The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is [sings] Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 366 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast we’re going to be looking at how you end things, both in a narrative and in life. Specifically, what happens to your work after you die?
Hey, Craig, in general what happens after you die?
Craig: Nothing. So I asked my dad this question when I was very young and he gave me what I still consider to be the very best answer anyone has ever come up.
John: All right.
Craig: I said what happens after you die and he said, “It’s just like it was before you were born.” And that is the correct answer.
Craig: Nothing. You’re done.
John: Yep. You do live in people’s memories until they die.
Craig: Yeah. That’s meaningless. This is a meaningless ride. It’s a great ride. I love this ride so much. I’m so sad that it will end, but it doesn’t mean anything. Like no one goes on a roller coaster ride and says, “Now, when this ride is over do we live forever in a magical place in the sky?” No. No, no, it’s over. But you enjoyed it. Simple as that.
John: So today we will talk about what happens to your work after you die and the decisions you might want to make about your work for after you are no longer on this mortal coil. But first we have some news and some follow up.
So you and I are both on a different podcast. Sometimes we cheat on each other on other podcasts, but this time we went in together. We were sort of swingers. And we went on a different podcast. We went on Jordan, Jesse, Go! which came out last week. It was a fun time. Did you have a good time?
Craig: I did have a good time. It’s so funny because as you know – as everyone knows – I don’t listen to podcasts. So I’m never quite sure what to expect with any particular podcast and I always just assume that it’s going to be exactly like the one we do and it never is. First of all, everyone has much better equipment than we do. But I feel like we sound pretty good.
John: I think we sound pretty good, too. And also they had a good soundproof room, but they were banging their microphones constantly. Did that drive you a little nuts?
Craig: No, I didn’t mind that so much. I was just – mostly – our podcast is a little bit like us. You know, you and I, even though we seem very different, I don’t actually think we are that different. I think we’re both fairly rigid in our ways. And they were much more loosey-goosey improvisational fun. Like you got the feeling that if they wanted they could just spend an hour talking about anything at all and we’re not like that. We like routine. We’re set in our ways.
John: We have an outline. We have a structure. We get back to it. Theirs is just basically pancakes and sex toys. But it was a great conversation about pancakes and sex toys and mountain cabins.
Craig: Yeah. It was nice to take a little vacation from a structured podcast and actually just go bananas. It’s the morning zoo of podcasts. But in a good way. I like morning zoos. I’ve always liked them. I like a nice drive time banter.
John: Always good. But let’s get back to our structure. Dean wrote in to say, “You mentioned on the podcast that, ‘It would probably be quicker for you to write a half-hour than to pull together a pitch for it.’” I’m not sure which one of us said that, but I believe someone said that.
He continues, “I can guess as to how that might be the case, but explicitly what takes time in prepping a pitch? How much time would you spend on a pitch versus writing up a half hour of television comedy?”
So, you and I don’t write half hour comedies, but the overall idea that sometimes it’s just quicker to write it does feel kind of true. When I talk to people who write half hours, it’s really fast. They might spend a lot of time in the room figuring all the beats out–
Craig: Well, there you go.
John: But then when you actually write it it’s quick. Here’s what it was. I bet it was when I had Mindy Kaling on the show and she was talking about pitching a show versus writing a show. And sometimes you can just actually write the show more quickly than you can sort of pull together the full pitch.”
Craig: Look, the thing is if you put a stop watch to it, I doubt that that’s true. However, there is something called ease which is different than speed. Sometimes it’s easier to write the half hour, or write even an entire feature film than it is to pitch it. Because the problem — pitching requires you to know everything ahead of time so you already have to kind of write the movie anyway in your head, or a lot of it, or a lot of the show in your head.
And then be able to, oh, trippingly convey it to somebody in a non-audio visual form and just you talking, right? There’s no show. And that can be very strenuous and very nerve-racking. And you are incredibly aware that it is entirely based on the feeling in the room and whether or not you forget something or trip up or if you use words that are slightly ambiguous because, I mean, remember a script is already an audio-visual work that has been reduced or compressed into text only. Now you’re going to take sort of oral relaying of a text-only version of a thing that’s eventually going to be audio-visual. So at that point you think to yourself, ooh, you know what, the other problem with a pitch is they view it as an act of faith to buy a pitch. Why don’t I just not even go through all that mess? Why don’t I just write the damn thing?
And certainly if you’ve gone through the work that’s required to create and deliver a pitch, you’ve done the work that’s required to write the 30 pages or the 110 pages. So, in those cases the math might work out in your favor to just write it.
John: When David Iserson and Susanna Fogel were on the program they talked about how they ended up specking The Spy Who Dumped Me because it just felt better to write the whole thing and be able to deliver the whole thing versus going in and trying to pitch that idea around town. Sometimes writing is just a process of discovery. So sometimes you really won’t know what the movie is, what the show is, until you’ve written those characters. And so that’s a good example of why you might just want to write the half hour to see what it feels like.
There have been definitely times where I’ve gone in for a pitch and I’ve written scenes that would be in that final movie just to get a sense of the character’s voices, to get a sense of like what is this actually going to feel like.
So, that’s not blanket advice. I won’t say that you should always plan on writing that half hour. And ultimately if you write that half hour and you’re trying to sell that show you’re going to have to be able to pitch it further than that. You’re going to have to be able to describe this is where the show goes, this is how it grows. They’re going to need to sit across sit across from you and understand that like you are a person who can deliver this thing. But maybe writing that 30 pages will help you understand what the show is you want to make.
Craig: The other thing to consider is that when you’re pitching you are essentially in salesman mode which means that they’re in arms-crossed suspicious mode. When you have a script, then there’s an object to discuss. Work has been done. And so it’s a little realer. You know? I mean, people get burned by pitches all the time. I mean to say the pitch buyers get burned by pitches all the time. And they are well aware that sometimes writers need money. And they’re pitching something, they’re pitching their butts off for money, but then the money is just as the writing that you’re going to do is speculative, the money giving is speculative. We don’t know what we’re going to get. And they have been burned. So when you have actual writing I think it just changes the tenor of the conversation anyway in a much better way.
It’s not to say that you shouldn’t or can’t pitch, because I have. It’s just that, I don’t know, the gun is in your hand I think when the writing is there. And the gun is in their hand when you’re dancing for your supper.
John: Yeah. So Dean’s question about how much work are you doing before you go into a pitch, it varies wildly. And so the project I’m writing right now was a pitch. And so I went and I sold the pitch and I got hired to do it. And Megan, our producer, saw me sort of working through developing the pitch. And I think she was probably surprised at sort of like how little I had actually done. How little I had actually put down on paper. But I had done sort of the internal mental work of what is the conversation about this movie and I was able to describe the feelings and sort of what the overall goals of things were. And so if I didn’t have all the plot points really figured out, that really wasn’t the crucial thing for going in to pitch this movie.
It was basically like let me give you this take. Let me show you what this world will feel like. And that is ultimately what they were hiring me for for this movie.
Craig: Well, I will say though that Megan shouldn’t draw too much of an object lesson from that because you are in a different position. Over time the more you do it the less concerned and wary people are. They know that you deliver time and time again. They know you are a responsible professional. It’s a bit like actors when they start out they have to audition. They show up, read the lines in a scene, walk away, hope. And then later on the next step is I’ll come in and I’ll have a general discussion with you but I’m not going to actually audition by reading lines. We can just discuss the character. And then the third step is offer-only. And writers kind of follow those things, too. And we adjust it slightly as do actors depending on the part.
There are plenty of actors who, like for instance if you want to hire Jason Statham to be in your action movie, that’s offer-only. We know Jason Statham can do action. There’s no need to have Jason Statham come in to discuss the character with you. He can do it.
If, however, Jason Statham wants to spread his wings a little bit and maybe, I don’t know, Spielberg is making a movie and there’s this fascinating dramatic part and he wants to play a war surgeon, he might have to come in and meet. He might even want to read for it. You never know. And similarly with us. If there’s something that’s kind of – like if you want to write a Star Wars movie, my guess is you got to have a pretty lengthy conversation about what it is you want to do, especially if it’s their movie. And it doesn’t matter who you are. But if somebody is calling you up, John, and saying, “Listen, we have this movie. It’s going to be kind of, well, it’s family but family plus. So sort of elevated family entertainment.” You’re going to say, great, offer-only.
I mean, I’ll have a conversation with you if you want, but basically the point is if we’re having the conversation that means you want to hire me because you know I do this.
John: Absolutely. And when you and I are brought in to do weekly work, those are essentially offers only. Basically it’s just like, “Hey, we need help on this thing.” And if we go in it’s very clear we can do this job in front of us. But you doing Chernobyl, that is like Jason Statham doing a dramedy. That is not something that everyone would necessarily know is in your wheelhouse, so you do need to be able to describe your vision for what this is more fully.
Craig: Right. And that’s exactly what I did. So I went in with Carolyn Strauss to HBO and sat with [Carrie-Anne Follis] who is the head of their limited series department. And I pitched. And I pitched and I pitched. And I pitched how the series would work, who the characters were, the stories that would happen inside of it. I tried to keep it, you know, somewhat compressed. And it wasn’t kind of an overly rehearsed thing.
What helped there, in television there are so many different ways to stop people from working as they go through. All right, you’re going to write a bible and then you’re going to write an episode. And then we don’t have to do anything after that. And, of course, also in that field, too, is an understanding of and you’re not getting paid what you get paid to write movies. So that all made it kind of easy, but even so there was no question that when I went in there my track record, none of it mattered. None of it. Nor should it have.
John: I mean, your track record in terms of being able to like actually deliver something, like that you’re not going to run off and just disappear into the woods. You would actually give them something, but was it something that they actually wanted? They wouldn’t know that until they’re sitting across from you and ultimately until they’re reading the words.
Craig: Yeah. I think if my track record accomplished anything it was simply that I could get that meeting. That at the drop of a hat I can probably sit down with somebody who runs any division of anything anywhere and say, listen, I have something I want to tell you. But they’re under no obligation to buy anything. All the burden of proof is on me. If somebody wants to make an R-rated comedy where two adults are doing crazy things on the road I don’t really think I need to audition. I’m not going to. So there you go. You’re just going to have to pay me to do that. I’m not going to sit down and dance for that. That’s kind of offer-only. That’s sort of the way it works.
The only thing I think that you or I can count on track record-wise is that we can at least – you like, what’s the job, like have you written horror, like a Leigh Whannell kind of movie?
John: Yeah. I’ve written one of those and I did have to sort of like pitch more fully sort of what my take was on that because it was very off the rank and normal track for me.
Craig: Then you there you go. And so the good news is you can get that meeting no matter what.
Craig: But then you got to work for it. So, it all depends. And obviously when you’re just starting out everybody is dancing for everything. First of all, you’ve got to convince people to even meet with you. And then you got to do a full dance. It’s pretty exhausting, but that’s what youth is for.
John: That is youth. All right, now further follow up, so on last week’s episode it came up that Craig really dislikes ventriloquism. No, no, no, I think you actually hate ventriloquism. You don’t understand ventriloquism. You find no artistic value in ventriloquism.
John: And I think this is actually a call for a whole new segment on the Scriptnotes podcast so this is being inaugurated right here.
Craig: Oh, new segment.
John: New segment. Change Craig’s Mind.
John: Yeah. So Craig has very strong opinions, but one of the things I like so much about Craig is that he also believes that other people can change their opinions about things they are obviously wrong about, such as vaccines. Like vaccines are good.
John: So, this will be an experiment to see whether we can change Craig’s mind and make him appreciate the artistic merits of ventriloquism. So, I welcome all your suggestions for things we can throw at Craig that will make him see that ventriloquism is a true art form. I’m going to start. I started by Googling. I started by Googling “best ventriloquist” and the first video that came up was by a performer named Nina Conti. It is I think terrific and Craig is watching it right now.
So I will describe for people, obviously there will be a link in the show notes, but here is a woman who brings a man up on stage. She affixes a mask to him that she can control the mouth of the mask. And she basically uses him as a ventriloquist dummy. He is helpless and has no control over what he says. Craig, what is your reaction to what Google has told us is best ventriloquist?
Craig: If this is the best ventriloquist ever I can think of no better defense for my position than ventriloquism is crap. Because she’s actually figured out a way to make ventriloquism even easier than it already essentially is. I mean, the hardest part it seems to me of being a ventriloquist is manipulating the multiple things on their stupid dummy. The stupid hands and that dumb face, the eyeballs and the mouth. What she’s done here is, and she seems like a very nice person, don’t get me wrong. A very nice Scottish lady. But what she’s done is she brings somebody out of the audience and puts a little mask on that covers his nose and mouth with her hideous dummy nose/mouth. And then she has that connected to a little thing in her hand that makes the mouth go up and down. That’s it. Now she’s got the hardest part down to just pushing a button repeatedly while she does the silly talking like this.
And he just stands there while people laugh at him. This is terrible. I think it is terrible. I understand why it’s vaguely funny. I do. But it’s just – this is sort of like I never understood Gallagher. Like why are people laughing when he hits the watermelon with the thing? I don’t know. And to me it’s all in the same world of Gallagher. I don’t get it.
John: All right. So a thing I’m surprised you’re not appreciating is the fact that she is talking constantly. So, her breath control is remarkable because it seems like she’s having a conversation with this other person, but she’s actually doing both sides of the conversation. How she’s breathing, how she’s making that all work, do you see the skill involved there?
Craig: No. Ella Fitzgerald had great breath control. Patti LuPone has great breath control. I mean, I can do this because I’m talking like myself and then I’m talking like this. But if I ask you a question, yes, well I just want to know how, how, I just want to, I’m thinking that, well why don’t you just spit it out already? Anyone can do this. Literally anyone. It’s not hard. Just take breaths. And then while the audience laughs you breathe. Because they’re laughing – and listen, I have been accused of making audiences laugh with garbage. So I sympathize on that level.
I’m just saying I don’t get it. I don’t get this. Why ventriloquism is funny. Or hard.
John: All right. So this example has not changed Craig’s mind.
Craig: No. Made it worse.
John: But I remain hopeful that there is something out there that will change Craig’s mind and make him appreciate the art form of ventriloquism.
Craig: I will say that it was refreshing to see a woman doing this as opposed to that weird Vegas-y, fake face, bad toupee type of dude.
Craig: You drive around Vegas, like impressions. I don’t understand impressions. Why is that cool? I don’t get it. It’s not that great.
John: Like Rich Little is not a person for you?
Craig: OK. You sound like those other people. But I could just – those other people are entertaining. That’s why you want to sound like them. But why don’t I just watch those other people. I get it. Anybody that does a Christopher Walken impression. Cool. You’ve made yourself like Christopher Walken. Which reminds me, I’m going to watch a Christopher Walken movie now. Impressions are also just like, meh, OK.
John: I remain hopeful that we will get you there at some point, Craig, and thank you for humoring me with the first installment of Change Craig’s Mind.
Craig: Oh, no problem. Yeah, I can’t wait for my mind to be changed. I like a good mind change. You know, my thing is all my opinions are strongly held but not firmly held.
John: Great. Good. All right. But let’s get to our feature topic, or one of our two feature topics. This is a Craig Mazin suggestion, so Craig start us off.
Craig: Well, you know, we’ve been doing all of our various segments, old and new lately, but my fondest kind of episode is the one where we talk about craft, probably mostly because I just want to put film schools out of business. So, it’s not with me as always any kind of pro-social thing. This is more vindictive.
It seemed to me that one of the things we hadn’t talked about over the course of our many, many, many episodes is the end. Not the end the way people normally talk about the end, when we say well how does the movie end. Usually people are talking about the climax and there’s all sorts of stuff to be said about the dramatic climax of a film and how it functions and why it is the way it is. But the real end of the movie comes after. The real end is the denouement, as the French call it, and this is the moment after the climax when things have settled down and there’s actually a ton of interesting things going on in there. It is the very last thing people see. And it’s an important thing.
I’ll tell you who understands the value of a good denouement. The people that test films. They’ll tell you if you have a comedy and you have one last terrific joke there it will send your scores up through the roof. If you have one last little bit of something between two characters that feels meaningful it will send your scores through the roof. The last thing we get is in a weird way the most important. So I wanted to talk through the denouement, why it is there, and what it’s supposed to be doing.
John: Great. So denouement is a French word. Denoue is to untie. To unknot something. And so it’s interesting that it’s to unknot something because we think about the tying everything up, but you also think about undoing all the tangles that your story has created. Sort of like straightening things out again so that you can leave the theater feeling the way we want you to feel.
So as we’re talking through, if we’re imagining the prototypical 120-page screenplay, these are the very last few pages, correct Craig?
Craig: Yeah. Absolutely. This is after the dust has settled. There’s going to be inevitably something, and we’ll talk through it. Like for instance sometimes it’s one single shot. Typically it’s its own scene. But there’s something to let you know this is the denouement.
And in that sense you – I guess the first thing we should do is draw a line between climax and denouement and say like, OK, what is the difference here. And the climax, I think we all get the general gist there. It’s action, choices, decision, conflict, sacrifice. And all of it is designed to achieve some sort of plot impact.
In the climax you save the victim or you defeat the villain. You’ve stopped the bomb. You win the – whatever it is that the plot is doing that’s what happens there. And the climax dramatically serves as a test of the protagonist. And the test is have you or have you not become version 2.0 of yourself. You started at version 1.0. We know some sort of change needed to happen to make you better, fix you, heal you, unknot you. Have you gotten there yet? This is your test.
And at the end of the climax we have evidence that the character has in fact transformed into character 2.0. The denouement, which occurs after this, to me is about proof that this is going to last. That this isn’t just a momentary thing but rather life has begun again. And this is the new person. This is the new reality.
John: Absolutely. So, in setting up your film you sort of establish a question for this principal character. Like will they be able to accomplish this thing. Will they be able to become the person who can meet this final challenge? In that climax they have met that final challenge. They have succeeded in that final challenge generally and we’ve come out of this. But was it just a one-time fluke thing or are they always going to be this way? Have they transformed into something that is a lasting transformation. And that is what you’re trying to do in these last scene or scenes is to show this is a thing that is really resolved for them.
Craig: Yeah. And that is why so many denouements will begin with six months later, one year later, because you want to know that, OK, if the denouement here is right, I used to crash weddings like a cad, but now I’m crashing my own friend’s wedding because I need to let this woman know that I really do love her and I’ve changed. And she says OK. We need six months later, one year later, to know, yep, they did change, they’re still together. They’re now crashing weddings together as a couple. So, they have this new reality, but it is lasting and their love is real. We need it, or else we’re left wondering, oh, hmm, all right, but did they make it or not?
Now that said, sometimes your denouement can happen in an instant and then the credits roll. And it’s enough because of the nature of the instant, particularly if it’s something that is a kind of very stark, very profound reward that has been withheld for most of the movie. Karate Kid maybe has the shortest denouement in history. Climax, Daniel wins the karate fight. Denouement, Mr. Miyagi smiles at him.
Craig: That’s it. But that smile is a smile that he has not earned until that moment. And when he gets that smile you know that he’s good. This is good.
John: So as we’re talking I’m thinking back through some of my movies. In Go the denouement is they’ve gone back to the car at the end and Manny’s final question is, “So, what are we doing for New Years?” So it’s establishing that like they’ve been through all of this drama but they’re back on a normal track to keep doing sort of exactly what they’ve been doing before. That the journey of the movie has gotten them back to the place where they can take the same journey the next week, which is the point of the movie.
In Big Fish, certainly the climax is getting Edward to the river. There’s a moment post-climax where they’re at the funeral and see all the real versions of folks. But the actual denouement as we’re describing it right now is sort of that six months later, probably actually six years later, where the son who is now born and saying like did all that really happen and the father says, “Yep, every word.” So essentially we see the son buying into the father’s stories in the sense that there’s a legacy that will live on.
So, they’re very short scenes. They’re probably not the scenes you remember most in the movie, but they are important for sending you out of there thinking the characters are on a trajectory I want them to be on.
Craig: Yeah. The climax of Identify Thief is that Melissa McCarthy’s character gives herself up so that Jason Bateman’s character can be free of her and the identity theft and live with his life, which is a huge deal and that’s something she does that’s a self-sacrifice she does because of what he’s kind of helped her to see and that’s what he’s now learned from her. And the denouement which is important is to see, OK, it’s a year later and she’s in prison, which was really important to say, look, it’s real. Right? She went to prison. But what’s happening? Well, Jason and Amanda, who plays his wife, they’ve had their baby and everything is OK. He’s got a great new job. He’s doing fine. She’s been working hard in prison and studying so that she can get out and come work for him. And he then has something for her which is he’s found her real name, because she doesn’t know who she is. And he found her birth certificate and found her real name.
And so you get a kind of understanding that this relationship did not just stop right there. And it could have. She was a criminal. But it didn’t and that they’re going to go on and on. And then she punches a guard in the throat because the other thing about the denouement is typically it is a full circling of your movie and it is in the denouement that you have your best chance for any kind of fun or touching full circle moment. So in Identity Thief you have both. She at one point says she doesn’t know her real name. Here we find out her real name, which is Dawn Budgie, which is just the worse name ever. And the way she met him originally was by punching him in the throat and here’s she going to go ahead and punch a guard in the throat because you change but you don’t change completely because that feels gloppy, right?
But, both of those things are full circle moments. And in the denouement if you can find those, or if you’re wondering what to do in your denouement start thinking about that and looking for that little callback full circle moment. It is incredibly satisfying in that setting.
John: Yep. And a crucial point I think you’re making here is that the denouement is not about plot. It’s about story and theme, but it’s not about sort of the A plot of your movie. Your A plot is probably all done. It’s paying off things you set up between your characters. It’s really paying off relationships generally is how you are wrapping things up. It’s showing what has changed in the relationships between these characters and giving us a sense of what those relationships are going to be like going forward.
Craig: Oh, and that’s a great point, too. You’re absolutely right that it is showing what has changed and therefore it’s also showing what hasn’t changed, which can sometimes be just as important. So, for instance, if your theme is all you need is love, then it is important to show in the denouement that, OK, our protagonist has found love. She now has fulfilled that part of her life. But the other things that maybe she had been chasing aren’t there. So, if your problem is, OK, my character is Vanessa and Vanessa thinks that it’s more important to be successful than to be loved, which is an incredibly trite movie. I apologize to Vanessa.
At the end I don’t necessarily – if she’s found love I think maybe that’s good. I don’t need also then success. Because then I start to wonder, well, OK, what was the lesson here? Sometimes you just want to show nothing has changed except one thing. At the end of Shrek he still lives in a swamp and he is still an ogre, but he’s not alone. So one thing changes and the denouement is very good for almost using the scientific method to change one variable and leave the others constant.
John: Absolutely. So you’re saying that if you did try to change a bunch of variables, if the character ended up in a completely different place, in a whole new world than how they started, then we would still have a question about sort of like what is their life going to be like. We just don’t understand how they fit into all these things. But by changing the one thing we can carry our knowledge of sort of the rest of their life and see that and just make that one change going forward.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. It’s a chance for you to not have to worry about propelling anything forward, but rather letting people understand something is permanent. And permanent in a lovely way. Very often the denouement will dot-dot-dot off, the way that a lot of songs just fade out, right? Some songs have a big [Craig hums] and that’s your end, and you can do that. And some of them just fade out, which is also lovely. The end of Casablanca is a brilliant little fade out. You know, he says goodbye to Ilsa. She’s off on the plane. The plot of the Nazis is over. Everything is finished. And then, you know, two men just walk off and say, you know what, I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And therein is a dot-dot-dot. And they just walk off into the fog. A plane takes off. And you understand more adventures are ahead, but for now everything is OK.
John: Yeah. It’s nice when you get a sense that there will be further stories, we don’t necessarily need to see the sequel, but you get a sense of where they’re generally headed and that you don’t need to be worrying about them an hour later from now.
Here’s the counter example. Imagine you’re watching this film and you’re watching Casablanca and for some reason the last ten minutes get cut off, like the film breaks. That is incredibly jarring because you’ve not been safely placed back down.
There’s a social contract that happens when a person starts watching a movie. It’s like the writer and the filmmakers say if you give me about two hours of your time I will make it worth your while. And you trust me and I will take you to a place and I will deposit you back safely where you started. And if you are not putting people back safely where they started they’re not going to have a good reception, a good reaction. And that’s what you find when you do audience testing is so often what’s not working about the movie is that they didn’t feel like they got to the place where they expected to be delivered.
Craig: Yeah. And I suspect that people, well, reasonably invest an enormous amount of time, energy, and thought into building their climaxes. And then the denouement becomes an afterthought. And for me it is the actual ending. That’s actually the ending I back up from is the denouement.
John: Well, OK, let’s talk about that literally, because I literally do write those last few pages very early on in the process. I don’t know if you do that as well. But sometime after I’ve crossed the midpoint of a script I will generally jump forward and write the last ten pages. So some of that climax but really it’s that denouement. What are the final images of the movie? What are the final moments, the final words of a movie? Because if I know that, I know where I’m going, that second half of the script is much tighter and better and cleaner for where I’m headed towards.
Also, I like to write those last couple pages while I still have enthusiasm about the movie. So often you’ll read endings of scripts and you kind of feel like people were just rushing through the end. It’s like they were on a deadline and just plowed through those last pages and they spent so much time on their first act and spent so little time on those last ten pages which are sort of loose and sloppy because of when they were written.
Craig: That just infuriates me. The very thought of it. Because I obsess over those, the way I obsess over the first ten. And I don’t write out of order the way you do. But I think I plan very stringently in a way that you don’t. I try and write the movie before I write the movie essentially. And so I definitely know what those things are. And I don’t really have spikes or dips of excitement. I’m more of a kind of – you know, I think you write the way people probably think I write, and I write probably the way people think you write.
John: Probably so.
Craig: You know what I mean? I’m very robotic about it in a certain kind of procedural way, creatively obviously inside the robot management. I go all over the place and lop the heads off of giraffes and so forth. But I’m very kind of, you know, I’m a big planner.
John: I’m very instinctual and I will not know necessarily what the next scene is as I’m writing the current scene.
Craig: You know what? I think you and I just are so surprising to each other.
John: All right. So let’s wrap up this conversation of denouement because the denouements are about wrapping things up. So, the key takeaways we want people to get from a denouement is that it is a resolution of not plot but of theme, of relationship, of sort of the promise you’ve made to the audience about these principal characters and sort of what is going to happen going forward. What else do we want people to know?
Craig: I mean, that is essentially what they’re going to do. You’re going to show them that last bit whether you’ve done a good job or a poor job. When they see the last bit of the movie they will in their minds add on the following words: And thus it shall always be. And if you have done it well, and thus it shall always be, it’ll be really comforting and wonderful for them.
By the way, sometimes it’s not comforting. Sometimes it’s sad. You know, I mean, honestly the denouement of Chernobyl is quite sad and bittersweet. No shock there. Fiddler on the Roof has one of the best denouements of all time. Fiddler on the Roof opens with a guy playing this [hums] and it’s very jaunty and he’s on a roof and it’s silly. And Tevye is talking to the audience and saying, oh you know, our life is hard and tricky. And we’re like a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a simple little tune without breaking your neck.
At the end of the show, they have been driven from their town of Anatevka by pogroms and they’re trudging off to a new home. And the fiddler is the last person to go and he plays that same little tune, but it’s so sad this time. And the denouement is there to say and thus it shall always be, meaning we know based on the timeframe that what follows the people who leave Anatevka in whenever that takes place, let’s just call it 1910, is going to be worse. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better and thus it shall always be.
So, it doesn’t always have to be “and happily ever after.” Sometimes it can be and sadly ever after. But the point is it will be thus. And it shall thus always be. So, if you think about it that way the denouement becomes incredibly important because that’s where you’re sealing the fate of every single character in your film.
John: Yeah. Everyone is sort of going to be frozen in that little capsule that you created there and that can be placed up on the shelf. That is the resolution for this world that you’ve built to contain this story. So, that’s why it’s so crucial that it feel rewarding. So whether it was a happy ending or a sad ending that it feels like an ending.
John: All right. Let’s transition to our real endings, which is basically our short time on this earth and at some point we will not be on this earth, but some of our work will still be around. And so I think this was a question from Pam Stucky on Twitter. I couldn’t find the actual tweet that sort of led to it. So if it’s not Pam, if it was somebody else, I’m sorry. But someone asked a smart question about like, well, have you guys ever talked about what happens to our work after we die? Or how stuff gets inherited? And I don’t think we really have.
So I wanted to dig into this a little bit and talk about two things. What happens legally to our work? And what happens creatively? What are the creative choices we might make about how we want to see our work passed down in the future? So some of the stuff is really straightforward and some of the stuff is a bigger discussion.
But legally you own copyright to the things you write. And that copyright is a real thing. It is an asset that can be passed along to your heirs. And if you don’t lay it out in your wills and other documents to describe where you want that copyright asset to go to, it will get passed along just like your comic book collection or your couch. So, it’s worth thinking about who you would like to own the rights to – the copyright to the stuff you make.
Copyright is worth a lot potentially for certain properties because it’s reproduction rights, it’s the ability to make more copies of that thing, so for a book. It’s distribution rights, who can sell and distribute your work. Performance rights, which is incredibly important for playwrights in particular. And adaptation rights. So, for authors it’s the ability to take that book you’ve written and turn it into a movie or turn into a TV show, or to remake it.
So, these are crucial things for the original works that you are creating. But, of course, as screenwriters so much of what we’re actually doing as our job isn’t original works. They are works for hire.
Craig: Right. And interestingly the term length is much different for individuals or for people commissioning works for hire. So in general we’re talking about anything that’s made since 1978, if you – John, you’ve written Arlo Finch. You are the copyright holder of Arlo Finch. The copyright protection lasts you how long?
John: My life plus a certain number of years, 75 years?
Craig: 70, yes, correct.
John: 70 years.
Craig: So, as long as you live and then the day you die a clock starts ticking and there are 70 more years for your daughter to gather up those delicious Arlo Finch royalties. At which point after that theoretically it goes into public domain the way that say the works of Arthur Conan Doyle are in public domain. And anybody can do anything they want with Sherlock Holmes.
But if there is a work-for-hire and that covers every time say Warner Bros. employs you or me to write a screenplay, the length of term there is 95 years from the year of first publication, or 120 years from the year of its creation. Now you can say well life of the author plus 70 could be more than that, but you know, typically people aren’t getting copyright to important works when they’re 10. So right now as you and I both approach 50 and maybe we’ve got another let’s say 30 years in there, they’re starting to even up.
And that number is going to get longer and longer because every time Mickey Mouse almost becomes public domain they seem to get an extension.
John: Yep. And so this will not be the episode where we actually talk about copyright systems and the weird ways it has been perverted to benefit – to really do the opposite of what copyright was supposed to do which was to get ideas out there in the public. But you could say, well, it doesn’t matter the things that I’m writing for Warner Bros. because I will never control copyright, therefore my heirs will get nothing. That is not true.
Craig: That is not true.
John: So, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which was a movie I made for Warner Bros. that pays me residuals. Residuals are collected by the Writers Guild of America. And those residuals are based on every time they sell the movie through iTunes or license it to Netflix. I get checks. I get checks every quarter for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and it’s quite valuable. Those checks will keep coming after I die. And that is a very good thing. And those checks will keep coming as long as that movie is worth something and it is being licensed under copyright. So as long as Warner Bros. has copyright on the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie I’ve made, residuals will keep coming. And that is a good asset down the road.
Craig: Yeah. That’s basically the long and short of it right there. We do have a kind of perpetuous income source with the residuals. And that’s why we have residuals essentially to simulate royalties, to overcome the absurd fiction of the work-for-hire, which I guess is sometimes is not a fiction but a lot of times it is. So, yeah, that’s basically what we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with 90 or 120 years following creation of or first publication, or first publication or creation of. That’s how long it lasts. So when we die it kind of doesn’t matter. The law doesn’t really care, in our case, because our death is not actually triggering any time constraint.
For you it will matter on Arlo Finch. Or interestingly for you and I have both written music for movies, so we’re in ASCAP and we get ASCAP royalties. Those I think will be tied to death and copyright and all that, the publishing.
John: They should be. Yeah. That’ll be interesting to see. And also it’s complicated because it’s comingled with people who did the music for it, so it’s me and Danny Elfman and I don’t really know how that all sorts out. I’ve choose not to worry about it. But, Craig, while I have you on this call I have a question about separated rights.
So, separated rights would also pass to an heir, correct?
Craig: I believe so. They pass to your estate.
John: Yes. So if you are a person who writes a work for which you receive separated rights, which is a complicated topic but essentially it’s the ability to derive money from sequels and other things based upon your original work that should pass along to your heirs. Sometimes there are even creative choices that come along with that. So that’s another useful thing.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, separated rights are at times tricky to invoke because the companies hate that they exist. But for instance if you write an original screenplay and sold the original screenplay you will maintain a separated right for dramatic exploitation under certain circumstances. In other words, you have the rights for a play to be done of the original script you wrote. And when you die that doesn’t go away. That stays with the family.
John: Yep. So quite famously J.F. Lawton who wrote Pretty Woman controlled the separated rights for Pretty Woman and did not want there to be a Broadway musical for a very, very long time. And could stop it. That separated rights is giving him that ability.
But let’s talk about sort of the creative aspect of this. Not the legal, but just sort of creatively what you might think about down the road. And so you may have specific intentions for how you want to see your work used in the future. A zillion years ago I worked on an adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time which was not the same thread of the current Wrinkle in Time. But Madeleine L’Engle had already passed away, but her estate had tremendous controls over what could be done with that property. So not just who could do it, but like specific things that had to be in the script or could not be in the script. They had creative controls. And that was given to her estate.
Edward Albee’s estate has sort of famously tangled with people who wanted to make casting changes to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. We’ll put a link in the show notes to that.
And I was talking to Andrew Lippa, my friend, about stuff he’s doing with the Dramatist Guild for playwrights and musical writers who want to be able to think about their works after they’ve passed away. And so there’s some things like basically a council of playwrights that will look at people’s intentions with plays at the time they were written and sort of how they should change down the road, so that after playwrights pass away there can be some consistency about sort of what kinds of things are done with a play. So it’s a fascinating topic creatively.
Craig: Again, for those of us in movies and television, not particularly applicable in that regard, other than the minor separated rights. But that ultimately comes down to your family or whomever you have assigned the executorship of your estate. Yeah, you know, I – it’s funny, I just don’t think much about this sort of thing. Probably because I don’t have any concern that I’m going to be watching either from heaven or from hell as people make bad decisions with the things I’ve done. I don’t think I’m going to be around.
John: A thing I’ve been thinking about a lot recently though, and it probably started with Morrissey and Morrissey being a crank on Twitter. And I loved Morrissey’s songs, but now it’s like I don’t want – ugh, Morrissey shut up. And it got me thinking about whether I want to put some system in place where I would deputize three people of different generations and if they agreed that I needed to retire or basically move out of public view that I would have to take their decision. Basically a council of advisors who would say, no John, you need to stop. Because you look at people who have decided to step away and like maybe that was a great choice that they stepped away.
So Robert Redford recently announced that he’s retiring from acting. He’s not retiring as a public person, but he’s retired from acting. Daniel Day Lewis did it. Gene Hackman did it. And maybe there could be good cause for someone to give advice to somebody about this is the time to stop. Craig, what do you think about that?
Craig: I don’t think – the problem is if you become a crank then you’ll just say I’m not listening to these people anymore. Look, everybody has a moment where they should probably put it down, but then some people don’t. Some people go all the way to the end and you’re thankful for it, you know.
Look, it’s a personal decision. Sometimes these actors announce that they’re retiring from acting and I just think or just maybe retire from acting and not announce it. You know, stop. Just stop. That’s all. You don’t have to do anything to retire. That’s the beauty of retiring. An announcement that I’m no longer going to be doing – oh, do you need one last round of attention here? I think it’s more interesting when you discover that like people go, by the way, did you know that Gene Hackman apparently retired? That’s the best way to do it I think.
So when I finally retire – no one will care anyway.
John: Craig, do you think you will retire?
Craig: I think I will be retired. In other words, I hope that when I look at my own work and my mind and I have an assessment that it is of diminishing value that that will come either simultaneous with or slightly ahead of everybody else’s similar determination. The bummer is when everybody else figures out that you’ve lost it before you do. You don’t want to be that pitcher who is still going out there and getting shelled and guys are like, dude, you can’t throw a 95 anymore. You’re barely touching 90 and your stuff is flat. Maybe it’s time to hang up the spikes. No, I got one more season in me.
I don’t want to be that guy. But, you know, I keep a fairly careful eye on myself and I have a tendency towards self-loathing anyway, so I think I’ll be OK. I think if anything I will constantly try to retire and if people don’t want me to, or they need me to do something they’ll say, “No, no, no, not yet,” and then I’ll feel bad and do it. That’ll be the ideal situation.
John: You and I both know writers who sort of functionally got retired and they basically kind of stopped working. Like people stopped hiring them. And it is sad when they want to keep working and no one is hiring them. Ageism is a real thing in Hollywood. And this is the kind of insight in which if I actually went to therapy I probably could have had ten years ago, but a thing the last few weeks I’ve realized is that I think part of the reason I keep pursuing new things or stuff that I kind of don’t know anything about, like writing a book, writing a musical, software stuff, is that it’s nice to be the new person in something. It’s nice to feel like I am actually a beginner. That I’m a younger person in that field rather than sort of like the person who has been a screenwriter for 25 years.
John: There’s something nice about that. So I don’t know that I will ever retire, but I can also envision some point where I’m basically not writing movies anymore because I’m just doing other stuff, where I haven’t been doing it for 25 years.
Craig: No question. I mean, it’s just like video games are very difficult in the beginning when you’re weak and you’re confused and you’re not quite sure how the controls work and they’re a little scary. And then there’s that wonderful process of slowly and steadily mastering what’s happening, until you get to a point where you’re so powerful it’s boring. And the more you do something, even if it’s not in terms of power it’s just in terms of mastery, it can get – like I don’t really want necessarily to write rated-R comedies anymore, because I feel like I’ve done it a lot. And I’m a little bit bored.
And it’s not even to say that I’ve done it well, or that I couldn’t do it better. But there’s been a lot of it. And there’s been a lot that people haven’t seen, also, where my name is not there, but there’s more work than people know. And so I agree with you that changing things up and trying new things is delightful. I’m 100% in that place with you.
I think sometimes with some of the people who get retired, forcibly retired, ageism, yes, I think truly is a thing. However, Ted Eliot did point out something many years ago that had the ring of strong truth to it, which was that there are people that kind of happen in Hollywood. They make a big splash with a thing. And it’s a shiny thing and people get excited and they begin hiring that person. And slowly but surely as they go from project to project to project the word spreads that maybe they’re actually just not that good. And that some of these people aren’t aging out, they’re just being found out.
Craig: And they just weren’t as good as people thought. And there’s been a bunch of those. Also some people behave poorly and they get retired out because all things being equal people would rather work with somebody that’s nice than not nice. Especially these days I think that’s more of a consideration than it used to be.
But, yeah, it’s a tough thing because the market is cruel, but not irrational necessarily. Racist though. It’s definitely racist. See that one there’s no question about.
John: Yeah, there’s a little of that. So a thing I found is at a certain point you become – when you first start in this business you are younger than the people hiring you, and then you end up becoming about the same age as the people hiring you, and then you become older than some of the people hiring you. And at a certain point it becomes challenging to take instructions from people who have less experience than you do. And that I think is probably true in all industries across the board. It is weird to be working for somebody younger than you. That is naturally a part of it.
But I think another thing that happens is that sometimes if this executive is used to working with young writers who will do 50,000 drafts and keep smiling and will try to incorporate all the bad ideas because they’re hungry and desperate for a job, the fact that the more experienced writer isn’t so hungry will change the nature of that relationship. You know, if a writer says, you know what, I’m not going to try to implement that ridiculous note that won’t conceivably work because it’s just a waste of everyone’s time.
That’s a thing that the older writer might say that the younger writer wouldn’t say and ultimately that older writer I think gets hired less and less.
Craig: Yeah, you know, I have found that there’s been a nice shift in a weird way. I was – I think it’s different for everybody. Honestly it’s just the way you carry yourself and how you are. I think some people as they get older they just don’t refresh their minds about the world around them and I try and do that as best I can.
Having children helps. You know, having a 17-year-old and a 13-year-old makes it so that I have a certain amount of awareness of what’s going on around me. Also there’s a little bit of a sweet spot which I think you and I are probably in right now. It’s as you’re approaching 50. My guess is it’s your 50s where you’re not too old, but you are old enough where it seems like you’re kind of the vet. Like you know, like you’re a reliable vet who is going to get the job done. Thank god you’re here. I want somebody slightly older than me who I feel like I can listen to. And you’re not too old so you’re not grandpa.
That’s a real thing. I think that you and I have the best possible insurance against ageism ever which is this show. Since by the time we’re in our 60s every single person running every studio I believe will have grown up listening to this podcast. Therefore we should be fine. You and I will be OK forever.
John: As long as the council that we’ve appointed to tell us that we need to stop doing the show doesn’t tell us we need to stop doing the show.
Craig: I’m already saying no to them. I defy them.
John: I refuse!
Craig: I refuse.
John: Let’s wrap this segment up with just a little bit of practical advice. If you are thinking about sort of who should control your work after you pass away, at a certain point you’re going to need to make a will. So every screenwriter at a certain point wakes up in panic and says like, oh crap, I have no will, I have no estate, I have nothing planned. You go to a lawyer and do it.
I think if you’re young and starting out without a lot of assets you can probably do one of those online things or get a book or do something that way and just write the will, do whatever you’re supposed to do in the State of California. File it wherever you’re supposed to file it so it’s found after your death. And make those choices about where those things are supposed to go.
If you are a person with some substantial assets you do need to go find a person who can figure out how you should structure all the stuff, because at a certain point you’re going to put stuff into a trust and there’s reasons why you do things the way you do them. But it’s worth everyone thinking about so you have some sense of where you would like your work to go.
Craig: 100%. I believe you and I use the same guy.
John: Yep. He’s the guy. All of our friends do use the same guy.
Craig: There you go. Boy, I hope that guy is good or else we’re all–
John: Just toast. It turns out he’s just awful and made fundamental misassumptions.
All right, let us go to our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing are actually two awesome women who both write and perform. The first is my friend Erin Gibson. So Erin Gibson, she’s the host or cohost of Throwing Shade podcast which is fantastic. Co-creator, writer, and director of Gay of Thrones, which I’m sure you’ve watched. Jonathan Martin sort of recaps of Game of Thrones. They are fantastic.
But she has a book out which is also great. I went to the party. The book came out today but it’s already gotten great reviews. Called Feminasty: The Complicated Woman’s Guide to Surviving the Patriarchy Without Drinking Herself to Death. And it’s great. And Erin is fantastic. But she’s one of those people who – this is how I first met Erin Gibson.
She and Bryan Safi, who are cohosts on Throwing Shade, were both correspondents on this show called Infomania on the Current Network. And I stumbled across this show. I thought they were singularly fantastic. This is pre-Twitter I guess, so I emailed them and said like you guys are both fantastic and we ended up having coffee and they’ve been friends since then. So, Erin Gibson, a fantastic writer and performer.
The second one is Phoebe Waller-Bridge. And sometimes in life you find little individual things you like and then later on realize they were all the same thing. And that was Phoebe Waller-Bridge for me. So, she is the writer-creator of Killing Eve, which is remarkable. It’s so good. You should watch it. But before that she did Fleabag, which I hadn’t seen, but now I’m watching and it’s great. And she stars in and wrote that. And then she was also L3-37, the robot in Solo, which was one of my favorite things about that movie. And so she was all of these things and is all one person. And so I’m so happy that there’s a Phoebe Waller-Bridge out there. So, Erin Gibson, Phoebe Waller-Bridge are my two great One Cool Things.
Craig: Wow. That is pretty cool. I love it when that happens. And that is a bit of a sign from the universe that you should be friends with somebody, isn’t it?
John: Probably so. So, she should probably come on the show next time she’s in Los Angeles.
Craig: Yeah. Seems like that should happen.
Well, just like your two things, my third thing is also a video game DLC. What? OK. So, I’ve been playing The Witcher 3.
John: I don’t like The Witcher. So tell me why you love it.
Craig: Well, I don’t love it. I’ll be honest with you. I don’t love it. I like it. I did not like it to start with. It took a little bit of time to get into. And then once I got into it I was like, OK, OK, it’s pretty cool in that it’s massive. It’s sort of like do you like Skyrim? Well, what if it was Skyrim but not as good but bigger, like there was more stuff to do.
So many quests, you’ll never finish them. But, you know, not bad. Terrible video game sex in it. I don’t think I’ve seen good video game sex.
John: Terrible in what way?
Craig: The mouths don’t touch. And the hips are moving incorrectly, so it is a hideous simulacrum of sex. It’s just incredibly not arousing. The breasts do not move. They will show bare female breasts but they have no jiggle, so it’s like that’s not right. That’s really not right at all. Yeah, video game sex not sexy.
Also, this game, Witcher, from 2015 just absurdly sexist in a way that I think like I can only assume that the people over there in Poland at Project Red who are no doubt hard at work on Witcher 4 have noticed the world has changed. I hope they have. And maybe some of their women could have shirts that close. You know, that would be nice if all the buttons went up to the neck. Just a thought.
John: So, I mean, Witcher 3 is really, I mean, I played it back when I was in Paris. And it is beautiful. It really does look terrific and looks better than Skyrim kind of does. But you’re always playing the one guy and I felt like I was on rails the entire time. So I probably only played like two hours into it and just gave up.
Craig: The first two hours you are on rails. And when they take you off the rails, that’s the weird part, is that the first part of the game is absurdly railed and then once that’s over they’re like, no rails. Also, you have 4,000 quests to do. Good luck, bye. And then it really is fun. And never-ending. So you probably quit just a little too early. But I will say that in terms of the beauty aspect of it I got this DLC Blood and Wine where you go this new region which is essentially French wine countryside.
Craig: And it is gorgeous. Oh, it’s so great to look at. I mean, the gameplay is the same damn thing, but it is beautiful. And you get your own vineyard estate to renovate. You have your own major domo who is very nice. You have nice chats with him.
You know, I’m not a big craft your own home guy, but when I did, like in Fallout 4 I’m like, OK, I better sort of spiff up my little homestead here you know. But the guess you can do is use terrible post-apocalyptic materials to build your weird creepy hut. Here you’re living in this gorgeous French, you know, countryside manor with fields and Bougainvillea and it’s quite lovely.
So, anyway, Witcher 3: Blood and Wine if you feel like escaping slightly to your French countryside estate while you are slaughtering Necrophages with your silver sword. There you go.
John: All right. And that is our show for this week. As always our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Rajesh Naroth. And special thanks to Luke Davis for sending us that cool intro bit with Craig.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: If you have an outro or intro thing you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send questions and bits of follow up like we discussed today.
You can find the show on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, anywhere where podcasts are found. Leave us a review. That’s always great. Links to stuff we talked about in today’s episode will be in the show notes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you can find transcripts. They go up about four days after the episode airs.
You can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net. We have nearly 3,000 of you premium subscribers. And so I think after we wrap here I’m going to talk to Craig about a special little thing I kind of want to do for those premium subscribers, because that’s pretty cool.
Craig: That’s amazing.
John: All right, Craig, thank you so much for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John. I will see you next week.
- You can listen to John & Craig on another podcast: Jordan, Jesse, Go!
- You can check out our episode with Mindy Kaling, or our episode with Susanna Fogel and David Iserson for some context in this week’s follow-up.
- John’s attempt at “Changing Craig’s Mind” about ventriloquism: Nina Conti
- Edward Albee’s estate has special rules about casting for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
- Erin Gibson: Throwing Shade podcast, Gay of Thrones, and her new book, Feminasty: The Complicated Woman’s Guide to Surviving the Patriarchy Without Drinking Herself to Death.
- Phoebe Waller-Bridge: Killing Eve, Fleabag, and she’s the robot, L3-37, in Solo
- The Witcher 3: Blood And Wine DLC
- The USB drives!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Find past episodes
- Scriptnotes Digital Seasons are also now available!
- Outro by Rajesh Naroth (send us yours!). And thank you, Luke Davis, for Craig’s musical intro!
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.