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 376 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show we’ll be looking at how you know when it’s okay to start writing on that project you’ve been hired to write, and how that ties into the new Start Button the WGA is unveiling this week. We’ll also be answering a three-part listener question about television and some other listener questions as well.
Craig: Terrific. And you’ve been working on this one for quite some time, so this is–
John: This has been a long term project.
Craig: I’m excited. It’s good though. This is why we elected you, John.
John: Aw, thank you.
Craig: Oh, and you know what? Well, I guess I’ll put it in follow up. I have follow up.
John: All right. We’ll put it in follow up. My little bit of news is I’m just now back from book tour. So I did a book tour of Europe. I did a book tour of Texas and Colorado. And I love it and I love signing people’s books and meeting people. But I can’t sign everyone’s books. So I’m doing what a lot of other authors do which is if you’d like me to sign a bookplate which is essentially a fancy sticker that you can put in your book that has my name on it and your name on it, I’m doing that now.
So, if you would like your Arlo Finch copy signed, maybe as a Christmas present, or a gift for some other young reader, you can do that now. So there’s a link in the show notes or just go to johnaugust.com. You’ll see the Arlo Finch little thing there. And I can send you a sticker that you can put in your book as a gift. So if you’d like that just go to johnaugust.com.
Craig: We don’t do any kind of Scriptnotes gift exchange at the end of the year.
John: We don’t. I mean, why don’t we do that, Craig?
Craig: Probably because I hate people and you aren’t really a person.
John: No, I would say that it’s because I don’t like giving gifts. I’ve just never been especially gifty. Stuart Friedel, our former producer of Scriptnotes, he was so good at gifts. He would pick the perfect gift for my daughter. He clearly had a brain that was just always on the hunt for the perfect gift for people.
John: You know, Craig, I think we should break tradition and actually exchange gifts and I think we should do it at our live Scriptnotes show.
John: So we’re doing a Scriptnotes show on December 12 in Hollywood. And maybe we should exchange gifts at that event.
Craig: We have to give ourselves some kind of limitation. Otherwise it could become absurd.
John: So less than $1,000?
Craig: Oh god. That’s an enormous number.
Craig: That’s crazy. I’ve lost interest.
John: All right, so we will exchange some sort of gift but it should be a meaningful gift that the other person will like and we should do it at the live show.
Craig: OK. We’ll figure it out. But we’ll have to put a reasonable financial limit on it so that one person doesn’t overwhelm the other with insanity.
John: Why don’t we say $20 because the tickets are $20?
Craig: I like that.
John: So that will be the baseline. We’re going to be announcing our special guest for the show really soon. We were talking about it right before we got on the air.
John: So we’re excited. We’re excited to be back in Hollywood doing our annual holiday live show. Tickets are on sale now. You can click on the link in the show notes or go to writersguildfoundation.org, or wgafoundation.org. It’s the usual place. And you can get a ticket for the show.
Craig: And we have not yet settled firmly on guests, but we have some excellent ideas that will blow your minds.
John: Blow our minds. So come see that. We have some follow up. So, Craig, why don’t you start with your follow up first?
Craig: My follow up is just some exciting news. We’ve been going on and on about these credit proposals and they passed.
John: They did pass.
Craig: Super excited by that. They passed by a very healthy margin, despite a little pushback from a prominent member of the legal community here in Los Angeles. But I think we as a committee we made a good strong case. And the nice thing is that all the changes that we made are really for the benefit of writers.
So, I’m really happy about that. It’s a great way for me to kind of ride into the sunset as I believe this incarnation of the credits committee is being sunsetted. I have been involved on a credits committee now in one form or another for like a decade. So, this is a nice retirement for me.
John: Very nice. So I will be joining the credits committee and I think the plan going forward is to listen to members about sort of the things they’re experiencing with credits. And as you and I have talked about there are some unique things happening with movies being written in really unusual ways that make determining credit a challenge and so we need to rise to figure out how to deal with those challenges.
Craig: We have actually done I think a very good job as a union to shift our perspective on how credits should interact with the world around us. When we joined the union we were still kind of living with the burden of the old philosophy which is we will write credits rules in such a way that will change the way the business does things.
No. Business doesn’t care. Go ahead and penalize rewriters all you want. They’ll keep hiring people to rewrite things. So, there was a nice philosophical pivot that happened over the last 10 years where the guild said, OK, this is how movies are actually written. How can we better serve our membership who are writing them? And that’s been a good change and there’s obviously lots of more room for improvement. These things have to be done carefully and incrementally and they’re subject to votes. And sometimes even subject to negotiation with the studios. So it’s a tricky, tricky business. But if anyone can do it, John, it’s you. And me. But not me this time. I’m not doing it anymore.
John: Not you this time. There will be many wise, smart people on both the East and the West figuring this out together, so I’m excited about that.
Craig: Yes. Yes.
John: So, a big piece of follow up, Craig many, many, many episodes ago you had made a spontaneous offer that if any studio wanted us to come in and talk about their notes process you and I would be willing to do that. And this last week we did.
Craig: We actually did it. So Disney invited us. They were the only studio brave enough to just listen to two writers talk for an hour. That’s all we ever suggested doing. At no cost to them. They were the only ones that even expressed interest in hearing what writers thought about the notes process, which on the one hand speaks glowingly of them, and on the other hand makes everybody else look a bit, well, tawdry to me.
We came and we did it. And I hope that they actually shared that experience with their other studio, their fellow studio people, because they seemed to really like it a lot. And what you and I did was speak about how notes feel on our side of the table and try and help them tailor the way they give notes to us and our responses so that they actually get better work out of us, better responses, better conversations, less strife, less drama, less trouble.
And it went really well. You know, tip of the hat to Disney for doing that. I was really pleased and just a roomful of executives who were willing to listen to writers talk about this. And, by the way, they seemed legitimately interested, which I really appreciated.
John: Absolutely. So it was a good conversation. We sort of laid out kind of just best practices, like some dos and don’ts, and really what it feels like to be on the receiving end of those notes and which notes are helpful to us and which notes are maddening because they don’t actually recognize the writing process or the filmmaking process.
And we actually got into a bit of back and forth because they say like, “Well sometimes we have to give that note because of X, Y, and Z.” And we said, great, so tell us why you’re giving us those notes if they are crazy notes. So it was a good conversation.
I know we’re going to be going in to talk with some other development executives down the road, but I guess we’re offering this to other folks as well?
Craig: Yeah. I mean, my feeling is there’s no reason that executives at Warner Bros, executives at Fox, executives at Sony, executives at Universal wouldn’t want to hear this. What does it cost beyond an hour? And just to be clear, we don’t walk in there and go, “You guys are stupid. Your notes are dumb.” That’s not at all what we do. What we do is really talk about the psychological experience of writing something and receiving notes and where the notes are helpful. We divided in half. This is helpful. This is not helpful. So, it’s very pro-note and it’s really designed to kind of help improve the relationship between note givers and note takers. Why wouldn’t they want? It makes no sense to me.
But, you know, hey, Disney, trailblazers.
John: Yep. So, another thing we’ve been talking about on the podcast and also in the guild is the sense of No Writing Left Behind. This idea that you should not be leaving your materials behind after a pitch, so that it doesn’t become free work you’re doing for folks. And today we have two new folks who have written in who aren’t screenwriters but are encountering the same kind of thing. Craig, do you want to take the first one here?
Craig: Yeah, sure. So this is what this person writes in. “In following the No Work Left Behind thread over the last number of episodes I wanted to relay a similar issue in the feature directing world, specifically the pitching process. For writers it sounds like “Show us exactly how you would write the script for free and then we’ll decide if we want to pay you.” For directors it sounds like “Show us exactly how you would direct the movie for free and then we’ll decide if we want to pay you.” In my experience, a typical feature film directing pitch from start to finish takes 250 hours or more over about two or three months. It’s free work. If you don’t get the job you don’t get paid.
“And often after going through the entire process the outcome is that the movie gets canceled or the studio hires a bigger name director. If one were to pitch for three or four projects you’re talking about more than 4.5 to six months of fulltime, unpaid speculative pitching work. This is reflective of my 2018. And no one seems surprised by this. In fact, it’s expected.
“I’m a WGA and DGA member, and while the WGA is brilliantly taking on the free work issue, I haven’t gotten a straight answer from the DGA, my reps, or anyone else about the free work required of directors. The only answer I’ve received is when you’re starting out you just have to do a lot of pitching. It’s pretty normal.
“One now well-known director’s rep told me that this director was consistently a runner-up on directing job hires for three years. I know Scriptnotes is a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters, but would you be willing to lend any insights or suggestions about the free work issues in directing? No one else seems to be willing to talk about this issue.”
John, I feel like we could help this person.
John: I think we could as well. So, talking with director friends, this is absolutely true. And so I want to distinguish between a little bit – you know, writers write words and so we focus on like don’t leave your words behind, but there’s obviously a lot of work that’s being done to go in and pitch. And so if we’re telling you like, OK, you may have to pitch this project 10 times but you’re not leaving that document behind that’s still a tremendous amount of your time. And you and I both know many feature writers who are spending a tremendous amount of time pitching and pitching and pitching on projects.
John: This is a director who is doing the same thing. But what the director is coming in with is not a document. It is usually a huge mood board and cut of videos and rip reels from other things to show what he or she is planning to do were they to get the job of directing this movie.
And I would share this director’s frustration that like you are basically giving the studio an option for like this is what the movie could look like and getting almost nothing out of it in return.
Craig: Yeah. So, this is one of those rare moments where in the feature business writers have it better than directors. And I say rare because once the jobs are handed out, way better to be the director in features than the writer. The director is treated with respect and has some creative authority and the writer has none of those things.
But prior to employment however the writers do have a certain advantage because as you point out our work product is words on a page. So, it’s really easy for us to withhold that because that’s the only thing we’re paid for. For a director, what they’re paid for is film in a can and, well, or on a small digital card, and there is no way to essentially withhold that because that’s not going to get made anyway. It seems to me that if you are spending that much time creating a kind of film directing pitch and it’s not converting into jobs then you I suppose must ask the question what is converting into jobs for people.
If you’re spending six months of fulltime, unpaid speculative pitching work I feel like maybe the answer is to spend six months shooting something that is kind of remarkable.
John: Yeah, I mean, one of the luxuries writers have is that it’s cheap for us to do our jobs. And so we can just – you and I can just go off and write a thing. No one can stop us and it’s free. For a director to make something costs money and takes time and to make a film requires a tremendous amount of money. Even to make a small film you’re spending a tremendous amount of time and money to do that.
So, just this past week we had a launch party for Start Button stuff. And I was talking with a feature writer who was saying that he was going in pitch after pitch after pitch on this project and at a certain point he wanted to say, “OK, I will go back in and pitch again but you need to start paying me some money.” And he’d be fine if that was money against what they were ultimately going to pay him. But if it costs $500 or $1,000 to take another meeting that would at least incentivize both sides to really ask is this worth it. Is this money well spent? Is this time well spent? Because it becomes crazy after a certain point.
Craig: It does. I mean, look, the problem is I think from the point of a studio that’s contemplating hiring a director and paying them some amount of money that’s significant and then also putting them creatively in charge of a project that’s worth millions and millions of dollars they might look at that as penny ante nonsense and slightly unprofessional or dinky. And it may hurt you.
And you’re right. It is really hard to, well, it’s much harder for directors to create speculative work, like a proper film, than it is for writers to create speculative work on paper. But it’s cheaper now than it’s ever been before.
Craig: And it seems to me that we’re collecting quite a list of writers who are saying I have work that no one seems to want to pay for and directors who are saying I’m doing work that no one seems to want to pay for. And maybe they should get together and in actual partnership start working together to create work together that will benefit them together. And I’m pretty sure there’s about four billion actors who are saying I’m not getting work.
Do you know what I mean? If I were an agent I would be saying, “OK, here are three really talented directors that are underemployed. Here are three really talented writers that are underemployed. Get in a room and start talking guys. I need you people to figure out how to work together and create something that lets me be able to sell you.”
So, you know what, I’m blaming the agents, again.
John: I would also ask our listeners if you know of a system, it could be a different industry, we have people writing in from ad industry as well, if you know of a system that is set up to sort of help deal with this, to help deal with the sort of pitch again, pitch again, pitching for free forever. I mean, actors go through this, again, with auditions. And if you know of a system that you think actually does help with this I’d love to hear what you think could be a solution.
So, whether it’s an existing system or your pitch for how you actually fix this issue. Because I do think it’s the next wave of stuff we have to take into account.
Craig: Yeah. It’s always been bad. It’s getting worse. And it will continue to get worse. And the thing that makes me really nervous, because look the part where employees like directors and writers, artist employees are being mistreated, that makes me feel bad. But what makes me nervous is that when you start to move large groups of people into states of scarcity, resource scarcity, they begin to turn on each other. It’s inevitable. And I think Hollywood, that is to say corporate Hollywood, has done a wonderful job pitting directors, actors, and writers against each other all the time in their system in such a way that the artists do not unite, regardless of the creation of a studio called United Artists. And they’re just really good at that. They’re smart. In general it makes sense that that’s what they’re good at. And we tend to bite each other’s backs, writers and directors in particular, really just go at it, fighting over the scraps that they toss down.
I know I sound a little bit like a Marxist nut job right now, and I’m not normally, but it’s not good what’s going on out there.
John: No. Well, I mean I think what tends to happen is there’s a race towards the bottom. And fortunately because of our unions we do have a bottom in terms of compensation which is scale. And so you cannot undercut each other on that financial level.
John: But creatively you can undercut each other and the one person who decides like, oh, I will turn in this 50-page treatment and sort of ruins it for everybody else. And that’s a real thing. And so we’ve got to make sure that we understand that it doesn’t get better until everyone sort of agrees on some terms.
Craig: Yeah. I completely agree with you. And one thing that I did once that worked out beautifully, and this is not for our director friend but for our writer friends, is that I made a deal for a project and they were a little bit like, hmm, we’re not sure if we want to do that. And I said I’ll tell you what. Let’s make a deal for it. And I will write a very extensive treatment. And the deal will have a cut off after the treatment. So just go ahead and pay me scale for the treatment. And if you read the treatment and you think, yeah, you know what, we don’t want to go ahead with this, you’re done. But if you do want to go ahead with it, then we have the deal and you go ahead and you trigger the first step and I start writing. And it worked out because they did like it and they did trigger the first step. But I got paid for that.
And I think any time you can say, listen, let’s just start dealing with scale. How about that? Because sometimes I think we’re so afraid to say, OK, just give me scale for something that we go ahead and accept nothing in its place. And nothing is in fact worse than scale.
John: It is in fact worse than scale.
Craig: And in that case doing the scale work got me my full fee and then some for the rest of it. I don’t mind being quasi speculative in that regard, but you got to pay me something. So, scale seems reasonable.
John: Yeah. So, this last week we got a tweet from Anïas with three questions and I thought they were all good questions, so let’s try to answer all three of these. Number one, what makes a good procedural TV show work, Craig?
Craig: Oh, OK. We’re going to go one by one. I like it. These were good questions. I am not the biggest procedural show fan. That said, I’ve certainly seen my share of procedural shows. To me, the most important thing for a procedural show is that the concept of the show is such that the actors involved have a job that is episodic. So, whatever they do for a living it changes on a daily basis or a weekly basis. They get something new that will have a beginning, middle, and end.
This is why most procedural shows are cops, lawyers, doctors, firefighters, because they get cases. But, you know, there are certain other kinds of procedural shows that are based around the nomadic lifestyle of the hero, for instance Highway to Heaven. Or, when we were children The Hulk, the Incredible Hulk was essentially a nomad show where a loner roams from town to town, arrives in a new place, deals with a new situation that has a beginning, middle, and end, and then can leave. But the important thing is that conceptually there is no continuing action beyond the kind of interplay between the characters who are doing the job, but the world/the plot always has hard ins and outs. And the concept needs to support the reality of that.
John: I would say a good procedural show is like one of Craig’s best crossword puzzles in that you sit down with it and you sort of know what you’re going to get. You’re not sure how it’s all going to fit together. But it delivers on what your expectations were for that period of time for that experience. You know sort of exactly what you’re going to get and that is I think why the good procedural shows keep going on forever and forever because they just deliver what you expect. It’s like McDonald’s hamburgers. They’re exactly what you think they’re going to be.
You know, when you talk with people who work on procedural shows, they will at the start of the season on a big white board figure out the giant arcs of characters over the course of the seasons, like what kinds of things we’re going to do. This character is going to buy a house. And these things will change. But episode to episode not a lot is going to change. And in many cases you could take episode 10 and episode four and swap them and nothing bad would happen. Serialized shows that wouldn’t work.
Craig: Right. Exactly. And interestingly there’s been an evolution in comedy, in televised comedy. Sitcoms were always procedurals. We don’t think of them necessarily as procedurals, but they always were. It’s just the procedural wasn’t saving a life or trying a case. It was my dog got free, or I agreed to date two people at the same time. So it’s the situation right. And it was a procedure. And then it was done. And so week after week it was a new story entirely.
Comedy has now drifted more towards a serialization because of the changing nature of the way television is delivered to people. So even on network, for instance, Blackish is still a procedural essentially. It’s a comedy procedural. But something like The Good Place is serialized. They literally – each episode gets a chapter number, because they’re telling one continuing story like an ongoing soap opera.
So things are changing somewhat. And I think what has kept procedure, like classic procedure – for instance, our friend Derek has 20 procedural shows on the air.
John: He has all the Chicago shows.
Craig: He’s all the Chicago shows and the new FBI show. And what has kept procedurals going so strong for so long is how easy it is to essentially replay them. You can run them again and again and again in any order, at any time, and no one has to scratch their heads and go, “Wait, what?” You can’t show somebody episode 21 of The Good Place and have them understand anything. But I can literally watch any single episode of Chicago Fire and aside from, OK, I don’t necessarily know what the characters are talking about in terms of their relationships with each other, but the fire story I can watch that and be like, oh damn, OK. There was a beginning, a middle, and an end. And it works.
John: Every episode of a procedural basically contains its premise. That this is a group of people that does this thing. Versus a true serialized show that wouldn’t make sense. You would not be able to follow episode 13 of that show if you just started watching right there.
Craig: Right. And I will say to people at home, don’t sleep on procedurals. Sometimes we think of them as old fashioned, and I guess in way they are old fashioned, but they work. People love them. And if you get yourself in a good groove with a good procedural. I mean, Dick Wolf’s entire trillion dollar empire is based on procedurals. And great writers have cut their teeth and then some in procedurals and mastered the craft. John Wells is one of the most successful television writers of all time. You know, was involved in huge procedurals.
John: Like ER. Like West Wing. And West Wing really is functionally a procedural. There’s great writing and there’s great characters and lots of stuff is happening, but the episode begins and the episode ends and there’s been an arc in that episode. It’s fitting into a larger piece but it is the crisis of the week.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is essentially a procedural.
John: It’s the monster of the week. Yes, there’s great big arcs and if you didn’t know who some of those characters were at the start it would be confusing a bit, but there’s still – you know what you’re going to get over the course of an episode generally. And then the unique episodes where they really broke those expectations stand out because it is just so jarring. The Body is great example of like it broke the expectation of what’s supposed to happen in an episode of Buffy.
Craig: Yeah, so you know Buffy is a good example of a very cool procedural in case you think like, oh, maybe they’re a little fuddy-duddy or a little boring. They’re not. And when they’re done well they’re done wonderfully well. And all shows ultimately are borrowing elements of procedurals. There’s always some kind of plot inside of a single episode that gets kind of consumed within the episode. So, something to definitely think about. Don’t necessarily think that you have to chase whatever you might think of as avant-garde or sexy or cutting edge. If you love procedurals, by god, write one. Because there’s still gold in them thar hills.
John: Yep. We’re only a third of the way through Anïas’s tweet. Her second question is what makes a show better to watch once a week versus bulk release.
Craig: Well, I have a little bit of a possibly unpopular opinion here, because I think this is a question of opinion. I’m not sure that there’s anything particular that makes a show more enjoyable in one way or another. I think all shows are better when you get them once a week. I think all shows are made better with anticipation. I just do. I think that there’s a certain joy to waiting and then to being satisfied. And sometimes you wait forever. I mean, we’ve been waiting for this last season of Game of Thrones for quite some time and we’ll continue to. And then it’s going to be satisfying.
And as we watch it week by week we all share in it together. Yes, some people watch it a little bit later than others, but for all the people that watched it when it was available we get to talk about it and share it and it’s the watercooler syndrome. All the shows that are kind of dumped at you, there’s no watercooler. Everybody watches them at different times. They watch them a lot, a little. So for me, I love a nice once-a-week. I do.
John: I watch a lot of once-a-weeks, but of course I’m also binging shows on Netflix at the same time. Many episodes back we’ll find a link to it. I had Damon Lindelof on the show and he and I were talking about Lost. And Lost was a once-a-week show that had a giant mythology and I think some of the success of Lost has to be attributed to the fact that it was coming out once a week and that fans could build up the theories over the course of the week and there was a chance to do it.
It would be a completely different experience if Lost had dropped all its episodes in a bulk. Like it would have been a very different experience. And, you know, a great example of that is when the writer’s strike happened their season got split. And so it ended up being a giant gap between those initial episodes of the season and the later ones. And it got strange. It got weird. Like once it got off of its rhythm, the fans had a hard time sort of grabbing back onto the show.
I’m in conversations now to do something that would be a once-a-day thing, which I think is a sort of interesting blend between the two. So there’s a watercooler moment, but you can also catch up which is a good thing, too. Sometimes the once-a-week shows, I guess a good thing about them is once I hear about them I’m not so far behind that I can’t catch up.
John: Sometimes when a 10-episode, 13-episode thing drops on Netflix all at once I’m like, oh god, I’m just never going to be able to. It’s just daunting. I’m never going to be able to catch up to the conversation about it. So if you have something that needs to have a big cultural conversation to really work I think that speaks towards the once-a-week or the not all at once release plan.
Craig: Yep. I’m just old fashioned that way. I like it better.
John: So, third point in Annalise for the Win’s tweet is what in storytelling differentiates a serialized bulk release from a movie? So storytelling wise what is different between what you’re doing for Chernobyl, which is a serialized – it’s not bulk release. You’re still doing it once a week. But what is different about Stranger Things dropping 10 episodes at once versus a long movie? Storytelling wise, how do you think about those things differently?
Craig: Well I think that the bulk release – the release pattern there is a bit of a red herring. I don’t think whether it’s released all at once or once a week is necessarily changing how you write your shows. Because each episode needs to have some driving force at the end of it that makes you want to watch the next one. Essentially it’s that page-turning feeling that you want to create whether that second episode is available immediately or it’s going to be available a week from then.
The real question is what’s the difference between that and a very long movie and that’s kind of it, what I just said. It is a long movie. There are a million differences in terms of how much time you get to spend on things and the way that you can make certain storylines and characters elastic. You can expand them as you desire. You can take a moment and just do a side trip that’s fascinating because it gets a beginning, middle, and end. The most important thing is at the end of it you keep moving toward the next one. And that when you are done you have clearly told a story that had its beginning at the beginning, and the ending is relevant to that beginning.
So, for me, having gone through the experience of writing Chernobyl it was the best because it was everything I love about writing closed end narrative and none of the things that I hate about writing closed end narrative.
John: Yeah. I would say a thing to think about the difference between a movie versus a long drop of a series is the previously on. So, in many of these shows that are all dropped all at once they got rid of the previously ons. So it’s essentially assuming that you may just be watching this whole thing through from the start and so therefore we are not going to give you a previously on.
I’m always a fan of previously ons because I think they can help steer the viewer’s eye and attention for the things that are going to be important for just this episode. I just finished watching Bodyguard which is a BBC production that’s on Netflix now.
John: And I think it was – I don’t know – maybe it was a week-to-week originally in the BBC but they kept the previously ons and I thought the previously ons were incredibly helpful in just steering you towards what to focus on in a given episode because even though it’s only six hours long a tremendous amount happens and you would have a hard time noticing those things. So, you know, with that I think they were able to get rid of some clunky scenes that would have otherwise just been there to remind the viewer that something had happened.
Movies don’t have previously ons. It’s just a run.
Craig: They don’t. And what’s also great about previously ons is that they can dip back – they can redefine what previously is. So, Game of Thrones occasionally in a previously on bit will show you something that happened two seasons earlier, because it’s suddenly relevant now. In fact, sometimes it annoys me a little bit because they’ll show me some random thing from two seasons ago and I’ll be like, OK, that’s tipped me off quite a bit about what’s going to happen here.
So, sometimes it can actually diminish a little bit of surprise. But with something that is as sprawling and as multi-episode as Game of Thrones you need it. It’s really important. But even for Chernobyl we’re certainly going to have to do some version of that. I’m a big believer in giving people a little bit of a short refresher and then before the HBO static comes on. And I’m a big fan of giving them a glimpse of what’s about to come. Which, again, is maybe what’s happening in next week’s episode, or maybe it’s a little bit of a glimpse ahead to the episode three weeks from now. They never really tell you which I think is cool. So you get to shape the kind of set up and the expectation for next time which you can’t do in movies.
Again, like, I don’t know, I think I should just keep doing. I mean, I just love it. The thing that always scared me away from television I think was just kind of the endless – but even now I think about the endless ongoing thing and I think you know what that was only a nightmare for me when I considered the idea of doing a procedural. I could never do what Derek does because it’s just not how my mind works. You know?
But now you can make these seasons that are eight episodes long. That is a miniseries essentially. And you just need to know that like, OK, and then I can do a second miniseries of those characters in this situation again the following season and it’s not so daunting. It’s actually quite lovely.
John: All right. Now, before we lose Craig to television forever, I want to get his opinion on something that’s really more of a feature issue which is our marquee topic today which is commencement. Commencement is a fancy word for beginning, but actually it’s a term of art that means something especially for screenwriters. It means that you can now start writing the thing.
And so let’s talk about this from the perspective of Craig you have just been hired to write a movie for somebody.
Craig: Which I have been.
John: Congratulations. Which is true.
Craig: It’s true.
John: And so it doesn’t matter really if it’s a first draft or if it’s a rewrite or a polish, ultimately you’re going to be turning in a draft.
John: And a draft is sort of two things. I mean, it is a bunch of pages that have text on them and that is a thing they will hopefully shoot and make into a movie. But a draft from your perspective and as you’re planning your life, a draft is also time. It is a chunk of time in which you are going to be writing this thing. And because it’s both of these things sometimes it’s useful to think about just kind of a timeline. And on this timeline there’s one point where you start writing. That is commencement. And there’s one point where you give them the script. That is delivery. And ideally those are really clearly defined moments and everyone agrees on what those moments are and everything is happy and wonderful.
John: The experience that you and I both had as screenwriters and which all other screenwriters can nod and attest to is that it’s really murky sometimes what those moments are. So take the delivery side, like I send in my script. You and I both grew up in a time where we had to print our scripts and put them in an envelope and a messenger would come and pick them up. Or we would literally drop them off someplace. Now we’re attaching them to an email and we’re sending them in as a PDF. And so we think like, “I delivered.” But did you deliver? Is it all done? Is it all final? Or did you just send it to the producer and the producer is going to come back with notes? Is the studio exec going to say like, oh, could we do a little bit more?
John: And if you’re still within your initial writing period, which we should also talk about, yeah maybe you do do a little bit more of that stuff. But that becomes the endless rewrites. Those endless unpaid rewrites. Ultimately, you want to come at the end of this to be you really delivered when they’re cutting you a check. That is the moment that you can really know like, OK, I am done with this draft. This draft is both this document, this time, this moment has ended. And you don’t get to the end until you start.
Craig: Well, look, that’s how our contracts are designed. It’s essentially what they’re advertising to you. And then they immediately say now here’s how it really works. What they’re advertising to you is you write the script. You deliver the script, we give you a check. And also you started the script, we’ll give you half the money. Great. You deliver it, we give you the other half.
And then they do everything they can to subvert that. Everything they can, including taking forever to pay you the first half. They may say we’re not paying you the first half until the long form contract is done, but in the meantime you have to start writing because we need this soon.
I have been in situations, and this was a long time, the very first movie I ever worked on they dragged their heels so much that when we – because I had a writing partner at the time – when we finished the draft we called and said you can’t have this until you pay us commencement and delivery. You can’t have it. And it was a scary thing to do for two 25 year olds to say to the Walt Disney Corporation. But it worked.
But I never forgot how they dragged that out miserably. And while you’re looking at a piece of paper that says, OK, I officially have 12 weeks to do this. My contract says I have 12 weeks. Everything that they’re going to do is designed to make you work for 800 weeks.
Craig: So you think like, oh, in a contract where you have a job and then you have a timeline where you have to do the job by that the person hiring you would want to enforce that. They specifically don’t want to enforce it.
John: No. The studio executive is being paid for every week of work. They’re not getting paid for like, oh, you know, make some movies and then we’ll pay you eventually. No, they’re being paid for their work and as writers we’re not paid for our work in the same way. Because we’re still working under the assumption that our work is this draft that we’re handing them, they will try to extend that time endlessly.
Our goal of this conversation is to talk about starting the clock and so that once you’ve started the clock you know the clock is running and then you can actually stop the clock when you’ve turned in the thing.
So, let’s talk about commencement because commencement is that sense of like, OK, it’s OK to go ahead and start writing your script. Now, the people who might tell you that it’s OK to start writing your script but you shouldn’t necessarily believe them are your agent, your manager, the producer, the junior studio executive. They might all say, “Great. You’re good. We all agree. You can go start writing the thing.” When you should really probably start writing the thing is when your attorney who is negotiating this says we’re good. So I would trust that person. I would also trust if you get a check in your hand that is a sign that you are truly commenced.
Craig: [laughs] Yeah.
John: Short of that check in your hand, you kind of don’t really know. If you signed your long form agreement that’s a good sign, too. But that check in your hand is really what means that like they believe you are starting writing, so start writing.
Craig: I don’t think I’ve ever waited for the check in hand.
Craig: But I have certainly waited for the certificate of authorship, which is a pretty decent stand in for a long form. And it’s something that if a studio is seemingly dragging their heels and saying we’re not going to actually pay you until you sign this long form but please start writing, that’s when your lawyer should be asking for a certificate of authorship. And what that does is it basically just establishes the most important fact for all parties involved. They’re hiring you. They’re paying you. You are doing it as a work-for-hire so that they have the basic minimum required to be able to cut you a check.
John: Yeah. So, what I’ve taken to doing over the past couple of years is when I’m starting on the project I will send an email to the producers, to the executives, to everybody who is involved and say like, OK guys, I’m starting writing. We all agree that I’m starting writing. And I anticipate handing this in at about this date. And just having some sort of virtual paper trail that says like this is when I think – these are the boundaries I think are on this project is helpful, because it gets them in a sense of like, oh, you know, we can’t actually expect him to be turning this in sooner than that because that’s not realistic. And we can’t be dragging him on a long time after this because there is some limit to it.
If you don’t define your edges a little bit they’re going to just keep trying to get more out of you.
Craig: That’s correct. What they will do is say, listen, we need to get this as soon as possible. Everybody wants everything as soon as possible.
John: Everything is a crisis.
Craig: Everything is a crisis. But what they really want, and this cuts directly to producers. This is more about producers than the studio. The producers will not get paid unless the movie is made. That’s where they make their money. They get a very, very large fee for a green lit movie and then of course a percentage of the grosses is quite likely as well.
So, they want to get a green light-able movie as fast as possible. Which means they want you to write your first draft as fast as possible. Give it to them. They can tell you how it’s going to need to change to get the green light. Then you’re going to write that new change as quickly as possible and they’re going to keep doing that until they have something that they believe is going to slam dunk it on in there. And while that’s going on often they are showing it to the studio and kind of basically playing development without paying you. That’s sort of the gig.
And that’s why I don’t do it.
John: Yep. So my previous solution in terms of like sending out the email to everyone saying like this is – I’m starting writing. This is good. It was useful for me, but that’s not a sort of general purpose solution. And so one of the things we’ve been working on with the WGA West over the last six months is something we’re calling the Start Button. So that’s what we introduced this past week. And if you’re a WGA West member you can play along with us at home.
If you go to my.wga.org/sb for start button, or you can just say Start Button, you’ll log in and you’ll see a brand new thing there called Welcome to the Start Button. And it gives you a chance to update an existing project, create a new project, or go back to the main page.
If you create a new project it gives you a couple fields. And, Craig, you just did this. So do you want to talk us through what you did and how it worked?
Craig: Yes. Pretty simple. I said, yep, I’m starting a new thing and I hit that button. And then it asked me for the working title of the project. I typed that in. It asked me for the studio. It didn’t have the exact name of the studio in there because it’s sort of a prepopulated list and studios have like 14 million different weird names. So I was able to just type in the studio’s name and it took it. And then I put down essentially what kind of step it was and when I anticipated delivering it, which is basically the amount of weeks. And in that case I went for the maximum of 12 weeks.
John: 12 weeks.
Craig: And then that was it.
John: Yeah. So you could have put in an expected delivery date or 12 weeks and you hit start.
Craig: And then I hit start. That was it.
John: That’s all you do.
John: So what Craig did when he did that was create a record in the WGA that says like this is a project that exists. This is a movie that someone is working on and 12 weeks from now we can check in with him and say like, hey, is everything OK with this project.
Now, it seems like, well, shouldn’t the WGA already know that this movie exists? They don’t. And that’s the crazy thing is because in television, you know, the WGA knows week by week every writer who is working on every television project. In features we don’t because all that paperwork, all the pay records, they can be months and months and months behind. So, this is a way for the guild to know what writers are working on at the time and help out if you’re in situations where you are being asked to do endless free rewrites, if you are being paid late.
It’s a way for us to check and see like what’s actually going on with this project. And in a general sense where are writers having the most challenges and where are writers having a pretty OK time.
As you go through the second screen you see there’s also a chance to upload your contract. Uploading your contract is super helpful because it lets the guild know kind of what’s happening out there in the world overall and what are the general trends that writers are seeing. Because the guild is responsible for making sure you’re getting paid your minimums, but the guild also wants you to get paid as much as you can be paid. And so keeping track of that over scale payment is another crucial function.
Craig: And I would imagine that if the guild has a copy of your contract and it has your start date and all the rest that when it calls and says, look, what’s going on. And you say, um, well I mean I’m done but they just keep asking me to do more. That they can say, well, we’re the bad guy and we can call the producer and the studio and say, “You guys are violating his contract and this is part of the minimum basic term because it’s effecting,” and they cite some MBA rules and you’re not allowed to do that so you have to pay him.
John: Yeah. And so to clarify, the guild is not going to suddenly call you. The guild is not going to call on your behalf unless you say so. So, what’s going to happen is 12 weeks go by. You get an email saying like, hey, checking in. Seeing what’s going on with that.
If you go back and you say like everything is cool, it’s all fine. Great. Nothing else. If you say there’s a problem we’ll ask do you want us to call you and talk to you about it. And if you say yes then the guild contacts you and figures out what’s going on. And figures out whether they should get involved on your behalf.
John: I think what Craig said is probably the most crucial thing. It allows the guild to be the bad guy because the guild should be the bad guy in this situation. It’s so hard for writers to stick up for themselves in a lot of these situations, but that’s why you have a union.
It’s also why you have agents and managers who should be doing some of this, too. But it’s why you have a union. And the union is good at this. And the union is good at collecting money and let them be the bad guy in these situations.
Craig: Absolutely. And if you are worried that it’s going to somehow end up, you know, blackballing you, driving you out of the business, I point to the aforementioned DGA which acts as a bad guy on behalf of its directors all the time. Now, granted in the case that we read earlier they’re not particularly interested in advocating on behalf of directors that have not yet been hired. But when you are hired by the DGA and you’re working under the DGA, which I have done, they spring into action. They’re there. They show up on your set. They start talking to you. And they make a presence known. And if they sniff any kind of trouble, any sort of encroachment on what they consider to be directorial rights they are on it.
And the attitude in Hollywood is not well let’s not work with that director anymore. The attitude is, oh god, we have a DGA problem.
John: Yep. Yeah. And so I guess a crucial difference is the DGA reps, they can show up at a set because a set is a physical place. The WGA people can’t show up at your office and say what’s going on here. This actually gets them closer to being able to say, hey, what’s going on here. Is everything OK? I want to make sure that our writers aren’t being abused.
Craig: Correct. So it’s a really good idea. You’re smart for having done it. And this is why we elected you and such.
John: Hooray. Great. So it’s available now. Check it out. So if you’re starting writing something it’s a good time to do it, or if you’re on a rewrite for something. So try it out and see what it feels like.
All right, we’ve got time for one question. Shari writes in, “Friends and family who have read my pilot say it’s ‘too dark for television,” that it could never be produced. Yet South Park gets away with having woodland creatures banging each other in a satanic ritual on Christmas, while Frank in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia screams he has AIDS to cut through the line at an amusement park. My writing is not nearly as dark, I don’t think, but my script tries to poke fun at the fact that people sometimes have no choice but to experience some dark moments in life.
“Looking back on it, those moments can be funny as hell. So how do dark comedies redeem themselves? Do dark comedy writers follow different craft and structural rules in order to secure their audience? Is there are market for dark comedies on television? What does it look like to have crossed the line in dark comedy?”
Craig: Well, I would say that your friends and family may not be as dark as you. And you’re right. There is dark comedy on television. There’s more of it now than ever. And it’s been around forever. Seinfeld got incredibly dark. Even though it wasn’t maybe as overtly dark as South Park sometimes gets, in its own way was pretty brutal.
And you’re right. It’s Always Sunny definitely goes there. And so the answer is how do dark comedies redeems themselves, they don’t necessarily. They are there to be enjoyed by people who love that kind of edge.
We need to know that the people that we’re watching aren’t cruel. That is to say they’re not sadistic. They don’t enjoy the pain of others. The people that we like watching in dark comedies are selfish. They are self-obsessed. They’re egotistical. They are locked in self-defeating patterns. So it’s a little bit of kind of they are dark people operating in a moral universe, which is why I actually love the final episode of Seinfeld because it just basically took them to task for their behavior over the course of all their seasons.
Is there different craft or structural rules? No, it’s about your tone, your voice, and what you think is funny. I would say don’t apologize for any of it. If you’re going to be dark, be dark. And if you think it’s funny, then you think it’s funny and you stand by it. Yes, there’s a market for dark comedy on television, there’s a market for television on television at this point given that we have more and more content producers making more and more shows.
What does it look like to have crossed the line in a dark comedy? When people stop laughing. That’s what it looks like. When they just go, “Oh, that’s actually not funny.”
Years and years ago I was talking to a friend of mine and we were discussing that there’s that complaint that some white comedians used to make where like, OK, black comedians get to make fun of white people. Why can’t white comedians make fun of black people? And the answer is it’s not funny. That’s why. It’s not funny. It’s not about justice, or what’s right or wrong, or balancing. It’s not funny. Punching down generally isn’t funny, although sometimes it’s hysterical.
It’s hard to describe. We just know it when we see it. And for some people they will say, you know what, that crossed the line for me. And other people will say, oh my god, thank god they did that. The line has just moved again. Hooray.
You find your tribe. You do your comedy for them and you hope it’s a big tribe and you hope they love it.
John: Yeah. Craig’s you know it when you see it really speaks to expectation. And so my hunch is that friends and family who are reading your script right now Shari they are not expecting it to be what it is. And so that may be something about because they already know you, or it could be because of what they’re seeing on those first two pages. But there’s a mismatch between the thing they think they’re going to get and what they’re actually reading. And so they may not be the audience for it all, but if they were the audience for that kind of stuff they’re not being led into it in the right way to let them understand what the rules of your sort of moral universe are. And how the darkness is going to work in your writing.
So, I would look both at your friends and family. Look at who your readers are and are they the right readers for this thing. But also look at your writing and trying to figure out is there something about how I’m presenting this, really how I’m setting this up, that is leading people in the wrong direction so they think it’s one thing and it’s actually a very different darker thing.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, look, when Todd Phillips and I were writing the Hangover sequels we oftentimes would go places that were so horrifyingly dark, so incredibly dark that we kind of knew that we had crossed the line a little bit. And that’s keeping in mind the fact that we opened the third movie with a giraffe being decapitated on a freeway. But it was fun. We needed to do it. We needed to get in that zone. I mean, we had this idea – I don’t think I’ve ever said this before – we had this idea that – it would never fit in any of the movies. We were just talking about Mr. Chow, the character of Mr. Chow. And we just had this weird fantasy of shooting a scene where Mr. Chow goes to find his father who he’s not spoken to or seen in 30 years.
And he finds his elderly father and his father says, “Leslie?” And Mr. Chow says, “That’s right, mother-f-er.” And then he cuts his throat. He cuts his father’s throat. And his father’s final words are, “At last you make me proud.” [laughs]
It’s so sick. It makes me so happy. Now, I don’t know if anybody would think that was funny, but oh my god we thought it was hysterical. Just the idea of this family that was so sick that – anyway, I don’t have to explain it. It’s bizarre, right?
Craig: So you go down these roads of this total F-ed up stuff. And then you come back from it and you, you know, you write things that are still F-ed up but maybe not so wildly F-ed up. But you need room to be transgressive, particularly if that’s the style of comedy you’re doing at that point. And it sounds like, Shari, you’re pretty transgressive. Go for it.
John: Go for it.
All right, it’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is Art and Arcana. Now, Craig, have you bought this book yet?
Craig: You know I haven’t.
John: It’s fantastic.
Craig: Yeah, I probably should.
John: I feel guilty sort of recommending $125 book on Dungeons and Dragons artwork and history, but there’s also a $34 version which is just the book. So, the big fancy one comes in a box with extra stuff. But you do you. Decide what version of this you want because if you want this you really want this. It is the history of Dungeons and Dragons as told by the creators and showing all the artwork and how this thing came to be.
And so I have just – it’s one of those books that’s so giant that I have to sort of sit down on the couch and prop it on my legs and just fully engross myself in it. I found it just terrific.
Craig: That sounds like something I may slip my wife on a gift list for Christmas, you know.
John: Nice. Very good.
Craig: Because she hates – every time Christmas rolls around she’s like what do I get this guy.
John: Yeah, I know that Melissa loves Dungeons and Dragons. There’s nothing she gets more excited about than that. [laughs]
Craig: She hates it so much. So it will be fun to force her to buy that. My One Cool Thing is a fascinating discovery in the world of pain management. I was so excited when I read this article. It’s in Wired. And it’s an article about a cactus plant that grows in Morocco. Now, you’re probably familiar with the Scoville Scale of hotness, John?
John: Absolutely. So like pepper sauces are rated on how hot they are.
Craig: Exactly. So for instance the world’s hottest pepper, I don’t know, it’s so many hundreds of thousands of Scoville units.
This thing, this cactus like plant, clocks in at 16 billion units. So it is 10,000 times hotter than the Carolina Reaper, which is the world’s hottest pepper. 10,000 times hotter. And it’s that way because of this chemical in it called resiniferatoxin. I think I’m pronouncing that right.
Craig: You’ve had a jalapeno before?
John: I have. I’ve had good and bad experiences with jalapenos.
Craig: So this cactus is 4.5 million times hotter than a jalapeno. You cannot eat this. You can’t eat it.
So here’s what happens with this stuff. The reason that your tongue burns when you eat a pepper is because there’s a chemical in there that essentially stimulates the nerves that would be stimulated if you had actually lit your tongue on fire.
So, this thing does that so massively that it literally burns – it destroys the ends of the fibers of nerve bundles that generate pain signals. But only pain signals. So what it does is it doesn’t burn out nerves that sense pressure or cold or hot or feeling, just pain.
Now, the problem is if you’re going to do this it’s also going to cause you tremendous pain while it’s doing it. But, for this stuff that they pulled out of it, RTX, what they do is they give you an anesthetic. So let’s say you have knee pain. They give you an anesthetic in your knee so that you won’t feel the terrible pain of the RTX. Then they inject the RTX. The RTX binds to pain-sensing nerve endings and essentially blows them out to the point where they can’t really come back on for about six months.
Craig: And then when you’re anesthesia wears off in your knee you might feel a little bit of like, ow, my god, but after an hour or so it’s over and then there’s this incredible pain relief. And the best part is there is no associated reinforcement effect. There is no euphoria. There is no reason to become addicted to it.
John: It’s not a neurotransmitter situation.
Craig: That’s right. It’s not an opioid or anything like that. And given how disastrous pain management has become in this country, something like this could be a huge, huge game changer, particularly for people that have chronic pain and also end of life terminal pain associated with cancer and things like this.
So, if you have arthritis or any kind of longstanding pain, this is exciting. So I hope that it – they’re just starting now, but it looks good.
John: Good. I like that. Optimistic.
Our show was sort of all over the place this week. And so we started and stopped so many times. So I wanted to quickly recap some of the things we talked about.
If you would like an Arlo Finch bookplate you can go to johnaugust.com. Click a link there and you get a bookplate. It makes a lovely gift.
If you are a WGA West member and want to try the Start Button, it’s available right now in your MyWGA panel, mywga.org/sb, so try that out.
If you want any of the other stuff we talked about you can find the links in the show notes.
Lastly, if you would like tickets to our live show on December 12 they are available now. So you can click a link in the show notes or go to wgafoundation.org.
Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. Edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is fantastic. It’s by Andrew Burns. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions like the ones we answered today.
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Craig: Sweet. When do I get my check?
John: Oh, a giant check is coming. Well, on the 12th you’ll get your gift for less than $20.
Craig: [laughs] Getting ripped off again.
John: Yeah. At the live show you’ll get it.
Craig: Yeah. Great.
John: Craig, thank you for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John. See you next time.
John: All right, bye.
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