The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: And we’re done. Yes.
Craig Mazin: So great.
John: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
We are here in Seattle for our first ever Seattle live show.
Craig: Hear that, John? The sound of people that have been freshly enriched by a higher minimum wage.
Craig: They’re excited. They’re caffeinated. They’re full of their legal marijuana and they’re excited. Excited.
John: They are excited and why would they not be excited?
Craig: No, of course.
John: So, the Northwest Screenwriters Guild has been gently stalking us for several years to try to convince us to come up here and they finally succeeded, so a good lesson is to just stalk somebody for a very long time sometimes pays off. So Northwest Screenwriters and TheFilmSchool, all one word apparently, got us up here. I was here on my Arlo Finch book tour. You generously agreed to like hop on a plane and fly up here.
Craig: What happened was – thank you – John said come to Seattle and I said OK.
John: [laughs] Yes.
Craig: I don’t really do a lot of thinking or what I would say independent thinking or decision making.
John: No, it’s not planned.
Craig: Normally just John tells me what to do. Earlier I didn’t know where he was and I got scared. So, just so you guys understand, and you probably do, how this works. It’s that.
John: Yeah. I text Craig like meet me in the lobby in five minutes and he’s like OK-K.
Craig: OK. Yeah. And I was on time.
Craig: Do not show up late for John August.
John: So let’s just get a general sense of what’s happening in the industry overall because we’ve done a live show in New York and a live show in Austin, which are both big film towns, a lot of film happens here. But not a lot of film happens in Seattle. So I was curious why Seattle wanted us up here. And so we got a chance to talk to the Northwest Screenwriters Guild at dinner and a lot of the folks who are in this guild who are doing stuff they want to be writing movies. They want to be telling stories cinematically and it’s a group that got together to help them figure out how to do that. And some of their members have gone on to do big cinematic stuff.
You know, there’s cinematic storytelling that’s not just about making big movies. It can be about video games. It can be about animation. There’s lots of other things that involve some of those characteristics as qualities.
Craig: Everything is kind of smooshing together these days which is nice. You guys are also kind of on the backdoor of one of the largest production cities in the world. And it’s something to think about. I know you have to sneak across the border. Obviously it’s a little trickier these days with the wall.
Craig: [laughs] The wall between us and Canada. Ridiculous.
John: International listeners might not understand that Seattle and Vancouver are just next door neighbors.
Craig: Kissing cousins.
John: And they are so close together but so much production happens in Vancouver. So little production happens in Seattle because of tax breaks and exchange rates.
Craig: And also the general politeness of Canadians. I mean, we should give them a little bit of credit.
John: Give a little more credit to the Canadians because the Canadians deserve–
Craig: Yeah. I’m not saying you guys are rude. It’s not a “Hey!” See, it’s like “hello, how are you.” Oh, dual citizen? So you’ve learned to be rude?
John: So she’s a Canadian today but other days she’s an American.
Craig: Yes. Your alternate side of the street parking with your Canadians. Well, anyway, the point is you’re very close but I would imagine also that means there are probably a lot of training and educational resources here that you might not find in another city of Seattle’s size. I happen to be a huge fan of Seattle. I think it’s an amazing city.
Not every city has the spirit of art running through its veins. This one clearly does. So, I think–
John: It’s got a spirit of art and a lot of money. These are good combinations for a town.
Craig: Art and money.
John: Art and money.
Craig: Most of the people making art on the street do not appear to have the money. However, there are opportunities here. And so this is actually of all the places I think this is one of the – I don’t know, I think you guys are in a pretty great place. That said, you should probably move to LA.
John: At some point.
John: You should move to LA. So this was a Twitter thread that I actually got into today. And so I was retweeting some folks about when do you stop your day job which is a really good question. These were novelists who were talking about when you quit your day job, but as screenwriters it’s a tough question of like when do you stop working your day job.
For people who get staffed on a TV show, well, the choice is made for you. You’re now a full-time employee on a TV show so you’re not going to go to your day job anymore. But for screenwriters it’s a much tougher call. And so Shannon and Swift who are a writing team who do a lot of stuff they were saying like they were on the front page of Variety having sold their script and they still went to work that day because you just don’t know. You just don’t know when that next job is going to come, when you’re actually going to get paid. So, that idea of you made it, you didn’t make it, when do you stop working your day job is really tough.
Craig: I went through the same thing. The first thing I sold was in I think 1995 I want to say, possibly. And I don’t think I actually quit that job until late in 1996. So for a long time you’re just sort of waiting, which is smart. I mean, honestly a lot of people sell a script. Not to bum you guys out. You guys will sell many scripts. But some people only sell one. Boo those people.
And so I was kind of scared, but it was a weird thing to be – because you feel like you’ve made it. You know, you and I have talked on the show there’s no making it. There’s no breaking in. It’s not a thing. There’s just this strange progression. And then one day someone says to you, “I need you working on this now. You can’t go to your safe job anymore.” And that actually is a scary day.
John: It is a scary day. And if you get staffed on a TV show, well great, so you have 20 weeks of work, but then what happens – or hopefully 20 weeks, maybe it’s 10 weeks of work. But what happens after that? And a thing you guys should understand is that as television has gotten just shorter and shorter seasons, well that’s great for a viewer. I like a short season. I like being able to get through all of it. But as a writer that can be really tough because if you’re only working on those 10 weeks, those 20 weeks, well you’ve got to get on another show. You’ve got to find ways to fill a whole year.
And so I think we’re going to see writers having to do a lot more scrambling as they jump from show to show to show, or trying to find the next show down the road.
Craig: Yeah. So maybe just quit now.
John: Yeah. Maybe just stop. That’s really our message. Or our anti-message.
Craig: The crazy part is there’s more jobs than ever before. It’s pretty awesome actually. You guys are in a pretty great time. There are more jobs than ever before. Almost all of them are in television, but that’s OK because television is more movie-like than ever before. But it is true. There is a certain pressure now on the way you live. That said, people are living that life quite successfully and some people are living it incredibly successfully. And I would add that aside from money there are other parts of this job that are so fulfilling and so lovely that they’re worth almost as much as money.
Craig: Which you don’t hear very often, but they are.
John: So, so much of this conversation we could have every day in Los Angeles. We do sort of have it every day in Los Angeles. But when we decided to come up here to Seattle my first question to Craig is like, well, who should we have on the show? Who is a special Seattle person we could have on the show? And Craig was like, oh, oh, ooh, I know exactly who we should have on the show. So tell me what was your instinct behind having Emily.
Craig: So Emily Zulauf is somebody I’ve known for many, many years. I met her when she was working at Pixar. Pixar does this interesting thing where – so they’re Oakland. I was going to say up in Oakland, but it’s down in Oakland. And they are always looking for people to write. You’d think like, oh, they’re Pixar. But the way that animation is done, some of you may be familiar with this, there are so many people creating and so many people writing that a lot of times they’re looking in places for writers that you might not think. And a few years ago Emily came down with Mary Coleman, another development executive from Pixar, to meet some people who they had read some scripts and liked and I was one of those people. And I’m a huge Pixar fan. And we had this lovely lunch. And then I guess about a year later we ran into each other again at the Austin Film Festival which is a fun thing. I don’t know – has anybody gone to the Austin Film Festival?
John: There’s some hands up. Great.
Craig: Look at all you. Good for you. So we ran into each other there and we just decided – she was like we decided that we would be friends, but mostly I was like I don’t like anyone, so when I meet somebody that I like I’m like, OK, we’re friends now and they don’t have a choice because it’s hard for me to meet people that I like. Because I’m a bad person full of umbrage.
So, we became friends. And she’s got a remarkable story mind and she also came out of this place that is legendary and has created some of the most incredible stories of all time. And, in fact, is one of the few institutions in the world that I think is mostly just obsessed with pure storytelling. And she’s actually in a different endeavor now. She’ll tell you about that. But maybe we should welcome her down.
John: Emily Zulauf will you please come and join us here.
Emily Zulauf: Hey guys.
John: Emily, so at dinner I was trying to figure out how I should introduce you. Emily Zulauf is a blank – but you do so many things. Talk to us about what you’re doing now and how you would describe yourself on a resume.
Emily: Oh god. So right now I am running story for a new video game company that I can’t talk about.
John: She’s under so many NDAs.
Emily: I’m so scared.
John: There’s like a red dot aimed at her forehead right now.
Emily: I know. It was my honest reservation about doing the podcast was I can’t talk about any of this. So that’s what I’m doing right now in secret. And, yeah, prior to that I did some freelance writing. I was the executive director of a nonprofit for a hot second. And I was at Pixar for almost eight years. I was the script supervisor on Inside Out and I was in creative development for about 3.5 years.
John: That’s great. You are also a friend of Tess Morris.
John: Who is a very frequent Scriptnotes guest. And so I always think of you with Tess Morris, because I always see you at the Austin Film Festival right with Tess.
Emily: Yeah. That’s a great association. I totally appreciate that. I want to keep that going.
John: You know what? We’re happy to have you by yourself. So, when we have–
Emily: Yeah. No more Tess.
John: No more Tess. This is a Tess-less episode. So, there’s so many things about what you’ve worked on that I want to get into because they’re different than what we normally experience as screenwriters. First, I want to talk about process because Pixar is just a very different story and creative process than what we’re used to as screenwriters because Craig and I we just go off in our little rooms and we beat ourselves up and we write our stories. That’s not the Pixar way at all.
I remember going up to a meeting at Pixar where I gave a little talk, gave a little class, and then they were like, “Oh yeah, and then we’re going to do a two-day offsite to work on this one moment at the end of the second act.” I’m like I would kill myself. But it works for Pixar. So, how does it work and why does it work?
Emily: Like how do people not kill themselves?
John: How do people not kill themselves?
Craig: There’s actually quite a high suicide rate there.
Emily: It’s a very tall building.
Craig: They’re dropping like flies.
Emily: It’s a very tall building.
Craig: There isn’t. No there’s not.
Emily: It’s totally a joke.
John: People hanging themselves from a little lamp.
Craig: So touchy here.
Emily: Starting dark.
John: So what is – I mean, that two-day offsite was probably a real thing and you probably do that.
Emily: Yeah. We didn’t make that up.
John: That actually does happen. So, what is the process? So something like an Inside Out, is there a script at the start or is it just an idea that – tell me.
Emily: Yeah, so usually what it has been traditionally, and I guess I want to caveat this by saying I’m not there now. They’re obviously in a transitional period and so this might be changing a little bit. But sort of traditionally what it has been is that the director is identified first by some group of the executive team. And that director is responsible for coming up with three different pitches of stories that that person wants to do. And so part of what we do in creative development is sort of support them as they’re trying to figure out what that is that they’re interested in. And coming up with sort of a rough pitch for all of those. And then they pitch that to whoever is in charge.
John: Whoever is in charge. Let’s stop though for one second though. When you say a director is pitching three ideas, they’re really pitching sort of three story areas, or they’re pitching three like I want to do a story that’s about this, or about this idea, but it may not have the exact characters or sort of what’s going to happen.
Emily: For sure. Yeah, it’s definitely like the roughest outline. It would fit on probably a page or a half a page depending on how much they fleshed it out. And it’s usually trying to find three areas that feel distinct enough and different enough that the president of the company can say I like this direction. You’re certainly not – you know, when they buy off on an idea they’re certainly not buying off on something that looks like a full treatment or definitely not a full script.
Craig: And they’re basically saying go ahead and take some time to dig at this little vein in the mountain and see if there’s stuff there.
Emily: Exactly. Like run that direction. But certainly not at the point of like this makes perfect sense.
Craig: I heard a story that Finding Nemo just began as – was it Andrew Stanton?
Craig: Saying “fish.” Just started with fish. And everyone was like, yes, of course, fish.
John: We’re going to do fish.
Emily: There’s a pretty wide variety in how much people have prepared for those pitches. And some of it has to do with how comfortable you are. You know, we’re asking people to – I mean, with any director you have a lot of different skillsets that have to exist in one person. But certainly we’re asking somebody whose job is not pitching to figure out how to get up and pitch effectively.
John: To how big of a group would that person need to be able to pitch?
Emily: Well, ultimately – and this is where I’m going to fudge around on it again – historically that was just John Lasseter. I assume now that is mostly Pete Docter. But there certainly are other people who will show up in those meetings. But ultimately there’s sort of one decider at the studio. It’s just sort of how the hierarchy is structured. And depending on how comfortable you are makes a big difference in how you pitch.
Craig: I mean animation in and of itself has so much pitching from moment to moment that at some point I assume people just get over whatever kind of baseline of fear they had because story artists are constantly pitching.
Emily: Yeah. And the majority of our directors come out of story, too. So most of them do have a baseline of at least being comfortable enough to get up and talk about story. But there’s always a process that everybody goes through when you’re new at anything. And pitching to the head of your company is not the same as pitching to the rest of your story team.
Craig: Right. When you know like I have a job now, so the worst thing that happens is I have to just keep doing my job.
Emily: Right. Exactly. And then I think they’re doing I think a really wonderful job right now of starting to pull from other places more. So, if you’re coming and I’m totally making this up, I don’t know that this is true. But if you’re coming out of lighting for instance like that’s not necessarily going to be your area. So part of what we would do in creative development is just pitch prep, is just help people get comfortable to talk about their story and how to do it and what the beats are.
Craig: I had no idea. That’s so nice.
Emily: Isn’t that nice?
Craig: You’re a good person.
Emily: We’re very nice.
John: There’s a whole department that does not exist at a traditional studio at all because–
Craig: I feel like this is the opposite department where they teach you – they just remind you repeatedly before you go into a room that it’s quite likely you’ll fail.
John: That you’re all terrible and it will never get past here.
Craig: But good luck.
John: So because we’re in Seattle, Amazon headquarters, I know that Amazon has this policy of when they’re going to start on a new project one of the first things you have to do is write the press release announcing the finished version. And it feels so different from what you’re describing. So these directors who are pitching these story areas they don’t really know what the final movie is. They don’t even know what sort of happens in it. They’re just describing an area, a vision, so it’s not a specific kind of thing.
When Craig and I go in to pitch something, like we’ll get called to the mat on details about like well how do you get to the second act moment.
Craig: I just tell them, I’m like shut up.
John: Shut up.
Craig: It’s a pitch.
John: Shut up Sean. I can do it.
Craig: Just shut up, Sean. I’ve never said shut up to Sean. He’s a nice guy. Super nice.
Emily: In fairness I think they do usually have a story sketched out. I think the difference is that it will change–
John: They know it’s going to change.
Emily: So dramatically. So a lot of times even though you go in and you pitch a story you’re really pitching the world. And you’re really pitching like do you want to live in this space for a while.
Craig: And you’re pitching to a creative person. You know, most of the time for us – not that producers aren’t creative, but we’re pitching to people that don’t write. So a lot of their expectation is tell me a story. But when you’re pitching to people that do write, when a writer friend pitches something to me, sometimes it is just fish because a question that I will always ask somebody, like somebody says, “OK, can you read these first 20. I’m lost. What’s happening here?” Sometimes the question you just ask is what made you feel fascinated in the first place and maybe that’s kind of what happens in those meetings is someone just shows this little piece of spark because they want to tell, there’s like a little thing. Well let’s go back to that seed.
Emily: I think that’s totally true. And I think that’s also sort of what our job was in creative development too is to start poking at those questions and help you articulate why does this matter to me so that when you walk into a meeting that’s what you’re–
Craig: When they ask you why does this matter to you.
Emily: And you’re like I don’t know.
Craig: I need my healthcare. That’s not a great answer.
Emily: I really enjoy money.
Craig: Yeah. I bought a car I should not have bought and…
John: Well, Emily, here’s a crucial difference though is these folks who are coming in to do this, the people you’re working with, they’re already working for Pixar so they’re already getting a paycheck. So it’s not that like I’ve got to make this happen or else I’m dead. They’re already working there. So you can support them because they’re already part of your family.
My question though is how many people are pitching their kind of project at Pixar? Because you’re only making two or three movies a year. How many folks are trying to get one of their movies up and running? Is it 20? Is it 30?
Emily: No. You have to be invited to pitch a feature.
John: OK. And to be invited you probably were a super star on some previous project.
Craig: Or you get a Golden Ticket.
Emily: Right. Or there’s a line outside the studio and one person comes in a year.
John: One person gets the ticket.
Emily: But if you want to make a short it’s a much more open process. So that ends up being more of a training ground. And then there’s some people who made a short and did it successfully and then moved on to features. But, yes, if you’re getting to pitch a feature it’s a small group.
John: Now, one of the rare things that you get to do which I don’t hear other people talking about is Pixar brings in writers to work for a time on a project and it was part of your responsibility to find those writers who would come in to do that stuff. And so we have a lot of people who want to be writers in animation or writers at all and how would you find their scripts and what are you looking for in those scripts that might say like oh this is a person who could help us out. What are you looking for in scripts?
Emily: It’s a lot of matchmaking because we’re trying to match with a very specific director. Right? So it’s matchmaking also in the way that, you know, if your friend asks you to set them up with somebody you have to read between the lines of what they think they want and then what they actually need. And there’s a little bit of that that goes on as well.
Craig: That’s why I keep failing at that. I just do what they told me.
Emily: Like, OK.
Craig: That’s not what they really – argh!
Emily: No, I know. Wants and needs, Craig, we’re going to talk about it later.
So a lot of times it’s sitting down with a director and talking about what they think they need for the project. And then, you know, knowing who they are and understanding how they traditionally worked. And so sometimes the people that you filter to them are actually a little bit more informed.
But generally we were looking for people – it sounds sort of cliché because we’ve said it so many times – but it’s smart with heart. People who can write in this space that is both funny and where the character – where the humor is really coming from the characters and driven by the characters.
The thing that we get a lot that we don’t need is people who’ve written children’s animated scripts. Because we make children’s animated movies it’s a really logical idea that this is what we would want to see. And, in fact, we’ve never hired anyone off of a script like that. We’ve only ever hired people off of – you know, we hired Mike Arndt off of Little Miss Sunshine, for instance, which it would be hard to say that that’s like children’s animated.
Craig: Talk a little bit more about the heart part. Because I think sometimes people struggle as they’re starting out or continuing their path as a writer to figure out how to be emotionally moving without being formulaically saccharine or sentimental. Can you see what the difference is? Where is the line? And what makes something proper heart as opposed to formulaic sentimentality?
Emily: I wish I had like a really easy answer for that.
Craig: Take your time. We’re on radio. Take an hour.
Emily: I’m just going to sit here.
John: I think we’re done. I do have a theory though and maybe you can expand upon this. Is that when you see sort of false heart it’s just spread over the top of it. It doesn’t feel like it’s earned by the characters and it doesn’t feel like the movie itself is generous, that the movie is generous with its characters. That it’s letting them struggle but ultimately overcome some of the things that they’re doing. It doesn’t let them make bad choices and learn from them. It’s just kind of spread over the top of it like frosting on a cake.
Emily: And it’s also easy.
Craig: Well that to me, because the thing about Pixar movies that’s always fascinated me is how brutal they are to their heroes.
Craig: Tortuous. Brutal and mean. And when they figured out how to be terribly mean to a character then they add one more thing on to make it awfully mean. And in a weird way I think sometimes when people are aiming for heart what they’re aiming for is happy. They’re aiming for like a happy cry and a wonderful moment. But in fact heart comes from misery.
Emily: Yeah. And I think – and I agree with you. I think they do [laughs] – that’s the end.
Craig: So you guys got a shot at this.
Emily: Heart comes from misery.
Craig: Heart comes from misery. Well, because I don’t really care in the end if something nice has happened to somebody whose prior experience was a little less than nice. I want it to be awful. I mean, that’s classic literature.
Emily: I totally agree with you. And I think obviously they’re not afraid to let their characters, you know, hit that point. I will say not to – I feel like I’m pitching Michael Arndt today.
John: Well Michael Arndt is fantastic.
Emily: He’s fantastic.
John: He’s a good guy.
Craig: We love Michael Arndt.
Emily: But when he did – I watched his Endings talk that he did which I guess this is now just a pitch for his Endings talk. But I thought that was also really, really insightful about just this idea that you can’t just flip one set of stakes at the end. You really have to flip the sort of philosophical stakes of what your movie is saying and what it’s about.
Craig: Which means you have to know that your movie is supposed to be saying something in the first place.
Emily: Well, yeah, there’s that, too.
Craig: Your movie is supposed to be saying something in the first place.
John: Your movie should have a point.
Craig: Yeah. There should be an arguable point. An arguable point.
John: Yes. It’s sort of like what we always say. Your question at the end of this has to actually be a question. Your movie actually has to make a philosophical argument that it actually answers at the end of this.
Craig: What’s your movie about? Brotherhood. No.
John: No, no, more than that. There’s not a challenging thing there.
Craig: Family. Hmm.
John: Oh, no, no, no.
Craig: No. Sometimes the best thing you can do to show love to somebody is to let them leave you. Possibly permanently. When they are all you have.
Emily: Which also I have to say–
Craig: Doesn’t that feel like a movie? They should make that movie but with fish.
Emily: I’m a real sucker for movies that don’t end like “happily,” where you get the emotional catharsis of the film but you don’t–
Craig: If at the end of Finding Nemo the mom came back. Like it turned out she wasn’t eaten at all.
John: Oh, Nemo.
Craig: Oh look, and she’s here. And Dori remembers everything.
Emily: Right. I mean, genuinely I think one of the things that Pixar does really well is they do set up that hurt at the beginning. And they don’t undo it.
Emily: So, once you set it you let that–
Craig: They lean into it.
Emily: You lean into it. And you let that be the thing that’s guiding your character. And so I think you know, when I read scripts I’m also looking for that. I’m looking for people who are willing to let bad things happen to their characters.
Craig: Let bad things happen.
Emily: And then let the character react to it.
John: So Emily tell us about, like these scripts you’re reading, where do those scripts come from? Because Pixar is not a WGA shop so you don’t have to be a WGA member to be writing for Pixar. Where are you finding scripts that have this smart with heart that work for you?
Emily: Well this is the news that I feel like nobody is going to like, which is they’re mostly coming from big agencies. They have–
Craig: Well they’re all represented at big agencies.
John: Oh absolutely.
Emily: Yeah, no everybody. Like me too. You know, mostly they are coming through that way. But we also look at the Nicholls and we look at Austin.
Craig: What about short films that come, so not scripts, but rather little films, short films or any kind of expressed art that is coming in not from an agency but something that you just find out in the wild?
Emily: I think those are always sort of exciting little gems but they have to be – for us – backed up with written words. So, we have to see, you know, a lot of what we’re asking a writer to do is we have this incredible team of people of story artists who are all dedicated to making the story great. So you’re not by yourself, but you are – if you’re the writer you’re the person who is actually putting words on the page and like dialogue in the mouths of the characters. And so even if you’ve made an amazing short film, unfortunately part of what we’re looking for from a writer is to make sure you can do the structure. Make sure that you understand–
Craig: But that’s kind of fortunate in a sense because what you don’t get is fooled by auteurs and directors that aren’t really – because I think sometimes there are people that can make beautiful shorts that aren’t really writers. They’re just doing this little impressionistic wonderful thing. But these people are writers. So that’s a good sign.
Emily: Yeah. And I think that the truth is, I mean, anybody who has tried to write a short and then tried to write a feature knows that those are two different beasts, right? And so if you can write a great short but when you try to go expand it into a feature it very quickly–
Craig: Jog around the block/marathon.
Emily: Yeah. And so I think if you can make a beautiful short I think that’s fantastic and I think that’s an incredible thing to have and it’s another thing in your portfolio. But for animation you’re going to have to have an actual script.
John: Emily, my question is like let’s say you meet with a writer and is it a phone call first to talk with her about the script you read and then you bring her up to see if she’s a good fit? What is the dating process like for–?
Emily: Thank you for saying her John.
John: But you’re trying to get this writer to work on this project and see if it’s a good match. Obviously there’s a personality thing. Let’s say you all agree that this is the writer. This is the one we want. But what is she actually going to do? Is she going to write a full script or is she going to work on some scenes? Because that’s the thing I never really understood about Pixar is does any one writer actually finish a whole script or is everyone just working on little sections and it’s all getting assembled over the course of years?
Emily: At the beginning, like when you’re first in development, you probably do have one writer who writes a script all the way through. And it’s like the first draft and it’s really rough and no one will ever see it. But once you get into production everything becomes a big jigsaw puzzle. So everything goes out of order. You start boarding the sequences completely out of order which means you’re rewriting the sequences out of order. Sometimes depending on the project sometimes that writer will be the only person who writes. But a lot of times on a lot of projects there’s either a story artist who also writes or a director who also writes or a co-director or head of story. And so while the writer is still the writer and is still sort of the main person watching the full script you will often have people sort of come in and touch things along the way. But, yes, it’s a big giant jigsaw puzzle. And one of the most difficult things I think for our writers is that you do have to, you know, here’s all these moving pieces. They’re changing all over the place. And yet you still have to have the whole thing kind of in your head, which is–
Craig: That’s the job.
Emily: Just like a–
John: But it’s a very different job than what Craig or I usually do.
Craig: Well, it is, but I would say–
John: Well, in production I guess.
Craig: When you get in production that’s happening.
John: So that would happen, I mean, it happens for you on Chernobyl. It happens for me on a Charlie’s Angels where everything is just crazy. But you’re like, oh no, no, this is actually the movie we’re trying to make and you’re trying to remind people. But, there’s a lot of voices. So when I talk about that like we’re going to do a two-day offsite about this thing, so who would be in that two-day offsite? There would be storyboard artists. There would be the writers – writer or writers who are on. The director. And is everyone just pitching ways to get through this moment or new things? What happens?
Emily: It would depend on the nature of the offsite. Most of our off-sites are actually brain trust off-sites. So that would be all the other directors at the studio.
John: OK, great. So it’s like a council of elders looking at this project.
Craig: Nothing creepy about that in any way, shape, or form.
John: A brain trust. So they wheel out the brains in jars. They all stare at the project.
Craig: We are offsite.
Emily: We give them a little special–
Craig: Why do they have to go offsite? That building is amazing.
Emily: I know. It’s huge.
Craig: Where do they go? Like a La Quinta or something?
Emily: We go all over the place. It’s just sort of wherever the producer finds. But it’s like the idea–
Craig: That’s what happens when every movie makes a billion dollars. You’re like we’ve got to spend some of this money. Literally it’s coming out of the pipes. Uh, let’s go to Yosemite.
Emily: I don’t think we’ve ever been to Yosemite.
John: Yeah. Good idea.
Craig: There’s an idea.
Emily: Somebody is going to hear this.
Craig: Oh no, you already did – volcanoes did it. Pixar did it.
John: So, coming out of one of those sessions you would have new ways to sort of get through this thing. But the brain trust thing is really interesting. So we had Jennifer Lee on the show to talk about Frozen. And she talked about the brain trust and like the Disney brain trust that you’re showing these early cuts and all of the other directors and all of the other big powerful people are watching this and seeing this thing which is not very good in front of them. And having to figure out how we get it to this next stage. And she actually stepped up in Frozen because she had the answers and she became the writer of Frozen.
Because they had all these pieces and she’s like, oh no, the way you do this is to do that. Here you go. Let’s make this movie. And I’m sure–
Emily: It’s her own fault for talking.
John: It’s her own fault. Now she’s running Disney.
Emily: What a tough path.
John: It worked out pretty well for Jennifer Lee.
Craig: It can happen to you.
Emily: Speak up.
John: It can happen to you. Speak up with the right ideas.
This brain trust thing is a kind of thing that I think could only really happen in animation because animation is the only cinematic art form where you have this constant iteration. So even on live action features we go through cuts and stuff but there’s only so much we can change in a cut versus a Pixar animated film. You could change fundamental things. That sidekick character could become the main character. You can really revise stuff.
Craig: Well in live action there are people whose job is simply to get everyone to stop changing things. There’s an enormous compelling force once you start spending money to stop changing things. And very typically as the writer you’ll come on set and someone will walk up to you and say, “You didn’t change anything, did you?” Well, that’s what they’re paying me to do. “Ugh, OK. But now we have to figure things out. We were going to shoot here. Now we have to shoot here. This person was going to wear this. Now they have to wear that. They’re not even available on that day.” And so on and so forth.
Whereas in animation, change it.
Emily: Yeah. I mean, in fairness there’s a schedule in animation that–
Craig: That they blow through constantly.
Emily: That they blow through constantly. There’s still poor long suffering people whose job it is to keep us on schedule who like–
Craig: No one listens to them.
Emily: They try so hard.
Craig: They’ve been moved offsite.
Emily: They’re having a permanent offsite.
Emily: It’s a Denny’s.
Craig: And not in the United States anymore.
John: So most of the animated features I’ve done have been stop motion, which is a different beast because in stop motion we can’t tweak anything. So we’ll do cinematic sketch versions, but once we shoot a frame it’s just done and we can’t fix or tweak anything.
Craig: Well it’s like live action animation.
John: All of the challenges of animation with all of the challenges of live action, just put together. How difficult can we make it?
Craig: The South Park guys who did Team America.
Craig: On day three: why did we do this? This is a nightmare.
John: This is a terrible, terrible choice.
Craig: Yeah. And we’re stuck. We have to keep going.
Emily: It’s true. If you are an indecisive person animation – like computer animation is your jam. It’s a great idea for you.
Craig: That’s amazing.
John: I think we’re going to go out of sequence here because this feels like a good moment to introduce a brand new game. So, when we come back from this I want to talk about naïve characters, but before we get to that I want to try this new game. So, as I flew in here last night I had this vision for a game. And it partly came from sometimes – and I’m curious what you guys do about this – when you have an idea in the middle of the night do you actually get out of bed and write it down or do you just like, oh no, I’ll remember it in the morning. Craig, do you write down the stuff you think at night?
Craig: Yeah. My iPad is over here so I might email it to myself. That’s my quickie note thing. Except it so rarely is any good.
John: No, it rarely is any good.
Craig: A lot of times it’s just Ambien talking, I’ve got to be honest with you.
John: Sometimes I have no idea what the idea was. I just see these things together and I’m like I have no idea what this is. Emily, do you write your stuff down?
Emily: Yeah. But I have Evernote on my phone and then I type things. But also I’m really tired so I don’t check to make sure it’s spell-checked, made sense or anything. So, very, very often I open it like a couple days later and it’s actually nonsense words. I did it too fast and it didn’t autocorrect correctly. And then I’m just staring at orange sofa couch and I’m like I don’t know what that is.
John: Yes, but it was very important to you at like 12:30 in the morning.
Emily: It was so important at the time, yeah.
John: This idea kind of comes from that, but it also comes from a very Hollywood concept which is the open writing assignment. And so what an open writing assignment means is that there is a project that a producer or a studio has and they’re looking to hire a writer on this open writing assignment. And it can be just a very vague idea, but they’re bringing in writers to pitch their take on this open writing assignment. And so new writers will spend a tremendous amount of time coming up with takes so they can pitch on an open writing assignment. It’s one of the things you do a lot as a new screenwriter.
And so I thought tonight we’d do some open writing assignments and we have a great audience here who have helped us figure out some of the things we need to incorporate into this open writing assignment.
John: I gave some people some homework in here. Raise your hand if you did the homework that’s on the slide up there. Oh, a lot of people did this. All right. I’m going to pick six people at random and I’m just going to come to you and ask. And I’m going to ask each of you one piece of what you did up here. So, raise your hand, someone in the second row. What is the genre of the movie that you wrote down?
FeMale Audience Member:**** Drama.
John: OK, so we have to write a drama.
Craig: I can do that.
John: OK, we need to write a drama.
Craig: I’ll email it to myself.
John: What is the general setting of this drama we’re writing?
Male Audience Member: Los Angeles.
John: So it’s a drama set in Los Angeles. All right, I’m going to come up here. I feel like a game show host here. What is the profession of the hero in the movie?
Male Audience Member: Weatherman.
John: OK. It’s a drama about a weatherman in Los Angeles.
Craig: They’ve made this movie, but OK. Keep going.
John: How about you right here.
FeMale Audience Member:**** Find out what is killing people.
John: Oh, it’s a drama about a weatherman in Los Angeles who has to find out what’s killing people. And who is the villain? You right there, who is the villain in our story?
FeMale Audience Member:**** Classicism.
John: Classicism. Classicism is the villain. Oh, this is really good.
Emily: Oh no.
Craig: Someone has been to college.
John: Right here, I need a big trailer moment.
Male Audience Member: A meeting of gangs in the parks.
John: A meeting of gangs in the park.
Craig: I’m sorry, what was the last category?
John: A big trailer moment. It’s a meeting of gangs in the park. So I think what we need to come up with a pitch on is a project that is a drama set in Los Angeles about a weatherman who has to fight classicism–
Craig: And find out what’s killing people, which is classicism.
John: Find out what’s killing people, which is classicism, obviously. And there has to be a big meeting of gangs. So I kind of have a vision of The Warriors a little bit. Emily, talk me through—
Emily: No, I had a little moment of like wondering if you get some sort of weird like weather patterns that are only affecting certain areas of Los Angeles.
Emily: Microclimates if you will.
Craig: Like douchebaggery is causing sleet over Brentwood?
Emily: And killing people.
Craig: And killing people that we want to die.
Emily: It’s a really short movie.
John: Well, how about actually–
Craig: It’s like over Howard Schwartz’s house.
John: But like lightning bolts. Like a lightning bolt could come down–
Craig: Schulz. His name is Schulz, right?
John: Howard Schulz, yes.
Emily: Also, he’s here.
Craig: What’s that?
Emily: He’s here.
Craig: Howard Schulz is in the audience?
Emily: No, no. Here in Seattle.
John: Hello! Please don’t run for president. Thank you.
Craig: I know. He employs most of the people here.
Emily: Do you think he listens to your podcast? Wouldn’t that be great?
John: Oh, it would be amazing if he did.
Emily: Wouldn’t it be amazing.
John: What if we were the people who convinced him, no, no, no, stop this right now. Crazy.
Craig: He should.
John: He should stop. I mean, he should stop.
Craig: I mean, he has four billion coffee stores. That’s good. You did it, man.
Emily: You did a good job.
John: You won. You won the race.
Craig: You win. Right.
John: Stop running.
Craig: We don’t open coffee shops.
Craig: We don’t do that. Anyway.
John: Is it a Howard Schulz kind of character one of the villains, like the classicism thing?
John: I think we have a little thing going here.
John: The hero is the weatherman, so maybe the weatherman hero is trying to figure out why these weird lightning strikes are killing certain people, or there’s some sort of–
Emily: They’re killing all of Howard Schulz’s primary opponents.
John: Holy cow.
Craig: This is called Geo Storm. They made this movie, again.
John: That’s right! It’s Geo Storm 2.
Craig: What if there’s like a science fiction kind of thing where as the weatherman realizes that in areas where income inequality is growing the weather starts getting more and more severe.
Emily: Which is actually what I was pitching.
Craig: That was? No, no, it’s not crashing down on rich people or anything.
Emily: No, no, you said the rich people thing. I was saying, I agree with you, I think it should have to do–
Craig: Well what you’re actually saying is I agree with you.
Emily: No, I really agree with you. I think we’re the same person.
John: Ah. I was wondering if you were doing the thing–
John: You say the exact same thing the woman said and you take credit for it.
Craig: No, I thought I was saying a different thing.
Emily: You said a different thing.
Craig: I thought I was saying a different thing. I really did. Your circuit is misfired.
John: Oh OK.
Craig: But I agree with you. I think that’s awesome. But the meeting of the gangs, now it feels like there’s two groups of people that know the truth. And the weatherman gets pulled into one group that’s like we’re going to use this to bring the system down. And then another group is like, no, we have to stop this from happening. The system needs to keep going. And so there are two gangs and they meet in the park.
John: The park.
Craig: That’s a rough one.
John: Parks are a natural open environment. Weather happens in parks.
John: Also fascinating that the Weathermen were like a big gang of the time. So, that is an historic. Nothing said this has to be present day.
Craig: Can we switch it then? Yeah, so make it the Weathermen. Because that will really make this a lot easier.
John: Also it would make so much more sense that they were called the Weathermen if it was actually about weather. Because history is really confusing.
Craig: Here’s what’s killing us. Classicism rather. That’s not a villain. That’s a problem. It’s not a villain.
John: It’s very abstract.
Craig: It’s abstract. Your villain can represent something abstract like classicism, but it has to be someone. Let’s make it Howard Schulz.
John: A thing I want to stress here is that as absurd as this is so many projects that you will encounter are kind of like this.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: So I think we talked about this on the show before. For about 20 years there was an Imagine project called Clipped. And it was about a guy who got a paperclip shoved up his nose or in his ear or something and Brian Grazer is like well that’s got to really change a person. And so we all had to go in and pitch on Clipped. I pitched on Clipped. You probably pitched on Clipped.
Craig: I refused.
John: All right. Let’s get another open writing assignment going here. I’m going to go in the back of the audience here because I like walking around.
Craig: I’ll write this down again. I thought we did all right with that one.
John: We did pretty well. I think it was a good start.
Craig: We tried.
Emily: Shameless applause.
Craig: Yeah. That’s a pity clap if I ever heard it.
John: Who up here did your homework? Can you please tell me the genre of the movie we need to write?
Female Audience Member: A rom-com.
John: It’s a rom-com! We love rom-coms. We saved rom-coms. I don’t know if you remember that. But Tess Morris was on the show and she helped us save rom-coms.
Emily: I’m going to be the poor man’s Tess Morris on this.
John: The general setting of this rom-com we need to write?
Female Audience Member: England during the Regency period.
John: England Regency rom-com. I like this very, very much. Who else up here has – please tell me the profession of the hero.
Male Audience Member: He’s an assassin.
John: Ooh, an assassin. This is so good.
Craig: Well at least you didn’t say something like an electrician because that would have been hard.
John: That would really be a tough thing. All right, so we have a rom-com set in the Regency period of England about an assassin, that’s his profession or her profession. Right here, can you tell me what is the main goal of this assassin character?
Male Audience Member: It’s a rescue mission.
John: Oh, an assassin has to make a rescue mission.
Craig: As they do.
John: As they do. Anyone else back here, right here, can you tell me the villain of this story?
Male Audience Member: His old mentor who ruined his career.
John: Ooh! An old mentor. I like that very, very much.
Craig: An old mentor.
John: Finally I need a big trailer moment. Who has got a big trailer moment for me? Going once, going twice – oh right here. Tell me what your big trailer moment is.
Male Audience Member: It’s anachronistic. Jumping from a horse onto a tank.
Craig: A tank? A tank. In the regency period.
John: A tank in the regency period. We’ll get jumping from a horse. I’m not sure we’re going to get to tank. All right. So we’ve got this Regency rom-com. That feels really promising. Assassins are good.
Craig: Everything is good except rom-com at this point because that’s, yikes.
John: Think about like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. If you could take that.
Craig: No, you know what? You can do this.
Emily: Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
John: You can do this.
Craig: Or, or, or – all right, so we have an assassin, oldie England, and he’s been trained by his mentor, but then he does the thing that mentors want you to do which is to become great. He becomes so good that the mentor gets jealous and blinds him. Right? He blinds him. And so now our blind assassin has to be led around by this – let’s make the blind assassin a woman. She’s a woman and she has to be led around by a guy who becomes like her eyes. And then they’re separated and she starts killing people because the guy helps her to kill people. So they start falling in love while she’s killing people, but then he gets taken away and she has to go rescue this guy. But he is her eyes. She’s blind. And she has to find her eyes in the dark.
And…and…has to jump on a horse. [laughs]
John: OK. These are fascinating choices. But what I will say–
Craig: Did I not get the job?
John: So, Craig, we really liked a lot of what you did there, but I would say–
Craig: Congratulations on the first–
John: Congratulations, yes. But what I will say that in a romantic comedy the villain, the antagonist, often is the other person in the romantic comedy. So I’m wondering if this other mentor character actually is a romance about that which feels very good for like Regency period. It could be sort of like an Emma. It could be like an Emma like this character who you don’t ever think of as being a possible love interest because they’ve always been older or a teacher figure, like oh this is the person. So maybe a young female assassin falls for her assassin–
Craig: Daddy figure.
John: Daddy figure.
Craig: Well, this is getting problematic.
Emily: Can we make it a woman?
Craig: Can we make it a young woman who falls for an older woman?
Craig: Why not.
Emily: Takes away a little bit of the problematic-ness.
Craig: Yeah, we’re going to come up with other problematics.
John: There will be problematics.
Craig: The presence of the tank will definitely be problematic.
Emily: Carry on.
Craig: All right, so this is a lesbian romance in Regency England between two assassins, a December-May romance between assassins, but one of them is – so the older one has ruined the young one? No, the young one has ruined the older one’s career, what about that? That’s a natural kind of thing. You trained me to take your place and I did. And now the older one does not want to let go.
John: Yes. It’s an All About Eve.
Craig: I just got rehired.
John: Yeah. Craig brought it back through.
Emily: Turned it around.
John: So here’s what’s good about that is their relationship is fascinating and why am I forgetting the name of this movie that’s the Rachel Weisz movie—
Audience: The Favourite.
John: The Favourite. Like that’s sort of The Favourite is what you’re pitching. It’s a funnier version of The Favourite.
Craig: Yes. I’m getting replaced by the younger, newer thing.
John: Yes. And so that’s a good dynamic and that tension is really interesting between the two of them.
Craig: And it’s also something that is always relevant. I mean, doesn’t matter what time period and doesn’t matter what their jobs are. Doesn’t matter what their sexuality is. The notion that you are going to be eclipsed by somebody that you love is something every parent probably on some level considers.
Emily: I feel like I’m putting on this development hat and I have so many questions.
Craig: Do it. Go.
John: Go. Ask your questions.
Emily: What is the driving plot thing of our story? Has our older assassin been pushed out at the beginning of our story and it’s a story about them – what’s our driver there?
Craig: I think they’re in love in the beginning of the story. I think it’s perfectly good. But there’s a little bit of a thing, right, where the older one feels that the younger one isn’t ready, and the younger one is kind of thinking the older one is holding them back. And then the older one realizes that the younger one is better than her, everyone thinks the younger one is better than her. That’s a terrible moment. She retreats. And now she has to prove herself. But she doesn’t want to let on.
But then she’s going to try to kill the person that the younger one has to kill. So they’re both racing to kill that person. And then I think where it has to go is she has to ultimately probably sacrifice herself because she loves that younger person somehow.
John: So I’m going to be Tess Morris here.
Craig: Do it.
John: I worry we’re losing the rom-com quality of it.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: That’s the only thing I want to say here.
Emily: I think that’s fair.
John: What you’re pitching didn’t feel especially comedic. So–
Craig: I don’t like rom-coms. [laughs]
John: Ah, after all this you don’t like – we saved rom-coms and Craig still doesn’t like them.
Craig: No, you guys saved them. I mean, I was happy for it, but it’s not like my jam. You know, I’m like, meh.
Emily: I feel like maybe if you don’t have her pushed out at the beginning but she’s starting to feel like a little instable – unstable/instable? Why can’t I? You know, all of those things. So that the journey is like a lighter journey between two people who are–
Craig: OK, so then here’s the question. So then comedy wise what’s – so when we’re talking about a comedy between two characters and a situation. What is the thing between them that now starts to be this fuel for funny situations? What’s the funny fuel? Because if they are – if one of them is helping the other – if one of them is the person the other one has to kill and they know that but they don’t want to get killed, then you could see some farce happening maybe. Or–
John: But I think we don’t want to just make a farce most likely. I think we want some real emotional stakes there.
Craig: I agree. Where’s the machine? Where’s the machine of the funny?
Emily: I also sort of feel like from a rom-com perspective we either need them to – you need some – like they’ve just broken up at the beginning or it has always been a very strict mentor/mentee relationship that is like–
Craig: Or it’s in that bed-death phase where they had it but they’re losing it and they’re on their way to losing it.
Emily: Yeah. A little bit like – I feel like that’s hard. That’s a hard place to–
John: Well it’s interesting when you have characters who are part of Regency England. They have a very rigid social structure. And yet they’re also assassins.
Emily: I forgot about the Regency England part. [laughs]
John: But they’re also assassins so they’re already outsiders.
Craig: And don’t forget the horse.
John: And the horse. So they jump off the horse onto the water tank. It didn’t say a tank-tank.
Craig: Rejection. It’s not exactly a great trailer moment. Like wah!
John: Yeah. Can you turn the tank and water it now. It’s not so good.
Craig: Whilst is there a tanketh in our midst?
John: At dinner we were talking about sort of naïve characters and so we were talking about Inside Out and the Joy character in there is so – she’s just – I don’t want to say she’s one note, but she has one drive, one focus, and she’s so naïve. And yet she’s not annoying and she’s not dumb. How do you find that balance? And that feels like the kind of situation where on a weekly basis you’re asking like does this actually make sense. Is this actually going to track? I want to talk about naïve characters because I think Pixar has a lot of those naïve characters.
Craig: Buzz Lightyear.
John: Buzz Lightyear. Wall-E.
John: They’re very naïve characters, and yet they’re not idiots.
Emily: Although Buzz is not like the driver of that story, so his naiveté is sort of there for humor and there for comedy as opposed to him being sort of the emotional drive of the story.
Craig: Until that moment where he actually has to come face to face with the fact that he is naïve.
Emily: Right. Right.
Craig: That’s the one value I think of naïve characters is that they always provide that moment. The same thing happens to Joy. This is Pixar. God, they define a terrible weakness that would just ultimately murder this person emotionally and then they do it to them. That’s kind of the gift of those characters I think. I think Pixar does them really well.
Emily: And I will say with Joy especially like that character didn’t work for a long time because she was – I guess I can say she was really annoying. She was so happy and peppy and then we played with a whole bunch of different versions of her where she had more edge and less edge. I’ve never been a part of a project that noodled with a character that much. And really honestly the difference was Amy Poehler signed on and Amy Poehler has a level of joy and enthusiasm to her that is kind of infectious. And she’s peppy but she is like pumped about it in a way that we weren’t able to find on the page. And then when she walks in the room and you’re so rooting – like it’s so earnest and it’s so genuine and so even when it’s like over the top and if somebody else did it you’d want to punch them, when she does it it’s like you’re with her and you feel the joy and infectious energy she has.
Craig: Well she had this thing in her performance, but I also give all the writers and animators credit for also putting it there in the character and the conception of the character, that Joy isn’t just happy and naïve and loves to be joyful. There’s a desperation underneath all of it which is I’ve got to keep dancing because the second I step dancing I have to look at some painful things I don’t want to look at.
Emily: For sure.
Craig: And that was fascinating to me. It’s a little bit of a cheat, right? So one of the things about Inside Out that was a little cheaty and it had to happen—
Emily: Am I going to be mad at you?
Craig: No! Is that you’re taking a human being and you’re fragmenting them into these parts of their personality. But we’re with those parts of the personality and inevitably what we need is to see that that individual part has parts inside of the part. It just has to be there otherwise it doesn’t work.
John: Because Joy has to get sad in order for–
Craig: Joy has to be aware of it. Joy has to almost be joyful because if I just stop being joyful, whereas Sadness also kind of needs to understand – Sadness is sad that she’s sad. That’s a different thing, right? So that I thought was kind of fascinating. I mean, obviously you have side characters where they can just – Anger is anger, just be angry, it’s funny.
John: So we had Pamela Ribon on the Christmas episode and she was talking about–
Emily: Oh, I love Pam.
John: She’s so great. And she was talking about Ralph Breaks the Internet. And so during the process of that she played Penelope. She played that throughout the whole process. Does a similar kind of thing happen in Pixar where you have temp voices and you’re just trying to do stuff?
John: And so somebody else had to play that character who wasn’t Amy Poehler and is that part of the reason why you couldn’t find the voice and the approach?
Emily: I don’t think so. I mean, the woman who did Joy for us is a woman named Alyssa Knight who is fantastic and actually a very good actress in her own right. Sort of the thing that you’re talking about – we didn’t have a lock on Joy. We couldn’t figure out what was happening inside of her that was – it just took a long time. Literally I think I was on that project for four years and it took us – yeah, which is like oh my god.
John: Four years on a movie.
Emily: It took a good two of those years just to find where her center was.
John: So I want to talk through this part because during those two years of trying to find her, you know, how she was going to work you did have to map out the rest of the movie. So there were people whose job it was to figure out set pieces and all this stuff. But you still weren’t sure if you had the right character at the centerpiece of this movie who is in almost every scene.
John: That’s got to be scary.
Emily: Yeah. Almost all the movies hit a point where they hit the skids and it’s really – they’re bad, and they’re really, really bad. And we’re totally lost in the woods. Like quite literally, I mean Pete our director would spend two weeks walking in the woods like at some point.
Craig: Oh, he was legitimately lost in the woods.
Emily: Legitimately he went into the woods.
Emily: And he walked around.
Craig: He knows that’s just an expression though, right? He doesn’t have to go out there.
Emily: He’s a very literal person.
Craig: Fair enough. Works for him.
Emily: It worked. It worked really well.
John: But talk me through that it’s bad because at this point is it bad in a way that there are reels of temp animation that you can look at and it’s like well that doesn’t work and everyone can see that that movie is not actually a movie? You’re looking at a real thing and not just words on a page?
Emily: Yeah. What we’re looking at is storyboards that have been edited together with music and sound and voices and all that kind of stuff. And we’re watching it through. You know, the big reboot – we did a giant reboot on the middle of Inside Out where the primary relationship changed. And I think I can say this because I think it’s on the DVD. It used to be Joy and Fear. And the main story was between those two characters which felt like it made sense for a really long time. And it wasn’t until Pete sort of had this revelation that the movie was going to be about connection and the way that we get to connection is allowing ourselves to be vulnerable around people. And that we have to go through sadness sometimes to get back to joy. And it fundamentally shifted the primary movie.
And it shifted those two characters. And so that was about the time that Meg LeFauve came on and she was sort of part of that reboot of rebooting our story so that it was about Joy and Sadness and that being the central relationship.
Craig: This requires an enormous amount of creative bravery.
Emily: I think so.
Craig: Because everybody who has ever written anything I think in part is desperate to believe that they’ve got it. Because writing is hard. So the last thing you want to think is, well, my job was to dig a hole and I dug the hole and oh my god this is not a hole. And you have to do it again. Nobody wants that, but sometimes you just have to do it again.
Emily: Well and I found it really – I mean, he’s going to get tired of me singing his praises, but I found working with Pete I found that to be the gift of working with Pete is Pete will do that. He will say I don’t have it and he will go spend the time and the energy and the cycles to find it. And you know I also think there was a gift in there, too, to work on you know this movie that ended up being this huge movie for the studio and to know firsthand that the middle of the movie – somewhere in the middle it was not a movie that any of you would have paid to see. I find that really comforting actually. I find it really comforting to remind myself time and time again that the creative process takes time and it does take that bravery. It takes the bravery to say I don’t have it.
Craig: I don’t have it.
Emily: And I’m going to go ask people to help me find it.
Craig: And isn’t that kind of the story of Pixar. The movie that launched them, Toy Story, was just a different movie. And then they went, no, you know what – animating which was enormously expensive, to dump actual animation was unheard of. And they just said we don’t have it yet.
Emily: And we talk about the creatives a lot which we should, but I think there’s also enormous bravery that’s sort of shouldered by the producers because they are at the end of the day the bottom line matters for them. And that is their responsibility. And yet I think they’ve sort of assembled a group of producers who are willing to sit in that discomfort – I sound like Renee Brown. But they’re willing to sit in the discomfort in how messy it is to make something good and creative. And they’re all really, really there for their director.
John: That’s so in a world that’s completely different than any live action producer we’ve known.
John: “What do you mean it’s not right?” They’re freaking out at all moments. And an animation producer just can’t do that.
Emily: Well, I mean, in fairness there’s a point in every process where it’s like, OK, like we’re done.
John: We got to release the movie here.
Emily: We’re done. It’s going out like this. We don’t have a choice. But, you know, they really do do a remarkable job of shielding the directors when they need to be shielded. And I think it’s one of the most remarkable things about that place.
Craig: God, I wish that they would learn this lesson – Hollywood.
Emily: Oh, Hollywood.
Craig: If you treat the people that make the stories well then they will have a chance to make the stories well. That’s it. It’s so simple. And they don’t – thank you. They don’t do it. They refuse to do it because they don’t – I think on some level they’re cynical and don’t really believe it matters. Like, ah, you could do it twice as fast. Doesn’t matter. Who cares? They all talk like this. I don’t know.
John: Yeah. Stereotypes.
Craig: You know what.
John: We’re going to do our One Cool Things.
John: We should do our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is really simple. It is the third season of Man in the High Castle, which I had let sort of sit back for a while, and then I watched the third season and it was just terrific. And so if you have fallen off watching that show, I wasn’t nuts about everything in the second season. There were a lot of pieces sort of moving around. But the third season they did really well.
And this is a very live action thing I’m about to say here, but I watched the first episode and I’m like, wow, that’s a really expensive set. I hope they use that set well, and they use those sets really well. They build all new sets and every character of that show gets dragged through almost every of the new sets they built. And as a person who has seen those line items on a budget they knew what they were doing. They planned that very carefully. They block shot.
Craig: I bet you they did not plan it carefully and then someone said, “If you want us to build this go back—“
John: And make sure every character walks on that set.
Craig: Through this set that we paid for.
John: It was really good. Craig, what’s your One Cool Thing?
Craig: My One Cool Thing is, so you know I’m a big escape room fan. And there are a lot of sort of escape room in a box things that they’re selling now, which are kind of fun. It’s not the proper escape room experience of course, but in its own way it’s actually really entertaining. Some of them are better than others. There’s a series of them called Exit The Game that I really like. There’s a lot of them – they’re great if you have kids and if you have kids that aren’t dummies, you know.
John: You know if your kids are dumb.
Craig: I’m just being honest. You know if your kid is an idiot. They don’t like this. Just send them out there to play their sports. But, no, shut up. But roomful of writers. “Oh, you’re being mean to the jocks.” All right. But if you have a smarty in your house the Exit The Game series are great. They have a very interesting mechanism where as you think you’ve solved a puzzle there’s a little wheel and you enter a code and that takes you a card and it shows you a thing, and then success. It’s fun and you don’t have to worry about the timer. Take your time.
And it’s put out by a company called, well I guess I would pronounce it like the River Thames, but it’s spelled Thames. Thames and Kosmos. That’s with a K. So give it a shot. And they rank the games by level of difficulty. So, you can start with one of the easier ones. That’s actually a way to figure out if your kid is smart or not, so try that.
John: Yeah. A little IQ test. Nice.
John: Emily, do you have a One Cool Thing for us?
Emily: Yes. So I watched, this isn’t my One Cool Thing, but I watched one of those Fyre documentaries which was just–
John: Fyre Festival.
Craig: Fyre Festival.
Emily: Insane. But it made me think about the book Bad Blood. Has anybody read this book? Oh my god, OK, it’s amazing.
Craig: Do the voice. Do the voice.
Emily: No, I can’t do the voice. So it’s a story about Theranos which was that start up that imploded in spectacular fashion and the book is totally riveting. It’s fascinating. It’s like the best beach read you’ve ever read. And it’s all true. It’s insane.
Craig: Great villain.
Emily: Great. Oh my god, it’s amazing. And they’re going to make it into a movie, so go read it before you watch it.
John: Figure out how you would do it and then see how they did it. And yours is probably different/better.
Craig: Probably won’t be as good. I’m just being honest. They’re going to get somebody amazing. It’s going to be Sorkin.
John: They’ll get Sorkin probably.
Craig: I can’t – you can’t–
Emily: Yeah. They will get Sorkin. It’s a very Sorkin.
Craig: I mean, I’m just being reasonable. Come on.
Emily: Anyway, go read it. It’s fantastic.
John: Great. We are going to do some questions from the audience. So you questions are going to be fantastic. What’s your question?
Female Audience Member: It’s going to be fantastic. OK, my question is you told us at the beginning to go to Hollywood and learn how to do it there and what do you want us to do when we go there? What kind of job would you send a writer from here down there to go do? Because I’ve heard other shows where you said you need to go and you need to make sure that you are on a set. And you want to learn how to write for real actors and write for people who are actually going to be using your stuff. So what kind of a job would we look for even if we were doing an internship or any kind of work? What would we do?
Craig: Well, I mean, I don’t know – it is incredibly useful to be on a set, but you got to – you don’t just get there right away. I mean, you can, but that’s more of like a production assistant job where you’re running around and you’re on the walkie-talkie and you’re learning the basics of film production. I’ll tell you what I did, because I didn’t know anybody. I drove out there and I went to a temp agency. Actually I went to three temp agencies. And I took their tests, which is mostly typing. And then they started sending me out for jobs.
But there’s a few of them in Los Angeles that service the entertainment business essentially exclusively. And one of them placed me in a position where I was mostly a file clerk at a little ad agency. And I did that. I did that and then I kind of found an opportunity to write something and show somebody. And then they’re like, OK, you can be a writer now. Sort of like that.
But just get a job near somebody and maybe you’re also in an apartment building where other people are just like you. And then everyone is talking. Things happen. But you’ve got to be there.
John: Emily, you live here. So tell us about that kind of experience living here. Two microphones.
Emily: Do you remember the Lady Gaga performance from the Super Bowl where somebody held the microphone like this for her? That’s what I’m into. Could you just hold it for me? No, I’m kidding. I do live up here. I’m from up here. I lived in LA for like a hot second and I did actually exactly what Craig just described. I went to like three temp agencies. I took typing tests. And they placed me at Creative Artists Agency where I was like a probably very abysmal assistant for a while. I would recommend that, too.
From up here that’s I think the best thing to do. Because unless you go down and you have all the connections in the world, which you probably don’t, I think temp agencies are the way to do it. And frankly assistant jobs turn over like left and right. So there’s always, always openings. And I would recommend that.
John: And I will also say when we recommend people move down to Los Angeles a lot of times it’s folks who just graduated from college. And so we say you’re going to start your life somewhere, start your life in Los Angeles if that’s what you want to do. That’s not always the same advice for somebody who is in their 30s or 40s who is looking for a career change. That’s a different thing. And I know in previous episodes, we’ll try to find a link to it, but we’ve talked about how do you know when it’s time to leave that place. It’s a different equation when you’re not at the very start of your life. 20s isn’t the start of your life, but you’re not at that transitional point.
Another question from the audience?
Female Audience Member: Hi. I don’t hear you guys talk much about advising screenwriters to make their own movies and what kind of exposure and success can come from that.
John: So I’ve made a movie for myself. You’ve directed a movie. It can be a great thing. If you are aspiring to be a writer-director you need to do both parts of that job, and so directing something you’ve written is a fantastic step.
If your goal is to be a writer, to be a television showrunner or be a television staff writer, having directed a thing may not help you out a tremendous amount. And I’m actually thinking back to even Megan McDonnell who is the Scriptnotes producer, she directed a really terrific short, and it was great, and really showed that she could direct. But that wasn’t sort of her main goal. And so it’s gotten her some attention, but it would get her more attention if she really wanted to be a director. And she really wants to be a writer. So I wouldn’t recommend somebody spend a year of their life directing a movie if that’s not their goal. Thoughts?
Emily: Yeah. I agree with John. I think it kind of depends on what your end goal is. And if the thing you want to do more than anything in the world is direct then you should do that. And there’s ways to do that here. There’s a lot of independent movies that do get made up here, even though I know it’s not a huge independent film town. But I agree that it’s a lot of money and it’s a lot of work if your ultimate goal is to get your writing out there.
I mean, as somebody who read a lot of scripts I can tell you there’s a lot of people out in Hollywood reading a lot of scripts all the time. So if that’s the thing you want to do I would just focus on that.
John: I think we can take one more question here before we wrap up.
Female Audience Member: So this is actually more of a craft question probably. I don’t know why I throw myself in the way of these arguments but I do. And I see the most common response to I’m having a problem with my plot/with my character/I don’t understand this that I see that drives me up the wall is, “Oh, you need to nail down your theme.” I don’t like that.
But I also understand that that means something different to every different person. So, my question is when, 1, is theme the correct solution that is something you need to look at, and 2, when is not the correct solution? When is the wrong thing?
John: This is a great question. So when do we need to think about themes. And you just gave a great example of that because Inside Out you had these character who represent these big thematic ideas and you had the wrong two ideas clashing together. So–
Emily: I will say I’m probably one of – so I’ve done a little bit of script consulting and I’m probably somebody you would hate to work with because while I don’t always call it theme I feel like theme is at the core of almost everything I’m poking at when I – I think that when you go to ask questions about what your character is doing and what it’s about and what they want and why do they really want that, I think all of that at the end of the day is theme.
So while I totally agree with you that the general note of “work on your theme” is super unhelpful.
John: That’s not an actionable note. You can’t–
Emily: It’s not an actionable note. But what is an actionable note, which is your theme actually if you dig down into it is about what is your character expecting. What do they want to have happen? What do they expect it’s going to do for their life?
So, all those questions about what your character and what’s motivating them, those are all theme questions. So I feel like when you’re getting that note what you’re actually getting – like when somebody is saying to you, “Oh, you’re theme,” what they’re actually trying to poke at I think probably not very well is that they don’t understand what your main character is doing. What do you think, Craig?
Craig: When we are stuck trying to describe these very nebulous things we come up with a word. And so of course when someone gives you this word it’s normal to say this isn’t – it’s not that you’re angry at them, it’s just more like you’re not helping me. What I always think about with this is what is the point of writing this. In a big way, not even inside of the characters. So like why would anybody want to go see this in the first place? Why does this deserve to be made? Why should 1,500 people in various jobs all assemble to create this thing?
And that comes down to something important to you that you’re saying. That’s you. That’s not the character. That’s not this character, or that character. It’s not about the sequence or anything. But you. That thing – that needs to be there.
And if you know what that is, this argument you’re making, this thing you want people to understand, the raison d’être of this, then I think what ends up happening is you find a way to start unifying things. So rather than having characters do things that make sense over here, and a character that is doing a thing that makes sense over here, but they don’t have necessarily some kind of relation, it’s because these things aren’t connected to the point that you’re saying the whole reason to show up is this. And once you know the whole reason to show up it actually becomes really easy to start making decisions about why people should do things. Well what should the ending be? The ending should be the opposite of the beginning and those two things are connected to this thing that you’re trying to say to everybody. This is why people should show up.
Forget people showing up in a theater. This is why people should show up to actually make the damn thing. So that’s what I think about.
John: And I think also there’s other useful words that are sort of thrown around that mean the same kind of thing as theme. When people talk about the conflicts, or I don’t feel like these conflicts are really advancing what the character needs, you may have thought of these great set pieces but they don’t actually do anything that your characters need to learn or achieve or accomplish. They’re just interesting set pieces that aren’t really connected to the central idea.
Sometimes we’ll talk about that central dramatic question. The thesis statement. We often talk on Scriptnotes that television sort of never fully answers that question but a movie does answer that question. As an audience member you sit down and you watch a movie expecting that it’s a character’s one-time experience that is going to transform them. And so if you’re not transforming a character, if it’s not that one unique experience then there’s something that’s not really quite figured out yet.
And what you may want to do is kind of what you’re describing here is look at what are the things we have here. What seems like they’re related? What’s the most interesting thing here? How can we bring that forward and build conflicts around it that can really explore that issue?
Emily: I also think it’s worth pointing out that a lot of people don’t find their theme on the first draft. So, I think sometimes we want to make it really clean and we want to say my movie is about this blank. And I think for a lot of writers I know they know they don’t have it on the first draft. So part of what you’re doing is you’re poking around and you’re trying to find out where the character wants to go and what the character wants to do. And it doesn’t even quite present itself to you until a draft or two in. And then you go, oh crap, my movie is about this. I get it. Like I had to go in this weird circuitous path to find my center, but you’ll find it.
And I guess that’s what I’m pointing out of like when you’re floating around in theme land and you can’t find it, and I think Craig is 100% right about – it’s the first time – but I think he’s 100% right about theme and that it being more about this larger question. But if you can’t find the question and you’re like, “Blech, I don’t know what it is,” I would go back to your main character and know that it might take you – you might have to just literally write a couple drafts and then it will show up.
And it might be somebody else reading your draft and saying, “You know what I think this is about? I think it’s about this.” Which is why even though this is this sort of isolating process to write something, it’s so good to have other people that you trust who can look at your stuff and help you identify those things because sometimes they’re not apparent.
Craig: Seems like a great advertisement for the society that has put this on.
John: Absolutely. Brain trust revealed. That is our show. As always our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli.
We need to thank Seattle.
Craig: Nice job, Seattle.
John: And there are several people in Seattle we need to thank. Certainly Jeremy and Kristen for bringing us up here. The Northwest Screenwriters Guild. TheFilmSchool, all one word. Thank you so much for having us up here. This was really fun. And have a great night. Thank you all.
Craig: Thank you.
- Thank you, Northwest Screenwriters Guild and TheFilmSchool for making this event happen!
- And thank you to our incredible guest: Emily Zulauf!
- Scriptnotes, 225: Only haters hate rom-coms with Tess Morris
- Michael Arndt on Endings
- Amy Poehler as Joy in INSIDE OUT
- The Man In the High Castle
- Exit The Game
- Bad Blood by John Carreyrou
- T-shirts are available here! We’ve got new designs, including Colored Revisions, Karateka, and Highland2.
- John August on Twitter
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- Find past episodes
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- Outro “Jazz Waltz” by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
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