The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August and this is Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig is off on assignment this week but luckily we have not one but two people on deck to fill in. Susanna Fogel is a writer-producer whose credits include Life Partners, Chasing Life, and this new movie The Spy Who Dumped Me, which she also directed. Welcome Susanna.
Susanna Fogel: Hi, thanks for having me.
John: And also we have her writing partner on that film, David Iserson. His credits as a writer and producer include Graves, Mr. Robot, Mad Man, New Girl, Up All Night, and Saturday Night Live.
David Iserson: Hi.
John: David, welcome.
David: Thank you for having me. I’m a big fan of the show. So this is like – I can live in my fan boy fantasy of being on Scriptnotes.
John: Well, with the two of you here I want to talk about some film and TV stuff, because you’ve both worked in film and in television. I want to talk about action comedies. But mostly I want to get started by talking about how you guys came to write this movie together, because when I went to the screening last night I had assumed that you guys were always writing partners and that I would go through your credits and they would all be the same credits and your only shared credit that I could find was The Spy Who Dumped Me. So what caused you two guys to write this movie together?
Susanna: And it will be the last shared credit. I will be taking credit for everything from now on.
David: Once we leave this recording we will never speak again. Susanna and I met a few years ago at a Christmas dinner that a different writer friend threw. And we had a ton of mutual friends. It was weird that we had never met. And we just became sort of instant pals, shared a lot of the same taste, and we looked at each other’s work and we realized that we had a lot of shared things in common. And then we just started writing our own things in the same room as each other. We would go to the same coffee shops.
Susanna: Like a workout buddy.
David: Yeah, just kind of keep each other honest. We would go work on our own things at the same table and talk about whatever problems we were having in our own scripts. And we did that for a while.
Susanna: And then we sort of saw each other through creative heartbreaks on both of our sides. You know, we both had projects we were excited about crumble before our very eyes and supported each other through that and then it became like a shared venting about how hard it was to get anything produced, especially in our sort of small indie dramedy tone. And then we started dreaming really big about sort of seeing if there was a way to combine that with our fanboy and fangirl attitude towards these big tent pole movies that we never thought of writing but loved to see. And wondered if maybe there was a way to sort of adjust the framework of telling the same kinds of stories.
John: So, before you guys are working in the same shared space, same shared coffee shop, you had very different trajectories. So the first time I became aware of your stuff, Susanna, was you’d done Life Partners which was a Sundance Labs project. And so talk about that journey. Did you really see yourself as a person who was supposed to be doing indie film and TV was another thing that came up? How did you see your career over the last ten years? What did you think your trajectory was going to be?
Susanna: Well, I had sort of grown up in that sort of mid-‘90s New York indie film world. I’m from the east coast. I went to college in New York City. I did internships at Good Machine and Fine Line and all those companies in Downtown New York where I really did dream of being like Nicole Holofcener and that was kind of where it stopped and started. Started and stopped.
And I think the reality was that by the time I moved out to LA to sort of figure out how I could try to become that the industry was starting to change really quickly and, you know, both because of the economic collapse and the writers’ strike and also just because of the Internet and the nature of the over-saturation of content it sort of became less and less hospitable to movies like that, at least in the cinematic like first-run movie world that you dream about when you’re trying to become a director.
So, to me it sort of was a moment of just trying to figure out how to actually get something produced because I would keep writing these small heartfelt like indie dramedies with women in the lead roles and they just weren’t getting made. So, to support myself I sort of got in the studio writing assignment game which is one where it’s a total crap shoot whether you get something made or not. You have no control over that often as a writer.
So, it wasn’t creatively rewarding but it was just enough to sort of stay afloat. But I started to adjust my idea of what I could sort of actually do as a director and see get produced and how I could start to climb that ladder. And then, you know, after having a project fall apart that I loved, it was a Black List script that I wrote with a friend who I wrote with for many years, we kind of had one heartbreak too many and we decided to write a one-act play just to actually put something up that wouldn’t cost very much that we could actually just direct and see in front of an audience. And that one-act became the script for Life Partners, which then became a Sundance Lab project and then actually did – we did find financing for that, but it kind of felt like a lightning in a bottle situation. And then after making that movie, which was rewarding, I noticed that the landscape didn’t change that much.
Like it’s not like there were a lot of opportunities to make more movies like that now that I had proven myself. It was more that that market was still tiny. And at the same time we had the opportunity to adapt a Mexican format, like sort of My So-Called Life with Cancer for lack of a better description, Mexican show that became Chasing Life which was our Lionsgate ABC Family show that was on for a couple of seasons.
So, that was a great opportunity to write and see things produced. And I got to direct a few episodes and that was great. But my dream was still to go back to writing and directing features. I just wasn’t sure how to do that in the sort of current climate of getting movies made.
John: Now, David, looking at your credits it looks like you’re mostly a television writer, but were you also writing features during that time, too?
David: When I moved out to Los Angeles after college, my intention was purely to be a feature writer. My dream was to sit in a movie theater and see my name on a movie. And when I started, when I moved out here I got a job in development. I read a bunch of scripts. And I answered phones and I was a receptionist. And I did that job for like a year and a half. And those jobs really suck all of your kind of life force out of you. And I came out here to write but I was not able to write.
So, at like kind of this spur of hubris I quit that job, but I knew I just kind of had like less than three weeks of money before I needed to find a different job. So I burst out like a feature script that I’d had just sort of brewing in my head forever and I was excited and encouraged. And then a year passed and no one read it, but eventually that script got me representation and that script got me a bunch of jobs. And I did a lot of feature work, but not any feature work that had been made. And in the meantime before that I almost sort of like stumbled into a joke-writing job.
I started emailing jokes to Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live. And I got enough of those on the air that they hired me for the following season. And my tenure at SNL was – what’s the word – inauspicious. And then I came back to LA and I wrote these movies that never got produced. And then the writer’s strike that was 10 years ago happened and I realized, oh, I don’t know any writers. I have this very lonely job. Every time I write a script and it doesn’t get made I feel like I have to start all over again. And TV had just started becoming something really special and what has now just sort of blown up since then.
So then I started working in TV and all the while I was trying to write movies in between, on weekends, kept sort of hustling through doing that as well all the while while I was sort of juggling my TV jobs.
John: A question for both of you. I mean, you had the opportunity to do TV shows. You could have done your own TV shows or kept going in TV show land. Why keep going back to features? It feels like you both had a bunch of hidden work where you’re writing these features that never got made. At a certain point don’t you just decide to make what they’re making and just go into television? Why keep going back to the feature land?
David: I mean, for me I feel that decision was made for me. I mean, my creative heartbreak that brought us together to write this was a pilot that I loved that died. And I’ve had a lot of pilots that never got made. I think that for me the part of my brain that writes TV and the part of my brain that writes film are pretty similar. So I think that we just somehow got a movie that we loved that was written in the way that we wanted it written and produced in the way we wanted it produced, got made in a time when film is seemingly virtually dead and all of the attention is on TV, that just happened to be our moment to make the movie we wanted to make.
Susanna: Yeah. I mean, I think part of it is just seeing the feature business that does exist and feeling like there was something missing there. To the extent that movies were getting made and there weren’t a lot of good female-driven movies getting made, or female-driven movies getting made that had like sort of a more muscular tone to them. I just felt like there was a lack of that. And that there would be a hunger for it the way that I feel like every few years there would be a movie like Bridesmaids that people would think was going to sort of change the tides of what movies got made and it never really had that seismic effect that we all thought it would.
But there just seemed to be this lack of a certain kind of story and I think just as a viewer and consumer it bothered me. It just felt like an injustice. So, I think that frustration sparked the conversation that led to the movie. So, it was more just kind of almost like an act of rebellion and less a need to work in that format.
John: So, let’s talk about that conversation that led to the movie. So, what do you guys separately and together remember about those first discussions of this idea and should we write this idea together and what it would be? What was that conversation like, or conversations?
Susanna: Well, there are a few parts to this. The first part was that we decided that we were going to try to write something together that was a big fun comedy that we would encourage each other to not fall into some of our like indie traps that we normally would fall into that make things smaller, and smaller, and smaller.
John: What are those traps? Can we talk through some more of those pitfalls?
David: Let’s see, it’s stifling yourself when it comes to budget. You know, thinking like we can’t do that. That’s too big, too much. Kind of ending things, not necessarily in triumphs.
John: Ending things in ambiguity or reality, sort of a mixed bag.
Susanna: Trying to have more of a bittersweet slice of life kind of ending, which is our personal – those are the movies that, you know, we love seeing movies like Sing Street that sort of make you feel sad and laugh through your tears which I think is our personal shared taste sometimes. But we were like, you know what, let’s try to just have fun with this and make each other laugh and see if we can’t come up with something that just feels a little bit more like a feel good entertaining movie.
So, we then embarked on a series of walks around the Silver Lake Reservoir where we brainstormed. No bad ideas. Safe space. The biggest ideas we could think of. The most high concept ideas. This reminded me of when I was 21 and trying to do this and had some exceptionally bad ideas.
David: We had some exceptionally bad ideas.
Susanna: We had some bad ideas. I mean—
David: We had some great ideas that she thinks is bad.
Susanna: We still debate about whether a movie entitled Ghost Hookup would or would not be a good movie.
David: It would be a great movie.
Susanna: I think it’s – I think we’ve moved past it.
John: I mean, it could potentially be a great movie, but it’s also a great parody for that kind of movie.
Susanna: Therein lies the debate.
John: Absolutely. Is it a 30-second skit or is it actually a movie.
Susanna: We’re still not – we still have not settled that discussion.
David: So, Susanna – I woke up one morning to an email from Susanna where she sent me an article, a New York Times article, about World War II or something like that. And I don’t remember what the article was about, but there was something in the subject line that was like, “This is an interesting story. This is not the kind of movie that they would let us write.” And we had lunch that day and I started thinking about the kind of movie that we would not be expected to write. Some sort of big, muscular action movie. But then we started talking about what kind of characters we love. Like characters that are like us.
I write a lot of female-driven things and Susanna does too, so we talked about two friends who are ill-equipped to belong in a very big action, muscular, explosion-filled car chase world.
Susanna: Like what would really – there’s a whole world of observational humor that we find endlessly fascinating. And what if you put that sort of lens on this very glossy genre. Like if you think about Jason Bourne having to pee in the middle of something and he just really has to pee and it’s not a good time but he has to do it. Just the very human things that these characters do that those movies never focus on. And then we figured there would be some comedy there and that that was worth looking at, without making a parody of a spy movie or like making an arch action comedy. Could we actually just drop ourselves, or our avatars for us into a big movie and see if it felt original?
John: Our last episode of Scriptnotes was about relationships and the sense that all movies are fundamentally about relationships and that you don’t – you can say that you have a character and you’re following that character, but you can’t understand anything about that character unless there’s someone for that character to interact with, a relationship that they can have.
And so in your case you have these two women and we’d have a very hard time understanding either woman independently if we didn’t have the other one there to sort of mirror back and sort of fill in the details of who that person is and let us see the differences between the two going into it.
Now, some of the tropes we would expect though is if we have these two women, at some point they’re going to fight and they’re going to break up and have to come back together. And that the relationship has to grow and arc and change over the course of it. Your movie doesn’t really do that at all. So is that a conscious decision?
Susanna: Yeah. That’s something that we felt really strongly about. I mean, you can speak to that a bit, too.
David: Yeah. The earliest conversation we felt that a movie like this typically would build these false stakes into the characters breaking up. And I think that a lot of times in screenwriting I think people confuse what conflict needs to be. And we didn’t feel like we needed to build a false conflict between these two characters where they’re breaking up over something small when their lives and the world is at stake. We felt that the conflict came so rapid fire at them, while people are shooting at them, while people are chasing them, while people are dying all around them that we didn’t need to have some sort of what we call in writers’ rooms “schmuck bait” where they break up and we know that they’re going to get back together in the end.
It just didn’t feel exciting to us. And we just wanted to tell a story about friendship where these people love each other and they’re going to be friends before, they’re going to be friends after, and they’re going to be friends through whatever we put them through in this movie.
John: What was the writing process like for you guys? You talked through probably the broad strokes of the idea. And what point did you sit down to officially start writing? Were you writing together? Were you dividing up scenes? What was the writing process like for you guys to work together?
Susanna: We were both unemployed at the time, so we had a lot of time. And we started a sort of obsessive flow state few weeks sitting in the lobby of the Lion Hotel, surrounded by other people writing screenplays in the lobby of the Lion Hotel. And just we’d get there first thing in the morning and we would basically just kind of channel these characters and talk as the characters and someone would write it down and we would actually just – we started with an outline that we did together. And once we had that we would just open your screenwriting program, Highland, and start riffing and start writing things down, even the bad version. And it sort of came out of us really quickly.
Now we’re trying to write something else and it’s a much harder process. And I think we realized that we – you can’t necessarily expect things to be as easy and fun as they are when they are at their most easy and fun. And it doesn’t mean the script is not good, but in that case I think just fueled by this like we had nothing to lose in a weird way. We didn’t have anything to do. We wanted to prove ourselves.
David: We were really angry.
Susanna: Yeah. We were annoyed. We would like take breaks to check the industry news, which you should never do anyway. But we did and we’d see people selling stuff that felt like, god, I’ve seen that before. And we’re going to do something really original. And just kind of leveraging that to make ourselves work harder and up our game basically. I don’t know.
David: Yeah. I had written with other people on TV shows, but I’d never really had a partner before. So for me there was no value in just having her write a scene, me write a scene, and us merging it together. We wanted to elevate both of us by just sitting there and make each other laugh. And we would start to adopt the voices of the different character and we would just start speaking like that. And we would do that publicly. And we were shameless about it. But we wrote this script incredibly fast and–
John: How many weeks or how long to write it?
David: I’m only going to brag about this because we’ve had things go so slowly and not happen at all, so from the idea to the completion of the script was a month. And then a year from there we were in front of the cameras, or we were behind the cameras. We weren’t in front of the cameras. The cameras were rolling.
Susanna: You had a cameo in front of the camera.
David: I had one line. And then a year from that we were filming the movie in a year, from that is now.
John: That’s crazy. So that’s an incredibly fast turnaround on that. Before we get into production, I want to make sure we circle back and highlight the fact that you said that you wrote this in Highland, the application that I made. And Highland gets a frequent callout in the movie because Highland is…?
David: Highland is the bad guy organization behind it which we named because we looked at our program and that was the first word we saw. I don’t know if we’re on the show just to pitch Highland, but we will do it anyway. For writing a script fast and making it fun and having the flow go really, really smoothly, we used Highland and it was great.
Susanna: Yeah. I used to write everything in Microsoft Word just because I wanted to see all the dialogue in one page. I just wanted to see a whole scene laid out in a simpler way where I could look at the totality of it and not get bogged down in formatting. And not have everything spaced out so much that I would have to engage with my computer to just read a scene. And this reminded me of that. Like I trained myself not to have to write in Word just to save time, but Highland enables you to do that, which is great.
John: Thank you. That’s really not an ad for it.
Susanna: We know. But we are more than happy to advertise it. I’ve been pushing it on everyone.
David: Yeah. We paid full price for it.
John: Nice. So, you’ve written the script in a month. At what point do you start to show it to other folks? Do you show it to your representatives? At what point do you feel like this is a script that we might take out on the town or get to people who might be able to make this movie?
Susanna: Yeah. We had both – I think in part because we felt like we had nothing to lose because we had no jobs and no one was expecting this of us and we didn’t really talk about it with agents or anyone too much because we – understandably they would have probably been like, “What are you talking about? That’s not your thing. What do you mean? Ok, you guys can…”
We just didn’t want to hear any discouragement or even questions. We just wanted to prove it to them. And I think to us that was kind of – I don’t know, I think that that was for the best. And I’m glad that we – it’s kind of a lesson in – I used to constantly ask agents and managers kind of for permission to write a thing or “What do you think.? Do you like this idea? Do you like that idea?” And then very rarely did they say, “Yes, that’s a great idea.” Their job is to say here are the other things that are like that and here’s why it’s not.
So, we kind of just decided to incubate the process and not expose it to that, which I think was a really good decision and one that I wish I learned earlier. Who knows what scripts could have been written that I stopped thinking about after one phone call to an agent?
But I don’t know. We also talked a lot about what our attitudes would be for getting it made, kind of anticipating that people would want to attach a director that was experienced with movies like this and they were kind of all older male directors. And that seemed wrong. It didn’t have to be a woman, but we couldn’t even think of the right guy to do this. And so we were like kind of preemptively wondering how to empower ourselves the best and asking that question of what do we need. Do we need to sell something quickly because we have bills to pay or can we take the longer game approach and kind of keep ownership of this as long as possible? And that’s just a decision that’s personal to everyone, but I think this one we approached it very differently in terms of a strategy than we ever had approached anything either of us had ever done by deciding to hang onto it and be aggressively—
You know, when it started to pick up steam a bit, we didn’t want to sell it. We didn’t want to sort of give up that power, which was not always an easy decision because we were also struggling and unemployed.
John: Well, let’s talk about the process. So you sent it to your representative. They’ve read it. They said this is great. Traditionally you make a list of these are the people we would want to go out to. You sort of sign off on that list. It leaks out beyond those places. But in that initial conversation with your reps you have to say like, “And Susanna is going to direct it?” Or we want to hold onto it in some producorial way? Like what were you actually saying to your reps at that point?
David: We wanted it to get made. And I think that was the biggest thing that we were contending with. We didn’t want a scenario where we were going to just develop this forever and then let it sort of peter away. So I think we discussed amongst ourselves that if there was too much resistance in having you direct it then we would reassess that. But weirdly there wasn’t a lot of resistance to it, which was great.
Susanna: There was sort of – I mean, I think it’s that thing where it’s the sort of waiting for permission to do a thing problem where in the moment when we said even, OK, if we can’t get it made – even floating the idea out there was kind of a scary thing, but like ultimately it was – when we talked to our teams they were like, “Well, you know, it is a really big leap and maybe it’s too…” You know, it’s hard to make a movie of this scope because we had blue-skied everything and not thought about budget. That’s a really big jump. My first movie was well under $1 million. I had no action experience whatsoever. The only proof that I could do it is that I wrote it, so I understood the tone of it and what it wanted to be. But beyond that executionally there wasn’t any proof of that.
I feel like if I had hedged on that, or said, “Yeah, I’d love to, but let’s see what the options are,” I think that could have opened up space for more doubt and more trying different other paths.
John: So maybe the good advice here would be say like you came in strongly saying I’m directing this movie, and if there were no takers you were prepared between the two of you to sort of go to another place that someone could have made the movie, as long as it was getting made. Your priority was the movie getting made, and you being attached as the director was really part of that goal of getting it made.
Because we’ve all been through situations where a director is attached and then suddenly that director has three other projects he’s attached to and you fall back on the list. And it doesn’t happen.
Susanna: Yeah. I guess if there’s a lesson there it’s obviously have a plan B and be flexible privately, but don’t lead with that because if people are just generally a little bit more risk averse they’re going to take that seed of doubt and maybe everything will just get confusing and diffused. But if you just come in strong with something, you wait till someone says, “I will make it, but not with you directing it, but here’s this other director.” Let them sell you on another option and then make that decision.
But it did start to feel like things were changing a bit in terms of the female director conversation and people feeling like they really needed to clean up their acts in terms of that. When we left for Europe we kind of left and it was sort of one way. And then we got back, it had totally exploded and it seemed like it was so, so receptive. But we kind of like were out of the country for that shift.
John: Did Weinstein happen while you guys were overseas?
David: Weinstein happened right after we got back.
Susanna: Yeah. It seemed like people were excited about making a female-driven movie. Actresses were excited to be sent something like this because there wasn’t anything else like this out there for them. And it came together pretty quickly because of – I don’t want to skip ahead of the step-by-step of it all – but basically Kate’s Saturday Night Live schedule expedited everything. And gave us I think this unique position of leverage to say like we have to make the movie this summer. Who is doing it with us? It is happening. As opposed to that usual dance where you’re kind of like – your schedule is the least important. I mean, you’re sort of waiting to see when actors are free, but it’s always this chicken and egg that’s like endless until there’s a green light, in my experience.
But, yeah, in this case we had just one window and that was that.
John: That was it. So, let’s figure out sort of how pieces came together.
Susanna: We’ll get back.
John: So your reps have the script. You’re starting to send out the script. People are reading it. So Kate McKinnon reads it before it’s actually set up some place? Is that correct?
David: We had gotten a producer at that point.
John: And producer was Imagine, or produced with somebody else?
David: Producer was Imagine.
Susanna: And honestly that was an interesting thing because the agents have their ideas and their lists. And what they know is what companies tell them they’re looking for. And so they’ve got a targeted list, but it’s not necessarily exhaustively covering all the people who secretly want to do movies like that. So, I happened to randomly have a meeting – I was in New York working on a book. And I had a random meeting with this producer named Julie Oh who was Imagine’s New York person. And she was kind of in her 20s, really hungry. Had worked at the Weinstein Company and various places but kind of had the spirit of an indie producer in this job working for Ron Howard.
And I just really loved her and got along with her and she seemed to have this fearlessness that I associated with indie producers. And just confidence. And so she said, “You know, this is not an Imagine movie. This isn’t like our usual thing, but like screw it, I’m going to bring it to the staff meeting. Let’s just see. Let them say no.”
So even though it was sort of not their brand, she walked it in there and then they were like, oh, well, why couldn’t this be our brand? Let’s do it. We have the infrastructure. And that’s how Imagine came to the project.
John: Great. So Imagine comes on as producer. Traditionally they would go through Universal, but it wasn’t a Universal movie. It felt like it could have been a Universal movie.
David: They had just changed their deal. They didn’t have Universal at that moment.
Susanna: And so we went to Kate first just because she had had a small cameo in my first movie. And I knew her a little bit. And we had heard that she was looking for an action comedy with women. So we met her and she was excited to do it. And then with that package we took it out to the studios with our super aggressive, pushy like ultimatum of you have to do the movie this summer, which is kind of an unheard of schedule for a studio at that budget level.
John: Yeah. But I mean also I think what’s potentially exciting for a studio is they want a movie and suddenly there’s going to be a movie. So they see like, “OK, this is a thing. If we actually pull the trigger here we can make a movie and have it come out a year from now.”
Susanna: Yeah. I mean, I think we’ve re-fallen in love with the idea of writing spec scripts as opposed to trying to set things up or pitch them. Which doesn’t mean we wouldn’t do that. But we had a very positive experience just putting down our ideas and our words in our style and then having a thing to really talk about instead of the time you spend trying to explain why something is funny or why something is compelling.
David: Yeah, I mean, Susanna and I want to get a tattoo that say “Specs Forever.” And when I was starting out and I would pitch things I would get a call back from my agent and say, “Well, you know, they said you seemed really nervous.” Which of course I was nervous. But the movie was never going to be me standing in front of the screen dictating what happened. But, you know, pitches are nerve-wracking and it rewards people who are really—
David: Performative. I get that. Which is not necessarily anything to do with the process of when you’re sitting there writing. And so it is a big time risk, I suppose, to write a script, to write a spec script. But pitches also take a long time to put together. And when you write a spec script you’re putting everything on the page. You’re telling them what the tone is. You’re telling them who the character is in a way that is hard to describe but—
Susanna: Especially in comedy.
David: Yeah. But exists on the page. And they can see it. And they can love it or they can hate it. And they can make that decision. And to us it felt very empowering. Now, I know, spec market isn’t what it was when I moved out here, but I think that it’s hopeful that we were somehow able to work within it.
John: So you say “Specs Forever.” And I definitely get the logic of that, or sort of the emotional logic of this, because right now I’m writing something for a studio and it’s a project I’m really excited about, but in the pitching of it I realized that of the five people in the room each of them has a slightly different version in their head about what I’m actually going to be turning in in a couple of weeks. And that’s a thing we always go through when we set up something as a pitch. It’s like it’s great that we were able to set it up as a pitch, but everyone is expecting something a little bit different. And so when I do turn in this script they’re going to have opinions based on what their preconceptions of it were. And if had just been able to write the script and give it to them without all that pitch process it would have been a very different thing.
David: I do this weird thing. This I do in TV. I don’t think I can do it features. But almost every time I’ve pitched a TV show I’ve secretly written the script first. Or I’ve secretly written a good deal of it. And if you’re writing a half-hour script that is not a huge time constraint.
John: You could write a half-hour script probably faster than you could put together a pitch for it.
David: Without a doubt. And sometimes a 60-page one. And I think hearing the characters speak on the page, feeling what it feels like for them to interact, that gives you something when you walk into a room and describe what it is that you are doing in a way that just kind of blue-skying it, talking about what other movies it feels like, kind of telling a joke that might exist in it. It just doesn’t work the same way. I think that particularly if you write very character-driven things you kind of need to have the characters speak at least privately before you could ever describe it to somebody else.
John: So let’s talk about some of the writing, especially your action writing, because I’ve not had a chance to read your actual script, but Susanna your action sequences are fantastic. One of the things I was not expecting when I saw the movie last night was sort of how intensely sort of R-rated kind of action sequences they are. And so some of them are not with our leads. They’re with characters who are technically spies. But other scenes have to have our comedy leads also be part of those sequences.
What was it like writing those things together and then what was it like figuring out how you were going to direct those sequences which are so ambitious?
Susanna: Thank you, first of all. I’m glad you liked the brutality that we brought to the screen in today’s hyper-violent world. Dave and I had read a lot of – in preparation to write this – we had read a handful of action scripts. And there was a tone to the way that they were written, both in the action and just in the muscularity of the style that was – it was less kind of literary than we were used to. We’re both novelists, too, so we were used to writing these kind of beautiful on the page dramedies. And here we are reading these scripts that have like a lot of incomplete sentences and dash dashes and sounds and, you know, caps lock. And it just was not our style.
But there was an undeniable sort of like power to reading those. So we were like let’s just as an experiment try to mimic the style and see if we can kind of get into it. And we found it really fun, even though it was a completely different kind of style of writing.
And so we tried to sort of, yeah, I mean, I would say writing them was really fun because we found that we secretly loved that kind of aggressive style. It made us feel empowered. We kind of got an adrenaline rush from it. And we really just pushed ourselves to come up with action that felt situationally interesting or funny where there was like a comedic game to this scene, but then the scene itself played out in a pretty straightforward serious action way. And I think dissecting that partly happened on the page and then happened throughout the process of directing which I’ll get to in a second.
But it’s a little bit like, you’ve got these comedic scenes that feel somewhat grounded within the context of a spy movie. Friends interacting in a grounded way. And then you are kind of expecting people to sit through pretty violent sequences and then go back to a scene where Kate McKinnon is making them laugh about something banal. So in writing those action sequences it’s like you don’t want people to have whiplash reading or watching that from tone to tone and feel like they’re watching two different movies that don’t kind of meld well.
And so it’s about figuring out ways to put cleverness or wit into the action sequences, both on the page and in directing them so that people can feel a bit of distance from the violence in a way. They can have a smile on their face the way that they do in like a Bond action sequence where between his witty quips and the creativity of the scenes there’s usually something just fun about them that inoculates you from being aware of how many people are actually falling off cliffs and getting shot in the head. Not in my movie. That’s not a spoiler. In Bond movies.
But so I think it was partly on the page but then we were like what’s a funny way for this person to die.
John: The body count in your movie is really high.
Susanna: It’s really high.
John: What is the actual number? Have you counted up?
David: I did figure it out once. It is definitely–
John: Is it more than 20?
David: It’s more than 20. It’s probably 35.
Susanna: I think it was 35-ish. Yeah. And then the directing piece was just I think – it felt like a revision. You know, I wanted the action to feel really visceral and fun, so I brought on this incredible stunt coordinator and second unit director named Gary Powell who had done the Bond and Bourne movies.
Susanna: He’s amazing. His whole family is legendary. His brother. His dad. His wife. They’re all stunt people which is incredible. And Gary, you know, it kind of felt like another phase of writing. We’d sit there and it felt like for that process he was my cowriter and we would kind of just do a beat sheet. We’d look at what we had. We’d talk about it. And then it was just a dialogue like anything else. You know, he would pull out the toys or pitch different toys or things and oftentimes they were too brutal and they would crossover into that like this is disturbing and I’m not going to want to – I’m not having fun anymore level.
So, I don’t know, it was like constantly negotiating that with him. But we made a beat sheet together. We broke things down. And tried to just come up with – Dave and I would try to sort of come up with the sort of funny observational humor twist on whatever Gary would bring.
David: And I would have to have a cordial argument with Gary about if it’s possible to kill somebody with a salami. In which he said it wasn’t, but I was insisting we try.
Susanna: And I think Gary, too, has his own pet peeves. You know, the way that as writers there are probably things in movies that you see and you’re like I hate when they do that, or I hate this type of joke, or I hate when they have characters do XYZ thing. Gary has his own list of things coming from a completely different place. Like he hates zip lines. He’s like, “I hate them.” He got in a big argument with other people on the crew about whether or not to have a zip line. Those are just his things.
And the salami came down to the fact that it crossed over into broad for him, but also the technicality of it bothered him.
David: Yeah, he was talking about how salami is constructed and how the human body is constructed. And it was, you know, it was illuminating for sure.
John: So this beat sheet that you’re doing with Gary Powell, how much of that beat sheet makes it back into the script, or how much of it exists as a separate document of just like when we do this sequence this is the beat sheet for that sequence?
Susanna: I mean, we had a pretty fleshed out, pretty specific description of the action in the script. The thing that changes is that it’s like what you’re actually watching, you can kind of write around or glibly write through – I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, too – but you can kind of like breeze through something to make it a fun read and then when you’re actually making a shot list and going down to the props department and looking at the knives that are going to be used and the fake blood. And you’re actually looking at it in a really granular way, some things you realize are impossible or some things are too goofy. Like Gary would argue the salami. And Dave would argue the salami was not goofy, it was subtle.
David: My argument was subtle.
Susanna: But when you’re actually translating it, sometimes you just have to adjust. So it was pretty written out and what you see is pretty much what was there, but you have to make certain adjustments. Also, you know, there’s a big action sequence in an old Soviet gym that used to be in the script in an ice rink. And it wasn’t until we were scouting and we couldn’t find the right ice rink in the middle of rural Hungary that we changed it. But we kept seeing these gyms.
Susanna: So you kind of have to be flexible in that way. And then it was a combination of Dave and me kind of rewriting it and then Gary presenting the reality of what that would mean and what that will really look like and whether it will look goofy or not.
John: As people will see in the movie, one of the things I want to sort of key them into and be aware of is as we’re intercutting between some of the spy stuff at the beginning and sort of the real world stuff you’ve done some very clever but simple visual things to say like, OK, no, that scene really was supposed to come here before this moment. There’s a moment with a cue ball which exists on both sides of the cut. And these little small visual rhymes and sort of idea rhymes that let us know that like, no, these really are the same movie. You really are in the same space, the same universe. Nicely done I’m just saying.
Susanna: Oh, thank you.
David: Thank you. I mean, we talked a lot about, and I think this was Susanna as a director talking to us collectively as a writer is transitions were incredibly important. And I don’t know if that’s always a thing that I think about when I’m writing, and I’m sure she can speak more to it, but when you’re putting together shots and actually trying to direct things moving from one scene in a totally different place to another scene should feel like it has some sort of connective tissue.
So a lot of that was her coming back to me and to us when we were rewriting and challenging us to have these transitions which I’m glad you noticed.
Susanna: I know. Thank you.
John: Also, on the page classically the last line of a certain scene sort of informs the first line of the next scene, but when you’re dealing with action sequences there often are no lines and so it’s a matter of sort of visually finding a way to like just characters moving in the same direction, a prop, an idea, an image, you know, brightness/darkness. There’s ways you find to sort of match that.
And you won’t always be able to get those into the script. It won’t always make sense in the script. But you have to think as you move from writer-director you’re thinking, you know, visually how I’m going to signal that this really is supposed to be moving from this scene to this scene.
Susanna: Yeah. I mean, I’m working on something now as a director on a pilot that I didn’t write and getting ready to figure out how to shoot that. I’m working with the writer on that. And we’re talking about the transitions and looking at each one and kind of having conversations about “What is like an object, a prop, an image, a character moment? Like what do we want to be feeling as we enter a scene and seeing?” And if it’s not a visual transition, because you can’t find the neat tidy one that works, it’s got to have an idea to it in one way or another.
And the earlier you can think about that the more prepared you can be to actually like get all the departments’ hands on deck to like really make that feel very designed, which I think then just adds a level – it elevates the thing I think.
John: Something Aline Brosh McKenna often says is you have to remember that the screenwriter is the only person who has already seen the movie. And so in your case you’re two screenwriters so you both saw the movie, but do you think you saw the same movie? I mean, it may be hard because you’ve actually gone through production and seen so many cuts, but David do you think you saw the same movie originally that she saw?
David: I think we saw the same movie. I think where it became different, not different but where our ways of seeing it was different, was on set where as a director there were just a million other things that she needed to address and deal with and see and discuss and lenses or whatever directors do. And then for me my job was almost entirely just to hold the script inside my head. And I think we leaned on each other for being able to balance that out. But truly I think we saw the same movie and we continue to see the same movie, but on set the like minutia of script stuff and if you move one character here, cut this line, or cut this scene how that will change, you know, 15 dominoes ahead, that became what I had to focus most on.
Susanna: And that also includes an actor asking me a question or wanting to change something and me in the moment being like, “Yeah, yeah, OK, fine,” and then Dave coming over to me at crafty and being like, “Actually, if she changes that line this other thing is going to follow.” But just him being there which was something that as people who had worked in TV and also feeling like the depth of the partnership that we had it was really important for me that the be there the entire time on the set, which I know for features is not always the case.
I cannot imagine making the movie without him there. It always seemed unjust to me that you’d write something and you’re the one who has seen it in your head and then somebody kind of comes on with good intentions or bad intentions and just does whatever they want and you have no oversight. And it doesn’t always work as harmoniously between the writer and director. They don’t always have the shorthand and that ease. But to me I just can’t imagine doing it another way and I’m glad that I didn’t have to. So, I would encourage–
David: Me too.
Susanna: You know, for writer-directors or people that have writing partners or whatever, I just think the movie cohered so much better for having that unity. I wish that studios would encourage more of that, or accept that as the goal if they can possibly do it.
John: So, let’s talk about the actual production schedule. So, how much was shot in the states and how much was shot overseas? What was the split between how you made the movie?
David: A day and a half in LA, right?
Susanna: We had several, when you watch the end of the movie there’s like all of these Hungarian names and then there’s like an Atlanta unit, an LA second unit, another LA second unit. And there’s all of these names. But basically we intended to shoot the whole thing in Europe. We were based in Budapest. And then we had this one sort of one day older actor’s sort of cameo type role that it was just hard to get people to fly halfway around the world to do. So as production got closer and closer we just kind of decided to move it when we get back to LA and do some establishing shots and some plate shots for the driving sequences let’s just pick up that day. So we had that.
And then we had a couple other moments when there were things we had to do as a separate unit. Like we reshot one of the action sequences at the end just because in the edit we felt like this could be better and we had a little bit – they always have a reserve fund in case of emergency and we had that to use. And so we figured let’s just try to get this sequence up to the level of the other ones. And so we went to Atlanta for a few weeks and had four days of just Gary Powell and like action people and a giant trapeze. That was kind of the most fun shoot because the movie was already almost done. People were happy with it. Kate had seen it. Kate was excited about it, so she was so game to strap on the harness and go all the way up in the air and fly around and have a Cirque du Soleil moment.
John: A mad trapeze battle.
David: We did a Silverlake bar in Budapest. We did a LA sort of strip mall in a strip mall in Budapest.
Susanna: Which ironically was like I think they said that one of the designers had also designed the Spanish style malls in like Camarillo. And so there’s this Spanish style mall in Budapest.
John: I would never have guessed that that wasn’t LA. That was very convincing.
Susanna: Yeah. I mean it just exists there. And the only way you can tell that it’s definitely not LA is that the names of the stores are just a little bit wrong. Like my favorite one was Wall Street Fashion of the Wolf.
John: I remember there was that thing like that was a deliberate in joke that you put there.
Susanna: Oh yeah. Nope.
David: And the parking lot was full of every Prius that existed in central Europe.
Susanna: Of which there were about three.
David: About five of them, yeah.
John: So the movie comes out now. So what are your responsibilities with the film that’s coming out into the world? You’re on Scriptnotes which is of course the biggest platform–
Susanna: The zenith.
John: The zenith of it all.
David: Don’t be self-deprecating. This is a platform.
Susanna: But actually though.
John: But really?
David: Oh really.
John: So you have premieres coming up. You have other stuff. What does this next week look like for you?
Susanna: Well, the premiere is tomorrow, so it looks like–
David: When we recorded.
Susanna: Oh yes, sorry. The premiere is on the 25th. I don’t know. I mean, it’s a combination of really banal stresses like is my mom going to be able to find her seat at the premiere combined with having to go to the Four Seasons and put makeup on which is not my comfort zone and get my picture taken, also not my comfort zone, for this piece they’re doing on Mila, Kate, and me, and women doing stuff.
So, yeah, it’s a combination of talking about the movie a lot to a lot of really intelligent people who I really love talking to about it. But it’s, you know, I hope I’m saying the right things and I’m always a little paranoid that I’ll say something that can be taken out of context. So a little of that anxiety combined with just like the neurosis of getting a dress to wear and stuff. So, yeah. So that. I don’t know if that answers the question but yeah.
John: David have you picked your dress? Is it all about the dress?
David: I mean, the suit that I got for the premiere is quite a feat. Hopefully by the time this posts you can look for that in Getty Images.
John: You’ll find links in the show notes.
David: You’ll find links in the show notes to my suit which I put a lot of thought into. It has owls on it. And for me the week is dealing with my parents and my sisters and my brother-in-law are all coming out for the premiere. And then it is doing searches for the movies when I shouldn’t.
John: Absolutely. Just seeing what everyone is saying about it.
Susanna: We have a plan is which like the day that the review embargo is lifted. Our plan is just to meet at the Lion Hotel where we wrote the script and just sit there probably disengaged from each other, like refreshing the Internet all day and like probably drinking eight cappuccinos.
David: Crying over them.
John: Celebrating the good ones and despairing over the bad ones.
Susanna: Yes, celebrating the good ones.
David: Crying a little bit about the bad ones.
Susanna: I mean, no review could be worse than the very first review that my first movie got which was – I won’t go into incriminating detail but it was an absolute blood bath. And nothing could be worse than that.
David: We’ll see. Fingers crossed.
Susanna: Nothing could be worse than that, but in a moment of poetic justice a subsequent article about that reviewer revealed that he is now in prison for some sort of a child porn thing.
John: Oh man.
Susanna: Which like you never really get – I don’t want to say you never get that satisfaction because I’m sorry for the victims. But, he got what he deserved.
David: Remember when Susanna said that she was worried that she would say something that could be taken out of context?
John: Absolutely. That’s going to be the next the She-Hulk controversy on this is you saying something controversial about a reviewer and sexual misconduct.
Susanna: He’s not going to be reading or listening to this podcast, because he is in jail.
John: That’s good. Susanna, you’re headed off to shoot a pilot next. And how many days is a pilot? Is a pilot like a 20-day thing? I don’t have a sense of what pilots are these days.
Susanna: It varies. This is an hour-long pilot. We’re shooting on location in New Zealand.
John: Oh lord.
Susanna: Which I’m excited about. I love shooting around the world. I never did the traveling thing in my early 20s. I just was here working, you know, bad receptionist jobs and trying to be a screenwriter so now it’s my chance.
The pilot shoot is somewhere around 15 days. Yeah.
John: And David what are you up to next?
David: Well, Susanna and I are writing another thing, another couple things together, but while she is shooting I have a script that I wrote that I would like to direct that I’m starting to send out into the world. A Mars-set dramedy. And I have a teen time travel script that I’m sending out into the world. I have things that I love that hit my very, very specific sweet spot.
But I’m also excited for the thing – our follow up things that Susanna and I are working on.
John: Also we should plug books while we’re here, because I just bought both of your books while I was reading your stuff coming over here. What prompted you to write the book and how is your actual experience with the book? Because I’ve enjoyed – I’m writing a series of three books and I’ve enjoyed it but also, man, it’s a lot of words. It’s a very different world than what we normally do.
David: What prompted me was a similar prompt for us writing this movie. It’s that I was working in TV for a while and I had worked on great shows and I did things I was incredibly proud of but I felt like I just didn’t have anything that felt like it was mine that I could say slide something across a table and say this is a thing and it exists in the world.
And I had this character, sort of acerbic 17-year-old teen named Astrid Krieger, the book is called Firecracker. It’s a young adult book. And she just sort of existed in my brain for a long time. And I have a problem as a writer, I have a hard time letting go of things. So I started writing her as a character in a pilot and then a series of short stories and then a feature and then I was like none of it quite felt right. And I wanted to give her a longer treatment. And so then I wrote this novel. And it takes incredible amount of time and effort to write a book, as you know, and the financial rewards are few unless you are like a rare unicorn in there. But it’s worth it because it’s a thing that I love and it’s out in the world.
John: Great. And Susanna your book Nuclear Family, is that while you were in New York for Imagine?
Susanna: Well I had been working on this other project, this movie that I had thought was about to get made and it kind of fell apart at the last minute. And so I decided that – I kind of got into that like post-breakup space where I was like, “OK, I have to have the rebound script right now,” which is the burst of energy that led to Spy. And then my goal was just to leave and travel far, far away from here and just forget about the industry and my broken dreams.
So I went to New York to finish this book that I owed pages on. I had sold a proposal for this book based on some short comedic pieces that I was writing about my family for The New Yorker. And then just decided to go to New York and be around book people for a while and finish the book, which ironically led me to meet the person who produced the movie.
But just one thing I wanted to say about the book that I wrote was that in a moment of, or in a five-month moment of writer’s block after my show ended, I just wasn’t sure what to write. I was feeling really frustrated. I felt like I was right back to the beginning again. I was in the same coffee shop surrounded by frustrated writers. And I decided to set like a very small goal of just writing a one-page basically monologue, just to try to submit to like the McSweeney’s short imagined monologues, just to try to have a thing that I generated that I could send out that wasn’t like an entire script of 100 pages.
And so I have a younger half-brother who at the time was six years old and he’s very formal. He wears blazers and puts truffle oil on his food. And I wanted to write something in his voice because it was so specific. I’ve always wanted to write about people in my family that are that specific but felt like it’s either a really affected quirk in an indie movie. It’s like too broad to be real. So the only format that seemed to work was this weird monologue format, which I was comfortable with because of all the dialogue writing that I’d done in scripts.
And so that led to writing a few more letters which led to the book. It wasn’t like I thought I was going to write a book. It just was something that felt easier to do than writing a script at the time. I think like sometimes the story tells you what it wants to be.
Susanna: And I think just to circle back to your initial question about why a movie and not TV, there’s just certain stories that I think in the vein of a Greek tragedy like they just don’t want to be extended that long. There’s an arc and there’s a finiteness to the storytelling and a discreteness to it that requires that the beginning, middle, and end happen kind of like right in front of your eyes. So I think that some things feel like they could just go on, and on, and on, and others start to lose the thread.
So, in a way coming up with stories, you have to kind of follow what it’s telling you it wants to be. I don’t know if you’ve had the same experience.
John: Oh absolutely. And that’s why Arlo Finch is a book rather than a movie. And there’s ideas which I’ve written as TV versus films because they want to sort of keep going, versus in movies it’s meant to be a two-hour experience. You’re in, you’re out, and you’re done.
Congratulations on your film.
David: Thank you.
Susanna: Thank you. Thanks so much.
John: So this is the part of Scriptnotes where we do our One Cool Things. You guys were warned about this. Do you have One Cool Things?
David: Yeah. Sure.
John: David first.
David: OK, this is not a new book, but this is a book that I pick up from time to time and I recommend from time to time which I think is very pertinent to our industry, but not about our industry at all, called Banvard’s Folly by Paul Collins. It came out probably 18 years ago. And it’s sort of chapter long sketches of people’s lives who are incredibly famous in their own time and then forgotten completely to history. And it’s just a really fun, fascinating, easy to read book. It’s not available on audio books, so I think you have to read it like a person, which I hate recommending to people. But otherwise it’s great.
Susanna: I am obsessed with this book American Kingpin which is the story of Ross Ulbricht, the founder of Silk Road. This book reads like the most compelling long form journalism article in Rolling Stone ever. And it just takes a look at all of the sides of this guy and all of the people in his life and sort of the more banal parts of his life that you don’t hear about in articles that are about him getting busted for Silk Road. So, you know, the women he had relationships with. The family. The people he was lying to. Their sides of the story. It’s just great. I mean, it’s such an interesting human lens on this person that I find to be incredibly fascinating. Dave recommended it to me actually.
David: Yeah. It’s great. I love it.
John: Nice. My One Cool Thing is Natalie Walker’s Twitter Auditions.
David: Oh yes.
John: So Natalie Walker is an actress comedian in New York City. But what I love about the auditions she posts in her Twitter feed, they’re for character roles that aren’t like real roles, but then you recognize what she’s doing. It’s like, oh my god, that is such an archetype of a character who I have never seen really fleshed out that way, or really sort of explored that way. So, I will read you a couple of descriptions.
“Here is my audition to be in a movie as lady we hate because she is temporarily keeping the people with symmetrical faces from being together.” So basically she’s that hateful character in a romantic comedy who the guy is dating. It’s fantastic.
“Here is my audition to be the lady who shakes vaguely dissatisfied white men out of malaise with her accessible eccentricity and views.” So she’s that one who just exists to make the male character a little looser. So they’re all ingenious. I highly recommend them.
Sometimes you will see one of these characters and you will realize like, oh, I can’t write that character anymore because she’s totally called me out on it.
David: She definitely has our number for sure.
John: There’s a character on Saturday Night Live in the monologues sometimes who is the boxer’s wife in a movie. I don’t know if you’ve seen this character. It’s just a brilliant characterization of what it’s like to be the wife character in a movie about boxing. And once you see it like well that’s just – that is a thing there. So, it’s important for us to have people out there who are calling attention to these tropes and hopefully stopping them.
That is our show for this week. Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Rajesh Naroth. 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 for us to answer, long ones.
But short questions on Twitter are easy. Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. Are you guys on Twitter? Do you want to be on Twitter?
David: Yes. I’m @davidiserson.
Susanna: I’m @susannafogel.
John: After you see their movie you should tweet at them and tell them how much you enjoyed it. Or buy their books and tell them how much you enjoyed their books.
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You can find the show notes for this episode and all the back episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s where you can find the photo of David’s tuxedo, or not a tuxedo. What you are wearing to this premiere? It’s a suit, correct?
David: It’s a suit. It’ll be a suit.
John: I don’t want to overbill it, but you should check out what he’s wearing to this premiere.
David: You may be under-billing it.
John: All right. It’s also where you can find the transcripts for the show. You can find the back episodes of Scriptnotes at Scriptnotes.net. It’s $2 a month for access to the whole back catalog. We also sell seasons for $5. You can download a 50-episode season that has all the bonus episodes and transcripts as well. So, David, Susanna, congratulations on your movie. Thank you for coming on Scriptnotes.
David: Oh, it’s our pleasure. This is dream come true.
Susanna: Thank you for having us. This has been awesome.
- Thanks to Susanna Fogel and David Iserson for joining us! The Spy Who Dumped Me is in theaters now.
- David’s much-anticipated premiere suit
- Banvard’s Folly by Paul Collins
- American Kingpin by Nick Bilton
- Natalie Walker’s Twitter Auditions
- Also, as promised in episode 357, this is Craig’s fancy corkboard!
- The USB drives!
- David Iserson on Twitter
- Susanna Fogel on Twitter
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