The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August and this is Episode 377 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig is out sick today, but luckily we have two remarkable screenwriters to take his place. And today on the show we’re going to be talking about the second draft, and hopefully offering some practical tips for your first big rewrite on a project. Then we’ll be digging into questions from the mail bag.
To help us out we are welcoming back the writers of The Invitation, Ride Along, and the upcoming Destroyer, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi.
Matt Manfredi: Hello.
Phil Hay: Hey John.
John: You joined us on Episode 244. My first question for you is what did we talk about in Episode 244?
Phil: We talked about our motion picture The Invitation.
John: You did.
Phil: We talked about reboots and preboots.
Matt: Oh yeah.
John: Very nice you remember. And do you remember the specific term that we were trying to suss out?
Phil: It wasn’t preboot?
John: It wasn’t preboot, but preboot is really close to it.
Phil: It was pre-imagining?
John: Was the word of the day.
Matt: It didn’t catch on.
Phil: Clearly it’s dead.
Matt: Preboot really still has a chance.
John: Preboot has a good chance. I think we’re all pulling for preboot. I think I’m working on a preboot right now.
Phil: Is that right?
Phil: You’re keeping it alive. There’s hope.
John: Before we get started today, some news on Scriptnotes land. We have our holiday show December 12th in Hollywood and Zoanna Clack of Grey’s Anatomy is a guest. Pamela Ribon of Ralph Breaks the Internet. And Cherry Chevapravatdumrong of Family Guy and The Orville will be joining us. Plus, Phil Lord and Chris Miller of Lego Movie, Lego Movie 2, Last Man on Earth, Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It’s a remarkable lineup of guests.
Phil: Great lineup, John.
John: Great lineup.
Matt: Murderer’s Row.
John: Murderer’s Row. Come join us in Hollywood December 12th. It’s a benefit for The Writers Guild Foundation. You can find tickets. Just click on the link in the show notes or go to wgafoundation.org.
Phil and Matt, we have some follow up on previous episode stuff. I’m hoping you can help us out here because Craig is gone so we’re going to pretend that you guys are all the way caught up on all your back episodes of Scriptnotes. I asked in a previous episode whether other industries had a way of dealing with endless pitches. And sort of like when you go in to pitch on a thing like 19 times. Have you ever encountered that situation?
Phil: We have tried to really limit that recently, but I think everybody has encountered that. You know, where the goal posts sort of keep moving and the existence of the job itself starts to become in question.
Matt: And early, I mean, like especially starting out you pitch to the lowest person on the totem pole and you work your way up, and you work your way up. Or sometimes even worse, they pitch it all the way up and it just gets bastardized and bastardized.
John: Yeah. It’s bad. So specifically we’re trying to get to the situations where like you’ve gone in like 10 times to pitch on a project and it’s just not clear whether they’re ever going to do anything on this.
So I asked on the podcast whether people had suggestions from other industries about how they deal with these situations. So two people wrote in. Chris wrote in to say that she works as a production manager on commercials and she says, “Whenever we audition actors they need to fill out an initial Exhibit E, an audition time card. Depending on how long they are kept for an audition or how many auditions they are called in for, they are entitled to some payment.”
So we’ll send a link to the SAG form for Exhibit E. So there’s some record of how many times they’re going in on a project and if they are held for longer than a certain period of time they have to be paid for that audition.
Would you want to be paid for a pitch?
Phil: I think that regardless of me personally it actually sounds like a pretty feasible idea to – wasn’t there a concept way back in the old day, something called approach money or something like that? I feel like I’ve heard a term where it’s just saying we are officially asking you to come and basically “do a prototype for us,” which is your pitch, and we’ll pay you a very modest amount of money to do it, but we are paying you.
And so, you know, if we call you in for a second time we’re going to pay you again. I mean, I’m sure there’s a million reasons that people don’t want to do that, but the amount of labor that goes in to trying to get a job is so significant that, you know, I’m not writing those checks but I think it would be extremely helpful and useful because it would also make sure – I mean, it would increase the odds that there was something at the end of that process. That they’re going to invest even a small amount of money means that they think it’s headed somewhere.
Matt: I wonder if it’s past a certain point. You know what I mean? As a freelancer, essentially, I feel like the initial pitch is part of my job. I want to get the job. I’m essentially auditioning for the job. But once I’ve gone in, we’ve discussed our take, this is what I would do with the project. Once we get past a certain level, I don’t know what that level is, it does seem like some kind of thing would be–
John: Yeah. I mean, as we talked about in No Work Left Behind, this idea of making sure you’re not leaving written material behind after a pitch, so often we hear that writers lose the job to no one. Basically they just decided that there’s no – like that idea wasn’t a very good idea and so we’ve wasted everyone’s time trying to do this.
Phil: Thank you for proving to us that we shouldn’t ever spend any money hiring anyone to do it.
John: And so if there were some cost to actually having done that search process, you know, I think you could rein that in a little bit. We look at these mini rooms where they bring in a bunch of writers to crack an idea. They have like a piece of IP and they’re bringing in five writers to work for a month to try to crack that stuff. Those writers are at least getting paid. There’s a thing there. Intellectual labor is being rewarded. So, it feels like there’s some way to be thinking about that.
Phil: Well, and there’s a structure in place, right, so that there then can be rules. And there can be – maybe this is what complicates it – the ownership of the material. What are you selling when you take that money? So maybe that’s maybe the rub. But, yeah, I think that increasingly we’ve been talking – we talked about this a lot that just the job of the screenwriter now – the job of your typical screenwriter includes so much unpaid time that is very – it’s intense work.
Matt: I think it’s expanded. I think it’s a lot worse than it used to be.
Phil: Yeah. I agree.
John: I think even the nature of what a screenwriter is supposed to be doing has changed so much even in the 20 years I’ve been doing this is that screenplays have evolved into this thing which is not just a plan for making a movie but is really like a kind of marketing – it’s a vision document for what this is. It’s like a director’s reel but in a printed form.
Phil: It’s interesting. Yeah. Because we all came up with an edict that someone taught us, which is saying every draft is a sales piece. You’re selling to someone. You’re selling to first the studio or first a producer, then you’re selling to an actor, you’re selling to a director. But it does seem like you started selling now constantly. The organization, the principles by which this thing is going to be in the public you’re starting to sell within the screenplay itself.
John: A way you might get there, so Philip in Hamburg, Germany wrote to say that he works in advertising in Germany where pitches have gotten very competitive and big. Sometimes it’s two to four weeks fulltime to meet the deadline for the pitch, costs up to $100,000 in man hours, all of it for free. “So we managed to improve the situation. Companies are now starting to increasingly pay a pitch fee which often doesn’t cover all the costs but it’s something.” So he says, “The way it changed was for three things.” First, they made the clients aware of the situation and asked for the money. Because sometimes the clients really didn’t know how long it was taking or sort of how much they were spending on it. They got stronger together. So there’s an association for creative agencies. We have the WGA. And they started lobbying on behalf of the topic.
And finally they just started saying no. They would actually decide not to go in on a pitch because they didn’t feel like – if they weren’t going to get paid for pitching they would just politely say no. And so as writers, I mean, sometimes we’re spending 10 hours, 20 hours, more getting a pitch ready or going to talk about a movie, but it’s the directors who actually weirdly have it worse. Sometimes those directors who are trying to land those jobs because they’re the ones who have written in to say like, you know, I’m spending two months developing this reel to sort of promote myself as a director for this and I’m not getting those jobs. So maybe that’s the case where if they really are curious about that director, they need to be sending some money that director’s way to build that reel or to build up that proof of concept.
Matt: Yeah. And Phil gets at a point earlier, like if they do pay you for a pitch, a writer for a pitch, where does that come in terms of work for hire, in terms of chain of title? What is then owned? You know what I mean? Like it gets into a–
John: Yeah. But if they’re not actually taking a written document then maybe it’s not so bad. Basically if they’re paying for your time and they’re paying you for your time to meet you to talk about stuff, maybe that’s–
Phil Hay: Also there’s such a cultural–
Matt: It’s like a roundtable. You know?
Phil: There’s a cultural issue at hand which is the – and I think it’s always been weirdly baked in – but it seems increasing where there’s a sort of resentment toward paying people to do something creative. You know that there is a baked in societal kind of like wanting to get away with just kind of taking that work. Or just saying, I mean, in the world of kind of freelancers out there in the world that classic thing of like well what is the payment? “Well exposure.”
John: Of course.
Phil: For exposure. And so there’s that component, too, where I think in a way it’s not hard to imagine a slightly different society which says, yeah, of course, you should be – if you are attempting to create something or you are using your labor at their request to come in and potentially then be hired to create something complete that would make sense.
But I think we do have this cultural idea that there’s kind of a resentment toward that work.
Matt: There’s also something that my wife experiences. She designs book jackets. And if you’re designing a book jacket and it just doesn’t work out for various reasons you get a kill fee, which is like half of your fee. Do you know what I mean? There is something past a certain point where if you don’t get the job there’s essentially a kill fee as opposed to on the front end.
John: Obviously as writers we’re paid for our words, but we’re also valued for our time, and so making sure that we get the value out of that time is crucial.
Phil: And you also have to really peer through the language to figure it out, because so often we hear like – now we’re fortunate to be in a position where we say, OK, if it’s going to be multiple people then we’ll just back out. You can hire one of those other people, but we’re not going to spend the time to go in and do all this work.
John: So you’ll ask?
Phil: Yeah. We will ask. And we’ll kind of make sure we ask and then make sure our agents ask and make sure everybody is asking because there’s also all these way around. You hear so many times, I’m sure John you’ve heard it many times, “Well we really want you. Believe me, we really want you for this. We just need the – just give me something. And then I can just force it through. But we just have to as a formality.” There’s always something behind that.
John: Yeah. There was a project recently where I assumed I was the only person going in. And it wasn’t until I actually had landed the job where I talked to other folks like, “Oh yeah, I was up for that. I pitched a couple times on that.” I had no idea. So I felt really great that I got it, but also it was like, wow, I just assumed that I was the only person you were talking to.
Phil: We once ran into in the lobby of a studio we ran into Craig. And we were like wait a minute. And Craig was like, “Wait a minute.” And then it turned out to be for different things, so it was OK. But for a second we were like hold on.
John: Hold on. So, these are jobs that you’re going in to pitch on, things that already exist and you’re trying to land. But increasingly you guys have been making your own stuff. And so you were here last time to talk about The Invitation. Your new movie is Destroyer. And let’s listen to a clip. Phil, can you set up this clip we’re about to listen to?
Phil: This is an encounter between Erin Bell, who is the lead character, played by Nicole Kidman, and her teenage daughter Shelby who she has a very fraught relationship with. And this is sort of a scene of honesty between them.
John: Great. So that is a really quiet moment, because I was trying to find some big shouty moment, and there clearly is a tremendous amount of action, but that action has no words that would actually make sense on a podcast.
Phil: We’d like to try.
John: So, the reviews are fantastic. Raves. And so most of them talk about how great Nicole Kidman is and Karyn Kusama who directs it. But I had to dig pretty deep to find one review that really emphasized the script. But I did. I found it. So it says, “[John speaks in Spanish.]”
So guys, that’s pretty amazing.
Phil: That is amazing.
John: So what Maria Fernandez is saying is that beyond Nicole Kidman’s remarkable performance and a very solid cast, the most impressive thing about Destroyer is the sophistication of its scripting and its mise en scène.
Phil: Right on.
Matt: All right.
Phil: Well I think what’s interesting that we’ve encountered, you know, Nicole has made this point many times, and Karyn makes this point many times is to us there definitely is a natural tendency to – what Nicole does is truly astounding to me. I mean, it’s a performance that I am so blown away by just as a person watching it.
Matt: And she’s in every scene of the movie.
Phil: She really is.
John: It’s entirely on her back.
Phil: And so I understand and love that that attention is there for her. But if you ask Nicole and you ask Karyn, I think to all of us the character is the story, is the direction, is the performance, is the story, is the direction, is the performance. That they are all completely unified. And this character is, you know, for us the whole movie also for us flows through this one character and she is the focus of everything. And so to me it’s one of the most unified movies that we’ve ever been involved in because of what I just said. It is this story of this person who we tried very hard to give every dimension we could as a human being.
John: So, let’s talk about sort of how you conceptualize, pitch, write, set up a movie like this movie. Because this isn’t a thing where you’re going in. There wasn’t a book. There wasn’t an anything. This was an idea. And so where does the idea for this character and for this world become a thing that you guys do? At one point does Karyn become involved? And how do you say like this is the next thing we’re going to do? What is the process of saying, OK, we have this character and this world, this is the movie we’re going to make? What is that process?
Matt: We had just finished up The Invitation. And we were thinking of what the next thing we were going to do is. And we had this idea that had been kind of marinating for like 10 years. And it was this structure for a cop movie. We had all these scenes that kind of supported the structure and we were just kind of like – it’s kind of a complicated structure so we would pick it up and put it down.
John: Now you said you had these scenes and these ideas, so how much had been written versus just like kind of note carded or sketched?
Matt: Notes, like little notes documents.
Phil: And really like conversations more than anything else.
Matt: Conversations. We had spent so much time discussing it. And then finally, so we kind of knew the general direction of it, but we kept running into a wall until we discovered – and maybe it seems obvious – but until we discovered the character of Erin Bell who was going to populate this world and her relationship with her daughter. And when we actually outlined it and put all the cards up on the wall, I mean we knew it was going to be for Karyn, and so we brought her in, took her through the outline. Kind of like half-pitched it to her. And she gave some ideas. And then we were just off to write it. And that was kind of – from there Karyn started making her look book and stuff and she was kind of off to the races. And so on a kind of parallel track while we wrote the script.
Phil: There’s a lot of simultaneity to how we do these movies, you know, the ones that we do together where while we’re writing the script Karyn is doing all that, and our composer Teddy Shapiro is already writing music based on the script. And Plummy Tucker, the editor, is one of the first people to read the script, so she already kind of has it in her head.
And it’s kind of a unique and kind of amazing way to work because then we also get to the point – and another wonderful thing about Nicole is that, and Karyn, is that the script is the script when we get to shooting the movie. And they both are real believers in the screenplay. And that the answers are in the screenplay for whatever questions come up. And then we’re there as writer-producers. We’re there to provide context, to write new things if necessary, but it’s kind of a very organic and simultaneous process with these movies which have been so gratifying for us to be able to do that.
John: Stepping back, you said the idea, the Erin Bell character was what made these collections of things really pop. And so the 10 years where this was just bits and pieces, was it the character that wasn’t holding the thing together? What was it that changed? What was it that putting that character into the situation? Because was it always written for a woman that was kind of like Erin Bell but not specifically Erin Bell? Or was it a story that was missing a central character? What was different about it 10 years ago?
Matt: I think it was a story that was missing a central character. And we knew the beats of the story and the structure is kind of tricky. And so we would kind of puzzle over that without having the central character.
Phil: So it was really more like we had–
Matt: A puzzle.
Phil: Yeah. We had pieces of a puzzle and we had things and feelings and certain interactions that we could kind of see from one side in a way. And then we had a feel, this kind of feeling that was driving it, the kind of restlessness of a ‘70s noir in a way. And then it was like – when it kind of occurred to us it was kind of in conversation. Then we brought it to Karyn and we started talking and realizing who Erin was and how specifically she couldn’t be to us a woman “filling a man’s role or wearing a man’s clothes” basically. The story had to be about this woman who had this relationship with her daughter, had a very specific relationship with the world that was a relationship as a woman. And that’s kind of what made it necessary for us or essential for us. You know that thing when you’re writing where you know there’s something you like about it but it’s not ready yet. And something has to make you just light up. And that character and the opportunity to write someone and knowing that – the other thing that’s so great about getting to work with Karyn is we know where it’s headed. So we know that we can write this character and that Karyn is going to receive that in its fullness and so we can try and go for it and take swings and do all of that.
John: You didn’t feel like you had to make any safe choices.
John: Or round any corners or over-explain something just to make sure, to protect yourself and to protect the script. You didn’t have to have those extra lines that were in there just so in case–
Phil: Exactly. And that becomes so crucial because for Nicole she said a few times that she really responded to the mystery of this character and that there’s one line that basically tells you everything you need to know about what she suffered as a kid, a line about that she was burned with cigarettes by her mom and that she had these brothers who were just this kind of feral pack living by themselves basically. And to Nicole, she said like that was everything I needed and that’s what inspired me and more detail, more exhaustive archeology of her psyche would have not – that doesn’t inspire me. So it’s interesting. And that’s always – everything you write you’re looking for that balance. And it’s so great to not have to do anything because you’re worried someone is not going to get it, or you’re worried that they’re going to kind of – it’s going to go off the rails because some critical thing is not obvious enough. You know?
John: Right now, I’ll ask the question separately, how many projects are in your head that are sort of where this was over the last 10 years which are sort of like bits and pieces? How many different movies or other things do you think you have? Phil, I’ll ask you first.
Phil: OK. I can think of three off the top of my head that are in the sort of like, yeah, an idea. Sometimes there’s just a title on a notecard in the far corner of our corkboard that I don’t even know if Matt explores over there. He’s probably got his other corner with his stuff.
John: Matt, how many are on your list?
Matt: I think I have three as well. I mean, three that really like–
Phil: Maybe they’re the same. Or maybe we have six. We have to consult afterwards.
Matt: There are three that are kind of nagging at me in the same way. And, you know, like with both The Invitation, but more so because I guess we took longer with Destroyer. I was like we’re going to write this, we need to write this, I just don’t know when it’s going to be, but we’ll get there.
John: I always found that I’ll have a whole bunch of ideas that are sort of swirling around and every once and a while you think of the idea or basically the idea makes you think of it so that you don’t forget it. So like, oh that’s right, I do have that thing. And then eventually they’ll sometimes conspire and sort of gang up in ways. If we combine our efforts, John will have to think about us more.
Phil: That’s right. Exactly.
John: I didn’t intend for them to be the same project but they became the same project. It was like, oh, this is a way to get his attention.
Phil: They’re like we’re fighting for our lives here. We have to do something.
Matt: They wormed their way into other projects. You’re like well this could just be overlaid right on that.
John: 100%. And people often ask are there things that get cut out of one movie that you put into another movie, and like usually you can’t do that.
John: There’s been little bits of an action sequence where they didn’t shoot that–
Matt: Yeah, we’ve done that.
John: In general like everything is so clear and specific once it’s been written down in some form. But these little ideas that are kind of floating around, they’ll try to get themselves into whatever I’m writing at the moment because they want to exist. And the only way they can exist, the only way they can be out there in the world is if they get me to pay attention to them and somehow get down on the paper.
Phil: Yeah. I think that happens a lot with little like – I mean, there’s something in Destroyer that’s a very specific story from when I was a kid and it just had been rattling around for a long time. And it’s just like one of those stories that I’ve told many people many times. And it sort of found a home in this movie, very unexpectedly. It was just sort of like, oh wow, that weird incident actually is a version of what we need in this movie right now. So, sometimes it’s something from life. And sometimes I think like, at least for me, I just needed to grow up more to understand what the thing was or to – or I needed to have a kid to be able to write that movie.
But I think it’s interesting what you say about you’re trying to keep – they’re trying to keep themselves alive out there in hopes that you’re going to find them again.
John: Writing a movie by myself, I’m sort of all the characters and I’m fully inside. I’m the camera into this world and I feel myself in all the different characters. Are each of you individually feeling that? Are you guys dividing up a sense of who is more what person in a movie? Is there any split that way or are you both fully inhabiting all the characters in scenes?
Matt: Usually both inhabit them. But every once and a while we’ll be working on something and there will be a character who is in maybe three scenes or something. And we don’t write in order. We just choose a scene that appeals to us and gets us motivated.
John: You’re the only other writers I talk to who do this.
Phil: Really? I can’t believe this. It’s like the greatest revelation that ever happened to me.
John: Okay, so let’s sell this to the world so people know that there’s more than one way to do this. I will write whatever scene appeals to me and I will skip over a thing I don’t want to do. Whatever scene appeals to me I will totally write.
Matt: Absolutely. I mean, in Destroyer it helped me get to know the character of Erin better because she is quiet and picks her spots and is watchful. And so one of the first scenes that I took a crack at was a scene where someone is really talking at her over and over and over again. She doesn’t have much to say, and so you’re thinking like OK well how does she have power, how does she have agency in the scene when she’s just kind of listening. And so I got the voice because I was writing out of order, you know what I mean?
Phil: And I think that it really changed everything for us I think because if you outline meticulously enough and you know where things are beginning and ending, it’s such a difficult thing to write at all, at least for most of us.
Matt: However you find your motivation.
Phil: Exactly. If you can get actually excited about a scene, go for it.
Phil: And trust that you’ll find a way. And sometimes those scenes, like we learn so much just by the process of us splitting up the scenes. So Matt will say I really want to write this scene. And sometimes I’m like, oh, I really want to write that scene. So, wow, that’s a scene – obviously there’s something going on there. Or there’s a scene where Matt says I want to write and I say, thank god, I don’t actually think I know what to do with that scene, or vice versa. And you kind of go through and the scenes you gravitate toward tend to be the islands that really are the movie, so you’re kind of teaching yourself what the movie is. Those scenes tend to be the ones that change the least through the process, like those first maybe four or five sequences, because they are just like – that’s the tone, that’s the character, that’s the style. And you can use those then as touchstones.
You know, you’re writing, you refer back and then you also learn – you get to those lonely, sad little scenes at the end where no one wants to writes them and maybe they don’t need to be written.
Phil: They haven’t earned a place in the story. And maybe you just can skip them.
Matt: And maybe the scene that introduces your character is much better informed by a scene that you’ve written earlier.
Matt: But to get back to your question, sometimes because we’re jumping all around there will be one more scene left with the character who is in maybe three scenes. And I realize, oh, I’ve read Phil’s stuff and he’s done the other two and I’ll be like, OK, well you seem to have a handle on her voice or his voice, so why don’t you do that, and I’ll work on–
Phil: There’s sometimes, yeah, where in something like Destroyer, too, which is kind of an odyssey in its structure so she encounters all these people and some of them come back and some of them don’t. You know, there’s sometimes where I look, we talk through the character and I just know, OK, Matt just has a feel for this person’s voice, this one character. And like he’s saying, so great. You take the first shot at all that stuff. I’ll take the first shot at this stuff. And then once we get to that it’s usually pretty congruent. We’re so molded together at this point and we have the same instincts, so it’s rare that we see one another’s scenes and say, hmm, the voice sounds wrong. The voice almost never sounds wrong to either of us. There may be other questions. But that’s also the product of working together for 25 years or something.
Matt: And if we’re each writing a scene with the same character we’ll trade. Whoever is finished first will look at it and be like, OK, well I see what you’re doing here. I think we are on the same track.
Phil: Put this tremendous line that I just thought of in and we’re good to go.
John: I’m never going to write a screenwriting book, but if I do a chapter I’ve just come up with right now is how to be your writing partner.
Phil: I love that.
John: Because it’s that sense of – there are scenes you want to write and scenes you want the other guy to write. So write the scenes you want to write and leave your writing partner, which is your other self, to write the other scenes. And that’s why you write things out of order because write the scenes that are most meaningful for you to write and don’t worry about the other ones until you get to them.
Phil: Exactly. Because – and also often – we always know the ending before we start writing a script. Always. In great detail.
John: It’s one of the first things I write is the ending.
Phil: Yeah. And in some cases – I think I knew that about you actually – and in some cases in really extreme detail. I’d say with both Destroyer and The Invitation that was true. We absolutely knew what the end had to be for both of those movies. So we tend I think a lot of times to write the beginning of the movie much later in the process. We have the ending, we have these islands, you know, it’s different for everybody.
But, you know, you come up and it’s perfectly logical to think, well, I start on page one and I just keep going. And if I’m having a bad day I just fight through it. And I really don’t believe in that. The liberation that you feel when you realize I want to write a scene. That’s incredible. How did this happen?
Matt: I think it helps with the outline, too, because then you’ve got this scene and once you get to the place where you like it, you know, oh, well we’re actually going to need a different kind of scene to support this, or something else is going to have to follow this because of what we discovered here. And so it almost – I’m not going to say it – like everyone talks about second act problems, but we’ve outlined it like that, but we don’t really think of it that way. And so it doesn’t really occur to us in the same way.
John: Yeah. Also, by writing those scenes out of sequence those big marquee scenes you’ve figured out like you know what your in and your out is on those things. And so the scenes that are supporting those you might figure out like, OK, well I’m going to need to slope into that scene in a different way or get out of that.
John: You know what your in and your outs are.
Phil: And they can have a gravitational pull under those scenes. And so the other scenes I can picture how they orbit around that scene as opposed to a linear way.
John: So you’re not going to have nine talkie scenes back to back.
John: There will be a quiet thing before we get to this big long dialogue thing.
Matt: I think there was one movie, I don’t remember which project it was recently where Phil and I were both like I think we need to write the first act. I don’t know if it was Proof of Concept or something, just so we can – maybe it was the tone was different. I forget what it was. But we did it and then once we saw what it was we’re like, OK, now let’s try to bounce around.
John: We got a tweet question which was from Keith Hodder. He said, “Tips for approaching a second draft? Even with index cards I’m finding it tough to navigate the skeleton of the first draft. Feeling stumped. I revisited the transcript for Episode 199 but it mostly focused on the emotional toll of the second draft and being uneasy with seeing the original vision change. I have notes and I’m cool with them, but I’m unsure how to structure the second draft in terms of a game plan.”
Guys, do you have some suggestions on tactics and strategies for approaching a second draft, a successful second draft?
Phil: This is where I look at Matt, and I hope Matt does.
Matt: I would say, I mean, we tackle like what we want to tackle first. I mean, usually with a second draft if there’s big scenes that have to be changed or added we do those and then we go through and do all the little things. If it’s a character issue that needs to – the character needs to fundamentally change or we need to learn more, we map that out. The bigger scenes to tackle first is what we usually do.
Phil: Yeah. I think that’s true.
Matt: Is that helpful at all?
John: It’s helpful. For me, like I always make sure like you’re saying that I have a real game plan. This is what I’m going to try to do with this. And so I may have gotten other people’s notes, but that’s not really like how I’m going to do it. I’m looking at sort of like this is what’s going to need to change for me to do this. This is my checklist of things I want to make sure happens. And I’ll almost always start with a new document, and I’ll copy and paste in the stuff that I need from the old script but I won’t try to just work through the old script.
If it’s a significant amount of changes I’ll copy and paste the scenes in and sort of bullet point the stuff that’s brand new to write in there, but I find if I’m working on an existing script I end up just polishing stuff and I won’t do some of the big machete work that I sometimes need to do if I’m still working in that same file.
Phil: That’s interesting. Yeah, I think that we tend to keep the document, but then we’re very freely – you guys have talked about this before – we create the depot and just very freely grab scenes so that you don’t have to worry about it and throw them in that so that they exist, but they’re not in the script.
But what you were saying, I realize is so helpful not only internally for us, but sometimes we actually share this with our partners, is a written plan. A document that says here’s the plan. We’re going to cut these three scenes. We’re going to go through the entire script through the lens of this character and we’re going to make sure she is here by this point of the script and we’re going to fix this relationship and we have a new idea for a scene that’s going to go between this scene and this. And just kind of the process of just doing that is helpful.
And it also has been helpful when we’re – especially in movies where we’re like trying to head toward production the people kind of can envision what we’re doing and so we’re not “shocking” them when they get the draft back. But we are–
Matt: Sometimes as you know the note isn’t the note.
Matt: What it really means is we don’t like this. This character isn’t working as opposed to like this scene. And so by kind of giving them something back it kind of creates a new notes document in a way that everyone agrees on. So now everyone feels included and heard and we’re all going forward toward now this new thing that is the new notes document.
Phil: Yeah. And I think for the listener that would, you know, just as an internal process I think that is really helpful to just write out your plan and maybe even write out your feelings about it. Write out how you feel about what’s going on in the second act that’s really bothering you.
Or the other thing I find useful is to go back to – and it goes back to this sort of islands concept – go back to listing, for yourself, what are the scenes that absolutely this movie.
Phil: What is this movie? Period. And then anything else can be – has to arrange itself around that. And I think that’s helpful to just keep your kind of self together when you’re approaching the second draft.
John: What Matt pitches about the document, what’s good about sending through that document to your collaborators is it reminds everybody what the actual plan was. Because they may have forgotten what their notes were, what they talked about in the room. But if you say like this is what I’m going to do, they can respond to that. But even if they don’t respond to that when you turn in that draft they may still not love it. There may still be new issues. But at least to see this is what he said he was going to do. This is what he did. They can see the work that you actually put into it.
Phil: Yeah. And they also might be able to tell you like, oh, wait a second, I see that you’re planning on changing this part. I really love that. I think that’s so important. Can we find a way to modify that so it still fits? And so it’s wonderful when you have people fighting for things that they like in the script. And that’s what I always find just in any notes process. When I am asked to give notes to someone or to come up with a plan for someone, like that’s what’s helpful. There’s this sort of idea that you’re supposed to, it’s just this cage match of awful brutality, where I think it’s like hearing what is really the thing and what’s really great that just orients you.
Matt: When we’re talking about a script with somebody and giving them notes and ideas, sometimes you find it through the discussion. So like if you think of a studio notes document which is a list of questions, they’re kind of looking for something. And it might not be there yet and so you have to work through it as opposed to like take that in silence, go off and do it. You know what I mean? It takes a lot of discussion sometimes.
John: Yeah. So the response document is sort of continuing that discussion and so it may be a way of getting that down on paper. Some questions from listeners. “I just read your blog answering a question about sending a script to an actor. I have written a script in which the actor’s name is in the title and he would have a role. What is the best way to get it to him? Do I send a synopsis to his agent? The script to his agent? Do I send it to his agency care of the actor? How do I get this actor to read my script?”
John: Yeah. So Being John Malkovich or something.
Phil: Yeah. I don’t know if it’s any different than any other script I guess would be the main thing because I think who knows. There might be actors out there who would be so curious to see that they’re being portrayed in a script that if they just caught wind of it they would want to check it out. I wonder if it would be harder to get an agent to give that to their client depending.
John: The right actor I could see being sort of curious enough about it, like if you’re writing a Michael Ironside feature, totally.
Phil: Oh yeah. Get it to Ironside. Now.
John: Get it to Ironside. Nothing better than Ironside. If it’s a megastar that you’re going after it’s going to be a challenge regardless. And I think there’s always the worry do you look like a stalker.
Phil: Yeah. It’s a rare – and that’s the thing. You’re taking such a big swing. And I’m usually also – I’m very fond of the idea of taking a big swing. Like you might as well. So in a way that’s really bold. And if you have the goods to back it up then you have the goods to back it up. But you have to be aware that you are definitely – you’re also making it impossible to make a movie without getting that one person. And in any movie if there was ever a script that we wrote that was like if this one person isn’t going to do it it will not exist, that’s pretty rough.
John: I will say that most times when you see an actor’s name listed in the title of the script it wasn’t because they really thought that one actor was going to do it. It’s because it’s a way of signaling what’s unique about the script. It’s a way of getting attention for the script. It gets on a list. It gets passed around the Black List because everyone says it’s really funny. This wild sex comedy with Wilford Brimley. There’s something about it that makes people want to pass it around.
Phil: Yeah. That’s interesting. And that may be in fact – that may be the point. It’s hard to know where this person is headed. But that idea of if it’s the right name it’s going to make somebody more likely just to pick it up.
Matt: I think sadly though if you’re not going through traditional channels, like if you’re not doing this through your lawyer or manager or agent the cold approach just is so rarely successful I think.
John: I think you’re right. Chris writes, “I’ve introduced a doctor into my script who has a fairly important role and I’m wondering what is the best way to write her action and dialogue? Wendy versus Dr. Patterson. Her first name seems more economical and she asks one of the main characters to call her by her first name, so it would be consistent. But is it confusing to go with her first name, or does it lose respect?”
So, you guys, what is your basic guideline for a character name for a doctor character. It says it’s an important character, so probably not the principal character.
Phil: Yeah, I would say if it’s not the principal character you use Doctor because I feel that just is doing a lot of work for you. And whether you call that character Dr. Johnson or Dr. Wendy, you know what I mean, you can actually say some things about the character.
Matt: Also it seems important to the writer that we continually know that this person is a doctor. So even if Dr. Wendy comes over to your house late at night it’s like, oh, it’s interesting because it’s Dr. Wendy.
John: Yeah. I would say in terms of the character cue, like the character name above dialogue, it’s weird to put the Doctor there unless it’s actually sort of part of the joke or part of just reminding like, oh, that person really is a doctor. There are characters in scripts where I’ll have like, you know, Mrs. Van Owen and I’ll keep that Mrs. there because Van Owen by itself you might lose her gender. You might sort of forget who it is if that person hasn’t shown up for a long time.
Phil: Sounds like a police sergeant.
John: So that’s reasons why you might want to keep the Mrs. And every script is going to be different, but the decision to go with the character’s first name versus their last name really tells us a lot about sort of how personal they are with the main character and sort of where they fit into the world. It can be confusing to have a lot of first names. It can be confusing to have a lot of last names. So finding a balance is important.
Phil: Yeah. I think it’s actually a really great question because it is another opportunity to teach people about those people and the tone of the thing. And I think for example in Destroyer the character–
John: Is it Bell or Erin in the character cue?
Phil: Erin Bell. She’s written as Bell always.
John: I was going to guess it was Bell.
Phil: It is Bell. And she’s never written as Detective Bell. Whereas other detectives that appear in the movie are Detective Kudra. That’s how they’re referred to. And also there are some honorifics. It’s funny, it’s easier to write Det. Kudra than it is to write Officer Kudra. Like you have a scene with Officer Kudra, Officer Kudra. You wouldn’t do that. I think you would just call them Kudra. And Doctor is a similar thing. You can write Dr. and that actually just to your eye – you’re used to seeing that. And if you’re spelling it out you think it’s like maybe it’s a drug dealer or something like that.
Matt: If they’re always functioning in the capacity of their job, Doctor, but if the main character is a doctor.
Phil: It’s actually sort of funny. Can you imagine a romantic comedy the person that’s their job is a doctor, but they’re just referred to as–?
Matt: Because they have a Ph.D.
Phil: Dr. Rehoboth. And they’re just falling in love. It’s the story of Steve and Dr. Rehoboth falling in love.
John: I guess an important thing to remember is that we’re talking about the words that you’re seeing on paper, but that’s not the same experience as what an audience is going to have in a theater. And so always be thinking about like, OK, I’m writing this on this page but what’s going to be seen on the screen is going to be very, very different. So, if we’re not going to be thinking of that character as a doctor with that line that they’re saying, don’t put the Dr. there. If it’s really all about them being the doctor we’re going to be seeing them in a lab coat. Putting that Dr. in front of their dialogue will help us remember sort of the context for all this stuff.
John: Last question is probably a simple one. Gary from Orlando writes, “Is there a preference for using the term montage or series of shots? From what I understand they both convey a similar visual but I would like to know from some pros which they use and how they use it.” Do you guys use the word montage? Do you use series of shots? How are you indicating a series of bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum?
Matt: I think more often than not we write “series of shots” only because – and this is just idiosyncratic – like montage to me in my mind is Love Story, you know what I mean, or like a romantic.
Phil: Someone is dancing and singing into their hairbrush when you use the montage going on. Which is delightful.
Matt: It’s obviously not just that. But series of shots, for some reason it just feels–
Phil: It’s tonal actually. There’s times when we’ve used, we’ve definitely used both, but I think Matt is right that it’s like series of shots. And then usually we do series of shots. Or often for us it’s more something like “Images – Colon – Dash – this image – Dash – this image – Dash – this image.”
Matt: Also, montage to me sometimes feels like we’re cueing music.
Phil: And it feels meta to me. It actually feels like removed when I see “Montage.” I feel like I’m now just watching a movie and I’m not inside the thing. And the immediacy seems less to me. I mean, this is all idiosyncratic. Other people might feel differently. But I think that’s probably why we lean away from calling something a montage and just like if we can not even labeling it, or just getting the little–
John: Yeah. A lot of times I will drop out either term. It will just be clearly a series of shots and there will just be slug lines of what it is you are seeing and it gets the same effect.
Matt: Yeah. Or just bullet points.
Phil: And then later we have to put the slug lines back in because the line producer is yelling at us.
John: “I need the slug lines.” I think the other thing that ruined montage for me was to American World Police you need a montage. And so then you hear that word enough and you’re like, OK, I’m [crosstalk] that kind of development.
Phil: It changed history in so many ways.
John: I forgot to warn you because Craig wasn’t here about One Cool Things. Did you guys come prepared with One Cool Things?
Phil: I know this show.
John: He knows the show well.
Phil: Front and backwards. I know it.
John: Phil Hay, will you start us off with a One Cool Thing?
Phil: I have One Cool Thing that I’m so sad that Craig is not here for this because it’s baseball oriented.
John: Oh my.
Phil: And Craig and I really share a love of baseball.
John: How do you have time for baseball? Baseball just feels like it’s just time to follow a thing that I just can’t care about.
Phil: John, that’s OK for you. Well, I coach baseball now. I coach my son’s baseball team, so it has kind of become the thing that I’ve arranged my life around. And so it’s reawakened my love for baseball, which I’ve always had. So there’s this Twitter, what do you call it, Twitter handle, a Twitter person, a Tweeter.
Matt: What’s up, old man?
Phil: Oh, god, I know. Called Pitching Ninja. It’s @PitchingNinja. And it’s a guy named Rob Friedman who is a pitching coach. And he has collected these incredible little gifs. It is a gif, is it jiff? I’m still getting older and older.
John: I say gif. There’s controversy, but gif makes much more sense.
Phil: So he’s collected these. He’s overlaid different pitches from the same pitcher. So if you are at all interested in baseball, if you play baseball for sure, but if you just love baseball and the kind of weird – there’s definitely parts, some of these images that crossover into kind of beautiful art. These incredible almost like mechanical drawings of the human body doing something incredible. So @PitchingNinja is my One Cool Thing.
John: Very nice.
Matt: Very nice.
John: Matt, what you got?
Matt: I was thinking about it because I knew this was coming and first it was going to be my six-foot iPhone charging cord which is really–
John: So it’s a long charging cord so you can sit on the coach.
Matt: Yeah, or at a hotel, or anything. I mean, that is One Cool Thing.
Phil: We’re not going to say it’s not cool.
Matt: No, but my daughter had a bake sale today.
John: Oh nice.
Matt: And she has this girls group and they are raising money – they were raising money to support the bees. And the organization it went to is called Backwards Beekeepers which is a Los Angeles group of treatment free bee keepers and they support feral bee colonies. So I’m giving them a shout out. People out there trying to make the world better.
John: Yeah. Bees. Bees are good.
Matt: So we saved them.
John: Yeah. You saved all the bees. One bake sale is all it took.
Matt: No one needs to do anything.
John: No colonies are collapsing.
Matt: Last year they saved the rhinos, so we’re good with those.
Phil: What’s next?
Matt: I don’t know.
John: The universe. My One Cool Thing is a show called Great News. Did you guys watch Great News? Matt: No.
John: Not enough people watched Great News. So it was an NBC show that lasted two seasons. It was canceled after last season. But it showed up on Netflix. And so I knew of it in a general sense. And so it’s executive produced by Robert Carlock and Tina Fey who did 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Same music by Jeff Richmond. So it feels like it’s in that universe.
It is a workplace comedy that takes place at a television station. It’s 30 Rock-ish. It’s Mindy Project-ish. But it’s created by Tracey Wigfield who also plays a character on the show and it is delightful. And so it’s a show that I wish was still on and was making much more episodes. But they’re all there on Netflix. And so I think in a weird way it’s probably more successful seeing it all together as a block because it does build on itself in a really nice way. So it was a good little half hour comedy if you want an extra Tina Fey/Mindy Kaling style comedy. It’s there. It’s on Netflix. It’s called Great News.
Matt: Sounds good.
Phil: So nice when you discover something like that. Just thriving in the wild.
John: Tracey Wigfield, you made a good show. So I’m hoping she’s going to make other cool, good shows.
Phil: Right on.
John: That is our show for this week. Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Luke Davis. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com.
That’s also the place where you can send questions like the ones we answered today. For short questions on Twitter Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.
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You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com.
If they want to see your movie they should go to see it in theaters on which day?
Phil: If you live in Los Angeles or New York City you can see it on Christmas Day.
John: So December 25th in New York/Los Angeles.
Phil: And then in the following weeks more and more cities. It will be everywhere on January 25th.
John: Great. But what if they are in Australia or what if they’re in London?
Phil: I don’t have – London will be January 25th. And it is actually being released all around the world. So if you tweet at me and you want to know where it is in your country I promise I will look it up.
John: How can they tweet at you? What is your handle?
Phil: It’s @Phillycarly.
John: Yes. There will be a link in the show notes. Matt, do you have a Twitter handle?
Matt: I’m @mattrmanfredi.
John: I also recommend that you follow Matt on Instagram because he takes photos of trees and bushes and pipes that he finds that are beautiful.
Matt: Yes. Manfredeus, like a Roman emperor.
Phil: Or an international conglomerate that is a front for political conspiracy.
John: You can find all the back episodes of Scriptnotes at Scripnotes.net. That’s where you can listen to Episode 199 or whatever episode you were on before where you talked about The Invitation which is also still great and available where you find movies.
Phil: Right on.
John: And people should see that movie because it’s really, really good. I really–
Phil: Thank you, John.
John: And I think I’m going to be hosting some sort of Q and A with you guys at some point for Destroyer.
Phil: We have many of those coming up.
John: I’m excited to watch it with you guys and talk to you about it. Guys, thank you so much for coming in.
Matt: Thank you.
Phil: Thank you, John.
- Tickets are on sale for the Holiday Live Show!
- Thanks for joining us, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi!
- Episode 244: The Invitation, and Requels
- Commercial actors can get paid for excessive auditioning
- Destroyer is in US theaters December 25, 2018
- Backwards Beekeepers, and having a 6 foot charging cable
- Great News, created by Tracey Wigfield
- T-shirts are available here! We’ve got new designs, including Colored Revisions, Karateka, and Highland2.
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