The original post for this episode can be found here.
Craig Mazin: Hi folks. Today’s episode may feature some strong language. So if you’re listening with your kids you may want to stop that. Or put some headphones on.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 353 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast, we’ll be discussing the hot new trend of firing assholes off television shows and speculate about what happens next. Then we’ll be answering listener questions on feature comedies, biopics, and shopping agreements.
Craig: That’s great. You know what’s funny, John, is that those folks who are listening to this heard me just warn them that there might be some strong language. And then you immediately say asshole, which I like. You know, let’s just get right to it. We’re going to say asshole a lot today.
John: Yeah, we are. Because people have always been assholes and I think we’re calling them on it more now and we will discuss that trend of calling people assholes.
John: But first some follow up. So back in Episode 348 we discussed the Elif Batuman story for the New Yorker about Japan’s rent-a-relative business. And we wondered How Would This Be a Movie. And the answer is someone will hopefully find out because they’re going to try to develop it as a series it looks like for Anonymous Content, Paramount TV, and Conde Nast.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t get it, personally. I mean, I do, but I don’t. I mean, the part that I get is the part where they think, “OK, this is sort of a good inspiration for a show.” The part that always puzzles me is why people feel the need to go get the rights to things. So I’m of two minds about this. One mind is that there are some things about these individual stories that people find really attractive and so just to close the loop on things and be safe and smart they go ahead and they get the rights. But another part of me, frankly the majority part of me, thinks it’s just general media company laziness. They feel like it’s not real unless they’ve purchased a thing to make it real. I just don’t see what the point of buying some of these things is.
John: I understand your concern there. I will say that by these companies coming together to say like, “OK, this is a real thing that we’re going to develop” — it gives them ownership – at least some sort of intellectual ownership, not even real legal ownership, of that idea space. And sort of scare somebody else off from trying to do something that’s like that in that space, because they are first out of the gate with the announcement saying we’re going to try to make this as a show.
I think also the idea of trying to do it as a show is a good one. I don’t remember whether we talked about that as whether it’s a movie or a TV series, but the more I think about it I think it is a TV series idea because it’s the ongoing relationships you form with these families, sort of like The Americans, you see people dropping in and playing different roles in different scenarios. That could be very cool.
Craig: It absolutely could be. And I think you’re right. That sometimes there is a certain claim-staking value to purchasing some of this material. But there is a flip side to that coin and that is that sometimes companies will do some stake-claiming with – I won’t say it’s like this where there was an article that was published, but rather there’s a book. So someone says, “OK, so-and-so is writing a book about blankety-blank.” And it’s a lot of times with big authors and big books they will pre-sell the film rights. So the book is going to be published in a year but we have the rights to it and we’re going to start developing something.
But meanwhile the writer is still working on the book. Well, actually that happened with Chernobyl. A little bit after I set Chernobyl up, which was just based on my own research. There’s no individual book that I said, “OK, we’re going to purchase this book and make a show of this book.” Another company and another producer, fairly well-known, very reputable producer did this kind of thing where he bought the rights to an unpublished book and then they sort of waited. They had to wait. I guess for the book to be done.
Meanwhile, you know, our show is shooting. So there is a little bit of a danger to that. Sometimes I think – and the only reason I bring it up is because it cuts against us, meaning you and me as writers, and anybody else out there as writers, this thing where companies are constantly buying material, sometimes when they don’t need to, diminishes our individual rights as writers.
So, I don’t know, I guess I’m just saying wouldn’t it be nice if these companies saved a little money and maybe afforded the actual writers of these things a little more credit.
John: Yeah. Let’s talk about that credit, because I think what you’re alluding to is that because this is going to be based on preexisting material there are scenarios in which whichever writer comes in to actually do this may not have the degree of rights to the property that they would otherwise have, such as separated rights. They might not have the ability to control spinoff sort of materials. Even if they were to hold onto some of those things, they just have less hand in the project overall because it’s not their thing, it’s the studio’s thing. And that is a power imbalance that will affect the whole project going forward.
Craig: It will. And I am constantly struck by the arbitrary nature of the birth of things in this business. And simply by a quirk of, “Oh, I happened to mention it to someone, well now they’re the producer of it.” Or they happened to read this article that no one needs to buy, because we’re not talking about using any actual elements from the article other than the things that are public record. Now they somehow will make more money than the writer who actually does the work.
There’s all these strange things that happen at the beginning of the inception of projects. And I do think that as writers going into the next decade where the, I think – I’m just going to go out on a limb here and say that the demand for content will continue to increase – we have a lot of power that we give away simply by not paying attention in the very beginning. That’s all I’m going to put out there.
John: Yeah. But I don’t want to undercut a thing we’ve said often on the show which is that the idea is not the thing. The execution is the thing. Well, this is a situation where the idea kind of is the thing and like they’ve chosen to put a lot of value in this idea or this notion of like, OK, it’s a rental family thing, and these people have bought this idea but not the execution. So it is just a really dangerous precedent that we’re sort of starting to set.
Craig: Well, yeah. I mean, look, the interesting thing is that these folks bought this idea, but you and I could write this idea ourselves.
John: 100%. Yeah.
Craig: So like what are they buying? That’s the weird part, you know.
John: They’re buying air.
Craig: Yeah, they’re buying air.
John: It’s tulip fever. On previous episodes we’ve talked about outlines and whether we outline and sort of what applications we use to outline. Folks have written in with their suggestions for things that they use for outlining and so I thought we’d talk through some of them. So, we’ll start with Workflowy. That’s what Craig and I are looking at right now. It’s how we do the outlines for the show. I use it sometimes for outlining for creative projects. I don’t use it a ton. What I like about Workflowy, it is a shared thing, so Craig and I are looking at the same document. We can update it in real time. That is genuinely useful. And it’s pretty minimalist. Like it just works the way I sort of expect it to work. So, I do like it for that.
But listeners wrote in with some other suggestions, so I thought I’d read through them. And we’ll have links in the show notes if anything is interesting to you.
The next one down here is called Gingko. So I tried that this afternoon. It’s weird. So it’s a web app. You create things on the left hand column. They can branch out into things on the right column, and then the third column to the right. And things can nest together. I never really got it. It could be a thing where you spent some good time with it and it becomes feeling very natural. But it did seem like a lot to learn right off the bat. And sort of a strange way of doing things.
Craig: So many of these things are – what’s the word–
Craig: That’s what I’m thinking of. Skeuomorphic, right? Where we’re doing digital versions of real life things, like index cards. And so this one looks very much like, here, we’ll give you index cards without index cards. But you know what I also have? Index cards.
John: You have actual physical index cards.
Craig: Which are wonderful.
John: So the next thing we have on our list is Cloud Outliner Pro. This is a Mac app. There’s other versions of it, too. This one looks a lot like Workflowy, except it’s actually genuinely a Mac app. It seemed fine. The controls for it weren’t as intuitive as what I’m used to in Workflowy, but I’m sure you get used to it. It seems fine. If you want an application that just does the outlining stuff.
Craig: I got to be honest with you. “It seems fine” is not enough of a recommendation for me.
John: It’s not a glowing recommendation from me.
John: So if you want a really powerful one, an app I’ve used a couple times and I keep trying to love and I just have never fully fallen in love with is OmniOutliner Pro. It’s from Omni. And they’re a great Mac developer. This one is like our Workflowy. It’s like a normal outline, but it actually has columns. And so you can do complicated things with columns across. So you could have like this is the scene, these are the characters who are in that scene. I’ve tried to use it for that purpose before and it’s always felt like too much application for when I want to try to do this.
Someone recommended just using Pages and just using the bullets on Pages. When you’ve done outlines have you done them in Word before? How have you done that kind of stuff?
Craig: I do them in Word. And Word has kind of an automatic numbering system which you can format as you like. So, you can – sometimes if I’m doing a true-true bare bones outline I will do a kind of Roman numeral – I guess you’d call it a legal outlining system where you start with a number, then you go to a letter, a Roman numeral, a small letter, and whatever. So I can do that. But typically I’ll just do one, two three. A list, essentially. And it automatically formats that for you. It’s pretty simple to do.
And I do like that because if I go back and stick something between two and three it knows to make three and everything after a bump up one. You know, easy.
John: Yeah. And so Highland has a similar feature. So Highland automatically does lists for you, so if you add something between it will renumber the list and sort of make that all work. It’s totally doable and you can use the header formats to sort of break out stuff if you wanted to. But it’s probably not what people are talking about with outlines where you can just drag stuff around simply. That’s a thing that we can do in Workflowy which is really helpful.
Craig: Yeah. Workflowy is great, it’s just a little too minimalistic for me. For whatever reason I do like numbering things. I don’t know why. When I’m doing things on index cards, I mean, my proper outlining is to actually – I have a little template that I made for myself in Word that is an index card template. And I have a font that’s like Sharpie font, which is very comforting. So I just type them. I just type them and print them. It’s old school.
John: Are you laying those out on a table? Are you sticking them up on a wall? How are you doing those?
Craig: Ah, OK, so, folks at home prepare to envy me, if you don’t already envy me. Years and years ago, now we’re talking 15 years ago, when I first met David Zucker, we were in his office in Santa Monica working on Scary Movie 3. And he had this wonderful thing on his wall. It was this corkboard, but then it had two hinged wings that could close in. And the front and back of those wings were corkboard. So you essentially had six corkboard surfaces that could fold in and open up. And this, in fact, was the same corkboard that they were using for Naked Gun.
So he and Jerry and Jim had been using this – they had it built. And years later when David moved out of that office and just was working out of his home, this thing ended up in storage. And I was like I want it. And we got it out of storage. It was like in some lockup in Compton somewhere. And so we got it out of storage and they just gave it to me. And I have it and it’s in my office. So I have the Naked Gun bulletin board and I use it constantly. It’s the best thing. I don’t know what to do – if it should ever fall apart, I think I’ll just retire.
John: Oh, that’s charming and sad. So you have your big special corkboard. You know, when I’ve needed to use the actual physical thing I’ve not found index cards to be especially helpful. I’ve done sometimes just like on a big table. You can just lay them out there and that can be helpful. They don’t stay put that way, which is sort of the advantage I guess of a corkboard. But like a TV room I will just use a whiteboard. And just whiteboard and markers. And that’s honestly how most TV is put together is just on a big whiteboard and that’s another good way of doing it.
Craig: By the way, do you go horizontal or vertical?
John: I go vertical.
Craig: So do I. And guess what? We’re the weird ones?
John: Oh really?
Craig: Because everything I see, early on there were some skeuomorphic – I’m not saying it right, but I don’t care – apps where you could – it was like little index card/corkboard apps. And they would–
John: Final Draft still has that.
Craig: OK. They would default to horizontal. And for instance when Tom Schnauz, sometimes Tom will publish on Twitter a picture of what the index cards for a particular episode of Better Call Saul looks like. All their progression is horizontal.
John: So it goes left to right, then left to right, then left to right?
Craig: Yeah. And I’m a big top to bottom kind of guy.
John: Yeah. That feels weird to me. But everyone has their own way.
Craig: I know. But our way is right.
John: Our way is right. The last thing I will point people to, and Craig click the link on this because I’m curious what you think of it, it’s an app called Causality that someone had recommended. It looks just like a lot of app. And so if you thought OmniOutliner was too much, this is a thing that’s trying to actually build your screenplay in a way and there’s a timeline view.
Craig: Oh god.
John: It’s a lot of app.
Craig: Oh my god. This is like they’ve basically tried to Avid a screenplay. So like a stripped timeline with bricks. I hate this sort of thing. I apologize. I’m sure it is a wonderful app for a lot of people. I just look at these things and I think I’m further away from my story than ever. Now I’m into something else, this graphical representation of it. I’m adding layers between myself and the thing I feel. I don’t like it.
John: Yeah. You’re a long ways away from the writing in something like this.
John: And so for all my criticism of Final Draft, at least you are looking at the screenplay.
John: This you’re looking at some just bizarro representation of what this thing would be. But you will know that there are templates you can download for it that build in Save the Cat, so that’s useful.
Craig: Is it? [laughs] I mean, this just seems like an amazing thing for bad screenwriting professors, which is nearly a redundancy, to use in a class to enforce some sort of rigid thing. It’s very pedantic looking. None of this is at all necessary when what you really need – and this is the most unsexy thing, and you can’t monetize this – is inspiration, talent, and either a pen and a pad or just–
John: The most basic way of just getting text onto a surface.
Craig: Right. And even if you want to just say, look, I think formatting is important to me ultimately. Then you’ve made the app for everyone. Highland 2. Here’s the cheapest solution that totally works. You can write in normal text. It turns it into a properly formatted screenplay. What you need is some kind of inspiration/understanding of how to tell a story. None of this stuff – I guess my point is I feel like if you need this, it’s probably not your business.
John: Yeah. Maybe so.
Craig: Probably not for you. But, look, I am notoriously a dick. So, there you go.
John: I’ll leave this segment on, outlining apps. Definitely use the thing that works for you, I just feel like in general minimalism is going to be your friend and a thing that gets you thinking about the sequences of your story and not about the technology behind it is going to be helpful.
What’s useful about some of these apps is that they’re freeform enough you can just drag stuff around and drop them the same way you could with index cards or something else. You can sort of see what the layout of your stuff is. But if it’s anything that to me is skeuomorphically trying to create Craig’s index cards is probably going to be worse for the process. Because you’re spending your time figuring out how to use the app and not figuring out how to structure your story.
Craig: I agree. The one thing you definitely don’t want your goal to be is a pretty outline.
John: Oh, a beautiful outline. Yeah.
Craig: Worthless. Absolutely worthless.
John: Color-coded. Good tags.
John: Feh. All right, let’s get to our feature topic. I’m excited to get into this.
Craig: Here we go.
John: So over the past few months something kind of weird and unprecedented happened in TV at least. Is that two, actually three networks now have decided to let loose the stars of their popular series and fire them not because of sort of money or contract demands, which is the classic things, but because of their behavior. So first I guess we had Jeffrey Tambor who was booted from Transparent. We had Clayne Crawford who was knocked off of Lethal Weapon. So Fox agreed to pick it up but with a different star attached. And then this last week Roseanne booted from her show, or the show was canceled at Craig’s request, because of her racist tweet.
Craig: I think I did it. [laughs]
John: You did it. So, I want to talk about a couple things. First off, am I right in thinking this is actually something new?
I mean, that is in previous seasons the networks would have just hunkered down and made their way through it because the show was successful and they were just going to pretend they didn’t see it. And if it is new, then what’s changed? What are the reasons why we’re seeing this now in 2018 where we didn’t see it in 2017?
Craig: Well, it’s sort of new. I think that there have been incidents in the past. Is it Isaiah Washington? Is that his name?
John: Yeah, yeah. And I was thinking of him and I was also thinking of Charlie Sheen.
Craig: And Charlie Sheen. There have been incidents in the past where networks or producers have terminated stars of hit shows because of their bad behavior. I think what has changed beyond the culture around us, I mean, certainly since the – we are living in a Weinstein era. I guess we’ll call it a post-Weinstein era. That is an enormous difference.
I think the fact that we have a president who is also a many time accused sexual assaulter and also notorious and factually-proven liar has created a lot of sensitivity about these things. And thirdly there’s Twitter. And we now have a situation where you can’t get away with saying things the way you used to before simply because they weren’t noticed. I mean, Roseanne has been saying crap like this for years. Years. Which they knew. And people generally just sort of didn’t know. Or if it happened it happened and disappeared. That doesn’t occur anymore. I don’t think that’s a thing you can do now.
John: So the three stars I mentioned, they all had sort of different trajectories. And it’s worth maybe looking at what the commonalties are and what the differences are. So Jeffrey Tambor, there were specifics, sexual harassment allegations against him, but also increasingly just being a dick kind of problems that were surfaced about him, when he was let loose from Transparent. Clayne Crawford, it wasn’t a sexual harassment thing I heard about so much but just that he was the problem on set, or he was a significant problem on set and was an obstacle to actually making the show that they needed to make.
And Roseanne, the final firing line was over a tweet she did. And I think if you were to dial back five, 10, 15 years, these same people could have been in those positions but I think you’re right. There wasn’t Twitter to either let themselves – they couldn’t hoist themselves up by their own petards. They’d have to go through some other media platform to get it out there. So, they say something to a reporter and that gets reported, or they’re caught on TMZ doing something. But there were buffers between this. And Twitter has sort of taken away the buffers.
And in some cases, you know, it’s probably the case of Jeffrey Tambor, people are more willing to speak out because of sort of a Twitter culture that says I’m going to share my story about what actually really happened.
Craig: Yeah. And there was a time, too, I think in our culture where people were simply more naïve about how this stuff worked. And networks and studios took advantage of that. They would get rid of people for being huge problems. But they would do it under the guise of their character dies and it’s a bit of drama and then that person says, “Oh yes, I wanted to pursue other projects.” They would lie. So they were just lies.
A bit like, you know, in the ‘50s when a young woman had an unwanted pregnancy and needed an abortion then she would take a holiday or something. Go overseas to visit someone. And then would come back later. There was this weird Kabuki theater that people would do because there was a shame around these things. And everybody bought it. Or maybe they didn’t, I don’t know. But we don’t do that anymore. We don’t need to. We don’t have shame about those things. And similarly for people on television – I don’t think anybody would those excuses anymore. We’re too savvy. I think the culture is too savvy. I mean, remember when you and I were growing up nobody ever talked about box office. Now everybody looks to see what a movie has made by Friday at noon. Because we’re just movie and TV savvy now.
John: Yeah we are. So, let’s think about whether it’s useful to draw a distinction between a person who is a difficult and a person who is an asshole. Because you and I have both worked with difficult people, and sometimes it’s worth it to deal with difficult people because they are genuinely talented and they’re not actually mean or bad people, just they are a lot to handle.
And so there’s been people I’ve worked with and people will call me to ask like, “Should I work with this person in the future?” And I will tell them these are the problems you’re going to run into and here’s why you need to decide whether that’s worth it to you. But if someone is asking me is this person an asshole, that’s a different conversation. That’s like this is a bad person who will make your life miserable and will hurt people around you.
I’ve always felt pretty free to speak up about that, but I feel like overall we’re more empowered as a town to be talking about that just in the last year or two. I feel like those conversations are coming much more to the fore.
Craig: No question. And it is an important distinction to make. Because it is inevitable that you will work with people that are “difficult.” Everybody’s difficult is different. Sometimes people are difficult simply because the relationship with another person is just not a good fit. So one person may say, “Oh yeah, so-and-so is difficult to work with,” and another person may say, “Oh, no, they were a dream.” That can happen.
Also, “difficult” sometimes is a function of just a person’s way of doing their job, but they’re not trying to be malicious. They just are puzzling. Actors in particular can be difficult in that I find some incredibly gifted, wonderful actors may behave in ways that are illogical. They may behave in ways that are seemingly hypocritical and yet they don’t recognize it. They may say and do things that seem counterproductive or self-destructive. A lot of it is connected to fear and feelings.
And yet if you get through it and survive that process what you get is wonderful work and you understand that that person is being difficult because they don’t know how else to get where they need to go to give you a good performance. And that’s their job.
But then on the other side of that line is abusive behavior and mean behavior which is –- whether it’s part of their process or not — I don’t think is going to be tolerated anymore. And this is sort of the discussion that was going on around Arrested Development the last week or so.
John: Absolutely. So I didn’t dive too deeply into any of the articles but it was the question of if you’re doing a group interview and this topic of Tambor comes up, how do you respond in a group interview to the reality of what’s in front of you? And his behavior in relation to everybody else who is in that same room. That’s tough. And it doesn’t sound like people nailed that conversation.
Craig: Well, I listened to it and I actually was really impressed by everybody. I know people gave Jason Bateman a really hard time and he went out and said, “OK, I might have flubbed that one,” or he said, “I did flub it.” But I actually thought that there was a very grownup conversation going on about performance and acting and the different temperaments involved in acting. And the fact that the work product of acting is ideally a true emotional expression. Requires actors sometimes to go to strange places inside of themselves psychologically. It is naïve to expect that that will not have some sort of bleed through for some people when you’re not in between action and cut.
But I also thought that it was a very reasonable response to say, “Yes, until you are hurting other human beings,” and at that point we have to protect humans. It’s not fair. There is ultimately, I don’t think, an even balance between treating humans decently and getting a good performance. I’d rather that people just be treated decently. There is no single actor in their genius ability that to me justifies them being cruel to other people.
So, I thought it was a really interesting discussion. Note, this was not about the accusations of sexual harassment against Jeffrey Tambor. This was about Jeffrey Tambor’s behavior, essentially being verbally abusive and being a dick during the shooting of Arrested Development in some prior seasons.
And lastly I will say that it is my experience that a lot of times when we hear that someone is a bad guy, or a bad woman, and then I meet them in person I am sort of stunned by the fact that that is not the case, at least for me. And there are other actors, men and women, who are held up as paragons of virtue, good guys and good ladies–
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: And then I meet them and I go, “Oh god, no, you’re awful.” There is one person in particular I’m thinking of who is sort of lauded for being wonderful and my personal experience is that this person is a monster.
John: Yep. And that’s why you have some of those conversations before you cast somebody in a role. Ideally just know like, “OK, you’ve worked with this person before. Is there anything you want me to know about them?” And that’s why you talk honestly about sort of what’s going on there.
Craig: Yeah. And also I would just add that the person that I encountered and went, oh god, this person is a monster, you know, then I asked other people, “By the way, do you know—“ And everyone is like, “Oh yeah, no, of course. This ironically incredibly famous person is also ironically a terrible human being but we all just quietly move about our day.” And that part is shocking.
John: Again, I wonder if it’s worthwhile to distinguish between one blow up and a pattern of behavior. So, I was thinking back to Christian Bale’s notorious blow up on the set of Terminator Resurrection and all the brouhaha over that, versus if Roseanne had tweeted this one time and had never tweeted anything else like this I don’t think she would have been fired. If that had been one tweet, and that was the one tweet, I don’t think this show would have been canceled.
I think there’s a difference between a long pattern of behavior and sort of like this one-time blow up that people do look at very differently. And the decision to get rid of her was like, “OK, we’ve crossed that line and we’re never going to go back to a place of normal sanity. We’ve got to cut our losses and run.”
Do you see a difference between the one-time and the pattern?
Craig: Sure. I mean, we are human. Every single person on this planet has had a bad hair day, you know. Everybody has lost their temper at some point. Everybody has done something that they regretted. Everybody has said something that they wish they hadn’t said. We’ve all had moments where later we feel ashamed of how we acted and then we make amends. We apologize. First of all, Christian Bale’s thing, I was on his side. Because I’m still angry about the fact that a DP goes behind an actor while the camera is on the other actor. So Christian Bale is trying to do a scene looking at another human being, and meanwhile behind that human being is a guy moving the lights around while they’re shooting. That’s crazy. So I actually understand that blow up. I mean, yes, any individual blow up when you start to listen to it it becomes unhinged and a little scary because that’s what blow ups are. That’s what anger does. And Christian Bale I believe apologized later, because that’s how it goes.
That’s different. The people that I have found scary aren’t the ones that have had moments and then come back to you and say, “I’m sorry about that.” The people that I find scary are the people that have no idea that they’re being cruel and in fact cruelty is sort of their method. They live in a weird space where they show up angry, they continue angry, and then they leave angry. And while they’re there they’re just mean. And mean in ways that make no sense. Those are the people that I just find terrible.
John: Yeah. That’s where you start to look at the, like, this person may be a psychopath test.
John: These are the people who cover their walls in pictures of predatory animals. They can fake human emotions but not actually demonstrate them. That is a real thing and you will see some of those behaviors.
But I want to talk about though these three examples we gave were all TV examples and there’s a difference I think with what we put up with in features versus what we put up with in TV. I think because TV you’re coming back for another season, you’re going to have to keep working with this person. Versus in features at least to this point we’re like “OK it’s only a month. It’s three months. We can get through this.”
John: “And so we just suffer through with this person and hope to never work with that person again until the movie is a huge hit and then we’re making the sequel.” That is an interesting thing and I’d be curious to see the first movie that fires a lead actor and just says like, “OK, no, you’re horrible, you’re gone.” I mean, Kevin Spacey is sort of an example of that because when they reshot all that stuff, but I’m curious what the first like while a movie is happening we’re just like “OK, no, we’re done, go away.”
Craig: Well, it doesn’t have to necessarily be an actor. For instance Bryan Singer was recently fired from the Queen biopic because of terrible behavior. Now, of note, Bryan Singer has been accused of terrible behavior practically for every single movie he’s directed in the last ten years, or more. So, again, it does seem like things are changing. The tolerance for this sort of thing is starting to drop to zero.
In the case of Roseanne, yes, if this had been the only time she had ever tweeted something like that then I suppose there would have been interventions, tears, apologies, the Ambien excuse may have possibly held a little bit of water. But the nature of it was so outrageous and so disgusting that I just don’t think it would have ever been able to continue even if it had been a one-time thing because there is a difference between a blow up where you are so dedicated to your work that you become enraged at inefficiencies or things that keep you from doing your job and incidences where you express thoughts or opinions or feelings that are just repugnant and completely out of line with the experience you want people to have when they watch your show.
John: Yeah. I think it’s worth pointing out was that Roseanne’s issue wasn’t about her being a bully on the set. It was about things she was saying off the set that were just abhorrent. And that was one of the first times we’ve seen that. So it wasn’t about what she was doing on the set. It was something unrelated that was causing her to be nixed from it.
So the last thing to sort of talk about, we talked about actors, we talked about directors, but some writers are notoriously assholes. And there’s been writers who have been famously fired or had big scandals that happened because of how they were running their writer’s rooms. Not so much on the feature side, because we’re not sort of in control very much, but there’s writers who are in control who are out of control.
One of the things I find so fascinating and frustrating is that we are one of the only places in the world where someone with no management experience is suddenly expected to manage a staff and be able to do all these things with no training and sometimes very little support around them. So I think it’s not a wonder that some people’s worst instincts come out in those situations.
Craig: Yeah. And to complicate matters further, what I said about actors is also true for writers. We’re emotional people, like all humans, but on top of it we’re doing something that is specifically emotional by design. We write and create these things. We do it with emotion. We do it to create emotion. And then we are, in television at least, placed in charge of the process to bring this about. And when things are different or don’t work right or are frustrating it is natural then to have strong emotional feelings about it.
And I think ultimately the best advice for all of us in these situations is when you have those responses, those strong emotional reactions, go have them quietly somewhere else. Have them to your heart’s content alone so as to not dump that on other humans. And then when you have calmed down and are able to be a little more dispassionate, come back and address the cause. Because you can fix things quite easily if you’re not enraged or frightened, you know.
It’s the anger and the fear in the moment that never – you might get what you want right then and there just by screaming or shouting or throwing a tantrum or being angry or afraid, but in the long run you’re damaging yourself, you’re damaging human beings around you, and you’re damaging the show.
John: Yeah. When you Hulk out you just destroy things. That’s what you do.
Craig: Hulk Smash.
John: Hulk Smash. All right, let’s smash our way through some questions. We will start with Mark. Mark writes, “What happened to feature comedy? It’s one of the genres I specialize in. Even though I’ve gotten positive feedback on my script from a variety of sources, people keep turning me down when I go in to pitch. In general the explanation is since comedy is no longer doing well in theaters they are only looking for small budget indie style comedies or ‘high concept’ bigger budget films with star talent attached. And, unfortunately, I fall somewhere in the middle of the scale.
“After doing research it does seems to be true that only dramedies like Bick Sick or Lady Bird or star vehicle comedies seem to be opening in theaters lately. And even then the numbers seem to be declining. Meanwhile, mid-budget comedies in the vein of Superbad, American Pie, and even something like Zombieland seem nowhere to be found as far as I can see. Is this reasoning just an excuse for executives to turn my scripts down, or is it true the feature comedy landscape is actually changing or declining?”
Craig, you write in this space. Tell me about it.
Craig: I don’t agree with this argument. Yes, it is true that there used to be more comedies because there used to be more movies. And it is also true that of the reduced amount of movies that now exist, we’re talking about theatrical films, a greater percentage of them are franchise movies which tend to be action films, super hero films, etc. The smaller movies a lot of times are mini-budget horror movies.
So I’m just looking at 2017 and so right off the bat I see Girls Trip. So when we talk about what he says, “Original mid-budget comedies in the vein of Superbad, American Pie, and Zombieland seem nowhere to be found as far as I can see,” it’s staring right at you right there. Girls Trip worked. And there was The House and there was Jumanji which I thought, I mean, it’s a larger thing but it was definitely a comedy. The made Chips which, OK, maybe didn’t work, but again in that same zone. There was Snatched.
Anyway, point is they do make comedies. Kevin Hart makes one a year as far as I can tell. So, they absolutely make these. Melissa McCarthy makes one to two a year as far as I can tell. It has always been the case that comedies are driven by comic stars. When one of them kind of comes out of nowhere then that person becomes a comic star and they keep making movies with that person.
I don’t think anything has changed other than the fact that they make fewer movies in general. If you get turned down when you go to pitch, you’re pitching to the wrong people. I mean, I don’t understand this. You go to pitch a screenplay for a comedy and the person says, “Oh, comedy is no longer doing well. We only want small budget indie style comedies or high concept bigger budget films,” who is sending you into these rooms?
John: That does feel weird.
Craig: Either you’re in the wrong rooms or they’re kind of just lying to you and really what they’re saying is, “We just don’t want to buy that.”
John: Yeah. I can see that. Another comedy that I really loved quite a bit was Game Night of this last year.
Craig: Yeah, Game Night, there you go.
John: Which was delightful. And, again, mid budget. Stars Jason Bateman. It’s the right kind of thing for what we’re describing.
I think they do still exist. I think Craig is correct that it’s mostly because we’re just making fewer movies overall, so in making fewer movies we’re making fewer of these comedies. I also do wonder is the kinds of comedies we’re talking about, even Game Night, even Girls Trip, as a script you could also make that as that lower budget thing, too. So I’m not sure you’re necessarily – unless it’s Jumanji where it literally is that expensive of a movie to make, or some of the other Kevin Hart things like Central Intelligence that requires a certain budget and scale, a lot of those scripts are going to look the same whether they’re kind of low budge or medium budget. So, write those scripts and if people want to make them they will make them.
And the reason they become mid budget is because they add on some stars and enough of a production value that it just costs that much and they shoot it in Atlanta. But otherwise it’s not that different of a thing. So, keep writing those scripts. And also I’d say writing those scripts is also probably a good way to get staffed on the many, many comedies that are shooting these days for TV.
Craig: Yeah. And they’re also making comedy films for TV, you know, Netflix for instance does this sort of thing. But, yeah, I think that there’s still plenty of life in the let’s call it $30 million comedy. Plenty of life there.
Christina from Malibu writes, “What is your opinion on postscripts at the end of a biopic? Are they necessary? Appreciated? Expected? Can they take away from the story you just told?” John?
John: They largely drive me crazy. Basically like we’re going to tell a story up to a certain point, and then we’ll roll some cards and tell you the rest of it. I tend to find them very frustrating. Sometimes they work when they’re done well.
What does drive me crazy on biopics is when they show the real people. It’s like, you know those actors you just saw, well these are the real people and this is what they really look like and isn’t that great? That drives me crazy. I can’t explain why it drives me so crazy, but I don’t want the illusion broken by showing me the real person at the end. It makes me nuts.
Craig: Well, do not watch the very, very end of Chernobyl, which is going to have a very long postscript only because there’s just so much to say.
John: Oh, of course.
Craig: But are they necessary? Are they appreciated? Are they expected? I don’t know. I mean, in a movie where you just spent 90 minutes or two hours and you’re a trapped audience member and you can’t go, there’s a limited amount of time there at the end. Basically people are incredibly patient for the first 20 minutes of the movie and I think they’re generally incredibly impatient in the last 20 minutes of a movie. And reasonably so.
So, whatever you say at the end should be quick, I think, if you are talking about people in a theater. For television at home, I mean, I think everybody can – it seems to me like it’s sort of information on demand, you know? The more you want to know, well, it’s there. And if you don’t want to know it, you just hit pause and go to sleep. You’re done. So that’s kind of my feeling about it. It’s sort of up to you. And the good news is it’s something that you can decide very, very late. I mean, you do need to know what it is you want to show at the end if you’re going to be putting up cards. You need to plan for that visually if you need to shoot stuff. But the actual decision of how much you want to put there and why, you know, that’s late – that’s a late sort of thing to worry about. And there’s chances to do it or not.
John: The one thing I would urge Christina to think about is that the card should not be the end of your movie. So basically the central dramatic question of your movie shouldn’t be answered by the card at the end.
John: Your movie has to answer the question at the end. If there is an extra beat that is meaningful or poignant or is very helpful for the audience to know after that, basically sort of how much longer this couple lived at the end, great. I can see the argument for that. But you have to really end the story as the movie and not as the card at the end.
Craig: No question. The cards really do have to have a little bit of irony to them or they have to be extra credit. Essentially if you love this story, and you love all this stuff, here’s some more that would be cool for you to know. But beyond that, yeah.
John: Cool. Tony writes, “I was wondering what your thoughts are about shopping agreements. I’ve adapted a novel I co-wrote and a small production company here in Australia is offering a shopping agreement, giving them the rights to represent the screenplay for 18 months. From what I can see on the intertubes, the agreement I’ve received is pretty standard to others out there, but I’m curious how effective these agreements are.”
Craig: I mean, pretty standard sort of thing. How effective are the agreements? I’m not quite sure how to answer that. I mean, what you’re really asking I think is how often do people that sign shopping agreements end up actually selling something, and the answer is I don’t know. And it doesn’t matter. Let’s say I gave you the average. Let’s say I told you that 0.5% of the time it works. What are you going to do? Cancel it? Of course not. You want to be the 0.5%.
So, I wouldn’t worry about any of that. Generally speaking if you want to work in this business and you’re starting out you need to make friends with uncertainty because that’s what you got.
John: Yeah. So to define terms here, a shopping agreement would be Tony making a deal with this production company saying that for this period of time you can be essentially the producer, the creative financial partner behind this thing as they go out and try to find more money to raise to actually make this project. They’re kind of standard. If you’ve looked up other ones online that would be good.
I would say that your trust and faith in this production company is worth as much as the actual contract is. And so hopefully you’ve done your research to figure out what else have they actually made. What is the reputation they have for things? You’ve talked with them about what their actual goals and intentions are with the thing.
I haven’t done a lot of these shopping agreements. The closest we came was a project that Jordan Mechner and I did together, which was to be shot in Asia, and we ended up partnering up with this small Asian production company which was trying to find the larger financing. It was fine. But, you know, it’s not a thing that Craig and I are doing on a regular basis. It’s a thing that happens more in indie finance things or things that are using a lot of international financing.
Craig: Correct. Nate writes, “Recently your colleague Josh Friedman was fired as showrunner on his TNT series Snowpiercer and was replaced by Orphan Black creator Graeme Manson. Friedman was hurt when Graeme failed to reach out to him and he said so on Twitter. What is your opinion on proper etiquette? Was Josh justified in making this public?”
All right, John, what do you think?
John: So Josh is a friend. I don’t know Graeme at all. I’ve known Josh for a good long time. And I knew Josh as he was headed off to make Snowpiercer and I know that he had a vision for the show and was not at all happy to be replaced on the show. And I think what I respect about Josh is he actually sort of openly communicated his feelings about how it all happened. Because there’s a tendency we have is to buckle down and pretend that everything is OK and that it’s all just fine and good and that’s just the way it goes. And it’s not always well and fine and just the way it goes.
And so Josh has been – back even from his blogging days has been just very up front and honest about sort of how it feels to be doing this job. And so I get that.
I would say overall protocols for when I come on to a project to replace somebody, when I am replaced by somebody, that reaching out, that conversation is good and helpful and just lets the person know where all the bones are buried. Just that little bit of a blessing to go forward. But it’s not always easy.
I can very much see it from Graeme’s side as well. I don’t know what the real situation was. I don’t know how bad things got or sort of who was saying what. I know it’s hard to sort of come in and make that first phone call to the person who just got let go. But I think I am mostly with Josh in the sense that it sucks. And I think it’s good sometimes to acknowledge that it sucks publicly because otherwise it seems like it’s all happiness and success in this town. And if you don’t talk about the failures people get even more distorted views of how the industry works.
Craig: I agree with that completely. And that part is very admirable. We should talk about our failures more than we do because it is a huge part of our lives. For many writers, probably most writers, it’s the majority of their careers is failure. Because this is a tough business and the odds are brutal. It’s why, for instance, when the critics ripped me open for Identity Thief that’s why we did that show, because I wanted to talk about that specific kind of fail. I mean, the movie was a success happily, but critically it was a failure. So I wanted to talk about that.
Look, that to me is – protocol wise I feel like our failures are ours. We own them and we are free to talk about them and I encourage that. And I think it’s wonderful – anything that avoids shame about that is wonderful.
However, I don’t take swings at other writers in public just as a matter of course because, again, I feel like even if another writer flubs it or blows it – and I certainly support always reaching out to writers. That’s something I’ve always done.
I just don’t like making other writers the villains. I feel like this business is brutal and a lot of times we just don’t know what’s going on. There are times when people are hired and someone says, “Listen, if we can’t keep this show going the following 150 people lose their jobs. We need you to keep it going. And for the following reasons we are asking that you do not have contact with the person we just fired.” Well, that’s a tough spot. And then it becomes tougher when you can’t respond and someone is taking swings at you in public.
Now I don’t know if that’s what happened. It may be as simple as that in fact it was just kind of poor etiquette. I don’t know. But because I don’t know – and because I generally think that taking swings at writers and taking swings at their work is not good for us as a community, that’s something that on that front I think it’s better etiquette to refrain from that sort of thing. But I certainly feel for Josh completely. And so as much as we can show empathy for each other I’m in full support.
John: So I don’t want to go back through the whole Twitter timeline right now to see who said what exactly, but my recollection is that Josh was talking about his situation and how he felt about not getting a call from the person who is replacing him. Is that taking a swing at the guy who replaced him? Kind of, but like there’s sort of no way to even talk about it without acknowledging that he hasn’t had any conversation with the guy who is taking over the show.
One thing I should say is that Josh and I actually developed a show together. So we did a show at Fox that didn’t make it past the pilot. And it was heartbreaking, but I’ll tell you that it is so much nicer to have a script not go to pilot than to go to pilot and not get picked up, or go to series and last a few episodes. The more you’ve done on a project, the more fully emotionally committed you are to something and it’s just devastating when it doesn’t go forward.
TV is just this crazy thing we make where we’ll shoot 30 shows and four will make it to the air. And there’s just so much buried labor in making TV.
Craig: It is an awful situation. And these things do happen – they don’t happen often, but they do happen. And they can be very upsetting. They should be very upsetting. I mean, to be asked to leave something that you love and care about is hard. And it’s happened to all of us. And it is very, very hard.
I’ll tell you what I do with writer etiquette and it’s just my way of etiquette. It’s not the right way, it’s just my way. I love to give positive examples. So I like to talk about how I feel when a writer calls me, or how writers react when I call them. Because I think that’s helpful. And then I also will from time to time I will send a private message to somebody who I think is doing it wrong. And certainly not in this case. Not Josh. I don’t think he did anything. I’m talking about other writers occasionally do things on Twitter and I go, “Oh no, no, no, nope, nope, nope. No.” And then I send them a little note. I’m like an old guy now, so I can say “I just don’t think that’s good for us as a group.” And I’m polite about it. And it has nothing to do with me, so I’m just an independent observer. I’m just saying this isn’t good for us. And every single time I’ve had that conversation it’s gone well actually.
I think a lot of times it’s just that we don’t see it. We miss it. And we’re human, right? We make mistakes. But we must protect each other and take care of each other. And when we fail to do so it’s weirdly even more important to figure out how to take care of each other while we correct each other. I think that’s just generally my feeling about these things.
John: Yeah. I’m sure I’ve said it on the show before, but I’ve become good friends with screenwriters who I only met because either I was replacing them or they were replacing me. And we had that phone call to talk through stuff. And it was fantastic. So, it’s just a way to do that. And especially in the age of Twitter now it’s much easier to reach out to somebody, even if you don’t have the mutual contact, to just chat about things and wish them well and let them know that you are there to listen if they have things they want to tell you about the baby that you were raising for those past months.
Craig: I mean, how often do you read something, have a reaction to it like, “Oh my god, this person has reported a story, they have been wronged, this other person is a jerk.” And then maybe you meet that person, or you meet somebody that knows that person and you hear a different story and you go, “Oh, OK, that’s not what I –“ that’s pretty common. And all the more reason I feel like there’s rarely any practical good that comes from this sort of thing in public. Far more practical good comes from it in private.
However, the big difference is the stuff we were talking about earlier. The abusive stuff. So now we’re not talking about etiquette. We’re talking about people that are bad people. They’re abusive. They’re hurting other human beings. Then I think actually we do ourselves a disservice by not talking about it in public.
Craig: That’s where it gets dangerous.
John: It’s tough. And I think for far too long we’ve just assumed that saying nothing is the best approach and maybe a thing that’s happened over the course of the last 18 months is we’re starting to realize if we say nothing things will just continue.
Craig: Yeah. That’s true.
John: All right. Let’s go to our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a card game called No Thanks! I’m not even sure who first recommended this card game to me, but it’s really good. It’s by this guy Thorsten Gimmler. And the idea behind it is you are sort of bidding to not take cards. And in the bidding you are putting these chips on the card that shows up. And eventually you’ll decide like, oh you know what, I’m just going to take this card and get all these little chips. It’s a very clever mechanic and I’ve never seen it in any other game before.
It’s good for like three to five, maybe six players. But we really liked it, so it’s become a new Friday afternoon game here around the office. So it’s No Thanks! It’s by Thorsten Gimmler.
Craig: Excellent. I also have a little game this week. It’s the third chapter of a series that I enjoy called Faraway. This is an app on iOS and maybe it’s for Google, but as we all know I don’t care. And Faraway is sort of a puzzle solving game. John, did you play The Witness by the way, or I guess it’s just Witness?
John: I never played it. I know what it is though. It’s by the same guy who did Braid.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. Jonathan Blow. Excellent game. The style of puzzles in Witness are I guess more complicated versions of what you see on Faraway, but it’s a very fun game. It goes through pretty easily, but inside each level there are three little hidden pieces, notes essentially, and finding two of the notes is usually very, very simple. Finding the third note is very, very hard.
I tend to like games that add little collectible hunts. It’s just an interesting little mechanic that makes me happy. So anyway, Faraway 3. Pretty cheap little game in terms of cost. But fun.
John: Nice. Cool. Well 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 the great Jon Spurney.
Craig: The great Jon Spurney?
John: It’s a pretty great outro, so he gets the great for this one.
John: If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place to send questions like the ones we answered today. On Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. That’s a great place for little short questions we can answer.
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We still have a few more of the 300-episode drives. Let us know if you want us to make more of those because we were encountering situations, especially overseas buyers will say like it’s cool to get the drive but the import taxes on the drives are incredibly expensive so is there another way to do it. So we’re thinking through that. Let us know on Twitter what you’d like us to do about the drives, or the situation for that, because we might just go to a purely digital version of that. We’ll see.
Craig: Right. Yeah, I mean, because somebody can go and buy themselves a little thumb drive for $20 and then download just our archive right?
John: Yeah. So we’re thinking about maybe we could break them up into either 50-episode or 100-episode chunks that are like still manageable for downloads. We’ll see.
Craig: What will be the most profitable for me?
John: The most profitable for you would be anything. Really nothing would make any difference for you.
Craig: Right. Right. OK. Interesting. Interesting. Great.
John: Now, Craig, if you want to negotiate a split on this we can? Tell me what more you’d like to do on the show to ensure its profitability.
Craig: I feel like I do so much, you know, just in terms of personality labor.
John: Oh yeah. For sure.
Craig: Just like my glowing personality has a value.
John: So going back to Kevin Hart, so I went to the Survivor Finale which was great, because Jeff Probst who is a Scriptnotes listener invited me to come to the finale. And it was fantastic. But Kevin Hart shows up at it to promote his new show. And I really wonder about the business model of Kevin Hart’s new show, because it’s this competition show where it’s this silly thing where you’re racing across these obstacles and the other team is trying to knock you off these obstacles. Sort of like American Gladiators but with like–
Craig: Regular people?
John: Regular people doing American Gladiators. And he’s a charming host, he’s wonderful, but how much are you getting paid? What is the split that gets Kevin Hart to do that show?
Craig: So much money.
John: So much money. So like you, Kevin Hart has that sort of personality plus is what he gives.
Craig: So true.
John: He is the intellectual property. He’s the emotional property. That’s what it is.
Craig: Kevin and I go back. We go all the way back to 2008.
John: Was he in Superhero Movie?
Craig: He was in Scary Movie 3 and Scary Movie 4 and Superhero Movie.
John: So you directed Kevin Hart.
Craig: Yeah, I did. I don’t know if Scary Movie was his first movie, but it was close to his first movie. We hired Kevin because he came in – remember, he came in for like a fill in for a table read.
John: That’s so great.
John: That’s great. And he was small back then. But he’s grown so much.
Craig: Well, he’s still physically small.
John: But now as a force of personality.
Craig: I have loved watching the rise of Kevin Hart so much because just to close the circle, let’s come full circle on our theme. Kevin is such a good guy. He’s always been such a good guy. He’s always been a gamer, up for anything, hard-working dude. Doesn’t get any like ego in the way. And he’s good at what he does, obviously. He’s just a delight. Kevin, every time he would walk on set, every single time he would go, “OK, it’s magic time.” That was what he would say every time. I loved that. He’s the best. I love Kev.
John: And the minute we stop recording we’re going to talk about all the actors who are not good people. Bye Scriptnotes!
Craig: By the way, I know, exactly. I made a mistake. I said 2008. I meant 2003. Sorry, Scary Movie 3 was in 2003.
John: Wow. We’re old.
Craig: So Kevin Hart’s first role was in a movie called Paper Soldiers in 2002. I don’t know what that movie is. But his second role was in Scary Movie 3. So that’s how far back me and Kev go.
John: Very nice.
Craig: Yeah. All right, that was a good show.
John: Good show. Thanks.
- A series is in development based on Elif Batuman’s New Yorker article about rental families.
- Some listener-recommended outliners include Workflowy, Gingko, Cloud Outliner, OmniOutliner from Omni Group, Pages, Causality, and good old index cards.
- Some recently fired examples include Roseanne Barr, Jeffrey Tambor, Clayne Crawford, and Bryan Singer.
- A question of etiquette regarding replacing another writer
- No Thanks!, a game by Thorsten Gimmler
- Faraway 3, a puzzle game for iOS
- The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide!
- The USB drives!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Jon Spurney (send us yours!)
Email us at email@example.com
You can download the episode here.