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 374 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show it’s a new round of How Would This Be a Movie? where we take a look at stories in the news and discuss how they could be turned into big screen entertainment, or realistically small screen entertainment because that’s where all the action is.
Plus, we’ll be answering a listener question about ensemble movies.
But we’re only going to do this if people vote, because this episode is coming out on Election Day. So if you are a US citizen who is of age to vote you need to stop what you’re doing right now and go vote and come back and listen to this episode after you’ve voted. Is that fair?
Craig: I think it’s more than fair. And if you’re still here and you haven’t voted and you’re still listening, I’m angry. So now you’ll enjoy the gift of my anger. What are you doing? Stop it. Do you enjoy this? Do you like podcasts and people saying what they want to say and freedom and, I don’t know, a planet that isn’t sweltering hot? Just go and vote. Just go vote, dumb-dumb, and then come back.
John: Yeah. We’re recording this on a Friday. I have no idea what I’m actually going to do on Tuesday other than sort of, you know, panic a little bit.
Craig: Well, at this point I’m preparing to curl up into the fetal position, but anything – anything better than that will be a joy.
John: It will be a joy. What is also a joy is the Random Advice episode that is now out for people to listen to. So if you are a premium subscriber, which you can subscribe to at Scriptnotes.net, you have for you to listen to the Random Advice episode that Craig and I recorded.
Craig: So good.
John: So good. It’s actually a delightful episode. It has almost nothing to do with screenwriting. It’s just other stuff that listeners wrote in with their questions and we answered it.
Craig: But we’re so good at everything.
John: Yeah. We’ve got opinions on most everything and we answered most of those opinions.
Craig: But just really good. I mean, we’re really good at this. And, I mean, for $1.99, geez-Louise. I mean, you’re not voting. You’re not giving us two dollars a month. What good are you? I’m talking to you, listener. What good are you?
Craig: This is how I like to drum up listenership. This is direct abuse.
John: Yeah. It’s a strategy.
Craig: It’s fun.
John: Several people have written to us about FilmStruck shutting down. I was not a subscriber to FilmStruck, which is probably part of the reason why. It was me. It was my fault.
Craig: You did it.
John: I was the person. I did it. But it ties in very well to this conversation we had earlier about missing movies and sort of the research I’d done on movies that are no longer available. So FilmStruck was one of the ways that some people could see some of those movies that were missing. But of course the answer is that you can’t have one service that you rely on to solve all of the problem of missing movies and it has to be a systemic situation where the people who own copyright on these movies actively put them out there in ways that people can see them. And FilmStruck by itself couldn’t do that.
Craig: I feel like I’m the reason it shut down because I did subscribe to FilmStruck and I enjoyed it. Melissa enjoyed it. And so, of course, that was it. They found out that we were enjoying it and they took it away.
For years I’ve paid for Cinemax. I don’t think I’ve ever watched anything on Cinemax.
John: No, no.
Craig: And Cinemax is still going strong.
John: I think I have CBS All Access. Haven’t used it.
Craig: There you go. But you will once you turn 90. [laughs] Was a cheap shot. You know what that was? A cheap shot.
John: Yeah, it’s fine. Luke in San Diego wrote to us and said, “Thank you for single handedly bringing back the rom-com,” which we did. So that was in the repeat episode, the Tess Morris on rom-coms.
Craig: Oh yes, we did.
John: “So I wonder if you can work your magic to bring back my all-time favorite film genre, the terrible live action family Christmas comedy, a la Christmas with the Cranks, Deck the Halls, and Four Christmases. It seems like all of the bad Christmas movies coming out of Hollywood these days are either animated features or R-rated comedies. Will you please help return the true spirit of Christmas to our cinema screens?”
Craig: There is a genre of those sort of corny Christmas comedies. Jingle All the Way is one of my favorites. It’s corny. And the reason that they’re corny is because Christmas is corny. I mean, the whole thing. Let me see, what will the theme of this Christmas movie be? It is better to give than to receive. Done. It’s always the same thing. It’s always family and faith and spirit and giving. That’s what Christmas is about. It’s always the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over.
So, I don’t know, do we need more? Or can we just sort of live off the stored up fat of this particular genre?
John: I don’t know. Maybe we do need more. I mean, maybe we need, I mean, I’m sure we have the African American family version of this.
Craig: Oh yes, there is.
John: But there’s certainly always new opportunities to do new versions of this. I also just really kind of want to be on the set when it’s like July and everybody has to wear their parkas and they’re just miserable. And there’s fake snow everywhere. That’s just the movie magic of Hollywood.
Craig: Yeah, that is never fun. Never fun for anybody. There’s a scene where someone in our show had to be in a snowy park, wearing a parka, bundled up because it’s Ukrainian winter, and pregnant, so wearing like pregnant padding. And I think it was probably 94 degrees that day. Unpleasant. Or as they would say over there 31.
John: Yeah. Celsius. I tried to really master my Celsius while I was living in France. I just never really did it. It makes so much more sense and yet I love the granularity that we can sort of distinguish between like, oh, it’s 72 versus 73.
Craig: Exactly. Normally I’m with them on this. I get it. Metric system base 10, the whole thing. Yep. Yep. Totally. But the extra gradations of temperature are actually quite valuable. So, yeah, a little bit of a tradeoff. For some reason our water freezes at 32 instead of a rational zero.
John: Oh, and water boils at 212.
Craig: Instead of a rational 100. But we do have – you know what – like I like my office at 74. What is it, 21? Whatever.
John: My husband is listening right now and just–
Craig: So grumpy. [laughs]
John: He loves the metric system.
Craig: Good. Of course he does.
John: Prefers Celsius. Do you want to take this thing about No Writing Left Behind?
Craig: Yeah, sure. So we got a little bit of a communicado in from a Matt with a Day Job. And he writes, “Last summer I was approached by a production company via my agent to adapt a comic book series into a feature film. They sent me the comic and even put me in touch with its creator. I went in for the pitch and it was just as Craig said, it was a fantastic conversation about what made both myself and the executives passionate about that story. They then asked me to write a brief outline of what I saw the movie to be before any formal deal was signed.
“Being the new writer on the block, and not really knowing any better, I agreed. Thus began a,” are you sitting, dear listener, “a six-month process of writing and rewriting an outline that varied from 11 pages to 28 pages long. I was otherwise unemployed at the time, so as you can imagine this process was incredibly frustrating. After several drafts totally somewhere around 80 pages across various drafts like Craig I lost the job to ‘we decided not to make this movie.’ During this time my agent encouraged me to do the same with two other projects with another production company, so for seven months I worked on multiple drafts of multiple outlines for multiple projects. Needless to say I felt completely duped and foolish.
“Oh, and I will never, ever do that again.”
I wish John that this were a rare story, but it is not.
John: It is not. And even in this last week talking to some working screenwriters you and I both know this kind of thing still happens. Where they’re just like, “Oh, could you just write up this thing because it’s between you and this other person and this could help put you over the top.” Argh.
So, what Matt does bring up here is that in this case the agent said to do it. We’ve also heard from people who said like, oh, my manager told me to do it. My manager told me it’s totally normal. That’s bad. That’s not good. Because the agent and the manager, they’re not getting paid for that free work either. So it should be in their interest to make sure that their clients are being paid to write and yet they seem to have forgotten that key part of their job.
Craig: Yeah. Your agent or your manager who tells you you should do this is literally saying the following to you, whether you realize it or not. “I, your representative, do not feel that I can get you employment unless you debase yourself in this manner. I just don’t think I can do it. I’m not good enough. I’m not good enough to call this production company and say, ‘You like my client? You think they’re amazing? Hire them. Otherwise, I’m too smart to let my client work for six months and generate free labor for you in violation of a number of laws, by the way, because you’re not allowed to do that.’ And then not get the job. So I’m not good enough to handle that for you, dear client. Therefore you should just go do that.”
That’s what they’re saying to you. They’re useless. They’re worse than useless. In this situation you’re better off without an agent or a manager giving you this terrible advice. And to the people that do this to writers, all I can tell you is your time has come. We’re not going to stop talking about this. We are not going to stop. You are going to stop. Because we’re going to keep telling these stories and sharing these stories. The thing that ruins your little plan is when we all talk to each other and realize how often it doesn’t turn into anything except misery.
So listen at home friends. When you say, “Well, you know, John and Craig are just trying to keep us from doing this, keep us out of the business,” no. What we’re trying to do is save you from the misery that Matt had to deal with. And I’m going to repeat again: six months, 80 pages, no employment.
John: Yep. I’m trying to think of other industries that have agents and managers and people trying to be hired to do things and where this would be possible. So, I think about professional athletes. You know, the agent for a professional athlete, the manager for a professional athlete, is not going to let them go and play for six months for free hoping that they’ll get signed on the team. That just doesn’t happen.
Craig: No, I mean, the equivalent would be a tryout. So you’re not signed, go to a tryout. Great. Go to a tryout camp. That’s a week or two, but you’re not going to let them go on for six months. All they’re going to do is get injured. Are we playing for you or not? You have enough information to decide. Yes or no. Do it. Because what they can’t do, what any team can’t do, is see enough to guarantee this guy is going to help us win a championship. Nobody knows anything. You’ve got to let it just happen. Just let it happen. Trust it. Have faith.
John: Yeah. So if you were a model would the manager say like, “Oh, no, no, just go and let them take a ton of photos. No, no, let them take a ton more photos. Let them use your photos. No. Definitely go. Spend six months.”
No. That person would say like you want to take this person’s picture that is a job. You’re taking up their time. That’s the thing. It’s like it is ultimately their time is what they are billing. And they should bill for that time.
Craig: Their time is being abused and also their – I honestly just think that they are being abused. Their personhood is being abused by this behavior. And the people who did this, this production company, or if you are in a production company right now and you work for one, you’re listening to this, I want to tell you take this seriously. We’re not just mouthing off on a podcast. It’s stopping. We’re coming for you and we’re going to share names. We do that. We know. And you know what, I’ll start saying names on this show. I don’t care. I’ll blow my career up. I’m basically good.
You know what I mean? Like I don’t care anymore. I really don’t. It’s enough already.
John: Yeah. He’s been pushed too far.
Craig: I’ve been pushed too far.
John: Nothing left to lose.
Craig: I’ve got nothing left to lose. I have one day to retirement. [laughs]
John: How many more clichés can we stack on top of this guy as he goes into this journey?
Craig: I’m getting too old for this poop.
John: Katie wrote in. She said, “I’ve been catching up on about two years of Scriptnotes episodes and just today reached Episode 346, the episode with Christina Hodson. The question of how to indicate to casting that a character is ‘open’ gave me an idea. Why not work to implement and popularize a shorthand abbreviation that means open race or non-specified race? It could be as simple as Teddy Johnson, early 30s, OR, or NSR, removes his jet pack and glowers at the gathered crowd.
“Even if many writers choose not to use it, it could become a recognizable and accepted term that could help writers, executives, and casting departments move towards a more diverse range of actors.”
Craig, what do you think of OR or NSR?
Craig: This is not a bad idea at all. Things like abbreviations like OR or NSR may seem a little unwieldy, but then again we have lots of abbreviations that we use in screenwriting all the time that are a little odd like OS and VO and blah-blah-blah. However, what I think is if something like this is going to have a prayer of succeeding it needs to be employer-driven, because ultimately it’s the studios that set the standards for screenplays. If all the studios said, “Listen, this is a thing, part of our screenplay deal, it’s in your contract, is that this is part of the format we use,” then we would use it. But if you’re just going to ask screenwriters in general to do it, it’s just going to be incredibly difficult to reach critical mass, especially because most screenwriters and most screenplay material is for television where the cast is already in place.
John: Although every television show is always bringing in new actors to play new little parts. And so there’s always casting that’s happening on a weekly basis in television. I think television may actually be the opportunity. I can see if a network or a studio or even just a show decided like, oh you know what, we’re going to always just mark it in a thing that it’s NSR and it’s going to be – just to make it clear to our own internal team that like we are looking for a broad range of, you know, different possibilities for this role.
Craig: Just my impression of television writing, I could be wrong, just from what I’ve seen is that they don’t really call the stuff out in their scripts. Because they’re in production all the time, it’s a casting breakdown kind of thing.
John: Yeah, but I suspect race is still indicated in scripts where it’s important, even in television, even in like episode 11 of a show.
Craig: Right. Where it’s important, for sure, I guess so. But here where it’s not, I don’t know. I think if studios and large production companies made it part of the format than yes. But, hard to get people to just kind of piecemeal adapt it. That’s my gut.
John: That’s my gut, too. But if this already existed, I would be delighted for it to already exist.
Craig: Yeah. It seems like it would be helpful.
John: I agree. All right, a bigger topic was suggested by Aaron Sauerland. He tweeted at me. He said, “Hey John August, have you and CL Mazin ever done an episode on writing scripts with an ensemble cast. My writing partner and I are writing one right now and would love any insight on balancing characters for a story like that.”
Craig, you and I have both written ensemble movies.
John: So let’s talk through some general advice for Aaron and his writing partner as they are getting started on theirs.
Craig: Sure. Well, no matter what the ensemble is, there’s going to be one main character, meaning one protagonist. There will be, typically in ensemble films A stories, B stories, C stories. There are some true ensemble films which are more in the kind of Love Actually mode where you are actually dividing a movie into really three movies that you’re running simultaneously or something like that. And that’s not this. But for a proper ensemble I think you have your main story with your main character and then there’s a sub story with sub characters. John Hughes would do this quite a bit.
You have to make sure who is who. And then you have to make sure that all the characters have a purpose. There is a thing that happens sometimes, and I will see it actually interestingly on sitcoms, where three people, four people, six people are confronted by somebody and one of the group has a back and forth with that person. And everyone else is just standing there. That can be awkward. Even after a minute or two you start to wonder why people are just standing.
John: As you were describing the kinds of movies that are ensembles, I think maybe we should break them down a little bit more because I have one idea for what an ensemble movie is, but there clearly are kind of many different ensemble movies. So, something like The Hangover is what you’re describing where, yes, there are multiple characters but there is one character who is sort of going to protagonate over the course of it and the other characters are going to have a function in that.
But I look at a movie like Go which truly has different protagonists in each of its sections. And so in each of those chapters a different character really is the central character and the one who has to go through the biggest change.
And then you look at Robert Altman movies which just have a bunch of people who are just doing stuff and it’s hard to say that that one character is the central character of the film. In fact, in an Altman movie generally you could take out one entire character from the whole movie and the movie would still work. And so they’re kaleidoscopic in that way.
John: What Aaron should maybe keep in mind as he and his writing partner are getting started is that within a scene, like what you’re describing in the sitcom thing where like one character is driving and other characters are just sitting there, it’s something we talked about two episodes ago on the show, you’re often going to have one character who is the central character in that scene and he’s sort of the hero of that scene. And if you think of every scene as being its own little movie, there’s probably going to be one person who is the central character in that moment. And you’re going to have to figure out how to use the other characters to support that main character’s idea in that sequence.
Continue that through the whole movie and even if you’re doing an Altman-esque movie, or a movie like Go that has truly sort of multiple protagonists – Big Fish also has multiple protagonists – you’re still looking for a thread that follows a single character, even though there’s multiple characters around you.
Craig: Yeah. And again I tend to think of ensemble movies as more a unified story with a lot of actors sort of rotating around it as opposed to more of the kind of fragmented storytelling which is more of the Tarantino kind of action in Pulp Fiction. I think Go as well. There’s intersections, right, but it seems like there’s sort of somewhat independent stories going on.
John: Yeah. There are chapters.
Craig: Chapters. Whereas like when I think of a classic ensemble film I think of something like Bridesmaids where there are a lot of characters and you do get to follow these mini stories. And what’s very important for you, Aaron, as you’re balancing these things out and you understand what your A story is and you understand what your B story is and you know that, OK, the A story needs to have the most stuff in it and the most emotionally complicated stuff. And it sort of needs the biggest beginning, middle, and end.
As you go down the list of B, C, D, the stories need to get simpler and shorter. Simpler and shorter. Simpler and shorter. To the point where on a D story it may just be somebody wanted something in the very beginning of the movie and they get it at the very end. It literally could be that. But it’s really important to also keep in mind that when you have characters that feel really peripheral to the movie at some point they need to become incredibly important. It is just satisfying when for instance in Bridesmaids we see Melissa McCarthy’s character and we think she’s just a goof, and for a while she is just a goof. She isn’t really super friendly with our main character and she steals puppies. She’s kind of crazy. But at a crucial point in the film it’s Melissa McCarthy’s character who finally shakes Kristen Wiig’s character out of her funk and says stop it, go be the better you. She becomes incredibly crucial to the story. And that’s really important. That’s what you want to see in a movie where you’re layering people. Make that somebody that you didn’t think was that important become super important suddenly.
We like that.
John: Yeah. So a movie of my own that I can’t believe wasn’t the first thing that came to mind is Charlie’s Angels. So in the Charlie’s Angels movies there is no one protagonist. The three angels are all heroes and protagonists and not any one of them is the main character. They’re all three the main character. And so one of the great challenges of that movie is trying build arcs for all three of them so they each have their own journey, so that they each affect each other’s journey, that we still have a villain plot, and you still have overall surprises and twists. That makes it really challenging because every scene has to do a bunch of different work to service the movie plot but also to service really the character moments, the story moments that the characters are going through.
So in that case, I think what’s really crucial is to remember that no matter how many characters you’re sort of dividing that protagonist role between they need to all be addressing the same central dramatic question, the same thematic issue just from a slightly different way. So they all feel like they need to be in the same movie because they’re all tackling the same thematic territory. If you just have a character who is nothing but just a wild card who is out there to sort of throw hand grenades, you can’t give that character too much time or else they’re just going to pull the movie into a very bad place.
Craig: Yeah. And that’s a really good point. And one thing I would say to you, Aaron, is if you do kind of confront people saying well everybody needs their own arc, everybody needs the kind of attention and focus that the main character gets, think about just as a point of rebuttal think about a movie like The Big Chill where you can kind of see where the main characters are and you can see the A, B, and C story. But you also can say reasonably that the character arc for a number of those characters is the relationship that they all share. That’s kind of – so it’s a little bit of a family story. We as a family have a problem. We as a family confront it. We as a family move past it.
That’s reasonable. And in this way you don’t end up having to do individual little stories for every single person. It becomes exhausting. And more importantly it begins to feel super fake because in life we’re not all equally struggling with really important stuff that’s going to be handled in the moment of the story of the movie.
John: Yep. Most people’s lives are not going to fall into that two-hour block of screen time that we’re talking about. So it is unrealistic to think that everyone is going to have this giant transformational journey over the course of those two hours.
John: But I just now realized what movie Aaron is writing. He is writing the PG Christmas comedy that people so desperately want.
Craig: Of course.
John: That is the ensemble movie that I’m sure Aaron is writing and I cannot wait to see what he and his writing partner are working on.
Craig: Every single elf needs a backstory.
John: Yeah. Every one of them.
Craig: Every one of them.
John: So, I mean, it’s Tim Allen’s coming back – oh, I bet it’s a new sequel to The Santa Clause. So Tim Allen is like handing off the mantle to the next person.
John: It’s going to be good.
Craig: Right. There was a The Santa Clause, and then there was The Santa Clause – what was the sequel?
John: There was a Santa Clause 2? Is there more?
Craig: But it had like a funny name like the Re-Clause, it doesn’t matter. All right.
John: If only we had an IMDb and could look it up.
Let’s get to our main topic which is How Would This Be a Movie? So, this is how this works. People send us either via email or by tweet saying, hey John and Craig, how would this be a movie, and a link to an article that they found in the news that they found fascinating and they are all fascinating. So, I will say that people do a very good job of sending us stuff. In our outline here we have at least ten things that I’ve passed on because they were good. I just didn’t find them interesting enough to be our marquee topics here. But in the show notes we’ll have links to all the things that people have also submitted, because there’s good stuff. There’s a love story that upended the Texas prison system. There is a woman who made her ex think she was dead for five years after he dumped her by text. Oh, not dead for five years. That he was a dad for five years.
Craig: I think the first version could be a movie.
John: Yeah. Both could be good. And heroin. There’s always heroin and drug stuff. But the ones I picked for today, three of them are about sort of real world villains and some of them have sort of political connections. And the other two are just delightful. So, let’s start with this first one. This is from Laurel Wamsley writing for NPR. Mystery novelist wife kills chef-husband after penning 2011 essay on how to kill one’s husband. Basically this woman, she had written up a blog post and she’s also sort of an author of a sort. Wrote this blog post about how to kill your husband. Then her husband dies and everyone is like, “Wait, did you kill your husband?” And she’s like, ah.
John: Maybe. So also the visuals are helpful here because the woman kind of looks like my grandma. She’s not a young woman.
Craig: No. She’s 68. 68 years old. This is an interesting one. So what’s sort of fascinating is when she writes this essay the thesis of the essay basically is it’s really easy to get caught killing someone. You should probably be really, really careful about it. Here’s what you don’t want to do. Don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do this. And the conclusion essentially was, you know what, she writes, “It’s easier to wish people dead than to actually kill them.”
Years later she proceeds to make essentially every single mistake that she iterated in that essay which makes me think that in fact at the time she wrote it it was not at all any kind of indication of premeditation. That something had happened in the last couple of years that had sent her on this path where she decided to just shoot her husband, who apparently was a lovely man, and seemingly treated her really well.
So, the question is what do you, like how do you make this a movie. And I do think that there’s an interesting deal here where maybe an editor starts working with a promising novelist who is writing a mystery novel and the editor does what editors do which is to constantly means test and logic challenge this person’s murder mystery. And keep saying, no, no, no, you’d be caught doing this. You’d be caught. She’s supposed to be, no, your killer is supposed to be a genius. And then one day when it’s done perfectly the author’s husband disappears. And then the only person that knows for sure, or at least she suspects that she has essentially helped this woman design the murder of her spouse. Be kind of a cool – I think that could be a cool sort of Gone Baby Gone kind of movie.
John: Yeah, so this idea for a movie strikes me as a Joe Eszterhas classic. So Joe Eszterhas for people who don’t know was the premier screenwriter, or really prominent screenwriter of the ‘80s as we were getting stated. So he did Basic Instinct. He did Jagged Edge, which I also loved. Jagged Edge is about an author. Basic Instinct I think Catherine Tramell had also written a book about murder. And so it feels like that kind of space.
So the fact that she’s sort of a granny is a twist on this. So whether you keep that or don’t keep that. I like Craig’s basic pitch for it that you have somebody who has insight into this author ahead of time and has to figure out what’s really going on.
What was good about Basic – actually Jagged Edge was the person who has insight into it is also kind of falling for the person who may be the murderer.
John: Which is a nice aspect of it, too. One of my favorite moments in Jagged Edge is Glenn Close has the typewriter and types, “He is innocent,” and the T misaligned exactly the way that it was in this one clue.
John: That was great. Well done Joe Eszterhas. So, yeah, I think there’s something here. And you don’t have to go goofy with it. You could go straight thriller. We just don’t make those thrillers very much anymore.
Craig: Well we don’t in theatrical unless it’s based on a very popular novel a la Gone Baby Gone. And even in that circumstance you still need a top flight director and a top flight – well, at least somebody they consider to be a movie star, or else it’s not going to happen. But they do make things like this all the time for television now. Joe Eszterhas was famous for the – he did it, he didn’t do it, he did it structure. So you would kind of be lured into believing that this person whether it was Jeff Bridges or whether it was Sharon Stone was clearly the killer. And then as you got deeper in you realize “Oh my god they’re not.” They’re not the killer and the real killer is going to get away with this because this person just seems so awful that we thought they were the killer. And then at the very end of the movie, oh no, they were the killer. [laughs] That was his go to. He used it a number of times.
But, yeah, I think there’s something here. I think, you know, it’s a good concept at least to kind of put a fresh spin on a murder mystery. There’s something a little Throw Mama from the Train about it also. I don’t know, there’s a dark comedy aspect to it I think that could happen here. The straight up direct version of this, no. You just need a little bit of an inspiration from this I would say.
John: Yeah. One quote that, a two-part quote here that I’ll read. “’I have sad news to relate. My husband and best friend, Chef Dan Brophy was killed yesterday morning. For those of you who are close to me and feel this deserved a phone call, you are right, but I’m struggling to make sense of everything right now’ she wrote. ‘While I appreciate all of your loving responses, I am overwhelmed. Please save phone calls for a few days until I can function.’”
I believe that. I mean, a person who is trying to pull their stuff together, I get that. And then later on, “Asked whether the police had been keeping her updated, she said, ‘No, I’m a suspect,’ without emotion, McConnell said.” That’s interesting.
Craig: Yeah. That was pretty good. A neighbor said of her in the days following the murder, “She never showed any signs of being upset or sad. I would say she had an air of relief, like it was almost a godsend.” That’s…yeah.
Craig: Don’t have an air of relief.
John: No, no. Let’s go on to our next story. Craig, I picked this one for you because I felt like this woman might drive you especially crazy.
Craig: I just don’t understand what’s happening here. So this article was entitled Never Go Full Trump: The Lena Epstein Story. And this was written by somebody I actually know. Josh Marshal who I came to know at the last college reunion I went to because he’s married to a former college mate of mine.
John: Oh nice.
Craig: Yeah. Great guy. He does excellent work. He is the primary editor/writer at TalkingPointsMemo.com, which is a political blog, quite good stuff over there. By the way, they have a new thing like TPM Gold or I don’t know–
John: Prime or something like that.
Craig: Yeah. I did it. I did it. I did it because I like TPM. I like Josh.
John: You’re supporting the media. Yeah.
Craig: Yeah. I’m supporting the media. And we don’t advertise anything so this is as close as I get to advertising something. So this article, Never Go Full Trump: The Lena Epstein Story, is essentially about this bizarre moment that happened recently where Vice President Mike Pence held an event, a fundraising event I believe, on behalf of candidate Lena Epstein. She is running for what? What is she running for?
John: It’s not entirely clear. So she was a Republican candidate running for I believe it is–
Craig: Congress. It’s congress.
John: Congress of Michigan.
Craig: Yeah. She’s running for the House of Representatives in the 11th District of Michigan. She is the daughter of one of Michigan’s wealthiest Jewish families. She is Harvard educated. And she was a dyed in the wool democrat until at least her mid-20s. And then went kind of super far right. And what makes this particularly bizarre is that at this event Mike Pence had a “rabbi” named Loren Jacobs who was asked to say a prayer on behalf of the eleven Jews murdered at the synagogue in Pittsburgh. And it turns out that Loren Jacobs I think kind of got invited there by Epstein. Except Loren Jacobs is not actually a rabbi. Loren Jacobs was a clergy in the Jews for Jesus movement which is a culty not at all Jewish thing that Jewish people really – I can tell you as a Jewish person when I grew up like they were spoken of in the harshest possible terms.
But amazingly Loren Jacobs wasn’t even good enough to stay a rabbi for them. Even they kicked her out. So this was a doubly defrocked “rabbi.” But what’s interesting is the notion of a candidate who is of a certain ethnicity that begins to pal around repeatedly with people who seem to be in direct opposition of her faith, her ethnicity, her background.
John, what do you make of all this?
John: So I found her to be a fascinating character. And so she is – whether she is the central character who you’re actually seeing the whole world through, which that’s an exhausting movie but kind of fascinating. Or she is a character off to the side. Like she’s the annoying sister of our actual protagonist who has to deal with her. But there was something great about exactly what you’re describing. You seem to be promoting something that is completely antithetical to your cultural heritage and not even your self-interest but just like you’re doing an incredible disservice to your people. And she is fascinating in those ways.
It reminded me kind of a Reese Witherspoon character from like one of her–
Craig: Election type days.
John: Election. Like her Election character, but taken really, really dark and sort of self-serving. I thought she was really just fascinating.
Craig: Yeah. I think that this is character more than a movie. I think you’re absolutely right. And it feels to me like if you were doing kind of an ongoing dramatic series for instance about politics or a wealthy family or something like that that having one of the people be strangely affiliated with folks that want – it’s sort of that self-hating minority trope I guess. But it’s not really a trope. I mean, having grown up as part of a minority group in the United States, I saw it. I mean, it’s a thing. It’s a real thing. There are people that come to sort of internalize the external criticism of the group they’re in. And they kind of turn on it. I mean–
John: There’s the gay Republicans, or the Gays for Trump. Like he’ll be the best person ever for this. I have seen that first hand and that’s the equivalent thing in my community.
Craig: Did you see, what’s her face, Jenner, Caitlin.
John: Oh, Caitlin Jenner.
Craig: Caitlin Jenner finally was like, oh well, maybe, should I have not supported him? [laughs] Oh, Caitlin. You silly goose.
So, yeah, I think a character here. And I think that the mechanism, the psychological mechanism of self-hatred is actually quite fascinating and complicated and importantly in there is a kernel of something that I think we can all empathize with. Because inevitably you start to see how someone has been a bit manipulated by the world around them. That in their desire to pass, which is a real phenomenon that has been studied numerous times, they begin to separate from the truth of who they are. And where they’re from. And it is – there is a kind of empathy you can have for people like that.
But it becomes tested, severely tested, when for instance the case of somebody like this, she’s found to be following and liking posts from people like David Duke, who is, of course, a Nazi. And, you know, that’s not good.
John: It’s not good. I think where we both end up is that she is a great character as part of an ensemble probably recurring drama, so something like a Succession, where she’s one of the siblings in that kind of show.
John: But you probably don’t base everything around her.
John: Agreed. A similar but also delightful thing from this past week is The Humiliating Crash and Burn of Pro-Trump Media Star Jacob Wohl is the Best Political Story of the Season. I’m linking to an article by Dustin Rowles for Pajiba but there’s a zillion other things. You can follow this rabbit hole all the way down. This I just found delightful. Just because I knew in a general sense who Jacob Wohl was, and it just became crazier and crazier.
So Jacob Wohl for people who are lucky enough not to know who he is, he’s a disgraced financial trader. And it’s like I saw that description, but he’s like–
John: A teenager. Yeah. He’s 20 years old but he’s already banned from making financial trades because of stuff he’s done. He’s a super Pro-Trumper, Instagrammer. And just annoying as hell.
But, so he was trying to peddle this story about Robert Mueller having committed a rape at some point in the past, and he was going to have a witness. And he was trying to get different media outlets to buy into this story. All of them said like I don’t think that’s going to be accurate or real. And they were right. And this has come to bite him in a delightful way.
Again, I really thought he was a fascinating character. It reminded me a bit of Shattered Glass.
Craig: Yeah. Billy Ray.
John: Disgraced journalist. So it reminded me a bit of that. But, Craig, what do you take? Do you think there’s a movie to be made around him or this circus?
Craig: I think around the circus maybe. There is something fascinating about the gang that couldn’t shoot straight-ness of this. Because what happens here is he creates his own source. So essentially he says some intelligence firm has gathered this intelligence and has given it to me, I guess. I don’t know why. Well, it turns out that this intelligence company doesn’t really exist. He’s smart enough to create a fake website for it, which is very much Shattered Glass. Not smart enough to leave his name off the actual registration for the domain name.
But he just keeps digging, which is amazing. He says I’ve got a picture of the woman who was going to testify but I blanked her face out. And then somebody just did a reverse image search and was like, nope, that’s your girlfriend. [laughs] He’s so inept. You almost feel like, wait, is he working for the Democrats? Because he’s so bad at this. I mean, I couldn’t think of anything more exculpatory for Bob Mueller than this ding-a-ling attempting to smear him so terribly. I mean, it’s so incompetent. And incompetence on that level one has to look at as comedy.
I don’t know how else you look at it.
John: I think you’re right. And so the gif that I saw applied most to this whole story as it was breaking was Brad Pitt from Burn After Reading and so he’s just pumping the air because he’s so convinced he’s made a big score and he’s really landed it. And so there’s a Coen Brothers kind of quality to this.
Craig: Yes. Yes.
John: You could see this as ineptitude like Veep. But it’s more like a Coen Brothers, like you had no business even getting into this realm and now you’re going to be hugely embarrassed.
Craig: Well, not just hugely embarrassed, but the FBI is investigating this because it’s a crime. I mean, what he was doing was essentially creating fraud and making false accusations. And at some point you’re dealing – for god’s sake, you’re doing it to the former Director of the FBI. I mean, look, you know, you want to egg someone’s house, maybe drive past the former town police sheriff’s house because, you know, it’s like you know how the world works. I mean, Geez-Louise.
Anyway, he’s incredibly stupid. What are you going to do? Just so dumb. So dumb.
John: So dumb. I don’t know that there’s necessarily a movie here. And like I loved the book – I loved the story that became Shattered Glass. And I tried to get the rights to that. Billy Ray got the rights to it and made a really good movie. But I think part of the frustration of watching that movie is you are spending all of your time watching this character squirm you don’t really like. And it’s hard to sit with that character for 100 minutes/two hours because it’s just really uncomfortable and you just kind of want to get away from that kind of person.
Craig: Although, I don’t know if you watch Fargo. I mean, that’s kind of what – that’s the bread and butter there. And they do it very, very well. You do sort of sit there and watch Ewan McGregor be a weasel for a number of episodes. And it grabs you. So, I mean, I think that you’re right. And that is a Coen Brothers world. Right? Even though they don’t do that show. So I think there is a Coen-y Brothers-y kind of thing here. But in the lens of what’s going on right now it’s just how did Coen Brothers characters actually become news in real life?
Oh boy, well let’s take a look at this next one. This is called Nicole From Last Night. And in this story which was sent to us by – sorry, it was written by Maiia Kappler for the Huffington Post. So a gentlemen named Carlos Zetina who is a student at the University of Calgary meets a girl one night in a bar and he hits it off with her and he helps her and her friend get home. And he knows her name. And she gives him her number but she accidentally gave him the wrong phone number so he couldn’t get in touch with her.
John: Or was it an accident?
Craig: [laughs] Well that’s sort of the part where we’re not really sure. So her name is Nicole. So he writes an email to all 247 people in the University of Calgary’s directory whose name included some variation of the name Nicole, even including professors. And the email simply said, “Hi, this is a mass email to all Nicoles. If you don’t fit this description then ignore, and if you are the one and just don’t want to talk to me that’s OK as well. If your name is Nicole and you’re from Holland and you think Nietzsche is depressing then text me, his number. I’m Carlos, by the way. I’m the guy who took you and your friend home last night.”
So, I mean, he gave her an out there. He said if you don’t want to talk to me that’s fine. And what happened was all these Nicoles were like, oh this is interesting, and started emailing each other. It wasn’t even about him. At that point there just became this like weird Nicole from Last Night club which now has 80 members and they hang out, which is hysterical. And the mystery Nicole was identified and she actually did I think connect with him and agree to see him for a date or something like that, which is romantic.
John: Yeah. So I dug this story. And I think there’s something to do here. It’s the intersection of that guy in the movie who does the big romantic gesture, like I’ve got to find this girl, and sort of what the consequences of that are. I love all the other women coming together. I love that the original girl finally actually does find him. Oh yeah, I truly did mess up in giving you the wrong number. Yeah, we could go out on a date. But the sense of like all of the Nicoles is kind of great.
I feel like there is a thing to be done here.
Craig: I agree, too. And I think you’ve put your finger on it. The deal where someone guys, “Hey, missed connection,” I’ve seen this a billion times. There’s nothing new there. What’s new is that all these Nicoles form a Nicole army. And there’s so many ways to go about this. I mean, the rom-com version is that the Nicole that he’s actually trying to reach is a little frazzled or worried or something and all these Nicoles kind of get together to find her maybe and to help her, I don’t know, do something. That’s a very sort of old school romantic comedy.
But I’m more interested in like this is a bad dude and the Nicole army is like there to protect Nicole and also like take him down. The idea of your – talk about ensemble – you’ve got a cast of eight women and they have nothing in common. They’ve never met each other before. Except that they’re all named Nicole and they got a problem with this guy. That’s kind of cool. I kind of like that.
John: So the other variation of this is basically like a Cinderella kind of story where he’s met this girl and then he can’t find this girl. And so instead of her shoe as the only clue he just has her name. And so he’s just going out and searching by her name. And you can create a scenario in which he never got to see her, or it was unclear, or like they were only talking on the phone, there’s something like that. Then like you know if he’s putting this thing out there into the world there are all these Nicoles and maybe he’s trying to figure out who was the actual girl I spoke with. So it was in VR or something so he didn’t know what she really looked like and he’s trying to find her and there’s all these Nicoles coming together.
There’s a version of that that could work, too.
Craig: Yeah. I like that.
John: We’ve saved the romantic comedy, so I just want to make sure that we keep it going. We have to provide sort of new logs to keep that fire burning.
Craig: You know what’s interesting is that this story probably doesn’t even become a story if Nicole isn’t named Nicole. If she’s named like Greta or Amy. Amy is a common name, right?
John: It’s not common anymore. It used to be. But Nicole is just such a common name.
Craig: But there’s something also just about Nicole from last night. It sounds like a title of something.
John: It does.
Craig: And also when you say 80 Nicoles that’s really funny. Whereas if it was like 80 Jessicas is not as funny to me, or like Jessica from last night. Nicole from last night – there’s just something about it. It’s sort of the perfect name for this story.
John: Our last How Would This Be a Movie is a story from Face 2 Face Africa. It is written up by Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson. And it was just a part of WWII that I never heard of before. Meet the gallant all-black American female battalion that served in Europe during WWII. So the write up of the story is nice, but I was honestly really drawn in by the photos. So these black and white photos of these African American women in uniform lined up walking down the street. They were largely like a nurse’s corps and sort of mail delivery and getting people their mail. But I’d just never seen – honestly I’d just never seen black faces in uniform in this context and in WWII. And I loved seeing them.
And so what we actually have in this little write up isn’t very much, but there was a character – a real life person who is mentioned. And I did a little bit more research on her. Mary McLeod Bethune who was sort of a very important civil rights person of the era who actually had a really fascinating life. I wonder if she’s tied into the story you’d actually make here. But I mostly just liked this as a story space. I loved sort of seeing black American women in Europe in WWII.
Craig: Yeah. I’ve seen black men in these pictures, but you’re right I’d never seen black women particularly in uniform together like this in the European theater. So the pictures are fascinating. I think that given that – so primarily they were part of something called the 6888, which I guess they called the Six Triple Eight Central Postal Directory Battalion. So this is an all-black female battalion of the women’s army corps that was sent to parts of France and England to basically deliver mail. This was several years of abandoned and backlogged mail in Europe.
And they were doing this during WWII. It was sort of the tail end, but during WWII. Now, when I see that what I think is the one thing you want to avoid is sort of saying here’s what this movie is. Look, black women in uniform. You’re like, “And, yes? Great. And?” You don’t want to turn into a, see, look, they’re doing it.
So, but what I’ve never seen before is a war drama about delivering a letter. And it reminded me of a little bit of that Saving Private Ryan feel of some small act that needed to happen that wasn’t about capturing a hill or assassinating the enemy. It was about preserving some small shred of humanity for one person who is somewhere out there. And the way they sort of put it here, this could be mail that needed to be delivered to one of our soldiers, but it could also be mail that needed to be delivered to just somebody who lived in Europe. And I think that that provides a possible just storyline for a good old fashioned war story. And based in history. So I thought this was really – I think fairly fertile fodder for a good WWII movie about the kinds of people we haven’t seen before. And when I say kinds of people I don’t mean black women, I mean mail delivery people. Like to me that’s fascinating. And then you put on top of it the fact that we’re dealing with African American women and this was kind of their sort of entrée into the war. I think there’s all sorts of interesting stuff that can come out of it.
John: Absolutely. So you know we had other stories about postal carriers. So we have Il Postino. We have The Postman. We have that sense of part of reestablishing – a lot of this happens after the war. So, reestablishing normalcy is like getting the mail back and making those connections again which I think is great and fascinating. You have a whole – Europe has to rebuild and so you’re trying to come out of this dark place and back to a normalcy and trying to find some sort of normalcy.
What I do think is interesting in having African American women here is that they are completely out of their element. They’re out of America at the time and all the challenges of America at the time. So while there are new challenges in Europe, they aren’t carrying with them – or they’re not confronted at every moment by sort of the expectations of America and being a black woman in America. And so there could be more latitude. They can have different opportunities in Europe than they might be able to have in the United States.
They have the structure of the army. But they also – they’re in Europe. They’re in France. And I think that is potentially great, too. So you can track just the same way that the men who fought in WWII had never expected to go to Europe in their lifetimes and suddenly they’re in Europe. These women are in Europe. They had no prior expectations they would ever be there.
So, I think it’s cool.
Craig: Yeah. I like it. I think that there’s good fodder there for sure.
John: But I think you’re making basically an entirely new story.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: With these people. Or you’re finding, you’re doing a lot of research to find who those people could be that could make it all fit together.
Craig: I would be shocked if there were enough realistic material for a grip – I mean, because honestly when you pour through all of what happened in WWII people are still kind of making up stuff to sort of be able to do the delivery system, like Saving Private Ryan, which I think was based loosely on a sort of thing. You know what I mean?
So I would imagine there would have to be quite a bit of invention here.
John: All right. So it’s come time for us to wrap up and figure out which of these How Would This Be a Movies would be a movie because as listeners know we have a very high track record of the things we pick almost always one of them becomes slated for development.
Craig: It’s almost like people are listening to this. [laughs]
John: Maybe they’re listening to this. So, Craig, if you were to pick one of the five stories we talked about, which one do you think is most likely to become a movie?
Craig: Most likely to become a movie I think–
John: Or picked up for development.
Craig: Picked up for development, it’s a tie. It’s a tie between what I’ll call 80 Nicoles and the Triple Eight Six. Yeah. I think both are likely to be developed.
John: I think both are likely to be developed and I think those are the two winners by far. So the other things had interesting stuff. I bet the Lena Epstein story ends up influencing some other character down the road, but you don’t need to use her. Jacob Wohl, we’ll find characters who are sort of the equivalent of a Jacob Wohl character. That Jacob Wohl character will show up on a Law & Order: SVU at some point.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly.
John: But, no, I don’t think we need any of the specific details from that. I do think there’s a good movie spaced around the Nicoles and this female battalion.
Craig: And I would say the odds in terms of actually being made, 80 Nicoles. Because just in general period pieces and war movies are hard to make. They’re expensive. And there’s sort of a built in reduction in demand. That said, because there is such a hunger based on lack of supply for movies about African American women — Hidden Figures showed us that that can overcome the period piece. And even the sort of what you might consider to be dry subject matter of rocketry math. So that may actually kind of undo what I’m saying here, because 80 Nicoles seems like a fun sort of possible rom-com thing to do. But the Triple Eight Six may be – I hope somebody might look at that and say this fits an underserved demand. Maybe we should make this movie.
John: I also think the 80 Nicoles, like Netflix is already like when can we have that movie.
Craig: They may be done with it right now.
John: No, no, no, we need that movie in 60 days, so get shopping.
Craig: Right. Exactly. I think that Netflix green lit that when we started talking about it, and they’re currently screen testing it right now. [laughs]
John: Indeed. They’ve got it out to casting.
Craig: Netflix, slow down guys. Slow down. It’s like what I tell my kids when they’re eating. Chew. Chew.
John: All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing was sent in by Mike Birbiglia because he wrote it. It is 8 Tips for Getting Your Solo Play to Broadway. Mike Birbiglia, a friend of the show. He’s been on the show once or twice, maybe three times. He is a fantastic writer and performer and comedian. He has a brand new show on Broadway. He wrote up an article for the New York Times, that small little paper, about how you put together a show for Broadway, a one-man show for Broadway, which is delightful like all things Mike Birbiglia. So I would recommend that you read this article and then get tickets to his show and enjoy his show because it’s going to be a terrific show.
So, Mike Birbiglia gets to be my One Cool Thing.
Craig: Mike Birby. Birbs, as I call him, is fantastic. It was really just a coin toss who was going to get to recommend him as our One Cool Thing because he’s a friend of our show. He’s been on our show. And everything he does is really, really good. And I have no doubt that his show is going to be extremely well reviewed, critically acclaimed, because he’s everyone’s darling. He’s certainly my darling. I love that guy.
And talk about a talented block of people. He lives right near Jorma Taccone and Mari Heller.
John: I believe they share a wall actually.
Craig: They do. I think they’re in a duplex sort of, I don’t know, thing.
John: It’s a NYC thing.
Craig: It’s in New York. It’s really cool. So anyone, Mike Birbiglia. Awesome. I’m going to see that show for sure.
My One Cool Thing is way dorkier than that. It’s a game called Decrypto. Have you played it yet, John?
John: No, I have not. But I opened this up. So it’s on Board Game Geek. It looks like it’s a board game. Why am I not playing this right now?
Craig: I don’t know. So here is the deal. Have you played Code Names?
John: Of course. Code Names is great.
Craig: Of course you have. Decrypto is kind of Code Names in reverse. It’s incredibly simple to play. So the idea is let’s say you and I are on a team together. We have four words that you and I can see. Those four words do not change throughout the many rounds. It’s like pumpkin, hat, sand, and car. And every round one of us will pick a card that has numbers on it like 1-2-4, or 4-3-3, or 4-3-2, and basically it’s giving us an order and we’re supposed to clue. I need to clue to you in order which of those words I want you to say back to me.
And you’re thinking well how hard is that, we’re both looking at the words. What’s the big deal? Here’s the problem. The other team is hearing my clue words to you. They’re writing them down. And the deal is if they can figure out from clue words what our clue words are then they’re going to win. So I have to clue these to you in such a way that you get them, but misdirect anybody else that might be listening who doesn’t see what the words are.
It’s so much fun. I love it. I was introduced to it by no surprise David Kwong. Decrypto is super fun. And you can play it honestly I think as a family it doesn’t require a lot of age stuff. Sort of like Code Names. It’s great that way. It’s super simple. You learn it in about, I don’t know, five minutes. And then it just becomes really – it just becomes really fun.
So, a big thumbs up for Decrypto. I’m playing it tonight in fact.
John: Very nice. I look forward to playing that with you at some point in the future.
That’s our show for this week. So as always our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Matthew. And so it’s sort of a horror theme, and I know Halloween has already passed, but you know what, terror can strike at any moment.
John: Yeah. I want to make a Halloween movie that takes place mostly on November 2. Just like you think you’re out of it, nope. Nope.
Craig: I like that. I like November 2nd. Yeah. That’s pretty good.
John: It’s like After the Day of the Dead.
Craig: Open up another beach head in the horror front.
John: Yes. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. We need some more outros. We’ve got a few saved up, but we can always use more. So remember just like as long as it includes some version of [hums] that’s all an outro has to have in it.
firstname.lastname@example.org is also the place where you send your questions and follow up things like the people who did today. For short questions on Twitter I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
You can find us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening to this right now. But if you could leave us a review that would be swell because it helps people find the show.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. We will put in links to all of the articles we talked about, but also a bunch of articles we didn’t talk about because they were other potentially good movies. In some cases the articles were just really long and I didn’t want to read them.
Craig: Too long; didn’t read.
John: Yep. But you’ll find the transcripts also at johnaugust.com. They go up within the week of the episode airing. And you can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net. That’s also where you’ll find the Random Advice episode that we just posted which is delightful, so thank you to everyone who subscribed and sent in a question because that’s why that episode exists.
John: All right, Craig, thank you so much for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John, and I’ll see you next time.
- FilmStruck is Shutting Down
- Aaron Sauerland’s tweet about writing for ensembles
- Novelist Who Penned ‘How To Murder Your Husband’ Essay Charged With Husband’s Murder by Laurel Wamsley for NPR
- Never Go Full Trump: The Lena Epstein Story by Josh Marshal for TPM
- The Humiliating Crash and Burn of Pro-Trump Media Star Jacob Wohl Is the Best Political Story of the Season by Dustin Rowles for Pajiba
- ‘Nicole From Last Night’: University Of Calgary Student Mass Emails 247 Nicoles by Maija Kappler for Huffington Post
- Meet the gallant all-black American female battalion that served in Europe during World War II by Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson for Face 2 Face Africa.
- Mary McLeod Bethune
- 6 Tips for Getting Your Solo Play to Broadway by Mike Birbiglia
- T-shirts are available here! We’ve got new designs, including Colored Revisions, Karateka, and Highland2.
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- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
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