The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August. And this is Episode 430 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig is off an assignment. He is literally stuck in a writer’s room. But luckily we have the incomparable Aline Brosh McKenna here to pick up the slack. Welcome back, Aline.
Aline Brosh McKenna: Woo!
John: Woo! Aline!
Aline: Let’s dance.
John: Today on the program we’re talking about TV musicals, LA versus New York. Pitch decks. And a bonus segment on online stan culture.
John: Special guest Tim Federle will join us in a moment, but first we have follow up on assistant pay. So let’s welcome back Scriptnotes producer, Megana Rao, to get us caught up. Welcome back, Megana.
Megana Rao: Hi, thanks.
John: Hi. So, Megana, the big news this past week was that the results of this big assistant survey came out. There were more than 1,500 assistants, current Hollywood assistants who responded. What are some of the takeaways we got from this survey?
Megana: Yeah, so I think the results of the survey were pretty validating for most assistants. So we saw that 64% of respondents reported making $50,000 or less per year. And as we talked in the town hall you need a minimum of $53,600 to not be considered rent-burdened in LA.
John: And rent-burdened is, you know, the idea is that you shouldn’t be spending more than 30% of your take home pay on rent, right?
Megana: Correct. So this means that those folks are spending 30% at least on just housing costs in LA.
John: So let’s break down the after taxes weekly pay. So, after everything is subtracted what they’re getting in their bank accounts. So it looks like 14% of these assistants were making between $500 and $600. 19% were between $600 and $700. 22% were between $700 and $800. And 17% basically were between $800 and $900. So, all these levels are pretty challenging to make a living. That upper tier is probably the sweet spot where someone can actually sort of do the thing they need to do just to stay in Los Angeles.
Megana: Exactly. And I think something else that you see from this survey is that, you know, with the nature of Hollywood and the way you get work you’re not consistently working every week. So, that’s just for the weeks that you are able to find work.
John: Right. Now, Aline, you were a showrunner on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. So, it was probably your first time having staff and having assistants. Did these numbers surprise you at all?
Aline: No, in fact, my assistant Jeff Kasanoff is sitting here.
John: Hi Jeff.
Aline: And we were talking about this yesterday that none of this was surprising. So, what I didn’t realize and what I think we’re going to talk maybe a little bit about how people can help, but one thing is that when I first had assistants they were hired by the studio and I didn’t think to ask. You know, you sort of assume like they are a big, responsible studio. This is what they do. They’re probably doing it correctly. That’s dumb.
So, you have to ask and find out. It took me a little while to figure out like, hey, what are you making? How much overtime do you need? You know, to sort of be proactive about making sure that the assistant is being taken care of if you’re working for another employer. But, no, I’m not surprised. And particularly I know that the agencies are really challenging for people to work at. And it’s why they have a large percentage of people – assistants there are children of.
John: Now, Megana, some of the emails we got in were talking about, you know, I was pressured to pay for some things myself. And I wondered whether that was just anecdotal or if that was a systemic problem. Based on the survey it looks like 28% of assistants felt like they had to pay something for themselves out of pocket. So, between $100 and $200 out of pocket.
So we had the example of the guy who had to sort of make up the overages for the lunch orders. But other stuff that the assistant was basically just not reimbursed for. So, it looks like that’s a pretty systemic problem.
Megana: And that’s just for $100 to $200. But a lot of assistants are paying like a little bit each week that they, you know, don’t feel comfortable getting reimbursement for. Yeah.
Aline: I mean, that’s just – that’s horrifying.
Aline: So, again, just to skip ahead to some suggestions I’m going to make later, you know, one of the things is that you really have to work on the communication a lot upfront with an assistant so that they feel comfortable coming to you, especially because they may have worked in other environments that were scary, where they were not acknowledged for coming forward on things. So, when someone starts you can’t just say my door is open. Because just try and remember when you were 20 to 30, or 20 to 35, whatever. It’s intimidating. You can’t just say my door is open. You have to go and say, hey, I noticed you used your own credit card for these coffees. Did everybody pay you back?
You have to be proactive because there’s a big barrier that people have in those entry level jobs. They’re just afraid to say like, “Hey, I didn’t have enough on the P-card and so I bought the Thin Grams that everybody wants for the room. I bought them myself.” So that they feel comfortable coming to you and telling you that.
Megana: Especially because it seems like a lot of assistants in their past or maybe their friends have been dismissed for much smaller reasons than approaching a showrunner and asking these difficult questions about salary.
John: Aline, it strikes me as strange that you are a person who is running a show, you have so many responsibilities on your back. Are you the best person for that assistant to be coming to or should there be someone else on staff who is responsible for that kind of managerial function?
Aline: I mean, I think if you’re in charge you have to be in charge. I mean, you can encourage people to direct them to the person who might help them, but then you have to make sure that they got the help. You have to understand that like this is the most vulnerable class of folks and that it might be an intimidating environment for them and step forward and try and intervene. And that really is something that I learned over the course of the show which is that not just assistants by the way but young writers or PAs or anybody on the show really might not feel comfortable coming to you. And the idea of my door is open doesn’t quite do it, because it is intimidating to walk through that door.
So, just try and keep your eye on it, but not only that but to say really come and pull me aside and say, “Hey, this is a bummer for me. I’m having trouble with the studio getting reimbursed for this, or even getting my P-card.”
John: What is a P-card? I have no idea what you’re talking about.
Aline: Oh, it’s production. It’s the card that they give you so you can buy stuff.
John: So it would be like the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend production credit card?
Aline: Yes. But it takes a while to get it. And then going to pick it up and then what you’re doing in the meantime. And I wish that I had known more when I started, because it took me a little while. And the other thing I would say, this is true of all showrunning things, even if you are a very experienced, seasoned, come up the ranks TV writer which I was not, ask the people who do the job to tell you best practices. So, when I started with the writer’s room I went around and said tell me the best and worst practices from your previous shows. And we got so much information from that about how to run the room. And I would rely on them and the same thing I learned to do that with the assistants which is to say like what’s the best way to handle this? How would you like me to handle this? Who do you want me to talk to? What do you think is the best idea here? What would be the most helpful for you? Because they know way more about being an assistant than I do. I don’t know anything about being an assistant in 2019.
So, you ask the folks. If you’ve hired people you like, they’re well-meaning, hard-working folks, they will tell you how to do stuff. I asked Jeff how to do stuff, what’s the best way to do stuff all the time. Do you think we should do it this way? Should we do it this way? So they know. And they can let you know if you ask.
Megana: Can I also ask how much sort of freedom or leeway did you feel like you had with the studio to ask for these things?
Aline: So, you have some. You don’t have all. Like can’t reset everybody’s pay to what you want it to be. But you can ask the assistant like what’s the best setup for this for you so that you’re making what you need to make. And then also when we transitioned out of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and I had an assistant and I was hiring her myself we went over like what do you need, what do you need for this, what’s the best setup for this for you. So have some, but you’re under the pressure of budgets for everything on the show. And, again, communication is important.
The problem is as the study so aptly showed is that sometimes we just system-wide in the culture are not putting enough money in those budgets. I would really love to see a company step forward and say $53,000 is where we start our pay for assistants. If one company would do that that would really make an enormous difference for everybody to say like, hey, we’re committing to paying this wage across the board. That would be a huge, you know, huge step forward from a company standpoint.
Because if you work at an agency in particular where they really pay very little, as a boss I think there is a limit to how much you can do.
John: Megana, we got an email in about sort of what else bosses can do. And so do you want to read what Alex in the LA wrote for us?
Megana: Yeah, so Alex wrote in and said, “I’m an independent non-writing producer without an assistant but have nonetheless been listening with great interest to the recent discussions. One situation that I see way too often is producers and directors not inviting their assistants into creative meetings. They’re dangling at ‘apprentice for low-pay carrot’ but not letting them into the room where it happens. I realize this is the opposite of the writer’s room situation where assistants are being asked to do too much without compensation or credit.
“But producer, or director, or feature writer assistants will learn more from sitting in and listening to and hopefully contributing to one hour of a lively creative meeting than they will from reading a week’s worth of bad spec scripts.”
John: Yeah. I think this is a really important point that we haven’t talked enough about on the show is that you’re doing this job as an apprenticeship and you can only really be an apprentice if you’re there seeing the work happen. And a lot of the work of writers is those conversations, those meetings, those times in the room. That’s why Jeff is in the room here as we’re recording this is to see how the process works.
Aline: Well we are sort of effortlessly touching on all the things I put on my list, because my door is open was one. And then I wrote “fun stuff.” And, you know, I really think that some of the assistant stuff is just like, you know, we moved offices and Jeff has had to break down a lot of boxes. And like the boxes have to be broken down, but if you know that you’re doing something fun and you’re in exciting meetings with people – and also ask your assistant what they’re into. Because I’ve had assistants who are like – we had an assistant who wanted to be an actor. She’s now on Glow, Britney Young. She’s amazing.
But like ask people what they’re excited about. Some assistants want to be directors, so you can say, hey, come to this meeting with me. Or they want to be writers. Or they’re fans of John August. You know, find out what they’re excited about and give them that because that’s something to look forward to in a day which might have more menial tasks to it. So I think that’s something.
And then the other thing I would say is like we were sort of making a list of our core values at our little company, because I’m sort of transitioning into having a little company of my own. And one of the things I wrote down was like “we have fun.” You know, we try and do things that are fun. We were looking at some office space and then we stopped in Koreatown and we went to a store. And I bought Jeff a windbreaker. And we went to Gong Cha. You know, you’re so busy. Like yesterday we had back-to-back-to-back meetings. But just to find time to have a laugh.
And the other thing I think is important thing for bosses is like this is a pipeline to meet cool, young, fun people. I mean, this is an opportunity for that. One of the assistants from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is on High School Musical and working with Tim. And I’m going to a craft fair with one of my old assistants tomorrow. And I’m writing a series with another one of my assistants. Like what a great opportunity to get to know people.
And I think one thing Jeff and I talked about in the car on the way over is people want to be seen. Everybody wants to be seen. You spend so much downtime with your assistant in a car or sitting in an office. And where are you from? What are you about? Develop some nice private jokes. I mean, seeing it as an opportunity rather than an obligation would be a nice way.
The thing that I can’t speak to because I don’t – if you’re throwing things at people, then I have nothing – I can’t help you. Everything I just said you won’t have heard. And you need – no, I’m serious. Like, there is something really, really wrong with you. And you need to either do anger management or really delve into some therapy. I mean, that is – I can’t even – I know that that’s true not only from the survey but from anecdotally every assistant I know has a story like that. I just profoundly don’t know what to say about that except that that person is so deeply miserable and something is broken. And you need to go and get some help. Because whoever that is is just not going to be able to get all the wonderful benefits of having a smart young person in your office that you can have a nice interchange with if you’re that enraged.
I truly actually don’t even know what to say about that. Except that–
John: We’ll put a link in the show notes to the results of the survey, including that 104 respondents reported having an object thrown at them, which is not good.
Aline: Can we find an article which is like get help or like can we link to an anger management or a mental health or something?
John: We will.
Aline: Because these people are very distressed. Because what I’ve heard is throwing things, items of food, and pieces of computers, and cell phones. Obviously that person is distressed to the point of not really being capable of being in charge of anything, including themselves. I’m not even sure I want them in a car. One of the things that is really challenging that I’ve been aware of for many years is getting people into this pipeline is extremely challenging for a lot of reasons that are not that easy to see.
You know, one of them is people from other parts of the country, who are not from the sort of upscale college pipeline, don’t even know these jobs exist. You can’t interview for them remotely, which is a must. You have to have a car to do these jobs. They just assume, especially if you’re a writer’s PA they assume you have a car. So that’s going to lock a lot of people out of these jobs. And so I think there are some really basic broken things in terms of how we wick people into those first jobs to begin with. And I think the next phase once we ameliorate the really just sort of baseline human necessity for the people who are currently doing the job is to figure out like how are we finding people from different areas, getting them here, acclimating them, helping them find transportation, explaining to them how the system works?
Because right now it’s a very self-perpetuating in terms of the types of people who are here and who they know and who knows about the job. And you have to be on the Facebook group. But like, you know, what if you’re a college student in South Florida and you don’t know any of these people? Or just a high school graduate somewhere and you think I’d love to do this. You just have no – it would be like trying to apply to NASA. It’s such a closed system just to get in that door to begin with. And that’s one of the reasons that we don’t have the representation later in the business is because we’re just not getting those people into those entry level jobs. So I think there’s a lot to be done here just to ameliorate the salary and not having things thrown at their heads. But I think beyond that because I have tried to mentor – have mentored people into this process and they have a tremendous amount of challenges with like, you know, can’t fly to LA to interview, or can’t fly to New York to interview. So, basic things like that.
Assume. So many things about this assume you are a rich kid who went to one of these 50 institutions.
John: And, Megana, before you go let’s talk sort of next steps that are going to be happening probably mostly in the New Year. So, in the follow up on the town hall there’s a move towards smaller meetings where we talk about very specific issues. So things like assistants at agencies. Personal assistants. Assistants in the writer’s room. And try to break down best practices because while there are issues that are common to sort of all industry assistants, there are some very special things that are happening in certain parts of the industry that we need to really focus on.
And then, of course, hopefully reaching a number that is sort of what a person needs to make as take home pay as an assistant per week. Because I think if we can establish this baseline at least everyone understands if I’m moving to Los Angeles I need to be making this much money or else it’s just not a sustainable career. So those are things we’re going to be focusing in on at the start of the New Year.
Megana: Yeah. I think that’s great. And making sure that that number is flexible with rising costs. And also I think we’re going to do more intimate support groups as well as a bigger session, or a closed door session on mental health.
John: Great. Megana, thank you so much.
Megana: Thanks so much for having me.
John: One more bit of follow up is that in Episode 427 Akiva Schaffer wrote in about the waste generated by screeners. This past week I realized for the first time the Academy – have you used the Academy screener app?
John: So, the Academy actually set up an app that’s on Apple TV and other places where you log in and you can get screeners for most of the things. Anything you would have gotten by DVD you can now see on the app, which I think is good.
Aline: There are not as many on there. They’re not all on there. There’s a sort of percentage. I think we’re working on it. I think we’re going to get there. Eventually it will all be that. I’m so distressed by the amount of junk that I get in the mail. And one of the writers from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Audrey Wauchope, who is amazing was so distressed by the amount of stuff that we got from Amazon, plus she and her husband are in several guilds, so they got like six pink suitcases and six – I mean, I’m exaggerating. But I think between the two of them they got six of those.
And then Modern Love from Amazon, they also sent out a similarly sized thing. And because Audrey and her husband are in multiple unions they had a giant pile of suitcases. And she was so distressed that she put a call out and some other people picked up on it and they’re taking the suitcases, filling them with art supplies, and handing them out to public schools.
Aline: But, I mean, it would be maybe awesome for people to start instead of doing that maybe making donations or something. Because it’s like you pick up a headline and it says the earth is going to be uninhabitable in 40 years. And then the mail comes and it’s just filled with like I don’t need a glossy bound script for – please just send me a link. I will read. I promise you I will read the script online. It’s so distressing to me.
John: Yeah. So I just want to highlight the good thing. I think the Academy screener app is a good idea. Netflix sent through a thing which is basically a free couple months of Netflix, and everyone gets a card for that. Great. It’s like I don’t want a DVD of a Netflix show. The point of Netflix is that there are no DVDs. So, I just want to encourage more of that. So, carrots and sticks. Let’s reward with some carrots people who are doing things well.
Aline: Yeah. I mean, I will say the Mrs. Maisel pink suitcase is adorable. And I love that Audrey is putting it to better use. But it’s just–
Aline: Oh, someone’s landfill is going to be filled with strange swag suitcases.
John: All right. It is time to introduce our special guest. A former Broadway dancer. And award-winning novelist. A screenwriter of the Academy and Golden Globe nominated film Ferdinand. Tim’s career has taken him from Broadway to Hollywood and like many of his works his current project reflects that. He is the showrunner and executive producer of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, which he created for Disney+. Welcome to the program, Tim Federle.
Tim Federle: Thank you. Long-time listener, first-time guest. I’m genuinely honored to be here.
John: And you are here because of Aline.
Aline: Yes! I like to be acknowledged.
Tim: It’s true.
Aline: So I heard Tim on the Writers Guild podcast. I had been loving the show. So I loved the show, so I was like who created this special wonderful, amazing show? I looked up. I saw your bio. I found the podcast. And then the beauty of John August, so I emailed John and I said, hey, maybe we could do a thing with Tim someday. A day later we were on emails. And four days later we’re sitting in John’s office. So thank you for doing that. I love an episode where I can geek out about somebody’s work.
Tim: Thank you.
Aline: But in addition to loving the show, one thing I really think is great that you can speak to is, you know, a lot of the folks who write movies and television followed a very similar trajectory to get here. And your journey is different and I think it would really inspire people to know that you can be in the business in some area and you meet a lot of performers who dream of being writers and they don’t really know how to make that transition. And I love the story of how you got to being in charge of this wonderful show I think is so inspiring.
Tim: Thank you so much.
John: Let’s talk about what the show actually is, because people may not have seen it yet. So it takes places in a universe where the High School Musical movie exists. The show is set at the high school where the High School Musical was filmed. So stop me when I get any—
Tim: No, this is great. It’s like a really gay Inception when you described it. I love it. I’m so down.
John: So there’s a meta quality to it in that the characters in the show have seen High School Musical and know that they are enacting some of the stereotypes from that show. And they are in the process of putting on at their high school a version of High School Musical. So, there’s many layers sort of happening there. On top of all that, it is structured a bit as a documentary, or it has that feel of where characters can speak to camera, but more in the Modern Family way than in The Office way. There’s not literally a crew.
Tim: Right. I kind of pitched it originally as Modern Family meets Glee was sort of the idea. A little bit Office elements. For two reasons. Because I was so inspired by Christopher Guest films growing up. Everything from Best in Show to, of course, Waiting for Guffman. And also because I think the original movies of High School Musical were shot in such a specific bright way that I wanted to just from a camera style perspective like right away announce this as something different.
Aline: It sounds more meta than it is. I mean, one thing you said on the podcast which I think is really true is the second you start watching it there’s nothing confusing. It’s not Inception. It isn’t dense. It’s very heart—
Tim: It’s a group of kids putting on a high school musical. And I think what makes it meta at least for season one is that the high school musical happens to be High School Musical shot at the school where they did High School Musical.
Aline: But I love that you have some of the kids don’t know anything about it.
Aline: Like one of the leads has to go watch it. I think that’s awesome. And it’s so real. It feels really real because the reason it doesn’t feel to me gimmickly meta is because young people live in this world where everything references other things.
Aline: I mean, I sometimes turn on TikTok and I just know that there’s private things happening that—
Aline: And memes obviously. But this is kind of an effortless way to like refer to an existing piece of pop culture while creating something else that’s just as valid and wonderful and interesting but is in conversation with another piece.
Time: Yeah. I mean, I think I felt like – I’ve worked for Disney in a lot of ways over the years. I was the dancing catfish in Little Mermaid on Broadway. I was a Christina Aguilera backup dancer right out of high school at one of the Super Bowls that ABC produced. And so I’m like a Disney kid. I famously didn’t get cast in the Newsies film, but I did have a callback after an option audition in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I’m 108 years old when I describe my life.
But when it comes to this kind of High School Musical thing it was how can we be self-referential. And what I was surprised by, because we often think of Disney as a bunch of suits, is actually them so embracing the irreverence of what I wanted to bring to it I think in launching this new service. And saying like we’re going to announce that we can have fun with our own brand. And that’s been refreshing as a creative person.
Aline: I agree. It’s a great flagship property for them because it shows we’re going to be fun, we’re going to be irreverent, but clean.
John: So before we get into your bio and background, talk us through—
Tim: Did I say Christina Aguilera too early on the podcast, John?
John: No, no.
Tim: I know it’s somewhere in your bullet points.
John: It’s never too early for Christina. But my question is how did this project come into your universe?
Tim: You know, about a year and a half ago Disney kind of sent an all-points-bulletin out to the agents in a world where we used to all have agents and they said we have this title, High School Musical, that Disney+ wants to reboot and we just don’t have an idea. We know it’s a great title. But we don’t want to do a sort of craven money grab where we just do like a fourth movie. And so I was one of probably 25 writers who went in and pitched a take. And the short version of it is I had just finished binging American Vandal on Netflix. And was so inspired by the sort of reality of that docu way in and that teen culture of today that I walked in and just sort of said it’s a documentary about a group of kids putting on a high school musical.
And they bought it. And that was a little bit built on the back of the fact that I had this Broadway background. And so I think they felt like I could bring something kind of legit to it as opposed to the theater shows that I love but that are the sort of larger than life Smashes that are a different kind of show.
Aline: One of the things that you share with American Vandal is I love in American Vandal how young those kids actually look. Because I have a 19-year-old and a 16-year-old son.
John: Oh wow.
Aline: And like what a 15, 14, 16-year-old looks like you forget. You know, and we’re just so conditioned to seeing these movies where it’s played by a 25-year-old and they just are different. So American Vandal I always loved how young they kids were and looked. And the same on your show. I really appreciate that.
Tim: Thank you. And we fought for that. That kind of idea that CW sort of has that great 30-year-old teenager thing locked down. And I love those shows, too. But I was like one way we can do this different is cast a 16-year-old who can really sing live. And we’re immediately going to say this is not your grandma’s High School Musical. And it’s been really exciting.
Aline: Tim, when I think of how many 13-year-old theater geeks are watching this show and like so inspired and freaking out, I can just picture them all on their iPads in their bedrooms in their frilly canopy beds, not that I had one. Maybe I had one. Just freaking out because they’re really seeing. And that experience of being – I actually think even if you played a sport in high school, just that feeling of the high school being in a group.
Tim: Well, and I think for the same reason I watched every episode of Friday Night Lights even though I don’t know anything about football. I hope people discover the show and go like, oh, there’s something here for me. Because it’s ultimately like Bad News Bears. That’s sort of what these stories are.
John: Underdog stories.
Tim: Underdog stories.
John: The ones putting it together. So you say you go into the room and you say that you had watched American Vandal. That you had a basic take on it. Can you describe a little bit more though what that first meeting is like and what did you go into that room with?
Tim: Process. [Cross talk] process. Absolutely. So it started with a phone call with a group of creative execs just saying, “We want to get to know you.” I had written a spec script about a guy who hits his head and sees the world as a musical, which there’s actually a show coming on the air that’s actually very similar to that, which is what it is. And it was one of those spec scripts I had written interesting he dark being like is anybody going to read this.
So tip number one, have a toolbox fool of spec scripts if you can.
John: But at this point you already had Ferdinand done?
Tim: Ferdinand was done.
John: You were already a writer who was hirable because you’d actually had something that had been produced.
Aline: Can we take a break to sing a song? Is anyone ever going to read this?
Tim: Yeah, totally. I mean, that is the age old – but yeah, Ferdinand had come out and done pretty well. And so I get this sort of phone call that says we’re the creative execs, we have a High School Musical sort of title, do you have any ideas? So the initial phone call is me just kicking the tires and trying to sort of “yes and” the conversation. Like OK, they’re sort of into the idea of a documentary. OK, they don’t love the idea of that, so let’s go this way.
And then what I usually do, my technique is I follow up with a really personalized email direct to the execs. I take the agents out of it, or the managers these days. And I’m like this is going to be a personal relationship anyway, so let me see how this goes. And I usually follow up with an email that’s just like headlines from what I think they liked. And that led to, “Great, let’s explore this further.”
And then the truth is I probably did a month of free work, where it was just like I kept sending ideas. And the after that became a three-pager. And then it became–
Aline: Before you got hired.
Tim: Yeah. And then it’s like there’s you and three other people who we’re interested in. And I’m a New Yorker. I lived in New York for 20 years. And it’s like we’re just going to do this over FaceTime with the head of Disney Channel. And I was like, OK, great. And I flew myself to LA. Because I knew that thing about being in the room opposite the person really matters. And I flew myself to LA and put myself up in a crappy Airbnb.
Aline: This is all before you got the job?
Tim: All before I got the job.
Tim: And I walked in and I just sort of monologued at them. You know, one of the advantages of being a former performer is that you have a little bit of that improv thing in the room that helps people understand what the feel of the show is. And I remember taking a Lyft away from the studio and getting a call on the 405 that just said, “We’re going to hire you to do this.”
John: That’s great.
John: So let’s talk about the free work you did. Because free work is a thing that is sort of bugaboo for me in that it’s awesome that you got that job, but a bunch of other people were probably going up for that same job and were also doing that free work. And so Disney+ and the makers got to see a bunch of written versions of things. And so you don’t know the degree to which your writing is being compared against other people’s writing or ideas cross-pollinate. And so one of the other five finalists for that thing is probably listening to this and being a little bit frustrated that they did the same work.
So, that’s a real thing.
Tim: Yeah. And I don’t – you know, what’s interesting and what I will say is, and this is probably protecting themselves, but I don’t think I was ever asked to do anything but like keep talking to us. And yet I as a writer feel the instinct to put words down. And I know that you don’t really sell something till they can read it. I didn’t write a script but I certainly put real thought into these are the characters, these are the journeys, these are the arcs.
So, a certain amount of free work – maybe it’s my background of auditioning for so many things that I didn’t get.
John: That’s what I was thinking, yeah.
Tim: That I’m just like, yeah, you put yourself out there and you get – I saw a tweet last week that made me laugh so hard that was like, “Writers don’t give up hope. I had 48 rejections before I got my 49th rejection.” And I was like, yeah, that is my life as a dancer. That I used to take the bus from Pittsburgh when I was 18 to New York. It would be ten hours. I’d get off the bus. I’d audition for the Radio City Show. I wouldn’t get a callback. And I’d go back to the bus station. So I’m sort of used to a certain amount of putting myself out there for no pay. But it’s tough.
John: Yeah. But you wouldn’t actually – but you wouldn’t perform on stage for no pay? Well, maybe you would.
Tim: My eyes are glazing over because I’m thinking of the number of benefits I’ve done. No, you’re right though. I wouldn’t. And only recently there was some project that I’ll have to remember what it was. Oh, yeah, I was talking to Warner Bros. about something and they had a really great system in place that they were like before you do these five pages we need to get a deal in place.
Tim: In case this happens.
John: That’s what we want.
Aline: An if/come kind of deal.
Tim: Exactly. Shout out to Clint Levine who is one of the best execs in the biz.
John: Nice. So you get the job. You’re on the 405. You’re in that Lyft headed home. I forgot if it was the 405 or a different freeway. I want to make sure we’re accurate here.
Tim: I’m a New Yorker. I just put my head down in the car.
John: So you are a New Yorker, so now you have to come to Los Angeles. And so what was the process from getting the yes, then did you write a script or did you immediately go to a room?
Tim: Oh no. It was a big process. And yet also a condensed process because they had this platform to launch. Right? So I think I sold it over the summer and it was green lit by, no, I sold it in January of 2018. Green lit by the summer. And the period in between was making a deal which was to say this is not an immediate green light, it’s not an immediate slam dunk. And so I went through a pretty traditional development process which just like your listeners know this already, but I’ll say it quickly. Which is here’s my ten-page outline for the pilot. Here’s their ten-page notes back. We finally settle on an idea we all like. I write it. They give notes again. I write it again. Notes again.
And I think I wrote three drafts of what the pilot would be. And then built into my deal, which a lot of times is these days, is the idea of create a bible for the series. So we should talk about this because I put great expense into this actually. Because my feeling as a showbiz guy is that very few people get into showbiz because they actually like to read. Like we get into showbiz because we like the experience of being moved. So my feeling about putting together a pitch deck was that it should feel like the show.
So I hired Rex Bonomelli, the book cover designer behind all of Stephen King’s books, who is just a dear friend from New York. And I was like I’m going to send you ten pages of like Microsoft Word text about my show. Make it look like something. And here are the visual references I want. And he whipped out this glorious bible. The punchline being I never had to turn the bible in because someone at Disney+ read the pilot and they were like we’re going to do this.
Tim: So I paid him out of my own pocket, which is just something I’m used to doing now. And it’s now just this very beautiful document that will never be seen.
John: Well, so what you’re describing is sort of like a pitch deck. And so generally it’s the kind of thing you might do early in the process to sort of show what the world feels like. When I was doing Grease I put together boards to show like this is what the world feels like, this is what the universe feels like. I’ve done it for other projects, too. And for Aladdin it was so helpful because I point to things and we could talk about characters and say like this person here. And that’s the kind of work I feel like is so valuable because it’s getting them thinking not about the script they’re going to hire, but the actual project they’re going to make. Like what it’s going to look like, what it’s going to feel like down the road.
Tim: Totally. And I’m now interviewing DPs for season two. We’re doing a DP change. First season was great, but we’re doing a new DP. And when I can point to anything visual, even if it’s like watch this ten-second Modern Family clip with the camera work. I want to emulate this. That’s what our business is. And so it’s this odd thing where our words have to feel like something.
John: Aline, when you were doing Crazy Ex-Girlfriend you had a similar process where you had to go out and pitch to a bunch of places. This was your original idea, so it wasn’t you’re going to one place. But it was you and Rachel going into the room. What did you bring into the room as you were pitching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend?
Aline: We had just a verbal pitch. But in that case we also – they could watch Rachel’s videos and that gave them a sense of how the musical – I mean, our musical numbers very much resemble Rachel’s videos just with way more money behind them. So we had that.
So, I think that using them as a creator to communicate with people because in the pilot process or when you’re making stuff you don’t have the thing to show. Like when we started Crazy Ex-Girlfriend we had a shot pilot. So when we were staffing and hiring people it was like well this is it, guys, and something to look at.
But if you’re trying to get people to understand, in addition to the script, I think a pitch deck made by the filmmaker/the writer is very helpful. The reason that I suggested is we’re now in a universe which has really been making me giggly where I get all these pitch decks that are made by companies and producers and they’re the most typo-ridden documents. Like I saved one of them because on every single page there’s a hilarious typo. But I think people now understand that they work well for writers and filmmakers. And I actually just worked on a short film program and the woman who made this short film she made the most beautiful little look book/pitch deck thing. That’s one thing.
But when a company is trying to get you to do a project and they sort of get a bunch of Clip Art and write some crazy prose, it’s been making me so giggly. I think I’m going to start a file of just saving them. Because it’s the non-sequitur theater plus the typos. And I feel like – and the other thing is then you’re going to give it to a writer. They’re often given to me to be like, oh, this is what we’re thinking of for the show. And it’s like, well, now you’ve filled my eyeballs with things that have limited my ability to imagine this thing. And I would rather that somebody say, “We want to do a movie about deer in the forest.” Then I can build my own reference of images as opposed to getting sort of then they’ve clipped a bunch of pictures of Bambi and whatever. And had somebody who is not a writer try and jot something down.
We’re in a little bit of pitch deck fatigue right now because the technology is so available to people.
John: After this episode I will show you my Bambi pitch book.
Tim: I was going to say my deer in the forest.
John: No, literally. I will show you my–
Aline: Oh, hilarious.
John: No, I went in on Bambi.
Aline: Hilarious. But, look, again, I think if it’s part of your – as a filmmaker it’s part of how you’re communicating your vision. Totally fine with that. It’s just like Flotsam and Jetsam from the Internet translated through probably somebody who is like, “Oh dude, what am I supposed to do here? They asked me to do a thing.”
So, anyway, I think they’re really great for what you were doing. I was surprised that you didn’t take that and show it to your staff and your DP and stuff because it probably has—
Tim: That I did. And I showed it to the cast, too. I’m still stuck on the fact that I understudied Flotsam and Jetsam on Broadway in Little Mermaid. So it’s like for me this is a real wakeup call this morning. But I will also say just on the pitch deck it’s not quite this, but this idea of the way we sell ourselves these days. You know, everybody knows like the first thing that happens if you’re up for something is you’re Googled. Or, you know, my assistant, Chandler Turk, fantastic guy who per the earlier conversation by the way now writes social media posts for our show the way Ilana Wolpert did for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, now she’s on my staff. It’s just what you try to do.
But Chandler, of course, sets up my calendar so that right before I interview somebody or I have their bio and I try to get my head around them, but even for staff writers these days there’s so many improv actors who are going out as writers. And so even before someone walks in the room like think about what your YouTube results are. Because that is like the first impression of who you are and what you’re going to bring into the room.
Aline: That’s terrifying.
Tim: Half of the people who are interviewed for things these days have like a really specific like oh they did that open mic at Rockwell. Or they did blah-blah. And it’s a real sort of calling card, which can be a great thing.
John: Now, you’ve sold the show. You’ve written the pilot. You’ve gotten the green light. At what point do you hire a staff? At what point are you in a room working?
Aline: And you didn’t come up from rooms, so how did you–?
Tim: I did not.
Aline: How did you figure out how to best utilize–?
John: Like you’re like Aline, where you’re–
Aline: Well, I had been in many rooms, because I did TV in my 20s and then also I’ve been in so, so many roundtables that I ran.
Tim: Right. And so in a funny way coming out of animation with Ferdinand, that was its own kind of room environment. It is–
Aline: Collaborative, yes.
Tim: It’s totally collaborative and it’s the best training for like nothing is precious, because on an animated project you write like a thousand pages for two jokes. The short answer is it all happened fast. It was like summer 2018, I think. And they paired me with a showrunner, Oliver Goldstick, who is fantastic and came from the Pretty Little Liars world. And we began talking about the season. And we hired a staff of six people. And then fairly early into the process when we were in production I think it became clear. There were so many things Oliver wanted to do and so many projects that he was lined up for that I took over as showrunner in a way because I think when you come from a theater background you have so much experience with just rolling with stuff.
Like everything from the understudy is also sick, so you’re now going on for the understudy for the lead role. So much of showrunning is kind of making the show continue to run. And that’s how we did that.
And when it came to hiring the room I almost doubled the staff this year. Well, it’s a Scriptnotes exclusive that we actually have more episodes this year than we had in season one, which I haven’t told anyone. And so we hired more writers this season. But in season one it was reaching out to old friends and also staying open to people who came through the door who came from less traditional backgrounds.
John: Now, you have a plan for making this, but in terms of bringing on this cast, I read that you basically cast one guy who was like the 16-year-old, and sort of cast around him. Basically that became the template for how you were doing it.
John: And then was there something equivalent of like a 29-hour or a workshop process where you could sort of put people together and sort of get the musical?
Tim: That was so Broadway musical of you, John August. A 29-hour reading is a thing we do over in New York.
Aline: It’s funny. I was thinking this is just a podcast of three people who have done musicals.
Tim: It’s true. And the answer is no. So, what we did was we cast Joshua Bassett. He was the first audition tape I saw. He was 17 at the time. He held the guitar, sang the song, nailed the scene. I was like we have him. We have the show. And I think by casting a “real teenager” it also helped me prove my point which was let’s pivot the casting around that. And then a month and a half later – now we didn’t do a 29-hour reading, but we did a table read for the studio and the network and everyone important. And I will say the thing I brought to it and pushed hard for was I come from the Broadway world, so it’s like every performance is a performance.
So, I had the assistants go out and they tracked down like every music stand in LA that they could. And we did it the way you present Broadway musicals where I had the cast sitting in front of the room instead of around a table hunched over with no energy. And every time they had a line they stood. And the pulled the mic stand up. And it was complicated, but it made it come alive. And the big idea of that big table read was I was in a not heated conversation but in a heated debate with Disney if we could really have people sing live in the show. And they, to their credit, were like we’ll give you the shot, but ultimately we need to lip sync everything just in case.
And Joshua Bassett who is himself a brilliant young songwriter and a true like whiz kid, I was like, Josh, bring your guitar to the reading. And he stood up and sang this song and I watched an entire room of executives melt because it’s that magic thing that only theater people can do.
John: Yeah, yeah.
Aline: And ultimately you do a mix, right?
Tim: We do a mix. Because it’s really hard.
Aline: It’s really hard. We went through that, too, ultimately. And I had the same thing. Because it bums me a lot when you go into like a very produced sound.
Aline: But ultimately what we found our music producer, Adam, he was like I can make things that are not live sound live. And so ultimately like there were times where we did where we ear-wigged people and we picked it up. But from a standpoint it’s so challenging.
Tim: It’s so hard.
Aline: But you get very good at figuring out how to do your mixes, like in your final mixes you find a way to be like, guys, if a big violin swell comes in here it’s just going to take us right out, so we just need to really dry up this mix.
Aline: One of the things that’s really interesting is some people are great at lip synching. And some people are not. And it actually has a lot to do with how they sing and where they sing from. And we had some actors who just the way they use their mouths really lends itself to lip synching. And some people where the way they generate their sound it doesn’t. And so we definitely had – in our mix we definitely had challenges with some people, even though it is in sync it doesn’t look like it’s in sync.
Aline: So I’m familiar with that challenge. But you can actually do a lot. I think one of the reasons it’s a bummer is that some people just are very comfortable when someone starts singing you go into like full—
Aline: Chain-smoker production mode. And it’s like you can actually do a lot.
Tim: And I think actually modern audiences are much more forgiving of that in a way than I am. I think they’re like it’s a musical, sing.
John: Glee was clearly – you can’t watch your show without thinking about Glee, because it’s a high school musical. And Glee from its inception, the minute they started singing it’s full production value.
Aline: And that was their aesthetic.
John: That was their aesthetic.
Tim: And it’s glorious, by the way. Fantastic.
Aline: That was their aesthetic. But I think because your aesthetic because of the docuseries aspect of it, because the kids are that age, you needed to have a little more grit on it.
John: You moved to Los Angeles from New York. That’s a question we’ve been trying to answer on the podcast recently. Advice for people who are moving from New York to Los Angeles. So we’ve gotten a couple of people who have written in with very sort of beginner advice, but for you what was the process like? What were the biggest changes you saw and how did you manage the process of moving from New York to Los Angeles?
Tim: I have a good friend, Kevin Cahoon, who was just on Glow. He’s an actor. And he says LA is great when you have a job.
You know, I think as someone – I grew up in San Francisco, then we moved to Pittsburgh, and then New York for 20 years. In my dance career New York is home. But I was getting to a point where I was like prototypically ready for some sunshine. And I quite literally for two decades have had apartments that looked directly on brick walls. So for just like a straight up day-to-day standpoint I was ready to embrace that part of LA.
I’m also kind of extroverted loner. And so I get my energy from alone time, despite the fact that I have a performer spirit. And so a lot of people who struggle with LA struggle because they need that bodega, and fill in the blank if your city doesn’t have a bodega. They need to run into the guy who knows the girl who they met at the haircut. And I’m actually like super good checking out of the writer’s room and going home for the night.
And, in fact, one of the challenges for me is to keep my life up in addition to the show, because–
Aline: That’s the blessing for your staff. That is such a blessing for your staff. Because when you work for people who don’t want to go home, I mean, I worked in my early 20s for a guy who would be like, “Oh, I’m so excited for when we’re going to order pies at 2am.” And it was like, please.
Tim: No, I feel bad when I keep them past five, because I’m insane. Because also I’m like LA in the winter, it’s dark at 4:15.
But for pragmatic New York to LA stuff, I pretended I didn’t live here for the first six months. I had a boyfriend in New York, trying to make that work. Really challenging. I still have an apartment in New York. So I took Lyfts everywhere. Disney had a generous relocation package so I rented a place in Los Felix and felt OK about that. And it was really only after going back and forth to Salt Lake City where I shoot the show and then got picked up for a second season before the first one aired that I was like I think I kind of live in LA now.
And so now I’m trying to figure out what that actually means. Like buying a car was like a big boy thing for me to do, because I have never owned a car. And I’m about to turn 40. I’ve never owned a car. So I like bought a car. And, by the way, I bought a stick shift because I’m insane. I grew up driving a stick shift in high school, like driving myself to dance class in dad’s car. And so I bought a stick shift and I actually love it. But everyone thinks I’m out of my mind.
Aline: That’s great. I want to ask you a question because this is really the – having worked with so many talented performers who I knew, and I know nursed dreams of writing. So you’re dancing backup for Christina. You’re doing Flotsam and Jetsam. And at home, you’re going home and now are you writing or are you thinking I want to write?
Tim: I’m dating writers. It’s actually option C. So, I’m dating a novelist. Then I’m dating a guy who writes a soap opera. And then my very dear friend Cherie Steinkellner who wrote Cheers and is a screenwriter, she said to me, “Tim, stop. Be the writer you wish to date in the world.” And this was a decade ago. I was just about to turn 30. I got a job on the staff of Billy Elliot on Broadway where I trained the boys in the show. And I was so inspired by middle schoolers. I say this to a fellow middle grade novelist. I love, Arlo, by the way. It’s fantastic.
Tim: And I realized that middle schoolers are so fun because they get every joke but they’re not yet jaded. It’s a great age. And so in secret I wrote this novel called Better Nate than Ever that was about a kid who auditioned for a Broadway show. And my way of doing it was – I did not research anything about writing novels. Because I didn’t go to college. And I had in my head that if there were a bunch of rules about writing I would just–
Aline: Let’s stop for a second. I just want you to say that again. You didn’t go to college. You went to high school and you started dancing. So just to say to people you don’t need to go to college. You can pursue something else. So you just were like I’m going to go home at night and open up Microsoft Word and just see what happens?
Tim: Yep. And I was like I’m going to write a novel in a month. And so I wrote a chapter a day. Better Nate is 30 chapters. And all did, by the way, at the end of it is I would just send it off to Cherie, this friend. And she gave me the best writing advice I ever got which was keep going. It was like – I mean, we all have a different writing process, but my thing even in first drafts of scripts I’d outlined that have been approved by networks is like I have to over write and get to the end.
So I’m like, OK, I have a script. It may suck but I have a script. And that was what I did with Better Nate.
Tim: And then my super quick screenwriting story is just that from Better Nate than Never Lin-Manuel Miranda who I barely know personally read the book and oddly and sweetly plugged it in the New York Times by the book section which got me a meeting at Fox Development where they were like can you come in and just do a week of dialogue punch up on Bobby Cannavale’s villain dialogue in Ferdinand. And a year later I went to the Oscars with Ferdinand because it was one of those things where when you’re a dancer you learn how to be OK in every room and be nice to people.
Tim: And learn the assistants’ names and not be a jerk. And so a year later I had rewritten the movie with Rob Baird, now the president of Blue Sky Animation, and Brad Copeland who just wrote Spies in Disguise which is a fantastic Blue Sky film. And then from Ferdinand I got the meeting for High School Musical. And then I had also written a flop musical. I had co-written Tuck Everlasting on Broadway.
John: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Tim: Which was a fantastic experience. And Broadway is heartbreaking.
John: It is.
Tim: And, John, I have to tell you. You won’t remember this, but years ago I fan-girled you in the basement of the Big Fish theater on Broadway. I ran up to you and I was like, because this was right around my turn when I was trying to be a writer. And I was like, “Mr. August. Mr. August, sir.” And I ran up to you in the basement of Big Fish during previews and I was like, “I love this musical so much. I love your podcast so much.” I think you sent security after me because I was kicked out. No, it was like the greatest. And anyway it’s great to meet you, again, now upstairs.
John: That’s fantastic. Nice.
Tim: I loved Big Fish and I love Big Fish and Kate Baldwin is a dream.
John: Fantastic. Yeah. I get to go see it in Korea over Christmastime.
Tim: That’s the dream of writing a musical. Whatever happens with it, other people put it on.
John: That’s nice. It’s time for our One Cool Things.
Tim: Oh my gosh.
John: Are you ready for your One Cool Thing?
Tim: How quickly these things come and go. I am ready for my One Cool Thing.
Aline: I am. And I have to look at my phone, too.
John: So my One Cool Thing is an article on writing by Leigh Stein. So I’ll link to a NBC News post about it, but also her Medium post. So she’s an author, a novelist. She got stuck writing on her second book. She basically started doing all the writer community stuff and just became so obsessed with writer community stuff that she wasn’t actually writing her thing. So this article is about how she wrote he second book, Self Care, which was really about how she takes care of herself.
But her spreadsheets she made to track her progress kind of reminds me of what you were talking about in terms of like writing a chapter a day.
Tim: Right. Accountability.
John: Yes. Basically how to be accountable to yourself and how to get stuff done. And so I think for a lot of our listeners her process will resonate.
Aline: Well I took pictures this morning of the things I wanted to recommend. This is one of the pictures I took, guys.
John: Because we’re an audio podcast, I’ll say that is a blurry thing.
Tim: That’s my mom Face-Timing me on Thanksgiving.
John: That’s really what it is, yes.
Tim: That’s what that looks like.
Aline: So here’s what I’m going to recommend. How does my hair look today?
John: Nice, yes.
Aline: So for those of us, the ladies who have somewhat wavy, somewhat curly, but actually frizzy hair. It might be from somewhat of a Hebraic background, my hair is a challenge. My favorite line in the Fleabag season is when she says, “It’s all about your hair. Hair is all that matters.” So I dye my hair because it’s gray. So your hair gets dry. LA is very dry. And I’ve stopped using shampoo and instead of using shampoo I use Cleansing Conditioner. And I have two brands to recommend. One is by R+Co and it’s called Cleansing Foam Conditioner. And that’s sort of like a moussey vibe if you feel comfortable with like a mousse vibe. Look at John, he’s really not.
And then the other one that I took the bad picture of is called Bella Spirit by Chaz Dean.
Tim: Bella Spirit is my new drag name.
John: That’s a great drag name.
Aline: It’s a little expensive, but it’s a huge bottle. And that one feels more like a regular conditioner conditioner. So you use the cleansing conditioner like you would a shampoo. You are washing your hair but you’re not stripping your hair. And then you can use a regular conditioner. My hair basically cannot hold enough conditioner. There’s not enough conditioner in the world to moisturize my hair. But it really minimizes frizz. So, pick it up.
John: You have no frizz happening at all.
Tim: It’s glorious.
Aline: What a delight. But it’s not masking my Judaism either.
Tim: When I was in high school I would read Movie Line and I would get in the bath and I’d put mayonnaise in my hair and a shower cap over it because I thought that was like–
John: That’s what you do.
Tim: It’s what a normal boy in Pittsburgh does. My One Cool Thing is a new picture book called A is for Audra that is an alphabet starring Broadway’s leading lady.
John: Oh come on.
Aline: So great.
Tim: So John Robert Allman. It just actually made, I thought it was like the super nichey funny idea. NPR just named it like a best book of the year. I’m so proud of him. He’s hilarious on Twitter. Johnny Allman on Twitter and the book is called A is for Audra. It’s an alphabet book starring divas and it’s a spectacular idea.
John: That is a great idea.
Aline: Somewhere there’s a boy with mayonnaise in his hair in a bathtub who is going to be really excited to get that for Christmas.
John: Well, see, Tim your hair is fantastic and I have no hair. So maybe the mayonnaise was – it works.
Tim: Listen, it’s not just for sandwiches.
Aline: I did that when I was a teenager. The problem is it smells after.
Tim: It smells awful. You’re a disaster.
John: All right. Stick around after the credits. We’re going to have a discussion about online stan culture. But that’s our show. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli who also did our outro this week. 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. For shorter questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. Aline, you are?
John: And Tim you are?
Tim: @timfederle. Easy.
John: You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. We have very exciting news coming out for our live show next week about the premium feed. I’m going to give both of you a sneak peek at the premium feed after this. It’s good stuff.
Tim, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Tim: Thank you. Truly. It was an honor, honestly.
John: All right. This was proposed by – was it Aline or Tim?
Aline: No, Tim.
John: Talk to us about online stan culture.
Tim: I’ve never worked on a project that gets immediate stans, which are super fans, or stalker fans to the Eminem origin story. And what was interesting launching this High School Musical Series was kind of watching immediately as people begin shipping certain couples, voting against certain characters, creating fan art. And it’s both thrilling and really, genuinely it’s so exciting to make something that people get that excited about. And also for me I feel so super protective of my young cast. And I know that if I’m looking through Twitter mentions and I’m looking at what people are saying about the show they are, too.
And stan culture is fascinating because I was reading something recently, Michael Schulman in the New Yorker wrote about fan culture and how on one of the many Star Wars iterations in the last ten years I believe it was that franchise – they started listening so closely to the fans that they tried something new in the follow up and like the fans just totally rejected what they themselves had pitched.
Aline: Yeah. That’s a really interesting, because I hadn’t experienced that either, because in a movie it just comes out and then it comes out. And in TV you’re in a conversation with people. And one thing – there’s wonderful things about it obviously, and you love to see people are excited about the show. But when they’re giving you specific feedback a lot of what audiences want is resolution. And so a lot of times what they would be saying to us sort of through Twitter or other means was get these characters together. Make Rebecca happy. We want to see her happy.
And I’m like I know you think you want that, but you don’t. Because then your show is over.
Tim: It’s over.
Aline: So that’s an interesting, but it shows that your story is working that they’re rooting for the things that you want them to root for. But I agree, it’s very important to hear it. For me I can hear it and then go my own way because like Craig I have a high disagreeability index where I can hear a lot of opinions and be like, awesome, I’m doing my own thing.
I think it’s important to know yourself as a writer. Like Rachel was much less likely to read that sort of stuff, partly because some of it was about her personal stuff because she was in the show. But I am able to kind of hear how fans are responding and then kind of go my own way. So I think it’s important to sort of know thyself with respect to that. And if you’re somebody who like it’s going to bum you out, or it’s going to affect how you write the show—
Tim: For sure.
Aline: Best not to look at it. But it’s a really interesting conversation because people bring their own – as we all do – bring their own things to the show. And so they recognize themselves in certain characters and they start to get invested in certain things. And I think you have to sort of take things as information. We’re all a little older here and I think my stanning really consisted of like cutting pictures out of magazines.
Aline: And Scotch taping them to the wall.
John: Well a thing that’s different about when we grew up is that we might stan some things but we had no way to communicate that to the greater world. And so Tim I hear you saying that you feel protective of your young cast because these people are talking about these characters, but they’re also really talking about those actors and wanting to see those actors do things.
Sort of one of my stans is probably Brad and Claire from Gourmet Makes.
Tim: Amazing answer, John.
John: Because I love them separately and I, of course, you kind of want them together as a couple. But of course he’s married. They’re not supposed to be a couple. But I see them as characters sometimes. And I have to sort of check myself. No, that’s not cool, because they’re not actually characters. They’re actually human beings and you’re not allowed to do that. But talk to me about sort of how–
Aline: That is the most adorable fan ship I have ever heard.
John: Oh, a lot of people stan Brad and Claire.
Tim: But so few people go public with it, John. That’s why we’re [cross-talking].
John: You got to be open and honest about these things. Is part of the reason why you encounter this on your show, because your show – three episodes dropped and then it’s week to week?
Tim: We were actually one at a time. In the first week it was two episodes, but it was one at a time.
John: And so that I think also builds that stan culture. Because they’re excited to see what’s going to happen next.
Tim: Which I’m so happy about. You know, when I sold the show I thought it was going to be binge model and I was like, oh no, week to week. Well, now it’s my favorite thing because in this odd period where there’s so many writing jobs the truth is there’s so few things that linger because if you miss Stranger Things season four in the first week you feel like you’re out of the conversation. I want to ask you. I’m curious for you, John. Because one of the things I’ve also encountered, like with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, amazing because it’s this original idea with a fresh-faced star talking about mental health. That is a true original. And I so admire what you guys did with that.
John, you have so many original things and also are known for some like pretty famous adaptations of classic properties. And so what I dealt with with High School Musical was like, oh wow, it took people two or three episodes to go not only is it not a remake, it’s a celebration of the original. So the number one comment I see is a version of “I hate to admit this but I actually love the High School Musical.”
So I’m curious for you–
John: Oh, I had that on Charlie’s Angels for sure.
Tim: Well that’s what I was going to say. For you, John, like being so associated with of course your own idiosyncratic point of view but also these things that’s like, wow, only John August could have thought of that take on that, how closely did you pay attention to the sort of conversation around famous adaptations?
John: Not at all. So I would say that I would approach an adaptation thinking like what is it about this property that resonates with me. And that’s what I’m going to focus on. And so I’m not going to worry about what the conversation will be. But also partly because I am only really writing features. And so I know that it’s going to come out and it’s going to be the thing it’s going to be, but there’s not going to be an ongoing conversation about the thing.
Aline: Jeff and I were just talking the other day that people still want to talk to me about Devil Wears Prada about her boyfriend is the true villain.
Tim: I’m trying so hard not to fan girl you this morning by the way about Devil Wears Prada. Both of you. It’s pretty cool.
Aline: But people really want to talk to me that Nate is the villain, that narrative. And no matter how many times I say that’s not how I see it, like I gave a whole long interview where I talked about, no, no, she’s being tempted by the devil and Nate is correctly saying you may not want to be closely identified with the devil. But no matter how many times. And I gave that interview and then the next thing there was an article which was like Devil Wears Prada screenwriter agrees that Nate is the worst.
Tim: And by the way that’s also part of stan culture. Like literally part of stan culture is something goes so far into the psyche as your film did that you need the inevitable backlash article. That’s a hit.
I remember years ago, only slightly off topic, which is you created DC right?
Tim: And I remember listening to this podcast years ago–
John: That is a deep cut, because no one saw DC. I haven’t seen most of DC.
Tim: All I’m saying is I remember being haunted because truly when I say I listen closely to this podcast, you and Craig once interviewed, I forget his name, but he was this brilliant now psychotherapist who was once a screenwriter.
John: Yes. Dennis Palumbo.
Tim: Yes. Who has this line that I say every time I’m giving a writer a pep talk which is that like what screenwriters need is a high tolerance for despair. Anyway, I can quote your podcast back to you. But you said something that has haunted me for years which was like the most unrestful period of your life was doing TV because you walked around constantly thinking, oh crap, like anything could be good material for my show. And I’m always thinking of story.
And I thought of that last night at 3am as I was blinking at the ceiling. Because we just got notes back on the first three outlines of season two. And the notes are great, by the way, and genuinely helpful. But all I know how to do–
Aline: Can I give you a tip?
Aline: Don’t watch a cut before bed. Ever. And try not to read material in the three hours before you go to sleep.
Aline: Because the first season I would watch a cut at 10:30 at night, but my editor wasn’t there to talk to, and I couldn’t be like, wait, do we have this, do we have that, do we have this? And the whole night I would just dream about the cut and dream about footage I wish we had and so try to give yourself at least three hours before you go to bed where you’re not thinking about the show.
Because I think it’s really important what you said which is like you have to have a life. You have to, you know, get a dog. You know, have to go shopping with your friends. You’ve got to do other stuff or you stop feeding your – and one of the reasons that you get to be the person who is so burnt out, you’re not doing anyone any favors by getting burnt out.
It sounds like you already know that.
Tim: It’s so true.
Aline: Because as a dancer you’re probably used to taking care of your instrument.
John: Nice. Tim, thanks.
Tim: Thank you so much.
- #PayUpHollywood Releases Survey of 1,500 Entertainment Industry Assistants’ Pay, Working Conditions
- How Tracking My Excuses Helped Me Stop Making Them by Leigh Stein
- Cleansing Conditioners: R+Co Analog and Bella Spirit
- A is for Audra
- John August on Twitter
- Aline Brosh McKenna on Twitter
- Tim Federle on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli
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You can download the episode here.