The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey this is John. So, Craig and I are going to be at the Austin Film Festival this weekend. We look forward to seeing many of you there. But there’s two other things that I’m going to be at that I wanted to let you guys know.
So this Saturday I will also be at the Texas Book Festival in Austin. I’m on a panel at 10:30am Saturday morning called Fantasy Meets Reality with two other great authors, so you can come see me. That’s free. And there’s a signing afterwards at 11:30. There’s a link in the show notes for that. And on Monday I will be in Boulder, Colorado, my hometown, at the Boulder Bookstore. There’s a book event at 6:30pm. I’ll be reading and signing books, so if you’re in the Boulder or Denver area come see me there. So, links to both of these are in the show notes. And now on with the normal Scriptnotes.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast we’ll be discussing the kind of writing you do before you start writing, such as pitches and outlines, and why it’s a bad idea to give that material to producers and executives. We’ll also be answering a listener question about want versus need.
Craig: You know what? This is going to be a good episode in part because I broke this rule recently and I feel bad about it. And it was a certain circumstance but I still feel bad about it, so part of this episode is going to be me cleansing myself through fire.
John: Yeah. So, we’re going to dive right in on leave behinds, but I’ve had my own experiences where I’ve left stuff behind and felt kind of guilty about it and recognized it was a bad thing. Like this is a bad idea, but we’ll get into sort of why it’s a bad idea and sort of everything.
John: No follow up. No news. We’re going to get right into it.
Craig: Just plow in. Boom.
John: So this most recent version of this topic came because last fall we did a bunch of screenwriter outreach lunches. So the WGA would invite screenwriters in and we’d talk about what things were concerning to them. And so you went to one of those lunches and I went to a bunch of those lunches and there was one lunch – I think not the one that you were at – where this writing team was there and they described how they had to write a 50-page treatment to get this job.
Craig: Oh man.
John: I wanted to reach through time and grab them by their lapels and say don’t do that. But of course they didn’t know they were doing that at the start. They went in and they pitched on a project, they had their little notes with them. The producer or the executive said like, “Oh hey, could you send through that stuff?” And so they sent through that stuff and then he’s like, “Oh, could you just work on it a little bit more?” And it escalated up until it became a 50-page document for which they were not paid before they were hired to write that script.
Craig: Yeah. We’ve been hearing this a lot. And, you know, we just both spoke about how we have occasionally done things like this, but I’ve never done it because I’ve been asked to do it. I’ve only done it because I wanted to. Sometimes I have – and I need to stop for reasons that we’ll get to later – but sometimes I think to myself well you know it would be easier if I just sort of wrote down across two pages what it is exactly I’m feeling here, this way I don’t have to feel quite so song-and-dancey when I sit down with people.
But what you’re describing there and what those writers described that’s happening all the time now and it is just a pure abuse. It is not just kind of a narrow abuse of writers per the MBA and the WGA and blah-blah-blah. It is all of that. It’s an actual abuse of humans to make them do things like this. It’s outrageous. And it is reflective of I think the cheapest, thinnest, meanest kind of executive, the most frightened sort of employer who is incapable of just making a decision or acknowledging for instance that they just don’t have as much control over this process as they wish they did. And so they make writers do this awful, awful thing that degrades them. So by the time the writer is hired the power dynamic has already been blown to smithereens.
John: Yep. So we’re going to talk about how this pertains to screenwriters and to some degree TV writers, but I think a lot of people listening to this program who are not writers are nodding along because any kind of freelance worker – anybody who is working for him or herself may find themselves in the situation where in order to get the job they’re asking you to do a lot of stuff first. And auditions are great, but when you’re auditioning and you’re just creating new material that is a real problem and you’re under-validating your work and you’re making it harder for everyone around you.
So we can get into this. One of the nice things, we do have a union. And one of the things a union can do is actually conduct surveys to figure out how pervasive a thing is. We’re able to survey our membership. And amongst screenwriters at least a third reported they were asked to turn in written material before getting a job and that number is up to 41% when you look at screenwriters who are earning around scale, so at the lower tier of it, which tells you that the newer writers are more likely to be asked to do this stuff than you or me.
Craig: That’s the statistic that makes me want to vomit the hardest. I mean, everything that we’re going to talk about today is vomit worthy. But that one really gets me because those are the people who should be asked the least of. They’re getting paid around scale. That means the minimum amount we can pay them. That’s the minimum wage of the Writers Guild. And you may look and say, well, you know, scale is actually pretty good. That’s a pretty good number. Yeah, except spread that out over a year and a half, take away taxes, and if you’re writing with a partner cut it in half. Oh, and then give away what is routinely 25% to an agent, a manager, and a lawyer. It’s not a lot.
And those people, the ones who can afford this misery the least, nearly half of them are being asked to work without any pay at all.
John: Yep. Craig it’s actually much, much worse than you’re describing.
Craig: Oh good.
John: Because think about this. We’re surveying all these screenwriters and we’re saying, OK, you’re earning at about scale level. But who knows how many jobs they’re going in for and being asked to submit material that they weren’t being paid for? So for all we know this theoretical screenwriter/screenwriting team went in on five different jobs and were asked to provide written material on all five jobs. And so that’s the real frustration here is that this is pervasive and it shouldn’t be happening.
So, starting today we just rolled out a new campaign through the WGA called No Writing Left Behind, which is just to remind writers they shouldn’t be doing this. In fact, they can’t be doing this. It’s considered free work. And we just need to stop doing it. So, you and I are talking about it, but we’re going to have a bunch of other screenwriters talking about it today and tomorrow and this week with stickers and articles and everything out there just to let everyone know that this is a thing that shouldn’t be happening.
And also why it shouldn’t be happening on the studio level, the producer level, because it is a giant copyright liability for them as well.
Craig: This was an argument that I made to a number of people at studios. I made it at Paramount. I made it at Universal. And I have always describe this as a ticking time bomb. And I think it’s actually gone off a few times in all honesty. I think a few times they have been called on their shenanigans because what happens is they ask writers to supply them with writing before they can get a job. Well, as you point out, only one writer or team can get the job. So what happens to all that other writing that they’ve collected from people they haven’t employed? They don’t own that writing now. Can other writers do anything with that writing? No. But can the studio? No. They haven’t purchased it.
And so they go ahead and make a movie and then someone calls up and says, “You know that scene? I wrote that. You took it from me and you don’t own it.” And now they’ve got a problem. And I think if the business affairs people at studios understood how widely practiced this chicanery is they would lose their minds because it is incredibly dangerous for them. It’s a huge liability.
John: And so in today’s conversation we’re going to focus on screenwriters, people who are writing feature movies, partly because that’s what you and I know, partly because that’s who we have the data on. But it’s also the nature of the kind of jobs we’re going in for. It’s more likely to happen to feature writers.
TV writers who are going in for staffing, they’re going in to meet with showrunners and they’re talking to the showrunners, but they’re not writing a spec episode of NCIS to land a staff job on NCIS. Where we do see this happening sometimes in TV and I think increasingly in TV is there’s a lot more TV shows that are based on underlying IP. And so you might be going in to meet with a company that owns a property and so you’re going in to pitch on that property, pitch doing a show on that property. And that’s where the same kind of thing could happen to a TV writer that happens to feature writers all the time which is where they’re asking, oh hey, could you just give us those notes about what your plan was for this thing.
So, TV writers should listen up as well.
Craig: Yeah. Everybody who works as a writer in our industry should listen to this. And I’m really glad that you guys are doing this. I’m learning along with everybody else at home about how you guys are going to be doing No Writing Left Behind, but I’m just going to say prospectively and with great hope that there is a large component where the guild does its job to enforce this so that it’s not simply membership on the frontlines individually on their own taking these little thousands of micro-stands, but rather that the guild lets companies know that we’re doing this and that we’re watching and we’re listening. And if they break this rule we’re coming for them because it is a pure violation of–
John: It is. All that stuff is sort of down the road. This first wave today is just making sure everyone understands that this is happening and that it needs to stop happening.
So let’s talk about how it happens for you and for me and sort of the natural ways it comes to be. Because I remember the very first job that I booked, it was How to Eat Fried Worms. It was a project over at Imagine. And this was literally the first screenwriting job I was going after to try to get hired for. And so I pitched my little heart out. I don’t remember whether it was in that meeting or in a phone call afterwards they asked like, oh, could you just send over what you wrote. They could see that I had a three-page document that I was pitching off of. And then over the next couple of months I went through that pitch with them several times down to the point where like I was making changes to that document and sending it back in.
That’s not good. But that’s how I started. So I certainly have done it. Craig, did you do that early on? Have you done it since then?
Craig: I’ve done it really once in that kind of way. I mean, every now and then, like I say, for instance if I’m going to be hired, somebody says, “Look, we want to hire you but we just need to know generally what it is that you’re thinking about doing,” I might say, look, here’s a couple of pages. But you’re only talking to me and this is just really kind of a general descriptor. But I could just as easily just come and say it to you. It’s not like you can do anything with this stuff. And then it’s fine.
And I should stop doing that, too, just because it might give them ammunition to say to other writers, “Well, you know, other people do it.” But there was one time where I was coming back from the Weinstein Wars. I had full PTSD. I was a shattered wreck. And I was just trying to find a job. And they were making a sequel to a comedy. It was a comedy that did pretty well. It didn’t do great. They never ended up making the sequel. But they were talking about making the sequel and the director is a nice guy. And they said, “Look, we want you to do it. You’re the only guy we’re talking to.” And he had a guy working for him who I still to this day loathe. And they, you know, it was mostly the other guy but they were like, “Well, yeah, you could write down what you think.” And then it just became – I was getting notes on a thing.
And then not only – do you know I lost the job to “we’re not making the movie.” That’s who I lost the job to. And I lost my ever-loving S on this dude. I have never been so loud, so incensed, and angry, and irate at someone on the phone. And lucky for him it was the phone. I apologized maybe for the tone but not for the content of what I said.
Anyway, he’s not in the business anymore. But I am.
John: Yeah. You’re in the business. He’s gone.
John: You know, so what you’re describing is probably the most flagrant example where they say like, “Hey, would you write up this that you are describing?” Basically rather than coming in, why don’t you just write it up and we’ll read it. And that’s probably the most flagrant version of this.
I think what happens more often, and in talking with other screenwriters, is you have a good meeting and then afterwards they call or email and say like, “Hey, could you just send over that thing that you had with you? It would be really helpful because when I pitch it to my boss I want to keep all the details straight.” It’s that sort of hey like would you be a pal, or I’m trying to help you out here, or let’s be a team.
Very rarely anymore does somebody ask for the literal notes that I brought in with me. So like at the end of the meeting they’re like, “Hey, could you hand us that thing?” That I’m not seeing as much anymore. I’m not getting reports of that as much anymore. I will hear sometimes from writers who they did – at the end of the meeting they thought it was their job to sort of hand them this document. It tends to be the people who really write out full pitches and they’re sort of like reading off their pitch as they’re in the room. And that’s not a style of a pitch that I’m ever a fan of.
John: But if you’re going to do that, it’s just like the transcript of what you pitched.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, you can – it’s so technical right? I mean, you can actually – the one thing I don’t want anyone to feel like the guild is doing is suggesting to them how they ought to work, or how they ought to create their ideas or imagine or invent things. You can do pretty much anything you want. You can actually bring – if you wanted to write everything up you could. You could bring it in and have those images pasted on a board. And you can do whatever – you just can’t give it to them.
Craig: That’s the key. You just can’t give it to them. You can do anything else. And by the way if they sit there and they take notes, all they’ve done is just record things you’ve said. They can’t copyright that. They don’t own those notes at all.
Craig: Any more than you might own if you sit and watch one of their movies and take notes and go, OK, now I’ve written a – it doesn’t work that way. That’s just notes. That doesn’t count.
John: Well, let’s walk through sort of why leave behinds are bad idea. Because I broke it out into several different categories of types of bad ideas it is. And really I want to start with the creative process and sort of how leave behinds hurt the creative process.
For me, what happened on this first project and it’s happened other times when people have turned in stuff is that you get trapped in revisions before you’ve even written the thing. And so suddenly you’re revising this set of notes that really aren’t the final document that you’re supposed to be basing everything around.
So you do all the what-if’ing and you kind of never get to write a first draft because you’re always just trying to perfect this document which is not a screenplay at all. It’s not really anything like the final document. You are trapped in revisions before there’s a thing to revise.
Craig: Yeah. And you have invited other voices in at a stage when there should be no other voices. I mean, you can have voices if you want to collaborate with somebody intentionally, that’s great. And that works all the time. I’ve done that lots of times. But the one thing I don’t want in my head when I’m coming up with – because I outline everything. I like writing these things for myself. You know, we work differently in that regard.
But what I don’t want is some studio’s voice in my head while I’m doing it. This is the only time I’ll have that’s mine. Do you know what I mean? So it can just be me. And everything can feel unified to what I want it to be. And when you let people get involved in this part by doing these sorts of things you have given away any hope that there will ever be any purity or sort of clean continuity to your story. It’s now been committee-ized from the jump. And at that point what possible good can come of that? I don’t see much.
John: Now, in the TV process you will turn in outlines. And so for Episode 3 you will turn in to the studio and to the network this is the outline for Episode 3 and they’ll have specific things they want to see before you go off to do script. That is part of the process of television.
Here’s the key difference. You are a paid writer on that television show. This is a thing they are paying you to do is to write this document which they will approve and note and make changes to before you write the script. But you’re not trying to get hired to do the job. You are already being paid to do the job. And that is really a crucial difference here because your motivations behind making those changes or not making those changes are different when it is your job to do this versus I hope someday to be employed doing this thing.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, there’s that weird per-episode kind of way of looking at television and how you’re paid. But, yeah, you have a job. You work in a room. And you’re absolutely right.
This stuff where you don’t have any job and all of it contingent on you trusting these people, because they’ll tell you that you’re the person. They’ll tell you they’re not talking to anybody else. They’ll tell you the job is basically yours but they just have to show something to somebody. They’ll tell you that there’s no way for them to get you hired. They want to hire you but they can’t get you hired unless there’s something they can somebody. They have so many excuses. So many things. And you have to believe all of it. And I don’t believe all of anything anyone says in any business, but in this business, I mean, why even pretend that people aren’t lying at a minimum of 40% of the time.
John: Yeah. So when I talk to writers who have done leave-behinds, it’s often about, well, I wanted to get the job. And so I would say the second thing to remember about leave-behinds is in many cases they hurt you getting the job. And so what Craig described with the project that just went away, that happens a lot. And when they have a written document in front of them they have the opportunity to pick apart and over-interpret little things in one sentence on an outline that aren’t reflective of what the actual screenplay would be. Outlines aren’t screenplays. They don’t have dialogue. They don’t have everything else that a script has that makes it feel like a plan for a movie.
This is a plan for a plan for a movie. And so it’s necessarily going to feel underdone. It’s not going to be the same experience as reading a script. And so so often I truly believe you’re hurting your chances of landing that job if you turn in that document and are working through revisions on that document. Because if you’re doing it, probably somebody else is pitching them on that same thing and is going through that as well. You’re not getting yourself any further in the process.
Craig: And you are immediately subjugated. There is a very brief window where you are potentially treated as well as you ought to be all the time as a writer. And that’s in the beginning. Because people are excited about you, hopefully. They are hopeful that you are going to bring something special to this project. They’re desperate for it to get made. Every time they hire a writer they are doing it the way that a dying person is trying some new potential miracle drug. Literally. That’s how they approach things through just abject fear and worry and so there’s a moment there where you can be a hero. And you are the beneficiary of a certain amount of positivity and optimism and trust and confidence.
And those things, which we should get anyway, are very helpful I think in the beginning when you’re trying to be creative because you feel like the wind is at your back. You feel supported. You feel believed in. And so you’re not terrified. And you’re not exhausted. And you’re not emotionally all balled up in a fist.
When you do this you immediately just become the thing that they can kick around. There it is. Now you’ve handed it to them. Now they can read through it. Now they can just start hitting it, punching it, punching you, hitting you. It’s mundane. And you never get a chance to feel like you’re special. You begin the process as some sort of draft horse that they can whack at with a stick. And the emotional cost of that is very real and I think even if you are the sort of person that doesn’t care about what it’s doing to your mind and your heart, you should. At the very least I think it negatively impacts the quality of the work you do.
John: So often in early in my career I would go into pitch on projects that I didn’t really want. They weren’t dream projects for me. But like well that’s a job. That’s a thing I could do. I could do this thing.
John: And so I’d go in and I’d pitch on them. But I can imagine if I had turned in that five-page outline for it, you know, that eight-page, ten-page outline for it, well, then there’s sort of a sunk cost fallacy. Even though I haven’t gotten paid it’s like, well, emotionally I’ve invested this much in it so I’m going to keep going. I’m going to keep trying to win this project. Even this thing that I didn’t really want so much at the start, but I’ve done this work now and I want to see this thing happen. So I think that’s the other sort of danger that comes with you getting the job is because you now have this sense of like, well, if I walk away then all that work I’ve done is for naught. And so often you probably should just feel free to walk away.
Craig: You should always feel free to walk away. Of course, for a lot of the writers that we’re talking about sometimes they just need work.
John: They need work.
Craig: Yeah. And it’s not as simple as well it’s a job and I could use a job. You know, I’ve been pretty lucky in the sense that once I started working I never drifted out of the zone of, you know, well I could use a job here as opposed to I need a job. I never got close to if I don’t get a job in blankety-blank weeks or days I’m in trouble. Right?
But there are people who end up in that and I think frankly more and more people are like that because of the way this business has evolved and the way that they make so many fewer movies. And I think just pay less to newer writers. And they need a job. They need it. And this is the part where I think it’s really important that the guild works hand in glove with the membership because somebody who needs a job is going to hear this and say, “Yeah, absolutely. I get it completely. Also, I need a job. I’ve got two kids and a husband and car payments and a mortgage and if I don’t have a job in the next four weeks then we have a huge problem.” So we’ve got to figure – we’ve got to help that person so that they’re able to take a stand without feeling like they’re going to lose that job to somebody who is willing to break the rule.
John: Yeah. The last part I would put under this subheading is that in terms of getting the job or sort of like the creative process of working with those people on this project is if I’m in the room pitching on something I can sort of see their reaction and I can sort of feel like, OK, this is where they’re having an issue. If they have a question they can ask that question. They can see my enthusiasm. They can see what I’m gearing up for.
If I send in a document I don’t see any of that. It’s a monologue rather than a dialogue. And so the conversation of being in the room and talking to the people who are responsible for trying to make a movie or seeing what they’re really going for is crucial. And so if I’m sitting across from a director and get a sense of what kind of movie they want to make, I can tailor my pitch and my discussion to the kind of movie they want to make and see if there’s some common ground. Versus if I send in that document I have no idea what that director is looking for. I have no idea what they’re really getting out of this document that I’ve sent. And so that’s, again, a reason why a face-to-face meeting or at least a phone conversation is better than sending through a document.
Craig: Yeah. Sometimes I like a little basis of conversation. You know, so I’ve done that before. It’s funny, the thing that I hate the most is that feeling that I need to sell somebody in the room about something. I find it demeaning to everybody. And I wish I could say to all of Hollywood at once, oh wait, I am. I’m doing it right now.
Craig: Pitches are stupid. Pitches are dumb. Everything that you do, and you meaning studios, everything you do to try and kick the tires and get some sort of glimpse into the future of what this script is going to be is stupid. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. It’s not going to be that. And somebody who is really good at pitching may not be really good at writing. And somebody who is terrible at pitching may be amazing at writing. And sometimes the best writers have no idea what the script is going to be. All they know is they have some massive pounding wad of passion in their chest for it.
And that is the person that’s going to do the best job for you. And sometimes you’re getting flimflammed by some just grinder.
John: Yeah, totally.
Craig: And I just wish I could just say to all of them stop this stupid, pointless, ridiculous jumping through hoops nonsense. It doesn’t translate. If it did you wouldn’t be so angry and disappointed all the time.
John: There was a project I did for Disney where I was producing and not writing it. And it was really eye-opening to be on the other side and hearing these pitches because I got to see how different writers were pitching it. I think they were all writing teams for this one.
And I felt their frustration and I felt frustration because this was a first step and then we’d go in and pitch to the CE and then we’d go and pitch to Sean Bailey. And it was just not a well set up process. It was not going to be a good process I think for getting the best work out of people.
But what you describe in terms of like feeling that passion, feeling that excitement, that is the value of being in the room to talk with people about a project. And so while I agree that like sort of pitching through the beat-by-beat plot details of a script is not going to be – that shouldn’t be the standard by which you get hired or not get hired for a job – I do believe in that sort of face-to-face meeting where you can see like, oh, I get why you’re so excited about this project.
John: And that we’re all on the same vibe. That we have the same vision for what the project is. That is, I think, invaluable. It’s the let me read from my outline for what this movie is going to be that I don’t think is helpful.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t think it is either and, yeah, I just think that they have pretty much all the information they need. They’ve read something that this writer has written.
Craig: Right. So they know. OK, you can write something. I know that. That’s why I’m talking to you. Do you want to write this? OK, great. Let me look at your face. Oh, you really want to – you love it. Talk to me about, just have a conversation. Forget the story. That’s the part – like if I were running a studio I would say don’t tell me anything about the story you’re going to do. I’ll have a chance to correct that later if I think you’ve done something wonky. Right now I just want to know why. Tell me about what it is about this story, these characters, this world that gets you going that makes you want to write. And I guarantee you if it’s a conversation like that the writer will end up saying more of value that is story oriented and that is predictive than they would if they were forced to come up with some fake sub-movie.
I mean, we’re already faking a movie on paper. Now we’ve got to fake a movie before we fake the movie? Ugh. Anyway, so yeah. This is a separate thing, but I completely agree that being in the room in that regard is really, really important and that there are huge dangers to leaving things behind beyond the legal dangers or abuses, but rather there are creative dangers. I completely agree.
John: Absolutely. Let’s wrap up by talking about how leaving stuff behind hurts other writers. And I think it lowers the bar. It sets the expectation that everyone else is doing it so if you don’t do it then you’re not a team player and you surely won’t be taken seriously on going in on a project. And there’s some truth to that and some fallacy to that. But it just sets this expectation that everyone is doing this so why aren’t you doing this.
And the truth is most people aren’t doing this. Two-thirds of writers are not leaving material behind. And they shouldn’t be leaving material behind. And we could get that number down to zero if everyone just would actually stop doing it and everyone would stop asking for it.
Craig: Yeah. And here’s, I guess I could say this much. For the times that I’ve done it, like I’ve said, it’s been very de minimis. It’s just been, you know, a couple of pages and not a pitch or an outline or a story. It’s really just more about me putting into words the sort of thing that I would just say about why I would love to do something. It was an expression of enthusiasm. So if anybody ever says, “Well, you know, Craig Mazin gave me some, or John August gave me,” I think the two of us can say to everybody now, no, that’s not true. So at least we can get off the hook.
John: I certainly did – 20 years ago I did.
Craig: Yeah, sure.
John: And I do not do that now. So let’s talk about how you say no. And how you can say no in a way that is positive rather than just sort of being negative. And we’ll link to a video that has Billy Ray and Andrea Berloff and some other folks talking about how you say no to leave-behinds.
But for me when I’ve been asked I will usually say like, oh, these are just for me. These wouldn’t even make sense to you. And that’s actually kind of true. The type of document I bring in to a pitch tends to be not really complete sentences or like good English. It’s just like a scattering of thoughts about sort of how to get through this pitch. Because I’ve really prepared this as like this is what I’m going to say. This is how I’m going to get through talking about like why I’m excited for this project, sort of who the characters are, what the world is, you know, the bullet points.
But this thing I’m carrying into the room would not make sense to them. And I think that’s a true thing I can say and I think it’s a thing that many writers can say when asked about could you give me that thing or email me that thing.
Craig: Yeah. I’ve done that very same thing as well and there’s nothing they can do about it. You can say it’s literally garbage for me. It’s cue cards. It’s not real words.
John: Increasingly I pitch off of boards. So I go in with a bunch of black art boards that have images on them and I’m using that as sort of the framing device for the pitch and that’s how I’m really going through the story, so I’m not even looking back at a written document. A natural question will come up, well could I send through a PDF of those images or whatever. I guess. That’s not writing. That’s just collecting. So something like a look book that doesn’t have text in it, I guess that’s sort of your call. If it gives them a sense of like what your thing felt like, OK. But that’s not writing. And that’s not your writing work. And it’s about making sure that you’re being paid for your writing because that’s what being a professional screenwriter means.
Craig: Literary material. That’s what we’re paid to do. So if it’s not literary material you can bring it to them. If you want to bring them look books, pictures, you want to bring them a song, you want to bring them statuary, I don’t care.
John: Yeah, do it.
Craig: You just can’t give them the stuff that they’re supposed to pay us for specifically as per the WGA deal and that’s writing.
John: Yep. Now, there are situations that are true spec projects, so like Go was a spec script. And so the script goes out and I meet with people and I describe sort of what the movie is and here’s literally the script. That’s fine, too. I’ve also sold things off of an outline. You sold things as an outline.
John: That’s valid, too, because they’re literally buying this thing. They’re not buying you writing this movie and here along the way are some free stuff you’re doing. If they’re buying the thing that’s fine. And maybe they’re buying the script and they’re buying a budget and a production plan. That’s great. That’s not what we’re talking about. It’s going in to pitch on a project and then leaving that written pitch behind.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, the simple way of looking at it is this. Who initiated this? If it’s your work, that is to say it’s original to you, that means you have copyright in it. You can show it to anybody you want. You can put it online. Doesn’t matter, because it’s yours. You own it. Nobody can have it until they pay you for it. But if they initiate it then it’s partly theirs and then, well, then you can’t get into the business of writing unless they pay you.
John: If a studio has the Slinky movie and you’re going in to pitch on the Slinky movie, you are one of five writers, 10 writers, 15 writers going in to pitch on the Slinky movie. If you start leaving written material behind then you are basically, in addition to creating a huge copyright mess, you’re creating a free brain trust to do their development work for them. And, you know, the odds are the Slinky movie doesn’t get made and part of the reason why it doesn’t get made or doesn’t even go to script is because they see all this written material and they’re like, wow, Slinky movie is a terrible idea. And, you know, you and 15 other writers have just spent a week of your time writing up this imaginary movie that will never be.
Craig: You know what’s so depressing to me is that we always talk about the Slinky movie and if you gave me a million years I couldn’t write a good Slinky movie. But Lord and Miller could. They could. I just know it.
John: They absolutely could. Look at the Lego Movie. Fantastic.
Craig: They would make a Slinky movie that would literally make me sob at the end. Those guys.
John: They’re so good.
Craig: They’re really good.
John: Yeah. That new Spider Man movie looks amazing.
Craig: Oh yeah, it does look really funny.
John: Yeah. Let’s also leave with some ways out of this. And so let’s say you are a producer or a studio or production entity that really believes that you want to see this material along the way. Congratulations. There’s a way to do it. There’s actually minimums. You can just buy an outline. You can buy a treatment. These are all things you could be paying people money for. And that’s a way through this if you feel like you really want to be seeing that written material. Ask people to write stuff up and then pay them money for writing it up. That is a thing you can do and then you would own the copyright on the stuff that they wrote up. That would be a good choice for those people.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah. Makes total sense to me. Just protect yourself. I mean, at this point, hopefully people understand roughly what the rules are here. You know what would be really great? If people didn’t have to rely on you and me, but rather their agents and lawyers told them these things.
John: Oh my gosh. Wow. That’s great.
Craig: I know.
John: Even their managers could say that.
Craig: I mean, they’re paying them. Right. They’re paying them and they’re not paying us. We don’t take their money. So it seems like the people that take their money should give them this advice.
John: Can you imagine if a manager or an agent said like, “Oh hell no, you should absolutely not do that,” when in fact when we asked screenwriters they said like, “Oh yeah, my agent said it’s fine. That everyone does it.”
Craig: Right. What does it cost them? Nothing.
John: It costs them 10% of nothing.
Craig: It costs them 10% of nothing. Exactly. They don’t care. Basically their whole deal is get some work. Right? And I’m not going to tell you to not do it because I already told me other client and he’s going to do it, and then she said she was going to do it. So whatever. They don’t care.
John: Because remember their relationship is with you but their relationship is also with that person at the studio or that producer who are buyers. And so they do not want to piss off that buyer because that’s an important relationship for them. So if you play along and write up that thing for free for them, well, it helps their relationship because their client is a team player and will turn in that document for free.
Craig: Team player.
John: Team player.
Craig: Do you know that studios have a company that they create to be the WGA signatory, you know, to pay you. Some of them it is the company, like Universal I think it’s Universal. But sometimes they have these little sub-names. Do you know what the Weinstein Company, their pay out company was?
John: I’m sure it’s on my old contract but tell me.
Craig: Team Players.
John: Oh man.
Craig: Yeah. You know what? That tells you everything you need to know. Anytime somebody tells you you need to be a team player, run away. Because they’re not team players. If they were team players they would be playing with you on your team, too. They’re not. They’re just saying do what I want you to do. Because we’re on a team together that I own and you don’t. And I’ll decide when you get paid as being part of this team. Or not. And also I can fire you off of this team.
That’s not a team. There’s no team.
John: Not really a team.
Craig: There’s no team players. You know the team that you should be on as a writer is your own team and your family’s team. That’s your team. Don’t be fooled by anybody that tells you you need to be a “team player.” And I will assure you that there are a ton of people out there doing just fine who have terrible attitudes about being a team player. Like me. The worst.
John: Yes. The worst. So let’s actually segue to the happier version of this which is sort of the craft version of like what stuff might you write up for your own purposes before you go in to that room? Because we’re definitely not saying that you can’t do pre-writing, you can’t do stuff for yourself, because I actually find the process of writing before you start writing to be an incredibly crucial time. It’s actually probably my favorite time–
John: Because anything is possible and you’re gathering. You’re figuring out like what is meaningful about this idea to me. What is it that is possible? What’s exciting? Who are the characters? What is the world like? What are the challenges? How does this fit into like a two-hour timeline, or oh, is it actually a series? This idea is appealing to me and that very early writing is really important to me. So let’s talk about that early writing from the conception up through you are into the room to pitch.
Craig: Well, again, I’m going to sort of cut it off from the pitch part because I don’t really do that now. If I’m going to do something I’m just sort of like, look, can I do this? Should I do this? Will I do it? Let’s have a discussion, then I’m doing it.
But the process regardless, whether it comes before or after that, it’s pretty much the same for me. I begin by just thinking about the story in a sort of vague general sense. And then I just start having conversations with myself–
Craig: About what it could be. And I begin doing note cards and sort of laying things out and Identity Thief I was hanging out with Jason Bateman the other day and he reminded me that for Identity Thief we went to a Dodger game and somewhere between the second and seventh inning I had sketched out essentially the plot on a napkin. And you can do this. It’s a very sort of skeleton-like thing. And then you begin to expand that part. And then I do – really do – enjoy writing a very long kind of expanded document that really forces me to start thinking about things before I start writing because you know psychologically the thing I fear the most is the terror of writing myself into a corner that I can’t get out of, or not knowing what’s supposed to happen and feeling overwhelmed. And this helps me not be overwhelmed because when I’m working in prose it just seems like it’s much, much lower stakes.
And so anyway that all works for me. And, yeah, I could theoretically hand all of that over in order to get a job. But no. Never.
John: No. Yeah, for me the early process is once you sort of have an idea in your head you put on these kind of goggles and you’re sort of looking at the world saying like is this part of my movie, is this part of my movie? Does this fit inside my universe? And you’re sort of gathering and collecting things.
And I will make a folder and I will just throw images in there. If there’s stuff that sort of makes sense. I’ll type up little notes just on my notes app on my phone. Just for what something feels like. If it’s based on an existing movie or a book I’ll watch the movie several times. I’ll go through the book and highlight stuff that’s especially meaningful to me. You’re just in the process of collection.
John: And before I would go in to pitch on something I used to write kind of detailed pitches, were sort of a transcript of what I anticipated saying in there. And I don’t do anything like that at all anymore. And instead what I’ll tend to do is figure out what the images are that reflect the world, reflect the characters, reflect some sort of big crucial beats. And so just a lot of Google image searching for actors who feel like the right people or just production designs or settings that feel right for this. I’ll put those on a folder. I’ll print them on the color printer. I’ll spray glue them to my art boards. And it’s really a process of going through those art boards that gives me a sense of like, oh, I’m missing something here. What am I missing? Oh, I’m kind of missing a beat. I’m missing a moment. I’m missing a character who could do this thing.
And so that process is really where I’m feeling like this is what the movie is going to look like. This is what it’s going to feel like. This is the world of the movie.
So, all I’m taking into that pitch meeting is these boards and a really one-pager basically of reminders to me of like I’m going to start the conversation by talking about why I want to do this, what the movie feels like to me. These are some crucial thematic elements. And here’s how I’m introducing the most important characters.
And then it ends up being kind of bullet-pointy as you get through it. But also allows me to have it be more of a conversation. So as I’m showing boards they can ask questions. They can sort of get involved in the process as well.
So, there’s not a thing for me to be leaving behind because it’s just sort of my set up for things rather than the whole movie on paper.
Craig: It’s really interesting listening to you talk about that process. Something occurred to me, and it’s why I don’t bring the boards in like you do, I think, it’s because I’m very private about that time in a young story’s life. You know? That beginning part where you’re sort of reaching and grasping and making choices and realizing you’re missing something and going back and finding those images, or those moments that mean something. I’m very private about them. I feel like no one should see them until I want them to see them. And so I think that may be why I’m so kind of weird about all that stuff because I just feel like – and it could be just emotional. It could be superstitious. But I just feel like in a weird way if I show it too soon it will be wrong.
Do you know what I mean? Like it’s not meant to be in the air yet. It’s supposed to still be in a womb. So, yes, it’s an interesting thing.
John: Yeah. And that’s why there’s not, again, what we said earlier on, this is not prescribing one way to pitch or like one way for a writer to work. I really like having these boards so I can point to a thing, and therefore at the end of the pitch if they want to refer back to a moment they can find that board and point to this board, ask a question about that thing. It makes things a little bit more concrete. But that’s not the only way it can work.
And likewise after I’ve gotten a job I don’t write that long outline that you do. I am happy to sort of write myself into a corner and then write my way out of the corner because I want to be surprised. I want to be surprised at the end of a scene. Like, oh, I kind of thought the scene was going to go into this next scene, but actually I don’t need that next scene now because this actually did the job of that. And so as a viewer I really want to see what’s happening with these people.
And so I don’t tend to write those outlines anymore for myself or for anybody.
Craig: Yeah, we’re unique snowflakes.
Craig: Just like the Alt-Right accuses us of being. [laughs]
John: All right, let’s answer a listener question. Heston writes, “John, in 2008 you wrote an article about why character’s wants versus needs is a load of BS. Wants versus needs has become an even bigger must have when planning characters as more gurus have popped up in books, videos, and podcasts on the craft. So, when throwing protagonist ideas about in your head what method do both of you use when constructing character metamorphoses. I’m talking about the character has a goal and a mindset attached to why they want that external goal, but something else happens and they realize a better path and by the end they’ve changed regardless of the external goal’s accomplishments.”
So, Craig, I suspect you don’t say want versus need, but do you think you still have a want versus need built into your storytelling?
Craig: That’s not an axis that I consider. I generally think a character wants something. Need is a really dumb word I think for story.
John: I think it’s a dumb word.
Craig: It’s dumb. It’s like what do you need? You need to breathe and you need food. I mean, you can live alone and miserable for the rest of your life, but like the needs are – it’s wants. I like to boil it down to wants. And the way I consider the axis of character change is that the character at the beginning of a story wants to keep things the way they are out of fear of something going wrong, or out of fear of the world around them. Anyway, just some general fear. They want what they have now not to change. And it changes. Or they want something to change and it’s not changing. Doesn’t matter. They want something. And by the end they will realize, and sort of in the middle towards the end the realize what they were wanting they don’t want anymore. They want something else that’s much, much harder to get and will require much, much more fortitude.
So it’s about the fact that your wants change, which is essentially what we go through in life as humans. I mean, all these books, they’re trying to remove you from why these things came around in the first place which was they’re reflective of your life now. You don’t need a book to tell you that you want – OK, Heston, maybe you met a girl and you wanted – you wanted so much to be in a relationship with her. And lo and behold she wanted to be in a relationship with you. And it happened. And then somewhere along the line you did not want to be in a relationship with her. That’s the way life works. And now what happens? Right?
And then you say I don’t want to be in a relationship with you, and then the minute that happens you realize, oh no, I’ve made a terrible mistake and you regret it. And now you do want to be – because you’ve changed. This is how we tell stories. We’re just reflecting the way life works. So forget all this junk and stop reading books.
John: I agree. I gave a presentation at Austin last year about want and one of the points I tried to make is that want versus need is a trap. You can think that you’re actually building great character development and arcs by like, oh, they realized what they really need is this thing. And I think it’s a dumb thing that somebody came up with at some point and people have been trying to enact.
A thing I will point out about needs is they feel like taking your medicine. It feels like one of those things where the character doesn’t choose to do a thing. They are forced to do a thing.
So what’s useful is to think about anytime you say the character needs to do something, try replacing needs with wants. And ask what would it be like if the character wanted to do this thing. So rather than I need to call my mom, it’s like I want to call my mom. Well, that implies there’s something about your relationship with your mom that is actually interesting and it’s not sort of every other relationship with somebody’s mom.
So, replacing needs with wants is a way to think about it. But this general dogma of want versus need is a dumb way to go through it.
Craig: So dumb. It’s like somebody needed to fill in a chart in their stupid book.
John: And I would also say that it probably reflects how English does some things. If you study other languages the breakdown of want versus need, should, have to, it’s a spectrum. It’s a big rainbow. And the equivalent words end up in different places on that spectrum. And so it’s just a very English way of thinking about this stuff because we have a differentiation between those words that are specific that doesn’t exist in other languages, too. Because it doesn’t really exist in people. The things we want and the things we need, it’s all blurry.
Craig: I wish I could Thanos snap and make all of that crap go away. All of it.
John: All of it.
Craig: Although I will tell you that every now and then I do have to recommend a book to someone. I was at a charity event and I ran into a guy that I know. He’s in the banking industry. And he said to me, you know, by the way I’m writing a script. And I went, oh, I’m opening a bank. He didn’t get the joke.
Anyway, but he asked me a question about – he said is it OK if I’m writing in Microsoft Word. I said, yeah, if you follow the general format you can write in anything you want. He said, so, when I’m doing like the character and then colon, and I went, wait–
Craig: Stop. What colon? There’s no colons. And he goes there’s no colons? And I’m like, nah, there’s no colons. You know what? Pick up Syd Field. So that one I was like, OK, you know–
John: Or how about download any script off the Internet and sort of see what the general formatting is.
Craig: At that point I wasn’t sure why that hadn’t already happened. So I kind of skipped more specific advice. [laughs]
John: Craig, let’s be realistic. You sent him to Syd Field because you knew it would frustrate him and he would stop writing his script. Because he should stay a banker.
Craig: No, no. Everybody should write one. Just like everybody should own a bank. But it’s so much harder to own a bank.
John: Don’t we all own our own banks in a way? Aren’t we always like loaning ourselves or giving ourselves credit?
Craig: No. [laughs]
John: I am my own bank.
Craig: Yeah, no. You might actually be. I could see that. But for the rest of us, no.
John: No. All right, let’s get to our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is an article from The New York Times called The Confidence Gap. It’s by Claire Shipman, Katty Kay, and JillEllyn Riley. It was recommended by friend Dara Resnick. It is a really good little look at sort of how young women, sort of tweens and teens, go through struggles of confidence and sort of like ways to talk to them about the struggles that they face. It’s geared towards tweens and teens and yet most of the recommendations in there I could use on a daily basis.
So, the way we can ruminate about our failures and set ourselves up for future failures is worth looking at kind for everybody. So, a good article about thinking through the psychology of stuff goes wrong and how you learn from it and move on to the next thing. And how you keep from escalating when stuff goes bad.
Craig: Excellent. Well, I mean, I don’t know if this really counts as a One Cool Thing, but I think it’s freaking cool. So, John, do you use DirecTV or cable television?
John: I use DirecTV.
Craig: I was also a DirecTV customer. And I just dumped them. I got rid of them. So, my daughter said why do we even have DirecTV? Why don’t we have YouTube TV? And I was like, what? What teenage nonsense is this? And then I looked into it and I was like, oh yeah, this is probably better. So it’s way cheaper and so YouTube TV they actually do have broadcast channels. They have all the basic channels you would want live and they also – I think I pay $5 extra to get AMC. And then of course if you want HBO you just buy the HBO service. And when all was said and done it was still like one-third of my DirecTV bill.
And I think DirecTV has some sort of app that does this as well, but the YouTube TV thing works really well on my phone and my tablet and now in my office I have television. Anyway, it’s really easy to do. It’s seamless and it works brilliantly. I hate giving credit to massive, you know, Google Company, right, with all their crap that’s on regular YouTube. But YouTube TV actually as a service makes a ton of sense. And so we have eliminated the DirecTV. And we also don’t need those stupid boxes anymore. They’re all gone.
John: So, is there any equivalent of a DVR with this?
John: There’s a digital–?
Craig: It’s actually better than the DVR because DVR you would have to go into that box thing which is actually very poorly – when it was TiVo it was awesome, but DirecTV’s OS or whatever they call it, their GUI, it sucks.
But on YouTube you’re just like, oh yeah, I like this show. And you just tap on it, and put it in my library. And it just knows. It’s quite – it’s really good.
John: All right. We’ll check that out. Also, while you’re mentioning TV stuff, I want to thank everybody on Twitter. I had asked a question about I really want my mom who is 82 to be able to watch Netflix, basically The Crown and The Great British Baking Show, and other things that I think she would really enjoy. But adding one more box to her setup is just not going to work. She would rebel against it.
And so people had really good suggestions for ways to get around it. I think we’re going to end up with it turns out her cable is Xfinity and I can actually just add it through her cable system. So, I’ll do that. But I want to thank everybody who – like 70 people reached out with good suggestions.
Craig: Good lord. My god.
John: Twitter doing something good.
Craig: That’s weird. That’s not the normal thing.
John: Not the normal what Twitter does.
Craig: That’s not the Twitter I know.
John: To bring everything back around, No Writing Left Behind, don’t leave writing behind is the message we’re trying to get to people. So, don’t do it. Craig will come and beat you up if you do it.
Craig: Yeah. I’ll at least yell at you sternly.
John: Yeah. No physical violence. Just–
Craig: I’m not particularly good at that I must admit. But I can be intimidating just volume wise.
John: Yeah. I can be shouty, too. Rarely happens, but.
Craig: I know. But every now and then daddy’s got a bark.
John: Daddy does bark, yeah.
Craig: Yep. I’ve done it.
John: That’s our show for this week. Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Luke Brown. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re kind of low on the outros. They’ve trickled down, so we need some new outros. So people, fire it up. Rajesh Naroth, if you’re listening we need some new outros.
That same address, email@example.com, is where you can send questions like the one we answered today. You can find us on Twitter. I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
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You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. We get them up about four to five days after the episode airs.
You can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net. If you sign up for the premium service, which is $2 a month, you get all of those back episodes.
Craig: All of them.
John: Plus bonus episodes like the random advice episode we’re recording. So actually it should be up there by the time you hear this. So you should subscribe for $2 a month and get all of those back episodes.
Craig: That alone is worth $2.
John: It’s worth $2. Craig, thank you for another fun show.
Craig: Thanks John. See you next time.
John: See ya. Bye.
- Hope to see you this weekend at the Austin Film Festival! You can also catch John at the Texas Book Festival and the Boulder Book Store Event
- No Writing Left Behind
- The Confidence Gap by Claire Shipman, Katty Kay and JillEllyn Riley for The New York Times
- Youtube TV
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