pulitzer Prize in the novel. And this is what he writes. And, by the way, I don’t mean to imply at all that I am saying that I or you are a genius. It’s just that he refers to this notion of a writing genius and I thought there was something fascinating about it. Oh, and the novel is called Less and it is by Andrew Sean Greer. And so here’s this little bit.
“What was it like to live with genius? Like living alone. Like living with a tiger. Everything had to be sacrificed for the work. Plans had to be canceled. Meals had to be delayed. Liquor had to be bought as soon as possible, or else all poured into the sink. Money had to be rationed or spent lavishly, changing daily. The sleep schedule was the poet’s to make, and it was often late nights as it was early mornings. The habit was the demon pet in the house. The habit. The habit. The habit. The morning coffee and books and poetry. The silence until noon. Could he be tempted by a morning stroll? He could. He always could. It was the only addiction where the sufferer longed for anything but the desired.
“But a morning walk meant work undone and suffering, suffering, suffering. Keep the habit. Help the habit. Lay out the coffee and poetry. Keep the silence. Smile when he walks sulkily out of his office to the bathroom. Take nothing personally. And did you sometimes leave an art book around with the thought that it would be the key to his mind? And did you sometimes put on music that might unlock the doubt and fear? Did you love it, the rain dance every day? Only when it rained. Where did the genius come from? Where did it go? Like allowing another lover into the house to live with you. Someone you’d never met, but whom you knew he loved more than you. Poetry every day. A novel every few years. Something happened in that room despite everything. Something beautiful happened. It was the only place in the world where time made things better. Life with doubt. Doubt in the morning with the oil beating on a cup of coffee. Doubt in the pee break, not catching his eye. Doubt in the sound of the front door opening and closing, a restless walk, no goodbye, and in the return doubt in the slow sound of typewriter keys. Doubt at lunch time taken in his room. Doubt vanishing in the afternoon like a fog. Doubt driven away. Doubt forgotten. Four in the morning, feeling him stirring awake, knowing he is staring at the darkness at doubt. Life with doubt, a memoir.”
Isn’t that great?
John: That’s great.
Craig: I just love that.
John: It also reminds me of sort of the worst of my habits and trying to recognize when I’m veering in that direction.
Craig: I know. I know. And I think he really just nails something here in terms of, you know, you and I have talked before about what it’s like to live with us. What it’s like for Mike, what it’s like for Melissa. And, again, not that we’re the geniuses of this particular summary, but I think all writers to some extent, all professional writers share these certain things. We do have these – it’s this addiction where we long for anything but the desired. And I love the notion that there’s for the people that live with the writer they are aware that there’s this other lover that this person is always chasing.
And it’s fascinating. And I just thought it was so beautifully written. I mean, I just – I’m just so enamored by this guy. Andrew Sean Greer. He’s so good at sentences. I just love him. So, I’m really enjoying this book. So I guess the larger One Cool Thing is this novel Less by Andrew Sean Greer. But at least individually and in a small component way, I love this little passage.
John: Very nice. All right, that is our show for this week. Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Larry Douziech. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions like the ones we answered today. Short questions on Twitter are great. Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.
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Craig: Right. Yeah. Because we’re important.
John: Yeah. We are important. And we are European but not related.
John: If people ask. We know that now. Craig, enjoy your next week of shooting there and I hope it all goes well.
Craig: Thank you, sir. We’ll talk soon.
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