The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. So today’s episode is the live Three Page Challenge we recorded at the Austin Film Festival a few weeks ago. There is some swearing, so keep that in mind if you’re listening in the car with your kids. If you’d like to see another live show with me and Craig and a bunch of other great guests we just started selling tickets to the December live show, December 12th at 8pm in Hollywood. So if you want a ticket for that you can go to the link in the show notes or to wgafoundation.org. Enjoy the show.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is the Three Page Challenge of Scriptnotes. And so what we do on a Three Page Challenge is we invite folks to send in the first three pages of their script. It can be a feature, it can be a TV pilot. It’s not always the first three pages, but it’s usually the first three pages. It’s confusing if it’s not the first three pages. And we talk about what we’ve read.
And so a crucial thing we should all note is that these are not necessarily the best things we’ve read. They’re the things that have the most interesting stuff to talk about. So, people were brave enough to send them in, so we always commend the folks who are brave to send their work out so we can all discuss it in this room and on the air. So let’s applaud for all these folks.
Craig: And we should thank our producer, Megan, who is the one that makes these selections. In a sense, the people here are slightly less brave than the usual people because we’re nicer in person. It’s just sort of a–
John: Well, except that they’re also brave because they’re going to come up. That’s the difference between the live thing. They’re actually going to come up and talk to us about the things they wrote which–
Craig: It’s a wash. They’re about as brave as everybody else.
John: They’re just about as brave as any normal people. And they’re braving a hot day, a very cold air-conditioned room for us to talk about this.
Craig: It’s freezing up here. But we do have another thing going for us on this kind of Three Page Challenge which is we have help.
John: We do have help. So with help in the form of guest analyzers of scripts. First off let’s welcome up Lindsay Doran. The legendary Lindsay Doran. Lindsay is a producer whose credits include Stranger than Fiction, Sense and Sensibility, Nanny McPhee, Dead Again. Executive producer on The Firm, Sabrina. She’s the former President and CEO of United Artists. She is right now the script whisperer. She is the person that people go to help solve script problems. So we are very lucky to have her with us today.
Do you have a microphone Lindsay Doran?
Lindsay Doran: Got it.
John: We are so excited to have you.
Lindsay: Thank you.
John: Our other guest is Jewerl Ross. Jewerl Ross is a manager and the founder of Silent R Management. His clients include such names as Barry Jenkins, Matthew Aldrich, Jack Stanley, Our Lady J, Evan Endicott, and Hannah Schneider.
Craig: That’s where the real bravery is. A manager shows up at the Austin Screenwriting Film Festival. That’s impressive.
Jewerl Ross: Glad to be here.
Craig: All right.
John: Before we get started talking about these three page samples, I want to talk about reading scripts overall because the two of you must read an enormous quantity of scripts and you’re probably reading them for different reasons. So I’m guessing Lindsay you’re often reading scripts for things that are in development and things that are going hopefully into production. And you have an eye for what are the challenges, what are the problems, how can we make this script better. But you’re not doing the basic filtering at this point. Like you’re not reading terrible things. You’re reading maybe pretty good things that need to become great. Is that fair for what you’re doing right now?
John: Microphones are so helpful for a recorded podcast.
Lindsay: Here I thought you and I were just talking.
John: Oh yeah.
Lindsay: So when I nod it doesn’t really do you any good? Yeah. So that’s true.
John: That’s true. And are most of your conversations these days with the writers, or with studios and producers who are coming to you for guidance on scripts?
Lindsay: Both. Both absolutely. I mean, I’m usually hired by studios but then I end up in the rooms with the writers. Once and a while things are in such bad shape that it’s about how do we get this in the kind of shape that we could even give it to a writer to do something with. Craig knows what I’m talking about there.
Craig: I didn’t write that one.
Lindsay: [laughs] But, no, a lot of the time I’m working directly with the writers.
John: And Jewerl, are you still filtering, because I feel like early on in your career you probably were just reading a ton of stuff and having to just triage like is this even a person I should consider as a client.
John: Are you still doing that now, or you have so many people that you–
Jewerl: No. I’m lucky that I have enough people to filter things and so hopefully the things – I’m only reading client stuff, current clients, and things that my people think are great. And occasionally, you know, if something comes well recommended. Like if Lindsay sends me a script but I give it to my people and my people are like Jewerl don’t read it, I will occasionally say, “Well, I like Lindsay a lot. She has great taste.” So I’ll dip into their pile every so often.
John: So, how far into a script do you need to read before you see that this is a person who has a talent, has a voice, has an interesting thing. How long does it take you to get into a script before you get that sense?
Jewerl: You know, I can get that in two pages.
John: We gave you a third.
Jewerl: I mean, you can certainly see a bad script on page one. You know, but there was a script that was on the Black List that one of my clients was attached to direct at one point. I’ll remember the name in a minute. That the writing was so magical. The world was so interesting. I mean, it was like – I think about that script often because that’s what I want to feel right away. Like I’m in the hands of someone special.
You know, like craft is interesting and figuring out how to – act breaks is interesting. But what’s more interesting is someone who is doing something so differently. That has a perspective on the world that’s so different. And I did get that this year. I signed this 23-year-old kid out of Penn. His professor called me and said, “This guy is a genius and I’ve heard about you.” And so she sent me the script and it was the weirdest thing. It broke every screenwriting rule.
Craig: Thank god.
Jewerl: It took me five hours to read it.
Craig: Oh, cool.
Jewerl: And I think he’s a genius.
Craig: It broke every screenwriting rule. It broke every screenwriting rule. Remember that. Love it.
Lindsay: It started at the end.
Craig: We’ve already seen that. That was already a movie.
John: It was white letters on black paper.
Craig: Ooh. I would read that.
John: Lindsay, how quickly – he says he can do it in two pages. When do you get a sense of when a writer has a voice?
Lindsay: I try to be more generous than that, even though I do completely understand why the first page tells you an awful lot. The second page tells you an awful lot. I do a thing that I did yesterday morning called The First Ten Pages based on the situation I had with Dead Again where I found out later on that Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson were reading a ton of scripts at the same time. He had just made Henry V and he was getting sent a million things and he was touring the world with King Lear and Midsummer Night’s Dream and they were carrying around dozens, and dozens, and dozens of scripts.
So they just said we’re just going to read the first ten pages of everything and if we don’t like it we’re going to throw it away. And they had a huge trash can in their dressing room at the theaters. And when they read the first ten pages of Dead Again they missed their cue. Because they were so excited and they couldn’t wait to get off stage so they could keep reading.
So that is in my mind. And I do remember the first time I ever read Scott Frank. The first time I read Little Man Tate I called the agent on page 11 and said I don’t have to read anymore. I just want to meet this guy. And I know when Emma Thompson was reading Stranger than Fiction she called me on page 11 and said I don’t have to read anymore. So, I do know that it can make an impression on you that quickly.
Craig: Yeah. It would seem it’s a lot harder to determine how far to read to decide that somebody is great. But it should be fairly easy to determine that somebody is absolutely never, ever, ever, ever, ever going to qualify as a screenwriter. That you can sometimes see in four words.
John: Craig, I want to push back a little on that.
Craig: Go for it. You think you can get it down to two words?
John: Some of what we’re talking about is voice and vision. But some of what we’re talking about is purely craft. And sometimes you read stuff where the writer clearly has not read a lot of screenplays and doesn’t have a sense of what the form is. So they’re really struggling with the form and having a hard time understanding–
Craig: I would never turn something aside because the form was incorrect. It’s just sometimes you can read a few things and you realize just the mind is not a particularly strong mind. I mean, you guys have read things, right, where you’re like–
Jewerl: You guys are harsher than I am. Geez.
Craig: Oh, you have no idea.
Jewerl: Geez, I’m going to like you.
John: I mean, some of the things that knock it out quickly for me is when it’s halfway through the first page and I’m already on a cliché. And there’s no spin on the cliché. You’re just in this really rote moment. And it’s like, OK, if you’re doing that so early I don’t have good faith that it’s going to be worth my time to do it. And really what we’re talking about, reading a screenplay is an act of faith. If I’m going to give you an hour, two hours, five hours of my time, and the writer says I’m going to make it worth your while to do that. And there’s trust and faith. And if you break that trust, that sort of social contract between the writer and the reader, that’s a problem. And that contract starts on page one.
Lindsay: When I was doing my First Ten Pages workshop yesterday morning two of the scripts, the worst writing in the scripts were in the first page and a half. They were both things where they were putting the bomb under the table. You know, they were setting up the thriller underneath the other stuff. And once I got to the other stuff the writing was really sound and really good. They just didn’t know how to do that whole other thing.
So, and yet I was trying to convey that a lot of people will just put it down after a page and a half. If you’re not on the top of your game on page one. At that workshop I talk a lot about how everybody who reads your script has too much to read. Would rather be doing something else. They’re exhausted and distracted. So that’s what you’re up against. And that’s what we’re up against with the audience really. They may have paid the ticket, but they’re still thinking about a lot of other things before the lights go down.
So we have to grab people who would rather be thinking about something else or doing something else. That’s the job.
Jewerl: You know, I never stop reading at page two. I always give someone ten, 20, 30 pages. You know, I’ve been developing a TV pilot with Howard Gordon who produced 24 and some other big television shows.
Craig: X-Files. I think he was on X-Files.
Jewerl: Yeah, all these big television shows. And I stopped feeling bad because he has this thing where if there’s a logic problem on page 12 he can’t go to page 13. He’s like we have to fix the logic problem here before I can get to the – it’s an OCD thing with him. And I’ve appreciated that because it’s like when there are too many logic problems for me they’ve lost me. I can’t – I’m not longer in fantasy. I’m in why do you suck.
Lindsay: You think he’s meaner than you. Wow.
John: Yeah. Let’s hope he doesn’t repeat those words.
Craig: I can outdo that. I can absolutely go – that was positively Amadeusian. That was the greatest laugh I’ve ever heard. That was amazing.
Jewerl: I still want to figure out the name of that script. The three pages. I’ve been looking at my phone and I can’t figure it out.
Craig: The one that you loved, loved, loved?
Craig: Well we should probably deal with these three pages.
John: We should. So I’m going to look at my phone and I’m going to read the summary for this first script. So as a reminder if you are in this audience and want to read along the pages with us, or if you’re at home listening to this podcast you can go to johnaugust.com/aff2018. Or if you’re listening to the podcast you can just click the links there. This is Night Trauma by Athena Frost.
We open in a boy’s bedroom in Chicago where 50-year-old Raimond Fanon is performing a ritual with incense. The young boy clings to his mother. Aimee Fanon, a woman in her mid-20s says the boy needs to stay in order to draw it out.
Raimond says that Connor Leidenfrost should remain outside, but Connor says my monster, my fight. Raimond begins chanting. The room begins to shake violently. Something bursts out of the closet, moving so fast we can’t finally see it until it ends up atop Connor. The monster is six-feet tall and thin as a broomstick, with sharp claws that cut down to Connor’s body armor. Raimond magically holds the creature and shouts to cut off its head.
Aimee dispatches it with Connor’s knife.
We cut to a hospital in Seattle where an Asian man in his 20s pushes his way into a critical care room. There, doctors Foster and Goralczyk are working on a gunshot victim. And that’s where we’re at on the bottom of the first three pages.
Lindsay, do you want to start us off? Talk about your first impressions going through these three pages.
Lindsay: Well, Craig knows that I have this thing about where is everybody standing. It drives him crazy. He thinks it drives other writers I work with crazy.
Craig: Only because they told me so.
Lindsay: Oh well, OK. If you’re going to go with that. So, I have to say my first impression was I couldn’t tell where anybody was standing. You start in the room. It’s boy’s room. But then the character comes into the room. I couldn’t tell whether those other people were in the room. So I was just confused and there’s – I work a lot with Phil Lord and Chris Miller on their movies and they always refer to me as Captain Clarity because if I can’t get past the clarity of the situation I have a really hard time getting engaged.
So, for example, I thought Connor was the father for a while because he talked about my monster, and so I thought that’s why he was there. But then he seemed to already know those other people and he was the one with the knife. So I guess he must work with them, but they don’t seem to like him. I was having such a hard time. Because I love the situation. I love being in a situation where it’s so scary and you need the boy to draw it out. Aye-aye-aye. What the heck? All of that seemed really, really good to me, but I was so troubled by the clarity of the situation that it was getting in the way of the suspense of the situation for me.
Jewerl: I totally agree. The geography of the room–
Jewerl: Is impossible to know. Like for example, paragraph three, “He pulls out a small gray puck,” and I highlight the word puck. I don’t know what a puck is. “From his bag and lights it on top of an incense burner.”
OK, so he has a bag. He can light something while holding the bag and put it on an incense burner. I’m trying to imagine him doing that and I can’t imagine him doing it because I would need a third arm to do all of those things and hold those things.
And then you say he edges slowly into the room. Well, you’ve already told me that I’m in the interior of the room. And so how can he come into the room that he’s already in? And then when you introduce, mother has dialogue next, and mother says, “What is he doing?” Well, you’ve only described Raimond and you’ve described Raimond already in the room. You never told me that mother even existed. And so now I’m thinking she’s off-screen. She’s like – she’s saying something and you just didn’t write OS or something.
Like I don’t know – and so then I read more and there are more characters there and I’m like I was scared. I thought we were doing something where people were magically maybe appearing. Maybe he’s having a fantasy sequence. That they’re not really alive. I didn’t know if there were real characters in the room at that moment.
John: So geography was the first thing I underlined on the page because I got confused where we were. But I felt like if you’re introducing characters in the middle of the scene that totally works, but you need to tell us that we’re not supposed to see that they’re there until they start speaking. So like the word reveal is useful. So like we reveal a young boy clinging to the mother’s waist. Then it’s that sense of like OK now we’re seeing this kid for the first time.
If you set up the mother but we hadn’t seen the boy, and then you used reveal to show that the boy was clinging to his mother, that’s great. Then you’re adding to the scene versus just piling more stuff on.
The challenge with so many characters in a scene, I got really confused who was driving the scene. Who was in charge of the scene?
John: Because my assumption would be that it would be Raimond because he’s the first character who spoke. He’s the first character we meet. He’s not the first character who speaks. So I assumed that he was going to be driving the scene. But it seems like Connor is. And ultimately Aimee is. And we don’t know enough about any of them to sort of really have a sense of who has the storytelling power in the scene and through whose eyes were supposed to be watching this thing unfurl.
Craig: These people are terribly mean. Let me be very, very nice to you for a second.
Lindsay: Living up to his reputation.
Craig: Exactly. No, everything they’ve said is true and we’ll get around to it, and then I’ll be worse. But what I like a lot is that there is a situation. I’m not – it’s sort of reminded me a little bit of Constantine. It had a little bit of a Constantine kind of vibe to it, but it was different. I loved the description of the monster and so I’ll just do a quick little thing here.
I loved the way you did this. This monster appears through sound, which was wonderful. And then we couldn’t find him. It says, “The sound is continuously getting louder. It is in the room somewhere but we can’t see it directly. A flash here. In the corner of the eye there.” I can imagine that and I’m feeling it which is great. “Raimond motions for everyone to stop moving. No one can hear anything anymore.” That’s cool. I can see that. I can feel that. “He stands calmly in the middle of the room and pushes the incense away from him, talking quietly.” Then it says, “All sound stops,” which means that you’ve done that twice, right? You know that because nobody could hear anything else. But that’s a side.
What I loved was I’m learning about him and how he responds to things around him. I’m learning about his character through this action and his choices, which is great. And then the description of the monster is wonderful. “Over six feet tall but as thin as a broomstick, it glares at the three of them through shiny black eyes. Tufts of lint hang on to its glistening body. Its skin looks like it’s wet with syrupy tar. It spews out its previous meal of skin and hair and cloth.” I mean, I don’t know exactly what it looks like but that’s so cool. And so I kind of imagine this creepy, gross, like oily laundry monster. So amazing.
There’s all this really cool shit going on. But now here’s what’s going on. Why they’re confused I think in part is you’ve left them too much room to fill in. The human mind is expert at filling in gaps. That’s how we move through the world because we don’t see everything happening. We fill in gaps. So he starts to fill in gaps. I didn’t see her in the room. I’m hearing her voice. She must be outside of the room. Two or three of those mistakes in a row and everyone is completely lost.
So, I will absolutely be Captain Clarity with you as well. You can’t go into a room if you’re already in the room. There’s a point here where the mom says to her son, “Don’t worry. I won’t let it past this door.” What door? They’re already in the room. So are they just outside of the room? Are they in the hallway? Are they looking through the room? This is where I’m totally like you because what I think you need to do is set your stage. Just think about how to set this stage. John is absolutely right that there’s no real strong perspective in the scene.
So, when we talk about perspective we mean to say, for instance, “RAIMOND FANON (50s) looks a bit Rastafarian at first glance with his dreads and dark skin, but he carries himself…” Great description there. Black Dumbledore. Amazing. And then mother. I would do that off screen. What is he doing? Raimond turns to see an old woman standing there with a younger woman and a son. She’s scared. The young – you know? Put it in his perspective. Let that motivation. See what I mean?
When we’re shooting scenes that’s how we break down how to do it. Someone’s head turns to see something. And it’s his perspective because I think you’re right. It feels like it’s his scene.
The only other thing I would mention to you is the – I don’t know who Connor Leidenfrost is. I don’t know how he fits into this. Here’s what my mind did. My mind saw that Connor Leidenfrost – just from his name I went sounds white. Then nods to Aimee as he follows Raimond into the room. Nods to Aimee. Friend? Husband? Boyfriend? Not sure.
“He’s a handsome, corn-fed Midwesterner,” nailed the white, and then it says, “Accent and all the backward thought that comes with it.” And I went, oh, racist. Wait, hold on. What’s this racist doing with all these black people? Just reasonable.
Lindsay: That’s why I thought he was the father.
Craig: Wait, what?
Lindsay: There’s a mother and a son. I thought he was the father of that child.
Craig: The racist father?
Lindsay: Well I didn’t know where else he could fit into this thing. Eventually I realized–
Craig: OK. So I wasn’t really sure. You can see where we’re all really, really puzzled. And when he says, “My monster, my fight,” then I thought, OK, he seems to work with Raimond, so maybe they’re like a team. But he’s a racist? So I’m trying to figure out, OK, then what’s Raimond’s feeling about him and how does that work? And also all you’ve really told me is you’ve told me he’s a racist. But nothing he’s doing here is racist. So don’t tell me he’s a racist now. Reveal it later when it’s going to shock us and we’re going to go, oh, that explains why – really it’s just more like he seems like this perfectly fine person except that his partner is like, eh. You know what I mean? It’s all about that perspective.
So, anyway, oh, final, final thing. When all the clothes get torn away it says, “Clothes rip away to body armor.” Body armor underneath regular clothes for a guy like this is a bit surprising. This is one area where you might want to think about all-capping that, or underlining, or something. Just so that the reader doesn’t just go right past it. Because that’s actually really interesting.
John: It’s a really cool detail. Because it shows that he was prepared. It’s a surprise that you’re giving us, which is awesome. So, give yourself some weight on the page so we can see that and know that it’s a really cool moment.
Craig: Yeah. But there’s a really good thing going on here. Like I actually want to keep – I want to see what happens. I just think – take this all in. This is all kind of the best possible sort of mistake in that it’s super-duper fixable.
John: Yeah. You know what the great thing is. She’s just not a voice on the other end listening to us. She’s actually here. Athena Frost, can you come up and take a chair here?
Craig: And you know I’m so happy that Megan picked Athena’s work because Athena has been to many of our shows.
John: I recognized her name. I was curious whether she’d actually been on a Three Page Challenge before.
Craig: She’s a physicist.
John: I like physicists.
Craig: Astro. She’s an astrophysicist.
Lindsay: Oh my god. So you’re a rocket scientist.
Athena: No, no, no, no. I’m not an engineer.
Craig: No, no, no, no. Those were the applied people here. She’s more theoretical. All right.
John: So, Athena, so what we’ve talked through here, you obviously have a geography in your head, and so what we were thinking about with like they’re mostly in the hall but some of them are going into the room. Were we right there?
Athena: Yeah. That’s what’s going on.
John: Are the three characters, so are Connor and Raimond and Aimee, are they the three main characters we’re going to follow in the course of this story?
Athena: Yes, they are.
John: And this kind of monster we saw in the first one is the first of many monsters we’re going to see in the course of the story?
Athena: Three for three. Yes.
John: All right. So what I think is good about this is I was able to make the right assumptions about what kind of script this was and what kind of movie I was going into based on these first three pages which is awesome. Because there’s nothing worse than like you’ve read something and you’re like this feels like a thriller and then you come up and tell us, “No, no, it’s a goofy romantic comedy.” And then it’s like, ah.
Craig: Tonally it was consistent. I think we all kind of probably saw the same thing happening, so that was great.
John: What world is this happening in? I had a hard time figuring out what kind of universe this was. What city are we in? What does this feel like?
Craig: And what time period?
John: Is it present day?
Athena: Yeah. So this is present day. It takes place in Chicago on the south side, which is where I’m from. And so the idea is that it’s a supernatural TV show that takes place in a hospital. So later you’re going to find out that Aimee is the head nurse of the ER. And that Connor Leidenfrost is a doctor.
John: It feels like you changed some stuff there or you’re not quite sure.
Athena: No, no, no. I mean, he’s a doctor to most people, but he essentially took over this other guy who died. Like weird backstory.
John: So where are you at in the process of writing this? This is whole thing done? Is this something you’re working on right now?
Athena: Yeah. The whole thing is done. I know that I need another rewrite and essentially very related to you all’s notes which is that I need to make some things more clear. A lot of times people are like left with questions.
Craig: Yeah. Well, you know, it’s always that game we play of mystery versus confusion. Keep the mystery. Avoid the confusion. One thing to think about on a page one sort of thing now that we know where this is set is the very first thing people see will be – it will kind of help them understand what you’re going for and what’s special about your show.
So, for instance, in this case you’re in the south side of Chicago, but I would never know it. This could be any year. He’s pulling out incense and he seems a little old-fashioned in a way. So, if I heard or saw through a window South Side of Chicago and then just moved away from that to this weird situation that doesn’t feel like the typical South Side Chicago story that would be kind of cool.
Just something to get us into your world.
John: Or to the establishing shot that sort of begins this thing where you can paint a picture of what neighborhood we’re in would really help anchor us and sort of know that we’re in a specific place and time that’s going to carry through.
But this sounds cool. In your head is this more Buffy or is this more Grimm? Is this Grey’s Anatomy with monsters? What is this in your head?
Athena: The comps I usually do is Grey’s Anatomy meets Supernatural. More recent ones that people like to do is I think they like to say Gray and Constantine.
Craig: Yeah. I definitely had a Constantine vibe. One more thing for you to think about. When you get to the hospital scene at the end, your first scene there has an annoyed nurse, a woman, a child, and an Asian man. That’s four no-named people. So, I’m OK with one no-named person. Maybe two at the most. But I kind of want to know that I don’t have a scene with four day players kind of moving around. Just something to think about there. Cool.
John: Athena Frost, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you, Athena. Which one should we do next?
John: Let’s do The Conch Republic.
Craig: Is it Conch or Conch?
John: It could be either one.
John: Conch, sorry. Got the author here.
Craig: I have the conch.
John: Do you want to read it?
Craig: I’ll read the summary, yes. The Conch Republic by Elden Rhoads. We’re on a commercial fishing boat off Key West, Florida. It’s June 1975. Kittens sniff a chum bucket. The fishermen speak a mix of English and Spanish. Eduardo and Hector talk about the kittens and then use them as bait to catch sharks.
Oh, get over it. Felix, 30, is a burly fisherman. Fisherman? Fisherman. Drags Ramon Sanchez, 20s, up from below deck. Sanchez swears he doesn’t know who called the cops. Felix says Sanchez was going to testify against Artie. The men throw Sanchez to the sharks. Notice no one cared that a man was fed to sharks. It’s a human being, but fine.
Cut to one month earlier. In Miami police officer Carmen Soto, 20s, rides in a squad car with partner Cal Lakewood, 40s. Lakewood tells the story of finding a missing woman in a smelly apartment. Soto is unimpressed and keeps eating her sandwich.
And that is our summary for The Conch Republic by Elden Rhoads. So–?
John: So, before we get started here we have to – who can raise a hand and tell me what trait we saw in this script? What specific Three Page Challenge phenomenon we witnessed in this script?
Craig: Stuart Special.
John: It’s a Stuart Special! A Stuart Special is when you go through some time and then you jump back in time to sort of set things up. So, I just want to acknowledge the Stuart Special.
Craig: Lives on.
John: It lives on even after Stuart Friedel has left us. Jewerl, can you start us off with your first read on Conch Republic and what saw as you were reading through it.
Jewerl: I was just looking on my notes and I have a lot of little, little things about language. A lot of little, little things about why you used this language here. But I think overall I really liked these pages.
John: What was it that you made you spark to them?
Jewerl: It’s vivid. When I was looking at the geography of the boat and the fishing line and the chum in the water and what these guys were doing. And it was clearly gritty. And then we pan and we see these kittens. And at first I wrote why have you introduced kittens on a boat with fishing gear, like you’ve changed the tone of the movie. That was my note right then.
John: Yeah. Right then.
Jewerl: But then when he puts the kittens on the fishing line and they go into the water and the sharks eat them I’m like, OK. And then when they bring out the man and they throw the man overboard so the shark can eat him, I’m like this is a lot of work to kill someone, but it’s F-ing cool.
Craig: So great.
John: It’s an amazing laugh. Lindsay, what did you read as you were going through this?
Lindsay: I don’t disagree with anything you said. But you kill in a kitten in a script and I’m out. I’m out. I’m a proud owner of a brand new kitten. I cannot read about kittens being thrown overboard. Craig will be glad to know I also felt really bad about the guy. I felt really terrible about that.
Jewerl: And I happen to be a dog person.
Lindsay: See? Good person. Bad person. Can read about kittens/can’t read about kittens. But I think it’s important to say that certain people are going to read this and just say that’s it. I wish I could unread these pages.
John: Yeah. Because we’re talking the first three pages. And so as a person who can’t read about – the kittens freaked me out. And so I had a hard time going back and reading it a second time. The second time I was like, OK, you get desensitized to the kitten death. But, here’s what I’ll say on the second read through is that the first read through I was so shocked by the kittens and then the guy gets thrown overboard that I wasn’t paying attention to the dialogue and sort of to what the guy was saying, what Sanchez and Felix, what their dialogue was about. And so I wasn’t really paying attention. There’s something going on between them. Someone is betraying somebody else.
The second time through when the shock wasn’t there so much I was looking at the dialogue and I wasn’t believing the Sanchez/Felix moment. Here’s the reason why. This guy was beaten up down below decks and then is brought up deck. And he’s saying the things I think he probably would have said down below. I didn’t feel like it was his final pleading. I felt like he was saying those things for me and the audience and not for himself in those moments. It didn’t feel real like what he would be saying in those moments.
So, if he’d been blindfolded and then blindfold was off and he realized where he was then I might be able to buy sort of what he’s doing there right now. But I feel like he already knows he’s on a boat. He already knows he’s really screwed. So I need to have a different way in. I always think about how would you direct that actor. What would you be talking to that actor about? I feel like I wouldn’t have the note for him given the lines that are there right now.
Craig: We have a typo on the very first line. June has an E at the end of it.
Elden: Oh, that’s throughout the script. I just used (inaudible).
Craig: Why? I guess later on when I saw Aug or Sep I would know, but here it just looked like Jun. Regardless, I think the best thing about this are the kittens. Here’s the deal. She’s right. You will lose people on the kitten thing. But, the name of the game is not to get the most people to sort of like something. The name of the game is to get one person to fall in love with something. So I thought it was shocking and remarkable. I’ve never seen it before. That alone gets a huge checkmark.
I think in a weird way you didn’t do it enough in a sense, because it’s so shocking you have to kind of build the moment around it. So for instance the first line – well first it says, “On board, KITTENS sniff the chum bucket. Looking closely at the litter, we see they all have six toes.” No we don’t.
John: No one will see that.
Craig: No one is going to see that. Ever. We’re not looking that close. And you want us to look at all those paws all at the same time? That’s not the way cameras work. And more important, that’s not important right now. There are kittens on a ship. What’s that about?
The first line is Eduardo, “Why all the gatos?” No. No, no, no, no. Everybody should know what the cats are for. The cats are the last thing on their mind. They know what the cats are for. The cats don’t know what the cats are for. But I want to think, right, lull me into a sense of security. Like that these guys are on a fishing trip and they just have cats. They like the cats. Maybe they’re feeding them some of the fish. They’re pets. They’re lovely. It’s fun.
And then when they casually grab one and stick it on a thing we go oh my god. It will come out of nowhere. It will be terrifying. So, that I think is important.
I want to read–
Lindsay: Yeah, make it worse.
Craig: Yes! Yes. If you’re going to do it, do it is my point. Right? Aim for me. You’re never going to get her. But you can get me, right?
Craig: This is the second line. I just want to read this. “FISHERMEN, leathery skin burned rusty brown by the tropical sun, monitor their thousand pound test fishing lines plunged 300 feet below the sapphire blue waters.” Do you sense a certain monotony to the rhythm there? So when you have a three-line sentence and it’s da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da without much punctuation or breaking it’s going to start to – you know, people want to skip past that stuff anyway. So, make it a little bit more fun or a little more breaky-choppy.
John is 100% right. This deal with Felix does not work because it’s not real. So we talk about emotional math. We are doing the emotional calculations here and we are immediately coming up with a wrong answer. For instance, they drag him up. “I swear man, you got to believe me. Please. It wasn’t me.”
These are not the most original lines in the world. However, that’s probably what somebody would say there. I believe the math.
He gets hit on the face. He falls to the side of the boat. And then a yellow pool forms between his legs and Felix says, “Damn, he pissed himself.” Felix has seen people piss themselves a thousand times. Felix doesn’t even notice anymore. Felix feeds cats to sharks. This is all in a day’s work for Felix. Let us go – in fact, we learn something when somebody sees a man pee and goes, uh-huh, we learn about them. OK. This ain’t your first man peeing.
Lindsay: He’s one of those.
Craig: Yeah. He’s one of those guys.
Jewerl: I’m having so much fun.
Lindsay: There’s more challenges here than just the three pages.
Craig: And so I think John is right that this feels like an info dump and it’s coming from somebody under emotional distress who is the worst possible choice for an info dump. Because when people are under emotional distress they don’t speak in complete thoughts. They are not concerned with the information anybody else needs. Sometimes they can barely get words out at all. And so you can be interesting and creative about that.
If you need an info dump, he can try to say something and they can say, “Yes, we know. Blah-blah-blah. You said it a thousand times. It’s still not true.” Kick. You know what I mean? Find ways where the emotional math works.
I love this little bit at the end where he’s like, “Whew, not this cat. This is my daughter’s cat.” I thought that was great.
The only issue is I would think maybe to pull it earlier because if you’re going to do a Stuart Special you kind of have to cut on a moment of shock. And this is sort of – the moment of shock is they feed Sanchez to the sharks. Maybe the cat can meow and then cut. But there can’t be probably too much chitchat and then cut. This conversation between Soto and Lakewood, I’m having some emotional math problems here too. I feel like it’s trying very hard to make me feel something about Lakewood. Lakewood is talking to Soto like he’s never been in a car with her before. I mean, are they new partners?
Elden: He’s a rookie.
Craig: OK, have they been together for more than a day?
Elden: It’s very, very early.
Craig: Then I need to know that. Even the way he’s telling the story feels so casual, like two partners, and she’s like, “I’m eating my sandwich. You’re so boring with your stories.” So it was a mismatch. If he’s like let me tell you, you’re new, so let me tell you something. Whatever it has to be so we know that they don’t know each very well, then he would tell this story differently.
Also, why this story? Why is he telling it to her? Just to gross her. She’s a cop. You know what I mean? You’ve got to do a lot of that emotional math. And constantly ask is this true. I know I want to do it, but is it true?
Jewerl: By the way, for me the most important thing about these three pages, I wanted to read more.
John: That’s crucial.
John: Elden, you’re here. Can you come up and talk to us about so we can know more about.
Elden: If there’s anybody from PETA please don’t kill me.
Craig: They’re just words. Just words.
John: So on the title page it says inspired by actual events. So can you tell us the shortest version of what are the actual events and were kittens harmed?
Elden: This is literally a story I heard around the dinner table as a child. Growing up in Key West, very shortly in the ‘70s it was a very big drug trade going on. And it was dark. So, this story just came out of – I thought if I ever told the story about Key West and the Conch Republic this was always the opening scene. Cats were used as bait on commercial fishing boats. And I heard this story many, many times growing up.
And to what you’re saying about the shock value of it, the Ramon character I really had to build it out because I had him just coming up with a blindfold on and being thrown overboard and the first people who read it literally didn’t even notice that a person went overboard and was killed because they were so freaked out–
Jewerl: Cat people.
Elden: About the cats.
Elden: And I’m not like deliberately doing it to be shocking. I’m doing it because this is literally the stories that I heard.
Craig: Yeah. It’s cool. Don’t apologize for this. It’s awesome.
Lindsay: You’re horrible.
Craig: I know.
Elden: And so I had to expand. They’re like give him some lines. I didn’t even notice that he went overboard. Give him some lines. And what would he say?
So, when you’re saying that I’m like going back and the history of the rewrites and saying, OK, I was little clumsy here because I’m just trying to force this dialogue in here so people are paying attention.
Craig: I have an idea. Do you want an idea? I don’t know if it’s right or not, but what you could do is while these guys are talking and catching sharks with cats, you could just show that there’s a guy sitting there who is all beaten up and gagged watching. You know, so we’re like who is that, but he’s also – now the cats are contextualized in oh my fucking – these people do that to cats, I’m so fucked.
John: So, I mean, I think the other thing Craig might be suggesting is that is there a piece of information you want to get out of them. Are you just there to dispose of the body? Because you could kill him in advance and it wouldn’t really matter. Or are you trying to get some information out of him? That makes the scene alive.
Elden: Well, I’m trying to – I mean, the thing about Artie, this guy is a snitch. He snitched on Artie. Artie is a big kingpin/drug dealer/gun runner who is one of the main characters in the rest of the story. And he’s a snitch who is getting what’s coming to him.
Elden: So, I put the Artie line in there to tie him back to Artie so we know who this person is snitching on.
John: I have a question. So you’ve done I’m sure a lot of research figuring all this out. It’s 1975 and we have Carmen Soto, early 20s. She’s a spark plug of a Cuban-American chica. She’s a police officer riding with this guy. Does she exist? Is there going to be an early 20s in Miami female police officer riding in that car with that guy?
Elden: In this era there were women who were serving in the police force as well as military but they weren’t treated very well. And one of the things, again, about the dialogue that’s going on – he’s testing her. He’s trying to push her buttons and gross her out. And so right now she’s resisting him by eating the sandwich saying you’re not grossing me out.
Craig: I think we got that. I think the problem with that exchange is that he’s bad at it. He’s too bad at what he’s trying to do and she’s too good at ignoring it. It needs to be better. For me to feel that she – to give her credit for resisting I need to feel that she actually has to resist. Because the story he’s telling is too goofy I think ultimately for me to feel like, oh god, I’m in her shoes and this is – if that makes sense.
Elden: I will tell my criminology professor you thought his story was too goofy.
Craig: I’ve done it before.
Craig: You know the thing about real life is it’s often boring.
Elden: Yeah. That was a story literally out of–
Craig: Oh yeah, there’s all sorts of them. But it’s not, you know.
John: Elden, thank you so much for coming up here.
Craig: Thank you. We’re kind of wondering if–
John: Hey, Joseph Valezquez, are you here?
Joseph: I am.
John: He’s here. All right. We weren’t sure if you were here.
Craig: Good, good, good.
John: Good thing, because we were about to talk about your script. And we would talk totally differently if you weren’t here.
Craig: I would not.
John: All right. This is Cameraman by Joseph Velazquez. Here is a summary. In a production office Australian animal show host Jimmy Cool Waller, 40s, tells cameraman Jason Rodger, early 30s, that he loves his name because that name, Rodger, means fuck. Waller tells Jason he’s hired, but Jason says he’s never worked with animals before.
When staffer Rachel Hawkins, her late 20s, enters with a snake Jason jumps up on his chair and screams. He falls, curling into the fetal position against the wall. He says a snake ate his Billy goat when he was a child. Waller says Jason is the missing ingredient this show needs. And that’s where we’re at after three pages of Cameraman.
Craig, why don’t you start us off?
Craig: Sure. This is my sort of thing. I do love these sorts of movies. And I was enjoying at least the sense of understanding who this guy was. This was sort of a pushed version of what’s his face.
John: Steve Irwin?
Craig: Steve Irwin. I thought it was – I loved the posted that he’s on open water behind a boat using two crocodiles as water skis, shocked yet delighted to have just noticed the rope he’s holding onto is actually a snake. And I love shocked yet delighted because I can see that idiot poster like, so that was great. Water skis does not take an apostrophe S. But fine.
Waller’s voice is unique and true. I believed it. It felt like he was this kind of like over-eager, over-happy, weirdly dim Australian adventurer. And Rodger literally means “to fuck.” “Your name’s a verb, mate,” is very funny.
All right, so, here’s what’s happening for me. Where things go a bit off the rails. The premise of these three pages is that Jason is being hired to be a cameraman because Waller loves his camera work, but you show us through a quint split screen, a five-way split screen, that everyone has fired him before. So I guess this scene is now from his perspective, even though you’ve put it from Waller’s perspective, so that has shifted.
The premise here is that he’s not very good at his job, therefore I’m wondering where’s the mistake in the comedy of errors where Waller thinks he’s great. I don’t understand why Waller is excited about him. So, the comedy starts to fall apart. Even though what you’re showing me is that he’s scared of snakes and all the rest of it, because I’m missing information I start to just drift away from the comic premise of everything that’s coming after.
So that’s sort of where I landed.
Lindsay: I was assuming, again, that what you want was they’re hiring him not because he’s a good cameraman but because he’s scared and he thinks having a scaredy-cat on this part of the show is good for the show. I just don’t understand how having a scared cameraman is good for the show? I would understand having a sidekick who was scared who would be funny and we would laugh at him running away from all of the things that he loves to do, but the guy behind the camera running away I couldn’t figure that out. So, I agree. There were a lot of things about these pages that I thought were really fun, but the basic situation I just couldn’t understand.
John: Could you understand there Jewerl?
Lindsay: He’s so far ahead of us.
Jewerl: For me, a comedy can make a lot of mistakes. It can make geography mistakes. It can make, you know, a lot of the mistakes that we talked about in the other scripts I forgive a comedy. The only thing I want from a comedy is to laugh. You know? This line, five people in five different Australian film sets fire Jason simultaneously I thought was the funniest joke of the three pages. But you know, I misread the joke. Like I thought that five different camera people had been set ablaze. I mean, that’s what I thought the joke was and I was like, god, this is the best joke in these three pages. I loved it. I might have even laughed out loud at the joke you didn’t write.
So, and I had the same problem that he did which is five different people are set ablaze and you tell me that in one line. I’m like they’re going to have to film that for – that’s a two-page thing. That’s a half a page joke. You know? And so yeah.
Lindsay: We also don’t care about killing cameramen as much as we care about killing kittens apparently.
Craig: Nobody cares about killing cameramen.
John: I want to talk a little bit about Jason in this scene, because it’s a question of like is this scene from Jason’s point of view? He sees this larger than life character. Or is it from Waller’s point of view trying to convince this kid to sign on and be the cameraman? And when Jason freaks out and climbs onto the chair and falls back he’s so big, we got to be so big and so cartoonish that I stopped believing it. Or I stopped believing the dynamic.
And so Waller is this big giant bulldozer character. He’s a Craig. And Jason in that moment was doing a big giant thing and you can’t have two Craigs. You can have one Craig. One Craig is enough. Two Craigs, it doesn’t really work.
Craig: It’s gilding the lily.
John: So, the idea that Jason is going to be hired on because he is terrified of stuff is a really good idea, but I think you need to find a smaller way to get into that that’s a less of a big, yelping, screaming kind of thing, but just we see how terrified he is and let that be the joke and set that up as the dynamic.
Because I suspect when we bring you up here their dynamic is going to be the heart of this. And I’m excited to see that. And even like your minor character who comes in, Waller.
John: Rachel, I’m sorry, Rachel. She has very few lines but, “He’s a fuckwit.” Great. That’s the perfect line. I see who this woman is in her very minimal things. And so that gave me confidence. We talked at the start about, you know, you have to have faith and trust that this writer is going to take you on something that’s rewarding. On every page I saw some stuff that I really loved and that was what was going to keep me reading along further into the script.
Craig: I still, you know, what I still cannot answer is whether Jason wants this job or not. Or does he need the job? Because when Rachel says, “What the hell is wrong with you,” because he’s scared of a snake, he says, “A snake like that killed my kid.” And they gasp. And then he says, “Kid Billy goat. A snake like that killed my goat.” He’s lying, but he wants the job so he’s trying to explain why he got scared because he needs this job. But if he needs this job then why one page earlier is he saying, “I’m a little concerned.” It’s like, are you or are you not? Do you need it or do you not need it? There’s something very funny about somebody who is deathly afraid of animals and absolutely must get this job working for deadly animals. Right?
And so then I understand the fakery and why and all the rest of it. And, frankly “A snake like that killed my kid” is a great excuse. He shouldn’t have – I don’t even understand the logic of why he left that. Why is the goat better than that? That’s a great one. That worked for him. You know what I mean? So there’s a lot of these picky little logic things, but they’re poking holes in the side of your comic Titanic and there aren’t enough lifeboats.
Lindsay: May I just say though if anybody has heard the big talk that I give here, it’s all about relationships. And what I felt very happy about was that I felt grounded in the central relationship right away and it felt like it could be something like My Favorite Year or The Producers where you have the sort of bigger than life character and this little scared guy. And they’re going to be on this journey together. And I love that right away on page one I felt grounded in that.
And I had a feeling that Rachel might turn out to be the love interest. Ta-da. So now I’ve got two different relationships going at the same time. And I just thought, man, you did that really fast in three pages. You told me that this was going to be a fun movie about this particular triangle, father-daughter-wimpy guy. And I thought that was good.
John: Cool. Joseph, come on up. Let’s talk more about your project.
John: Joseph, is this a movie or a pilot? What is this?
Joseph: So it’s actually a short but it was – I wrote it as an outline for a feature and then I wrote the short. And not I’m taking the short and I’m putting it back out to a feature.
Craig: Well that sounded good.
Joseph: I don’t know why I did that, but I think just to find the structure of it.
Craig: Sure. Whatever works.
John: What did you have first? Did you have Waller as the host and then you’re trying find someone opposite him? What is the genesis of the idea?
Joseph: I mean, it comes from watching Steve Irwin and like watching these situations where the snakes are biting him or this animal is terrifying. I was like, man, what is the cameraman thinking? I’m scared for the host. The cameraman is not a nature guy. He’s just a person. He just knows about video.
John: So, let’s go to what Lindsay said, because in some ways the cameraman is the worst person because the cameraman wouldn’t show up. I think she’s maybe pitching that it’s the sound guy or somebody else who has to be there and has to be really close who is the guy. How are you feeling?
Joseph: Well, I mean, I’m open to that. The reason it’s the cameraman is that he is actually good at his job and what makes him good is anticipating what people are going to do. So a lot of this movie is him learning to – that, and he only does it there. He doesn’t have that connection with people one on one, or the connection with nature, the thing that binds us all, right? So that’s kind of what he’s going to learn on this journey.
So he’s actually a good cameraman. The reason that Waller likes him–
Craig: Why has he been fired so many times?
Joseph: Well, that was a bad way to try to show that he needed the job. And it’s illogical, and you’re right.
Craig: It’s not illogical. We definitely know that he sucks. That’s what that means.
Joseph: Yeah, so that is an error.
John: So you’re saying, so he says there “my visa is going to expire.” So basically he needs this job or he gets kicked out of the country as well. Is that another aspect of this?
Joseph: Yes. Exactly.
John: And how soon do we find out why he wants to stay in Australia in the first place?
Joseph: Pretty much so the next scene is a quick like kind of Jerry Maguire/LA Confidential rundown of Australia opening where the animals and how terrifying and how ridiculous they are. And then the very next scene is where he goes back to his apartment in Sydney. He’s like I’ve got the job with his friend that’s there. And then he goes off to the northern territory right after that.
Jewerl: I mean, I personally don’t want him to be terrible. What I was imagining was a scenario where just a normal guy wants his job and he has the boss from hell. This guy is going to put him in danger with the alligators. Put him in danger with the snakes. And he needs the job but he doesn’t realize he’s signing up for the job from hell. And I thought that was such a clear idea, you know. I think making him terrible at it or making him super afraid of animals just muddles this very clear idea.
John: In some ways the cameraman is the voice of reason. No, no, what you’re doing is crazy. So that sense that we can identify with him. So, you may want to push and heighten to some degree so we can be, because it’s a comedy, but like he is probably our way into, no, no, it’s nuts what you’re doing. You shouldn’t be doing these things.
Craig: And why is Waller so excited about hiring him?
Joseph: Well, so the excuse, and I guess maybe it’s not in those early pages, is that he loves his reality/crappy reality television show that he’s been shooting in LA before that. Whatever show it is. So he’s a fan of that show. So he knows he works on it. But I think there’s more.
Craig: Nobody gets that excited about cameramen.
Joseph: He sees something inside of him.
Craig: I mean, look, there is a version of this where – because John just said these magic words “the way in,” and I think Jewerl is talking about it, too. The way in is really important with comedy. If you have a cameraman who is quite competent and quite good but he’s been screwed over by something that’s realistic and, you know, we can identify with it. You know, like the company folded and you don’t get paid. And his visa is running out and he needs a job. And then lo and behold is looking through the – this is all page one stuff – looking through the ads and there’s a cameraman job that pays four times as much as any other one he’s ever seen. He’s like, I’ll go there, but there’s going to be like 20 people. And he gets there and there’s no one.
It’s just him. And then this guy is like, oh my god, great. First I’m going to interview you, then you get the job. No, I didn’t say that. Let me interview you. Maybe you’ll get the job. Right? Point being nobody wants to work for this guy because people die. That’s interesting. And you are – that’s where desperation meets need and situation. Now he can’t leave it. But you definitely want the last cameraman to be dead. Like behind Waller is like a think of In Loving Memory of.
Joseph: Croc got him, mate.
Craig: And a guy with a camera. Right? That’s what you want.
Jewerl: I mean, basically the joke that I misread, you need to change it to what I thought it was going to be.
Joseph: It’s way better.
Craig: Right. Like your last cameraman seemed to have died. He goes, “No, no, the last cameraman was terribly maimed. Oh, no, this is the cameraman before the last cameraman. This one died.” There’s a million ways. But it’s the way in. Also, we want to know who someone is before the – in comedy, I believe – we want to know who somebody is before the meteor smashes into their life. We need a little bit of, just a little brief sense of who I am as a normal person and then madness. So like for instance wonderful movie that you mentioned My Favorite Year. It’s a great movie to watch if you haven’t seen it. And it’s about a guy who works on a television show in the golden age of television. He’s a very junior comedy writer. And his hero, who is basically Errol Flynn, played by Peter O’Toole, comes to be a guest on the show. And he, our hero, our little guy, is put in charge of him. And the problem is this man is a terrible, terrible drunk. And a disaster of a human being. And probably won’t show up and it will mean his job and everything.
And, of course, a relationship is formed. We must know what it’s like for this writer and this girl that he is in love with but doesn’t seem to quite know how to, you know, can’t really get. And the situation vis-à-vis him and these older men. We need to see it first, just to know. And then in comes a wrecking ball that will smash his life apart and then somehow put it back together better. That’s this kind of movie I think.
So definitely watch that kind of movie.
Lindsay: I think of this as a bringer of chaos movie. And the surprise of the bringer of chaos movies, you know, Cable Guy and all these various things, is you start out thinking, god, if only that character would go away and by the time it’s over the person who has had to change is the sweet guy.
Craig: What About Bob?
Lindsay: Who has to realize, or Planes, Trains is a good one.
Craig: Yeah, there’s another one.
Lindsay: You essentially welcome him into your house when at the beginning it’s like how fast can I get away from this person.
Craig: They’re reverse Christ stories basically. It’s like what if Jesus were really freaking annoying, but has also been sent to save you. That is what What About Bob is. That’s what that movie is.
Joseph: Definitely spot on.
Craig: And then you can see in like Rain Man and Midnight Run, it’s like people that make us a little nuts, sometimes that’s what we need. So, watch those movies. See how they do it.
John: Thank you, Joseph. Thank you so much for coming up.
Joseph: Thank you guys.
John: All right, we have time for some audience questions. We have no microphones, so raise your hand. I’ll call on you and we will repeat your question back. Second row.
Audience Member: I was wondering if you could clarify the term emotional math. I kind of understood from the context, but I want to be sure what you meant by that.
Craig: Sure. I mean, I’ve invented it, so you don’t really need to – I mean, it’s not super-duper important. There will be no test on that. But to me when we are reading characters, and so we’re reading a representation of what a human being is. But on every bit of these lines what they say and what they’re doing, what the writer is doing is asking the reader or ultimately the person watching the movie or television show to believe it. The whole point is that we give ourselves even to a show. Even shows that are doing bizarre things that we know aren’t real. There’s no Chewbacca. But I want to believe that when Chewbacca sees Han Solo for the first time in a prison cell that he’s going be, “Ooh!” Right?
So it’s all about that. The words and the decisions and what is said and what is said and what is not said add up to, as I do it, yep, that equals real. None of those things seem to violate what I understand about how humans work.
And that means asking questions sometimes of your work that are pesky and annoying because you thought something that is funny to you, or you had a line that you thought would be really cool, and then everybody else goes, yeah, but that’s your problem. Our problem is it’s violating the real of what you have created.
Audience Member: Thank you.
John: Question back there. So I’m going to repeat the question back just so we can have it on the podcast. So, Jewerl, when you’re reading a five-hour script that sort of breaks all the rules, do you think there’s a value to a writer deliberately breaking rules so they will get your attention?
Jewerl: That’s a really hard question. Generally the only thing that matters on a screenplay, to me, have I had a feeling response. And so people who are good craftspeople can produce that result with all of the rules. People who are just intrinsically talented who are channeling a story that is beyond them can do that. You know, people who have had an authentic experience in their own life and they are replicating that experience on the page can do that.
So whatever your means to get me to feel and be invested in your journey, that’s what you should do. If that means doing the Robert McKee method, fine. If that means telling a story that no one would actually film, you know, but you’ve written it so well that suddenly it’s the filmable thing. So that’s all that really matters.
Lindsay: One of the First Ten Pages things that I did yesterday, it was one of the things that I was really tired. I didn’t want to read anymore, but I thought, oh, I’ll just look at the very beginning. And I opened it and the first two lines of the script were in the past tense. And I went I’ve never seen this before. And it really got my attention. But eventually it felt like a gimmick and I became a little bit resentful. The writing got a little bit overblown and it felt like they were deliberately trying to get my attention with something that wasn’t organic.
I think breaking the rules is the only way to tell your story as opposed to here’s a way to get somebody’s attention and then you begin to say, oh, they’re just trying to get my attention.
Craig: Yeah. Don’t calculate. Don’t calculate.
John: Great. Oh, another question. Right here?
Audience Member: Thank you. I’m really interested to know kind over time from the beginning of your careers and reading scripts to now, how have you seen script writing change? Do you prefer scripts that are in the style of now? Do you still like scripts that were maybe 10, 20, 50 years ago in the style? What are you thinking about? How has it changed and what do you like to see now?
John: Lindsay, you probably have the longest track record of reading scripts.
Lindsay: Yes, 50 years ago when I was reading screenplays. [laughs]
John: Let’s actually talk about sort of the evolution of–
Craig: When sound came in…
Lindsay: Yes, exactly. [laughs]
John: We can do a very quick look at sort of—
Lindsay: When DW and I were talking about this very thing. You know, the first thing that comes to mind is the people who would fuck in the stage directions. That – you know, Shane Black.
Craig: Did you say people would fuck in the stage directions?
Lindsay: They put the word fuck in the stage directions. People start cursing in the stage directions. They became very informal and the language began to become informal. And I really did think that – for me, I just remember reading a Shane Black screenplay and I was, oh my god, I didn’t know you could do this. And it really did get people’s attention in a huge way. Now I feel like it happens so often that I don’t pay that much attention to it anymore.
But I do feel as though that format used to be much stricter. Now I think for better people feel a lot more free with stage directions to get a mood across, to get a tone across, to get a type of humor across. And it just makes the whole thing more of a whole. That’s the thing that comes to my mind first.
John: If you look back at the original screenplays, the women who were writing those were basically doing – it was kind of a list of shots. It was a plan for this is our shooting sequence and it very much feels like you’re shooting it this way. With Casablanca you start to see things that more resemble our modern screenplays.
And what we write now is basically you’re trying to capture the feeling of being in an audience watching that thing up on the screen and we’re kind of allowed to do anything it takes to get that experience across. And so I think it’s good that some of the harder restrictions of like that it’s only what the camera can shoot, some of that has melted away in a good way I think.
Craig: Yeah. As the actual format of what we’re writing for changes, so to can the format. It used to be that there was either a 30 or 60-minute television program, or a 120-minute movie, and so you go forth young person. And now you can write anything, in any length. It can also be a three-part thing, or a two-part thing, or a nine-part thing, or one thing.
And so you are allowed, I think, to write in such a way as to get across what is unique and wonderful about you and your story. Ultimately there is so much going on now in Hollywood that it’s the new, it’s the exciting. You know, we always say like if you’ve written something that seems like it’s something like they make, they’ll just hire one of us to do it, because it’s sort of something like they make.
What happens is it’s the new. They want to find somebody that just has some sort of undeniable thing that is of its own. And that’s where breaking the rule – it’s not even breaking the rules, it’s really making your own rules, right? Because breaking the rules is just an act of sort of petulant rejection. But it must be this way is an act of creation. So that’s more interesting to me.
John: I remember reading Natural Born Killers, Quentin Tarantino’s script for Natural Born Killers, and it was such a groundbreaking script for me to read early in my career because it would just morph into a completely different movie at times. And suddenly it became a sitcom. It just felt vital and alive. It was the first script I remember getting to the last page and just flipping back and reading through the whole thing again because it felt like the form had changed a bit. And that I think we see a lot more now.
What Lindsay was describing about with Shane Black’s scene description is he had voice in scene description. I don’t think that was a thing we were really focusing on then. Like the whole movie should feel like one person wrote it, like no one else could have written this scene description that way. That you’re in capable hands. That goes back to that trust and like if you give me your trust I will make this worth your while.
Lindsay: You know, a lot of times I feel like when directors write screenplays they already know how they’re going to make the movie so they leave out the stuff that makes them readable because they don’t think they have to fill them in. They already know.
But I remember before I was ever in the movie business I read the screenplay for I think it was The Apartment. And Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond wrote it together. And one of the things in The Apartment, I hope I’m thinking about the right movie, is that there’s all this slang that goes around the office about that’s the way it crumbles cookie wise. That’s the way everybody is talking. And the last line of the screenplay is “That’s the way it ends screenplay wise.” And I thought they’re just writing for themselves. They’re awake and alive and doing it for you. And I just love that.
John: I think we can fit one more question in.
Craig: Can we fit one more? We can fit one more.
John: One more question. Who has got the question? A gentleman with a hat back there and a pink shirt. Yes.
Craig: So, the question was are there things that we see repeatedly in screenplays that seem as if the writer was intending to be clever or interesting or provocative but in fact it’s sort of old hat and producers find it a bit annoying and obnoxious.
John: Jewerl, I bet you have insight there.
Jewerl: You know, I have a really big vocabulary. When people use words that I don’t know I’m like, wow, they’re trying to be smart and interesting and I just have to stop, figure out what the word is before I can move on. I find that people who can convey feeling with very short sentences and very simple words are the most exciting.
You know, the first book on writing I ever read when I was 16 years old was called On Writing Well, and it’s a famous, famous, famous book that’s been around for 40 years. And it’s about nonfiction writing, but the rules apply to simple language, simple sentences, clarity. Over the last year I’ve sent 40 copies of that to friends when they talk about – they’re at a hump. They don’t know if the thing is readable. I’m like these simple rules work everywhere.
You know, like simple way that we can convey – simple ways to convey what you’re talking about. You know, when someone gives me a run-on sentence, a three-line sentence, a three-line sentence, I say can we just do each of these sentences be three words. And it’s like magic.
Lindsay: I remember reading – I talked about this yesterday for some reason. A Steve Soderbergh screenplay 20 years ago. And the first line was, after it said interior bedroom day or whatever, it said, “The football just won’t fit.” And it was a scene about a guy packing. But I’ve never forgotten the rhythm of that and the simplicity of that and how it told me the emotion of it weirdly and everything else right away.
But in one of the scripts I read this week there was something where literally the villain was referred to as like the magnificent maestro of malice or something, like if you’re talking about what gets people annoyed is that kind of stuff. Where you just feel like people are showing off or it just takes you out of the scene in that kind of way.
Craig: Well, separating what your intention is from what you want it to be. Your intention is to move or create an emotional response, high, low, or something, fear. All these things that we want to do in the reader. And when people employ material like that their other intention which is love me, like me, be impressed by me is taking over. Well that’s ego. And no one is interested in anyone’s ego. They just want to read a good story. Your ego will be so well fed if you write a good script.
John: The last thing I would point out is that we talk about sometimes you need to underline, bold face, call something out so we can actually see it on the page. Sometimes I read scripts where it’s almost all bold face and there’s like double asterisk and things like that. Especially action movies.
Craig: It looks like the side of that guy’s van.
John: Exactly. [laughs] It’s bomber van text. Just be aware of that.
Craig: Like cats and van. We just want to find where the points are where we use them.
John: Be aware that the more you shout the less we hear. And so you got to really be careful with where you’re putting your emphasis so we actually are paying attention. Craig and I are big fans of white space and making it feel really natural to fall down a page. Anytime you’re doing stuff to stop us from reading it’s got to be worth what you’re doing to stop us.
Cool. This was so much fun. I want to thank Lindsay and Jewerl for this. I need to thank our three very brave Three Page Challenge entrants. Thank you again.
Craig: Thank you guys.
John: We need to thank Paul and Olivia, Hannah, Travis, and Jonas from the Austin Film Festival. Thank you for having us again. We need to thank Megan McDonnell for producing our show and picking out our things. And Matthew Chilelli for editing. Thank you all very much.
Craig: Thanks guys.
- Tickets are on sale for the Holiday Live Show!
- Thank you for joining us, Lindsay Doran and Jewerl Ross!
- Lindsay Doran’s Ted Talk is also great.
- The Three Pages
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
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