The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Today’s episode of Scriptnotes contains a surprising number of F-bombs. So, if you’re listening in the car with your kids, this is your strong language warning. Now this episode was recorded live last week at the ArcLight in Hollywood. It was a great venue for a live show and a surprisingly terrible one for recording sound. So between the wireless mics and a buzzy soundboard editor Matthew Chilelli had his work cut out for him. So we’ve done the best we could.
If anything, I think it’s a reminder of why it’s great to see these shows live in-person, so you can see and hear everything properly. We had listeners coming in from Texas, Chicago, and Sweden. I got to talk to a bunch of you after the show. That is awesome. And so we love to chat with our listeners live and in-person.
Our intro this week is by Jon Spurney and our outro is by Matthew Chilelli. Enjoy.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
So we are here in Hollywood. We have a giant crowd here. Thank you all so much for coming out here. Hollywood is in Los Angeles, otherwise known as LA. It is the only city in the world that is known by the initials. Is that correct, Craig?
Craig: Not according to the kind folks on Twitter that angrily told us that DC also works.
John: DC. Who would have thought of DC? I actually created a television program that ran for four episodes called DC. And I didn’t think of that once.
Craig: Well, if it had gone for five episodes possibly.
John: Five episodes. If Dick Wolf had given me that fifth episode then it might have been the one. Craig, you are back from a city. You are back from Chernobyl.
Craig: I’m back from actual Chernobyl.
John: Actual Chernobyl. So, is it safe for me to be standing this close to you?
Craig: No. Nah, you’re okay. It’s totally safe…they’ve told me.
John: All right. So tell us about your experience being in actual Chernobyl because this has been a project you’ve been working on for so long. What was actual Chernobyl like?
Craig: It was kind of amazing. I mean, I’ve been working on this for four years and we’re shooting it right now, largely in Lithuania. A little bit in Ukraine. But I went with the second unit team to scout. So we went to actual Pripyat which is a little town right next to Chernobyl. I don’t know if you guys have ever seen any images of the ghost city next to Chernobyl. And then we went into the power plant itself. I had lunch in the Chernobyl cafeteria.
Craig: Not great. I should be honest, not great food. Also, you get what they give you. Still kind of Soviet there. It was remarkable to be somewhere that I felt like I’d been in my – you know, you guys are all writers, right? We have one. So great. I don’t know what the rest of you fucking people do. But things seem so real in your head when you’re doing them and then for you to go somewhere that matches up to that, it’s exactly the same. It’s so strange.
So, it was great. It was very surreal. But it was very safe. We were all taken care of. And, yeah, things are going well. I’m excited for people to see that show. But that’s not for a bit.
Craig: Still shooting.
John: But tonight we get to talk about the same kind of thing you went through where you’re creating a world in your head and you’re seeing the world come to life. You get to see this imaginary scenario that you’ve built come out in front of you and you have to figure out what are the things you want to see, what are the things that actually happen. We have four people here who I think are remarkably talented at talking about that thing. So let’s bring out our guests.
Craig: They may be remarkably talented at doing it. We’re about to find out if they’re good at talking about it. So let’s see.
John: I assumed perhaps too much.
Craig: Shall we?
John: Let’s bring out our guests. First, I want to welcome Lisa Joy who came into screenwriting after practicing law with her 2013 Black List script Reminiscence. That became one of the biggest sales of the year. She’s been staffed on Pushing Daisies, Burn Notice, and is currently set to write Battlestar Galactica for Universal Pictures.
John: She created – Lisa Joy – it is a pleasure.
Craig: Welcome Lisa Joy. Welcome.
John: She created a show called Westworld with Jonah Nolan. Jonah’s credits include the story for Memento, screenplays for The Prestige, Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar, and before Westworld he created the CBS series Person of Interest. Jonah Nolan, welcome to Scriptnotes. A pleasure.
Craig: Welcome Jonah. Welcome aboard. You’re doing great so far by the way guys. You’re doing great. Nailing it.
John: Nailing it.
Craig: But we have more.
John: We have more.
Craig: People. Because that’s not enough. We like to have the best of all worlds. We bring you the best of television and now we bring you the best of film. There’s a small film out you may have seen written by these two folks, Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus. Markus and McFeely. McFeely and Markus, if you would. They wrote three Captain America films, The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier, and Civil War, along with Thor: The Dark World, and this year’s very small failure, Avengers: Infinity War.
And also its untitled sequel: Infinity Plus One War.
John: More than Infinity.
Craig: Their other credits include The Chronicles of Narnia film franchise and ABC’s Agent Carter. Earlier this year they signed a new deal as Co-Presidents of Story for the Russo Brothers new venture. So welcome aboard McFeely and Markus and Markus and McFeely.
It’s an impressive group.
John: It’s a really good group.
Craig: All to save lives, by the way.
Craig: We’re saving lives. Right?
John: We’re saving lives. We’re saving children’s lives. Hollywood Heart. We’re doing it.
So what I was so excited to have the four of you here to talk about to start with is world-building, because you guys all had to come out and figure out what is this universe we’re going to create. And so I want to start by talking – Lisa, I’ll start with you, because you’re next to me – about the literal geography of the place that you’re building. As you’re coming up with your plans for Westworld, you have Sweetwater the town, you have the ranch, you have the mesa. How early in the process were you figuring out literally where things are and how much to show our audience about how stuff is structured, like geographically structured in your world?
Lisa Joy: Well, we basically – Jonah and I before even shooting the pilot we sat in a room for about six months, because I think I was pregnant at the time probably, and we just papered it with all the deep mythology that we were talking through. And one of the things that we talked about was the geography of the place. We had this idea that the epicenter of it would be the most calm, idyllic place, Sweetwater. And that the further out you pressed from it, the more wild, dangerous, lascivious the park would become. So it basically created a soft border that kept pushing you back towards the center.
And then we sort of started charting and plotting out the different locations that we thought we would feature. We have weird maps that we drew in that endeavor. But, I mean, as it turns out, you really experience the park through the host perspective, so it’s a very slow unveiling of that. So you only kind of come to see shades of it through their lens. So, we could have slacked off a little bit because it took us a while to get to some of those places.
John: And Jonah how much mythology, I mean, how much geography – how big were your Tolkien maps of this? Because in the second season we learn like, “Oh, there’s Shogun World.” And there’s this whatever – I don’t even know if we know the title for the Indian kind of world of it all.
Jonah Nolan: The Raj.
John: And so there’s bigger spaces, but you guys probably had a sense of that right before – the six months leading up to it.
Jonah: Yeah, I’m big on geography. And I think actually we’d gone to see Sleep No More in New York a year before we started writing the pilot. And one of the things – I don’t know if anyone else here has experienced that. It’s a very, very cool sort of live action immersive experience in New York, sort of a mishmash of Shakespearean plays and you got to put on a mask and the audience kind of follows things around. But they laid out the geography beautifully in that experience because you start at the bar, always the most important part of any experience. I will be there in about 45 minutes.
And the geography is really simple. If you got lost, you go back to the bar. The bar was the center of it. So we thought, “Oh, that’s perfect.” And what we wanted with Westworld was we wanted an experience for the guest. We sort of designed the theme park first. How does the theme park work? Where would all the rides go? How would the corporate structure look like? But you also wanted an experience that required no owner’s manual, or no user manual rather. The experience, as Lisa was saying, reveals itself to you intuitively. So the geography was kind of all important.
And then we added five more parks all around, but didn’t tell anyone.
Craig: In terms of that concept of geography, geography can either be limiting in the sense that when they stand in front of that holographic dome image you get, OK, the park has an edge to it like all parks do. But we don’t necessarily know – you haven’t shown us all of the area. We don’t know scale necessarily. So we’re not sure how deep in.
But narratively speaking, too, you have a choice as people writing a series, you can say this narrative has an end point. We get to it and it’s over. Or, do you not see the borders of your own story? I’m kind of curious like how you guys conceive of the narrative? Is it ongoing and extensible endlessly? Or do you have a kind of end game in mind?
Lisa: Yeah, we have mapped out for the series kind of these tent pole moments I would say. You know, Westworld posits some kind of intellectual, philosophical questions. And we wanted to at least suggest some answers. And also in terms of our characters, we wanted to know where they would go and how we would keep renewing, and refreshing, and exploring different things.
So the really large sweep of their arcs we planned out in advance. But then as you’re writing, as you’re going into series and you’re writing the individual scripts, you know, the fun of it is when you find these opportunities to dance and linger and stay a moment with a character or a place, or you find some great chemistry between your actors and it opens up a whole new world for you. So there’s wiggle room in there.
Jonah: And I’ve done broadcast TV, and I’d very gotten very use to the sort of endless churn. I liken broadcast TV to getting a tie caught in a shredder. You’re just fucking all in. The prevailing rule of broadcast television for decades was once you’ve got that magic formula, that franchise of cast and characters and the story of the week, you just keep doing that. And I never had any interest in that whatsoever.
I think with Westworld much more explicitly we set out not using the rules of television, because TV has now expanded to fit so many different formats, it’s kind of the Wild West. We looked more at the rules for franchise filmmaking.
Craig: Got it.
Jonah: We’d say, “OK, you’ve got a consistent cast, you’ve got a larger story you’re telling, but you’re going to settle your obligations to the audience by the end of each season.”
Craig: And that’s fascinating because I feel like you guys – things are meeting. Because when I watch your movies I feel like now more than ever I’m seeing these enormous, very expensive, very elaborate, but really well-crafted episodes of this very big television series. It seems like there’s a series-if-ication of movies and there’s a movie-fi-cation of series. Do you feel that as you’re doing what you do?
Stephen McFeely: We do, but Kevin Feige would hate to hear you say that.
Craig: Well, that’s why I don’t work at Marvel. He’s not here I think.
Stephen: But it’s serialized storytelling. There’s no way around it. And I think that’s why people have embraced it because it treats the audience as if they’re in on something. I find – it’s a little funny that a lot of critics will go, “Ah, that’s too much for me to pay attention to. This movie is like…“ Well, your audience is clearly getting it.
Christopher Markus: Well, also it keeps it alive. It makes it not sequel after sequel. It makes it the next episode. So there’s a reason for it to exist outside of commerce.
Stephen: It rewards investment.
Christopher: Yeah. And I think with TV now there’s a reason to stop it outside of commerce. And people are paying attention. The narrative is done. Done. Let’s stop.
Jonah: That’s a good idea.
John: Lisa was talking about the moments that you discover where you get to linger, where you get to sort of hold onto a place. And what was so impressive about your film is there’s not a lot of time to sort of linger. You guys have to crank through a tremendous amount of stuff. And even the geography of your movie is really complicated. You’re creating brand new worlds that we’re seeing for the first time and you have basically very little time to establish anything about the world, but I guess the difference is we know those characters so we can see the world through those characters and that’s all that sort of matters. What was that – the new worlds we visit in your movie are extensive.
Stephen: Well, they’re actually not that extensive. We have very few choices in terms of what was still available to us, because we’re doing a movie with six MacGuffins, right? And five of them were established. So, we were going to visit places that if you were an audience member that already knew the movies you were expecting. So, the decisions we got to make were where was the soul stone, and where do you hold the third act. So basically we chose what combat and we made up a story about the soul stone and plucked a name of an old Marvel planet and put it there.
Christopher: And Thanos’s home town.
Stephen: Thanos’s home town. Sure.
John: But there are also environments–
Craig: Did you know that that was Thanos’s hometown, or did you just find out right now?
Stephen: We didn’t make it up. He’s from Titan, which is–
Craig: I just feel like he was maybe telling you. Covered meetings.
Christopher: You should come to more meetings.
John: I want to give you guys credit. There are moments – you can say like, oh, those places are already established in canon, but like we’re seeing them in your movie and the characters are suddenly there and we have to sort of like run with it. OK, we are at these [unintelligible] forages and like just roll with it. That’s brand new. We’re seeing this for the first time.
Christopher: Well, I think that’s the confidence that the franchise has built by this point is trust us, you’re going to be OK. This does make sense. We might be jerking you around a billion more miles than we usually do, but we know what we’re doing.
I do, however, miss those lingering moments and look forward to getting back to them.
Stephen: I mean, that was one of the things about that movie is that we had plenty of lingering moments in early drafts and it was a three-and-a-half hour movie and it turned out we needed something propulsive that only brought you in when a stone came up or a purple guy came to punch you in the face.
Christopher: Captain America’s dissolving relationship with his girlfriend was a great scene.
John: It was really good.
Craig: You can imagine it.
Christopher: Yeah, you can just see it.
John: But part of world-making is not just the literal worlds, it’s also setting the rules and the expectations for the audience. And so you guys in Westworld had to really clearly set rules for what the hosts are able to do and pushing past those rules. That’s the journey the hosts are on. But also rules for the universe and our expectations of like what’s happening outside this world. Because the first season we don’t get to travel outside this world to see what the rest of it is like. So, what were the rules you set originally for the hosts and for yourselves about how we’re going to venture into this world?
Was there a deliberate process of figuring out what it is that you wanted the audience to know were the rules of the world? Because in the second season Maeve is able to do things she couldn’t do the first season. So how do you set the rules for powers?
Jonah: It sort of came – the grounding in it for me was in working in the superhero film world for ten years with the only superhero who doesn’t actually have any super powers other than money and anger.
Male Voice: And rage [in a Batman voice].
Jonah: But the rules in those movies are all important. And we knew that the rules in Westworld were vitally important as well. Not that you want to belabor them for the audience, but I think – I know when I’m watching movies or TV I can feel sometimes when the writers haven’t put in the work. I don’t need to be told what the rules are necessarily, but I need to feel that the writers have spent six months sitting in a room, driving themselves nuts trying to figure out how it works.
2001 is a great example of that. You’ve got Arthur C. Clarke, you read the novelization of it. It’s like, “Oh shit, it all actually means something.” When you watch Kubrick’s film there’s very little exposition, but you feel there’s an underlying thought process that’s gone into – even the most sort of hallucinatory sequence at the end you can kind of feel that there’s a set of ideas that’s been woven into it.
So with Westworld from the very beginning we felt like we got – I mean, I literally we drew the map, maps, and then a corporate flow chart for how people work. And then we were like, “OK, we’ll set aside two days to figure out what consciousness is and then figure out the rules set for that.” Did not quite work out.
But, yeah, you’ve got to put in the leg work on that or the audience sniffs it out immediately. And that allows you to go to exciting places because if you know what their limitations are you can push through them.
Craig: I want to talk a little bit about the consciousness thing–
Jonah: Oh dear.
Craig: Because I got so excited–
Jonah: It was all going so well.
Craig: Here we go. You guys bring up this concept of the bicameral mind. I took a class with that guy in college.
Jonah: Julian Jaynes?
Craig: Julian Jaynes.
Jonah: Come on, really?
Craig: Julian Jaynes.
Jonah: Is he cool?
Craig: Well, he’s dead now. So no. But then, he was like a wise old owl. He was very cool. The book was incredibly influential on me. I bought it hook, line, and sinker, even though my other professors were like “This is bullshit. There’s no fucking evidence for that.” And it’s true. There is no fucking evidence for that.
But, it’s a fascinating theory and actually weirdly after I graduated I called him up one day, this is before he died luckily, and – because I had this idea that you know when we dream, I’m not high I swear to god. But if you are high this will make more sense.
So, we have dreams and in our dreams there are people that talk to us, and there are people that talk to each other, and we’re constantly surprised in our dreams. I mean, that’s why nightmares work. But that’s all from our own head. And it seems to me like we’re fragmenting our consciousness all the time in dreams. And I said isn’t that kind of evidence of – and he said, “No, I don’t think so.” And then that was the end of that, and then he died shortly thereafter. I may have killed him with that question.
But when I was watching this I couldn’t help but think how in a way your entire show, and specifically that point, is a great description of what it means to be a writer. Because you are fragmenting your mind into these interesting things. You’re hearing voices that are from you. And you’re also the god of creatures that you are responsible for that begin to in a strange way take on their own life. I can imagine only when drunk that this comes up all the time between the two of you.
Lisa: We weren’t oblivious to the sort of meta aspect of writing this, which is why we like to make fun of ourselves in it through the character Lee who is just such a high maintenance pain-in-the-ass. So, it was kind of, you know, our way of exorcising our demons through him. I don’t think we’re quite the pains-in-the-asses that Lee’s character is, but yeah, that’s what he’s there for.
John: Well, speaking of writers who are pains-in-the-asses, so you guys have a ton of characters that you have to manage in the course of your movie, some of which you’ve worked with before, some of which are brand new. You’re having to deal with machinery that’s been put in place largely through your movies but also through other movies, certainly through Black Panther you’re dealing with Wakanda which is a new thing for you to be touching. What is that like to be stewards of these characters, this story, to be controlling this universe but also know that it’s going on to another thing? What is your, as creators, what is your sense of responsibility to those characters and to those storylines?
Stephen: I mean, it’s make the best movie in front of you. Right? That’s always been Marvel’s watch word and it’s certainly ours. We’re selfish in that we’ll try to take everything for our movie and someone will have to pry things out of our hands and say, no, that’s somebody else’s. And I think we’re confident in our place enough now that we can ask for advice, help, and input. So we flew Taika Waititi in and said what the hell are you doing to Thor – we need to talk about this.
Because it was a radical re-toning of the character for the better clearly. But, you know, we didn’t know how far they were going to go with that. James Gunn is very specifically entwined with the Guardian, so we needed to talk to him. That kind of stuff happens all the time at Marvel. For all of its success it’s a very small shop, so that’s really easy to do.
John: So what is the conversation as you’re going in to work on this movie and the movie thereafter, you’re describing your overall plans for things and do you know – it feels like if you’re working on one of these movies you have to know not only what’s happening in your movie but what’s happening in the movie before you and happening in the movie afterwards. And that’s a complicated decision. It’s like if Lisa and Jonah were running your show, but somebody else was running another show that–
Stephen: Like if you had to know what was going on in Barry or something.
Christopher: And it’s particularly annoying because we were writing movies that we had to start making before they were making theirs, but theirs were going to come out first.
Christopher: So we’d look like idiots because our movie didn’t mesh with theirs, even though they had to go after us. So there was a lot of, well, a lot of reading drafts and a lot of going just promise me you’ll leave him standing right here. I don’t care how he gets there, do whatever you want, just standing right there at the end of your movie and everything will be fine.
Stephen: It was also an opportunity, right? I mean, put yourself in our spot. Three years ago, we’re looking at a board that says Avengers 3, Ant-Man and Wasp, Captain Marvel, Avengers 4. You can either freak out by that or you can go, “Oh well, maybe we can use that to our advantage.” So the tags, spoiler alert, on our movie is a little teaser for Captain Marvel. Undoubtedly you’re going to figure out what that pager device is, right, and that’s a weaving. Ant-Man and Wasp will be the same thing, which means you’ve got to watch both those movies to get what’s going on in the next one.
Christopher: Well it’s also a selfish way of getting them to do a tiny bit of our work for us so that in the two movies – it wasn’t just a pause, the story was evolving as it went on.
John: Lisa and Jonah, a thing you and I have talked about is how important the “previously on” cuts are for a show. As someone is sitting down to watch an episode of your show, figuring out what it says on the “previously on” so you can set the right expectation about what’s going on there and remind people about what’s important. How early in the process do figure out what needs to be in that “previously on?” Is that a thing that’s happening in the writing stage or as you’re looking at the cut to see like you need to remind our audience that this is stuff that’s happening?
Jonah: I don’t think we get writing stage, although you start drawing up maybe a tiny list. One or two things. And then we do – I think unusually we cut our own. We cut our own in-house and we ship the cut to the network with a “previously on” on it. And then they recut it and they say – they have a traditional trailer vendor who makes – HBO puts a lot of money into their shows. And so in some cases you’ll have a really beautifully done piece. But we sort of hauled up the pieces we think are vital for understanding what’s coming.
Craig: And it seems like that’s something HBO has to do as one of the few places left that make you wait. Which, you know, as somebody that is doing something for HBO I personally like. I’m kind of old fashioned that way. I like the fact that I have to wait now a week, and a week, and a week to see your show. But it seems to me that the part that – well, at least from my point of view and I’m kind of curious what you guys think about this – and it sort of ties into the trailer—
Christopher: I would love for a “previously on”–
John: “Previously on” would save you so much time.
Craig: “Previously on” would be amazing for you guys. But it’s actually the coming up part at the end that I think is so important because when you’re binging you just go, great, I’ve finished, next, next, next. You can’t binge Westworld if you’re watching it during the season so it’s that little piece. How involved are you in that little hit of crack?
Jonah: We are sadly micromanaging lunatics and we’re involved in everything.
Craig: I love it.
Jonah: If there’s a fucking Westworld napkin under your beverage, we looked at the design.
Jonah: But the partnership at HBO is fantastically collaborative in that way. I’ve had it both ways, fighting tooth and nail to get your voice heard. With HBO it’s a seamless partnership on those pieces. You know, one of the reasons I got into movies is I love trailers. And that’s your little trailer at the end of every – you know, we had a lot of fun this year doing the trailers for our season. I shot the Super Bowl spot. I got to shoot that. And very hands on with all this material. It’s a lot of fun.
I’m also a big believer in – I think the binging thing is very cool, disrupt, etc., but there’s a lot of wisdom in the traditional broadcasting model. We come out for ten, I mean, in the movie business you would kill for ten consecutive weeks of watercooler conversation and articles. No matter how big your movie is, it’s kind of four weeks and it’s gone.
You know, if you get ten consecutive weeks it can be frustrating for some of the audience, but for everyone else it drives that conversation forward. And it gives you a chance to cut a little trailer for next week’s episode.
Craig: And there’s that beautiful anticipation that happens. You do feel as if the cliffhangers are cliffhangers. I have noticed that when I’m binging something the cliffhangers are – it’s just “Shut up, cliffhanger. Next episode. You know? I don’t believe in you.”
Which actually brings me to a question for you two, and it’s about death.
Christopher: Ah, death.
Craig: If you haven’t seen Avengers, fuck you. Come on. I mean, it’s the biggest movie in the world.
Christopher: It’s on in this building. Right now.
John: Literally walk across the hall.
Craig: In this structure, it’s on 20 screens. So, something happened I think, and I think it happened when Ned Stark’s head got chopped off. And in that moment, and it’s many years ago now, there was a kind of end of an era, in a weird way, where everyone always felt safe. The only time somebody would die is if, I don’t know, Jean Stapleton just didn’t want to do All in the Family anymore. And it was sort of like, well “OK, so you know she died.”
But when Ned Stark died I think it was kind of like a burning torch that said we are no longer going to let you be safe. And the ending of your movie is very television-like in that way I think. In that it sort of said you’re not safe anymore. Now I believe any of it. But I believe some of it. Like, I’m not sure. I feel like you guys are fucking with me, but I also feel like you’re not fucking with me, and I think that – so yeah, no.
John: They’re negging you is basically what they’re doing.
Craig: They are. Black Panther is not dead. That aside, money is money.
Christopher: Certainly dead at the moment.
Craig: But some of those people I think are dead. And I actually kind of love that. And I’m wondering if television was an influence on that in any way. The notion of lack of safety.
Christopher: I mean, yes, in that we’ve all gotten used to it between Game of Thrones and Walking Dead where death has become real. Has become a tool you can use. And I think when they chopped off Ned Stark’s head you went, “Oh, this is about the show. I’m watching a show. I’m not just watching these characters. Like this is a story they’re telling and they’ll kill people.”
And it made me take a wider view of the whole thing. And each time they lopped off the lead character’s head you go – people are thinking. Just like you said. They thought about this and they went, “They thought it through. We can do without that and move on.” It’s not just what are we going to make handsome man do next week.
Stephen: But that’s what movies had been for a long time, right? You got a handsome man and everybody went to go see handsome man. We’re going to see Handsome Man 2. We’re going to see Handsome Man 3.
Craig: Right. And handsome man could never, ever die.
Stephen: Oh my god no. Right.
Craig: He might get less handsome eventually.
Stephen: Eventually Handsome Man 4 will make less money and Handsome Man 5 won’t make any money. And then he’s done.
And Marvel understands, I feel like a huge shill here, but the success is ridiculous. They’re at 19 movies and god knows how many billions of dollars. So they understand that good storytelling needs endings. I mean, if you just keep giving them Handsome Man 6 you’re going to stop coming. And they also have this confidence that they know what they’re doing now and they’ve got a bench of 5,000 characters. So that you didn’t know you wanted Guardians of Galaxy. They got a ton of Guardians of the Galaxies. They’ll figure it out.
So, I mean, a part of it comes from this ridiculous confidence that they have now.
Craig: They really do. And I think it’s – you’d think that other people would learn the lesson. It’s remarkable how no one seemed to learn any lessons. They just learned – how did they not see it? You know what I mean?
John: I would also say that in defense of some of the other studios who are working with some of these characters–
Craig: Ugh. Talk about a shill.
John: So often these studios were like backed up against a wall. If we don’t make this movie within the next year we’re going to lose the rights to things. So they were making things for the wrong reason without a greater plan for how stuff was going to fit together.
Craig: That is true. But I do think that there’s a certain bravery that television just naturally has. Like you guys I feel on your show at any point you could kill anybody.
Craig: For instance, Anthony Hopkins happened to make it through season one. But I didn’t know he was going to make it through season one, which is almost as good as him not making it through season one.
Lisa: Have you seen the finale, my friend?
Jonah: I hate to break your heart, but he didn’t make it through–
Craig: No, no, I’m saying, I’ve seen it. He didn’t. But I’m saying he didn’t know that he wasn’t. I thought maybe he would. But I wasn’t sure. And so that’s the best situation is I can’t predict. Television is very good at that. But Handsome Man 3 at a lot of places, I think, they’re petrified to kill Handsome Man because they think that’s why people are coming. And it’s interesting because I personally think that people generally now are coming for the promise of something that is unsafe narratively.
Lisa: I think – I mean, just to interject, I think you’re right. And I think it’s so great. And as writers we always want to just go for it. And you need stakes. And one of the evolutions that’s happened in the superhero genre, and we deal with robots who are essentially superheroes, you know, is that after a while if they are just completely immune to death you start – it starts becoming really formulaic. And so you need to have stakes.
But just to give credit where credit is due, it’s also we all want stakes because we are adults and writers who are somewhat cynical and have been through and watched this and studied it for craft. A lot of these movies they attract children and families who haven’t gone through that whole experience yet. And so it really is still like a real risk to take in anything, in a feature or in TV, where you create these characters and you love these characters. As writers you love those characters. And to kill them is painful for you, too. You know, it’s not – you don’t do it blithely. Like, “Oh, I love this actor. I love this performance. And now that we have reached the pinnacle of our affinity for this character I’m going to lop off their head.” It’s tough.
Craig: I do like it though. It’s exciting.
Lisa: Yeah, I mean, it’s rewarding creatively. Because you get to write this swan song and everything. But there’s a lot that goes into that I think. It’s art but it’s also empathy for your audience. And it makes it tough to make the call.
Christopher: But also leaving them alive, when you have death leaving them alive has more weight now.
Christopher: And now they’ve got mileage on them. You know, it used to be about they have to look just as pretty next season. They can’t age. Now, you know, every time Chris Evans comes up I think about, well, we put him through that and we put him through that, and we put him through that and he must be pretty unhappy by now.
Craig: Still incredibly good-looking.
Christopher: Yeah, he’s doing fine.
Craig: Yeah. All that trauma and just a brew grew.
Christopher: I don’t know.
John: So when we are talking about characters who live or characters who die, naturally spoilers come up. And you guys as people who are making these shows have to be mindful of you don’t want the world to know about what’s going to happen in your piece of product before they are actually watching the thing. So you guys have to be very mindful of how you’re going to protect those secrets.
So this last season on Westworld, between seasons you put out this special spoiler video that spoiled the whole second season as an acknowledgment of the strange relationship fans have with the thing that they love that they want to explore and investigate but also kind of end up destroying in the process of loving so much. Talk about the decision to do that. And also, you know, your relationship to fans and secrecy. Because you guys had the biggest script controls of anything I’ve ever seen. I remember talking with you guys about what you were doing even before the first season had shot about like how you guys locked down scripts. So, can you talk through us like secrecy and fan engagement?
Jonah: I just came up with It Runs in the Family. And Chris was psychopathic about script security before anyone gave a shit. I’d be like who’s trying to steal this script for painting houses and shit. I was like no one cares. But then eventually they kind of did. And I remember wandering around with a script for The Dark Knight on my laptop and thinking, “Fuck, like a state secret.”
And I had this insane 264-bit encryption thing, like a secret invisible drive. I’m like we’re doing all this shit ourselves from the beginning.
So we just came up with it that way. I don’t know any other way to do it. I mean, the way that the scripts for those movies work is the head of the studio goes to my brother’s house and reads it there. The script does not exist. Does not exist digitally ever outside of our little computer. And it’s on red paper for everyone else.
In TV it’s a little harder because you have bigger departments. You have – you’re moving faster. There’s a far greater volume of material. I mean, so many stories over the years in terms of every time you let your guard down, right. I’ve emailed one script my entire fucking career. One. And it’s online. And it was the original script for Interstellar. And everyone was like, “Ow.” And that wasn’t even a fucking draft. That was like a half draft somewhere very, very early, and I was in England and the producers were in LA and they were like “We need it now, now, now, now, now.” And I was like, it was literally like Christmas Eve or something. I was like, “Send.”
Craig: What a terrible feeling.
Jonah: That’s the one script that’s up. And it’s not a draft. It’s filled with mistakes.
Craig: Now there are reviews of your half draft.
Jonah: 100%. So I was like, well, that story comes up anytime anyone is like, “Just email it to me.” No.
John: So, Chris and Stephen, I imagine you just print up copies and send them around.
Christopher: Yeah. We just hand them out.
Stephen: I took this out of my car today because I didn’t want to leave it in the parking lot.
John: So what is that you’re holding in your hand?
Stephen: Just a thumb drive that’s got stuff on it. All right? You know.
John: Just in case.
Craig: There’s so many more of us than there are of you. We could kill you right now. We want to know what it is.
Stephen: There’s nothing in my car.
John: So, I mean, obviously as much as you’re comfortable talking about it, like what is your process of making sure that the stuff that you’re writing is safe for you, but you obviously have to share it at a certain point. And is there a whole internal procedure for how that goes?
Christopher: There was. Sometimes it broke down. You know, sometimes you really would wind up going like “Just come here.” Were anyone to drop that thing, you know, at the waffle house, there’d be trouble.
Stephen: We’ll get the waffle house later.
Christopher: Once they were printing it and giving parts of it to different people, it got really sort of arcane and there were fake scripts and there were portions of scripts. And people didn’t know how things ended. So it was a very confused crew.
John: So when you say there are fake scripts, so these would be in the script there’d be scenes that you knew that you were never going to shoot.
Christopher: Or there’d be versions. So in the real version Thanos comes in, picks up an infinity stone, and in the script he’d come and pick up a donut.
craig:: That you thought that was going to work.
Christopher: You know, the equivalent to bats.
Craig: You thought that would throw these nerds off the trail?
John: He’s Homer Simpson.
Christopher: They’re making a donut movie.
Craig: So Thanos is looking for the five donuts that power the universe. And no one is going to make the connection.
Christopher: There was at least one incident where the wrong version went to set deck, or something, and it wasn’t donut, it was the equivalent of a donut, but it was like where are the things. My script says donuts.
Craig: It was on the page and you said.
Christopher: It’s a fake one.
Stephen: You know the last thing you want to do when you’re trying to wrangle these things is write more—
Christopher: Oh my god, write extra.
Craig: Why don’t you hire one of these good people to do that? They could write fake scripts for you.
Male Voice: Our assistant Joey eventually did it.
Craig: Oh, you gave it to Joey to do?
Male Voice: Yeah. Joey crushed it.
Craig: Yeah, Joey.
Christopher: He’s trustworthy.
Craig: Joey’s selling your shit right now on the Internet.
Christopher: Joey’s dead now.
Male Voice: Fucking Joey.
John: So, Lisa, as you’re going into your second season is there more – I mean, obviously you have a crew that you’re familiar with. There’s a little more comfort. Do you relax a little bit more going into it where you’re not so paranoid about every little thing? Or is just the same?
Lisa: I was like writers never relax. We’re always just neurotic messes. Actually that also pertains to security, so now, it’s the same level of paranoia.
Craig: I would think it should be higher, not to upset you, but when you’re making a show and no one has seen it yet and maybe there’s just an article that says Westworld, people are like, what, like “The Yul Brynner? OK.” Then maybe no one is trying to break into your shit. You know? And now they would be. So, think about that.
Tonight. When you’re trying to sleep.
Lisa: We could come up with a scheme where I’ll steal yours, you steal mine, and we sell them back to each other. There could be a real get rich thing here.
John: It’s like Ocean’s 4.
Christopher: I don’t have a problem with that.
Craig: Well how do I get into that? I want a taste.
Male Voice: You’re not required.
Christopher: How does Chernobyl end? Oh shit.
Craig: That’s actually how it begins, to be honest with you. Well, I’m just giving something away, but I just thought like oh my god what torture if you were to watch a miniseries called Chernobyl and you had to wait five episodes for it to blow up. So, it blows up on page three.
John: All right.
Craig: Why wait?
John: Lisa and Jonah, you both also direct your show. And that has got to be an incredible – there’s a giant train moving and you’re stepping off the train to direct part of it and do the rest of it. So how is that possible? I mean, how does it not go off the rails when you are stepping outside of the writing and producing of the show to direct an episode? What was it like for you, Lisa?
Lisa: I mean, I delegated to Jonah. You know, everything from – it was actually a terrible time for me to direct, and if you think about it because I think I had just had a baby a couple weeks before I started prep.
Jonah: Another baby.
Lisa: Yeah, a different baby.
Jonah: They just keep coming.
Craig: Different baby.
Lisa: It wasn’t like the longest gestation period, like a two season—
Male Voice: That would be one hell of a baby.
Craig: Wait, so you had a baby and then two weeks later—
Lisa: We have one per season just to really fuck ourselves.
Craig: Right. And then two weeks later you’re like, I know what I should do. The thing that kills people that haven’t just had a baby.
Lisa: Yeah. Yeah. And we were kind of still writing some of the scripts, so it was truly masochistic. And I actually was going to back out of it, but Jonah, you know, in a moment – actually in this moment in Hollywood it was especially lovely to have this level of support, not just from him, but from my whole crew, cast, from HBO. You know, I’m like, “OK, I’m going to get out of the hospital, I’m going to pump in the scout van. I’m going to write pages at 2am, and in the meantime I’m going to direct this episode. It’s going to be great guys. Don’t worry.”
And they didn’t. You know, and Jonah, there was one point where I was like am I mad because if I mess this up it’s going to be really bad. It’s going to be quite embarrassing. And he was like “You’re not going to mess it up.” And he pointed out that he was going to give me the same opportunity that I gave him for first season when he directed the pilot and the finale, which is I helped with the room, I helped with the kids. And he was like now I’ve got your back. And he did.
Craig: You two! Wow.
John: That’s good.
Craig: You guys never do anything like that.
Christopher: No, we never do that.
John: You guys don’t help each other out like that at all.
Male Voice: I did pump in the van though.
Craig: Yeah. That’s a huge fucking problem, and we’ve got to – we can’t even have a podcast anymore.
Christopher: We don’t use a van anymore.
Craig: That’s bad.
John: One of the things that I like and admire so much about writing teams and partners is that they get to know each other so well. And they can see the same problem and come up with the same solution. Sometimes you can separate them apart and either one of them can do the job.
Craig: Like the Newlywed Game.
John: Kind of like the Newlywed Game. They know each other so super well. And so I thought we might actually do a version of that.
Craig: Oh good.
John: And see how well we know each other.
Christopher: Weirdest place you’ve ever made whoopee.
Craig: That would be in the van.
Christopher: In the van.
John: So here is what we’re going to do. I emailed each of you separately the start of a little scene or the moment from a scene and asked tell me what happens next. And so I emailed these to you separately and I asked you to sort of email back what you guys thought happened.
Christopher: We were supposed to email it back?
John: That’s OK. You can just read it. It’s fine. You didn’t actually follow the instructions. That’s fine. So let’s start there at the end of the list here. Here’s the prompt that I sent to Stephen and Christopher. This is somewhere in the middle of a script somewhere:
“Carson ducks for cover behind a parked car. Windows blow out, glass raining down. She’s got to get out of there, but where? Suddenly…”
That is the prompt I gave. Let us here how Stephen McFeely answered this call. No, no, you’re going to read it to us.
Stephen: But you said everyone else emailed it.
Craig: I don’t understand the rules of this game either.
Christopher: I don’t have mine.
Stephen: Then I got to take credit for this. This is a terrible thing, by the way. Every one of us thinks this is—
Lisa: We are so horrified by the stress–
Craig: He does this every year.
John: Absolutely. So, with that scene, I’m curious what your scene reads like.
Christopher: Oh dear.
Male Voice: Carson ducks for cover behind a car. Windows blow out, glass raining down. She’s got to get out of there. But where? Suddenly…something glints in the side mirror. She leans in, dumbfounded, staring at the reflection of something we don’t see. Over the gun fire we can just make out the sounds of Turkey in the Straw. You have got to be shitting me. She turns as Bethany approaches in the stolen ice cream truck, a string of Christmas lights dragging behind her.
Christopher: This is so much longer.
John: That was nice.
Christopher: You said two lines.
Craig: I feel like you were sabotaging yourself.
John: That was a good little moment. The Turkey in the Straw. Some good scene work there. I like that.
Lisa: They’re critiquing your writing. This is the most high stress thing ever.
Male Voice: He wrote Dark Knight. I had to do something.
Lisa: All right.
Craig: But you wrote Avengers: Infinity Box Office. I don’t understand.
John: Yeah, come on.
Male Voice: It writes itself.
Craig: It writes itself. You mean your partner. You described your partner as itself.
Christopher: I can’t wait for it to write itself next time.
Craig: He’s like I wish I had something to write itself for me.
Christopher: Because I’m going home.
Craig: All right, this is going well so far.
John: Christopher, do you have yours there, or do want to read off of mine?
Christopher: Please read it off of yours.
John: All right, I’ll read Christopher’s.
“Carson ducks for cover behind a parked car. Windows blow out. Glass raining down. She’s got to get out of there, but where? Suddenly…her phone rings. She answers. Carson: Hello. Hi Honey, it’s mom. Kind of a bad time, mom. I’m at work. Well, look then, call the guy and call me back. We never talk anymore. I miss you.”
Craig: Very sweet.
Craig: Very sweet.
John: They’re is the heart and the violence.
Christopher: Well, you know, I feel guilty about my mom.
John: In your actual writing life can you tell who writes what stuff? If you go back to something a year later, do you kind of remember “Oh yeah I did that, or he did that”?
Christopher: Some specific lines sometimes. But we’ve grounded down for so many mutual drafts that it’s hard to ID.
John: Are you guys both at the computer together or you’re writing separate things and pasting together?
Christopher: We’re writing separately, pasting together, then sitting down and rewriting this really shitty script written by this third guy.
Craig: So much self-sabotage. You have the biggest movie in the world.
Christopher: What do you want me to take credit for it?
Craig: Yes! Because you did it. See, this is the problem with guys. Nothing ever is good enough.
Craig: Nothing. Nothing. What’s your dream? To write the biggest movie in the world.
Craig: Yeah, doesn’t work.
John: All right, Lisa and Jonah, I sent you a different prompt. So this is the prompt that I sent you guys:
“Dave smiles at yoga mom. Just then the bottom of the wet grocery bag rips. He frantically tries to keep everything from spilling out, but one item escapes his grasp.”
Jonah Nolan do you want to take it first?
Jonah: This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I want you to know this.
Lisa: This is so bad.
Jonah: Not fun at all.
“Dave smiles at the yoga mom. Just then the bottom of the wet grocery bag rips. He frantically tries to keep everything from spilling out, but one item escapes his grasp. His spleen. He had taken out only the pieces of himself he thought he really didn’t need. Just enough to achieve that perfect Kundalini posture. But as he bent double trying to slide it back into the bag, hoping against hope that his homemade stitches wouldn’t give out he caught the glimmer of admiration in her eye. It had all been worth it.”
Craig: Nice. That’s good. He did write Dark Knight.
Lisa: Oh man.
Craig: He did write Dark Knight.
Christopher: This is a very expensive little gag, John.
John: It is actually. I mean, how would you charge here? It’s a day rate here.
Craig: Millions and millions of dollars for that.
John: All right. Lisa Joy.
Lisa: Can I say it’s exactly the same? OK.
“Dave smiles at the yoga mom. Just then the bottom of the wet grocery bag rips. He frantically tries to keep everything from spilling out, but one item escapes his grasp. His precious corrective lenses. A complex prescription to treat not only his myopia and a light astigmatism, but also a recently diagnosed and pernicious case of hyper-masculopia, commonly known as the male gaze.
“Yoga mom bends her live form. Her breasts skimming the top of her low neck line. Her stomach taught. She gives him a come hither look as she hands him the specks, which he gracefully places on his nose. And is gob-smacked to see Yoga Mom suddenly transforms into Leslie from accounting. She balances a screaming toddler on her hip with the same ease she regularly balances the messy P&Ls of his company’s financing. He stammers, “Leslie, I almost didn’t recognize you.” She shrugs, “You’d be surprised how much that happens.” Then she turns and walks away, disappearing down the frozen food aisle without so much as an undulation of her hips.”
Craig: You definitely went over. You went over. But it was pretty good.
Lisa: I’m sorry. And I didn’t have the–
Jonah: Have you seen our show?
John: Both of you guys sort of wrote like a New Yorker little short story, like a one-pager New Yorker thing, which I think is kind of great.
Lisa: We normally tell ourselves when we’re carrying on too long, but we didn’t have each other to do that. So, you know, mortifying.
Craig: I loved all of it.
John: I loved every little bit of it. So, Craig and I are going to participate in this, too, because we’re not a writing team, but we’ve spent 352 episodes – we’re 352 episodes into this.
John: So the prompt I gave to the two of us is:
“Katherine awakens in a seedy motel room. Wood paneling. Stained carpet. Dead flies in the overhead light. She sits up in bed, putting her hand to her neck where she discovers…”
Do you want to do yours first?
Craig: Sure. Oh god, I got to read that whole thing again, don’t I? Shit.
“Katherine awakens in a seedy motel room. Wood paneling. Stained carpet. Dead flies in the overhead light. She sits up in bed, putting her hand to her neck where she discovers…a Post-It note starting to curl away from her skin. She pulls it free and stares at her boss’s handwriting through bleary eyes. Strike two. Ah, shit. Katherine staggers up on unsteady legs, walks to her cleaning cart, grabs some mini soaps and toilet cleaner, and gets back to work.”
John: Poignant that is.
Craig: I’ve been writing dramas lately.
John: You have been, you. Katherine awakens in a seedy motel room. Wood paneling. Stained carpet. Dead flies in the overhead light. She sits up in bed, putting her hand to her neck where she discovers…a large bandage. She stumbles to the bathroom, squints in the harsh light, carefully peels back the bandage revealing a fresh tattoo. No. No. No, no, no. We reveal the tattoo. It’s Strawberry Shortcake. Not bad, really. Kind of cute. Fuck me. The camera reveals the rest of her tattoos. A flaming skull on her shoulder. A swastika along her bra strap. Finally a grinning Pepe the Frog along the small of her back.
John: Reversed a little.
Craig: Alt-right lady. Got Strawberry Shortcake. I feel like ours could be combined.
John: They’re really very close.
Craig: She also could be the maid.
Christopher: I’d like to say the email said specifically a line or two.
John: Yeah, I know.
Christopher: A line or two. I’m the only one who followed the rules.
Craig: I like to stay within the general boundary of–
John: You had a blank, you want to fill the blank.
Craig: You want to fill the blank. Hey, John, great game.
John: Thank you very much.
Craig: Everyone loved it.
John: All right. Everyone out there–
Craig: Everyone out there.
John: Everyone here is like you’re making us do work. The last bit of work I want to make everyone do is a One Cool Thing which I was meant to remind you about in the green room. Did you guys remember it? You forgot. Jonah, did you remember? No one read the email. So I think instead of One Cool Things we should skip to–
Craig: Thank god.
John: The questions.
Craig: Oh yes.
John: So this is where Craig tells you what a question is.
Craig: Hi everyone. If you’ve been to one of our live shows before you’ve heard me say this. You get a chance to ask questions of us, any one of us here on stage, but we do have two rules.
One is your question must be a question. It can’t be a statement and then like “you know” at the end. Has to be an actual question.
Two, do not pitch anything, or even come close to pitching anything. Don’t be that guy. Don’t be that guy. And that’s it.
John: All right. And so what we’re going to do is we’re going to position John Gatins and Megan McDonnell, our–
Craig: You guys know John Gatins is an Oscar-nominated screenwriter. I just want to be clear about this.
John: And Scriptnotes producer Megan McDonnell in this corner. If you have a question come to the end of the steps and they will offer you the microphone and you will ask a question.
John Gatins: And Craig, you said that I can beat people, right?
John: Yes. If you ask something that’s not a question–
Craig: If they violate my rules, hit them hard with the mic.
John: Go down and talk to John Gatins, sir.
Audience Member: OK, I have a world-building follow up question, for all of you. How much more than what you’re going to write on the page do you have to know about your world. Like ten times more? A hundred times more? How much more do you have to know to not have a total anxiety attack about what you’re offering the audience?
Craig: 53 times more.
John: There can be a paralysis where all you do is world build and you don’t actually write the real script. So, do you guys have any suggestions for where you stop?
Christopher: I don’t know, at the moment we’re having a problem of we’ve got way too much world. And the story is actually much simpler. And we’ve got so much iceberg under the water that it’s fucking up the simple story. So, it can really help having all of this knowledge. This is not Avengers 4. Which is already done.
Craig: And perfect.
Christopher: Having a ton can really help, but it can also kind of cripple you in that you feel obligated – you become confused as to how much of this shit the audience actually has to know. And you can overshare.
Craig: It’s also a little bit of a potential form of procrastinating. I know some writers love to use research – it’s just basically jerking off. I mean, that’s what it is. And at some point, right, it is important. But you know when the research that you’re doing is valuable, and if it’s pure fiction you know when the backstory thinking that you’re doing is valuable. But more often than not I think what happens is you may get to a point in your script where you realize, “Oh, the ice here is a little thin. Let me stop and think a little bit about what I need.“
I would kind of think about it as world-building on demand. Don’t get into the trap of world-building to avoid, you know, type, type, type. Whereas John Gatins calls it click, click, click.
John: One thing to add on world-building, so I’m doing the Arlo Finch books. And so there are three books in the series. And I got to a place in the second book and my editor is like, “Great, you need to stop world-building because there can be a situation where all you’re doing is building the world out bigger” and I’ve only got one more book. And I’m not going to be able to pay off all those things. And you’re setting an expectation for the audience if you show these things that they’re going to be meaningful. And I think you guys have similar things.
Like if you’re setting something up it feels like that’s a Chekhov’s gun on the wall. That gun is going to have to shoot. And there’s not going to be a space for that thing to shoot. And so the editing process of this has been, “OK, I need to make sure that I’m only building the stuff I can actually really use in the upcoming book because if it’s more than that it’s not just wasted time, it will diminish the actual read of the second and third books,” which I thought was a smart point.
Lisa: I totally agree. I have one little trick that I’ve been using lately, because we’ve been doing a lot of world-building for this and some of the feature work that I’m doing. And you really can get lost in the weeds. And it’s also fun. You’re imagining these wonderful places. But the thing that I’ve done to kind of get myself out of that and make sure it’s not a crutch, but I think it’s also just important for the story anyway is I’ll put it aside once I get really mired into it and say now approach this entire thing from just the character’s perspective.
Like look at what your protagonist and your villain is doing, because a lot of the time the thing that’s most relatable and most wonderful about a film I think is feeling really tied into that person, regardless of what world they’re in. And sometimes the most powerful moments I think are incredibly simple in that way. It could just be one person in a room staring at themselves in a mirror, but you understand what they’re thinking. And so that’s a little exercise I’ve been doing lately.
Audience Member: I’d like to ask a question about jeopardy. I wrote a screenplay. And one of the things that a couple readers didn’t like was, well, several things. But one of the things was that my protagonists were in Los Angeles and my antagonist was all the way across in New York. And they kept saying “He’s so far away. He’s so far away.” But my defense was he’s such a bastard and he’s very, very powerful.
My question is do you ever think about the different degrees of jeopardy? Do you ever think about as far as proximity to danger when you’re looking at a character and the situation they’re in? I’m not talking about immediacy. I’m talking about – in other words should I move him to like Covina or something?
Craig: Well, it’s certainly an evil place. You guys, sometimes your villains aren’t even on the planet.
Male Voice: Yeah, we certainly had a similar problem where Thanos had six things he had to do and he couldn’t be everywhere at once, even though he had the space stone. He could teleport everywhere.
Craig: Yeah. I was going to bring that up. But, OK.
Male Voice: Best we don’t dwell on that.
Craig: He had a rock that literally allowed him to break your movie, but go ahead.
Male Voice: Understood. But so in that case he had minions. And so we were able to have a few different scenes that were accomplishing the same thing. But I would also say that jeopardy doesn’t necessarily mean physical violence. It’s a super crutch of ours, but end of act two is always what’s the worst thing that could happen to our main character? And that does not have to be a punch in the face. That could be the loss of anything. That could be failure in any way. There’s lots of things that could be. And that could be a phone call.
And so I would just say that jeopardy is pandimensional.
Christopher: And also, I mean, distance can make people more frightening. There are a lot of people right now who are really terrifying who are just people, you know, and they’re in offices. They just happen to be in the right offices to scare us.
I mean, James Bond’s bad guys are inevitably guys he could just punch in the mouth and they’d fall over. They’re big fat guys, or, you know, titans of industry. It’s the power they wield from their chair. So I don’t know. Depends on the villain, but I don’t have a problem with them being across the country.
John: One thing I’d point out is in No Country for Old Man, Anton Chigurh from that movie is so terrifying in part because he’s headed towards you. And so you establish how scary he is, and he’s headed in your direction, and that is part of his threat is he’s coming towards you and you don’t know how the hero could possibly survive that threat. So not being right next door is fine. And most horror movies the villain is coming towards you and that is the thing.
But if people are consistently saying it feels just too distant and too remote, then you need to either bring him closer or proximity of emotion needs to be closer. Needs to feel like it’s a bigger threat to this person’s life.
Craig: Feeling is such a good way of thinking about these things, because you can get caught sometimes in the trap of trying to out-logic someone. They say “I don’t feel like your villain is close enough.”
“Well, I mean, there are scarier people that are even further away.” That’s a rational argument, but has nothing to do with how they feel. And ultimately we’re trying to make people feel things. So sometimes when someone says I feel like blank, blank, blank, I say OK, let’s talk about your feeling. You become a little bit like a therapist.
It helps if you have this kind of beard. This is very therapist-y. It’s amazing how often as writers we have to kind of, oh, I wish it weren’t so. It would be nice if everybody else had to be our therapist. But I feel like a lot of times we have to be therapists to the people that are reading to kind of help pull out of them what they’re saying. And then we can choose to agree or disagree, but then we’re agreeing or disagreeing about feelings which is different than agreeing or disagreeing about facts, which ultimately at some point fall apart because there are no robots that do that. And there is no Thanos in space. And so on and so forth.
Craig: Yes, I’m sorry. He’s not real.
John: Let’s go back over to Megan here.
Audience Member: This is specifically for Lisa and Jonah. I love the way you guys use music in Westworld. And I specifically love that this season, five episodes in, and there’s been so much hip hop. Very excited about that. But my question is first of all do we have any more hip hop to look forward to? And secondly how does influence your story or how do you choose the right music to use with the story that you’ve created?
Jonah: We have a psuedonoymous music supervisor on the show, which represents me. You know, one of the pent up frustrations for me, the wonderful experience of working with my brother for 15 years making movies was that he wasn’t a huge fan of using contemporary music, in the films or the trailers. You know, when you’re working with Hans Zimmer, you know, it’s an understandable impulse. You love the music that they crafted for each film.
And I kept trying to get him to do a Batman trailer with Paint it Black. I’m like “Just once. Let’s do it. People would lose their fucking minds.” And so then when we made the pilot for Westworld I was like I know which song I’m going to use. So this pent up 15 years of – because I love music. Lisa does as well, and Lisa picked the music for her episode which was magnificent. Boxy music and Rolling Stones. And there was this delightful idea very early on in the development of Westworld, we were looking for an icon for the show. Along the lines, if anyone here is a Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner fan?
Jonah: So the penny-farthing bicycle, right? I don’t know what the fuck it means. I have no idea. There’s no penny-farthing bicycle in the show. I keep waiting for him to get on the penny-farthing bicycle and escape and he doesn’t. But we like the iconography of it.
And so we were casting around looking for an icon. And I’ve been a Vonnegut fan as a kid. And we just though every western town had a robot in it and it was the player piano. It was typically operated almost tragicomically because there’s no electricity in the Wild West. Most player pianos had a set foot pedals on the side and some poor asshole had to sit there pedaling the thing so it would play. We left that detail out.
I think originally you were introduced to Ford’s character in the pilot playing Deep Tracks. We just love this idea – I’ve worked now with Ramin Djawadi for, well, on and off – we collaborated at a distance, at a spooky distance, on Batman Begins, which I was a ghostwriter on and he was working with Hans Zimmer, kind of doing instrumentation. And then we started working together again 2011 on my first show. And we’ve worked together ever since. He’s one of the truly fucking gems. Like one of the greatest people in the world.
And so he loved this idea of “Let’s take contemporary music.” It was a way to fuck around with human programming. This is how payola works. Even if you don’t like a song, if I play it enough times it embeds. So we knew we could take popular music, which is why most of the songs are fairly well known, and we program the audience to make them feel something in it.
Craig: And you guys used, correct me if I’m wrong, Nirvana in your big sort of season trailer, right?
Jonah: We did.
Craig: Which was awesome. And part of the fun of watching your show is sometimes it’s pretty – like Paint It Black, something about the melody where it doesn’t matter how you play it. It’s Paint It Black.
John: And this last time you played it in Japanese instrumentation to remind us–
Craig: That’s the thing. But then there are some songs we’re like, “Wait, what the fuck is? And then like, oh, this is Black Hole Sun.” It took me like a minute or two, but this is Black Hole Sun. And I love that kind of–
Jonah: But you feel it moving around in your own programming.
Craig: It’s happening, you’re right, before you’re conscious of it it’s happening.
Jonah: The Wu-Tang one I think is our supreme fucking victory. Cleared that a year ago. I had a back and forth. I went to college with four roommates all from Brooklyn and Manhattan and I had to listen to the Wu-Tang Clan for five straight years.
Craig: Had to? Got to.
Jonah: Yeah. Got to.
Craig: I’m from Staten Island. I’m from Shaolin, my friend. That’s where the Wu-Tang – Brooklyn and Manhattan, psh.
Jonah: I was a grunge rock fan when I started. Everyone is like this show is set in the ‘90s. Clearly the fucking park is in the ‘90s. No, I just went to high school in the ‘90s. That’s where all the music comes from Wu-Tang, we cleared it a year before hand. Ramin did the instrumentation. And we had a choreographer. I’ve never been prouder. It was fucking glorious.
John: All right, question from John Gatins’ side.
Audience Member: Hi. This question is mainly for Westworld people.
Craig: They have names. We’ve said them over and over.
John: Lisa and Jonah.
Jonah: We’re OK. Westworld people works.
Audience Member: Of course, but it also kind of applies to the Marvel universe as well. And my question is about developing characters and creating characters and the process of making rules for these characters that are so close to human, like the hosts are, but they also have to have these elements of AI and robotic-ness to them. And how do the conversations when making rules for them and making these characters go when you’re trying to balance something that’s so close to the uncanny valley?
Lisa: You know, it was something we were very aware of, especially because in one of the drafts – we showed it to a producer who will remain nameless. And Delores gets attacked and murdered. And then they wipe her and put her underneath and they kind of repair and put her back out. And his note was, “Well why does it matter? Why do I care? Because she just forgets anyway.”
And I’m like that’s an argument for people who dose people with roofies. Like that’s really dark and terrible. Like it matters because it was evil and she suffered. And I don’t know that it matters if she remembers it or not.
Craig: I love that you were trying to explain that to a producer and they’re like “I don’t get it.”
Lisa: And I got really into this debate–
Christopher: Still not getting it.
Craig: Yeah. So, wait, the roofies is also bad?
Lisa: I was trying to – yeah, I was trying to liken the experience, and I really went deep into this debate with him, and I love the guy by the way. He’s a nice guy. It was just he could not get over this thing. But what I did realize then was if I’m having this debate it means that something has to change at least in the alchemy of when it goes to screen. Because god forbid people are having that debate. That’s not the feeling they should have from this. It’s not the feeling I intended as a writer, that we intended as writers. And honestly this is something that goes a little bit beyond script. It’s one of those places where direction, and Jonah directed it, and performance are incredibly, incredibly important.
And so the one thing we did in script to safeguard us on this count was we rooted our perspective as an audience with Delores’s perspective. She did not know she was a host. She did not know who among her were humans or hosts. And neither did we as the audience. So when it was revealed that her lover, the guy we thought was a guest was actually a host and the man in black was the villain, we too as the audience were meant to feel that betrayal. And it was supposed to bridge the empathy that we had with these hosts to make their pain more real and valid.
And then, of course, there’s the performance aspects of it and the direction, which it changes. It changes stuff, don’t you agree, to see it brought to life, where it’s no longer an intellectual debate about, “Oh, does it matter if she forgets?” because you see this heart-wrenching performance of a woman suffering. And you just think this kind of cruelty should not go on.
Craig: Yeah, it’s amazing how acting eliminates 80% of the – it’s very frustrating as writers when we have to talk about those things, because what we want to say is a little bit like what you guys were saying. “Just trust us. We know what we’re doing. We’ve done it before. We’re not going to overwrite this. We need space for an actor to make it real and human.”
But you guys also, I think, very cleverly built in situations that allowed you to address the uncanny valley thing straight on and exploit it, particularly the interviews. I think the interview sequences are so important in the beginning because you realize how many levels there are. “Lose the accent. OK. Now also – no, stop with the emotion. Stop. Analysis. Why did you say that?” That’s brilliant and it allows the hosts to, A, be robots, and B, be very human actually in the strangest way. So you came up with I think a brilliant mechanism there to do that. So well done. Well done, you two.
John: Smart people. That wasn’t a question–
Craig: Those rules don’t apply to me. I can do whatever the fuck I want.
John: It is time for our actual last question, which I’m so sorry, over on Megan’s side.
Audience Member: This is for Christopher and Stephen. I just wanted to ask simply what was it like creating the character of Thanos on the page, because one of the things I really enjoyed about the film is that he had such an impersonal goal to balance the universe, yet you guys on the page made it very human and very emotionally resonant to us as an audience member. And having read Joseph Campbell, you can see that being paid homage to through the character of Thanos. Yet you guys seem like to really throw a monkey wrench into a lot of Campbell’s ideas. So I just wanted to ask what was it like crafting that character?
Christopher: It was a lot of fun. He was from very early on the protagonist, the main character of that movie. And that gave us the leeway to touch the emotions of a villain that you wouldn’t ordinarily go to. And he became more and more “human” the more we figured out the cost that he was going to have to pay to get what he needed. It’s not just he’s going to make the world pay. He’s going to pay a cost and it’s going to hurt. And that made him extremely compelling and lovable.
Male Voice: Sort of the secret writing trick we use is – I sort of alluded to it earlier, you know, what’s the end of act two? It’s the worst thing that could possibly happen. And I think a lot of people sort of just if you look at it casually think, oh, we lost Gamora at the end of act two and that’s terrible for our heroes. Not who it’s for. It’s terrible for him. And that idea when we hit upon that, that he would have to sacrifice the person he loved the most to get what he thinks he wants, everything sort of slid into place after that.
You knew what was coming. You knew he was going to collect six stones, or that’s at least what he was trying to do. But if there’s an emotional cost to collecting those things, if it’s not attached to Dr. Strange or isn’t sitting in Vision’s head, or isn’t an exchange required that you’re going to have sacrifice Gamora, then you’re just chopping. And we didn’t want to do that. We wanted it to cost.
Craig: It might as well be donuts at that point.
Male Voice: Exactly.
John: It could be donuts. That is our show for tonight. I want to thank Stephen and Christopher and Jonah and Lisa, our amazing guests. I want to thank our host, John Gatins, Denise Seider, Hollywood Heart. Thank you very much for having us here. They put together all this event.
Craig: Thank all these wonderful people.
John: We want to thank our fantastic audience.
Craig: You guys did a good thing tonight. You helped children. We think.
John: You would think.
Craig: We think.
John: We think there’s children involved in this. We need to thank Megan McDonnell, our producer. Yay, Megan McDonnell. And Matthew Chilelli who will edit this. And thank you to ArcLight for hosting us here. This was really fun.
Craig: Thanks guys.
John: This was nice. Thank you all for very much. Good night.
Craig: Thanks for coming out. Good night.
- Thanks to the ArcLight, Hollywood HEART, and everyone who came out for this Live Show!
- Lisa Joy and Jonah Nolan are on the second season of Westworld on HBO.
- Stephen McFeely & Christopher Markus’s Avengers: Infinity War is in theaters now.
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