The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: OK. My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 357 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
That’s an example of exposition and this week on the podcast we are going to be talking about exposition. Craig and I are going to defend and debate one of the most maligned aspects of screenwriting. That is how do you tell the audience what they need to know without being labeled a hack. Plus we have a follow up on screenwriting competitions, toxic fandom, fridging, and more.
Craig: This is going to be an exciting episode.
John: Yeah. So Craig we’re both back in the Los Angeles area. I was away at the Sundance Filmmakers Lab. You were off shooting your TV show. But at the moment we are both in sunny California.
Craig: Yeah. Fairly rare alignment of the stars. Remember when we always used to be together?
John: Yes. I do.
John: But many things used to be different and better. So, we do the best we can with what we have.
Craig: Exactly. Life goes on, man. You know what? This is us.
John: This Is Us is not just a TV show on the NBC Network. It is also life.
Craig: It’s also us.
John: It is also us. If you would like to know more about This Is Us you can listen to the episode that we had the showrunners of This Is Us on.
Craig: That’s right.
John: But that’s not this episode.
John: This episode though we do have some advice from other very smart people. Michael Arndt who is a fantastic screenwriter and friend, he wrote little movies called Little Miss Sunshine. He wrote–
Craig: Toy Story 3.
John: Toy Story 3. Oh my god.
Craig: And Star Wars: The New Beginning. What was it called?
John: He also worked on the Star Wars movies.
Craig: Star Wars: Here We Go Again.
John: Yes. That’s the movie he did. He a couple years back did a great video called Beginnings. He just did a new video called Endings, which is terrific. So we’re going to put a link into that. That just went up I think yesterday as we are recording this. And they are great. And Michael is very smart so you should check those out.
What I like so much about his videos is the very strong pronouncement that these are not rules. This is not how to write a movie. This is not the only way to tell a movie. These are just some things he’s noticed. But he noticed some really good things.
Craig: Kind of weird that the smarter you are the better you are. The more professional you are and the more experienced you are the less you push some sort of orthodoxy on people. It’s almost like the people that push the orthodoxy aren’t particularly good, talented, smart, professional, or experienced. Huh?
John: Maybe that’s worth further study. Yeah. Get a grant and study that.
Craig: A grant.
John: With some of that grant money you could also buy a Scriptnotes midnight blue t-shirt.
Craig: Segue Man.
John: So the people who print our t-shirts, Cotton Bureau, they’re having an anniversary sale and so they asked whether they could print more of the Scriptnotes shirts. And we said sure. So they’re printing some more of them, so if you missed out on a chance to buy a Scriptnotes midnight blue shirt, which I’m actually wearing at the moment. It is a super soft beautiful shirt. I think for another week or so they’re going to be printing those shirts. There will be a link in the show notes or you can just go to Cotton Bureau and we are up there as one of their shirts.
Craig: What’s the logo on the midnight blue?
John: That is just the typewriter.
Craig: Oh yeah. A classic.
John: Classic, yeah.
John: Nice dark blue shirt. Wearable with anything. Except for like certain jeans. If your jeans are exactly the same color as the shirt that looks a little too much like a jump suit for me.
Craig: You know what that is? That’s what the fashion people call matchy-matchy.
John: It’s a little matchy-matchy. Yeah.
Craig: I learned that from Fashion Police, which my wife watches. Matchy-matchy.
John: I don’t watch any fashion shows. I don’t watch Project Runway. I don’t watch any of those things because I’m sure they’re incredibly great, but I don’t have the time to watch those things. I’m also not that interested.
Craig: I think that’s what it is. You’d make time. You’d make it.
John: I’d make time.
Craig: It’s just not your thing.
John: All right. Let’s do some follow up because it’s been a while since you and I have been on the Skype together. Because last week I was talking about animation, and that was a lovely conversation. But two weeks ago or even before that we talked about screenwriting competitions. And we had a lot of listeners write in and defend some screenwriting competitions, in particular in defense of ScreenCraft which is one of the things that was sort of the impetus for this whole conversation about why screenwriting competitions mostly don’t matter except for Austin Film Festival to some degree and Nicholls Fellowship to a large degree.
Craig, you and I both got a bunch of emails. Some to the ask account, but some to our personal email accounts. So, tell me how you’re feeling about this.
Craig: Not good. Here’s the thing. It was a thinly disguised PR campaign by ScreenCraft. I assume what they did was they reached out to people who had won their awards and said would you write these guys and tell them. But I don’t know. Did they supply them with a template? Because every single one of these people wrote the same email to us. I mean, with mild variation it was all the same. All of it.
The tone. It was all very Stepford email. So, I’m sorry, I don’t believe it. And also none of it, yeah, it was not persuasive in any way, shape, or form to me because it seemed to clearly artificial and campaign-y. I cannot and will not recommend that people send money to a ScreenCraft competition. I just will not. And the form emails, bordering on form emails, actually in my mind makes it worse.
John: So, I want to take each of those emails an individual writer’s individual experience going through this process. And some of them credited this organization with more of their success. Others said it was one of the little steps along the way. This was a good guy. I’m going to take all that at face value. That all of these people who are writing in are writing in with their own honest reflections. At the end of the day I don’t think it changes my overall impression that taken as a system, looking at overall, is this the kind of procedure we would recommend people do to sort of get to the next step? I do not still have the recommendation that that is what people should do.
Now what people have written in and said, the general patterns as Megan has noticed all the emails we’ve gotten, people ask “Well how else can you break in if you’re not in LA?” People will make the point that it’s good to have deadlines and a sense of community. Or that any feedback is helpful and I don’t want to give it to industry people, like real industry people, until I have some eyes on it. I can understand all of those general urges. And sort of why you might want to be thinking of those things while you’re entering a screenwriting competition.
But I also feel like so many cases the screenwriting competition is like, well, it’s a thing I can do and I feel like I can’t do anything else. And I get that. I get that frustration. But I still come back to the point that most of these screenwriting competitions are almost worse than doing nothing.
Craig: I agree with you. And I think you put your finger on it here. When people said well how are we supposed to break in if we’re not in LA. It’s hard. We’ve always been honest about this. There’s a mistake that people are making in their minds. They’re saying I’m not in LA therefore I have to do something to break in from outside of LA and these competitions are available to me, therefore I should do them.
There’s a missing piece in there which is “and they work.” They don’t. And if you write a script that is good enough to win that thing and launch your career – forget about winning it. You read a script that’s good enough for somebody to like and want to hire you or buy the script or option it or whatever, then you know, you probably should have sent it to one of the precious few screenwriting competitions that anyone cares about. There are hundreds of these. Hundreds of them.
And by the way ScreenCraft interestingly they not only have readers that are judging their competition, they also then – they supply readers for other people’s screenwriting competitions. I don’t think people know how this works out there. There’s too many competitions. I mean, what do you think there are? A million qualified readers who are all brilliant and know exactly what a great script is? You think that’s going on?
No, my friends. No. If you have amazing taste in screenplays you’re not working as a reader for ScreenCraft. You’re working in Hollywood. And if you’re a great writer you don’t need ScreenCraft. Put your script on the Black List and get a 10. Enter it into Nicholls and become a semi-finalist or finalist, whatever they do. But this is the problem is that what these competitions are peddling to you is comfort. Well, beware.
John: Beware. So, I do promise that at some future point we’ll have a Scriptnotes episode where we’ll talk to the folks who did enter into screenwriting competitions like Austin, like Nicholls, and we’ll talk about how it worked. And what those steps were after you placed in one of those things, because we have gotten feedback from folks who placed at Austin and that’s how they got their manager. Or they placed in Nicholls and it was coming out to Los Angeles to do all those meetings after that that started them in their career. So I do promise we will connect some dots here. But we just want to stress that we don’t think that most of the people who are writing in these emails really have connected the dots in that meaningful way.
And I don’t want to fault any of those individual people for writing in to tell about their stories. But systemically I don’t find them compelling.
All right. Let’s go on to–
Craig: So polite.
John: The episode that I was not part of. You talked to Leigh Whannell about his movie Upgrade.
John: A different Megan, not our producer, wrote in to say, “While I loved the conversation about making low or medium budget movies, I could not but feel you missed an opportunity to talk about the fridging trope. For me, I was really excited to see Upgrade until I realized it’s another one of those movies where a woman exists for the sole purpose of being killed so that same guy, usually a love interest, but occasionally a family member is motivated to seek revenge. Maybe the movie is great despite this. I mean, hey, Jason Bourne managed, but honestly I’m just so tired.”
So, Craig, before a couple weeks ago I had not heard the term “fridging.” Had you heard of fridging?
Craig: Yeah, but not too much earlier than you had. Maybe a couple months ago. So, I think it was a comic book where someone finds their girlfriend or wife jammed in a fridge dead. And so they go crazy and begin a rampage of revenge. And Megan is absolutely correct. This is a trope that has been part of storytelling for years. Also, it’s been a part of storytelling for thousands of years actually. I mean, revenge is one of the great storylines.
John: I see this and some people sort of shot back at me saying how could you not have heard of fridging because that’s a thing and you’re a screenwriter. You should know about fridging. And it’s like well I was aware of this thing. I wasn’t aware of the term that popular culture or TVtropes.org had provided for it.
I get it. And I think it’s worth noting that as a trope and as a cliché. And asking whether this is the best way for us to be starting our films. But I’m not going to dismiss a movie just because it has this trope in it.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, first of all, we can’t beat each other up for not knowing a term, right? Because the Internet is really good at creating new terms all the time. And so, you know, for instance up until maybe three, four years ago, something like that, I didn’t know about Mary Sue. That was a term that people knew about in certain communities but I didn’t know it until finally I did. But I’m aware of the concept.
Similarly, you know, not knowing the term fridging but you do know the notion of, oh, it’s a movie again where some guy goes crazy because this woman he loves, who he’s never – I mean, you know, in John Wick we never even get to see her. She doesn’t get killed. She dies of cancer. Yeah, I guess maybe we get to see her face like once, but the entire movie is really about him going bananas because of that.
So, yeah, I get it. And there is a healthy discussion going on now about using violence against women as a narrative tool and whether that is good and healthy for us to do. And I think that’s a great discussion to have. In the instance with Upgrade it just – generally speaking when I’m interviewing a writer I’m talking about their writing process. I’m not a film critic. And I’m not a film reviewer. And I try and be incredibly positive with the people that I interview. So, you know, it’s unlikely that I’m going to sort of criticize somebody’s artistic choices. I’m really just more trying to in a very student-like innocent way trying to kind of dig into their head and see how and why they do what they do.
John: As we discuss other movies or we go back and look at – you know, we do segments like this kind of movie, or you know, remake this where we sort of talk about existing films and sort of how you would approach that material now, I think looking at fridging and sort of representation is absolutely a crucial part of what we think about as we make movies now. And so that’s maybe a good way for us to fold this into the conversation down the road.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, look, in general, you and I, we are against sort of tropes anyway, right? I mean, there are some of these tropes that there’s an argument to be made that they are bad for us. Just bad for our souls. And then there are some of these tropes where we just say they’re just – it’s enough already. Stop saying, “You and I, we are not so different after all,” because it’s enough. It’s enough with these.
So, in general yes. But then again every now and then something comes along and it sort of reinvigorates an old trope. Because tropes are tropes. They become tropes for a reason. A loved one being murdered and you taking revenge is–
John: About as old of a storytelling device as you can imagine.
Craig: Pretty much.
John: I’m sure before we had any written texts those were part of the first stories told around a campfire.
Craig: Exactly. And they are ingrained in our minds because shortcut to emotion. So, that’s why they stick around. But, yeah, I think it is – it’s a great idea to have a discussion about – I mean, because – see, I always try and think of things practically speaking. As we change as an audience we then have to kind of change the way we tell stories. These things aren’t going to work the same way they used to. Because people are going to be uncomfortable. They’re going to feel good. I mean, you could also argue that people have been feeling uncomfortable about them for a long time, it’s just that we weren’t paying attention to those people.
So it’s a really good discussion to have. But generally speaking that’s not the sort of discussion I have with somebody when I’m talking to them about the movie they just made.
John: Agreed. Mike writes to say that in the most recent episode “you guys talk about screenwriting competitions being a waste of time.” Yes we do. “How different would your advice be for entering film festivals? I’m new to screenwriting. Have never made a film. But I’m working on a script with the intent to try to make it myself. What are your thoughts about using festivals as a way to break into the industry? And do you have any tips?”
Craig, up or down on film festivals?
Craig: Up. Up, up, up. I mean, here’s the good news about film festivals. You’ve made your movie. You submit. They either say it’s going to be in it or not. And then audiences watch it. And then there is a discussion. And people are there, film critics are there, film writers are there, and they may catch hold of it and love it and then write an article about it.
These are the things that happen with movies. They never happen with scripts. There’s no place where you send a script and then people come in from the Internet and blogging sites and Twitter and read the scripts in a big room together and then discuss them over drinks. Right? That just doesn’t happen. So, yeah, I would say submit to film festivals. Of course, some are incredibly prestigious and some are like who cares. But in my mind it’s like people are seeing your movie and all you need is that one person to just go bananas about it on Twitter or on their blog and then that gets picked up. And something is ignited.
John: Yep. My movie The Nines, we opened at the Sundance Film Festival and we went to – I guess we played at Toronto and Berlin, but I also went to the Venice Film Festival with it. That is a great place to have people see your movie. Because people are there to watch movies and find things hopefully that they love. And can talk about.
So, the difference between a screenplay competition and a film festival is like you’ve made the thing. Your film exists. Everybody can come see your movie and see the thing you actually set out to make. Versus a screenplay which is the solitary experience of one person flipping through the pages of your script and judging it based on what they think it’s going to become down the road. So, it’s a really different situation.
Now, I will say that just like there are a plethora of screenplay competitions, there are a plethora of film festivals that I don’t think are probably worth your time. And I do know people who have made small films who have then spent like the next year entering and going to every film festival on earth. And so there are services like Without A Box. There are services there that help you submit to all these festivals, which could be good, but also could mean that you’re going to 1,500 film festivals over the course of the year and that’s probably not the best use of your time because you’re not making new things if all you’re doing is trucking this film around to show it other places. And sometimes there are fees to enter it.
Craig: Hmm. Yeah.
John: There’s reasons why you may not want to enter every film festival. But, yes, go and here’s the other thing about a film festival is that there are people there you can talk with. There are other filmmakers. You may meet the next person you want to collaborate with. So that is another great thing about film festivals. I am in general a big fan of film festivals.
Craig: Yeah man. Yeah.
John: Yeah. Hey, do you want to take Tom, because he’s talking about neuroscience?
Craig: Oh sure. OK. Well, Tom says, “Just listening to your toxic fandoms conversation and I came across a nugget about the neuroscience of how we consume art that changed the way I think about how fandom works. The theory, as I understood it, is that humans experience pleasure from art in two distinct ways. The first is a serotonin response which you get when a thing is beautiful because it just seems right, like an idealized platonic form of that thing. Your brain sees a piece of art and reacts positively because it understands that this is the way things should be.
“The second is a dopamine response. This is the hit of pleasure that you get when you decode a piece of art. The pleasure is as much an understanding what it means as the aesthetics. The thing about the dopamine response is that it is acquisitive. It makes the reader desire ownership of the art in a way that the serotonin response does not. My inference is that when we see great pop art, Star Wars for instance as kids, we get that strong serotonin hit and it makes us feel everything is right.
“But as a fan seeks out more and more information about the thing they love they become expert. They start decoding what they see on screen. With that comes the dopamine rush and urge to own the art. And because dopamine is like a drug we want more and more. This works well for a merch company selling limited edition posters and collectibles, but with properties like Star Wars that have cultivated a universe full of connections and Easter eggs it’s almost purpose-built for fans to feel that sense of ownership and entitlement.
“When an author comes along and claims literal ownership by doing something unexpected with a property, it’s like taking away their hit. Anyway, caveats to this: I’m not a scientist. And most of reasoning is based on a radio program I heard a year ago and can’t source properly.” Tom, you’re the best.
“I had a quick Google and read around to check. I’m not completely off-base, but it certainly lacks nuance.”
So, what do you think about Tom’s theory here?
John: I think Tom’s theory is fascinating. I don’t know honestly whether science backs everything up, but I would tell you that to me it feels plausible and feels kind of right. Because there is this sense where if you see a beautiful landscape that’s going to be that first kind of response, like wow, this is just beautiful. I love this. But I cannot take any ownership of this. This is just a thing that is there. I cannot do anything with it.
Versus a piece of art, you might have that initial instinct, but then you can become obsessed and you can start pulling it apart. You can start really digging into it. And so as we talked about the Sherlock Holmes nuts, that’s that sense of like well there must be more here. We have to pull it apart. There’s actually something below this thing that I like that is even better or more fascinating. And that does feel like a second kind of rush. And it does feel like a bit of an addiction kind of rush which is what dopamine is.
So, Craig, but you are more the brain scientist. You tell me what you think of this.
Craig: Well, I’m not quite sure that the neuro-chemistry here adds up. But I do think that there is certainly a psychological aspect of this that makes total sense. Particularly the part where as people begin to seek out more information about something and steep themselves in it, they begin to have a different relationship with the art. They are not watching it once and enjoying it or even watching it twice or three times. They’re now starting to kind of investigate more and more of it to, I don’t know–
Craig: Not obsess, but just have a deeper, like an intimacy with the art in a way. You know, it’s like you start to become an expert at it and you become a collector of it. And your relationship with it is very different now. It’s not even about the movie anymore. It’s about all this other stuff. It’s about the universe. It’s why weirdly when some of these toxic fans talk about Star Wars they talk about franchise which horrifies me, because franchise – the first time I heard franchise being used it was some suit at a studio talking about a movie franchise. And I thought, oh god, now they’re talking about movies like McDonalds. You know, it’s a franchise. It just seems so gross to me.
Well now everyone says it because they’re using that term as part of this notion of ownership and branding. They like all of that stuff. And that’s how their relationship functions with it. So when someone comes along and adds to it in a canonical sort of way because that’s the other thing they’re obsessed with is canon, meaning what is real and what is not. Quick giveaway, spoiler, none of it is real. If something gets added into the “canon” that they don’t approve of, it is literally disrupting their relationship. And their relationship with this is something that kind of gives them comfort. So it’s causing legitimate emotional distress and discomfort.
However, I would argue to people who do feel emotional distress and discomfort from some new entry into some ongoing film franchise, that that is your emotional problem to handle. It is not the artist’s problem to address.
John: I would love to see some piece of intellectual property literally just become a franchise model. So franchise the way that McDonalds was a franchise. Anybody can open up a McDonalds in their town. They have to follow certain rules and they have to kick back some money to the big corporate client. But like anyone can make their own Star Wars. They just have to kick back a little bit to them. That would certainly solve the like let’s remake the Last Jedi situation. If they could just get a franchise license and just make their own Last Jedi, problem solved.
Craig: The remake The Last Jedi, so there’s this group of people that want to remake The Last Jedi–
John: Or is it a group of people? Or is it just one very clever troll?
Craig: I don’t know. But it’s witless. Absolutely witless.
John: As a piece of performance art I kind of love it. It says so much about just where we’re at in this world where that sense of ownership. I’m curious a year from now whether we really find out the truth behind what that campaign was and sort of what – I mean, I loved how Rian interacted with it. I loved how Seth Rogan interacted with it. As a piece of just cultural thing that was floating out there, fine, great. It was distracting from like other horrible things happening in the world. So I didn’t like the place it took on my Twitter timeline necessarily, but–
Craig: We’re not equipped to handle the world right now. Our minds simply cannot do it.
John: Nope. We have a very simple request from Bill. He said, “Would Craig take a photo of his fancy corkboard and share it with us?” Is that a thing you feel like you could share?
Craig: Yeah, my fancy corkboard, sure. I mean, I’ve got some cards up on a movie that I can’t share, so I’ll turn those around I guess. But, yeah, I can show you the fancy corkboard. I mean, it’s not that fancy, by the way. I mean, it’s awesome but it’s old. It’s a beaten up old thing, but I love it.
John: Maybe tweet that and we’ll put a link to the tweet?
Craig: Sounds good.
John: Cool. Emily writes regarding Episode 336, the Call Me by Your Name episode. That was the one I did with Peter Spears and Aline Brosh McKenna. “Recently I was introduced to Scriptnotes in San Francisco and I have been obsessively listening to that episode with John and Aline and Peter Spears. I fell in love with the whole episode, and especially the second half where the thoughts in my head were echoed back threefold. A queer romance where there are no villains and visually showing the internal quest for love, accepting parents, and the reins of sexuality loosened.
“My question is how does an aspiring queer filmmaker jump the hurdles and through the hoops to get a queer romance made? When I listened to Episode 336 again, only 12 hours later, I actually started to feel disheartened. How is it possible for more queer romance to be made? Is it possible for two women to fall in love on screen minus the struggle and sexual fetishizing?” Yeah, Emily, yes. It’s possible. At some levels I’m happy that you’re excited to make it, but I’m also surprised that you feel like it would be impossible or daunting. Because if you listen back to that episode, yeah, they had a really long hard struggle to get that movie made because it was a movie of a certain scale and size and needed to take place in Italy and it needed to have movie stars. There were lots of obstacles in its way. But I just feel like this last year we’ve seen a tremendous number of queer romances in queer movies that aren’t about the sturm und drang of everything that have come out and found an audience.
So, you know, we’ve had Love, Simon, Alex Strangelove for Netflix. God’s Own Country. Freehold. There’s been a lot of movies out there and they found an audience.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I’m a little confused because things have never been better, I think, for queer filmmakers. And not just because there are a lot more ways to make movies now and a lot more platforms to show movies, but I think the audience has changed, too. You know, I think queer film used to be for the queer community. And now it’s sort of everybody goes to see Call Me by Your Name. I mean, remember like when you and I were kids, I remember John, do you remember when Personal Best came out?
John: I do. I remember it existing. I didn’t see it, of course, in the time, but I knew it was out there.
Craig: I didn’t see it either because it was Rated R and I wasn’t allowed to, because it was like 1981 or something like that. And also I don’t think I would have wanted to go see it because I was, whatever, an 11-year-old boy and this was about two – I think they were in college and they were marathon runners or something.
John: Yeah. Long distance runners I think.
Craig: And Muriel Hemingway was in it. And somebody else. And I don’t know who. And they fall in love and they have a lesbian romance. But I just remember at the time it was so weird to have that out there that people talked about it to the extent that even I was like “Oh I’ve heard about that movie.” It’s like, whoa, that’s a whole thing. I think there’s like one of those a week now, you know. I don’t think there’s anything particularly shocking or, I don’t know, challenging in a sense.
I mean, yes, on a big scale and we’re talking about big huge movies, we’ve got a long way to go. We’re still waiting to kind of see LGBTQ relationships in big huge franchises, right?
John: Hmm, franchises.
Craig: Franchises. But when it comes to making television and film for and about gay audiences, queer audiences, bi audiences, yeah, it seems to me like it’s everywhere.
John: Everywhere. So, some movies I want to steer Emily towards if she hasn’t seen them: Weekend, which is fantastic, which is just the slightest kind of Linklatery kind of two guys meet over the course of a weekend and sort of how that goes. And then go a little bit further back in your lesbian history here and go to Go Fish, which is Guinevere Turner I think has been a previous guest on the show. You’ll see her in that. Those are some recent bookends for movies to see.
But also I’d tell you that Sundance Film Festival, Outfest, these movies do exist and they are being seen by audiences in the US and worldwide. They’re there. And you should make more of them. And if there’s a kind of movie that you feel you’re not seeing, you know, that should be a call to action to make that movie. I sort of always say like make the movie you wish you could see in the world. And if that movie is not out there, take it upon yourself to find a way to get that movie made.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, Emily, you live in San Francisco, so I’m guaranteeing you there’s some sort of LGBTQ+ film festival going on, geez, at least once a month.
John: Yep. There’s going to be stuff. I’m going to also put a link in the show notes to 7 Lesbian Movies Coming Out in 2018. So, it’s a good article about that.
Craig: All right.
John: All right. Let’s get to our big feature topic which is exposition. So exposition is that thing that happens in movies that gets a really bad name because some character is saying something that the audience needs to know and when it’s done terribly you notice it. When it’s done artfully you don’t notice it. Let’s talk about how we avoid the worst of it and savor the best of it.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a real challenge. It’s particularly hard for new writers because they tend to compartmentalize. I think as you write more and more you start to integrate all of the aspects of your writing. So you have character, you have dialogue, you have stuff happening in the scene. Let’s call that plot. And then you have information which is separate from what a character is thinking or desires or what is happening. Information is sometimes just the nuts and bolts of why am I here, what do I need to do, why can’t I do it this way, and why do I have to do it that way?
And new writers I think sometimes will sort of hit pause on the movie part, which is the characters and the desires and emotions, do some talking about the facts, and then, OK, let’s unhit pause and let’s get back to the movie. And this creates problems.
John: The other real danger you see is that newer writers are so terrified of anything that could feel like exposition that they’re not putting in the information that is really essentially for an audience to understand what’s going on. And that can be just as troublesome.
So this last week up at Sundance Film Labs we were working with these filmmakers on their next projects and the screenwriters who were up there as advisors, one of the things we talked about is some of these scripts had some challenges just getting the exposition in there. There was stuff we just didn’t know because they weren’t telling us. And I think sometimes they weren’t telling us because they were worried that putting it in there would feel forced or fake or wouldn’t work.
So we did a little workshop lab kind of thing just two hours where we talked about the process of writing scenes. And I gave them assignments for like you need to write a new scene now and the only thing that needs to – the thing that has to happen over the course of this scene at the end of this scene we need to understand that that character is not the father but the step-father. That’s the only information you need to get in there, otherwise make a great scene. Do something enjoyable but that information needs to come in there.
And to their credit, these filmmakers found really inventive ways to get that information out without it feeling just forced. It was a natural way of revealing, oh OK, that’s really who that person is and it’s not the father but the step-father.
Craig: This is one of those areas where we actually have to do better than reality. Because in reality we can just say these things. The reason we can’t just sort of spit them out unless we do it in a fascinating way, and there are ways to spit these things out in fascinating ways, we don’t do it that way because it feels easy. And generally speaking audiences reward us for not doing things easily. The whole idea is that there is an organic struggle against fate. And when somebody walks in and says, “Oh by the way, this is my father, it’s actually my step-father,” or to have somebody just, I don’t know, have my name is on a name tag. It just feels easy. And so we deduct points from the movie because it feels like it didn’t challenge us. It feels like it just puts something in a spoon and shoved it in our mouth. And we don’t like that.
John: Yeah. I mean, sometimes it’s the simplest solution is the best solution. And if you can sort of get it in there while it feels like it’s part of something else you can get there. But let’s talk about the things to avoid. Let’s talk about what gives exposition a bad name. These are the things, often the phrases you hear that make you go “Ugh. This is going to be one of those exposition moments.”
Craig, as you and I both know, I’m going to tell you something that you already know, but we’re going to talk about it here so that the audience can understand it.
Craig: Yeah. As you and I both know, well, then why are we saying it?
Craig: Why in god’s name? Have you ever said that to anybody? As you and I both know, and then gone on at length? And the other person doesn’t stop you?
John: I would say in real life I have sometimes said like, “Well as we all know,” and then I’m stating a point where maybe the person I’m listening to doesn’t really know but I’m sort of giving them the credit that they should know.
Craig: That’s different. That’s manipulative.
John: That’s manipulation. A related thing is where we are defining our relationship in our initial dialogue. As your brother, Craig, I need to tell you.
Craig: Geez Louise. That’s, I mean–
John: I puckered a bit just doing that.
Craig: I know. Well, Scott Frank always talks about how we never use our names with each other when we speak, but people are constantly using names. And there have been times where I’m so touchy about it that I’ve gotten to the end of a script and then somebody reads it and goes, “By the way, I don’t think anyone ever said her name.” Oh god. That’s right.
John: And so here’s why saying her name is important or getting the name out there is important. I think people have a subconscious radar for people’s names. And they’re always kind of listening for them. And you go through half a movie and you don’t know a character’s name, it’s unsettling. Particularly if you feel like this is a main character. It’s like, oh weird, it’s odd we don’t know her name. Also, if you do hear a person’s name you assume that they’re going to be important for some reason. It’s just a natural thing.
If someone is introduced in the story with a name you give them extra credit there. OK, this is a person worth following. So, it’s weird when we don’t know their names. But sometimes you just won’t.
Craig: Yeah. And what we don’t do is sort of walk into a room and say, “So, John,” it’s immediately weird.
Craig: You’re looking at me. So why are you saying my name? You know who I am. It’s just weird. It’s weird.
John: But you see that guy standing over there? Well he used to be one of the top rodeo clowns in the business.
Craig: Oh boy. I mean, geez.
John: So you and I are over here, but we’re going to point over and talk to that person. And especially if you and I are not major characters, but we’re going to talk about that other character over there to sort of set him up, that’s not tasty.
Craig: Let’s call those guys the backstory brothers.
John: They are the backstory brothers.
Craig: Backstory brothers. They meet each other in the hallway and they go, “You see her? She used to be something, but then back in, you know, 2005…”
Craig: Ugh. God.
John: She’s getting a divorce, but she doesn’t really want to. And it’s complicated. And her dad is one of the CEOs of a Fortune 500 Company.
Craig: Really? Yeah. And we never hear from those guys again.
John: But it’s almost as good as when the hero turns on the TV and it’s a news report that’s about exactly the thing that we need to know about.
Craig: We’ve talked about that one. So that’s the world’s most relevant news channel. 24 hours a day. Bringing you the news that you must need to know right now at this second per the thing you’re discussing.
John: So I’m sure someone has used this as a trope, but I want somebody to have just relevant news. Like the channel is just relevant news.
Craig: They’ve done it.
John: Did somebody?
Craig: Yeah. Somebody sent it to us. I’m trying to remember what movie it was in or what show. Yeah, it’s been done.
John: I love it. It’s been done. Yeah. Sometimes that information comes out as voiceover or sort of like kind of what feels like forced ADR. So like we’re on someone’s back while they give us a little extra piece of information. Sometimes there’s a fix in post. But that sense of like you just feel like it’s tacked on a bit of extra information. I mean, there are good examples of narrators who sort of start a movie, who sort of get you into the flow of it. That’s a totally valid choice. There’s nothing wrong with a narrator in the right kind of movie, but it can feel really awful when done poorly.
Craig: Yeah. So a lot of times what happens is there’s an ongoing argument. The argument begins I believe inside of the screenwriter’s head. Then it floods out, so it becomes an argument with everybody. The studio argues about it amongst themselves with the writer, with the director. The director argues about it with the actors. Everybody – the editors argue about it with the director. And the argument is how much do they need to know.
And really what it comes down to is sometimes you feel like people need to know something because they’re not going to appreciate what they’re going to watch if they don’t know it. And other times you think why are we saying this? It should be obvious. And we’re actually hurting ourselves by talking down to people. We’re pandering now.
And when you hear a line, an off-screen line, where somebody is suddenly saying, “It looks like somebody accessed the computer and pulled out the records, but we can’t see who because they put a virus in to cover their traces,” that means that they had a big argument, like how do they not know who did it this way, and then they decided to solve it by having some dumb ADR in there. Because they thought it was important that people know that. That is frustrating.
In general, it’s not always true, but in general the studio wants to tell people everything and the filmmakers want to tell people as little as possible.
John: Yep. You know, it always comes back to how much does the audience need to know at that moment. It’s so hard sometimes as the screenwriter and as the filmmakers to get a sense of like what it looks like from the audience’s point of view. You’re doing everything you can to sort of put yourself mentally in the seat and only experience the movie from their point of view. But sometimes you’re wrong and sometimes you do need to do some things to clarify.
A lot of reshoots aren’t about big character or plot things. They’re about little small things like just connecting some dots and sort of making it clear how we’ve gotten from A, to B, to C. And that’s reality.
Craig: Exactly. And another problem way of relaying exposition it occurs to me are the intentionally stupid characters. They’re not stupid. They’re regular characters but then suddenly they become stupid.
John: Explain it to me like I’m five, Craig.
Craig: OK, go over this one more time. You mean for us and the audience? Because it could not be more obvious what’s happening here. And I think that’s the worst kind of mistake because now you’re deliberately undermining your characters just so that you can get some facts out. That is not a worthy sacrifice.
John: Yeah. There’s a TV show that I really loved and in late seasons I felt like they did some things to the central character where the central character was asking questions that was actually her profession. And it got to be so frustrating. They were trying to get information out and they were trying to set up some comedy and stuff, but we’ve already established that you’re an expert in this field, so why would anyone need to explain anything to you. That gets to be really frustrating.
Craig: It gets frustrating.
John: Let’s talk about what does work. Let’s talk about ways you get exposition in there that does not feel painful or terrible. So, the most obvious one is you ask the questions that the characters in the scene would naturally ask. So you provide the information that the hero or what other characters are in that scene would necessarily ask. Completely relevant to the scene that’s there. And provides crucial information that they are themselves looking for.
Craig: That’s right. And there’s nothing wrong with a kind of honest exposition if that’s what would naturally happen.
Craig: There are times where your movie or television show is discussing matters that are complicated. And in those circumstances it makes sense to have somebody sit somebody down and say let me walk you through this. Because at no point are we thinking, “Oh, this movie or television show is taking some sort of silly shortcut to tell me stuff that they could show me otherwise.” There’s no other way to convey this information.
So, at the beginning of Jurassic Park they show a little movie in the park to explain how they have cloned dinosaurs. That’s necessary.
John: It’s a great moment.
Craig: It’s wonderful.
John: And screenwriters will sit around tables and talk about how well David Koepp did that moment. By making it fun, by making it a film strip that everyone there is watching, we buy it. Because those characters would be seeing that introductory video the same way that we need to see that information.
Craig: Exactly right. And we don’t fault, I mean, we give the movie extra credit because it was done in an entertaining way, but we’re also – it’s a little bit of a demanding thing to say to an audience “We’re going to teach you something now.” Because we’re used to racing along with a narrative. But that’s what you sometimes need to do.
God knows in Chernobyl there are multiple moments where a nuclear scientist has to explain things to a career Soviet bureaucrat, which makes sense. Because otherwise people won’t know what’s going on. So, it has to happen. In those circumstances I think honestly the best way to do it is to just do it openly. Don’t try and disguise the lesson in some way. Just do it because that’s what would happen.
John: In The Matrix, you know, the first Matrix, Neo asks questions that are completely reasonable and he is told information, the backstory of what the Matrix is and the illusion that he has been living in, which are completely natural because that is the situation the character finds himself in.
Now, in later movies you might become a little bit more frustrated because people are having to have these conversations about things that you kind of feel like they should already know. It can be a little bit more forced down the road when people are talking about events that happened before all this started.
Craig: That’s right. So The Matrix is a great example because there’s, god, about 20 or 30 minutes of exposition in it, but it’s all fascinating because what they’re doing is saying to Keanu Reeves and then by extension us let us tell you how this works. And we’re not going to do it in a slowly developing way. We’re just going to lay it out for you in a way that’s interesting, but we’re going to tell you what happened to the world, why this is going on, how it works, what we’re about, what we do, what the Matrix – they tell you everything.
You get kind of one big lesson.
John: Yeah. And they’re smart to make it feel like a lesson. Part of what’s going on here is he’s being brought up to speed. He’s being taught some things. He’s being taught how to fight. And also while some of the stuff is happening they’re showing us things and not just sitting across from us and telling us. And so they are visualizing some of the information so we have something to look at other than just Morpheus staring directly at us.
Craig: Which would get pretty old pretty quickly. In that regard, one of the best ways for audiences to learn information is to see things. So, show-don’t-tell is one of the classic instructions that everybody gets. Sometimes it is better to tell. But if you can show, and there are interesting ways to show that are effective. This is the most important thing. Be effective, right? Nothing worse than showing exposition and no one even freaking notices it, right?
But if you show it and it is interesting and you perhaps show it in a way where there is a discrepancy between what you now know and what somebody else on screen knows, those are helpful things. Then the exposition isn’t simply information. It’s now evidence of something about a character. What they do or do not know. And there are all sorts of ways of showing these things. You can also hear them. Meaning no one is telling you but you’re hearing sounds or recordings or, you know, there’s little tricks of the trade.
John: So, a scene so good that they actually did it twice, in the X-Men movies establishing how Magneto got his powers or how he discovered his powers, he is at a concentration camp. He’s being separated from his parents. He reaches out to them and in reaching out to them his magnetic powers manifest and he pulls the gates towards him. That is showing. That is – I mean, it is exposition, it’s explaining the origin of his powers. It’s explaining his basic sort of world mind view that he sees himself as a person who has to save the mutants from extinction and from genocide.
That is a moment that could just be spoken and be terrible exposition, but by visualizing it, by staging it it is a much, much stronger moment.
Craig: Yeah. No question. And we sometimes forget because we see these movies that they could have gone another way. In our minds it seems so obvious. Well, OK, it’s a good dramatic scene. Well, I don’t have to tell you many other people would have not written that scene and then later on in the movie Magneto would have said to what’s her name, Mystique, is that her name? Mystique? He would have said, “As you know, my parents died in Auschwitz.” And he would have had some sort of scotch-swilling speech about his parents in Auschwitz and I saw them being led into the gates and I couldn’t do anything. And I swore then…
That’s exposition. And he could have done it that way. So there’s always an alternative. When we see it right, let’s always remember to give those people credit for doing it right.
John: Absolutely. Another great recent example is A Quiet Place. So A Quiet Place has almost no spoken exposition because they cannot speak. And so the screenwriters have figured out ways to visually show you the information, by staging scenes that walk you through what’s happened, at least as much as they’re going to tell you about what’s happened, and why you have to be so careful. There’s one sequence in the movie that I find a little bit frustrating. This is not really a spoiler. But when we’re in John Krasinski’s little lair place, some of the art direction was just a little bit on the nose for me there in terms of the – he has a whiteboard and it says on the whiteboard the three things he’s noticed that are going to become important later on.
Craig: Ah, yes. The whiteboard of doom. So this is the bulletin board or whiteboard where someone has laid out all the information they have. Typically they connect things with strings.
John: Yes. There’s no strings in this case, but–
Craig: I don’t know why they use freaking strings. And so you can just sit there. And then there’s inevitably a shot – and by the way I think that this scene is shot the same way every time. So you get a close-up of the person’s face, and then you have a close-up of a picture, and then a string, and another picture, and another one. And then there’s a big wide reveal of them standing. And you’re behind the person and they’re staring up at this massive board of interconnected. And you can see it all. You can see it all.
John: They’re at the center of the web. Yes.
John: So I want to give credit to A Quiet Place. There is no string. Those connections are not there.
Craig: That’s the key. No string.
John: It’s the key. No strings. That’s what really makes it all work. You singled out a moment in Raiders. Talk through this moment in Raiders that you thought worked so well.
Craig: Yeah. I love it. So, early on in Raiders, Indiana Jones is taken into a room at the university where he works and he is given a talking to by a couple of guys from the CIA. And they essentially lay out all of the exposition for Raiders of the Lost Ark. They tell him that Hitler is trying to find the Lost Ark. They tell him why Hitler is trying to find the Lost Ark. They tell him information that they have about where Hitler is and what he’s doing. And it’s a lot.
There’s a buried city of Tanis. There is an amulet. There is what is the ark itself. What is the ark? Well, it turns out the ark is this big cabinet that holds the original two tablets that Moses got from God. Blah, blah, blah. There’s just a ton of exposition here.
And why I think it works so well is that as these guys are talking, Indiana Jones’s mind is racing ahead of them, which is a very natural thing. If you think about it, when people are describing stuff to you and they’ve come to you for a reason because you’re good at this sort of thing, in this case Indiana Jones is a professor of archeology and a noted treasure hunter, that you are not passively listening. You’re going to try and anticipate and see where they’re going. And so there is an excitement as they talk where he is grabbing onto what they’re saying and then he meets eyes with the man, his boss, who runs I guess the museum and the college there, Denholm Elliott. Because now they both realize, Tanis, OK, they’re on top of it. They’re getting excited. That makes the exposition interesting.
The exposition in and of itself is just facts. But watching people get excited by facts is exciting for us.
John: Yeah. So keeping the characters alive in the scene during the exposition is one of the most crucial things we can stress to anybody. Which is sometimes there’s just natural conflict. So the exposition is coming out of conflict. In the back and forth between these people we’re getting that information out there. In the case of Raiders, it’s not direct conflict but we see our hero being engaged by it and changing the nature of the exposition as it comes out.
That’s crucial. The same dialogue but without Indy’s reactions to things, without Indy’s engagement, would just be dead on the page.
Craig: It would be very, very boring.
John: So I want to single out a moment from Aliens. So Aliens is my favorite movie of all time. This scene comes quite early on in Aliens. So this is the sequel. Ripley in this scene, we’ll play the audio for it, but Ripley has just woken up in this medical center. Burke arrives — Burke is the Paul Reiser character — arrives with her cat. And this is the conversation they have. And just take a listen to it and listen for the backstory. This is for the exposition that they’re getting in there so that you understand what’s going on. So let’s take a listen to this scene from Aliens.
[Aliens clip plays]
John: What I love so much about this scene is that it’s giving out crucial pieces of information. That it has been 57 years. That this universe that we started this movie in is different than the universe that we started before. So none of the other characters should be coming back. That there is still continuity to the earlier expositions, the cat that she traveled with is still there. So there’s some things that are familiar, but everybody else she would know is presumably dead.
As Burke is giving out those bits of information about how long it has been, he takes the sting off of some of the lines. You know, very cleverly he undercuts himself. He doesn’t make it sound like big pronouncements about the facts that he’s putting out there. He’s sort of stepping back away from them.
Craig: Yeah. And there’s a careful consideration of what we need to know and what we don’t need to know. For instance, how does that work? How does the hyper sleep aging blah-blah-blah, nah, who cares?
John: Who cares?
Craig: Who cares? It doesn’t matter. We know it works. And it’s not necessary. And we also presume that she knows how it works. So that’s the kind of thing where I guarantee you somebody said, “We have to explain that,” and then James Cameron said, “Nah.” No we don’t.
John: Let’s think about the nurse who is talking there at the start before Burke comes in. She’s there. Her lines are just to – we’re never going to see her again – he lines are just to establish that she’s been there for a few days. We saw her being cut out of the ship at the start. But she’s been there a few days. But she doesn’t really remember being there. It’s all confusing to her. The nurse is just there to establish stuff.
But if you didn’t have nurse, then we would have a natural question about like, wait, has she seen Burke before? What’s going on here? So it’s just to establish that this is a new person coming in. The sort of like opening the curtain to reveal a new character.
Burke is a major character. And I love how the very first thing he says is like, “No, but I’m a good guy,” which of course he’s not a good guy. Is doing character work even as it’s establishing crucial bits of exposition for us.
Craig: Yeah. And there’s a good example of how James Cameron doesn’t hit pause for exposition. We know, we’ve had a whole conversation, a whole episode about how to introduce characters. Well, here he introduces a character through exposition. This character is now delivering this somewhat awkward, reluctant speech to her about what’s happened to her. And even as he does it we sense a certain insincerity. We can just feel it. And so we’re learning about him and therefore we are not – we don’t get the feeling that this movie exists simply to fill us in on information that maybe could have just been printed on an index card and handed to us before we sat down.
John: Absolutely. Now, we’ll put a link in the show notes to this so you can also see this scene. What’s crucial about how it’s shot is that Burke’s entrance, like we do get some good close-ups of him, but it’s really about Sigourney Weaver’s reaction to what he’s saying. And so it’s her processing this information. And her close eye contact to really try to read him and to see what’s actually going on here. So, it’s not just what’s on the page. It’s really framed in a way to make sure that we stay in her POV to be hearing this information.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. And have we done a whole show about point of view?
John: We haven’t. But we need to. Because that’s another thing that came up in Sundance this year which is: POV is a fascinating thing. POV in the sense of which characters are allowed to drive scenes, but also there can be sometimes scenes where if you have two characters who can drive their own scenes, well, if they’re in a scene together who is in control? And it generally is the person who we saw be in control most recently. And so that becomes an interesting thing.
Craig: Yeah. We got to do a whole show on perspective.
John: We will do a whole show on perspective. Any further wrap up thoughts on exposition, Craig?
Craig: Well, I just thing that it’s something that happens with practice. You get better at it with practice. There’s really no – I wish I could give you all sorts of wonderful practical tips, but the truth is you’ve seen enough, you know enough. Just try and do exposition with something else.
The one nice thing we know about exposition is that it’s between human beings. That implies a relationship. So at the very least when you’re doing it think about what the relationship is between those people and think about why one person is telling this information to the other. And how it makes one or the other feel. That will help a lot.
John: That will help a lot. Even if that person who is telling the information is not ultimately a major character, as long as they are important in that scene and have an important interaction with that principle character that matters. So they’re just not an information dumb. That’s what you’re trying to avoid.
John: Cool. I think it is time for our One Cool Things.
John: My One Cool Thing is a film. It is a film that I saw two years ago as a script at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. It is American Animals by Bart Layton. It is just great. And I don’t want to spoil it by telling you too much about it. It’s probably useful to know that it is based on a true story. It might be helpful to know that Bart Layton is a well-known filmmaker in the documentary space. But this film does some really interesting and inventive things in the heist genre. And so it is a film that involves a heist, but also involves heist films. I just loved it.
I loved it as a script. I loved the early cut I saw. I am so excited for this movie to be out there in the world. If you go to see it, I would try to go with somebody else just because you’re going to want to talk about it with somebody. And if there’s no one else around to talk about it you’ll be frustrated.
Craig: OK. Well that’s a pretty good sales job right there.
John: Thank you.
Craig: I’ll go check that out.
John: Hopefully I sold two tickets to that.
Craig: Me and I know I have to go with someone. So yeah.
My One Cool Thing this week is a sequel to a game that is available on your phone and tablet called Isoland 2: Ashes of time. Isoland was this wonderfully quirky touch and go puzzle mystery adventure. You know my favorite sort of games are those. You know, all descending from the great Mist. But it’s very clever. It’s got a wonderful animated style to it. And very quirky. Very sad and philosophical at times. It’s one of those games where you’re doing puzzle work but then there’s just this layer of art all over the whole thing that makes it so lovely and enjoyable.
So, strongly recommend. I just started playing it. Isoland 2: Ashes of Time.
John: Very nice. That is our show for this week. Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited, as always, by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Timothy Vajda. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send questions and feedback like some of the things we addressed earlier in the show.
But for short questions, on Twitter I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
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You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. They go up within the week.
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John: You’ll see them there. And that is our show. Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you, John. See you next week.
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