The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, it’s John. So today’s episode was recorded on Friday when it looked very likely that writers would be leaving their agents this week. But then a twist. Just hours before the agreement was set to expire the deadline was pushed back to this Friday and negotiations are continuing. So, now you’re all caught up, and on with the show.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 395 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast we’re going to be discussing a different kind of movie template where you don’t have one hero, you have a group of heroes, and the movie needs to follow multiple points of view which can be exciting and challenging.
Then we’ll be answering listener questions on a bunch of topics including things Craig tweets.
Craig: Well, I don’t know what could possibly be interesting about that. What do I tweet? Recipes? Recipes mostly.
John: Yeah. It’s mostly recipes. Mostly things you saw in the world that you enjoyed.
Craig: And definitely not at all things that made me upset.
John: Yeah. Craig’s Twitter feed is basically just Instagram but with words.
Craig: It’s Insta-Rage.
John: It is Insta-Rage. It’s often Insta-Ragey. We are recording this on Friday afternoon. Unless something surprising happened during the weekend Craig and I now share a characteristic with many aspiring screenwriters out there. We don’t have agents representing us at the moment.
Craig: What do we do? How do I get an agent? [laughs]
John: We’ll have to answer that question. Back at Episode 1, Episode 5, early on in the show we answered the question how do I get an agent.
Craig: Should probably go listen to that now.
John: Yeah. As we are recording this there are a few agencies we could sign with. My plan is not to sign with any of those agencies at the moment. Craig, next week are you spending your time hunting down an agent?
Craig: No. Next week I’m spending my time mixing the final episode of Chernobyl and doing my job. And I will not be looking for agents. You know what? I’m going to tell you my outlook. I have a generally optimistic outlook that something will work out and we’ll all go back to the way it was. Or, that’s it for agents and writers. And which point I’m just like, OK, you know, let me calculate what 10% was of what I made. I think an answering service would cost less. So it won’t be as good, but at the very least somebody will have somewhere to call. Beyond that, I’m not really sure what else to do.
John: No. I mean, before we started recording we were talking about a thing where you were going to reach out to some folks, and you know what, you can just reach out to them directly. It’s one of those weird things where you realize like, oh, I could actually do this myself.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, look, there is a great utility to agents.
Craig: I mean, I have enjoyed my relationship with my agents and they’ve done great things for me and they’ve put me in positions where I was able to succeed that I don’t think I would have had an opportunity to be in without them. So I don’t want this to end this way. I want to continue on the way things have been continuing on. But, if they can’t, life will go on.
John: Yeah. It will go on. And we will be covering the life as it goes on, on this podcast and we’ll see where we’re at.
John: Forever. An ongoing study of how life goes on. If you want to go back to those very back episodes I am here to point out that we have a Listener’s Guide, a Scriptnotes Listener’s Guide, and that was designed when we hit Episode 300 because people would come into the show late and say like, oh my gosh, there’s 300 episodes. Which ones do I listen to first? And so we crowd-sourced for our listeners from our listeners which episodes people liked the most. And so that is available for the first 300 episodes.
But now we’re on Episode 395, so pretty soon we’re going to have to do the 400-episode Listener Guide.
Craig: Oh my god, 400.
John: So people, be thinking about which of the episodes between Episode 300 and 400 are the really notable ones. I thought last week’s with Mari Heller was phenomenal.
Craig: That was great.
John: So that would be a recent vote. But you know what, I have that recency bias. So, please reach back over the past two years and tell us which of those episodes need to be on that list.
Craig: So, John, I feel like when we hit 500 there should be some sort of Diamond Jubilee banquet.
John: Yep. There has to be something. So, a little over two years away.
Craig: You know what? We should ask our agents to plan this.
John: [laughs] Indeed. So, they have to negotiate an agreement that deals with conflicts of interest and plan for our 500th episode.
Craig: Diamond Jubilee.
John: So good. Is 500 the Diamond Jubilee? Is that normally how it works?
Craig: I don’t think 500 is a thing.
John: Nothing goes to 500.
Craig: No, nothing goes to 500. So, I’m just going to say it’s our Diamond Jubilee. I feel that that’s fair. And you know what? I want there to be a Deyas. I want there to be a DJ. I want it to be like a Bar Mitzvah kind of.
John: That would be so good. So this last week was my daughter’s 5,000th day of life. And so my husband got her–
Craig: It’s her Diamond Jubilee.
John: It is her Diamond Jubilee, or like Double Diamond Jubilee. There’s some sort of gem stone that is appropriate for it. But got her a little special card and we turned off the explicit music restrictions on her iTunes account.
Craig: Yes. I had that discussion with my daughter the other day as well. They had already been off. And then I guess I got her a new thing and I turned them on the new thing and she came to me and said, “Why did you put this restriction on?” And I said, I don’t know, I mean, do you need to have the explicit lyrics? And she looked at me like I had stabbed her in the heart. I mean, it was a look of just shock and betrayal. Like yes I do. The look was so powerful, she didn’t even have to say anything. I just said, oh, all right, just give me the phone. Fine, here you go.
John: So people without kids may be asking well why would you turn on those restrictions at all. And here is the secret at least from my perspective is not that you don’t want them hearing those words, it’s that you don’t want them saying those words. You don’t want them singing aloud to the songs and saying those words. That is the reason why we have kept the explicit lyrics off for so long, just so they don’t inadvertently become sung aloud.
Craig: But then the thing is of course they are.
Craig: They’re doing it. They’re doing it wherever they go. My daughter sang me something the other day where I was just like you can’t – I can’t hear that out of your face. And we were just laughing. We were laughing at how outrageous it was that she said it in front of me.
John: And was she playing the ukulele while she sang it?
Craig: No, no. No. No. This is not a ukulele song.
John: With my daughter I get a ukulele accompanied by those words.
Craig: Oh, that’s nice. You know, Jessie plays the ukulele as well.
John: Oh my god, a concert. Concert series.
Craig: I feel it coming on.
John: For the 500th episode a concert jubilee.
Craig: Oh, for sure.
John: Nice. My last bit of news is that on my Arlo Finch book tour this coming week I will be signing books at The Briar Patch in Bangor, Maine. There will also be a little event there. The Briar Patch, for people who listened to the Launch podcast, is this little bookstore in Bangor, Maine where they’ve sold more Arlo Finches than any place else on earth. And so I’m going there to greet the people who have read Arlo Finch and made it the talk in Bangor, Maine.
Craig: Now, what do you think is going on there?
John: It’s really one bookseller named Gibran who is a huge fan of the books and just basically puts it in everyone’s hands who comes in. He does a very good sales pitch for it.
Craig: That’s spectacular. Great.
John: So Thursday, April 11 at 5pm is that event if you want to come see me in Bangor, Maine. And, you know what? I bet we have some listeners in Bangor, Maine, because we have listeners all over the world.
Craig: It seems like it.
John: So our main topic this week came up because yesterday I did a roundtable on a project and this project we were working on had not one hero but a big group of heroes. Or, not a big group, but four people who were sort of the central heroes of the story. And that wasn’t a mistake. That really was how the movie needed to work.
And it got me thinking that we so often talk about movies being a journey that happens to one character only once, and we always talk about sort of that hero and that hero protagonates over the course of the story and sort of those things. Even though we are not big fans of those classic templates and sort of everything has to match the three-act structure that tends to be the experience of movies is that you’re following a character on a journey. But there are a lot of movies that have these groups of heroes in them and I thought we’d spend some time talking about movies that have groups and the unique challenges of movies that have groups as their central heroes.
Craig: Smart topic because I think it’s quickly becoming the norm actually as everybody in the studio world tries to universe-ize everything. You end up, even if you start with movies with the traditional independent protagonist, sooner or later you’re going to be smooshing everybody together in some sort of team up. So it’s inevitable.
John: We’ve talked before about two-handers where you have two main characters who are doing most of the work in the movie. And sometimes it’s a classic protagonist/antagonist situation. So movies like Big Fish, Mr. And Mrs. Smith, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Romancing the Stone, Chicago, while there are other characters there’s two central characters you’re following and you could say either one of them is the main character of the story.
But what you’re describing in terms of there’s a big group of characters is more on the order of Charlie’s Angels, The Breakfast Club, X-Men, Avengers, Scooby Doo, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Lord of the Rings, Goonies, Go, all The Fast and Furious movies. These are movies where characters need to have journeys and make progress over the course of the story but they’re a part of a much larger team. And we really haven’t done a lot of talking about how those teams of characters work in movies.
Craig: Yeah. I actually wasn’t really a team movie writer until I guess The Hangovers, because those three guys kind of operated as a team. And then when you throw Mr. Chow in there it’s a team of four. It’s a crew. Now you’ve got a crew.
John: You’ve got a crew.
Craig: You got a crew.
John: We’re putting together a crew.
Craig: And you got to figure out how that crew works, because it is very different than just – even like a typical two-hander like Identity Thief. I mean, there are other characters but it’s just the two of them on a road trip. That’s pretty traditional stuff.
John: The movie is about their relationship. And so I’m sure people can argue that one is the protagonist and one is the antagonist. And, great, but really it’s about the two of them and how they are changing each other. Wicked is a two-hander.
Craig: Right. When you say, OK, now it’s really about three, or four, or five, or in Fast and Furious there’s like 12 of them at this point now, you kind of have to present them as this team. It’s a team sport now. So writing for a team requires a very different kind of thinking I think than writing for a traditional protagonist and let’s call them a sub-protagonist or something like that.
John: Yeah. So if you think about them as a group, if you think about them as one entity this should still be a one-time transformational event for this group of characters, for this team of characters, for whatever this party is that is going through this journey that has to be transformational to them as a group.
But within that bigger story there’s probably individual stories. And in those individual stories those characters are probably the protagonist of that subplot or at least that sub-story. So they’re all going to have relationships with each other, with the greater question, the greater theme, the greater plot of the movie, and it’s making sure that each of those characters feels adequately served by what the needs are. Bigger characters are going to have more screen time and probably take bigger arcs. Minor characters are at least going to enter into a place and exit a place that they hopefully have contributed to the overall success or failure of not just the plot that the characters are wrestling with but the thematic issues that the movie is trying to bring up and tackle.
Craig: Yeah. There’s a kind of a Robert Altman-y trick where you take an event and he would do this a lot in very good Robert Altman movies, but we see it in all sorts of movies, where there’s an event. And the event is so big it encompasses everyone. And so we kind of – we play a little bit of the soap opera game. So soap operas traditionally would have about three or four plots going at once. You would see a little bit of one, then it would switch over to the next one. And you’d have to wait to get back to the one you liked. At least that was my experience when I was home sick with grandma.
So in say a movie like Independence Day there are multiple stories. There is a president. There is his wife. There’s an adviser to the president who has an ex-wife. There’s his dad. There’s Will Smith. There’s a bunch of stories going on. And each one of them gets a little slice of the story pie, but ultimately it’s all viewed through the prism of this event. And in the end everybody kind of comes together in some sort of unifying act which in Magnolia was a frog rain.
John: Yes. Yes.
Craig: And we see that in fact as different as all these stories were everyone was connected and kind of working as a team. So individuals are the heroes of their mini-stories. And that’s in fact how those movies tell the story of the big story through mini-stories.
John: Yeah. Now, in some of these stories the characters enter in as some kind of family. They have a pre-existing relationship. In other movies they are thrown together by circumstances and therefore have to sort of figure out what the relationships are between them. In either situation you want those relationships to have changed by the end of the story. So just like as in a two-hander, their relationship needs to have changed by the end. In a team story the relationships need to have changed by the end and you need to see the impact they’ve had on each other over the course of this. So independent of a villain, independent of outside plot, the choices that they individually made impacted the people around them.
Craig: And that’s the matrix of relevance. So in a traditional movie it is about me. I have a problem. And I go through a course of action and at the end of the movie my problem is solved. In this kind of story the group has a problem. And what we’re rooting for is the group to survive. And in that sense very much it is a family. And we know that about the Fast and Furious, because they’re always telling us.
John: [laughs] It’s family.
Craig: They always tell us. This is a family. But it is. And so the hero of those movies is the joined relationship of them all in the family. And what the problem is in the beginning of the story is not a problem with one individual. It is a problem of family dynamic. And that is what needs to be figured out by the end of the movie.
John: Yeah. So let’s talk about the real pitfalls and challenges of doing a story with a team protagonist or with a big group at its center. The first and most obvious one is that sometimes certain characters just end up being purely functional. You see what their role is within this group and what their role is within this plot, but their character isn’t actually interesting in and of itself at all. And sometimes if it’s a minor character, OK, but if it’s a character who we’re putting some emotional weight in that we actually want to see their journey at all, they have to be more than purely functional.
The challenge is the more you – in a normal movie you can say like, oh OK, well I need to build in some back story for this character. I need to see them interact with other people and get a better sense of who this person is and what they’re trying to do, but you can’t do that for every character because the movie would just keep starting again and again. It would never get anywhere. So, finding ways that one character’s progress is impacting another character, which is sending the next thing forward. The jigsaw puzzle aspect of getting all those characters’ changes to happen over the course of the story can be really difficult.
Craig: It can be. Because, you know, the movie starts to turn into a stop-and-start. Action, quiet talk, backstory, my inner feelings. Action, quiet talk, backstory, your inner feelings. And it’s one of the reasons by the way these movies are so long. They are so long because everybody needs a story. It’s hard to justify why you have seven characters when only three really have lives and inner worlds and the other four are standing around doing stuff.
Craig: So everybody has to have it. And they can get really long. You know, it wouldn’t kill these people to maybe, you know, kill one of them. If it’s not going well we’ll just kill them. No big deal.
John: I’m going to argue without a lot of supporting evidence that Alien is essentially one of these kind of group movies, and a lot of horror movies are those kind of group movie, and they winnow down the characters so that one person is left standing. But you couldn’t necessarily say that that person was the protagonist at the very start of the story.
Aliens is not really kind of what we’re talking about with the team movie. Even though there’s a team of great people in it, it is Ripley’s movie and it is her journey. You can clearly see her protagonist arc over the course of it. So, that’s a distinction. Even within the same franchise those are two different kind of setups. I would say – I’m arguing that the first Alien movie is kind of what we’re describing in this episode whereas Aliens is much more a classic, here is one character on a one-time journey.
Craig: Yeah. Don’t be afraid, if you need to write fodder characters you write fodder characters.
John: Oh, go for it.
Craig: I mean, people need to die. Somebody has to be the red shirt. But when you think about – Star Trek is a pretty good example I think of a kind of team story. All their movies feel like team stories to me. And in part it’s because, I mean, take away the science fiction aspect, they’re just sailors on a boat. And so we’re rooting for the boat to survive. That means everybody on the boat is important. However, if something blows up, a few people on the boat can die and we won’t miss them. It’s the people that we have invested in emotionally. Those need to be justifiable to us. They all need to be important. They’re all doing jobs that are really important. I don’t care about the janitor on USS Enterprise. They do have an important job. Really important. But not during your crisis.
John: Absolutely. And we should distinguish between, in television shows by their nature tend to have big casts with a lot of people doing stuff, so Star Trek as a TV show you say, oh well of course, there’s a big cast, there’s a team. But the Star Trek movies which I also love, that is what we’re talking about here because it’s a family. It is a group of characters, the five or six key people. They are the ones that we care about. And we don’t care about the red shirts. We want to see them come through this and survive and change and interact with each other. That’s why we’re buying our ticket for these movies.
Craig: You know what? I just had an idea.
Craig: You know, so occasionally we do a deep dive into a movie. And I do like the idea of surprising people. I don’t think we’ve necessarily been particularly surprising in our choices. They’ve all been kind of classics. But you know what’s a really, really, really well-written movie?
John: Wrath of Khan?
Craig: It is. But that’s not the one I’m thinking of.
John: Tell me.
Craig: Star Trek: First Contact.
John: Oh great.
Craig: First Contact is a brilliantly written script. It is a gorgeous story where everything clicks and works together in the most lovely way.
Craig: I would deep dive that. I’d deep dive the hell out of it.
John: It’s on the list. Nice.
Craig: Put it on the list. Put it on the list.
John: Put it on the list. Getting back to this idea that there’s sort of a jigsaw puzzle, there’s a lot of things happening at once, you and I have both worked on Charlie’s Angels films. I found that to be some of the most difficult writing I ever had to do because you have three protagonists, three angels, who each need their own storylines. They need to be interacting with each other a lot. They have to have a pretty complicated A-plot generally. So every scene ends up having to do work on more than just one of those aspects. If it’s just talking plot then you’re missing opportunity to do Angel B-story stuff, but you can’t do two or three Angel B-story scenes back to back because then you’ve lost the A-plot. They’re challenging movies for those reasons. And more challenging than you might guess from an outsider’s perspective.
Craig: Well, you’re spinning plates, right?
Craig: You watch them when they’re actually spinning plates. They spin the plate and then they move over and they keep this plate. This plate is slowing down, spin that one faster. The one you were just spinning, it’s in middle. That one over there is slowing down, get to that one. It’s the same thing. You kind of service these things in waves. When you feel like you’ve had a good satisfying amount of this person, leave them and move onto another side story or another aspect of this group. That person can hang for a while.
If you have left somebody for a while when you come back to them it’s got to be really good.
Craig: You’ve got to go, oh, you know what, it wasn’t like we were away from that person because there was nothing for them to do. We were away from them because they have a bomb to drop on us. And so that works, too. But just think of it as just servicing plates. Spinning plates and looking for the ones that have kind of been a little bit neglected for a little too long. Because you can’t do them all at once. It’s not possible.
John: Yeah. And so this, we talk about art and craft a lot. Some of that is just craft. It’s recognizing having built a bunch of cabinets you recognize like, OK, this is what I need to do to make these cabinet doors work properly. And I can’t, if I don’t measure this carefully those cabinet doors are going to bump into each other and you’re not going to be able to open them. It’s a design aspect that’s kind of hard to learn how to do until you’ve just done it a bunch. And recognizing the ins and outs of scenes and how long it’s been since we’ve seen this careful. What are we expecting to happen next?
And while doing all of that remembering like, OK, what is it thematically these storylines are all about. What is the bigger picture that these can all – how are we going to get everybody to the same place not just physically but emotionally for this moment.
Craig: Yeah. You find as you do these things that you can get away with almost nothing. I think early on you think, well, it’s been a little while and this person hasn’t said anything, but whatever, it’s fine. These scenes are good. And then you give it to people and they go, “So why is this dead weight hanging around here? That was weird.” And you go, well, you can’t actually get away with anything.
John: Yeah. We talked before about how a character who doesn’t talk in a scene can be a challenge, especially if they haven’t talked – if they’re just hanging in the background of a scene for a long time and haven’t said anything that becomes a problem. But if a character has been offstage for too long and then they come back it has to be meaningful when they come back and you have to remember who they are. There’s not a clear formula or math, but sometimes you will actually just do a list of scenes and recognize like, wow, I have not seen this character for so long that I won’t remember who they are. And so I’m going to have to remind people who they are when they come back. It’s challenging. And you’re trying to do this all at script stage, but then of course you shoot a movie and then you’re seeing it and you’re like, oh man, we dropped that scene and now this doesn’t make sense. That’s the jigsaw puzzle of it all.
Craig: Yeah. It’s why writers should be in charge of movies.
John: Yeah. I think so.
Craig: Just telling it like it is.
John: Well, we go back to the sort of writer-plus that you’re always pitching which is that aspect of writers sort of functioning as showrunners for films is especially important for these really complicated narratives where there’s just a lot of plate-spinning to be done.
Craig: Yeah. I think television has proven this. Really it’s empirical at this point. The other thing I wanted to mention, one last pitfall, when you’re dealing with a group dynamic and you’re writing for a family you have to make sure that no one person – no one person’s personal stakes outweigh the group stakes. We want to be rooting for this whole team to survive. And they’re working together. But if you tell me also that one of their little mini-stories is that they’ve discovered the cure for cancer now I just mostly care about that person. That person has to get out of the burning building. Everybody else should just light themselves on fire so that person can get out.
So you just want to make sure that no one person’s stakes overshadow or obliterate the other ones in the group. And really the biggest stake of all which is us staying together.
John: Yep. 100%. So some takeaways. I would say if you’re approaching a story that you think is going to be a team story I would stop and ask yourself is it really a team story or is it more Aliens where it’s one character’s story and there’s a bunch of other characters as well? Because if it is one character’s story that’s most movies and that is actually a good thing. So always ask yourself is there really one central character and everyone else is supporting that one central character? If that’s not the case and you really do genuinely have a family, a group, a series of characters who are addressing the same thing you’ve made your life more difficult but god bless you. That could be a great script. But recognize the challenges you’re going to have ahead for yourself and be thinking about how do you make this group feel like the protagonist so you feel like there has been a transformation of this group by the end of the movie.
Craig: Yeah. I think that’s exactly right. And I do believe that after this episode people should be able to do this. All of them.
John: Oh, all of them. Easy-peasy. Nothing hard to do there.
Craig: I mean, what else do you people want? We’ve almost done 400 of these.
Craig: They should all be at the top of their game. There should be 400 Oscars a year for screenplay as far as I’m concerned.
John: Let’s see if there’s any questions. Craig, do you want to open up the mailbag?
Craig: Sure. Ben in Los Angeles asks, “I keep getting the note that my protagonist is ‘plot-transactional.’ The way I am interpreting this is that she is reactionary as opposed to making choices throughout my feature script. Do you guys have ways to avoid this? How do well-drawn characters drive the story from scene-to-scene? I feel like I don’t know how to approach a rewrite because I think she makes a lot of choices.”
John, what do you think this is about, “plot-transactional?”
John: I’ve never actually seen that exact phrasing of plot-transactional, but I think I get what these readers are talking about is that it feels like she is there to service the plot rather than drive the plot. That is she is a way for this plot to happen rather than the person who is in charge of this plot happening. And so, Ben, it’s good that you feel like your character is making choices. It may come down to dialogue and sort of what’s actually happening in the scenes. That it feels like she’s driving those scenes, that she’s asking the questions that lead her to the next thing. That she’s not just following a set of steps that a screenwriter has laid out for her.
Craig: Yeah. I think sometimes we get a little too wrapped up in plot. We think that our unique plot is the thing through which we should thread a character. I think that’s ultimately backwards. I don’t think the plot matters at all. I don’t think the plot is as important as what the characters need. And then when you think about it, Ben, this person that you’ve created she needs something. She needs to go through something. Your job is to create this perfect miserable torture for her so that the plot is directly relevant to her character. It is a challenge to who she is at her core rather than just a thing to go through.
That’s why when I watch Ocean’s 11 it’s a wonderful heist movie, and it’s brilliantly plotted, but the plotting is there to challenge a character who needs to do something. It’s not really just there because we like the mechanics of a heist.
John: Yeah. So I want to underline something Craig said there because it’s easy to mistake it. Saying you’re setting up these obstacles, you’re setting up these difficulties for the character, it’s to make sure it doesn’t feel like you have set up these difficulties and obstacles for the character, because that could be a situation where it feels like the plot is driving her or forcing her to make certain choices.
Craig: Yeah. That would be bad.
John: Again, you want to give the illusion that the character really has control over what she’s doing at every moment. And that she’s making the choices that have led to this outcome. And that’s hard to do with some plots, with some storylines, but that’s the struggle you’re facing as a screenwriter.
Craig: It’s essentially what writing is man. Sorry. That’s kind of the nitty-gritty of it. You have to just kind of figure this part out. And write in a way where the plot is only meaningful within the context of character. People only care about a character. They only care. They will tell you they care about other stuff. They only care about a character.
John: Yep. Oh, also we should say, you’ve said often people care about relationships.
John: So that can be an aspect, too. So look at–is there a relationship? Does that character have a relationship that’s meaningful? If that character does not that may be your problem.
John: Darcy from Toronto asks, “I’m approaching the 50-page mark in my screenplay and the story is approaching the end of the runway. I’ve listed out all the scenes I have left to write and I can maybe stretch it out 20 more pages. I know this isn’t a pilot for a web series. It has to be a movie. So, what do you do? How can I make an appropriate length piece of entertainment at this stage?
Yeah, you’ve got a problem. You don’t have enough story. That happens, man. You need to stop right now and you need to look at what you’ve done and then reassess like, OK, well what is the movie version because I didn’t write the movie version. I wrote a pilot.
Craig: Yeah. Unfortunately Darcy there’s no Hamburger Helper here, you know. Somebody asked you to build a limousine and you have completed the construction of a two-door coupe. That’s it. It’s the wrong thing. And you can’t just go, well, I’m just going to make the trunk of it bigger. It doesn’t work that way. It’s the wrong thing. You have to start over unfortunately. There’s no way to easily do this. You listed out all the scenes that you have to write now, but I’m suspecting that you didn’t do that ahead of time. If you sort of tear it back and you think about why it needs to be a movie, and you say it has to be a movie. I know this has to be a movie. Then you need to think about that movie, watch that movie in your head, and let it feel the rhythm of the feature version of this.
Because there’s something about the way you’re writing it that is not either feeling that rhythm or is missing things that would be fascinating, enlightening, and fun to watch. If none of that works, then maybe it isn’t a movie.
John: Yeah. So what is a movie? As we say often, a movie is a one-time journey that a character, or in the case of teams, characters can take. So if that’s why you truly believe it is a movie, great, it’s a movie, but you need to step way back and do Craig’s work there. What I will say, if this is at all comforting, is that this part gets easier with experience. Because after you’ve done a few of these you have a kind of innate sense of like, OK, that’s enough story for a movie, or uh-uh-uh that’s way too much story for a movie. You get a really good sense of how much fabric you need to cover the couch and that comes with experience.
Craig: It’s actually astonishing how consistent I am. Just after all this time when I plan out a story it inevitably ends up around 115 pages. It’s like down to the page. It’s the weirdest thing.
John: And I don’t have that experience in books and that’s why I have no idea how long my books are or how long they’re going to take. I had a sense of this is how much story I have, especially for book two it’s like oh wow I have a lot more story and that’s why book two is significantly longer. I don’t have that same way of sort of pacing myself because I don’t have the experience. I bet if I wrote ten more books I would have a very good sense of exactly how much story I have and how many pages it would take.
Craig: Well, you know, J.K. Rowling’s books got longer and longer as she did her series.
Craig: I mean, your first Arlo Finch book was 14 pages which I thought was not long enough.
John: Yeah. It was barely a pamphlet but then the second one is, you know, 400. So.
Craig: 400 pages. Good lord. Nicole asks, “I had a general meeting at one of the big animation studios and they ended up loving one of my ideas and they went so far as to say that it was exactly the kind of thing they are currently looking for. They asked,” here we go, “that I write out a treatment. It’s an idea that I love, too. It would have been my script anyway, but since the meeting went so well I’ve been working on the treatment instead of jumping into my normal writing process. When I finish I really want to show them, but I’m weary of leaving my work behind.” I think she means wary. “Is there something I can do to keep their interest without just handing it over? Do I request a second meeting to talk through it in person and then leave with it? My fear is that if I don’t hand it in the conversation will be over with them. What would you do in my position?”
You are the perfect person to ask this question. John August, go.
John: Yeah. So, we have this campaign in the WGA, No Work Left Behind, reminding writers that when they go into pitch on a pitch on a project, when they go in for those meetings they might have notes for themselves. Don’t leave those notes behind. It hurts you. It hurts every other writer.
But Nicole’s situation is not quite that situation. So let’s talk through the distinction. Nicole has an original idea. She ended up sort of half-pitching this original idea at this animation company. And now she’s wondering, oh, I’m going to write up this whole treatment. Nicole, you own that treatment. You own everything. You own 100% of this concept. So if you feel like writing this up as a treatment or a full script, you can, you may. You own every little piece of it.
Now, is the best choice for you to show them that treatment or to go in and pitch it to them in person? I don’t know. Animation does have a lot of stuff that ends up being written out. And that’s fine and good so maybe that is. But, I want to just distinguish in a general sense you own this fully and that is not the kind of problem we’re trying to solve. The problem we’re trying to solve with No Work Left Behind is when they’ve called you in for a project that they own and they’re asking you to write up some stuff and leave it behind. That’s the real danger here.
Craig, what do you think?
Craig: Well, another thing to point out, one of the big animation studios equals not WGA. It is either going to be an Animation Guild shop or it’s going to be a non-union shop. So, the Writers Guild can’t help you here. I think that the problem I’m having, Nicole, is that they asked you to do this. That to me feels like kind of a weird one. They love your idea, so they say, and they have asked you to write a treatment. You have written a treatment. John is correct. You own that treatment meaning you own the unique expression in fixed form there. You don’t own the idea, because people can’t own an idea. So you may very well, if you consider your idea to be unique, you may find that they’re developing something with the same idea a year from now. These things happen.
But I am also wary of you leaving this work behind for sure. Because you haven’t been paid for it and you should be paid as a writer to write. I think pitching it might be the way to go. I think you could give them a tease. You can say, look, I can show you a little bit and then there’s much more. But let’s formalize it and let me come work here and write this script.
It costs them nothing to ask you to do this. And it costs you time and energy and talent to do it. So just keep that in mind. Their request has cost them nothing. They have no skin in the game.
John: This is where I jump in to remind everybody that just because most animation is not covered by WGA does not mean that all animation is not covered by WGA. So, increasingly there are shops, there are places where you can get WGA deals. So just don’t take it as a default assumption that you will get a non-WGA deal at a place. If Nicole has not worked any place and doesn’t know it’s more likely than not it’s a non-WGA shop, but don’t assume that it has to be a non-WGA situation.
Either way, I think what we’re coming down to is this is your idea. You own copyright on it independent of anything else. If you feel like sharing it you can share it, you know, that’s totally your choice. Maybe they’ll look at that as a writing assignment they want to hire you in to work on some stuff for them. OK. But I’m also with Craig in the sense that they’re asking you kind of to do something for free even though you own it fully, so just always be aware of that.
John: Cool. Ashley asks, “I recently inadvertently discovered that a spec I’ve been writing on and off for over eight years bears a very striking resemblance to a feature that is about to go into production this spring in a neighboring country.”
Craig: Of course it does.
John: “They share the exact same title and they seem to share a similar world, characters, and themes, but this film is set in the ‘90s and mine is contemporary. My question is what does the existence of the forthcoming film mean for my own spec? Should I change the title or consider dramatic alterations? Will industry bogs consider this spec an attempted rip off? Given its relatively small nature should I not worry about this other project?”
Craig, what should Ashley do?
Craig: Change the title. I think that’s reasonable just because this movie is about to go into production. And then that’s it. Just change the title.
Craig: Listen, this is constant. This is never not the case. And I will say that everything always seems much more similar to us when we’re writing something than the rest of the world, even when, you know, you end up with two volcano movies at the same time or two talking ant movies at the same time. We can all look at it and go, yeah, but they’re different. And the people writing them are like, no, my god, I thought I was the only one.
So don’t panic. Don’t worry about it. Change the title. It will probably serve you well. And otherwise just rock on with your bad self.
John: The first script I ever completed was a romantic tragedy called Now and Then. And a year later there was a Demi Moore movie called Now and Then, so I changed the title to Here and Now. And people read it as a sample. It was great. But I think it was the right choice to change the title just so it wasn’t confused with the movie that had just come out. So, that was a studio movie so more people had heard of it. This other one maybe no one will have heard of it, but still good to have a title that’s not going to confuse people.
Craig: Agreed. Jake from Texas writes, “I wrote an original pilot that uses celebrities as characters, specifically country music stars as over-the-top action heroes in a parody. I want to enter it into the Austin Film Festival Competition as an example of my writing. Am I facing any liability in this situation? Clear parody. I’ve been conscious of not trying to negatively portray anyone. Should I just enter something else?”
John: Jake from Texas you should enter in your parody with country music stars. You’re fine. Just do it. If it’s good and it’s funny that’s all that matters. You’re not trying to make anything. You’re showing your writing. If the South Park guys stopped themselves at this stage they would not be the South Park guys. Do it.
Craig: Yeah. And they can’t stop you anyway. Parody is part of fair use. It’s literally specified as part of fair use. And frankly you don’t even have to worry about negatively portraying anyone either. Larry Flynt, god bless him, went to the Supreme Court to preserve your right to negatively portray people who are public figures in parody. So, just yeah, go on buddy. You’re fine.
John: Do it. Steve asks, “I also want to applaud the guild for taking the first step in breaking down the barriers that prohibit writers like myself who have always operated on the fringes from getting material in front of showrunners with the implementation of the Staffing Submission System. I’m curious as to what happens once I submit material to a show as many of your other listeners are I’m sure. Can you walk us through the process for showrunners? Is it up to them to log in to see if any writers have submitted? I just want to make sure I’m not wasting my time on something showrunners don’t intend to use.”
So, we talked about this last week. Craig mentioned wouldn’t it be great and I said it actually exists. So people seem to like it. Here’s what I hear from showrunners who are using it is that there’s one login per show. And so the showrunner has a login but so do their assistants. The assistants who would be gathering in scripts anyway go on the system. They see who has submitted. And it is useful to them as another way of getting some new scripts in.
So, I would say it is worthwhile to submit yourself for shows that you feel that you are appropriate for. That’s why we limited it to three. Pick the shows where you feel like you are the best fit. And it does seem like people are using it right now.
Craig: Also, Steve, I’m not quite sure what you mean by I just want to make sure I’m not wasting my time. Uh, click, right? Isn’t that it? Just a click? How much time does it take? [laughs]
John: I think you put a little statement there to explain sort of why you’re applying for the show and you’re updating your profile. But yeah.
Craig: That’s five minutes? Ten minutes?
John: Do it.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t really see a time-waster there.
Craig: Michael in LA asks, oh, here we go, here we go. So this is in response to a tweet I made about straight white men. And the context was that I was having a conversation with Monica Beletsky, a fantastic writer, about this thing where straight white men in Hollywood are starting to complain that they cannot get hired. That no one will hire them. No one is allowed to hire them. No one will read them. No one is allowed to read them. All their agents are telling them you cannot work in this town. It is simply – it is off limits for straight white men. So, this is what Michael writes.
John: Do you want me to be Michael just because I feel like it might be better if I play Michael and you can play Craig Mazin?
Craig: Yeah. I think that’s a great idea. You be Michael. I don’t want to be Michael. You be Michael.
John: “I’m a working writer and have two indie movies produced and been staffed on two cable shows. Like many people in this industry I’m a straight white dude and as a young straight white dude I couldn’t have picked a worst time to break into the biz. You and Craig are in the privileged position of breaking into the industry when you did and it is exactly because the upper ranks are filled with people like you and Craig that young white writers and I are having such a hard time right now.
“For Craig to completely dismiss how difficult it is to be a young white man right now simply because it wasn’t his experience when he was coming up is disrespectful and hurtful. I’m a good writer. I would say that I’m a great writer. But I can’t even get read for staff or story editor positions.
“In the past we had to hear things like, ‘You won’t even get read because you’re white,’ mainly from our reps, but now thanks to the WGA’s new staffing system we can see it written right there in the notes. Almost all the shows that are staffing say that they are ‘looking primarily for diversity and women.’ It’s one thing to hear this from an agent. It’s another to hear it from a showrunner and have it directed at all prospective writers looking to staff. What is a young white male writer supposed to do when all the showrunners are telling you that essentially you can’t even apply to write for their show?
“I understand there’s a correction going on to a broken system, but the dismissal being levied at young white males right now by people like Craig who were lucky enough to have gotten their foot in the door when they did is insulting. I’d love to see how he would have fared if he graduated from college in 2012 rather than 1992.”
Craig Mazin, take it away.
Craig: Well, I’ll tell you how I would have fared. I’d be crushing it. Sorry Michael. Here’s the thing man. Look, there’s luck involved in how this all starts. No question. Now, when John and I started we were in the middle of a recession. That wasn’t any fun. And the spec marketplace was essentially crumbling around everybody. That wasn’t any fun. But no question that the current situation in Hollywood which continues to favor straight white males really favored straight white males back then. I was a straight white male. John was a white male. And, yeah, so we had certain semblances of luck there.
Luck doesn’t keep you in this business. I can assure you of that. And it may take a little bit longer, just like it probably took a little bit longer for writers of color. But then they get there, right? And so that’s what we’re trying to fix.
Yes, I’m sure that it is discouraging to you to hear this all the time. The people that are saying this to you are essentially lying. They’re lying. Now, yes, you will see things like “looking primarily for diversity and women.” The reason that you see that is because people are having a hard time finding diversity and women. They are looking for writers who represent different kinds of people and different perspectives. And our system has done such a poor job of nurturing those writers that there isn’t the rich farm system there should be.
I’d like to think that there will be now going forward. But, yes, everybody is looking for that because people are putting a priority on it. Looking primarily for diversity and women doesn’t mean we’re looking for a room that is primarily diversity and women. It means we are primarily and looking for diversity and women, probably because most of what we keep getting are white guys. And you would be one of them.
And so I don’t think that that means don’t apply. OK. I don’t think that when agents say, “Oh don’t bother. You can’t because you’re a straight white guy.” My response would be why are you my agent? Why are you my manager? Do you have other white male clients? Why? Are you stupid?
So I want to read you something, Michael. This is a statistic. Because when I read your question I thought of the Black List. Not the service the Black List but the annual voted on Black List. And so this is features, not television, but it’s the features that all the assistants and development people in Hollywood vote as the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood. And I asked Franklin Leonard to do a quick tally of the percentage of the writers that were named to the Black List who were white males. And the answer was 67%.
Now, Michael, do you know – you’re not here. You can’t answer. I’ll answer for you. The percentage of Americans that are white males is 31%. So, that’s more than double representation. I know it feels weird to have anyone say I would prefer to hire fewer white men, but please put it in the context it needs to be in which is that there are way more white men than there should be.
I am not dismissive of your position. I am dismissive of people that say that stuff to you. I would ask you to really think about it and maybe investigate why people that choose to represent you are telling you that you are unrepresentable in the marketplace. And then I would just council patience. Patience. Because where I go and the rooms I’m going into and the people I’m seeing there are a lot of white faces and there are a lot of male faces. There are more than 31%. And maybe what you’re experiencing now is just the way it ought to have always been. And that means if you’re great it might take just a little longer.
John: Yeah. So let’s wind the clock back to ’92 when you and I were getting started. And it was even whiter then. And so as white people going into it did we have even more advantages back then? Maybe? Just because, I mean, the competition was different. It was a different universe and a different world. But the fact that he is facing less advantages that he did before doesn’t mean that he’s really disadvantaged.
I mean, it’s hard math to do. When you are used to having things have the dice roll in your favor and they start rolling more fairly it feels like something has gone wrong. But I don’t think that’s an actual accurate portrayal. I don’t think you are disadvantaged below other writers honestly.
Craig: Yeah. And I would really caution you, Michael, to not use – everyone wants to wrap themselves in the cloak of whatever woke language will give them the most moral authority in their argument. I would caution you to not do this. Because it’s easy and it’s a little cheap. There’s really no reason to suggest that John and I are in a privileged position when your thesis here is that you are a straight white man. Let’s dispense with that. We don’t need to get into the privilege wars.
We’re all white guys in America. So let’s just go with that. OK? We’re all white guys in America. One of us is gay. One of us is a Jew. We’ve all got our things. Well, maybe you don’t. I don’t know. But there’s no reason to look at it that way. I think the way you should look at it is there are white people, there are white men being staffed right now. There are. And they’re new. And they’re coming up. They’re being hired as writing assistants and then they’re getting jobs as writers. They are selling scripts. They are being employed. They’re everywhere.
So, if you’re not in the seat, work harder, try more, be patient. You may have to wait a little bit longer than John and I did, but if you are a great writer, and you claim to be, it’s inevitable Michael. It’s inevitable.
John: All right. It has come time for One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a great tweet by Rachel Wenitsky. It’s in the tradition of Natalie Walker’s great tweets where she does a character and she sort of explodes a stereotype of who this character is in film and entertainment. In this case Rachel Wenitsky is doing “The Hot Character Who Everyone Thinks Had It Easy But Finally Reveals Their Painful Backstory.” It is just a terrific monologue that I encourage everyone to watch because you will see it and you’ll realize, oh yeah, that. I can’t ever do that again.
And so it’s such a third act kind of monologue where that character explains how rough she had it and that people are misjudging her. So, I just highly recommend it and I want people to keep doing these trope-busting monologues.
Craig: Love it.
John: Let’s take a listen.
Rachel Wenitsky: You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me. You think I don’t know what I look like? What I represent? But you have no idea what I come from. I was born on top of a moving bus. When I was eight my dad evaporated right in front of me. My mom was never the same. She started collecting bones that she found in the woods and building a bone house. And then she made us all live inside the bone house. I had to go to school at a 7-11 because we couldn’t afford light-up sneakers. And when all the other kids were out becoming chefs I was home, giving our dog a deep tissue massage. Didn’t go to college. I went to a school of rock. So don’t you dare tell me that I don’t belong here because I have worked my ass off to be here and now I may not have an ass but I am lawyer. I am a goddamn good lawyer. And I object to you.
Craig: Ha! That is hysterical. Rachel Wenitsky, you’re funny. God, that was really good. You know, people are getting really good at writing bad dialogue. It’s like becoming its own cottage industry which I kind of appreciate.
Well, my One Cool Thing is somewhat similar actually. Also a parody of a sort. Very different sort. I don’t know if you saw this, John. This was a review in the LA Times, it wasn’t really a review, it was one of those lifestyle pieces. And the title – it’s by Lucas Kwan Peterson – and he’s a food columnist. And the title is “For Cramped New York, An Expanding Dining Scene.” Have you seen this?
John: I did because Julie Turner tweeted it and you retweeted it. And I thought it was amazing.
Craig: So basically what Lucas has done is written a think piece about New York in the same condescending, ignorant style that the New York Times uses constantly to talk about Los Angeles. And it is amazing. I mean, just a brief quote here. “My first culinary encounter was with pizza, a mysterious kind of baked tlayuda, covered in macerated tomatoes and milk coagulation, and occasionally smothered with a type of thinly sliced lap cheong called pepperoni. The odd dish, sometimes referred to as a pie, washed ashore from Naples some years ago. While the taste takes some getting used to, pizza can be enchanting when done properly.” [laughs]
It’s so great.
John: Yeah. It was just pitch perfect. Loved it.
Craig: It’s so good.
“The Jewish-style delicatessen I am well familiar with — Los Angeles has the strongest deli scene in the country, after all — but I’d somehow never had a bagel before, a dense version of a baozi that’s boiled, then baked. With a vaguely alkali exterior and a chewy but pliant center, the bagel was puzzling but nevertheless a treat. And that hole in the middle? Apparently, it’s supposed to be there.”
Yeah. You know, as a New Yorker who loves Los Angeles this couldn’t have been better pitched and more deserving. I mean, it’s just, yeah. I mean, New York, clueless when it comes to Los Angeles. Truly amazing.
John: It’s great. That is our show for this week. As always our show is produced Megana Rao, edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by David John Banks. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions like the ones we answered today.
On Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. We love to answer little short questions there.
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Craig, thank you for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John. Almost there. Almost to 400.
John: Almost to 400. Cool.
- Accepting recommendations for updating the Listener’s Guide
- Arlo Finch Book Tour – Meet and Greet at The Briar Patch in Bangor, Maine on Thursday, April 11 at 5pm
- Rachel Wenitsky’s “The Hot Character Who Everyone Thinks Had It Easy Finally Reveals Their Painful Backstory”
- For cramped New York, an expanding dining scene in the LA Times
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