The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name, uh, is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 358 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast we’ll be looking at point of view in scripts and how the choice of which characters have storytelling power changes how we experience a movie. We’ll also take a stab at answering some listener questions.
Craig: That sounds like a pretty classic show. I don’t want to put pressure on us, but it sounds classic.
John: It sounds very classic. It’s another crafty episode. We’re going back-to-back crafty, but you know what? You got to do that sometimes.
Craig: Got to. Got to. And you know why? We got to put these film school teachers out of business.
John: That’s the goal.
John: Speaking of business, people have written in to say, “Hey, would it be possible to download back episodes rather than having to buy the USB drive?” And we said sure. So, I can report that as of today you can now download seasons of Scriptnotes. Basically 50 episode chunks of Scriptnotes, which is handy. Particularly international listeners would buy the USB drives and they’d have to pay like an import tax on it.
Craig: Oh god.
John: Which is crazy. That’s no good. So we’ve broken all the first seven seasons of Scriptnotes into 50-episode chunks. Seven seasons. That’s essentially a year per season. So 50 episodes, plus the bonus episodes that went with that year. And they are available now. So you can go to store.johnaugust.com and download them. They are $5 per block of 50. So, in some ways the $2 a month you can get through Scriptnotes.net is a better deal. But if you want to own a bunch of episodes that’s a way you can do it.
Craig: You know what? I think the point is we’re giving people choices. And in this way they can determine amongst themselves what’s the golden age of Scriptnotes. You know, like The Simpsons had a golden age.
John: Oh, absolutely. Lisa, I chew-chew-choose-you.
Craig: Yes. Exactly. I think our golden age is always right now, today.
John: This moment.
Craig: Yeah. This is it. We’re always in the golden age, John, because you and I push things forward steadily and inexorably toward perfection.
John: That is completely the goal. So let’s make this a perfect episode.
Craig: It’s already done. I mean, it is perfect.
John: Done. All right, let’s start with follow up. Because perfect episodes have follow up. Listeners wrote in–
Craig: That wasn’t that great. That was decent Segue Man. But I think you may have slightly pushed us down a little bit below perfect there.
John: All right. We’ll try to dig our way back out of this hole I’ve created. Listeners wrote in with their favorite examples of exposition based on last week’s episode about exposition.
Craig: Ah, OK.
John: Dylan wrote about The Matrix. “When Morpheus is explaining Neo’s potential powers and comparing it to the agent’s abilities in the street crowd simulation Neo says, ‘What are you trying to tell me? That I can dodge bullets?’ And Morpheus brilliantly returns, ‘No, Neo, I’m trying to tell you that when you’re ready you won’t have to.’ This is a very simple info dump of you will be able to control the code of the Matrix and get super powers, but it does more than simply state it. It sparks the viewer’s imagination about what Neo could do to fulfill that promise of power. It’s more than information. It’s an invitation to dream up what Neo will come to be able to do and wait in anticipation to see through it.”
Nice. That’s true.
Craig: That’s exactly right. I loved Matrix. I love me some Matrix. And it is a tour de force of screenwriting. It is brilliantly efficient and compact even in its length. It feels to me like there’s five movies of stuff inside of The Matrix. I’m always amazed. When you think back to The Matrix you forget like, “Wait, oh my god, there was that whole thing in the beginning where he’s at a club dancing around.” And then, “Oh yeah, he’s in his office and he’s dodging those guys.” And then, “Oh yeah, there’s that bit where he’s in that room and he has no mouth.” And then, “Oh yeah, they have to get that bug out of his –“ that all happens before he even shows up in the stupid room to hear about the pills.
There’s just movies after movies after movies in one movie. I love The Matrix. It does it so well. And this is a great point by Dylan that exposition can be made fun if you essentially say I’m going to give you a bunch of information and then I’m going to give you mystery to follow. The screenwriter’s favorite friend, mystery.
John: Not confusion, but mystery.
Craig: But mystery. Exactly. So that you know that you’ve gotten some information. But you haven’t gotten it all. The boring, sad exposition tends to give you a feeling of completion. Oh, I’ve just learned everything. Bored.
John: Several other listeners wrote in to recommend the first Terminator, which I agree does just a fantastic job of exposition because it doesn’t tell you anything more than you need to know. It’s basically just the information that’s going to be relevant to this movie. Not a bit more than that.
Craig: Right. I mean, Jim Cameron is also master – master of that sort of thing. No question.
John: So Lars from Cologne wrote in, and I love it when people send in examples of things that actually have audio, so we’re going to be able to play this for you. He writes that, “Margin Call cleverly plays with the ‘explain it to me as if I was a five-year-old’ trope. One of the recurring jokes of the film is that the higher a person’s rank the less likely he is able to understand what is actually going on. The lead is repeatedly asked to explain in English what he discovered.” Let’s take a listen.
[Clip of Margin Call plays]
So Craig, talk to me about that scene in Margin Call. Why is that more helpful than just the guy giving information?
Craig: Well, you’ve got a challenge as a screenwriter. You have to be responsible to your story and to your characters, but you are also aware that there’s a room full of people. This was a problem that you could see, Adam McKay for instance, working over pretty successfully I think when he did The Big Short. The fact that you have characters who understand information doesn’t help the people in the audience that don’t. And so inevitably it is helpful to have a character on screen that can convincingly represent the audience or at least be consistent with the audience so that when they say just explain it to me like a lay person the expert has a chance to speak in a way that the audience can then understand. This is something that I had to deal with quite a bit with Chernobyl, obviously.
So, the trick then is to make sure that you have the right kind of character for that. Here it’s a little bit wobbly in the sense that it appears that this man runs a firm that is a financial firm but there’s a bit of a screenwriting trick here. It’s not necessarily the most elegant sleight of hand, where Jeremy Irons’ character says, “I assure you it wasn’t brains that got me here.” It’s clever. So, my character is that I’m kind of an alpha male that kind of bossed my way to the top, but maybe not the most believable thing in the world. Generally speaking if you run a financial company you don’t need to be spoken to like you’re a five-year-old or a golden retriever.
But that said, that’s what’s going on here. They’re trying to come up with a way to solve this problem that this screenwriter has.
John: Yeah, so if you take a look at the YouTube clip and don’t just listen to the audio, what becomes clear is that this is all happening in front of a room of other analysts. And so this guy is being put on the stand. So he, basically the stakes are will he be able to explain this thing in a way that Jeremy Irons’ character will accept. So there’s consequence and stakes and there’s a conflict happening there that wouldn’t naturally be there if it was just a straight information dump. So that’s one of the things I really liked about J.C. Chandor’s movie here is that it’s able to quickly explain some of the big things happening and let you see it from their point of view. And so as stuff is going south you understand enough about what the characters are facing that you can follow along on the trip. And so that’s a thing I really like about this movie.
Craig: Yeah. And also J.C. does a really good job of making the info dump subordinate to character feeling. And this is going to tie in nicely when we get around to point of view. You do get a sense that this is not simply a scene where people are going to talk about stuff that is technical. This is a scene about power and position and ambition and risk. So, that’s all good character stuff. And that’s why it’s an interesting scene as opposed to just blah-blah-blah.
John: Yep. Here’s our lesson about this financial instrument.
Well, let’s jump ahead. Let’s go to our big topic of point of view. So, this is a craft topic that I said we would talk about in some future episode. This is the episode we’re going to talk about it. So point of view I’m going to define as which characters in a story, movie story, a book, have the ability to drive scenes. Basically that they can be a scene by themselves and you will follow them. They can be a scene with strangers and you’ll still follow them. And in some stories it has a single POV. So only the hero can drive a scene.
Harry Potter is a classic example of, both in the books and in the movies, essentially, every scene has Harry Potter in the scene. And so you don’t get any information that Harry Potter doesn’t know. Other stories you could follow anybody in them. So classically an Altman film. Anybody who wanders through the frame, the camera could follow them and they could be in their own story.
Most films are going to have a mix of POV. You’re going to have obviously scenes driven by your hero, but perhaps you’re able to cut off to the villain and see the villain do stuff and see scenes that are just driven by the villain, or a supporting character, a love interest. So there are different choices. But the choices we make have to be deliberate. And they really help tell the audience how to watch your movie.
Craig: Yeah. I always thing about point of view as an answer to a question. With whom am I supposed to identify with in this scene? And by identify with I don’t necessarily mean I want to be like them, or they are like me, but rather I’m with them. Even if it’s a villain, sometimes I’m with the villain because the villain is considering the glorious possibility of so on and so forth, and I am with them and their ambition or their desire.
The big thing that I think a lot of early writers and frankly a lot of not early writers, a lot of practiced writers, make the mistake of doing is not choosing a point of view in their scene. To me, there is no possible way to create a successful scene if you do not know whose point of view you’re asking the audience to follow.
We are, I think, only capable of having one point of view in a scene. One. That means everything that transpires ultimately is about one person’s eyeballs, essentially. It doesn’t mean that we can’t have other people feeling things and wanting things and doing things, but it’s from one person’s perspective.
John: Yeah. So I think you make a distinction here which I think was important to call out is that we can talk about point of view for an entire work, so the course of an entire movie, the course of an entire, so this book has a certain character’s point of view. It’s told from a certain character’s point of view. But every scene is like a little movie and every scene is going to have a point of view as well.
And so you may have scenes in which two different characters, we’ve followed them separately and we’ve seen them have separate scenes they can do stuff, but once we’re in a scene with them together you’re going to have to tell us which character’s point of view this scene is from. And sometimes you see writers not making that choice. Or, the writer may have made that choice but as it was directed, as it was staged in front of you, it wasn’t actually done from that character’s point of view. And that is a real challenge.
And so that’s a thing, even up at this last Sundance Labs I saw, I’ll describe this project in broad terms because it’s not a movie that’s out there for people to see yet, but it was a story that follows two young boys who have an encounter when they’re kids. Then it jumps forward 30 years. You see these two people as adults. We follow one’s person story. And then we cut to the other person’s story. And we know because we’ve seen movies before that eventually they’re going to meet. And in fact they do meet. But the question is when they meet who is driving that scene. And interestingly as the story was structured as I was reading it, it had gone back to the first character before the two characters met. And so I was saying that I think it’s from this character’s point of view because he controlled the last scene. The last person we saw driving a scene is the person we’re going to assume is driving the next scene.
And so we talked about like, well, if we took out that scene it would shift and we would still be in the point of view of the second character. And that’s a crucial distinction. We know they’re going to meet, but literally who are we going to meet first? Who is driving the scene?
Craig: Yep. Absolutely. And it is an important distinction to understand that there is the macro and the micro. And honestly I find point of view to be the most useful thing to discuss when you are in the micro. Generally speaking the large questions are answered. Who is the star of the movie? Who is the protagonist? Who is the hero? And so on and so forth.
But then you have these little moments inside of movies where you have a real choice to make. And so, you know, Harry Potter is certainly, you’re right, it’s from the perspective and the point of view of Harry Potter. But then here and there you have these moments where things, like a scene where Ron Weasley is watching Harry and Hermione together and he gets jealous. That’s from Ron’s point of view.
A lot of times the audience will make certain assumptions based on the way the scene unfolds. And one of the simplest assumptions they make is “The first character I see is going to be the person through whose point of view I will be experiencing this scene.”
John: Absolutely. So in the case of Harry Potter, in most scenes we’re going to probably see Harry first and then we’re going to see the supporting characters. Granted, over the course of eight movies we’re going to be used to sort of seeing a different one of those characters first. But you’re not going to have any scenes that are just one character or the other character. There may be shots or little action sequences where we’re only following one, but in terms of bigger sequences Harry is going to be around for all of those things.
So, if you are figuring out how to tell one story point from the book, you have to figure a way to visualize this information and keep Harry still centerpiece to all this stuff. There’s a great example in Goblet of Fire where quite late in the story Harry is captured by Voldemort. And there’s sort of an information dump that Voldemort needs to do.
John: That’s an information dump that Voldemort doesn’t necessarily need to do for Harry Potter, but it’s very important for us as the audience to understand. And it’s important that Harry be part of that information dump because he is our way into this world.
Craig: Correct. And in the writing of that section in the book, and then by extension in the writing of the screenplay and the film that we saw, there is not just a metaphoric point of view but an actual point of view. An actual perspective. And this is a very useful thing to think about as well. When you’re writing these scenes if you decide that this – I always start by like, “OK, emotionally whose point of view should we be honoring here?” And then once I have that understanding then I start thinking about physical points of view, not just through eyesight but also through sound.
So, for instance, if you – a slight variation on the first character you see. You may see a character first and then we pull back to reveal that someone is watching them. Well clearly the point of view is with the watcher. You may be on a person’s face and you hear sounds and you know that they’re listening. But the actual physical point of view/point of sound is really important in scenes. It’s important because ultimately that is a huge part of how the director directs.
There’s no other way to make those scenes work unless you understand point of view because a lot of directing, just at least from the physical position, is angles. So the question is what are the angles? Where are we looking? Where does the camera go? Who is it looking at? And why?
John: Last week we talked about the scene from Aliens, and if people watched the scene you’ll see that even though Burke is doing most of the talking the scene is very clearly from Ripley’s point of view. She is the one watching and trying to process what he’s saying. And the camera work shows that. That it’s really favoring her and it’s favoring her reactions to his lines rather than him talking. So, it’s still her scene even though he’s the one providing the information and bringing what is new to the scene.
Craig: Yeah. And you can play games with point of view. You can make it seem like the point of view is one person’s and then it’s another. The great example of that is in the brilliant third act switcheroo in Silence of the Lambs where you think Starling’s point of view is one thing and it turns out it’s another and vice versa. There are scenes where two people have a long discussion and you’re not quite sure whose point of view it is. And then they get up and they leave and then we reveal that a person has been listening and they weren’t even in the scene but it was their point of view retrospectively.
Also point of view gives you an opportunity as a writer to shake things up. If you have a scene that maybe feels a little perfunctory or a little cliché but it fits nicely into your story and solves a lot of problems then maybe the answer for spice is point of view. How can you change that point of view? How can you make the point of view of that scene somebody that you wouldn’t expect? Suddenly the scene becomes so much more interesting and fresh.
Here’s a cliché scene. An 11-year-old kid is called in on the carpet by the principal. So it’s the principal yelling at the kid scene. Maybe it’s from the point of view of the principal’s secretary or assistant. Maybe it’s from the point of view of another kid who is waiting to go in next to be yelled at. You find fun, interesting ways to make these things happen.
Also, that scene, maybe the answer to that scene is, well, nine times out of ten it’s from the point of view of the kid because the kid is getting yelled at and we identify with the kid. What if it’s from the point of view of the principal? What if we’re identifying with the principal as they struggle to try and make this work? And then the kid leaves and we stay with the principal after.
And that’s what point of view and those decisions get you. It makes you think about what the beginning and the end of the scene will be and who your eyes should be on and who their eyes should be on. It’s an indispensable way of approaching scene work. And I think we honestly just saved a lot of people a lot of money for film school stuff.
John: So, let’s talk about the specific example you gave for a kid in the principal’s office and like what if it’s the secretary’s point of view or the principal’s point of view. Those are all really great, fascinating choices. And if it was the first scene of your story it would be really interesting and unexpected because like, “Oh, we expect it from the kid’s point of view and it’s actually from the principal’s point of view or the secretary’s.” But if it was the kid’s story, if it was about the 12-year-old boy, we sort of couldn’t stay with the principal’s point of view unless that principal is going to ultimately have storytelling power later in our movie.
John: So, the moment you decide to stick around with a character who is not established to be a major character, who is not established to have a storytelling power, you’re suddenly elevating that person. You’re saying like, “Oh, this is a person that we now have an expectation that we’ll be able to come back to and see independent individual scenes.”
There’s maybe like five or ten seconds where you can hold on a character after the main character has left before that character goes like, “OK, there’s something bigger there. There’s some expectation you’re setting.”
Just yesterday I saw Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. And the movie is – this is not a movie review – the movie is nuts in a way that I had not anticipated. I really enjoyed it. Partly because it does really odd things. And one of the odd things it does is there’s a young girl character who is not really established. You don’t see her. But suddenly like 20 minutes into the movie we’re cutting to her and her POV and she’s driving scenes by herself. And it sort of threw me at first. It was like what is this movie. And then I remember that the Jurassic Park movies always sort of cut to minor characters. They were always elevating these minor people who can suddenly do things by themselves. And this movie takes that and runs with it very fully.
But it becomes interesting later on in the story where she and other characters meet and it does get a little bit murky for me kind of who was in control of the story at that point. Because it wasn’t clear whose POV we really were in in some of those scenes.
Craig: It’s a great point you’re making that point of view more than line count or screen time determines the importance and the salience of any particular role in a story. The more point of view you afford a character, the more important they are, the more elevated they are in the tale. And you’re right. You can actually have quite a few people doing this. But when they all get together then you do have a problem because, again, I’ll just say it’s my rule, we as human beings really can only have one point of view at one time. And maybe it’s just the narrative is reflecting the biological. We have one field of vision. We have one field of sound. We can’t see two things at once and we can’t hear two things at once. We hear a combination of things or we see a combination of things, but that’s it.
And it’s just our one view. So in those conglomeration scenes it’s really important that the screenwriter make sure to figure out who is the point of view person here because I need to make it really clear in that moment, or else the scene will feel very trifurcated, quadfurcated, and so on and so forth.
So, sometimes the best thing to do with those characters that you’ve given point of view to is before you get to that conglomeration scene kill them. Wayne Knight in the first Jurassic Park has wonderful point of view scenes and then he dies. Because who needs him later?
John: There’s, and this again I don’t think is a spoiler, that Henry Woo, the character played by B.D. Wong in the Jurassic Park movies, shows up in this movie again. And it was strange to me that he didn’t seem to have point of view. For a character who has been established through the whole franchise he’s not allowed to drive any scenes by himself. And it felt like he had sort of earned that. But also if you look at the course of the actual movie that we’re watching, he shows up kind of late. And so it might have felt strange to give him that power so late in the movie, to elevate to a place so late in the movie.
When you do shift POVs and we do unexpected things with POVs you do get a real jolt of energy. So I think back to Gone Girl. So, Gone Girl as a book, which I loved as a book and was dying to write the adaptation of that, is told – it’s alternating chapters between the husband and the wife. And for reasons I don’t want to spoil in the story that structure would not continue necessarily, but then when it does continue in ways you couldn’t imagine being possible in the movie it’s so thrilling that we’ve changed POV midway through the movie. And we’ve changed our sort of fundamental rules of how we watch the movie change halfway through. It was a great adaptation of a really great story that was told from a specific point of view and had to change its point of view in order to work as a movie.
Craig: Yeah. It is thrilling. It’s exciting. It’s jarring. And when it’s done well it is as exhilarating as any car chase because you are creating a kind of emotional freefall in people. And one of the thrills we get I think from going to movies and watching television shows is the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s point of view, somebody else that’s wildly different from us. Frankly that’s what we do as writers all day long, right? But when we receive it passively it can be – because it’s surprising, it’s awesome. And it can really wobble the ground beneath you for a bit in a fun way as long as it is done expertly and you feel like you’re caught. When it’s not, then it just feels clunky or confusing or you start to say to yourself I don’t really know what I’m supposed to feel here or why. These are the things that we want to try and avoid when we’re shifting points of view radically.
It also occurs to me that sometimes when we talk about stock characters or when we see a movie and we complain about a character that feels cliché that they aren’t really getting a proper point of view. Rather, they are only existing in someone else’s point of view and therefore they exist to serve a function. OK, so you’re going to be the judge in the trial. Well, you’re never going to get a point of view. You’re just there to go, “Overruled,” so that the prosecutor whose point of view we’re living in or the defendant whose point of view we’re living in can see it and hear it. And one way to avoid those kind of cliché stock characters is to consider that perhaps maybe they deserve some point of view.
But, then you got to make space.
John: Yeah. You got to make space and make sure that you’re not creating an expectation with the audience that your movie will not be able to match.
Craig: Correct. Correct. It’s tricky.
John: Let’s talk about general guidelines for when it makes sense to limit point of view and when it makes sense to broaden out point of view. So, some benefits to limiting POV is it does make your audience identify very closely with whoever that central character is. Generally if you’re limiting your point of view to one character like in a Harry Potter situation you’re going to identify very closely with Harry Potter because he’s in every scene so it’s driving everything. And particularly if you have a character whose experience may be different than sort of your audiences it can be great to limit POV because then you’re seeing everything through his or her eyes. And so if you have a tale of racism and you’re seeing it through this black character’s eyes, I think an audience might be able to understand and empathize with it in ways they wouldn’t see otherwise because we so closely identify with this central character. That’s a huge advantage to that.
It really focuses your storytelling because you’re only providing information that that character can actually get to. And so that’s helpful. So anything that the audience wants to know, the character needs to know, too. And so you’re following in his or her footsteps as they’re going out and trying to do these things. And so we identify very closely with characters if we limit the POV to those characters.
On the other hand, if you broaden POV suddenly your movie can feel much more expansive. Because suddenly you can cut to Egypt. You can cut to Morocco. You can see all these different parts of the world and so you establish new characters when you want to establish them. That’s hugely helpful, too. If you’re the kind of bigger, epic-scale story that makes sense. If you’re Game of Thrones, you don’t want to limit it to one character’s point of view, because you have to be able to jump around and have different characters be the hero of one story and the villain of another.
Craig: Perfect thing to mention, Game of Thrones, because when people talk about George R. R. Martin’s books they literally refer to point of view characters. So, generally speaking in his chapters there is a character that is sort of the point of view. And they get an inner life. They have an inner voice. And the events unfold through their eyes and their experience. And you’re absolutely right. Any kind of epic story demands it, I think.
And you should kind of know, I think, from the sort of story you’re telling whether or not you want to be expansive in your points of view or you want to be limited. But, some other things to think about beyond just scale is how much your character is meant to know. If there’s certain kinds of mystery or if there’s a certain sense of powerlessness, generally speaking it’s great to side your perspective with characters that have less power and less knowledge because then there’s more to learn. And there’s more to know. And that’s interesting. And it’s instantly sympathetic.
We don’t really want to share the POV of people that know a lot or are in control. We don’t need Morpheus’s POV really ever. We just don’t need it, except maybe for instance in the scene where he needs to break free from the agents and run and jump we are in his perspective because at that moment he is very powerless. He is weak. And he isn’t really sure he’s going to make it or not. There you go.
John: Yeah. A crucial example. So most of what we’ve been talking about has been sort of movie point of view and the things about which character the camera is on. Those are sort of movie conversations. But point of view is always a part of fiction. It’s always been one of the classic things we talked about. Going back to Pride and Prejudice. We are at Elizabeth Bennett’s point of view and not Darcy’s point of view. And we see the story through her eyes rather than his eyes.
Sometimes, just like in movies, it’s good to change point of view. It’s good to change point of view in books as well. So like the first Arlo Finch book is entirely from Arlo’s point of view. We only know information that Arlo knows. And if there’s information I had to get in there I had to have Arlo be present for that information to come out.
The second book for reasons that become clear when you actually read the second book, we do break POV at one point in the story. And my editor was really nervous about this, but then as we talked through it it actually makes sense that we break POV and suddenly the rules of sort of who we’re allowed to follow in the world shift a bit. But hopefully by that point you are comfortable enough with the characters that I’m breaking POV to that it makes sense.
Craig: Yeah. I can’t remember which Harry Potter book began with an entirely different POV of somebody coming home and finding Voldemort in his house or something. It fills the world out. And partly it also creates a complex reading experience because we are asked as readers to build little walls in our mind. Like, “OK, I just learned something and saw something but the character whose POV I’m going to be following for the rest of the book has not been there or seen that. I’m going to put a little wall between them. They don’t know that stuff.” And then ideally the story at the end will link it together and then they will learn it and in the learning of it we’ll learn something else and so on and so forth.
But it’s exciting. You just have to do it really deliberately. You can’t – that’s the thing, we always say everything is about being specific and being intentional. As long as you know what you’re doing and why it should work.
John: It should work. And exactly the scenario you described where a story starts with a different character’s POV before going back to the hero, that’s a very classic movie thing as well. So how many movies have you seen that start with some rando people you’re never going to see again? They’re establishing some nature of the world or some nature of the fundamental problem before we get to our main characters. That’s classic.
Craig: Yeah. Beginning of Scream for instance. We never see Drew Barrymore again, but it’s entirely from her point of view.
John: Absolutely. So it’s teaching us how to watch the movie. So, don’t feel like you’re breaking POV just to do that introduction to the world thing. That’s very classic. Or the tag at the end. That’s also well established.
Craig: Yep. I really do believe that honestly that’s worth one year of film school.
John: Done. Or at least one season of Scriptnotes.
Craig: One $5 season of Scriptnotes. Agreed.
John: All right. Let’s try to answer some questions. And full disclosure, we’ve not read any of these questions. We did no prep work. So Megan has read these questions but–
Craig: I have news for you. Full disclosure. I have never read any of the questions. So, you will not notice any difference from me but John may seem very off his game. We’ll find out.
John: All right. We’re going to start with Preston in Salt Lake. Preston writes, “I am currently writing a script where the main character decides to change his name about a third of the way into the movie. This coincides with a huge decision to forego his family title and take a completely different path than he’s been presented with before. I want to call him by his new name after he makes the decision so it’s clear that he fundamentally sees himself as a different character, but I’m worried it will be jarring for the reader if I suddenly change the main character’s name on page 40. I definitely don’t want them to get confused and think I’m talking about a completely different person.
“So what do you think the best way is to alert the reader of the name change? Should I just write character X will now be referred to as character Y in bold? Should I warn the reader this character’s name will change when I first introduce them on page one of the script?”
Craig, what would you do in this situation?
Craig: We get this question all the time. People get so worried about this sort of thing. Well, first of all, it rarely works to be honest with you. It rarely works, but it can. And it’s the kind of thing that’s actually more of a problem in the read than it is in a watch if that makes sense. But, you definitely don’t want to start the movie off by saying someone’s name is going to change. No. Just go ahead and just say so-and-so will now be referred to as so-and-so and put that in bold is fine.
I also think it would be fair, at least a couple times, for one or another person to mistakenly refer to them by their old name and have them be corrected. It helps the reader. But, yeah, generally I’m not sure what else you can do other than in the moment make it quite clear this is what’s happened.
John: Yeah. I’m not a huge fan of changing a character’s name in terms of the title tag, so like the little – I guess they call it call character cue. It’s so weird that it’s a thing that exists in every screenplay you’ve ever read but the character’s name over the dialogue, is it character cue? Whatever you want to call that. I’m not a huge fan of changing that just because if you’re flipping back and forth in a script you can get confused about who you’re actually talking about. If they have a first name that’s not going to change, keep that. If there’s some way to keep them the same person. Because think about it like that little character cue is like the actor’s face. You’re seeing the actor’s face and they’re saying this thing. That’s the same person the whole time through. So, I wouldn’t go too nuts about changing that if you can help changing that. Let the story do it, but think about that little character cue as being the actor’s face. And the actor’s face as an audience we’re still going to know it’s the same person.
So, if we’re going to know it’s the same person I would try to keep the character cue the same.
Craig: Yeah. I’m with you. If you can, to avoid it, it’s helpful. OK, so our next question is from Derek in LA. He writes, “I work in the script department of one of the studios in a job that involves not only processing screenplays for recent releases or titles still in development, but also occasionally converting a very old script into a digital file. We had one of these archive scripts this week that dated all the way back to 1935. And while I always expect some differences in formatting and terminology, this one had a term I’d never seen before and can’t seem to find anywhere else. The term is Jackman Shot. That’s Jackman Shot.
“From the context, it seems to refer to any composite shots used in a scene, for example footage of a plane superimposed over a map or miniature ships to create the background of a scene at a dock. But when I tried to find some definition or other use of the term I came up with nothing. As you might expect, it’s impossible to Google the phrase and find much of anything other than pictures of Hugh Jackman. When I asked around our office no one else here was familiar with the term either.”
So he’s turning to us. John, have you ever heard of the term Jackman Shot?
John: I have never heard of the term Jackman Shot. But I suspect what he’s describing it as is probably true. That it’s some sort of composite shot. It’s some sort of process shot. And it makes me think back to another James Cameron script. I think it was the script for Aliens where it says like in uppercase it’s like Panaglide through something. So like panaglide as a thing, which is a name for like a Steadicam kind of shot. And so Jackman Shot is probably the same kind of thing. Whatever the state of the art thing is they were doing at that time that the screenwriter put in there to describe this type of visual effect.
Craig: Yeah. Maybe there was like a guy named Jackman that came up with that thing. You know, like that early composite shot. Or there was some machine they used called the Jackman that would make the composites. Beats me, man. Jackman Shot.
John: So I love special film terminology and I’ll always hear these great terms and then forget them because I don’t have the chance to use them in any meaningful way. So, some terms I will describe which I will not remember the actual name for because I’m not going to Google them while I’m saying them is so you know the shot, Craig, which is from the top of the actor’s head to a little bit above his kneecaps which should show the holster, like if he’s wearing a gun. What is the name of that?
John: The Cowboy. The Cowboy Shot. What is the name of the kind of not really visual effects shot but where two actors are having a brawl and then they pass behind a window and you clearly swapped out stunt actors.
Craig: That’s a Texas Switch.
John: Texas Switch. See, they’re all Western kind of terms. I love these kind of special things. But you can also use them in your script without necessarily knowing – I wouldn’t necessarily call it out as a Texas Switch in a script if I were using it.
Craig: No, you just – that’s something that you just know. Yeah, because if you call it out as a Texas Switch what you’re saying is it’s fake. And you don’t want to do that in your script. You just want to be able to do that on the day on the set. Yeah, and similarly a Cowboy is something you only hear on set. And less and less. Two Teas is another one. I don’t know if you ever heard that one.
John: I don’t know Two Ts.
Craig: Two Ts is basically two breasts. Two breasts and up. So, it’s that shot that’s not quite a close-up but it’s not thigh high.
John: Like a medium essentially?
Craig: Yeah, it’s a medium. Haircut, you know. People don’t notice this. A lot of times when you’re looking at close-ups the frame gives the actor a haircut. There’s something about having a little bit of space above the hair that seems weird. You want to be close enough that you feel like if you start to give them a haircut then you feel like you’re intimately with them. It’s a strange thing. But I’m going to start walking around saying Jackman Shot. You know what, maybe we should Jackman this one.
John: I want to say back to the top of Derek’s question, so I think it’s great that he’s in the script processing department that’s actually processing these really old scripts because that is a real worry is that some of these things will kind of get lost to history because they only existed as printed things that can fall apart. So in processing them and getting them as digital files they can stick around forever which is a very good thing. So, I don’t know what you’re using to do it. If you’re using Highland to melt them that’s fantastic. But whatever you’re using to get them into a format that people can enjoy them in the future that is ideal.
Craig: Well done, Derek.
John: Jared writes, “My daughter just graduated from elementary school and received two academic achievement awards for the grade six education ceremony. One for French as a second language. The other for creative writing.” Congratulations Jared. “Her teacher described her saying I believe this student was born writing. She writes in her spare time. She writes in class. She writes at home. I know from listening to the Scriptnotes podcast that you excelled in writing from an early age.” Is that true for you, Craig? It was true for me. Was it true for you?
Craig: It is. Yes.
John: It’s true. “I was wondering if you might be able to suggest a bit of direction as she moves onto high school. I’d really like to help her foster her growth in this area before life bogs her down with stress and squelches that creative spark.”
Craig, what would you do to continue to stoke her love of writing?
Craig: Just let her know that you love that she loves writing. And there’s no reason that life should bog her down in stress and squelch her creative spark. The people that tend to bog teenagers down in stress and squelch their creative spark are adults who are demanding that those children be something the adults want them to be. It sounds like you’re the sort of dad that doesn’t do that. Sounds like you’re the sort of dad that wants her to be what she wants to be.
Now, fair warning here, Jared. You may be getting more excited about this than she is. Children, I can tell you from my experience, change dramatically as they go through puberty. Their interests change. Sometimes – and very frustrating for parents – sometimes they just lose interest in something they’re really good at.
Craig: And it can make you panic a little bit. Don’t. Because they’ll either come back around to it or they won’t. The important thing is your job ultimately isn’t really to foster her growth. Your job is to support her as she reaches for things. It sounds like she’s fairly well self-directed in this regard. If she loves writing she will keep writing. And as long as you tell her that that’s a lovely and wonderful thing she’ll keep doing it to her heart’s content. And we’ll see how her heart develops. It’s as simple as that.
John: Yeah. I will say that sometimes there’s that fine line between supporting your child and then you’re expressing interest in what a kid likes and what a kid does can sort of backfire to a degree. Like as they hit puberty, like the fact that you like that they like this thing makes them not like the thing. There’s weird stuff that can happen.
So, I would just say be present for it. If there’s opportunities you see for her that she can do stuff, support those. As you go into junior high and to high school there are all sorts of opportunities to be in sports, or be in band, and be in all these other things. There are very few opportunities for like being in creative writing. But if there are like creative writing classes, clubs, whatever, stuff like that that she’s interested in, go for that. Go support that. Because that’s going to be helpful. But I would just say read whatever she wants you to read.
So my mom, to her credit, like I could write anything and my mom would happily stop whatever she was doing and read it and proofread it. And that’s good. Sometimes one of the most frustrating things about writing obviously is that you don’t know if it’s any good and you don’t know if it actually makes any sense. And so to be that set of eyes, to say like, “Oh yeah, this was good, I see what you were doing here, thank you for sharing it with me.” That can be a lot.
Craig: Yep. And avoid the temptation to become her instructor, her teacher, her coach. Don’t do that. If she’s really into it and wants to get some outside help or development then just say, great, let’s find you an interesting class to take or perhaps there’s somebody that actually does discuss creative writing one-on-one with kids. Probably not. That’s all good. Try and have other people do that. You just got to be aware of the syndrome John is discussing which is very real. At any point if she begins to suss out that you are deriving some sort of benefit from it it becomes tainted. So let it be her thing.
John: The other thing I would sort of caution you towards but also make sure you’re aware of is things like Wattpad or sort of the online communities where people write and people share their writing and get feedback on their writing and stuff like that, there can be good things to that. I mean, fan fiction really springs out of that. It can be a source of joy and positivity. But it can also be a source of great negativity. And so just the same way that you’d be mindful of any social media she might be starting or any other things in which strangers can be influencing her self-esteem I’d watch out for that as well. Because they’re so fragile at this point.
Craig: They are. And those things can be crab barrels where nobody wants to let anybody out of the barrel. I mean, I see it on the Reddit screenwriting thing. I’ll go on there and every now and again I’ll just see people giving each other advice and I just think why. Why are you asking these people for advice? And why are these people giving you advice? Because you’re all kind of in the same boat here. And I’m not sure there’s value there.
There’s a precious few amount of professional screenwriters that I look at and go you know what I would like their advice on this. It’s such a dangerous thing. And everybody wants to give advice because it makes them feel good. And sometimes they like to tear things down because it makes them feel good. So, another excellent point from John here. Just, you know, there’s something you could do. Maybe protect her from the angry world of online crabs.
John: Yeah. Crabs.
Craig: No one wants to get crabs.
John: Do you want to take this last question from Larry?
Craig: Yeah. Larry asks, “I’ve recently had an offer from an indie producer that liked one of my scripts. First-time director. Micro-budget. We haven’t gotten into brass tacks, but I have the feeling the offer to me will be something like, well, we can maybe give you some backend points if you hold our feet over the coals. And the size of the budget requires a number of script compromises. But, they want to shoot it so there’s that. The script itself has been pretty well-received by everyone that’s read it, including a reader for a decent sized indie studio, but no offers from anyone else.
“And personally I’d call it a good script not a great script. My question is how much value do I place on getting a script of mine shot? Do I throw caution to the winds? First-time director. No/little money for me. Shooting compromises and all. Or do I hold it back and wait for something better? I hate the idea of taking the wrong step forward but I also find I generally regret inaction more than action.” Oh, Larry does sound like a writer, doesn’t he, John?
John: He does sound like a writer. So, I would say, Larry, is this is a moment where you need to trust your Spidey sense. And your Spidey sense is “Will this person, this director in particular, make at least a good movie?” So you think great is fine. Let’s leave out great. Do you think this director has a vision for making this movie and having this movie turn out well? And really wants to make the movie for the right reasons which is to make a good film.
If not, then I don’t think it’s worth your time to have this movie be made if you don’t think this movie could be made at least to a good level. Because you might say even it’s not a lot of money, it’s going to be a tremendous amount of your time. It’s going to be your first thing produced. You want it to be a good experience even if it’s not a good amount of money. And if your Spidey sense is telling you that it’s not going to be a good experience I’d walk away.
If you really do spark to this director and think he or she has a real vision for doing your movie despite the low budget, then I’d say go for it. Craig, what’s your feeling?
Craig: I’m going to be a little more crazy than you. You know, because I don’t like to get too much more crazy than you. You’re my benchmark for crazy.
John: Benchmark of sanity, all right.
Craig: Yeah, you’re my benchmark for sanity. John is right. You have to kind of weigh your Spidey sense here, but maybe put your thumb a little bit on the scale toward doing it and here’s why. This isn’t, from the way you describe it, your life’s work. This is not the thing that you’ve pulled from your heart that represents who you are. It is not your magnum opus. It’s a script that you think is pretty good. It’s not a script that has lit the world on fire, but somebody wants to make it. And you haven’t had anything else made it seems like to me.
So, there is an enormous educational value to having any of your work produced. Not just because you see how your words and your scenarios translate into moving images and sound, but also you get an experience of what it means to have somebody else direct your work, produce your work, edit it, release it, all that stuff.
It doesn’t sound based on what you’re describing like this is going to be a high profile thing that will embarrass you until the end of time if it does kind of fall on its face, because it’s micro-budget and it’s indie. But you never know. Sometimes it’s catch a falling star kind of thing. It might work.
But more than anything I think it would be really educational. I think you would learn a lot. My guess is that the amount of money between not much and what you want isn’t a great gulf. And really the only financial value to these things are if they become one of those lottery ticket one-in-a-million things like My Big Fat Greek Wedding or something, so in that case backend points would be wonderful.
So, I would say if it feels bad, if it feels abusive, if it feels like they’re going to wreck things, don’t do it. If it feels like you’re not really sure then maybe err on the side of adventure.
John: Yeah. I think that’s a good way to think about it. That’s probably a good split in terms of how much recklessness Larry should approach this with. And I’ll also remind you that just because it’s not the big breakout thing doesn’t mean it’s not useful. And so Quentin Tarantino had a movie before Reservoir Dogs. Doug Liman had a movie before Swingers. And we don’t think about those. We think about those other movies being their first movies, but they did other things before that. And so this could be that thing before that thing.
Or, it could be Reservoir Dogs. You don’t know. So, maybe be bold as long as you have some belief in these people.
Craig: Yeah. That makes sense.
John: Cool. All right, it’s time for our One Cool Things.
My One Cool Thing is Bubble. It is a podcast written and created by Jordan Morris. And so it is a scripted podcast. I’m generally not a big fan of fiction podcasts. I’ve just never really gotten them because sometimes they feel like radio plays. I’m just never quite sure where I’m supposed to sit in these things. I guess it’s sort of a question of POV. I’m not quite sure what these things are.
This one I just loved. And so Bubble tells a story, this kind of post-apocalyptic place. It’s this protected space. But there are monsters that run around. There’s a service you can hire to kill the monsters that sort of works like Uber or Lyft. It is really, really funny. And the feeling of the show, it has a bunch of actors who are all great and really, really funny. But it also has a narration that kind of feels like if you were at a script reading, a table-reading of your script. And the scene description was like really, really funny and sort of self-aware. And so the narrator for all that is fantastic, too.
So, I just really recommend it. There’s four episodes out right now. It’s delightful and it feels like kind of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a podcast. I just adored it. So I recommend Bubble.
Craig: Wow. Bubble by Jordan Morris. OK. I’ve got a fun game that I’ve been playing and it was sort of a surprise. It was like surprise game. Because the iPhone games or iOS games – I don’t talk about Android – they’ve kind of moved toward that console game structure where they have what they call AAA games, you know. It’s like The Room is a AAA game. It’s an indie game but everybody stops and goes oh The Room 3 is out, let’s buy it. As well you should.
Then there are a lot of like also-ran games that kind of live in that space. They oftentimes stink. You give them shots but a lot of times they’re just blah. And so, you know, bored, I found one. I was like, well, it’s probably not going to be great. And it’s kind of awesome. It’s called Alleys. It’s a game mechanic I haven’t quite seen before. You are exploring this abandoned city. Fair warning: the graphics are not up to The Room snuff. It’s not that level.
The way you move around is a bit clunky. The controls aren’t clunky. It’s tap. That’s it. But the actual animation of you moving through the space is a bit clunky. But the space is quite vast. And the mechanics are you’re basically finding three kinds of things. You’re finding keys. You’re finding check-in points. And then you’re finding resource cards. And you will run into obstacles that require either the right kind of resource card or a certain amount of keys which keys you burn. So they’re kind of like a – there’s two kinds of resources. There’s the kind that keeps building up and then the kind that you burn through. So keys when you use them they’re gone. So, OK, this door takes eight keys.
Then there are the check-in things where you need to have this many check-ins and that doesn’t go down, but the bar you have to jump in terms of number check-ins goes up. It’s really interesting. I like it. It’s kind of cool.
And there’s some interesting meta games clearly put in there that are kind of deeper involving some code language stuff I have to figure out. It’s kind of – it’s way more than I thought it would be. So it’s a big surprise. I mean, I’ve been playing it for a while and I don’t feel like I’m even halfway done. So, Alleys.
Craig: On iOS.
John: Very nice. And that’s our show for this week. So, as always, our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Luke Davis. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place you can send longer questions like the ones we answered today. But we are always around to answer your questions on Twitter. Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.
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All the back episodes for the show are at Scriptnotes.net. You can subscribe there for $2 a month and get all those back episodes. But you can also now get the albums. So the individual seasons of Scriptnotes in 50-episode blocks are available at store.johnaugust.com.
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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. Those go up about a week after the episode drops. And that is our show for this week. Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you, John. That was, in fact, perfection.
John: It was amazing.
Craig: See you next week.
- Scriptnotes Digital Seasons are now available!
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- Justin Dise walks through the basic shot types in a blog post for B&H.
- Bubble, a podcast by Jordan Morris
- Alleys, an immersive escape mobile game
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