The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 391 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the program we welcome back Aline Brosh McKenna to talk about what she learned producing four seasons of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. We’ll also talk about Emma Thompson, agency-affiliated producers, and more.
But most importantly welcome back, Aline.
Aline Brosh McKenna: Yay. Let’s do the happy dance. We’re dancing. We’re up. We’re dancing. We’re flipping.
John: I just saw a happy dance, because Aline on her laptop showed me a musical number that no one else in the world has scene, well except for everyone at CBS and everyone on her show. But I got to see a musical number from one of these upcoming episodes.
Aline: Yeah. Exciting.
John: It was a happy, upbeat number.
Aline: It was a beat, yes, indeed.
John: Yes. How are you feeling? Are you feeling happy and upbeat?
Aline: You know, we just literally – I’m coming from my last post. We delivered the episode to the network. We’ll probably have a few things. They don’t tend to have a ton. But we’ll probably have a few things to hammer out. And I’ve been struggling to like, you know, one of the things as a writer is learned to try and write not from my head but from my body. And it took me a long time because I was such a head/grades/homework person. And so now I’m trying to experience these things without like chewing them over in my brain too much and just sort of like feeling it in my body.
And I’ve slept a ton since we wrapped. The last bit of it was just chugging through Count of Monte Cristo like drawing Xs through days because it had gotten so physically taxing towards the end of shooting. Because what happens is we finish writing the season and then the next day we start prepping the finale, which I direct. And so the amount of focus that you have to have as a director, even though it’s a different kind of focus from writing, but switching from the kind of brain focus of writing into the physical discipline of directing–
John: The stamina.
Aline: Yeah. There’s a lot of physical elements to directing and just sort of keeping your energy up. And then you’re responsible for everybody else’s energy. And so that kind of buoyed me through that. And then we wrapped about three weeks ago and I’ve been – you know, we’ve still been in post. And it’s funny, this year – so our post facilities are on the same lot where we shoot. And every year it’s a very peaceful little time, a little during that hiatus. But this year we were wrapping – literally wrapping the lot. And so any sadness I had not processed really welled up because literally they were running the sets through a wood chipper and carting things off.
Craig: [laughs] Oh my god, that’s awesome.
Aline: Yeah. And so you’d see parts of our experience were literally being dumped in the garbage.
Aline: And there was a day where we started sort of madly scavenging things because we wanted to save them and give them to people and there was no systematic way of doing that, because we’d been so focused on making the thing. I mean, our script coordinator, he posted a thing about, you know, in the last four seasons it’s 2,900 pages. You know, the amount of output is just staggering and I have to say 90% of what I was experiencing towards the end was like excitement about finishing my homework.
And I think I’m still in there, but I think it hasn’t – you know, the thing you take for granted as a screenwriter, which I like I’m just going to get up and go get one of those croissants with cream in it, and like try that before I start writing. When you’re doing a show you just – you know, one of the first things I did after we wrapped was I went to Rite Aid. And I walked through Rite Aid and I went like do I want this lip balm, or this lip balm. And it felt very human.
So, I’m entering the human realm again.
Craig: Yeah. You’re reentering.
John: You went through a whole campaign. Like a political campaign where your person got elected, which is fantastic, but now the next thing happens. Or college graduation.
Aline: Yeah. It’s an intense – it’s just that it’s a cycle of four years. And I think as screenwriters you’re accustomed to, you know, many years of development and then the shooting period is maybe an intense – with prep and everything – four or five months or something. But to have had, you know, on and off for five years been working on pretty much the one thing, I don’t think I’ve quite processed it.
John: Today let’s do some of that processing live on the air.
Aline: OK, great. I haven’t seen my therapist yet, so let’s do it.
Craig: I’ve got a beard. I’ve got the processing group beard, so I should be fine.
John: Should be good. Before we get to that let’s talk some stuff in the news. So, it was about a week and a half ago now Emma Thompson sent a letter to the folks at Skydance Animation. They had recently hired former Pixar chief John Lasseter to run their animation division. And Emma Thompson said basically I’m out. She was supposed to be doing this movie called Luck and she said, nope, not going to do it. And it’s because you hired John Lasseter.
There’s one paragraph in here which I thought was really sort of telling. She writes, “Much has been said about giving John Lasseter a ‘second chance.’ But he is presumably being paid millions of dollars to receive that second chance. How much money are the employees at Skydance being paid to GIVE him that second chance? If John Lasseter started his own company, then every employee would have been given the opportunity to choose whether or not to give him a second chance. But any Skydance employees who don’t want to give him a second chance have to stay and be uncomfortable or lose their jobs.” Which is really a great way of framing it to me that I don’t think I’ve seen in sort of any of this discussion of the #MeToo movement. It’s that he has a chance to sort of come into a company, but they don’t have a chance to sort of necessarily leave.
It’s that sense of like you have a choice of where you work but only to a limited degree. What was your first take on this letter as you read it, Aline?
Aline: Well, you know, what really strikes me is that we just as a society we have a completely different way of communicating in every way. There was a time when she could have written that letter and we never would have heard about it unless she had decided to give it to a newspaper or publish it in the trades or something. And what’s really struck me is in addition to the sort of social movement it’s inextricable from the social media that has allowed people to put their voice out there directly. And so all of the conversations that we’re having about what as a society we believe to be the norms and how people are supposed to respond to things are just not anymore mitigated by layers and layers and layers of slow-moving newspapers and magazines. Everything happens very instantly.
It just really struck me that, you know, somebody says something, she gives her opinion, you know, she speaks her truth, she says what’s important to her. It’s immediately disseminated to all of these people and we’re having conversations that we’ve never had before. And it’s really interesting that the voices are being heard as there’s these different means of communication. And that’s what I have been struck by is that, you know, anybody who has something that they want to say there’s just such an immediacy to these conversations in the culture right now.
John: Well it doesn’t seem like there’s a distinction between a private letter and a public letter.
John: This was written with the understanding that it probably would be out there in the world.
Aline: Yeah. I mean, the analogous somewhat similar thing was, you know, our show is at CBS and there were a couple of things, you know, the Les Moonves investigation started. And then there were a couple moments where articles came out that were really disturbing. And I felt comfortable saying to the folks at CBS like this is – we’re uncomfortable. They knew the people who worked for them were uncomfortable. And I don’t know that in my career I ever would have felt comfortable saying to the corporation that I worked for like oh this is uncomfortable.
And, you know, we have all seen – we’ve talked about this on the show before – but we’ve all seen bad behavior, people that we knew were behaving badly. I did a movie at the Weinstein Company. But I never thought, I mean, truth be told I didn’t see the Harvey stuff that came out, but you know even though I did see Harvey be abusive I never felt like I’m going to call anybody there and say, “Hey, this guy is a raging rageaholic, treats people horribly.” You just kind of went, shrug.
And now when that Les thing came out I felt comfortable saying to the folks that I work with at CBS, you know, as women doing a feminist show this feels uncomfortable and they understood. I mean, the people that we were talking to understood. But I just – the whole conversation has changed dramatically everywhere, not just in our business, to this point where people feel really, really, really comfortable speaking out publicly.
Craig: Yeah, well, it’s like the great tradition of the open letter. You could write, I mean, look, she put this in the Los Angeles Times, so that’s kind of old school, but the difference is where you would write an open letter to blah-blah-blah and have it printed in something like the Los Angeles Times, the people who would know about it would be the people who read the Los Angeles Times. And if they wanted to share it with somebody they would have to show them their copy of the Los Angeles Times.
Aline: Or like clip it. Remember when you used to get clips from your parents?
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. Send you in the mail, like, look you were in the paper. So no question that social media amplifies voices. But I want to give Emma Thompson a certain kind of – maybe it’s a credit that other people wouldn’t give her – but we’re a show about writers. It was beautifully written. She’s such a good writer.
Aline: She really is.
Craig: People forget that Emma Thompson is such a good writer. Really, really great. Maybe – I don’t know, I hope people don’t forget how good she is at writing.
So it was gorgeously written and I personally appreciated that a lot of what she was talking about didn’t shy away from the topic of money. I think that we sometimes get a little squeamish about money. Sometimes people look at something like this and say, “You’re diminishing the principled argument by talking about the notion that people should be paid.” And the fact of the matter is that’s what people who don’t want to pay you want you to think.
Right? Because quietly John Lasseter is getting paid. And her point is, you know what, the people who are here they’re not getting some sort of John Lasseter hazard pay. Nor are they having a chance to say, “Listen, I don’t want to work with John Lasseter, so I’m going to leave, but you should still keep paying me because I didn’t hire this guy.”
Aline: Do you think it would have been different if John Lasseter had started his own company and therefore every employee there would have had a choice?
Craig: Of course.
Aline: As to whether – it would have been different.
Craig: Of course.
John: It would have been different.
Craig: No question.
Craig: That’s the point that Emma Thompson makes in the letter is that like if he had started his own – I think she even says in other places in the letter that she believes that a person can turn a new leaf and you can give people chances, but it has to be on the terms where you’re voluntarily going towards them rather than them being hired on as your boss.
And, you know, I remember during this last presidential campaign someone asked like, well, Trump how would you feel if Ivanka was being sexually harassed. And like, “Well, I’m sure she’d leave. I’m sure she’d quit.” That as being a solution to the problem of sexual harassment is absurd.
John: And is incredibly privileged.
Craig: Well, there you go. I think that Emma Thompson is an example of somebody that has that privilege and is using it on behalf of people who don’t. This is very admirable. And because of course she’s wealthy. She doesn’t need to do this job. She can walk without suffering these tremendous consequences.
And also you can’t quietly blacklist Emma Thompson. But if you are dealing with – and remember, animation is not union. So, there’s already a kind of inherent potential for abuse. And I would argue that that potential is realized frequently if not all the time. So you have people who can absolutely be put in situations where simply by speaking out and saying I don’t want to do this their reputation can be quietly tarnished to the point where it’s hard for them to get work somewhere else.
So she’s using her privilege here in a wonderful way. And she did it kind of super smartly I thought. I don’t know, I just thought this was a really well done – it was a well-written and also well-argued point.
Aline: I wanted to ask you guys a question. I’ve noticed that the letters of protest and the letters of accusation and the letters of pain that people have written have been gorgeously written. And all of the apologies have been terrible.
Aline: Terrible. I mean, we have yet to see – I’m still waiting for an apology that is an apology.
John: Well, we talked about the Dan Harmon one which wasn’t written but was a spoken apology and that was–
Craig: That wasn’t bad.
John: The distinction between is it was an apology that was actually accepted and it had an intention and it was accepted as an apology and people could sort of move on past it. And I agree with you though. I think the folks who are putting their thoughts together about what happened and why it was wrong do so very articulately and the folks trying to defend themselves, maybe because there is no great defense for it, do not come up with really coherent explanations. Because they try to explain it away rather than trying to take it in and understand it and address it. And that’s the frustration.
Craig: It’s hard to apologize. Because the best apology is the one that is personal. It is face to face with the person you’ve heart. These kind of ritualized public apologies are already very difficult to pull off because they feel so calculated. They are calculated. And so–
Aline: Just none of them have followed any of the principles of apology.
Craig: Correct. [laughs] Because I think that partly they are doing it reluctantly. You get the sense that they’re being dragged in there to say in front of the principal I’m sorry that I wrote on the desk with the Sharpie. They just, you can tell. And then some of them just aren’t apologetic in any way, shape, or form. Bill Cosby and Harvey, yeah, unrepentant.
John: Yeah. The last point I will say we talked about Emma Thompson has the privilege to be able to turn down this job. I do wonder how many writers and artists and actors are being approached to do stuff at this company and are passing and they can’t say why they’re passing, but they’re finding excuses to not do it. Because this is a thing we see in TV and movies all the time where like you get that pass, like oh they’re busy, they’re finding another excuse for why they’re not doing it. But I do wonder if ultimately Skydance Animation is very much hurt by Lasseter’s being there because talent may silently choose not to go there, even if they’re not writing the letter that Emma Thompson is they may be making their own choice like I don’t want to be associated with it.
Aline: Well there’s a meta conversation happening in the entire culture now. There’s sort of this thread of conversation about events that are happening but also about pieces of culture, you know, television shows and movies and books are all surrounded by this little buzzing orb of conversation about them as well. And so it’s interesting when you see the reaction to certain movies like Green Book where people feel like the context was insufficient.
It’s hard for things to exist on their own, for business deals to exist on their own. Everything is now again webbed together because of the instantaneity of our culture.
John: Yeah. So let’s segue here. You made it through four seasons of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend without – I can’t think of any sort of major horrific things happening.
Craig: Give her time. Give her time. There’s still some time left.
John: There was a scary thing that happened quite early on about where the show was going to end up, but at any moment you could have had some – an actor or some crew member or some writer do something that attracted negative attention and have a whole spotlight on it, but you managed to dodge that. So congratulations. I don’t want to jinx it because your final episodes are still left to air, but congratulations.
But before we get into your exit interview where we talk about what you did and what you learned, I thought we’d go back to 2014 when you came on the show. This is December 2014, Episode 175. It was the 12 Days of Scriptnotes. And you came on along with Rachel and you described this new show you were going to do. And so let’s take a listen to what you said about the show well before it aired.
John: So you did what we’re all told we should be doing is you actually went off and you made a TV show.
Aline: Yes. Well, that was not intentional at all. And I think we’ve maybe talked about this before. I had done TV at the beginning of my career and I was not looking to go back at all. And every once and awhile somebody would ask me, but this idea of just going in to TV to do TV, which a lot of features do, feature writers do. They just kind of wander over there because it’s there and people say it’s groovy, I wasn’t interested in.
And then in my procrastination I was on Jezebel and I saw a — yup, which I know you guys are all on.
Craig: Totally. Yeah.
Aline: And I clicked on the animated video of a satiric take on Disney princesses with this amazing singer. And I went to see who had done this thing and you obviously can’t see who — I didn’t realize that the person who wrote it was also singing. And then I got bumped to her other videos and it was written and sung by Rachel Bloom. So, I went to — she has a YouTube Channel.
Craig: If only she were here!
Aline: And I went to Rachel’s YouTube Channel and I watched all the videos and I got really excited. And I called my best friend, who is my actual best friend, not my showbiz best friend, but my actual best friend Kate who works in showbiz, who works for a television studio and I said you’re going to love this, I know you’re going to love these. This girl is amazing. You should meet with her. So, we had a meeting with her and she’s, in the videos Rachel is very like sexy and super-hot.
Craig: But in reality —
John: Yeah, there was a conjunction coming that was not going to be your friend.
Aline: I was expecting, well, I was expecting like someone from the planet Glamazon, like I was expecting a very actressy thing to show up. And she showed up and in my mind she was wearing cargo pants, which she does not own, so she claims she wasn’t wearing them. But she was wearing sort of like jeans and a t-shirt.
Craig: Is that bad?
Aline: And she was wearing like what Craig wears.
Craig: Well, that sounds pretty great.
Aline: [laughs] So, she came in and I could see right away that she was like a writer girl, you know, and she’s also an amazing actor, and singer, and all of these things. But in her heart of hearts she’s really a writer girl.
John: 2014. So, now, Aline, we’re now in 2019. If you could travel back five years and give yourself some advice to the woman who was sitting there planning this show what could you tell her? What were the things that would have helped if you had known?
Aline: Well, it’s interesting. I remember that I thought the show was dead because we had given it to Showtime. We had our first notes call and, you know, the three of us have been in the business a long time. I knew two sentences into it that we were screwed and she did not because she thought they just had some notes and we would fix it. And I just knew they weren’t going to pick it up.
And so I remember thinking when we were on the show I got to make sure as many people as possible know who Rachel Bloom is. And the thing I was happy about was that we had made a $4.5 million audition tape for Rachel. And so I knew that even if it never got picked up that people would see her and see how extraordinary she is.
You know, there are a lot of things that I wish I had known, but I couldn’t have known them before I did them. And before I experienced them. And so neither of us had run a show before. And, you know, the smartest thing that we did was surround ourselves with people who could help us and give us advice and listen to them. And in our writers’ room we had two other executive producers when we started. One was Erin Ehrlich and the other one is Michael Hitchcock.
And they had both done a lot of television and they just were so helpful to me in particular about running a room and doing all the other stuff and how that could all be done. And frankly also they just put their bodies on the line. Any moment from season one that I wasn’t on set, and I couldn’t be on set for most of it because I was running the room, Erin and Michael alternated every single episode. So, producers go on set, but the rest of our writing-producing staff was sort of inexperienced. And so in subsequent seasons they would cover their episodes on their own. And now they’re all like super experienced and they’re all sailing off into the world. But Michael and Erin covered every bit of the first season on set for me.
John: So just imagining the advice you’re giving to your younger self, it’s to hire really carefully. And so you were looking for the people you want to be around all the time who actually know what they’re doing.
Aline: Well, this is where being judgmental came in handy.
John: Oh god, yes.
Aline: Yeah. Snap judgments. I mean, we had the same writing staff all four years pretty much. And I think that I did a good job of choosing people because I was an older lady who really trusted my gut about people. I think when you’re younger you think, well, I’m not sure I feel – it’s the same thing of head and body. You know, sometimes when you’re younger you just feel, I don’t know if I feel comfortable with this person but my head is looking at their resume and they’re saying…
And so I had learned to sort of like trust my gut on people. And I learned a lot about the process. It’s interesting. You know, I went into doing that show, a lot of it was that I wanted to protect Rachel. Like physically protect and protect her work. And, you know, protect her schedule. And for whatever reason that was something outside of myself that was like a non-selfish act that really drove me the whole time. And I would say towards the end Rachel would be like, “I’m OK.” You know, she had learned to sort of do some of those things for herself and figure out her comfort level. But there was something about that maternal role that I played that really drove myself in.
I’m trying to think of something really important that I learned.
John: It’s natural instinct to be maternal, to be paternal, and yet you don’t want to undermine somebody. You want to make sure that people actually have the ability to make their own decisions at all times. And that’s a think I’ve seen with the two of you being really good about. And so even over the time that I’ve known you I would say that I see you more in a sisterly/colleague way and less of a mom/daughter.
Aline: Yeah. It’s changed. So here in the thing I would say that I learned how to do the most is I really learned how to listen. Because Rachel and I are not partners. I mean, we have a certain percentage of the time where we are like eerily in agreement. But then we have I would say maybe more than most partners, because we both came from being like single authors, we disagree because we come from such different backgrounds.
And I really learned to shut up and listen. And Rachel after a while would say to me, “How open is your mind?” And that’s a helpful thing to say to me because, you know, I would just like – and just today she wanted to change something, my first reaction was like, no, I’m not going to like that. And I just took a breath and she did it with the editor and I watched it and I liked it. And I’ve learned to – you know, you build such a carapace of such a thorny exoskeleton as a screenwriter and television is just so collaborative. I mean, movies are, too, but television you can’t possibly do it all yourself. And so I really learned to listen much better.
Really learned to like – and part of listening is shutting up.
Craig: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. That’s exactly right. It is a practice that will punish you if you are in a situation where you must listen to somebody that you don’t respect. Somebody that’s frustrating. I’ve been in that situation many, many times. But it is a situation that will reward you endlessly if you trust that person. It all comes down to trust.
So, what happens is someone says something and if you trust them instead of freaking out and going oh my god let me just catastrophize, because if I am subject to doing what you just said I’m going to basically want to drive my car off of the cliff.
Craig: But if you trust that person then you can just relax. You can listen. You can hear them out. And you know what? Sometimes they’re wrong, too, and they’ll trust you.
Aline: Oh yeah.
Craig: But you don’t have that panic. The panic is the worst.
Aline: Yeah. And we did learn to be better, but also to say, “Hey, this person is really passionate about this, so I’m going to listen extra hard.”
There were a few practical things that I can pass on. I stopped watching cuts before I went to bed. Because I would watch cuts and I would get really upset about something not being right. And there was – it was 11 o’clock at night and there was no one there for me to say do we have this coverage, do we have that, but do we have a two-shot, do you have an over here?
And so I stopped watching them at night and then I stopped watching them at home the first time. So the first time I always watched it with the writer of the episode and the editor. And the writer of the episode had been there on set. And that way I could say, oh, OK, this isn’t working. Do you have this? Do you have that? And they could tell me in real time whether they had it or not so that I could make the plan.
Because I would watch cuts at night and then I would sleep unbelievably – and it would always be a jagged dream that partly had the episode. You know, a lot of what you have to learn how to do is turn your brain off. It’s like being a parent. You can’t run a show if you’re depleted and miserable. You can’t parent if you’re depleted and miserable. And sometimes there’s just things that are not going to happen and are not going to be perfect. You know, my husband always says, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” You know, there’s just moments where you’d have to say that’s good enough, I’m turning this off, I’m turning this in. You know, this is fine.
And other places where you’re going to strive for excellence and for me it was always the writing was where I tried to – and the editing, frankly – are the ones where I tried to maximize the amount of shots we got at something. So let’s rewrite it again. Let’s do another room. Let’s take a few people.
And then the other thing I learned is I had a staff of 10 people the first season and we all held hands and walked around together the entire time for 18 episodes. We were all limbs entwined sitting around a table the whole time. And it took me a long time to figure out how to split my room, so that some people were outlining and some people were in the room with me. And then I developed a system of doing room rewrites with only three to five people. And Erin really encouraged me to do that. That was very helpful.
Another tip I will give. If you are in charge of starting a new pilot, a new television show, a new movie that you’re directing or producing or whatever, make t-shirts. I’m a big believer in this. We did a pilot. We had a very short prep time, very short shooting time. And everybody when they got there got a t-shirt because you’re trying to build school spirit very quickly. And at the end of the season everyone was exhausted this season and I bought t-shirts for everyone that had, “I’m not sad, you’re sad,” and some quotes from the songs for a finale t-shirt. Now, I’m saying a lot of people did not care, but for some people it’s just that little extra bit – any school spirit you can find. Bringing donuts to the office. Finding extra fun things to do so that when people are there they are still – we all got into show business because we wanted to have a fun job and not what we thought of as a boring job. And so it’s good when you can to preserve that feeling of – and it also sort of plays against my slight natural taciturn-ness.
John: So, I think we talked about this on the show before that I did a TV show right after Go, and so this is ‘99/2000. And I had a genuine nervous breakdown. The world just melted down around me and I got fired after three episodes as I got off the plane. And I was just so relieved. And so hearing you talk through this stuff it’s both triggering but it also helps me recognize how I really couldn’t have known how to do that. Like I didn’t have – I didn’t have any training, but I didn’t have any life experience about how to deal with other people and sort of what the expectations where.
So, I didn’t surround myself with people I trusted. I didn’t listen to my gut on those situations about who I was hiring, where we were doing this, logistically how it was going to be possible. And I couldn’t do what you’re doing in terms of prioritizing which of the jobs are going to be my jobs and which of the jobs are better left to somebody else. And so I was trying to cover set while also writing and also being in the editing room and thinking about music.
Aline: People do that. Someone was telling me about somebody who like there are frequently people who are on set all day and then have their writers’ room start really late or go to editing at 8pm. And you have to make as many decisions as you can, not because – this is the thing that I think is not quite visible to people is that having one person approving things is not there because that person is so amazing. It’s because it’s the military and you need to just ask one person. And it’s like you can’t, you know, costumes can’t be in a situation where they have to ask five people because you’ll slow down the process and speed costs money, and money is opportunity to do cool things.
And so I’m very decisive so that was good for me in terms of like costumes, props, sets, locations. That’s pretty easy for me to make decisions. And I learned when to loop Rachel in, like if it was important for her to look at a costume. But a lot of the times it’s like someone’s jeans and leather jacket. It was fine. I’m a systems-oriented person. My dad is an engineer. And so the other thing I would say is like when you go into any new process just rigorously applying trial and error. Like this worked for this episode, this didn’t. This thing worked, this didn’t. I was not accustomed to being the locust of power. I did not understand what was happening half the time. So, I did not understand that people were nice to me who were not being nice to other people. I’d never experienced that before.
Craig: Isn’t that weird? That’s a weird one, yeah.
Aline: I did not know that was happening.
Craig: It happens.
Aline: Yeah. So it happened a few times my experience with someone was completely different than other people’s experience with someone. So I learned that you kind of half to poke around and ask and sort of check in about other people’s experience of things. And also because you want your writers to tell you when they don’t like something. You want people to come to you when they have an issue. But I’m not still totally used to the thing of people sort of moving around you in a way where you’re disrupting molecules because of your authority. I think for me anyway, I can’t speak to everyone, one of the things I tried to do was take down those barriers as much as I could so that people, actors, department heads, people felt comfortable saying to me, “I need help here, or I have an issue here,” because as a screenwriter you know you have smart things to say and maybe no one has asked you. And I know that all these people have tremendous expertise.
The flip side of that is sometimes you just don’t have time. And sometimes you’re just taking the hill and so you’re going – black pants Thursday, you know, five o’clock, no to this actor, yes to – you don’t have time always to check in with people. But as much as possible I tried to amplify the voices and try to listen to people as much as I could. And that took like EQ to figure out.
And also everyone who works on the show knows that I loved it when someone took something over. You know, like when one of the producers on the episode – like what’s the timeline of this? Be like ask the producer. I was always looking for things that other people could supervise.
John: Could figure out for you.
John: Well, so, but this is your first time also supervising a whole group of writers. So I want to talk about the writing itself. Craig when he went off to do Chernobyl he just wrote the whole thing himself. And it would have been impossible for you to have written the whole thing yourself, or for you and Rachel to do the whole thing together. Even when it was the smaller Showtime order you would have had to bring in a staff.
So, how hard was it to have control over those first drafts – I know you were always like the last typewriter. Everything went underneath your fingers. How do you give that up? And how do you also coach a writer who is not getting something or not getting some aspect of the voice of the show?
Aline: Well, you know, a lot of showrunners I talked to said that they really struggle with getting drafts in that they could use. And I always put myself in the shoes of the writers. We were all learning the voice of the show. We were all learning what the stories were going to be like. We were all learning how our act breaks were going to go. So, I didn’t expect people to be like nailing it perfectly. I expected those drafts to make a contribution in terms of testing the story that had been broken in the room. And I encouraged the writers to check in with me if they felt that something fundamentally wasn’t working.
I expected to get some good character moments and jokes and lines out of the drafts. But I always knew that the drafts were going to come into the room at some point. So, I was always in a gratitude space about whatever was handed to me. And we all got better at writing episodes over time as we identified the voice of the show and the pace of the storytelling. We all got better. And so it got better over time.
I mean, I felt and feel so privileged. If I talk about this long enough I will cry. I feel so privileged to have worked with this group of people. This is an exceptionally smart, brilliant, helpful, loving group of people. And when we would hire assistants I would always say you’re not going to be able to figure out who the nicest person in this group is, because everyone is so nice. They just were lovely to the office staff. They were so helpful and supportive of me.
And also just so brilliant and hilarious. And to me, to have a draft and put it up, whether I had started it, or Rachel had started it, or Rachel and I had started it together, or someone else had written it, to put pages up and then have between five and 10 people weigh in and be brilliant and give notes and shout out jokes, I mean, what a privilege. And they’re an exceptional group. I mean, we two people have their own shows already that graduated from our show. One person is on Mrs. Maisel. And then one of our writers went to The Simpsons because Selman asked me if I had anybody. That part of it was just an enormous privilege. That was my sanctuary, that room.
And then another thing I did that might be helpful for showrunners is that, so my screen was always up at all times because we were writing. And then I also did all my approvals while they were there. Because if I waited all day to approve costumes and props and all that stuff every department would be crazy. So I would just throw up the emails and say, “Look at this prop, look at this costume.” So they all did it with me and that’s one of the reasons we have so many showrunners coming off our show.
I made sure that everybody on their episode was in every meeting, every production meeting, concept meeting, on set. And then while we were writing I would say this production, what do you guys think? What do you guys think? We’d put up the casting videos. You know, I’m very opinionated so sometimes I ignored them and sometimes people would get annoyed, but I think everyone appreciated the access.
John: Everyone saw what the job of showrunner was. And so they could imagine themselves doing that job.
Aline: Yes. So even our staff writer now has her own show. And she, you know, saw those decisions being made on the fly every day. That also means they saw every email and text message that came up in four years, so they managed to only see one sexy email from my husband.
Craig: I’ve seen way more sexy emails from your husband than that.
Aline: Yeah right. My desktop is messy and one of our writers, Jack, it drove him nuts because my system for saving things was to throw them in the trash.
Craig: Oh my god! No!
Aline: Yeah. So I basically any time I was done with a draft or whatever I would throw it in the trash. And then if I needed it I would search and sometimes it would be in the trash.
Craig: Can you just please quickly take John’s pulse. Is he OK? [laughs]
Aline: You should talk to Jack. It made him insane. And also on my text files I would start to text someone but not finish the text, which means that on the left side–
Craig: They’ve got the bloop-bloop-bloop.
Aline: Well, they would be half open and nothing on there. And he would be like you just have to delete those. I can’t look at it. Because I’m organized but not fastidious. So every single writer in that room looked at my screen, my computer screen, for five years. And, you know, it is like being a parent. I’m not perfect. I hope I did a good job. I love them tremendously. See, I told you I was going to cry. I think I did as much as I could right. I’m sure I did some stuff wrong. But everybody there knew how much I valued them. And, you know, I just feel extraordinarily privileged.
And then at the end – so I made, it was four years, so I made everybody letterman jackets for senior year. And it has the name of our whole staff, which is again the same people the whole time, and their names. And then a little saying of whatever they said the most in the room. And so, of course, Rachel said, “How open is your mind?” And one of our writers, who is a vegetarian, would often order in the thing that she got, she hated, and so her patch said, “This is just a pile of lettuce.” Because when you order a salad and you’re a vegetarian and they take all the stuff off it, you just end up with a pile of lettuce.
Craig: [laughs] It’s a pile of lettuce.
Aline: So, going back to – I started writing, I’m doing a movie for Netflix, so I started writing a screenplay on my own. It’s exhilarating and I’m loving it, and I’m making a big mess and no one is asking me any questions. And I’ve already written the first scene, and I wrote the last scene. And then I wrote a set piece in the middle. I’m doing it in whatever order I want to do and no one is asking me any questions. You know, but I miss them. So I feel liberated. It’s so much like parenting. You hope that you do a good job. You know you’re not perfect. And then, you know, then they leave home and you’re left on your own. But then you can pick your own Netflix shows.
Aline: Do you know what I’m saying?
John: That’s nice. Aline, as you know I’ve seen every episode of your show. I just love it. And it’s been a delight to do Q&As with you and other stuff along the way. But I think I’m especially happy that you got to do it on your own terms. That you got the four seasons. You got to sort of enter where you wanted to, exit where you wanted to, and sort of do the whole thing. That you’re not at this moment thinking like, “Oh, what if they pick us up for another season?” You got closure. And so often in TV there isn’t closure, at least not classically in TV. There’s no closure. The chance to land the plane. And I’m so excited that you got that.
Aline: Well, now that we’re saying that, this is an opportunity for me to publicly – a shout out to CBS and CW. You know, writer things – we spend so much time shitting on executives, but Kate Adler, Amanda Palley, Amy Reisenbach, David Staff, Michael Roberts, Tracy Blackwell, Mark Pedowitz. I could go on and on. But those were the ones who dealt with the scripts. But I could go on and on. We had extraordinary support. The PR teams. The casting. The ethos of everyone making the show was like this is one that we get to do for fun. This is one we get to do the right way.
And you know what? It was so lowly rated that we just did not have those pressures that you have when you have a successful show. Like nobody was asking us to hump anything weird because they just – there’s nobody watching it anyway. It’s such a niche thing. Netflix is made for niche things. We go to Netflix a week after we stop airing. So in some ways that’s how people consume the show. And I got to say I can’t stress enough that the executives gave us total freedom and Mark Pedowitz said to us when we went there, “Never pull yourself back. If we need to pull you back we’ll do it. But never pull yourselves back.”
John: That’s great. All right, changing topics, so two weeks ago we had Chris Keyser on the show and we talked through the agency agreement. So we’re in the middle of trying to figure out this agency agreement. And we talked through the difference between packaging, attaching elements to things, and the problem of packaging fees.
But a thing we didn’t get into very much is the rise of these agencies as producers. And so there are two big production companies that are affiliated with agencies. So there’s Wiip which is affiliated CAA, and Endeavor Content which is associated with WME. And a question that’s been coming up a lot this week is like, “Wait, do you want those things to go away?” And to me, no. I want those things to stay. I want more buyers.
It’s the thing we talked a lot about on the show is that as studios keep consolidating down smaller and smaller there’s fewer buyers for things. When you and I started in the industry there were 10 places you could go with a spec script and it’s just gotten narrower and narrower and narrower. So, we want to have all those places that are buyers but we need to figure out a way to sort of get those places to not be conflicted with their agencies.
Have you faced any pressure to go to one of those places, Aline?
Aline: You know, I just don’t – I have not interacted with this a ton. And I’ve not been approached, but that’s partly because I’ve also been in a convent.
John: Yeah. You’ve been locked away for four years. Craig, do you get approached to do anything at Wiip?
Craig: No. And I – I’m not sure that we do need them, I mean, just to push back a little bit. There are more buyers now than I recall before. I mean, there’s still the traditional studio producers, talking about television but also for movies, but we also have Hulu, we also have Amazon, we also have Apple, we also have Netflix. Netflix on its own is buying more content than I think everybody else combined. So, I don’t know if we do need them.
And my question ultimately about Wiip and what’s it called, Endeavor Content, is I guess what I would say is – I know the answer, really, it’s rhetorical, but why? The only reason they’re doing this, literally, is money. Now I know that sounds absurdly naïve for me to say. Of course it’s money. But, you know, you can do a lot of different things to make money. If you really want to make, I think we’ve said this on the show before, get into hedge funds. You’ll make way more money way more reliably. What is the purpose? If the purpose of an agency is to gather people who love advocating for artists and getting them employment and putting things together to see these things happen and making deals, all the stuff that I can imagine would attract somebody to the agency business, why do they also need to do this? It just feels like pointless greed. Like they looked at a number and said, “You know, we could make money. And there’s a lot of money coming in from overseas. Let’s just take some of it and we’ll just make things. And we’ll put this flimsy little paper screen between ourselves and this so that, you know, we can essentially say the agency doesn’t control the production company and the production company doesn’t control he agency.”
But as we said when we were discussing this topic with Chris, what possible thing could these companies have to offer investors other than we also represent a lot of clients you might want?
John: Yeah. So, I’ll play devil’s advocate here. I think you could argue that they know their clients. They know the deals that their clients could get other places and they’re able to get them better deals than they would get other places. And so that’s a true thing I’ve heard from some writers who have made projects at these places is that they’ve gotten a better backend definition than they would get other places because they can, because they can offer them that.
There’s always the question of like, you know, would any other bunch of money-chasing talent offer those better back ends just to get the talent to do stuff there? I mean, the same way that Amazon and Netflix are offering better money for writers in some cases than other places are. I wonder and I worry that you have these two companies doing that and any other money that wants to chase after that talent they knock on CAA’s door saying, “Hey, I want to hire this client.” It’s like, well, yeah, or we could do this with you. We could do this with you through Endeavor Content. It gets back to the problem of, yeah, in that gate-keeping function they’re also kind of funneling everything to their own projects. It’s like they have a first look deal with all their clients.
Craig: Right. I mean, you couldn’t come up with a more classic conflict of interest than this. I mean, they could teach this in business school. It is the definition of a conflict of interest. That’s the part that I just find so shocking. I mean, you can call it Wiip if you want, but what it is is CAA. At least Endeavor they stuck their name in there. They didn’t even bother.
It’s just a classic conflict of interest. And, by the way, what shows does Wiip produce? I don’t even know.
John: I don’t know either. I’m sure it’s a good list.
Craig: Do we need them?
Aline: I just think we should not stop until every single person in the world has a production company, music festival, podcast. Where everybody has some side hustle. We’re like the side hustle generation.
John: I think right now in 2019 maybe we’re all content creators. But until we’re all our own networks and all our own studios – maybe that’s our real goal. So, maybe Aline next you shouldn’t think like what’s the next TV show you’re going to do. Because you’re thinking of like what is the TV company that you’re going to found.
Aline: Well, what I think is hilarious, you know, the Fyre Fest thing which those movies have been so riveting, and then there’s the Theranos thing which frankly I can’t get enough of. There’s this sense now in the culture that like you don’t have to do a thing, you just have to super seem like you’re doing a thing.
John: Oh yeah, for sure.
Aline: And people seem to like perform their tasks and their lives and their parenting and their dog-owning and their relationships more than they have them. And some of the things now with the podcasts and everybody has a production company and everyone is streaming and everyone is like – I wonder if it will all go back to people having sort of an artisanal where like all they do is making the one product. But I feel like we’re all being called upon in our lives to be presenting this like 360 fully realized, which is how people can start fake companies based on nothing and keep them going for an incredibly long time because it goes back to what we were talking about before which is like I don’t know how you could – you know, before it would be like people who print business cards that queued to nothing. Well now you can do full social media onslaughts and have, you know, entire – the Theranos lady got money from every single man with a million dollars she got a million dollars from based on turtlenecks, blonde hair, deep voice, and like–
Craig: The deep voice is my favorite.
Aline: It’s the best.
Craig: The fake deep voice. I love that.
Aline: It’s the best. And then also like just a good patter. And I think that everybody wants to be in everything.
John: Yeah. I mean–
Craig: Sociopaths gonna sociopath.
John: I mean, both Fyre Festival and Theranos they feel like amazing pieces of performance art. And so if you take them as that rather than businesses that hurt people, as performance art bravo. Give them some awards. Where are their awards?
I often feel like Ryan Reynolds deserves some sort of special Oscar for marketing or ability to promote himself, promote the products. You look at how he promoted the Deadpool movies, they were masterful. And Deadpool was as much the marketing of Deadpool as the movie itself. I loved the movies, but his ability to engage as that character was spectacular.
You found Rachel off of her YouTube videos. So just to think about she had a sense.
Aline: Oh yeah. And, look, a lot of it is for the good. A lot of this unmitigated content, like I just bought a book and optioned a book and the way I got to the author was I followed her on Twitter, she followed me back, I message her. And then we went through official channels. But now more and more I reach out to people directly the way I did with Rachel and then move on to the red phase. But you’ve had that personal connection. And that’s why I think that – it’s like anything. Much of it is for the good. Some of it is just complete hell scape. Humans are humans. And if you read Sapiens it explains a lot.
John: With your book thing I wanted to – a writer I was talking to this last week, she was saying that she was optioning a book. And so she told her agent, oh, I read this book that’s really great. It’s kind of out of print in the US, but it’s a British author. And the agent said, “Oh, no, no, no, let us deal with that and we’ll rep the rights for you and we’ll put it together as a package with you and the book and the rights and so you won’t have to spend any money.” And I asked her like well how much would the option have really been? My guess is the option was either a dollar or a thousand dollars. It wasn’t a big book.
And so now this agency has a package with her and this book and all this stuff and it’s like I don’t think that helped you. I don’t think that really gave her any extra hands. Because when you say you’re buying this book, you’re forming a relationship with this author and then ultimately you’ll set it up together. But you’re not giving your agency the power to do all this stuff.
Aline: Yeah. I mean, I’ve driven a lot of my own business historically. I mean, my TV agent now is like extremely helpful. And I’ve had very, very helpful agents along the way. And I was with someone for 17 years. And agents are great and they offer a lot of value and they open a lot of doors. But ultimately we’re all chasing our own stuff.
John: Yeah. All right. It’s come time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a streaming show, because all things are streaming shows these things. It’s a Very English Scandal.
Aline: Oh, I loved it.
John: On Amazon Prime. It’s just great. And so it happened months and months ago, but I missed it. But now I can see it. So it’s Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant. They’re both fantastic. Russell T. Davis wrote it. Directed by Stephen Frears. And what someone was pointing out today as I talked about it is that it’s only the three episodes – it’s just three episodes – is like 180 minutes. It’s actually shorter than many movies. And so as we’re talking about what sort of like what is a TV series, what is a movie, I got to kind of say you can really look at it as a movie that comes in three parts.
Aline: I think Frears is 78.
John: That old? Wow. That’s great.
Aline: I think. 77 or something. He’s amazing. He’s one of my favorites. In terms of directors who have style, that it’s both gorgeous and signature and invisible, he’s really one of my favorites. He did The Queen. I love Frears.
John: So I went into it expecting The Queen. I went into it expecting a serious drama, so I had no idea how funny it was going to be. And it was great.
John: Craig, what do you got?
Craig: I’ve got a game. You know I’m endlessly looking for something to fill the space that used to be filled by The Room, The Room 2, The Room 3, The Room 4. So there’s this other game called Birdcage. It’s very simple. It’s Room-like though in that you are presented with a little puzzle that’s very tactile, move levers, solve some puzzles, flip a switch. But each stage is basically a bird is in this elaborate trapped birdcage and you have to go around the birdcage and solve the puzzles and flip the things and eventually open up the birdcage and the bird gets out.
So, Birdcage 2 is out. God, I don’t know, I assume it’s like three bucks or something like that. It’s not expensive. Totally worth your while. Easy to play. It’s in levels so it’s a super casual game for your phone or iPad. Loved it.
John: Loved it. Cool. Aline?
Aline: I have a tip. You know how when you get a dog you get obsessed with other dogs that look like your dog?
Aline: Right? And like it’s all you want to do is look at pictures of dogs that look like your dog. So we got a Jack Wawa, which is like not a dog that we had any interest in.
John: Like a Jack Russell/Chihuahua—
Aline: It’s a Jack Russell/Chihuahua mix.
John: It’s a great dog.
Aline: And it really was happenstance that I went to a shelter actually with Rachel and then I dove into this pit with her and I came up with a little tiny, which Will didn’t want and was not a kind of dog I’d ever been interested in. So then of course now I’m obsessed with Jack-Wawas.
So if you go on Instagram any breed that you’re into that’s your particular mix, #Jackwawa really is one of the most soothing things that I do on Instagram is to follow other dogs that look like Jimmy. Quite enjoyable. My whole family does it. Rachel follows it, whatever her dog thing is which I think is Border Terrier. And it’s just a delight.
And then we have all these other dogs that we look at and we’re like how much does this one look like Jimmy. This one is like Jimmy but is just completely white. This one is like Jimmy but less furry. This is just hours of enjoyment.
John: I’m so happy you have a dog.
Aline: That has been my other One Cool Thing of my whole – I mean, it’s crazy that – like I’m going to explain to you what’s good about having a dog. Like I just realized what’s good about having a dog.
Craig: We know.
John: Dogs are good. We all have dogs.
Craig: The greatest.
John: Some wrap up stuff from me. If you are not sick of hearing my voice, I just recorded 23 videos about Highland and sort of how to do different things in Highland2. So they’re little tutorial things. So if you’re curious about how to do stuff in Highland2 there will be a link in the show notes pointing you towards those things.
Also I’m trying to hire another coder. So we have Nima Yousefi who is our main coder, but we’re hiring somebody in sort of – not an intern. It’s like a full on paid job, but it would be a great job for somebody who is in college, just out of college, who does some iOS coding. There’s a job description we’ll put in the show notes. But we need somebody to do some work on an iOS app for us, and that might be a listener.
Aline: Black turtleneck, low voice.
John: 100%. That’s how you recruit them. I’m not looking for VC money. I’m just looking for a person who can code.
Craig: But definitely lower your voice.
John: Lower your voice.
Craig: Lower your voice.
John: And that’s our show for this week. Our show is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Victor Krause and I picked it because it kind of reminds me of the 90210 theme.
John: Yeah. So Luke Perry died this past week. I never met him. Did anybody meet him?
Aline: No. He was married to someone I know and by all accounts is a lovely person.
John: By all accounts was just lovely. And so I feel so bad for them, for the family.
Craig: It’s so tragic.
John: For everyone on Riverdale who has to figure out how to deal with that. But anyway, sorry for that. But it’s a delightful theme by Victor Krause. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. Aline is @–
Aline: I think it’s @abmckenna. [sic] (correct @alinebmckenna)
John: Well there will be a link in the show notes. You can find us on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Just search for Scriptnotes. While you’re there leave us a comment. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts.
You can find the back episodes of the show at Scriptnotes.net, or you can go to store.johnaugust.com and download individual packs of things. You can listen to the 19,000 times that Aline has been on the show, but in particular The 12 Days of Scriptnotes one, Episode 175, where we first talk about it.
You can hear Rachel Bloom’s first song on the show, which is the Scriptnotes theme to When Will I Be Famous. And the answer was–
Aline: Pretty soon.
John: Pretty soon, Rachel.
Craig: Shortly thereafter.
John: Aline, it is always a delight to have you on the program.
Aline: Thank you. You know what? I get a lot of props for this. People always stop me. They really continue to dig this podcast. And it’s the thing I always recommend when people ask me what they should be doing.
Craig: This podcast is like, we’re turning into like the Meet the Press of writing podcasts. It’s been on for 40 years.
Aline: Yes. It’s an esteemed institution, especially because it’s been around forever.
Aline: Well, John is on the cutting edge of this stuff.
John: But, I mean, the fact that your entire show–
Aline: When is your music festival, John?
John: It’s got to be soon. But your entire show fits within the Scriptnotes show.
Aline: That’s right.
John: It’s nested within Scriptnotes.
Aline: That’s right.
Aline: That’s right.
John: All right. Bye.
Craig: Bye guys.
- Emma Thompson’s open letter to Skydance.
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