The original post for this episode can be found here.
Craig Mazin: This podcast has a little bit of strong language in it because Leigh Whannell has potty mouth.
Hello, my name is Craig Mazin and this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast I’m flying solo. Good news for those of you that hate John, all one of you. John is actually off handling some press for the next Arlo Finch novel, I believe, because you know he’s a mystery. But no worries as today I am joined writer-producer-director-Australian-and-actor Leigh Whannell. I will be talking about his generally terrifying body of work as well as his latest film, Upgrade. He’ll also be helping me answer some listener questions.
But first we have a little bit of follow up. And we have no follow up. Follow up is done. Leigh Whannell, welcome to the show.
Leigh Whannell: Thanks for having me. Long-time listener, first-time caller. It’s great to be here. You like me. You really like me.
Craig: I do. I’ve always liked you. So we met at Austin, at the Austin Screenwriting Conference back like five years ago.
Craig: OK, that is five years ago.
Leigh: And I never knew that film festival existed. I got an invite to it and thought, oh yeah, sure, this is fun, Austin. And got there and realized it’s all about writers and writers are king at this festival. And it was like heaven. It was amazing. And, yeah, we had a little gang going.
Craig: We did. We had a gang. And I talked to them and you’re coming back, so we’ll get you back for more gang activity.
Leigh: Well, we were kind of roughing up other people at the festival. People were afraid of us.
Craig: Obviously screenwriters–
Leigh: Easy people to rough up.
Craig: And also we’re intimidating as a screenwriting gang.
Leigh: Kelly Marcel was probably the most intimidating member of the gang.
Craig: Yeah. Did you see Gangs of New York?
Leigh: Yes I did.
Craig: So there is that woman in the bar who would jump on people and bite their ears off. And then she had claws. That’s Kelly.
Craig: So let’s talk a little bit about what was happening with you before we met in Austin. Sorry, we have a microphone in between us so we’ll keep tilting our heads to see each other.
Leigh: We’re playing tennis.
Craig: So you came on the scene in 2004.
Craig: At least here in the United States. We came to know of you in 2004 with Saw, which you wrote and starred in, along with director James Wan. And you created not only that long-lasting franchise, but you also created the Insidious franchise which my daughter, I have mentioned to you, is obsessed with.
Leigh: It’s a good sleepover movie, Insidious.
Craig: She is obsessed with Insidious, and one, and two, and three, and four. So, but running it down there’s Saw, there’s Saw 2 and Saw 3. There’s Dead Silence.
Craig: There’s Doggy Heaven.
Leigh: It’s a short film. Paid for by PlayStation. Sony PlayStation I believe.
Craig: Nice. PlayStation. You wrote Saw the videogame, of course. Then there’s Insidious. And there’s Insidious and Insidious and Insidious: The Last Key, which I feel like there’s going to be another key. I just suspect there’s another key.
Craig: And now Upgrade. And that’s an incredible run. We’re looking at 14 years and, geez, like almost 14 movies, right?
Leigh: Yeah, there’s The Mule, and Cooties is in there. I have had a pretty lucky ratio in terms of scripts written to scripts produced. Yes, I definitely am aware of how fortunate I am in that regard. Thus far I’ve written movies that are fairly low budget which is one way to make them easy to get made.
Leigh: You know, you write something that’s going to cost $100 million you’re going to enter a world of pain.
Craig: Little tricky.
Leigh: It could go on for years.
Craig: That’s right.
Leigh: The one movie I did write that was quite expensive was kind of a kid’s film, like a fantasy adventure along the lines of Labyrinth. That has never been produced. That is the great white whale that sits in my drawer. It was optioned by an animation company. They had it for a few years. So I’ve dipped my toe in that world and then I always run back to the comforting arms of low budget filmmaking where we don’t talk about making movies. You make movies.
Craig: You just make movies.
Craig: And you are a full-fledged producer of these movies. I mean, you do have the benefit of not dealing with not only the reluctance of people to spend $100 million, but when people agree to spend $100 million I got news for you. It gets even worse.
Craig: It can. They’re like, “Hey dummy, we’re giving you $100 million. We have thoughts.”
Leigh: “We have some ideas.”
Craig: Yeah. “We have theories.”
Leigh: Oh man.
Craig: “And things you have to do.”
Leigh: See, that’s got to be a special skillset amongst writers. Like I’ve obviously listened to your podcast a lot and I’ve heard you and John talking a lot about this industry of working writers who will be brought in to maybe work on a draft. That’s why you go and see a movie you see 12 names in the writing credits. You realize it has gone through it.
Like that is something that I’ve never gotten into, not so much because I think I’m above it or whatever, it’s just I always like the idea of the movie you write is the movie that gets made.
Leigh: But I imagine there’s a whole world of pain. They probably pay you a little better than they do in the independent world, but there’s a whole world of pain in terms of like, “No, we’re thinking a different movie.” Or like, “Actually, we’re going to scrap your draft and move onto something else.”
Craig: There’s a tremendous world of pain. Imagine, if you would, an industry that’s like a bathroom. And you wake up and you are shackled to a toilet and some puppet is demanding that you, you know, stab your own eye out.
Leigh: Yes, OK.
Craig: It’s not that good. That’s better than–
Leigh: I like that you kept it familiar to me, so I can get the reference.
Craig: I’m just using the one example I think you might understand. And I want to get back to the bathroom, which I spend a lot of time in personally. By the way, your bathroom is part of our spoof in Scary Movie 4, which we loved.
Leigh: And I loved that too. Before I knew who you were–
Craig: Thank you very much.
Leigh: I was like I have made it.
Craig: By the way, we only spoof what we love. That is true.
Leigh: This was the one with Shaq.
Craig: That’s right.
Leigh: Playing the Cary Elwes role.
Craig: Yes. And Dr. Phil.
Leigh: Dr. Phil! And then Shaq cut off the wrong foot.
Craig: Yeah. He cut off the wrong foot.
Leigh: See, that’s genius.
Craig: That was one of our better–
Leigh: That and The Sopranos were the two times where I was like, “Oh yeah, we’re in the culture.”
Craig: It’s a real thing. I still get residual checks for being the voice of our puppet.
Craig: Like I get $2.
Leigh: What you’re saying is that I’ve put food in your children’s mouths.
Leigh: Some of those sort of healthy kale snacks that you try and disguise as fun snacks, or chips?
Craig: Exactly. Yeah. So about $3 or $4 a year on residuals for that one.
So, when I saw – so I had to watch Saw very carefully and multiple times over and over. And I was grateful that I enjoyed it, because nothing is worse than – but it seemed to me that something happened around then, and I want to give you my non-horror guy’s view of the horror movie business. And tell me where I’m wrong about this or where I might be right.
My sense of things is that in the ‘70s horror got really edgy, like it started going way out there towards like – and the point was like how close to X or X can we be. And you had – so The Exorcist, which still the scariest movie I’ve ever seen in my life, had things in it that today I don’t think you could do. I mean–
Leigh: Not without being sort of relegated to some out of reach of the genre ghetto.
Craig: Correct. I mean, it’s just like intense crazy stuff. And then movies went from there and were like, “Oh, no, I’ll show you intense.” But then in the ‘80s with the rise of VHS this other thing happened where – so I would go to the video store and I would see a wall of tapes of just pun-based names. And most of the movies seemed to be kind of pushing forward either their version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but kind of goofy. Or their version of Freddy but kind of goofy. I mean, Freddy started getting goofy.
So there was that kind of. And then in the ‘90s it was just like sort of gone. Like people went, “Remember horror movies?” And then you guys came along. And I feel like Saw started this era of new horror that has just exploded beyond anything I think has ever existed before in film history.
Right or wrong?
Leigh: I would say right. For a self-described non-horror person you kind of nailed it. I mean, I feel like horror was always seen as this bargain basement genre. You know, if you think about early Hollywood, the studios were making epics and musicals and war films. And then they would rush out these cheapies with Belo Lugosi and it was Dracula vs. The Mummy. So it was always thought of as a program. It was something to put on a double bill in some cheap theater and then it was the drive in era. And it never – it just never had that respect. It always dabbled occasionally with critical respect. Maybe you’d have a film like the Jacques Tourneur stuff where suddenly the critics were like, “Oh, this one is not so bad.” But mostly it lived in this ghetto.
Then in the ‘70s is where you suddenly had like marquee A-list directors making horror films like Friedkin and Kubrick. And for the first time horror was being seen through the lens of critical respect. The Exorcist was nominated for Best Picture for god’s sake.
It had this moment, but then you’re very right. Not to just repeat what you said, but I feel like what happened in the VHS era is that that bargain basement mentality took over because horror is cheap to make. It’s so budget-friendly.
Leigh: It’s hard to make a science fiction movie cheaply. It’s hard to make an action movie cheaply because fights and car chases by their very nature they’re not cheap. Crashing cars.
Craig: Comedies and horror.
Leigh: Exactly. Comedy and horror. You can crank them out. You put some guy in a vampire costume in the corner. It’s all on one set. You can do it. And so I think producers with a lack of resources and money have always gravitated to it as a grindhouse. And it has that built in audience.
The interesting thing about the horror genre is to horror fans the genre is the star.
Leigh: You don’t need a movie star.
Leigh: So all the way back to the ‘30s to today, if you’re talking some guy who is cranking them out in his office making low budget films, of course he’s going to lean horror. Because not only does he know he can get it done, but he knows that the audience will grab onto it. He doesn’t need Jennifer Lawrence.
Leigh: And so the VHS era I think was responsible for this slump. There was a real slump in horror. And it was weird in the ‘90s because that was kind of my era. I think Scream was kind of the high watermark of horror in the ‘90s.
Craig: Right. But the funny thing about Scream was it wasn’t duplicate-able. So the brilliance of Scream was what Kevin Williamson did commenting on the genre.
Leigh: He had to bring a ‘90s irony to the horror genre. He had to look at it through the lens of irony. He couldn’t do something at face value in the ‘90s.
Craig: That’s right. He had to essentially say look how silly this has all become.
Leigh: We were so ironic in the ‘90s.
Craig: God, we were. But also the brilliant move of putting then a non-ironic director in charge of it.
Craig: So the marriage of Kevin and Wes – by the way, I don’t know if you ever – did you ever spend time with Wes?
Leigh: I actually interviewed him once for a TV show I used to work on in Australia. And he came across as the most genial, nice guy ever.
Craig: Like the nicest. And just the last guy in the world you would expect to do–
Leigh: Exactly. But you know what? That happens continually in the horror genre. Like every person I meet is like, “Wow, I expected you to be some lunatic dressed like Marilyn Manson.” Everyone I know in the horror community in LA, they’re all so well-adjusted, nice. It almost is in direct contrast to the comedy scene where everyone is morose and depressed.
Craig: Terribly depressed.
Leigh: And they’re like supposed to make people laugh for a living. There’s some inversion happening there where the funny people are depressed and the horror people making depressing assaultive movies are super happy.
Craig: Super happy.
Leigh: It can’t be an accident. There must be something about the expulsion of that and the venting of getting that stuff on paper that lets you kind of be the sunny side of things. Whereas in comedy maybe it’s the opposite. It’s like I spend my whole day making people laugh. Don’t fucking tell me that I have to be nice right now.
Craig: Yeah. I think probably also you can’t really effectively make people laugh in a repeated way unless you’re miserable. Because that’s what comedy actually is. It’s a repudiation of reality. I mean, and what Kevin did. He loves horror, but also there was a part of him that was like this is ridiculous. Right?
Craig: So it’s that. But no one else could do it. Right? He did it.
Leigh: And they tried to do it, as with everything else in Hollywood.
Craig: Yeah, they copied.
Leigh: There came a little glut of copies that lasted a year or two.
Craig: Right. And then woo.
Leigh: But you know what happens with those trends, we see them all the time, not just in horror but just off the top of my head I’m thinking about a little Hollywood micro trend like body swap movies. The ‘80s. All of a sudden you’ve got Vice Versa. You’ve got Like Father Like Son. And what always happens, and what I love with the benefit of hindsight is when the dust settles a decade or two later you look back and there’s always one movie that stands the test of time. So no one remembers Vice Versa, but everyone still loves Big.
Leigh: And no one remembers Urban Legend – apologies to those horror fans listening right now who are like “I totally remember Urban Legend.” But in general no one remembers that. But Scream still holds up. If we were to put that movie on right now it’s still a great movie. And usually it’s the great ones that kick start a little trend. And like what happened with Saw was I felt like, you know, we made a cool little engine low budget movie. And then it kick-started this trend. And in a way I feel like James Wan and I were sort of retroactively blamed for inventing this torture porn. But a lot of the movies that came in Saw’s wake just weren’t very good movies.
Craig: I agree with you. It’s actually a great point. There was a genre that emerged out of Saw that isn’t what Saw is.
Leigh: It was a bit more extreme. It was pretty gory.
Craig: Well the point of Saw wasn’t like look how much torture I can apply. That wasn’t what was going on there. There was a lesson. Saw to me is more in common with Fincher’s The Game then it does with, I don’t know, whatever the torture porn movies are because I haven’t seen them.
Leigh: Yes. Exactly. Whatever.
Craig: But then what happens is people watch a movie and they take the wrong lesson, right? Which is you know what people love? Bathrooms and torture. So I’m going to make a movie called Rest Stop. It’s just bathrooms and torture.
Leigh: It happens all the time, doesn’t it? People will watch Clerks and producers will be like, “Ah, you know what people like? Cheap camera work and grungy dudes.” And it’s like, no, what they like is great humor and well-written comedy. “No, no, that’s not what they like.” And so you end up getting a glut of Clerks clones that don’t actually resemble that initial sort of thing.
Craig: Of course. Because they don’t know. And I always want to say to those people did you know that before Clerks came out? Because if you didn’t, then it’s not true.
Leigh: Exactly. Yeah, I mean, I will say that James and I at the time, we were so happy just to have made a film that people saw that none of this had an effect on us. We weren’t ashamed of that torture label because we were so busy celebrating. We were so busy being happy that somebody would let us make a movie.
Craig: Happy horror people.
Leigh: Yeah, happy horror people. And, you know, it’s funny. I grew up watching franchise horror movies. Every sleepover I ever went to from age 12 to 17 was like Halloween, Wishmaster…
Craig: Oh, Wishmaster.
Craig: I’m kind of obsessed with the Wishmaster.
Leigh: Me too. Some of those ones that slipped through the net I love. I love Warlock with Julian Sands. That’s a VHS staple.
Craig: Oh my god. Warlock is amazing.
Leigh: It’s amazing, right?
Leigh: Carpenter’s run from 1980 to 1990 to me is flawless. Like even the films he made in that decade that weren’t great were super interesting. But, I mean, he did The Fog, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China. It was crazy. And I grew up watching those movies. And so when Saw got turned into a franchise and they made Saw 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, I kind of looked at it with affection. Instead of being ashamed of it and being like, “Oh, this studio and these producers have sequelized our baby out of control,” I kind of was like, you know what, there’s some kid at a sleepover right now in some suburb who is watching Saw 4 and he’s loving it. And you know what, godspeed. Go with it. It’s fine.
And I can imagine your listeners saying, “Yeah, well, I bet you love the residual checks, too.” Sure! But the point is that creatively I wasn’t even that mad at it because I was like this is just–
Craig: It’s what happens.
Leigh: This is the Halloween of this era.
Craig: That’s right. It is. And it can go on and on. And you and I were talking before we started rolling, as they say, about how the success of a movie requires a little bit of time. There are movies that explode, people are obsessed with them in the moment, and then weirdly they’re just gone. There are Oscar winners that you’re like, “You win an Oscar,” and…
Leigh: I don’t want to know names, but I know the movies you’re talking about.
Craig: It’s like let us never speak of this movie again. And then these movies that maybe people look down on or whatever and then in ten or 15, or 20 years people come to you and say, “Oh, no, no, no, I’m obsessed with—“ Like for instance, the Wishmaster movies are not good movies. In a kind of I guess we’ll call it objective level.
Leigh: On a base level, right.
Craig: There’s mistakes. And there’s goofiness to it. But I’ll watch them because there’s something about the way the Wishmaster guy talks that makes me happy. Like why does he talk like this? I don’t know.
Leigh: It’s like the Leprechaun movies. I bet you’re a big fan of Leprechaun in the Hood.
Craig: Not that one.
Leigh: That’s the one.
Craig: Not that one.
Leigh: But, you know, that even happens to really good movies. I read an interview with John Carpenter. When The Thing came out it was shredded by critics. They hated it.
Craig: Hated it.
Leigh: And now it’s seen as a bona fide classic.
Craig: That’s right.
Leigh: And to me it’s a flawless movie, the survival horror. It had bad timing. It was released in the year of E.T. Everybody was like, “No, aliens are nice, you’re wrong about that.” And for some reason the critics shredded it. And if you look now at the reviews 20, 30 years later, they’re so reverent of that movie.
Craig: Well, of course. That’s the joke. The joke is – by the way, in that sense critics are just like producers.
Craig: It’s easy to see after The Thing is a success that people love that The Thing is a success that people love.
Craig: That’s not hard to do. And so these things do happen over time. But I want to ask you a little bit about the idea of sequels, because you did write two of the sequels to Saw. And you wrote all three of the sequels to Insidious, right?
Leigh: Yes. All of the Insidious.
Craig: So that’s three Saws, four Insidious. I know a little bit about writing sequels. It happens all the time to me. And I’m kind of curious. Comedy sequels are tough because comedy relies on a certain sort of freshness of premise. When you hear a joke that someone tells it’s funny. They tell it again five minutes later with a slight variation you’re like, “Why are you even talking?”
Leigh: Especially with a film like The Hangover where the premise itself was the star.
Craig: Kind of, right? It’s like what do you do?
Leigh: Guess what? They woke up in another room without knowing what was happening.
Craig: I mean, the theory was you can do an episode – it’s like episodes of James Bond. But that’s James Bond’s job. So you’re right. I mean, there’s a difference there. But with horror I feel like maybe sequels aren’t quite as challenging because the engine of fear doesn’t go away. It sort of finds a new person.
Leigh: Yeah. I think you’re right there. It’s one of the easier genres to sequelize. Especially since usually the bad guy is the star, so you just bring on the fresh crop. I mean, that’s how they make Nightmare on Elm Street movies. They go, hey guys, here’s the new class that I’m going to chop up.
Craig: He said in the trailer, “How sweet. Fresh meat.”
Leigh: Yes! Sweet fresh meat. That’s all it is, right? And that especially happened in the ‘80s. And I think as we were saying before that’s where horror really got its bad name by just repeating this trick.
So it is easier to write an installment, but the hard thing is to keep up quality. Like the law of diminishing returns I feel really applies with horror movies. And so with the Saw movies I wrote those first two sequels and I did the best job I could but I remember when I finished writing the third one I was like I’m kind of done here because I don’t have anything new to offer and I really feel like this is just work.
Whereas with the Insidious films I’ve tried to actually keep up the quality or I’ve made such a conscious decision to avoid the pitfalls of diminishing returns. I’ve tried to treat each new Insidious film like this is just an original that I’m writing that just happens to be connected to another movie. But sequels are funny because at a certain point you’re living your life right, you need to eat and earn money, so you’re like sequels are the one area, especially when you’re making independent films, where they pay you.
Craig: They pay you.
Leigh: They say we’ll pay you. You have this one chip on the board and, you know, fans or critics might come out and say, “Oh, he’s a sellout. He did all these Saw sequels.” And that’s their right to say that. And they shouldn’t have to think about those extraneous circumstances. But I’m living my life. And I’m like, you know what, it would be nice to be set up – I remember someone saying a quote to me once. Do one for the wallet, one for the soul. And so I would do a sequel and it would be like my yearly paycheck. And then I would go off and write two movies on spec. And I only could write those movies because I had done the sequel.
Craig: There is no selling out. There’s just you’re funding what you care about.
Leigh: Yeah. It is.
Craig: You’re funding what you care about.
Leigh: It is. It’s like this project you do–
Craig: The truth is that you can’t ignore the reality of, “Listen, you did an amazing job on Saw. Would you like to do another Saw?” You know what, no, I don’t do that. “OK, well we’re going to pay somebody else a lot of money to do that then.” Now somebody else is making a lot of – and also doing it wrong. Because you have your way.
Leigh: Right. I know what you mean. And, you know, an interesting thing happened with me also because I felt like I was learning on the job. The first Saw movie — I wrote the first draft when I was 23 and, I mean, obviously a different person than I am now. But I didn’t know anything. I read a screenplay book and I loved movies. But was completely unqualified to write one. And then it got made. And so James and I found ourselves in this situation of like being totally naïve. It wasn’t like I wrote 20 scripts and then did Saw.
A lot of people get their bad scripts out of the way before they start. And maybe someone listening right now is thinking like, “Oh god, woe is me. Your first movie got produced and it was a hit movie.” But it was an interesting situation to be in because it was very unexpected for us. And so when I wrote those Saw sequels I feel like I was learning the job. I was like hang on, so how do these things work? And obviously I haven’t stopped learning. Every screenplay that I write I’m still learning. But back then I was really like still getting it together.
So it’s been interesting to kind of look back at my resume to actually see the growth not just on paper but on film and go, “Ah.”
Craig: We learn on the job.
Leigh: You learn on the job. And James and I were both thrust into this thing of like, whoa, we’re on the scene with our first movie. It’s kind of like a band whose first album is a runaway hit and all of a sudden they don’t have years to build up their–
Craig: The terrifying sophomore slump. Like how do we match this?
Leigh: A band that toughs it out in small bars, by the time they have their hit album their skin is thick, they’ve learned a lot of lessons. We learned all our lessons at the cold place. Like for instance Dead Silence you mentioned. So what happened with Saw was we made this movie, it was a hit, and then as you know you do a little victory lap of Los Angeles. Sit in a lot of offices. A lot of people named Chad give you a Diet Coke. “Love your movie. My god.”
Craig: “Amazing movie. Visionaries.”
Leigh: “My assistant saw it. I haven’t seen it. But my god, he tells me it’s amazing.”
Craig: “But I’ve seen how much it made.”
Leigh: “I’ve seen how much it made.” And so we did all those meetings and we were having fun, like ooh, people are telling us we made a good film. And then we signed a deal with Universal and we made this movie Dead Silence. And that’s where we had this experience that you were talking about earlier of all the people – oh, but you have to incorporate our ideas.
And I feel like we learned a lot on the job. We made a movie that was bad and it wasn’t a hit movie. And neither James nor I are really proud of it. But when I look back I’m like thank god that movie happened so I learned what not to do.
Leigh: It kicked us up a few levels away from–
Craig: It has taken me, and I’ve been incredibly impervious to those lessons. But I’m slowly starting to learn them. Slowly starting to learn.
Leigh: It’s really tough to learn.
Craig: It is. They’re tough to learn. But it does seem to me that you have learned things because – so my daughter is a big Insidious fan. And we were watching, I can’t remember which one it was, I think it was maybe 3 where–
Leigh: It’s the one I directed.
Craig: The one you directed. Where somebody knocks on a door and she freaks out because it’s answering the question of something that happened in the movie prior where someone heard like a ghostly knock and it made them change.
Leigh: Oh yes, yes, yes.
Craig: So it seems to me that you in making the Insidious movies you maybe had a franchise in mind. I mean, when you started were you thinking big?
Leigh: No, not at all.
Craig: It just happened?
Leigh: Yeah. In fact any film I write – even to this day I’m always thinking in the back of my mind this is terrible. It’s not going to get made. No one is going to care. You’re a joke. Move back to Australia. And, you know, get a teaching job.
Craig: We’re going to get to that part of the podcast shortly. That’s where we conclude.
Leigh: We’ll get to the self-hate. Exactly.
And so I never think of sequels because I feel like planning a sequel even in my mind is an assumption of success that would anger the moviegoers. I don’t want to jinx the whole process. I’m way too superstitious. A lot of people said to James and I, back in the Saw days, they said, “Well you really left that first movie open didn’t you for a sequel?” And we would always say, “No, we literally closed the door.” The movie closed with a door being shut. And we thought that was a great closed ending, like a cool twist, cut to black, done.
Craig: That’s it.
Leigh: And the Monday after the movie came out, they didn’t wait very long. It might not have even been 12pm yet. The phone call came and we got a lesson in Hollywood commerce where the producers, god love them, they said, “All right, let’s start talking sequel.”
Leigh: And we’re like, Huh? And they said, “Sequel. Well look at the numbers. We got to make another one.” And it kind of took us by surprise. I didn’t think the call would come on Monday. I thought there would be a few months of drinking Mai Tais.
Craig: Now it comes Friday night.
Leigh: Oh man!
Craig: Because they’ve gotten their box office stuff down to the point where sometimes it happens even before. Sometimes they’re looking at tracking and they go, “Oh, the movie is coming out in a month, but we should start talking about the sequel.”
Leigh: You know what’s interesting? You’re asking me this question the Monday after a movie I wrote and directed came out.
Craig: Which we’re getting to.
Leigh: Upgrade, yes. But all the tracking was not so good. But everyone was saying it’s OK. It’s a limited release. We’re not spending a lot of marketing. You can’t expect to.
And it’s been interesting to – all I want is for the tracking to be wrong. Not even for the sake of my movie. I just want the tracking people to be wrong.
Craig: It’s very often correct.
Leigh: I know. Frustratingly so.
Craig: Because humans are not unpredictable. I mean, yeah, but let’s talk a little bit about Upgrade. I want to lead into a lot of the creative things, but since you brought up the business aspect of it, my question is – and perhaps this is just Pollyannaish, but I don’t know, does it even matter? For movies that come out of this new horror model where they cost less than $5 million typically, as did Upgrade I believe?
Leigh: Yeah. Upgrade was around 5 American. But then we shot it in Australia, so you add some money to the gross with like tax rebates and exchange rates, etc. etc.
Craig: So I mean it’s in that zone. Very small budget. Who cares – I mean, yes, I would care in the sense of it would be amazing if it was one of those things where they put out–
Leigh: It was a Get Out or whatever.
Craig: Yeah. Get Out cost $3 million and it made $3 billion. OK, that’s amazing.
Leigh: And it was nominated for Best Picture.
Craig: And it’s nominated for Best Picture. It’s awesome.
Leigh: That wouldn’t be bad, would it Craig?
Craig: No. I don’t know what it’s like. But sure. I’m going to guess, no, it would not be bad.
Leigh: I’m going to guess it wouldn’t suck.
Craig: I’m going to guess that it would be OK. But it seems to me that at that budget level, and also with the way the horror community can function, who cares? Like, OK, whether it does this or that, we know that these movies are then discovered by people and take a life of their own on. So, I’m just kind of curious if that’s something that you have internalized or if the low budget horror business is as concerned with that opening weekend as the big movie business is?
Leigh: Well, look, I think the math of what Blumhouse does, this low budget horror filming, is it meant to be self-sustaining. You can make a movie for $3 million and if it only grosses $10 million you’re a hit.
Craig: You’re a hit.
Leigh: And that is Jason Blum’s model and to his credit he really sticks to that. He does not waver from it. He is not interested in making $30 to $40 million movies that need a star and everybody is crossing their fingers with a bottle of Xanax on the desk the weekend it comes out. He likes this model because he can make ten movies a year and if just one of them is a Get Out that movie pays for all the rest of them. Multiple times over.
Craig: That year and the next year and the next year.
Leigh: And the next year. So, he loves that. What it allows him to do is throw mud at the wall creatively. He can take a chance. Nobody would say to Jordan Peele, “Yes, comedy person, we’ll make your horror film.” It’s a crazy thing. Whereas Jason can.
Craig: Your race-based horror film.
Leigh: Yes. Exactly. And he had already been around town and everybody was like, no. Jason however is like, “Sure. Let’s do it.”
And so I think it does work well. I think for the filmmakers having seen what those movies can do – in fact, we’re living in a really weird time for movies. I mean, firstly they’re becoming so antiquated compared to like TV shows. You go to any dinner party in Los Angeles, the conversation is not what movie have you seen. It’s what are you watching?
Leigh: TV is now the ruler. And you’re competing with so many other platforms that you weren’t – when Saw came out in 2004 it was movies and TV and a bit of gaming. Now you’re competing with people’s Snapchat accounts for their eyes. So movies are in a weird time. And it’s getting to a place where the only movies that get theatrically released are either mega budget superhero movies, or low budget horror movies.
Craig: I’ve noticed.
Leigh: Yeah. You’re either Get Out or Insidious, or you are The Avengers. And everything in between has now become an HBO series. So I think what happens is when you’re making one of those movies you’re hoping to be the Get Out. You aren’t satisfied with the nice little win. You’re going for the gold.
Craig: But I think you should be. I think you should be. I think that that becomes a dangerous game in and of itself. And in that game you start to see the seeds of destruction for the model. Because if Jason Blum were to start thinking that way he would start chasing. And kind of the system is, look, what happens is what happens.
Craig: But if Get Out is the rare – I mean, it is rare – and it is sort of the, OK, it’s hard to do better than that, right?
Craig: But there are these other definitions of success. Again, five years from now this may just take on this incredible life and, I mean, and it happens in comedy. Mike Judge, Office Space, right? So everyone has seen Office Space. Office Space is sort of for a generation it’s like Animal House. It’s just seen and it’s a touchstone and people quote it. It was a bomb.
Craig: Not just a bomb. Like a smoking crater bomb joke. Like ”Oh my god, those idiots made a movie called Office Space, dumb-dumbs, and look who they put it in.”
Leigh: Yeah, exactly. Ron Livingston. And isn’t that – something happened during the video store era where movies would suddenly have this second shot at life. Same with Anchorman. When that came out it was like bomb.
Leigh: And then all of a sudden you look around and you’re like, wait, how come I know every line in Anchorman and so does everyone else around me?
Craig: Austin Powers.
Craig: The first Austin Powers was a bomb.
Craig: That movie cost like – I can’t remember what the numbers were. It was something like it cost $45 million and it made like $25 million. But then in video people became obsessed with it.
Leigh: And I’m wondering does that even happen as much anymore in the streaming version of things as it did in the video store era?
Craig: No, my guess is because there’s a lot less money involved. But now what happens is Netflix may see, OK, well these people are complaining that their Adam Sandler movie costs this much money to make and it only made this much theatrically. But what we know is our viewing base loves Adam Sandler. And they’re obsessed with Adam Sandler. They watch it a billion times over. We don’t send a lot of money over apparently, but they – so why don’t we just make the Adam Sandler movies? And they do.
Leigh: He’s almost just going directly to his audience.
Craig: He is.
Leigh: I’m going to talk exactly to the people that love me–
Craig: It’s not almost.
Leigh: And I don’t want to sell to anyone else.
Craig: And they remove all of the – the things that we love about the theatrical experience, right, being in that big room, and the lights go down, and it’s communal, and it’s an evening out also requires getting people to drive to it and park, which means marketing. And all that goes away with the Netflix thing.
But see brilliantly I think with your model, more people are going to buy tickets than what it costs. Upgrade will make money.
Leigh: Yeah, I think. And you know I read this David Fincher quote where he said, “The Oscars should be held ten years after the fact.”
Leigh: We should be doing the Oscars for the movies that came out in 2000 in 2010. Because only then will we truly know what the best picture is.
Leigh: Can you imagine, Goodfellas would have actually won Best Picture if it was done that way.
Craig: No question.
Leigh: Wouldn’t have been Dances with Wolves. That always happens with the Oscars is you look back and you’re like every now and again they get it right, but you’re like, oh man, clearly this was the best movie of 2014.
And, you know, that is a nice shelf life for a movie and with something like Upgrade I’m seeing a lot of great word of mouth online. Now we live in this time where you can put your movie out and instantly jump on the Internet to see what people think of it.
Leigh: And I don’t love social media, but one of the great things about it is getting that instant, in the moment, feedback directly from the audiences. And I see this great word of mouth. And I think about what you’re talking about. And I’m like, you know what, I’d be so happy if this became one of those five, ten years from now genre staples that everyone goes, “How good was that movie?”
Craig: And I also feel like there are movies that everybody feels good about. And then there are movies that a few people feel great about. Like I feel great about Buckaroo Banzai. Like I do. It’s a big deal for me. Not many people, even now as a “cult film,” not many people have seen Buckaroo Banzai. And when it came out nobody saw it. I think it was me and like–
Leigh: Yeah. It was you in the theater with two others.
Craig: The family of the people that made it.
Craig: So let’s talk about, because Upgrade is a departure for you in a sense.
Craig: It’s the second movie that you’ve directed.
Craig: But it’s not really horror. In my mind it’s sci-fi.
Leigh: It’s kind of sci-fi action. What I wanted to do there — this was kind of an interesting problem for Blumhouse. So I had done the Insidious movies with Jason Blum and it was great. But it was a family and a house. It was all very budget-friendly.
What I wanted to do was see if I could make a sci-fi movie within that model. Because I loved the creative freedom of it. I loved the fact that they didn’t have time to waste and spend three years in development.
Leigh: But I didn’t want to just make another movie about a family in a house that’s being haunted by a demon. So I looked to movies from my youth such as the original Terminator. If you go back and study that movie–
Craig: $3 million, maybe?
Leigh: I know. And actually there’s a bond place, a movie insurance bond place on Sunset that has the budget for The Terminator on the wall in a frame. It’s one sheet of paper.
Leigh: It breaks down the $3 million, all typed. It’s a beautiful thing. I should have stolen it off the wall.
Craig: And it’s great.
Leigh: That movie, if you study that movie they dole out the science fiction so judiciously that they pull a little bit of sleight of hand on the audience. You think it’s a much bigger movie than it is. And Arnie, he is the special effect.
Craig: Correct. He’s the special effect.
Leigh: You buy that he’s a robot. But they really don’t show you that he’s a robot until the end. And so I used that as a model to say to Jason Blum and to everyone at Blumhouse, “We can make a sci-fi movie in this Blumhouse model if we make it like this original Terminator.” And I finally convinced them. And we went to Australia and we made this movie. We had a car chase. We had fight scenes. And it was all done run-and-gun. It was madness. It was like we were trying to shot The Matrix with the budget of Insidious, which I should have had my head examined trying to do that.
But somehow I was insane enough to try it. And I’m really proud of the movie we got. I think the crew in Australia was so dedicated that they didn’t laugh when I said, “I want to do The Matrix for this price.” They were like, sure, OK.
Craig: I feel like that’s a very Australian thing.
Leigh: Oh yeah.
Craig: Someone says something crazy, like I want to jump and touch the moon, and they’re like, “All right. OK, mate.”
Leigh: Mate, I’ll tell you, the best example of that was our stunt coordinator. He’s a legend in Australia. Legendary stunt man. To give you an idea of how legendary he is, he worked on the first Mad Max film.
Leigh: Before there were stunt men in Australia. That was just George Miller saying, “Hey mate, ride that motor bike into that wall.”
Craig: The crazy person with the–
Leigh: Yeah, the crazy person.
Craig: That wasn’t a stunt man. It was just some lunatic.
Leigh: No it wasn’t. It was just some lunatic. So Chris was the lunatic. And this guy, salt of the earth, he’s the type of Aussie that Americans think of when they think of Australians. I’m not that guy. He’s a guy who is holding a wild animal on a TV show. And I would say to him, say Chris – he’s so Australian that I would say, “Chris, can I have one car smash into another car and then that car smashes into another car and then that car smashes into another car and they all go sideways into the wall in unison.” And instead of saying, “Oh, I don’t know. I mean, we’ll have to have a meeting,” he would go, “Oh yeah, fuck yeah. Yeah, yeah mate.”
Craig: He was so excited.
Leigh: He was like, yeah fuck, give it a go, hey.
Craig: Give it a go! What’s the worse that happens? Four people die?
Leigh: Yeah, people could die. And I really think you’re right–
Craig: I wish I were Australian.
Leigh: I think that Aussie spirit of like, “Yeah, mate, we’ll give it a go, why not?” It really helped this movie because we shouldn’t have been able to do it. And I feel like if we tried to do it over here there would have been a lot of people saying, “Uh-uh.”
Craig: It is fascinating the culture of these things is remarkable. That there’s like a culture in the United States of – well, we’ll just call it like whatever they consider best practices of production.
Craig: And then there’s European best practices which I have found, because Chernobyl is a European production, are very restrictive. I mean, they’re very, very like “Don’t hurt anyone.” And obviously you don’t want to hurt anybody, but sometimes it’s like the scene, we have a stapler, so “Everyone the stapler is live. If you are concerned about the stapler please call the following number.”
Leigh: Then you have Asian films like Hong Kong movies and Thai movies where it’s like, “So we need you to jump from this building to the other and we couldn’t afford any safety nets, so you really have to make it.” And the guy is like, OK. That’s the opposite. Australia is somewhere in the middle. We’re not quite Europe where it’s like Stapler Live, and we’re not quite Asia where it’s like, yep, I need you to jump from the helicopter into the shark’s mouth.
But there is a good sort of for lack of a better term Mad Max spirit of like I’ll give it a go.
Craig: I mean, watching the latest Mad Max movie you just got a sense that part of the reason it works isn’t that they’re doing crazy stunts. It’s that they’re so willingly doing crazy stunts. Like the guys on the poles want to be on the poles. They’re just thrilled.
Leigh: You could call it like a macho culture thing, or that Australian thing, but there is this crazy thing of like I’ll do the – you always go to a party in Australia, I mean, I’ve lost count of the number of times growing up that someone will be like, you know, it’s like, “Quick, come in the living room. Mac is going to hold his head in the fish tank for one minute.” And just like who is going to do the stupidest thing possible at this moment? And then that moment of course is well suited to be a stunt man. That’s the whole job.
Craig: I mean, it’s that great line at the end of Kung Fu Hustle. Like, you know, could be a doctor or a lawyer. Probably a stunt man.
Leigh: Probably a stunt man. Yeah, yeah.
Craig: Probably a stunt man. So, the choice of directing. I know people always ask this of writers. Why are you directing? But you have an interesting circumstance in that for a long time you were partnered with a director. And then somewhere along the way you said, “OK, now I would like to do this.” What changed for you? And the premise of this question is this: I don’t want to – I’ve directed. I’m just like I don’t want to do it. I like other people doing it. It’s so exhausting. And also I end up caring so much in a weird way that my head hurts and then I get paralyzed. Because it’s like I’m so intense about everything. Whereas if I’m not directing, somebody else is directing, I can kind of relax a little bit and breathe. You know?
Craig: You obviously don’t have that. Did you always have the drive?
Leigh: I think so. I mean, I went to film school to learn to direct. I happened to meet James Wan at film school and I guess it was like, you know, you go to music school and you meet John Lennon. You’re like, you know what, I’m going to team up with that guy. He was a really good filmmaker. And so when we finished film school and faced the cold winds of reality I said to James, I just thought there was strength in numbers. Like we should team up and I’ll write and you’re direct. And I’m so glad that we did that because that’s why I’m sitting here. But in the back of my mind there was always that film student that was like, well, you’ll do it one day.
But I was perfectly happy. And I think directing was kind of forced on me in the end because James went off to do these huge tent pole movies. And it was like a little bit of a – almost a breakup. Like a benevolent breakup where I was like, OK, so who am I without James if I’m not one half of this duo? And I was like this is the time to direct. And Jason Blum kind of shoved me into directing the fourth Insidious film.
And I thought it was going to be what you described, just a constant stress. And I actually enjoyed it because I felt like – funnily enough I felt like directing was an extension of writing. You know, when you sit down at your desk you write a line like, “He walks into the room, papers in hand.” That’s all you write. But when you direct you get to decide what color the wallpaper in the room is and what’s the guy wearing when he walks in the room. All the things that you didn’t write down. Is he in a bad mood when he walks in or a good mood? The papers he’s holding. You’ll have set decorators coming up to you saying how many papers is he holding, ten or 100?
All those little micro decisions, I actually enjoy it because I feel like I’m coloring in between the lines of the screenplay. So the screenplay was the structure of the building and directing is putting the stucco, you know, to use a wonky metaphor it’s like I enjoy the feeling of being the last decision maker as opposed to watching someone else go, “Well, he’s carrying two papers.” And I’m sitting there as the writer going, “I was thinking 100, but whatever.”
Craig: See, television is fun because I can be like, “Mm, you know, I think it would be more like 20,” and they go OK. That’s interesting.
Leigh: But that’s directing. When you talk about TV, I feel like what you’re doing in TV has a foot in the directing camp as a writer.
Craig: Well, it’s producing, but the director is directing. I mean, there is an enormous amount there that they’re doing that is what they do. But like anything else I think any director is going to, I mean, good ones I think are always listening to everybody. So, the person that comes to you a lot of times will say how many papers. And you’ll say three. And then they’ll say, OK, just so you know that’s what this is going to look like. We’re kind of thinking it’s going to look a little weak. You know what I mean? Everybody is kind of–
Leigh: But I also love that about film sets, that collaborative nature. I feel like the director gets too much credit for the fact that–
Craig: I do, too.
Leigh: It is. It’s just crazy. And then maybe they get the blame when things go badly.
Craig: There is that.
Leigh: I love how collaborative it is. It’s funny, one of the best things I’ve ever done in terms of directing was go to the Writers Guild for a seminar. I opened my email one day and there’s an email from the Writers Guild with a subject heading “Are you a writer who wants to direct?” And I’m like, why yes I am.
And so I RSVP’d for it. A month goes by. I forget about it. And then I get this email saying don’t forget your seminar is coming up this Saturday at the Writers Guild. And I’m like, oh shit, I forgot about that.
So I go along and I remember it was raining. It was one of those rare LA days where the rain is pouring. And I’m thinking why am I going to this seminar? This is going to be some guy who directs wedding videos trying to tell me some crappy metaphor like directing is like capturing a firefly.
And then I get there and I swear I learned more in that five-hour seminar at the Writers Guild then I did in three years of film school.
Craig: Who taught it?
Leigh: It was Billy Ray. John Wells. And Nicole Holofcener.
Leigh: Already I’m like, OK, so I got my notepad out–
Craig: Also all three of them are incredibly pragmatic people. They are crafts people. I mean, they’re artists, too. But they understand the craft.
Leigh: But you know what was great? I couldn’t believe how practical and pragmatic each piece of advice they gave. Almost to the point of obviousness. Like one thing Billy Ray said, they talked for an hour or two, and then we split up and we had some time with each of them. And Billy Ray said at the end of each day you go up to every individual crew member and say thank you. Now you’re not going to get all of them, because some people will leave. And you’ll be running around like a chicken with its head cut off. But every day.
Which some people might think, well, that’s obvious courtesy. But if he hadn’t have said that I probably wouldn’t have done that. But I was furiously noting everything down in my notepad and I carried the notepad from that seminar around on my first film set like a bible.
Leigh: And I would read it every morning. There’s a list of rules. And you best believe I ran around at the end of every day shaking, out of breath, like thank you. Thank you so much. By about the fourth day the crew was looking at me like, “You know you don’t have to do this every day.”
Craig: Yeah. Like the only other person that’s ever done this is that weirdo Billy Ray.
Leigh: Exactly. Has this guy been hanging out with Billy Ray? But it was amazing. At the wrap party two, to a man, everyone and a woman, every one of the crew was like, “Oh, we so appreciated that.” It was so amazing to get that from the Writers Guild. Like the Writers Guild just paid for itself in one hit just with this amazing seminar to have access to these people.
Craig: That’s great.
Leigh: And one of the things they talked about a lot is dispelling this myth of the director as auteur and the captain of the ship. And this whole like General Patton mythology of like I must lead my soldiers up the hill. It’s like, no, you’re a traffic cop and you’re helping technicians to make something. And if you come at it from that angle you don’t need to scream and yell. And here’s the words that no one wants to believe. It can be fun directing. It doesn’t have to be this like soul-shredding thing.
Craig: I think the thing that holds me back is just my general impatience.
Leigh: Yeah right.
Craig: Because the actual process of making movies is so slow. It’s just slow. And I get bored.
Leigh: And also takes up a year of your life.
Craig: And then there’s that.
Leigh: From like script to sound mixing stage you’ve just marked out a year. You could write four scripts in a year.
Craig: And the truth is I love the beginning and the end. I love writing and I love editing. It’s the stuff in the middle that I’m like can’t you just give me the footage?
Leigh: That’s why it sounds like TV is perfect for you right now.
Craig: It kind of is.
Leigh: Because that is exactly where the writer is working the most. Yeah, see, I mean, I think it’s amazing that there are people out there who just want to write. I think it’s so great because that’s the only way you’re going to get great writers is people dedicated to that. Like in Australia for example most people who write a script want to direct it. We don’t have an industry of writers like you have in the US. And when I came to the US I was just so in awe of this strong, healthy industry of writers who wanted to be better writers. And I definitely was in that world for a long time before I directed.
Craig: Think of how many scripts you wrote because you weren’t directing.
Craig: That’s the big difference I think just in terms of mastering screenwriting is if you’re just screenwriting you get way more practice at it.
Craig: And it takes practice.
Leigh: Exactly. Any time anybody says to me what’s your advice to screenwriter I just say write. You’re going to learn on the job. Watch great movies and read a lot of scripts and just keep writing. Your 20th script will be good and you’ll surprise yourself, but you need to actually do the work.
Craig: You got to climb up that hill. Well, why don’t we answer some listener questions before we wrap things up, because you know what? People deserve your wisdom. You’re obviously smart.
Craig: I’ll read them out loud.
Leigh: I’m not going to answer that one about how I maintain my physique. That’s not something I want to talk about on this podcast.
Craig: Tim from LA writes, “How do you maintain your physique?”
Leigh: Well, Tim…
Craig: No, this is a question I think you’ll have some good insight for. So, Tim from LA writes, he says, “I have the good fortune of being writing partners with an up-and-coming director.” All right. Sounds familiar.
Leigh: Sounds familiar.
Craig: “Whom is represented at one of the biggest talent agencies in Hollywood.” I think that should be “who” Tim. And that’s a tricky one, but I think it’s who. Regardless. “Our first feature script is making the rounds and we feel really good about its chances. I’m also writing scripts on my own. My writing partner got signed as a director based on his short films and music videos that he made prior to us partnering up. I’ve never spoken to anyone at this agency, nor have I signed any documents, but they have been sending out a script with my name on it. Are they technically my agency, too, or should I be pursuing representation with a different agency? Is it common for someone in a writing partnership to have a different agent for their solo work? That seems like a conflict of interest to me. I would love to hear your opinion on how I should proceed with this once my script is done.”
Leigh: Huh. That is a good question. It’s a little bit of a conundrum because they are going out there and effectively selling your product, but not directly on your behalf. If this were me, and you can weigh in Craig, I would probably sit down with that agency and say, “Listen, you represent my friend. But you’re taking my script out. What is your interest in me as a client? Because if not I’m going to go and get an agent.” I would go to them. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to have the same agent as your friend.
Leigh: I had the same agent as James Wan, so in my experience my version of your story is the agency, Paradigm, signed us both. And the same agent was both of our agent. So some could say is there a conflict of interest? I haven’t found it to be so because ultimately an agent wants all of their clients to do well. They don’t sign people that they don’t want. So I don’t think it’s a bad thing for his friend’s agency to sign him. But he needs to get some clarity from them real fast on whether they’re interested. Because if they’re not interested in signing him, which would be weird, they’re taking your script out, he should get himself an agent as quickly as possible because if this movie starts to get made and starts picking up steam and he doesn’t have anyone in his corner, he’s in trouble.
Craig: I totally agree. And also if they’re sending his script out, the script that he’s written with this writer-director, and he’s not represented by the agency that means that he’s not paying commission on it. I’m pretty sure that the agency thinks that they do represent him. That’s like my suspicion already.
But the person I would probably start talking with first is the writing partner and say, “Listen, you know I do solo work. I want to be represented with you. Basically make a proposal. I’d like for us to share an agent for the work that we do together. And I’d like to stay in that agency and either have that same agent be my solo representative or have another agent handle my solo work. It’s at the same agency.” Probably makes sense to have it be the same person. And then talk with the agency about it. And say, listen, fair question: are you interested in representing my solo work?
My guess is they would say yeah, because what does it cost them?
Leigh: Well the problem is if they’re not representing him and they’re sending his script out, my bet is they’re leaning pretty heavily on their client when they talk to producers.
Craig: Oh yeah.
Leigh: They’re probably not even mentioning this guy. So they’re like, “Oh, my client wrote this script with some other guy.” They would probably be painting a picture that it’s the friend’s script. And so he needs to–
Leigh: Have someone there putting his part of it up. But always honesty is the best policy with agents. Like if and when he does meet with the agency say I’m only interested in signing with you if you’re a fan of mine. Forget my friend.
Craig: That’s exactly right. And I think being honest and open about these things is exactly what you do.
Leigh: It never hurts.
Craig: Yeah. And don’t be scared. There’s nothing to be scared about. You don’t have to invest any high drama into the question. It’s a pretty easy question.
Craig: But it seems to me the path of least resistance is, yeah, for them to share an agent.
Craig: You got time for one more question?
Leigh: Yes. Of course.
Craig: Let’s do it. Grace in Burbank writes, “How do you get your physique?” No, she writes, “I’m a screenwriter and…” so many people are fascinated by your physique. Most of our viewers.
Leigh: It is something that doesn’t happen just by accident.
Craig: No. It’s obviously a lot of hard work.
Leigh: It is. And it’s worth it. It’s worth it.
Craig: You and Hemsworth both. And when I say Hemsworth I mean all of them.
Leigh: Yeah. I’m sort of all the Hemsworths put together.
Leigh: Not the Hemsworths we know. The Hemsworths that live in Boronia. I went to high school with them.
Craig: The Boronia Hemsworths.
Leigh: The Boronia Hemsworths.
Craig: They’re Bogans?
Leigh: Yeah. Bogans.
Craig: “I’m a screenwriter and director and I’ll be shooting my first feature soon.” Sounds familiar. “I would like to hire someone to do a punch-up pass to expand the comedy potential. I’m big on the drama, not so much the comedy. I know that this is common in the industry and that generally the writer hired is not credited, meaning the punch-up writer is not credited. My question is more about the ethics of being recognized or nominated or awards if that hired writer isn’t credited. I know Craig has mentioned doing this for scripts, and you guys have talked about weekly work in this area, so I wonder how you felt about it. Does the industry typically know when something like Bridesmaids had punch-up writers? And how do you feel about it? If I can find someone I’m thinking I’ll have this person sign an NDA. Is that reasonable and ethical in your opinion?”
Do you guys do punch-ups for horror?
Leigh: No. Not really. Punch-up, it is sort of the province of comedy, but it’s also the province of studios. Studios have the money and the resources to bring in someone like say Craig Mazin and pay them to do the work. And the money, Charlie Sheen’s, what is his quote about prostitutes? He says I pay them to leave.
Craig: Yes. You don’t have to pay them to have sex, you pay them to–
Leigh: You pay them to leave. The studio is paying these punch-up writers to come in, do their work, and then leave without saying anything. I’m assuming, maybe I heard incorrectly, she’s making an independent film?
Craig: It just says a first film. But I’m going to suspect independent.
Leigh: Let’s say it’s independent. You’re not probably going to have the money to pay someone properly to come in and do a punch-up. So I would find the funniest person you know, or writer, why not give them a credit? Why make them sign an NDA, unless you’re adamant that you take sole writing credit? If you’re directing the movie, I don’t think people look down on it. Usually people don’t know. What people look down on in the film industry is if somebody got screwed over.
Leigh: And those stories can filter through. So if this were me, I would bring on somebody and I would credit them. And I would give them a credit on the movie, an independent film.
Craig: For me it depends on what they’re doing. So, a traditional punch-up or like a roundtable, Grace, is where five writers will sit around a table and for four or five hours just talk through the movie, toss out some jokes. The jokes tend to be somewhat limited, dialogue based. Although inevitably there are some story suggestions, character suggestions. I mean, writing gets done.
I did a roundtable for a movie, and I don’t talk about the names of them, but I said, look, there’s a missing scene. It should be something like this and here’s what it would sort of go like. And that’s in the movie.
Craig: The lines of it and all of it. I didn’t write it down, but that’s – these things do come out of these things. None of us expect credit for that. In fact, Writers Guild-wise we’re not eligible for credit because you’re working as like a five-person team or something like that. It just doesn’t work that you’re eligible.
Leigh: But you get paid for that punch-up.
Craig: You get paid for the punch-up. So here’s what it comes down to, Grace. The question is one of expectation. If you say to people, listen, this is a traditional punch-up. You come in. You do the work. You’re paid this much money. And that’s it. There’s no credit involved or anything like that. That’s an upfront deal. That’s an expectation. And how much can you do in one day? I don’t think anyone in one day can do enough to qualify for authorship.
Leigh: For a whole credit. Right.
Craig: So the question I guess does the industry typically know when something is – everything in comedy gets a punch-up table. Nobody ever is like, oh my god, the reason Bridesmaids is a hit is because Jimmy came in and had that great one-liner about whatever. It doesn’t work that way. That’s not why we love movies.
Leigh: Well, I guess then for Grace it comes down to making sure that person understands it. And being able to compensate them. Being able to find the money. It’s a different thing if you’re like come in and punch up my movie–
Craig: For free.
Leigh: I can’t give you anything. And you’re not going to get any credit.
Craig: No. Then that’s not ethical. Then that’s – professional writers should be paid for their work. Signing an NDA, I mean, we don’t do it because we just generally as a professional code. And per the Writers Guild, it’s one of our rules, if you work on a movie and you don’t have credit on the movie don’t talk about it.
Now, a lot of writers do violate that. I will see writers in their bios it will say, “And also was an uncredited writer on blah-blah-blah.” And I’m like then were you?
Leigh: Sounds like you’re credited now.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. Like, I mean, I don’t ever do that. Ever. I think it’s just–
Leigh: But if Grace is working in the independent world and she thinks things might get sticky, maybe an NDA might help.
Craig: That’s the problem. In the indie world you may need that NDA.
Leigh: There’s plenty of horror stories about someone coming out of the woodwork later with independent films and saying, “Well, actually I need to get some of those profits because I had a big part in it.”
Craig: Well, the one thing that we definitely sign is all of our work away. So in Hollywood you come in for a roundtable, you have a full wad of contract paper. And it basically says anything you say or do in this room belongs to us.
Leigh: Do you enjoy doing those punch-up sessions where you sit around a table with five other writers and kind of–?
Craig: Depends on the movie and the writers. I did one for a Disney movie and there were four other writers, and I loved all four of them, and we had a great day. And we helped the movie. Not in any significant – and I always think to myself if they hadn’t done it the movie still would have been great. It would have been a big hit. All we’re there to do is like add maybe a little bit of pixie dust to it here or there.
But then the rough ones are the ones where someone says, “OK, we have a movie in trouble. It’s shot, right. We’re not about to shoot it. It’s shot. Come in, watch it, and then let’s all sit around a table and figure out how to save this patient’s life.” And that can be really tough.
Leigh: You have to throw in lines that they have to somehow wedge in with ADR looking at the back of someone’s head.
Craig: You can’t. Any time anyone ever says we’re going to save this movie with ADR, you don’t want me there. Because you’re delusional. And I’m not. Yeah.
Leigh: It’s so social though. I like that about – I always think of writing as such a lonely profession. I’m always sitting in my cave writing these horror films. Whereas you’re sitting around a table with other writers. It seems so social for film writers.
Craig: Yeah. But maybe twice or three times a year. Most of the time I’m in the cave as well.
All right, well it’s time for One Cool Things. I don’t know if you – I like to spring this on people.
Leigh: Oh yeah.
Craig: You got one? Do you have a One Cool Thing today Leigh?
Leigh: A One Cool Thing, OK. You sprung. A One Cool Thing. So it could be a book, a movie, anything.
Craig: It could be a book, a movie, an app, food, a place, anything you want. It doesn’t have to cost money. It can cost a little, a lot. Anything you want.
Leigh: I did just read a book called I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara about the Golden State Killer.
Craig: It’s a terrific read, yes.
Leigh: Amazing book. And it’s just such a chilling true crime novel, but it has this tragic level of pathos to it, too, because you kind of know where it’s heading. You know what happened to Michelle. And so I can’t recommend that book highly enough. It sticks in your head in a scary way, but also in this kind of heart-wrenching way. So I would definitely recommend that.
Craig: Yeah. Michelle McNamara who is the late wife of Patton Oswalt. One of the funniest people on the planet.
Leigh: Exactly. And two weeks after I read the book they caught the guy.
Craig: They caught the guy.
Leigh: Could not believe it. Because I spent two weeks chewing my nails off thinking the guy is out there. He’s going to probably kill my family tonight. And then they catch the guy.
Craig: They caught him.
Leigh: She has a line in the book, she almost writes to him and says, “Once you step out into the light, all your power is taken away.” And it was funny – when I saw footage of the guy on TV he really looked just like a sad old man.
Leigh: He wasn’t a scary guy. He was just some sad, pathetic guy. And I was like she was so right. And it’s a really powerful book and I would really recommend that to anyone–
Craig: Yeah. She also said something like imagining the day he would be caught. You walk outside and there they come right up your driveway. And that’s pretty much how they got him.
Craig: They sort of walked up his driveway and said OK, we got you.
Craig: It’s a very cool recommendation. That is a cool thing. My One Cool Thing this week – I don’t typically do things that cost a lot of money. But this one does, and I apologize for it in advance. But I’m a big Dungeons & Dragons fan and player. And the actor Matthew Lillard is also a big Dungeons & Dragons fan. I met Matthew over 20 years ago. I co-wrote a movie that wasn’t particularly good, but he was in it and he was very good in it. And we just never like, I don’t know, after that experience it wasn’t like we hung out or anything. But now with Twitter you can follow him, and he can follow me. And he was such a good guy, like such a decent human being.
Leigh: And a cast member of the original Scream.
Craig: Cast member of the original Scream. Not just cast member. Killer. Co-killer.
Leigh: That’s right actually. Didn’t want to, you know. The moment has passed. Spoiler alert.
Craig: I’m going to go with yeah. Yeah, spoiler alert. But Matthew and some of his friends have created essentially a Dungeons & Dragons module that is like a luxury item. It costs quite a bit. I think it’s hundreds of dollars. But it’s got like all of the figurines. Maps. Boards. Modules. Everything is just beautiful. Because like Dungeons & Dragons normally, you know, it can get pretty low tech where it’s just scratch pads. And your little wet eraser battle map and all that.
So this is a chance to go fancy.
Leigh: Go fancy with it.
Craig: And I don’t collect things. I don’t have like fancy art and so forth. But I understand when you love something that it’s OK, like spend a little extra on it because you love it.
Leigh: Well yeah. Everybody has that one hobby whether it’s boats, or whatever, they spend the money. Like football. So I pay outrageous prices to go see my team play. And that sounds cool. So it’s an actual physical, tactile, a whole board.
Craig: it’s got everything self-contained. Now, it’s pre-order right now, so you’re not going to get it right away. But we’ll include a link in the show notes, but it’s under Beadle & Grimm’s Platinum Edition, which already sounds cool anyway. Like who are Beadle and who are Grimm?
Leigh: That is great.
Craig: So thanks Matthew Lillard for that. And thank you very much to Leigh Whannell for joining us and being his brilliant Australian self.
Leigh: Thanks for having me.
Craig: Congrats on Upgrade. By the way, Upgrade in theaters right now.
Leigh: It is in theaters right at this very moment.
Craig: All around the world?
Leigh: Not all around. Just in the US. But all around in the world is going to come in stages. I think it opens in Australia for any Australian listeners on June 14.
Craig: Fantastic. Right in the dead of winter.
Leigh: Right in the dead of winter there. And then hopefully the UK soon after and etc. etc.
Craig: Fantastic. And it’s been getting wonderful reviews. And I guess the point is really ten years from now we’ll know.
Leigh: Ten years from now we’ll now if people liked this movie.
Craig: We’ll know if they liked the movie. All right, well that’s our show. It is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is from somebody amazing, so just wait. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also a place where you can send longer questions like the ones we read today.
For shorter questions, on Twitter I am @clmazin. John is @johnaugust. Leigh, you are?
Leigh: The best. The handsomest.
Craig: On Twitter.
Leigh: Oh. Yes. Of course.
Craig: You’re @thebest_awesomest.
Leigh: I am @LWhannell on Twitter.
Leigh: And you can find me there. Right now I’m ranting a lot about Upgrade, but I swear that will be finished soon.
Craig: Yeah. That’s sort of the deal with us is that when we have things coming out we get a little obsessive, but then we return to tweeting about politics.
Leigh: Yes. Yelling at Trump.
Craig: And yelling at Trump. So, you can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you will find transcripts. We try and get them up about four days after the episode airs. You can find this show on Apple Podcasts at Scriptnotes. Just search for Scriptnotes. And while you’re there leave us a comment because John August loves comments.
You can find all of the back episodes of the show at Scriptnotes.net. And that’s our show. Leigh, thank you again.
Leigh: Thanks for having me. We missed you, John. But Craig, you did a wonderful job just all on your own.
Craig: I know.
Leigh: Robin doesn’t need Batman it turns out.
Craig: I know.
Leigh: You can do this.
Craig: Thanks man.
- Thanks for joining us, Leigh Whannell!
- Leigh wrote Saw, Insidious, and, most recently, Upgrade, (here’s the fairly violent trailer).
- I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
- Matthew Lillard’s company, Beadle & Grimm’s Pandemonium Warehouse, is releasing a luxury Dungeons and Dragons campaign called Platinum Edition Dungeons & Dragons: Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, which is available to pre-order.
- The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide!
- The USB drives!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- Leigh Whannell on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.