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 Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 371 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast we’ll be looking at writing and remembering dialogue, plus how to deal with a very large number of characters in a scene. Then we’ll be answering questions we’ve gotten from listeners just like you.
John: Mm. Craig had the dialogue topic, I had the topic about a bunch of people in a scene because that’s what we’re writing this week. It’s always nice when like the stuff that we’re working on is actually useful for people to listen to.
Craig: I mean, mostly any idea I ever do have is because I literally think, oh, here’s something that cropped up today. You know, I guess that’s sort of why we’re a vaguely useful podcast because we don’t actually invent baloney topics. We come up with the things that we’re actually dealing with all the time as screenwriters.
John: A vaguely useful podcast about screenwriting and things that are vaguely useful to screenwriters.
Before we get to those topics though we have some news and some updates. News on my side, I put out a trailer this past week for Arlo Finch, so Arlo Finch being the books that I write. The folks at MacMillan said like hey would you want to make a book trailer. I’m like, yeah, that sounds like a way I can spend a lot of time just like not writing the books and it would be a lot of fun. So, I made a book trailer so you can see a link to that.
John: Our own Matthew Chilelli did the music for it and did a fantastic job.
Craig: Great. Yes, I liked it a lot myself.
John: And a friend of ours, his son Cormac Gavari did the narration, so I want to thank him. I think Mr. Gavari listens to the podcast as well, so thank him for lending his son’s voice to the trailer.
Craig: I happen to know for a fact that Michael’s son is a big fan. So that must be a thrill for him. And you can’t fake sense of wonder. Well, no, I take it back. I suppose you can. That’s how movies are made all the time. But still, it’s hard to fake a sense of wonder. And children in particular when they try and fake a sense of wonder sometimes it just comes off as this incredibly insincere puppet act and you know how I feel about puppets. But this was sincere because Cormac is in fact a fan of the books.
John: Yeah. So, I was looking for – usually when I had to do voiceover stuff and I’m reaching out to somebody there’s these services you can go to and you can find the voices of stuff. And those people are really good and we’ve used those for like our announcers for Scriptnotes live shows and other times where we needed professional voices. And if you go on those sites looking for child actors and child voices you either find adults pretending to be children in a really uncomfortable way, or these actual kids and I worry that they’re being stage-mom’ed to death.
John: So, it was much better to go to a real life kid I knew who is actually genuinely a fan of the books.
Craig: Of course. And if you become abusive in your recording session and hit him or something you can always just make it go away with a small payment.
John: That did not happen.
Craig: Oh. OK. Well, I’m just saying.
John: Several episodes ago we talked about the credits revision that is coming through from the WGA and the WGA East that Craig actually worked on, so this is the Screen Credits Revision. It is a whole cleanup of the manual for screen credits. But there’s been a change since the last time we spoke. Craig, do you want to speak to the change?
Craig: Yeah. So I’ve already gone on my rant, if you listen to the WGA episode where I went on my bananas rant. And so you know basically we’ve been dealing with a misinformation campaign. And you could even call it a disinformation campaign. And the last thing that any of us wanted was for the, I don’t know, 100 small but essential changes we were making to get undone simply because of this one thing. So we’ve altered the language to in fact reflect what I think was always going to be the reality anyway. And so what we’re saying now is reasonable requests for extensions will be granted but will not preclude the guild from proceeding with an arbitration with the statements then available to the guild. Essentially what has always been the case is that any participating writer can submit a statement up to the point where the arbiters render their decision. You don’t have to get it in right when they start. You may want to. You may think that that might help your case. But it’s not essential.
You are allowed to get it in when you can get it in. And the moment the guild receives it they forward it to the arbiters so that they can have it. And we’re just sort of making that quite a bit clearer and, yes, we’re saying reasonable requests for extensions will be granted. I mean, I had a conversation with a – I won’t say who it is – but a very high profile screenwriter who called me. He’s based in New York. And I don’t know him but he had heard about this and had some concerns. And I walked him through it and essentially he was saying, “Look, if I’m on location and something falls on my foot, or I have a heart attack and I’m laid up in the hospital and I miss the deadline by three hours…” And I’m like, no, you know, we’re not – the guild – we’re not a bunch of total jerks. I mean, we meaning all of us, we’re part of it, but also the staff. That’s not the business they’re in.
What we’re just trying to do is just get rid of the, you know, the endless pattern of obvious abuse of the system where I just said, listen, we have people who literally the writers will say, yeah, I’m happy with that timeframe to write my statement and then two hours later their lawyer calls the guild and says absolutely not, we need a week.
Well, no, you know, in that case that’s not reasonable. That’s just lawyers doing what lawyers do. So, in any case, this is a good clarification. I think it should clear up everyone’s serious concerns. And when we do submit this to the membership and go for a vote I will be urging all the members of the guild to vote yes on this. It’s a nice step forward and I think it’s going to make arbitrations go a bit more smoothly and hopefully with some of the extra explanation we’ve added a bit, well, just a bit more fairly.
John: Yeah. And also a bit more calmly I think. I think some of the good changes in this manual make the process clearer for both people going through arbitration and for arbiters and take a little of the panic out of it. And so anything that can sort of turn down the temperature a bit on arbitrations is a good thing.
John: Cool. Our future episode on random advice, well, we’ve been asking people to send in their questions, our premium subscribers to send in their questions for us to answer on a future episode called Random Advice. I thought we’d do a little sampler platter of some of the questions we got asked. We won’t actually give you our answers right now, but these are some questions that people are asking. We’ve gotten 53 questions so far. So, do you want to take one of these?
Craig: What is your opinion on polyamory?
John: Yeah. I’ve got an opinion. I’m happy to share it.
Craig: Me too. Me too.
John: Do either of you have a favorite sport?
Craig: Oh, I certainly do.
John: I do, too. What is the best thing you’ve ever cooked?
Craig: Ooh, best, I hate the whole best/worst.
John: Yeah, best and worst is tough. I can probably get down to some favorites.
Craig: Yeah, favorites.
John: Or things that I’m proudest to make, especially like family recipes. And those are just opinion questions. Here’s a real advice question. A listener writes, “I own a laser tattoo removal clinic. Occasionally angry or panicky parents drag in their underage kid with a contraband tattoo and pay me to remove it. The kid, while technically a dependent, is never on board with this, but he or she is my patient, not the parents. Am I violating my patient’s autonomy by following through with the removal as dictated by the parents?
Craig: That seems like a pretty easy one for me, but I’m excited to answer it.
John: I’m excited to answer it, too. I definitely have my opinion and at the same time there’s some shading on it. So, yeah, it’s going to be a good question. I’m excited to answer it.
Craig: Yeah. This is going to be a fun episode. And that’s only if people pay the exorbitant fee of $1.99 a month.
John: That’s what we’re charging for.
Craig: I mean, come on, $1.99? And we don’t do the stupid ads. We don’t even do telethons. We don’t even interrupt your, I don’t know, watching Upstairs, Downstairs to demand that you give us money and we’ll give you a tote bag. We don’t do any of that. $1.99.
John: All we do is talk about things that are interesting to screenwriters and topics like Craig’s that he proposed.
Craig: Hmm, Segue Man.
John: Craig, start us off.
Craig: Sure. So, a couple of weeks ago I had an opportunity to participate in something. It doesn’t really matter what the circumstances are. But it was the first time that I had to memorize dialogue in forever. And it was a particular kind of dialogue memorization. Most people at some point in school will have to memorize something like a passage from Shakespeare or if they’re in a school play or a musical there’s a script. And then there’s a lot of time given to memorize it. In the case of a musical, you rehearse over the course of a couple of months or so.
But traditionally the way we shoot movies and television an actor comes in and learns their lines for that day. Every day new lines. Maybe you’re doing one scene that day. Maybe you’re doing two. So, the object is to learn, well, somewhere around three, four, five pages of dialogue. You rarely individually have three, four, five pages of dialogue, but it’s part of a conversation that goes on and that’s roughly a day’s work. So actors learn their lines for the day.
And I had an opportunity to do that and so I had the scene and I just read it and I had to memorize it somewhat, you know, relatively quickly. But, you know, 30, 40 minutes or something like that. I mean, I was familiar with it prior, but about that much time to memorize it. And then I had to do it. And it was very instructive. And I hadn’t written this dialogue. So it was a way of interacting with dialogue that I don’t normally do at all.
And in the doing of it I kind of learned some interesting lessons that I had never considered that I think might be applicable to the writing of dialogue, because in the end someone is going to have to memorize it and someone is going to have to say it. So, there were certain challenges that come across right away. I mean, the really easy ones. You have to remember what you’re saying. You have to obviously think about how you’re going to say it. That’s the performance part. And then there’s this third one that I think people underestimate which is when do you say it.
Craig: It’s easy enough to know when your dialogue ends because it ends. And then someone else starts talking. But when do you come back in? So that’s the listening part. But in that part you begin to see how memorization relies a lot on two things. The relationships between different words and what I call – what I don’t call, what neurologists call chunks. Have you ever encountered the chunking theory of memory?
John: I think I know what you’re talking about. Essentially we don’t hold little atoms of information. Instead we group things together in bigger packages and it’s those larger puzzle pieces that we’re putting together to form actual memories and to form a string that becomes a sentence.
Craig: That’s exactly right. I mean, the brain is pretty good at taking certain bits of information like a number and then chunking them together in a group that is memorable. And so what they find for instance is that roughly seven digits is about the largest chunk of information you can make for people where they reliably remember it. Meaning to say if I come up to you and I say I’m going to read, I don’t know, seven random digits and I just ask you – single digits – and I say you’ve got to remember that, I’m coming back five minutes from now and you didn’t write it down, you can’t write it down. You’ll be able to. More than that becomes really, really hard.
John: Yeah. And the same thing would be true with words. If I gave you seven random words that had no contextual meaning together it would be very hard to get those seven words, or more than seven words, together. But if they had semantic meaning that would be very simple.
Craig: Correct. There’s a certain ability to chunk them together. They find that people that are really good at things or have a lot of experience, the amount of information they can put in an individual chunk expands. So for instance chess players they found, whereas I might look at a chess board, I’m a terrible chess player. So if I look at a chess board that’s sort of set up to be mid-game, and I’m told you have to memorize this, and then walk away from it, come back one minute later and reconstruct it on the board, the amount of pieces that I will be able to keep in my mind and where their positions are is very small.
Whereas people that are very good at chess, it’s a breeze for them because they’re essentially creating relationships between things. They understand these four pieces and relationship is sort of a thing. It’s a chunk.
John: It’s a pattern.
Craig: It’s a pattern. And so I realized that’s kind of how you memorize dialogue when you’re reading it. There are certain things that kind of indicate this is the beginning and this is the end of a chunk. And the chunks of words are anchored essentially. So, there’s always a word or maybe a couple of words that are stuck together that is the emphasis, the point, the reveal or maybe a strange word. In this little chunk, and the chunk could be five words long, those are the words that are kind of the glue that’s holding all the other stuff together. Little bits and bobs of words that maybe in and of themselves like The, And, But, Before, and OK, and Whenever, and Ever, and so on and so forth, all those are kind of connected to this anchor word.
So one thing to consider as you’re writing your dialogue is what is the anchor of this thought or piece of dialogue?
John: Yeah. So if it’s not hanging on anything it’s just going to sort of fall away. And probably was not a meaningful line anyway.
Craig: Is not a meaningful line anyway. And so what you end up with is, well, it could be a meaningful line but you heard it by creating a kind of hypnotic rhythm or pattern to it. So, for instance, here’s something that – the sort of thing that we might say in this sort of rhythm. “After we go but before we’re let in, if we can take a look at how we arrive at the” – every single one of those words was one syllable or maybe two. They were all roughly the same length. There were certain repetitions of words. A lot of minuscule words with hundreds of meanings, like look and act and can and in, you know, like there’s just a lot of – you’re asking the brain to do a lot of work to remember the stuff and there’s nothing anchoring it together.
The other thing that can sometimes anchor a chunk is not a word per se, but your reaction to something that you’re looking at or you’re smelling or you’re hearing so that the words are chunked around a reaction to the world around you.
John: Yeah. So classically dialogue, you’re going to be reacting to the thing the person just said beforehand, but there may also be something in the environment that’s actually causing the line to happen or causing you pick those specific words. And so you can think about what that thing is that’ll help you remember that chunk, or it will help unify that thought.
Craig: Yeah. If someone says I want you to take a look at this document and review it, and that’s their line of dialogue, and my line of dialogue is to pick it up and say, “I’m not even sure what I’m looking at here,” that’s, OK, those are sort of bland words. There’s not much of an anchor to that. But if someone says take a look at this and they whip a window open, “I’m not even sure what I’m looking at here,” that’s a reaction. It’s already so much easier to remember because it’s not just words. It’s words in relation to something.
And similarly I think the – as I was doing it I noticed that the way you realize that one chunk is over and another one is beginning is that inside of well-written dialogue there are all these little mini/micro reversals, reconsiderations. There’s little built in pauses or moments for emotion. And all those little things help you divide it up into chunks so that you’re not memorizing a list of words but rather you’re memorizing movements of thought. I don’t know how else to put it.
John: Absolutely. It’s like musical phrases but they are little sections of thought. And a lot of times they will follow English grammar. So, I suspect oftentimes you find the chunks do fit in where commas are or where connector words like “and” are. Or they end at periods. But they don’t always. And so it’s always worth looking at would it make more sense to continue this thought sort of beyond the period into its next line. You can also be thinking about sort of where is the natural place to breathe, and that may also give you a sense of where that thought really wants to break.
Craig: Yeah. And you’re right. Sometimes your desire actually is to blow through the stop sign because you realize that everything is chunked together around one emotion of rising frustration. So you blow through that stop sign and you chunk a larger bit together. And I also noticed how little bits of odd word order could trip me up. It’s interesting – odd words are great to help you remember things and they’re great to sort of signify what’s happening in a kind of attractive way when you’re performing dialogue, but here is the sentence I just – this is my example sentence. “Odd helps if it’s notably odd, but it hurts if it’s just odd in a mundane way.”
OK. Now here’s that sentence again. I’m going to make one change. “Odd helps if it’s notably odd, but it hurts if it’s odd in just a mundane way.” All I did in that second one was move the word just to a slightly different spot. I moved it down two words. It’s not wrong, but it’s a much harder sentence to memorize at that point because just is kind of the anchoring word. Because it’s a change. It’s sort of signifying a new chunk. And so I just made the first chunk way longer. And but if it hurts it’s odd in – all single syllable.
It seems like it’s not a big deal, but in a way it is. I’ve spent a lot of time on sets watching actors sometimes trip over these seemingly minor things and you wonder why. And I’m starting to think it’s because of things like this. Or for instance this is the third time. This is the third time you’ve done this. OK, perfectly reasonable bit of dialogue except this is the third time is kind of – your brain starts to–
John: It’s annoying. It’s not that hard, it’s just a little bit annoying. It’s because they’re different THs also. So the this and third are not the same TH.
John: And that also messes you up.
I want to get back to your moving the just. I think part of the reason why it’s tougher that way is you’ve created a parallel structure where you’re saying odd twice, but the repetition isn’t meaningful in the second way without the just there. And so that hurts you. But you’ve also broken the rhythm of the sentence. And it’s like there’s a bump in the carpet and you’re trying to walk naturally across it and you just can’t because that just is in the wrong place.
And it’s a thing you don’t notice unless you read your dialogue aloud that it’s happening.
Craig: Ah, unless you read your dialogue aloud which therein is the ultimate lesson of this little mini discussion on craft. We advocate all the time that you read your dialogue out loud. Mostly because I think you start to hear maybe that some of the choices are wrong or perhaps you’re going on a bit too long. But also I think these little things start to emerge. These are the things that will subconsciously begin to undermine the performers.
They’re really good at what they do. They can memorize anything. And they will. But the stuff that’s easier to memorize I suspect is therefore easier to perform and therefore I suspect is easier to hear. And when I say easier I don’t mean less challenging intellectually. I mean just – it’s just more mellifluous. And so when you and I fuss over where the word just should be placed in that sentence it’s not merely writerly fussiness. It’s kind of the point. These things really, really matter.
So, the little lessons that I learned from my little bit of memorization and perhaps they might help people as they go about creating things for other people to memorize.
John: So a few techniques which I want to suggest to anybody who has to memorize dialogue they did not write is obviously the cliché of this, just sort of how the writer cliché is sort of like typing on the typewriter, oh it’s terrible, you rip the paper off and crumble it up. The actor cliché is I’m auditioning for something and I’m just running lines with a friend. Like that running lines, it really does happen, but the way we usually see it in movies weirdly just feels very false and fake. But literally just the practice of going through the lines and having somebody else work through the lines with you will help.
When I’ve had to do it for songs, I don’t know if you ever encountered this, is to memorize lyrics. Other singers have told me that you just write the lyrics out by hand. And the process of actually having to write it out sort of helps cement it in the brain a little bit more. Makes you think about what those words actually are and helps you chunk them down.
Make sure the words mean something to you. That you’re not just saying the words, but you actually understand the intention behind them. My daughter had to do Shakespeare, she had to do a scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream, and you can just spout the words out but if you don’t actually understand what they mean the scene is not going to really work and you’re going to have a harder time really holding onto those words because they’re just syllables. They’re not words that actually mean anything to you.
And the last thing I think really goes back to your idea of chunking, it’s really connecting the thoughts. And so obviously you’re going to be responding to the person who just spoke, but you also have to connect back to the scene as a whole. You have to understand, remember, what was your intention two lines ago, three lines ago? What’s actually happening in the scene and what is the environment in which I’m saying this line because the environment is constantly changing based on this conversation.
So it’s not just a ping pong match where the ball in on one side of the net or the other side of the net. It really is a bigger environment in which this is happening and make sure that you’re learning the line in that environment and not just in a little vacuum by itself.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, in the end when you learn your part of a conversation you have to learn their part, too. You have to. It’s essential. You need to kind of know at least – I mean, part of acting is being surprised by something you know is coming, including what you’re supposed to say. But you do need to know their side, or else you’ll get lost real fast.
John: Yeah. Being surprised by what you said is – that can be really useful. It can make a scene feel really alive. But do remember that in real conversations, it can be useful to sort of turn on that little recording light when you’re having a real conversation. You generally do have a sense of what you’re going to be saying kind of 15 seconds from now. Even while you’re listening to the other person, you do have a next line sort of queuing up. So, would your characters in the scene and so will you as an actor. So, it’s OK to let the mental wheels spin a little bit to get that stuff started even as you’re actively listening in a scene.
Craig: Yeah. Look, neither one of us are accomplished thespians by any stretch of the imagination, but considering that we work with them these things are always useful – I think they’re very helpful to consider. And I handed poor Jared Harris massive reams of dialogue that he handled brilliantly, but it was a challenge. His character in Chernobyl is a – he’s wordy. He’s a scientist and he’s a talker. And he’s an explainer. But he’s also very emotional. So when he gets going it all has to come tumbling out in this incredibly natural way. And he’s a master at that, but it’s a lot. It’s hard.
John: My prediction is the things that were mostly challenging for him, and this has just been my observation on many, many sets, is when actors have lines that are similar that are in different parts of the scene that messes them up. If they were completely different lines it would be great. But if they have things that are kind of the same idea and they’re repeating themselves but they’re not repeating themselves in the same way, that’s where things get tripped up. It’s like, wait, did I already say this? Where am I at in this scene? And that’s probably a sign that something isn’t working quite right in the writing or at least in the execution because each of those lines should only kind of be possible in that one moment.
Craig: Well, I mean, if you have any sense that thoughts or lines are vaguely repeating, that’s a writing problem for sure. And you have to eliminate those. And you can hear them sometimes, too. Again, when you read things out loud or you listen and you go, OK, that seems like we’re kind of rolling over the same ground there. And, yeah, you’ve got to get rid of that.
John: Yep. The writing challenge I faced this week was I’m doing a scene that is at the end of the second act, and so all the characters are well established. I didn’t need to introduce any new characters in the scene, sort of scene/sequence. It’s a pretty big number. It’s about five pages in all. But almost all of the characters in the story are in this sequence.
Now, the scene is clearly driven by one person. One person has almost all the dialogue in the sequence, and yet there’s a lot of other characters to service. And the challenge in these kind of scenes, and these kind of scenes happen in almost every script I guess, is how do you keep everybody else alive and active and engaged in that scene and sort of make them count in that scene when they don’t have a lot to actually do.
And so it’s a frequent challenge. So, I wanted to sort of go through why this happens and some strategies for dealing with it when it happens. Because Craig I’m sure you face this on a weekly basis.
Craig: It’s inevitable. I mean, there are scenes where people need to listen. It’s really important that they’re there because they have to listen to something happen and they’re going to have one or two important moments within that, but mostly they have to listen and yeah you need to really think carefully about how you’re portraying. You first need to ask do they really need to be there. And once you decide they do, well, then you’ve got to handle them. You have to service your characters.
John: And so one of the big complications in this sequence, but it’s also true I think for a lot of other movies, is the biggest name actors in the movie are going to be in the scene, but they’re not going to have the most to do. And that’s kind of inevitable based on the story. And that, again, does happen a lot. So, I want to make sure that as I’m writing this that these characters and these actors who don’t have a ton to do still feel very, very important in this scene because you and I both know that otherwise they might show up on set and be sort of frustrated that they don’t have anything to do.
So, I’m trying to be mindful from the start of giving them interesting business and making them feel important in the scene even though they don’t have a lot to do. And so that was one of the other things I was working through with this sequence.
Craig: Yeah. And, look, I don’t get too concerned with the egos of actors because I’ve given up trying to predict what will or will not spin an insecure person off their axis. But what I do know is if they’re the most important characters in the movie, and it sounds like they have to be because they’re the big stars, that means that the scene is about them. The bottom line is it’s about them. They may not be talking in it. They may be listening. They may be experiencing something. But it is about what they’re feeling. It’s about what they’re thinking. It’s about who they’re looking at and why they’re looking at them.
So, that’s kind of the thing. Like it may be when you look at A Few Good Men, it may be that we’re concentrating on Tom Cruise and Jack Nicolson. They’re going back and forth. But when you go over to Demi Moore or to Kevin Pollack, their looks mean something. There’s something happening there that’s valuable.
John: I think it’s good you brought up A Few Good Men because I was trying to list the types of movies where you see this challenging sequence happen. Courtroom dramas are one of the main places. But sporting championships are another important place for this where the action is taking place on the field but, you know, we need to also track the coach and the people in the stands and all of the other characters are there for that final sports championship.
Craig: I can’t get over sporting championships.
John: Sporting championships.
John: Well, because I’m saying, I don’t want to be just football, or just soccer, or just basketball.
Craig: I know. But it’s literally like you landed here yesterday from Planet Questrom.
John: I like sporting games. I like to watch the sporting games.
Craig: When writing sporting championships. [laughs] Oh, you’re the best, man. I love you.
John: But even like major battle sequences, so when you see Star Wars, when you see big fights like that, you have a ton of things happening in the sequence and to be able to track all those people. And every time you cut away to show somebody else, their reaction, you risk breaking the flow of the main action. So it’s finding that natural way to do it is tough. Some movies with big musical numbers, you’ll just have everybody in there. And so how do you service everybody in that big musical number? And then speeches and rallies where you have one character, this is sort of like a speech or rally kind of moment in the movie I’m doing right now, you have one character making a big speech, so therefore will have almost all of the dialogue, so making sure you find interesting things for the other important characters to be doing in that, even though they’re not naturally going to have lines because they’re not going to be talking at the same time as the other person talking.
So, those are circumstances where you find yourself in this writing challenge.
So, for me what I did is I went back to sort of real basics. Making sure to do an audit of all the characters there and really look at what they want in that moment. Like what are they trying to do right then at that moment? What are the micro interactions between characters? And so it’s a way of acknowledging multiple characters there. If two characters can look at each other, exchange a meaningful look, that takes care of those two characters and keeps them alive in the scene rather than having them do individual things.
I looked for like what physical actions could they do, so to give them something concrete, something we could see. And I really looked at sort of how can this scene geography suggest where people can be so that in cutting to them around the space we’re actually exploring more of the environment, exploring more of what’s really going on there. How can things change within that scene geography?
Those are just some of the techniques I sort of found for this sequence, but in doing it I found that’s probably true for most of the sequences I’ve had to write that had five or more characters in them.
Craig: Yeah. I try and think of these things in terms of sort of multi-track narratives, because you have your main narrative which is the narrative of the big scene. You know, we are watching the Super Bowl and the big narrative is what is happening with the football, where is it going, who is running where, and how far are they getting. And in trials it is between whoever the fireworks is coming from in any particular moment. Same with battles. And same with musical numbers. And same with speeches.
But, that’s one track of the narrative. Then the question is, OK, for the people that are watching, what is their narrative? Because if it’s I’m watching, then they don’t need to be there. And it can’t just be I’m watching, because at that point they become boring. They have to be actively watching. Actively listening.
John: Yeah. What I needed to make sure is that the characters who were there who had to watch or witness part of it still had important choices to make, and that the choices they’re going to be making are directly impacted by their reaction to what they just saw. And so that gives them a reason for why they needed to be there and why they’re making this interesting choice at the end of the sequence.
Craig: Right. So to go back to A Few Good Men and the trial scene there, there is a moment where Cruise’s character is considering basically putting his entire career, even his freedom, on the line to pursue a line of inquiry with Jack Nicholson’s character. And he looks over and Kevin Pollack simply gives him the slightest don’t do it head shake. That’s it. And these moments are crucial because it means he’s a participant. He is impacting and affecting what is going on around him as an observer. So when I write those scenes I really try and give every character a narrative and also a moment where they can make a choice to stand up and say something or to not. They can stand up and go I have to stop this, or they just let it go, but I understand that they are participating. And even if their choice is to not do a thing, they have changed the path of the scene.
This is frankly – no offense to our director brothers and sisters – but this is so important for us to do as writers because if we don’t do it and we don’t do it clearly on the page, they don’t do it. They don’t do it. They miss those little mini stories. They’ll just write it off as, OK, let’s just grab reaction shots now. OK. But what is the actor doing in the reaction shot? Listening? Coming up with their own theories and things? That’s fine. But that’s not as good as a clear narrative story that that actor understands that they are pursuing before they ever get there on the day. And that the director then can think about how they stage that scene understanding that they are not covering one narrative here but multiple narratives.
It’s really important that we do this on the page because, if we don’t, we are going to be deeply disappointed nine times out of ten when we see the film.
John: Yeah. So, the Kevin Pollack that you mentioned, I don’t know what it looks like on the script page. I suspect it is clearly called out there. It’s the kind of moment where as I read back through the script if I am worried that people are going to miss it because people sometimes do get to be a little skimmy and they might not be reading every line of the scene description, I might save one of my underlines for that. Just to make sure that it really lands. Like, oh no, no, this is a real moment. This moment has to happen. This is going to change and pivot what’s happening after it.
And, yes, great directors will look at a scene and look at it from every character’s angle and really have a chance to study and explore and would probably figure out, like you know what, I need to really make that moment so I’m not just going to worry about coverage to get that reaction. I’m going to make sure I specifically plan for what is the look between those actors, what’s happening in that moment.
John: When you don’t have that kind of prep time, when you’re shooting a one-hour drama on a tight schedule, those are the moments that can be lost. And that’s the reason why in TV they want the writer on set. And it’s also the reason why in the tone meeting where they’re going through with the director while the director is doing prep they’re really trying to single out those moments that are so crucial that they anticipate needing as they get into the editing room.
Craig: Right. 100%. And I do think, look, every show has a different kind of constraint on it. But if you’re doing one of these scenes and you feel like given the nature of the time you have and the writing you have that you can’t afford to multi-track your narrative, rewrite the scene. Because otherwise it literally will just be boring or stupid.
John: Yeah. So obviously going into one of these things I should have said at the very start is one of your first choices may be like do I need to have all these characters? Am I making my life too difficult by trying to service all these characters in the scene? And sometimes you are making it too difficult. In the case of the scene I was writing, it felt like all the threads needed to come together under one roof, and so yes, I definitely needed all those characters there.
Craig: There you go.
John: Cool. Let’s answer some listener questions.
Craig: Yeah! Good.
John: Josh writes, “I have been listening to ya’ll for several years and I don’t recall you ever discussing the process of adapting a script from stage to the screen. So I was hoping you might offer some thoughts about that subject. Obviously I know that in a global sense that film is a format better suited to shorter scenes and a more visual approach to storytelling than talking dialogue format of stage writing. But dialogue driven plays like Closer and Glengarry Glen Ross were adapted magnificently. So clearly that sort of story can be made just as gripping with good camera and editing choices. What needs to be on the page for a screenplay that wouldn’t be part of a stage play?”
Craig: Well, I have never done this. I have never – I have adapted novels. I have adapted all sorts of stuff. But I have never adapted a stage play. No, sorry, I take it back. I have.
Craig: Harvey. I don’t know why, maybe because it was for the Weinsteins and I have just been really just brain-bleaching, just a lot of PTSD brain-bleaching. You know what, I did. I adapted Harvey. That’s right. And what you do is you try and do what I think you do with all adaptation. You look for the heart of what is going on there and you try and translate it.
In certain cases there are plays that feel as if they can just be slid on over, because they can. Like Glengarry Glen Ross is not meant to be a large production. It is meant to take place largely in two spaces. And that’s basically what they did. And they were smart to do that because it didn’t ask for anything else. All the fireworks were from the brilliant actors that they had and the incredible dialogue of David Mamet and storytelling.
And then in the case of Harvey you’re talking about a play from many, many years ago and a lot of things simply don’t apply anymore. Like the notion of sanitariums and so on and so forth. And so it needed quite a bit of rethinking and restaging. And since it was a play that could take place in a city, where is this place? And we do want to go outside. And so you begin to separate yourself from the details, but draw upon the things that matter, the movements that matter. And my copy of Harvey was deeply earmarked and underlined and highlighted and circled and scribbled because I would seize upon these lines and go this means something important to me.
So, how I present it is less important than the fact that I do. And that I present it in a way that’s true to the way Mary Chase meant it. But all forms of adaptation essentially are different because you never know how close or how far the material is from the screen.
John: Yeah. I’ve only had the opposite experience, so I wrote Big Fish and then I wrote the stage version of Big Fish. And very little translated directly from the movie into the stage version. And I recognized early on that they were just completely different beasts.
One of the things that’s so different about the stage is that the audience has bought a ticket and they’re sitting in a theater to watch something and use their imagination to fill out the rest of it. So they are imagining the town of Ashton. They are imagining so many things. A desk rolls onto stage, and that’s a whole office. There’s a suspension of disbelief that is so different in stuff done for the stage than stuff done for movies.
And so looking at it the opposite way, you’re going to be making some things which could be sort of abstract on the stage and making them very concrete. And as you visualize these moments happening in concrete real places because you’re literally going to be filming an actor in a place, you’re going to have to look at what does this feel like when you’re actually in that place with the actor. And the expectations for reality and for even the naturalism of dialogue will change I think because of that.
You’re also going to be aware of there is a tick-tick-tick thing that happens in movies where just we become uncomfortable being in a place for too long with one sort of continuous moment happening too long. And scenes that you can have an hour-long sequence on stage where the curtain never comes down and it never goes dark, that’s going to feel really strange in most movies. It’s going to feel like you are just shooting a play. And if you really need to make it – if you really want it to feel like a movie you’re going to need to find ways to move outside of that space and allow for cuts, allow for time and change.
Craig: Exactly. All right. We have a question now from Daniel who writes, “I’m sitting here watching Shrek 2 on HBO and I’m a bit stumped. So during the red carpet scene the part Joan Rivers played in the theatrical release is now voiced by someone with a British accent, clearly not Joan Rivers. Considering that if you own this film on DVD or presumably Blu-Ray you can hear Joan Rivers, why would it be a different voice in this version? A dispute with the Rivers’ estate? Fine print about ancillary markets? The lines are the same. It’s just a different voice.”
John, what should we do to find this information out in a world where we’re not connected to a super-computing network?
John: Well, I mean, if you were connected to a super-computing network you could Google it. And so I Googled it.
John: And so it turns out, because he was not the first person to notice, like wow it’s so weird that it’s a different voice. So it turns out that in different markets especially the UK they used local celebrities for the equivalence of Joan Rivers or other people. And that’s the concrete answer to Daniel’s question is that they used voices that British people would recognize rather than Joan Rivers, because Joan Rivers’ voice was distinctive but has no special meaning to a British audience, whereas this person’s did. So, Daniel for whatever reason was watching the UK version of Shrek 2.
But that kind of localization is fascinating. And all of our animated movies usually they’re carried overseas. They find great local actors to do all the character work for that. So I’m sure in France Shrek and Donkey were great local French actors who did great versions of that. We’re just not used to it happening in English.
Craig: That makes total sense. The whole reason they put somebody like Joan Rivers in there because there’s this kind of an instant caricature read. We go, oh, it’s Joan Rivers. Well, it’s absolutely useless if you don’t know who that is. Then it’s just a yelling lady. So you want the local yelling lady. Who did they replace Joan Rivers with out of curiosity?
John: Kate Thornton. So, British showbiz reporter Kate Thornton replaces Joan Rivers as the role of red carpet reporter.
Craig: Kate Thornton. Yeah, I’m looking at her. Yeah. So she’s sort of like known for being on the red carpet. There you go. They know her for that. Makes sense.
John: Yeah. Makes sense. All right, a question from Andy in New York. “Script takes place in three timelines, all at the same location. As a thriller, it relies on a few reveals and surprises. So the timeline specifics don’t really become evident to the viewer until the second half. While I want the viewer to be surprised by the reveal of multiple timelines, I think the script’s readers have been confused. Is there a way to clarify to the readers that this scene takes place in 1955 and this one in 1992 but explain that the viewer doesn’t necessarily get that insight until later?”
Craig, what’s your opinion on reader vs. viewer here?
Craig: What? I mean, Andy, we’ve got to talk. Look, you’re doing this thing where your script takes place in three timelines in the same location. You’re saying the timeline specifics don’t really become evident to the viewer until the second half. How is that possible? The clothing hasn’t changed at all? The furniture hasn’t changed at all? The lighting? The installation? The appliances in the room? The phones? It seems highly unlikely.
But let’s just say it’s a barn, OK? And the clothing hasn’t changed at all. Then I think you would have to just write the script as if you were seeing some sort of like parallel timelines. Right? You could call it we’re in timeline 1, timeline 2, timeline 3. And the point is these are all taking place in parallel universes at the same time. And then you could say my big reveal is ha-ha they’re not parallel and there isn’t three parallel universes. It’s one universe and you’ve been looking at things that are at three different times in our universe, 1955, 1992, and 2018, whatever.
I’m doubtful. I don’t know how you pull this off exactly, but that’s probably what I would do is I’d try to make it an ah-ha for the reader because the point is you want the reader to be surprised when the audience is surprised. You can’t separate that surprise out. It just doesn’t work.
John: So I suspect that the solution he’s looking for really is what you’re describing is that in scene headers you’re probably putting in little brackets that say timeline 1 after the day or night, just to make it clear. Because as a viewer we’ll see like, OK, we’re back in the same space but there’s different characters, so there’s a different thing happening here. They’ll at least acknowledge that they’re in different kind of spaces. They’ll follow different places. And I can see where they might be having a bit of an advantage over the reader who is just seeing – all text looks the same. So marking the different timelines in the header might be a way to do it. Some sort of just simple indication that this is the different stuff.
Ultimately when you board it and figure out how you’re going to shoot it those timelines will be useful for everyone on the production to understand that this is this part of it.
The closest analogy I can think of is the pilot for This is Us tries this trick where it’s not immediately clear in the pilot for This is Us that we’re in multiple timelines. And so they did as much as they could to hide the stuff that would make it obvious that they were in vastly different timelines as the story began.
Craig: Yeah. And they had to fit that within essentially 46 minutes or 48 minutes. This is different. Sounds like it’s a movie, so a little trickier. But sure. It’s doable.
We’ve got time for one more here. Alex writes, “I’m currently pitching a series and I’ve been asked to sign release forms that state ‘I the submitter acknowledge that the submitted materials to producer may be similar or identical to those submitted by others or in development.’ Is there a safe way to edit this to similar within reason so that I am protected if the company wholesale steals my material in the future? I know this is extremely unlikely, but I’ve come across extremely dodgy companies already in the pitching process and wondered if there were a sensible approach to this.
“I’ve looked everywhere I can think of online and I haven’t found a comprehensive answer. I realize in most cases companies are just protecting themselves from lawsuits, but is there a compromise edit to this kind of submission release form without looking like an unreasonably fussy person?”
Well, John, you and I have both gone to law school so why don’t you kick this off?
John: So, the kind of thing that Alex describes I hear about a lot. And there are things that people are signing. I don’t know that you really get away from signing it if you are going into pitch at these places. I’m not excited about you going into pitch at dodgy places. That doesn’t sound great either. And yet the process of getting started sometimes is taking a bunch of movies with people that like, eh, I don’t really like you but you don’t know until you kind of get in there.
The reason why they’re having you sign this thing is because they are worried about a lawsuit and a frivolous lawsuit about some other project just because they’re reading a bunch of stuff. I get why they’re doing it. I get why you’re frustrated to do this. What I will tell you, Alex, is that you signing this does not preclude you from doing a true on copyright lawsuit if they really do steal your idea. That doesn’t happen much.
Always remember that you are taking these meetings and trying to get your career started as a writer overall, not a writer of one particular project. And so to not be losing any sleep about your one idea being stolen. You want them to be hiring you as a writer to write stuff.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, well first of all you can’t, well, you can’t file a proper copyright case if your idea is stolen because your idea is not property. But if you felt that your material had been properly infringed upon, that they were essentially appropriating your unique literary material in fixed form then sure. So, look, here’s the thing. I don’t know what the difference is between similar and similar within reason. I think sometimes people think – and by the way, to be clear, John and I are not lawyers.
John: Not at all.
Craig: But I think that sometimes people think that there’s some sort of weird magic binding power in these legal terms. And that if you come up with the proper incantation you have then protected yourself from evil — you have not. The fact is if you said I want to change similar to similar within reason, they would just argue with you just because that’s what they’re paid to do. But what’s similar within reason? OK. That’s what a judge would have to determine anyway. Because they would say, look, this thing was similar to something we already have. And you would say no it’s not. And a judge would have to say is it similar or not. That’s what similar – so it’s just adding words and I don’t see really what the magic protection comes of that.
And I also have to tell you, in general, I think people sometimes misunderstand. They think that these contracts are kind of the important factor. That your success or failure turns on the language of these things. When in fact it really turns on the nature of the people that you’re making an agreement with. If they’re bad people it doesn’t matter what you put in this. They’re going to abuse you and exploit you and they have more lawyers than you. And if they’re good people they won’t. So the most important thing that you said here Alex is, “I’ve come across extremely dodgy companies already in the pitching process.”
Stop. You wonder if there’s a sensible approach. Don’t pitch to them. By the way, don’t pitch to anybody that’s just like one of these pitchy pitch companies. Just don’t do it. And if they seem dodgy or dinky it’s because they are. Everything basically is as it appears when it comes to this sort of thing. The studios are studios. You’ve heard of them. They’re real. Then the mini majors, you’ve heard of them. They’re real. Then there’s like some companies that have made movies you’ve heard of. They’re real. Then there are these other places. They’re not.
And it’s not really hard to figure out who is who. And, yeah, it’s quite likely that people that are on the edges of things may be more willing to play fast and loose because they don’t care. The weird part is all these writers are out there trying to break into the business and they’re finding people that are offering them a toehold and they’re thinking, “Oh thank god, my ship has come in,” but the people that are offering them a toehold are also trying to break into the business, as producers, and financiers, and studios.
So, you see, we think as writers that we’ve found an adult, but we have not. We have just found another child who is far more ruthless than we are. So, I wouldn’t worry so much about the specific words here. I urge everyone to please, please have a lawyer review any document you sign. But I don’t think that your salvation lies within the tweak of a clause like this or a phrase like that. I think it lies within your own intuition and trusting your gut.
John: The other sort of crucial bit of advice, just having watched a bunch of writers start their careers and sort of how it all goes, is you’re more likely to have success by having as many people as possible read your stuff and your stuff gets passed around and people you don’t know are reading your script are reading your script. That’s sort of the organic process.
And so in saying like don’t pitch to dodgy companies, yes, I mean don’t get in business with people who are awful. But at the same time don’t run away from somebody just because they have one produced credit. Like everyone is starting someplace and so the person who may get your movie made may be a person who hasn’t done a lot yet. So, when you’re sitting across from somebody and they skeeve you out that’s a good sign don’t be in business with them. But just because they don’t have an Oscar on their shelf doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be taking that meeting.
Craig: There you go. 100%.
John: Cool. All right, it’s time for One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is You Might Be the Killer. So it’s a movie that is debuting on Saturday, so I’ve not yet seen it, but I love the genesis of this movie. So this movie is written by Brett Simmons and Thomas Vitale. It’s directed by Simmons. But it’s based on a Twitter exchange that I watched happen in real time between Chuck Wendig and Sam Sykes.
It is a genius Twitter thread. These guys are playing characters. And that became the basis for this movie. So everyone sort of read this thread is like, wow, let’s make a movie off of this idea. And they sold them the idea and made the movie. It is a slasher comedy. There’s been many slasher comedies. The first one I know that’s ever been based on a Twitter thread. And I’m just happy for these guys and happy for them to have made their movie.
Chuck Wendig and Sam Sykes are both fantastic writers to follow on Twitter, by the way. They have really good advice on a consistent basis. So I would urge you to follow the two of them. And just to see their movie which will have already debuted by the time you’re listening to this podcast, but should be available on Syfy Channel at whatever point you want to watch it.
Craig: Cool. Why does Sci-Fi Channel spell their name Syfy?
John: It drives me crazy.
Craig: What is that? They’re afraid?
John: They went to a branding expert who said we should spell it in a way that no one would ever want to spell sci-fi.
Craig: I want to go to a branding expert that helps me launch my new company where branding experts are paraded in front of large groups of people and then slowly beaten to death with wooden spoons. I mean, come on!
John: I mean, I think the first thing they would do is, “Does it need to be wooden? Because wooden feels organic, but it does it have to be wood?”
Craig: And can we spell spoons Spunz?
John: Oh my god let’s build a company called Spunz.
Craig: [laughs] I mean, it’s like Syfy. Like if you were starting the Action Channel. Now you have to spell it Axion. It’s so dumb.
John: You know that’s a real channel?
Craig: What? Axion is a real channel?
John: It’s a real channel?
Craig: What? What do you mean?
John: Yeah, I think Sony owns it.
Craig: Axion Channel. I’m looking it up right now. Axion Channel? No there isn’t.
John: Oh, maybe – what am I thinking? There’s a Sony brand that is essentially the same thing.
Craig: Oh my god. Unbelievable. So outrageous. Just spell words the way they’re supposed to be spelled.
Right, well, my One Cool Thing this week is something that I’ve been using all week long. It is a tool that is useful if you are currently in production and perhaps working with editors who are not where you are. It’s called Evercast. Their website is evercast.us. It is a company that was cofounded by Roger Barton of all people who is a big editor. He’s done a lot of big like Jerry Bruckheimer movies and Michael Bay movies and stuff like that.
And essentially it’s a proper screen-sharing of an Avid or Final Cut Pro or any standard professional–
John: Non-linear editor.
Craig: Exactly. And so it allows me, because right now our editors are in London. That’s where our postproduction is set up. That’s where it’s happening. And I’ve been over there to work with them and obviously the director has been over there working with them. But for little things like tweaking and reviews and stuff I don’t want to fly to London. So along comes this solution where we can get on this service together. It is studio approved and secure. And it allows me to literally see the screen. It’s a proper screen-sharing of the Avid screen, including the timeline and the bin and everything. And plus there’s audio and video conferencing. And interestingly you can also record your audio and video chat so that if you’re saying giving notes on something the editor can record it and then listen back later when they’re doing the changes.
So it’s really, really useful and it works quite well. A couple of times it’s glitched on us, but then support has been right on top of it and fixed it. It’s web-based. You access it through your Chrome browser. It does not work on Safari. And it’s been kind of a lifesaver.
John: That’s great.
Craig: Yeah. And I think as production continues to become a global affair this is going to become more and more useful as time goes on.
John: Yeah, I’ll be curious which shows start going to an around the world production. Because podcasts like The Daily I know they record it in New York but then they send it over to Europe to do music and final sound editing. And it’s not because it’s cheaper in Europe but because just time zone wise it lets them work all night on that and so they can send it back in the morning.
Craig: Oh, interesting. Yeah. Right now I’m just waking up super early to spend time with this wonderful editor who goes to bed quite late now. So, we’ve been kind of dealing with that. But she’s been great and so far so good. So I just wanted to give them a little nod. They’re doing a fine job over there at the Evercast Company.
John: Very nice. 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 also by Matthew. We’ll just use the audio from the Arlo Finch trailer, which he wrote and it’s just great music, so good to hear it even without the visuals.
If you have an outro for us you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send questions like the ones we answered today. We’re actually running a little bit low on outros. So, folks, step it up. We need some more outros there.
You can find Scriptnotes on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Just search for Scriptnotes. While you’re there leave us a review so other people can find the show.
You’ll find transcripts at johnaugust.com. They go up within the week of the episode airing. That’s also where you’ll find show notes and links to the things we talked about.
You can find all the back episodes of Scriptnotes at Scriptnotes.net. It is $1.99 a month. If you subscribe now you can send us a question to answer on our questions episode which I guess we should probably try to record that next week maybe.
Oh, also you can find all the back episodes available as 50-episode seasons at store.johnaugust.com. Craig, thanks for another fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John. See you next time.
- The Arlo Finch series trailer is live!
- How Shrek 2 has been redubbed for the UK market by Leslie Felperin for The Independent
- You Might Be the Killer, written by Brett Simmons and Thomas P. Vitale and directed by Simmons, born from this Twitter thread between Chuck Wendig and Sam Sykes.
- Evercast allows Craig to be in the Chernobyl edit from home
- T-shirts are available here! We’ve got new designs, including Colored Revisions, Karateka, and Highland2.
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