The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Oh, my name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 401 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast, a brand new feature. We asked you to record your brief pitches for movies and series. Today we’re going to listen to five of these and share our honest first impressions. We’re also going to talk about a development in the agency negotiations. And my most pressing question about Chernobyl.
But first we have to promote our live show which is coming June 13. It’s a Thursday night at the Ace Hotel. It is a benefit for Hollywood Heart, which is a fantastic charity. We can now announce two of our guests. Craig, who are two of our guests?
Craig: And this is going to dislodge quite a few tickets. I mean, I feel like people are going to start buying. So, number one–
John: Well, people have started buying. I think the rush on the box office will begin right now.
Craig: Correct. The Jon Bon Jovi of podcasts will begin right now. Our first guest that we can announce is Alec Berg, showrunner of Silicon Valley and showrunner and co-creator of Barry. Terrific show that I think is the most critically acclaimed show on television, of all shows.
John: After Chernobyl maybe.
Craig: No, no. No. New York Times did not like Chernobyl.
John: Oh, I’m sorry.
Craig: No, no, I can’t get The New York Times to like anything I do.
John: Ah, Craig, I’m sorry. I had no idea.
Craig: Well, listen, we’re doing really well. Don’t get me wrong. We’re like in the 90s, which for me is like in the billions because of where I’m from.
John: The logarithmic scale of Craig Mazin.
Craig: The New York Times review was bad. Not bad in the sense of they didn’t like the show, but bad in the sense that it was just a bad review. It was poorly written. I thought it was stupid. I’m not helping–
John: Let’s get back on topic. Let’s talk about how great it is that Alec Berg is going to be joining us on the show.
John: And I already have started writing questions for him because I watched this season of Barry and I have so many questions. Not even like plot spoiler questions, but how do you in a writers’ room figure out how you’re going to do that thing. So I’m excited to talk with him.
Craig: He’s a great person to ask those questions for because he does have one of those remarkable clockwork minds. And then we have Rob McElhenney, showrunner of longest running sitcom in history, It’s Always Sunny, and a new Apple show that is going to be out at some point. And, by the way, you know who is – I mean, I can’t talk about a lot of the actors that are on the show, but it’s a great cast. But do you know who is number 16 on the call sheet?
John: Craig is it you?
John: Ah, Craig. So not only are you making television shows, you’re now starring in television shows.
Craig: Just so people know, like on the call sheet every day there’s a list of all the actors that are in it. And number one on the call sheet means you’re the star of the show. And then it kind of goes down from there. On this show number 16 is really low. I’m barely in it. But, still, I’m in it. But I’m in it.
John: That’s going to be amazing.
Craig: And Rob is a great, great guest. A terrific guy to have on the show.
John: So he was actually on a previous one of these live shows that I was not at. So, you and Dana Fox hosted a show where he was a guest. I missed that. So this will actually be my first time meeting him. I’ve talked with him on the phone before, but this will be my first time asking him questions about all the stuff he’s working on.
So, we have two showrunners who are coming on. We have more guests that will be announced soon.
Craig: Oh yes.
John: I think they will fit along that same thing, but we don’t want to tease too much. So you should get your tickets now. There’s a link in the show notes for where you can get your tickets to this big event. Thursday, June 13, at the Ace Hotel here in Los Angeles. There will be games. There will be giveaways. You should absolutely come.
Craig: And, again, benefits Hollywood Heart which is a wonderful charity that our friend John Gatins is involved with and it helps kids who are at risk and kids with HIV. It’s a great thing. Come on, I mean, what else do we have to say? Alec Berg. Rob McElhenney. Us. Helping people. And more guests to come. Buy your tickets, folks.
John: You should buy your tickets. You should also buy t-shirts. T-shirts are up for sale now. They don’t kind of go down at any point. This isn’t one of those things where they’re limited times. You can buy them kind of whenever you want to buy them, but you should buy them now so you can wear them to the live show. These are the sort of VHS-inspired ones. They go all the way back to when Scriptnotes was distributed by tape, so sort of underground rings that would copy tapes and put them around.
John: So really it’s a celebration of the origins of Scriptnotes after 400 episodes.
Craig: Yeah. We’ve always been in our late 40s.
John: It’s remarkable how that works.
Craig: We’ve always been the caretaker. Yeah, that’s my favorite shirt by the way. I love that shirt design.
John: Last week on the show we were joined by Chris McQuarrie and we talked through movies that don’t get made anymore, movie genres that don’t get made anymore. And Ryan Smith tweeted at me. He said, “Hey guys, great episode. Loved the discussion. For the ‘sword and sandals’ or Christ figure against Rome features would it be a stretch to say we still make them, but just in the form of Star Wars?”
Craig: Sort of. I mean, there’s definitely elements of that in Star Wars, but Star Wars also has elements of pirate movies. Star Wars has elements of war movies. Star Wars has elements of, yeah, I mean it sort of meshes together lots of different things. But no question, I mean, if you watch – let’s go back to the original first Star Wars in 1977, you know, and you have a benign figure sacrificing himself to save others and so on and so forth.
John: Yeah, I mean, like a Tatooine and sort of like, you know, that feels like a desert world. It feels very much like that kind of sword and sandals kind of place that he’s in. So movies four and seven kind of feel that way to me. But also we have the pod races in the prequels. And you don’t have those pod races without the chariot races.
Craig: That’s right. Exactly. That’s basically Ben-Hur via CGI. And but I think it’s also fair to say that we’re going to see the Christ story in everything. I mean, it’s across all genres. Animated movies are that frequently.
John: Now, Craig, you often say that you root for the Empire in these movies. So, do you also root for Rome in the Christ figure against Rome stories?
Craig: Well, you know, I mean, Rome is holding things together.
John: They are holding things together. They are holding back the chaos.
Craig: The question is not how evil is Rome. The question is how evil would the replacement for Rome be. And we kind of know because after the collapse of Rome you have the darkest period in western history. It’s just a brutal ongoing disaster the dark ages. Disease. Superstition. Torture. Murder. Just unpleasantries.
John: Yeah. And important knowledge was forgotten. The book I’m going to get to as a recommendation later on, like they figured out how to make concrete and then they forgot. They forgot the recipe for concrete.
Craig: Just literally forgot.
John: So there were people who were living in structures that they could no longer build, which is just a fascinating thing to think about.
Craig: I feel like sometimes that’s where we are now.
Craig: I know.
John: We want to make sure that institutional knowledge is not lost.
Craig: Yeah, man.
John: I think the Internet helps, but it doesn’t solve all of the problems.
John: That’s why we keep the first 400 episodes of Scriptnotes always available for people to download through the app or to download seasons. We used to sell the USB drives. We want to make sure the institutional knowledge of Scriptnotes continues on.
Craig: Of course. And have we sent the USB drives over to the seed bank? I can’t remember if we did that or not?
John: So they’re stored in the vault. Unfortunately the vault flooded, but it’s going to work out somehow. Speaking of longevity and things going on a long time.
Craig: Segue Man.
John: So we’re recording this on Friday. So, I.M. Pei, the renowned architect, passed away as we’re recording. And Herman Wouk, The Winds of War. So I.M. Pei was 102. Wouk was 103.
John: You know what? It’s sad that talented people have died, but come on, when you live past the century mark that’s awesome.
Craig: It is.
John: I want to live for at least 100 years.
Craig: Of course you do. And, oh, well you obviously will live until whenever your parts become obsolete and not replaceable. But I have to say every time someone famous dies now whatever twinge of sadness I have of their passing and the fact that we don’t have them anymore is quickly eclipsed by a larger twinge of sadness that they won’t get to see our current president not be president anymore.
Craig: They’re not going to see that. And I’m so bummed out. I don’t want to die before I see that.
John: Yeah. You want to go out at a good place, a good time.
Craig: And I don’t mind being political. I don’t care. [laughs]
John: [laughs] Craig doesn’t mind being political? I can’t believe it.
Craig: You know what? I’m going to speak my mind. How about that?
John: I would say when my dad passed away, this was when I was in college, I was of course sad to lose my father but in the years past that point I would say the thing that kind of makes me saddest when I think back about him is that he didn’t get to see sort of what the Internet became. Because he was involved because he was an engineer at AT&T. So he was involved in the very early stages of what became the Internet. And he would just be blown away by what sort of what it became and what it grew into. And so those are the conversations I miss having with him are mostly about the things that happened, how the world changed, and how excited he would be about the stuff that came.
Craig: I just had a vision of you waking up at night and there is the ghost of your father. And he’s looking at your phone, scrolling through the Internet. And then he just turns to you with a shocked, devastated look, and says, “John, it’s all porn.”
Craig: It’s all porn.
John: Yeah. The Internet is made for that.
Craig: Internet is for porn.
John: Yeah. Let’s get onto our other topics. So, this past week I had two videos out. I had a video that was put out by the WGA about the Start Button. So it’s a little animated video. Matthew Chilelli did the music for it. Of course, because Matthew Chilelli is a genius.
I also recorded a video with Michele Mulroney where we talked about screenwriter issues. It looks like our audition tape for hosting the KCLM morning news because we’re seated side-by-side. It was my first time using a teleprompter. Teleprompters are fantastic. I love Teleprompters.
Even those two things were not the biggest news of the week, because on Thursday evening it was announced that Verve had signed onto an agreement with the WGA. Verve became the largest agency to sign an agreement with the WGA. So, folks who want to be represented by Verve can be represented by Verve again.
So the WGA in their statement said that, I always go back to what the WGA officially said so I don’t speak out of turn, but in their official statement said, “WGA and Verve representatives first met face-to-face on April 30 and thereafter exchanged counter proposals. The back and forth with Verve was the most substantive negotiation with an agency we’ve had to date.”
And that’s true. From my perspective, the ability to actually talk through specific things was great. And that’s been one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about this part of the process is to really get down to fine details on stuff.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I would put this in the category of not-insignificant. Because Verve is a legitimate agency that represents quite a few writers, what like 300 WGA members? That’s a lot. They are not part of the ATA, so that’s the one thing that I think a lot of people didn’t realize. This wasn’t a case where the WGA had a strategy of splitting off an ATA company and succeeded. But nonetheless–
John: Yeah, one small agency which was already an ATA member had split off, but it’s not something you’d heard of.
Craig: Yeah. So we’ll put that in the is-insignificant category. So, the other significant victory here is that there is proof of life in that at the very least even on the most entrenched people on both sides of this fight between the Writers Guild and the ATA there is evidence that an agreement is possible. Negotiation is possible. And so that’s promising.
John: Yeah. Well let’s talk about what is different between the original code of conduct, so we can put a link into so people can read it, but the basic things that are different from what other folks had signed before is that it’s a mutual agreement. So it’s not just here’s the code, take it or leave it. It’s an agreement that both parties are signing. Both parties have the right to open and renegotiate this agreement. It clarifies that agencies can represent producers who do not employ writers, which was a real question.
It gets around some of the reporting onus by just saying that agencies can copy the WGA on invoices and request for payments. So the WGA sees those records but they don’t have to file a whole separate listing of things. And it changes – it backs off on how often agencies have to list which films they are representing for sales and other stuff. So they don’t have to do it as often. So it backs off on some of their reporting requirements. Those are the big things that the WGA sort of specified or are different in this code of conduct.
Craig: Yeah. Now, so good news and bad news, right? So the good news is that the WGA was able to negotiate this with Verve and that, OK, the WGA was clearly willing to meet them halfway on certain things. Bad news is none of those things are the big issues that we have with the ATA. So one of the reasons that Verve was a good candidate for this is that they don’t do packaging. And they don’t have their own production company the way that say William Morris Endeavor does.
John: Let’s be clear on one thing. Verve has traditionally done TV packaging. And so even in Verve’s statement they said like this doesn’t mean that we are against TV packaging. And sort of saying like – which I took to mean like if the ultimate agreement that’s reached says that TV packaging is OK we want to be able to go back and do it.
Craig: Right. OK, fair enough. It wasn’t a large part of their business.
John: It wasn’t a big part of their business.
Craig: But that makes total sense. And I think one thing that was really interesting and smart by the WGA for sure, although to give into at the very least, although it was surely something that Verve insisted on, was a most favored nations’ clause.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: Essentially if you go make a deal with the ATA that is more favorable than the one you made with us, which is in the eventuality of the deal almost certain, that Verve gets lifted up to that as well. And that’s really important because it provides a relief valve. If that clause isn’t there the problem is then there is nowhere to go for negotiation between the WGA and the ATA. Because what you can’t do is then go and undercut what you just did with Verve. It makes no sense essentially.
John: Well, it also gets rid of the first mover problem where you don’t want to be the first person to sign on because you’re worried that people later on are going to get better deals. So you know you’re going to get the best deal ultimately.
John: So I think that’s an important thing. And that truly was in earlier versions of the code of conduct. So the people who signed that earlier thing, they can take this deal if they prefer this deal.
Craig: Great. So that’s great. That’s all good news.
John: But let’s talk about what’s not in there. So clearly a decision on what TV packaging looks like, this agreement says you cannot do TV packaging. You can’t collect fees on that. And you cannot be a producer. And so those are two big things that the big four agencies are going to really be focused on.
Craig: Correct. I mean, that is – those two things are where the battle lines are drawn. I think both sides can easily make more out of some other issues if they want. But the big ones, as you just said, packaging fees and agency-owned production. So, that still needs to be worked out if it can be worked out. And we are now I believe we have four weeks of this behind us, correct?
Craig: OK. So, you know, let me just say the following. I’ll be brief about it. But I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed in general. Because this is not what I wanted. When I supported this movement from the start and we had Chris Keyser on and I was pretty – I think I was pretty demonstrative as I normally am. I believe that there are real issues that make the way the agencies conduct their packaging fee business and their producing business untenable as they are moving forward. We cannot continue in that way. And I think excellent points have been made why.
I think, frankly, that most of the people in charge of those big four companies agree. I think they are also aware that the way it’s been going cannot continue as is. It has to change. OK. This is what has been so disappointing to me. For four weeks essentially nothing has happened because there has been a breakdown in communication. And I know that both sides essentially are pointing fingers at each other and saying you’re why. But I’m a member of the Writers Guild. I’m not a member of the ATA. So I’m going to talk about the Writers Guild.
I am confused and a bit exasperated by our strategy of not talking to them. I don’t think that talking to somebody is a capitulation, nor do I think it’s a sign of weakness. I don’t know how much more leverage we could possibly have. Because in this situation we have 100% leverage as far as I’m concerned. If we choose to not we don’t have to ever enfranchise them again. With that in mind, a lot of people – way more than 300 – thousands of writers, including myself, would very much like to get back to the relationships that were functioning if not perfectly, fairly well, and in a way that was good enough to say let us improve this and salvage this.
So, what I’m urging is that we figure out how to get back into a room that makes sense. Because the room we were in clearly didn’t make sense. Whether it’s their fault or our fault the problem is all either side heard was offense and hurt and anger. Neither side seemed to understand what the other side was doing. All intentions appear to have either been poorly relayed or poorly heard. So, we need to figure out something.
I don’t mind a situation where best efforts lead to a failure. I am growing angry by the fact that we are not engaging actively in figuring out how to find a way to talk to the other side so that we can try and get something that works for everybody. And we don’t have to take it. That’s the thing. If in our hearts of hearts we’re like, look, this is 100% of what we want and we’re not willing to settle for less than 98% of it, fine. But try. You know, to not be in a room for four weeks because, I don’t know, there’s some theory that we can get 150 or 200 or 4,000% by waiting another four weeks doesn’t make any sense.
And there’s a pressure here and the pressure I will relay is, as always, I will speak on behalf of feature writers. So in our last negotiation – I’m sorry, I’m monologuing but it will be over soon – in our last negotiation I swore to myself, Craig, you’re not going to do this again. You’re not going to just willingly go along with the guild as they put all of the membership at risk and leverage us and our work to get a better deal for one part of the membership, TV writers. You’re not going to do it again because feature writers are the ones that are really getting kicked in the teeth every single day. And they’re the ones who are losing money year by year and they’re the ones whose employment is going down year by year. Ugh. Don’t do it anymore. And yet I fell into the trap and did it again because this entire agency battle, this entire agency battle, hinges on these two major issues and really both of them impact television far more than features. Far more.
So there are a lot of feature writers who once again are being told by their union you’re firing your agent and also maybe – maybe – you can get them back if we can figure out something that’s better for TV writers. And the longer this goes on the more tragic I find that.
So, in short, I remain committed to the goal, which is to improve a system that cannot continue as it used to be, right? So the status quo, what was before, unacceptable. We’re not going back to that, no matter what. But we don’t have to. That’s number one.
Number two, I want us to actually now do the work to get there. Whatever it takes, do the work. If we can’t get there, at least we tried. And then that’s on them. But if we’re holding our breath I just don’t see the point.
John: I know. We kept you in a single that whole time. You were in a tight single. You maintained for your whole monologue.
So, obviously I’m on the negotiating committee so I can’t talk about some things and I can’t talk about strategies and tactics and other stuff. I’m a little bit disadvantaged in responding to some of it.
John: But what I will say is that as a screenwriter I feel that the producing function of all this is a thing that keeps me up at night. And it kept me up at the very start of this all. The idea that five years, 10 years, 20 years down the road if we don’t address this now we’ll be kicking ourselves because that move from being a client to an employee is devastating. We cannot let that happen.
And I hear you when you say that it’s more a factor for TV than for features. I don’t think the distinction between TV and features is especially meaningful five, 10 years, 20 years down the road. I think there will still be two-hour things written, but I think if we don’t address this producing function now we’re going to see these same places producing features or essentially forcing themselves onto things that should be studio features because they can. So those are my big concerns.
Craig: I hear you.
John: If we don’t address this producing function, you getting the rights to that book you are going to be fighting with an agency to get the rights to that book because they are owning property. And that to me is the thing. And so even stuff that you’re developing now, I do think that if this weren’t addressed you would have to take these folks on as your partners in order to get to any of that stuff. And that just can’t happen.
Craig: Well, you’re right that probably in five years or so the distinction will dissipate entirely, but for the next five years there are a lot of people who are trying to earn a living as feature writers who don’t have agents now. One of the things that the Writers Guild has encouraged is for those writers to seek shelter in the arms of managers, all of whom are entitled to ownership and production of their client’s work, and frequently do, and have done for decades.
So, there’s a little bit of an inconsistency there. We already have representation that does that. If we are committed to eliminating the production of client’s material, we shouldn’t be recommending anybody go to a manager, which by the way is something I say all the time. I’m not a big fan of managers for precisely this reason.
I completely agree with you and this production thing has to be figured out. I mean, at the heart of it there’s really only two things I want. I want to know that the more money a writer makes the more money an agent makes. That connection has to be there. It has to be preserved. And the other thing I want to know is that if an agent has any connection to any entity that has a connection to another entity that owns some of that client’s work it has to be some amount that makes it essentially a silent minority partner. We can’t be run by the people that supposedly are working for us to advocate our interests.
But we’re not going to get there this way. And there’s a real danger of not talking. And there’s a real danger to us just saying, OK, it’s a permanent divorce. For one, as a writer, I don’t like the idea that every writer going into a television show is going to be represented by someone at some agency but the director and the non-writing producer and the actors are going to be represented by these massive agencies. We will lose power.
And I’m a pragmatist. I don’t like all this talk of, you know, the agents are mafia. They’re not the mafia. They’re agencies. That’s what they’re doing. They’re agencies. And they became successful because they do what agencies do. I want them to do it for me. I just want them to do it for me in a way that’s fairer. And we can’t get there until we get back in the room. I’m the back in the room guy. That’s my new official name.
John: I hear you there. So, we can speculate a bit on what could be coming next. And this is just free speculation. We’re not committing to any of this stuff. Things that could happen in the near period. Some other small agencies could decide to sign that same agreement. It’s really for the same reasons that Verve did is that they’re not involved in those things that are the big issues and so they might decide to sign.
Agents could move around. I don’t think that’s going to happen a ton and Verve seemed to try to downplay that in their thing, saying like they only want to grow organically. So we’ll see if any of that were to happen.
John: And whether agents would move and take former clients with them. And we could come back to discussions with individual agencies or the bigger group. A couple different ways that could happen. Craig, what do you think is the way that discussions begin again?
Craig: Well, in a case like this where the initial method of communication and exchange of proposals was such a crater, I don’t think you would want to just say, “All right, well let’s just do that again.” It didn’t work. So, in my mind the ideal would be for someone at the guild to kind reach out through a neutral third party mediator, and there are some wonderful people out there that serve that function all the time in business disputes, to say let’s just begin by having a small discussion through a mediator about how to have the discussion. Let’s just begin with that and not throw ourselves back into a situation where we’re set up to fail. Let’s figure out how we’re supposed to talk to each other. And begin that way. Just gently get back in and start undoing a lot of the ill effects of the way this has all gone down. I mean, the current situation as far as I’m concerned is bad for writers.
What I want is a better deal than what we used to have with the big agencies. What I currently have is you can’t be at the big agencies. That’s not better for me. It’s not better for any of us. The good outcome is something that makes sense for us there. At least that’s my feeling. I don’t believe that there is a good outcome where no writer is allowed to be at those agencies, because they won’t cease to exist. Oh, far from it. And we will get hurt if we’re not part of that mechanism.
John: I’ve had a lot of conversations with writers who are either doing great or not doing great. And the ones who are not doing great seek me out and I have phone calls with them and I talk to them at mixers. And a question I sort of go back to, which is really helpful for me and I think also helpful for them to frame what they’re looking for, is let’s say this gets to some kind of new normal. Describe the new normal you’re looking for. And that has been really helpful for me to understand what folks are really looking for in the outcomes of these things.
A word that I just – I guess it’s because of Avengers, but man, “end game” comes up a lot. Everyone keeps talking about the end game. And I’m like I don’t know what the end game is. I’m not sure how far we are into the second act. So, I can’t talk to you about the end game. I can only talk to you about sort of what is important to you and communicate that through to everybody else.
Craig: I’m going out on a limb here that I think a lot of people are wondering about the end game because we were kind of presented a sense of how things could and would go and they haven’t gone that way. And so the next question is, well, OK, whether or not technically they have or haven’t gone that way there was an impression that this going to lead to something positive and I don’t think there are too many people in the membership who thought the day before this all ended that it was going to go on for four weeks without either party even talking to each other really.
So, there’s a question of is this like forever? Is this for a year? No one seems to know and people are growing concerned because what happens is as you approach month two, whatever was in the pipeline that was being worked on is being exhausted out and now people are going to have to deal with something new.
John: I hear you. And, again, there’s some stuff I can’t respond to just because–
Craig: Of course.
John: Of things. But the idea that no one is talking, I understand why it feels that way. It’s not as accurate as one might think. And so I’ll leave it at that.
Craig: At the very least that is encouraging. [laughs] And I hope that that, you know, obviously my hope is that that becomes the order of the day rather than something that we’re also kind of sort of doing. But rather the thing that we are focused on.
John: Well it sounds like you want a more concerted effort to–
John: To talk.
Craig: To talk. And just so people know, it’s not like I’m just showing up on here after four weeks and going blah-blah-blah. I have been saying this privately–
Craig: To David Goodman for the last four weeks. So I’ve definitely been sharing my point of view. I’m not sandbagging anybody.
John: That’s part of this process. Absolutely.
John: Let’s move onto the next part of the process which is the pitch process.
John: So this is a thing we talked about doing on the show a while back. I had forgotten about it. Then Megana, our producer, reminded me that we have like 30 of these pitches sitting in her inbox.
Craig: Oh man.
John: And so went through them. So this is kind of analogous to our Three Page Challenge where we invited our listeners to record themselves doing a 90-second pitch. It could be for a series. It could be for a TV show. And they’ll send it in and we would take a listen to them. And so we’re going to listen to five of them today.
Now, Craig, you have experience doing this because you are often a panelist at the pitch panel thing at the Austin Film Festival.
Craig: Yes. I have been a judge at the finals of the pitch contest at Austin twice. Both times along with the great Lindsay Doran. It’s a fascinating event. It’s not really what we do.
John: It’s not what we do. And so I was thinking about that as I was trying to write my notes for this is that this 90-second thing is not actually a thing that writers do on a daily basis or even ever, kind of. But what I think is interesting about both the Austin version and what we’re going to do today is that it’s like writing a sonnet. It’s forcing you to think about your idea in a very specific form, in a very concentrated form. And the actual skill of doing that is analogous to what it’s like to go into a room and start pitching a project. Even though a pitch in a room is going to be longer, an elevator pitch is going to be shorter probably, it is a thing that is helpful.
And so I think the process of doing this obviously for these five writers but also for people listening, it does make you think about what does this thing I have in my head or this script I’ve written, what does it feel like to a person who is listening and what are the hooks I can use to keep someone’s attention as I’m describing it. So I think that is the valuable part here.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a little bit like debate, like formal debate societies.
Craig: Vis-à-vis professional attorneys or legislators. It’s a strange side thing. It’s not irrelevant. But it’s not spot on. We don’t really walk around doing these things.
John: All right. So the best way to do this is to actually listen to the pitch. Each of these pitches is 90 seconds or less. We’re going to start with one from Karen Welsh. It’s called You’re What. Let’s take a listen.
Karen Welsh: This is a feature film. A 56-year-old woman, a failure at pretty much everything, discovers to her delight that for the first time in her life she is pregnant, to the dismay of her about to retire professor husband. You’re What is a dramedy aimed at the over-50 crowd. In case you’re wondering, yes, though very rare a woman in her 50s can naturally conceive. When the media get involved the absurdity of a woman that age pregnant is played for laughs, but the problem with having kids late in life? Baggage. A lot is riding on this baby.
Jill wants to give her agent mother the grandchild she’s never had. But Clara, brokenhearted over a family tragedy, and not impressed by Jill’s many failed attempts to compensate refuses to believe that her daughter won’t disappoint her again.
Then there’s Trevor. His two grown kids from his first marriage are back in his life, making demands, while the broadcast of a reality show upends his dignity, his career, and his home.
At the breaking point Trevor blurts out that he never wanted this baby and in fact he never wanted children, period. Jill is determined to be what she’s always wanted to be, a mother. But Trevor is the one with the emotional arc. Only a moment of emotional clarity will lead him to do the right thing. Happy ending? Nope. Bittersweet.
John: OK. So when you guys do this at the Austin Film Festival you get to talk to the person and ask them questions. Now, we don’t have Karen here to ask her questions so we can only respond to just what we heard. And my very first impression is that from the title I was thinking this was a comedy and so then when it was pitched as a dramedy I’m like, oh, really? And then when the dramatic moments happened I was less excited about them.
I think the premise of a 56-year-old woman having a baby for the first time and her older mother I think is really fun. I think the stresses of that and as you’re getting closer to retirement suddenly having a kid is interesting. I want to see all of that. But I think I want to see it in a comedy and not as a dramedy. Craig, what was your impression?
Craig: Well, you know, when we do these things we actually don’t really have any kind of back and forth with the people. We just sort of give them a bit of feedback that combines our sense of how interesting did we find their pitch in terms of content and also how did their pitching style help or hurt them.
In this case I found Karen’s style to be a little bit like newscasters talk. It was very formal. And sort of bleached out a little bit of what I would consider as normal human passion for the material. You know, sometimes it can sound really rehearsed and really canned in that regard.
Story wise, I don’t know, is a 56-year-old woman getting pregnant massive news? I don’t think so. I just don’t. I mean, it is a rarity. But I’m struggling a little bit with that part of it.
And I guess the other thing I would say is the way that she relayed her story, a lot of her sentences were complicated sentences, meaning there were clauses and additional clauses. Even the very beginning one, “That’s right, pregnant, much to the dismay of her.” You know what I mean? There’s a certain loss of punchiness because of the ornate over-comma style of the sentence structure.
John: Yeah. It feels a little written rather than spoken.
John: And the pitches have to be that really middle ground between the two. I can see the reality show of it. I can see why that is useful for the feature of it. I can see how it’s exposing the problems and things. But I feel like you have to set up that Jill – there’s a reason why she’s an interesting person to be following at 56 doing that. She’s just an ordinary – you know, she was an office manager. That’s not remarkable. But if she was famous for some other reason or had been famous for some other reason, or she was a soap opera actress. There would be some reason why she’s worth this attention and scrutiny.
Craig: Yeah. Because the plot of reality television company comes in and upends normal person’s life we’ve seen quite a few times.
John: Yeah. It does feel like a feature though rather than a TV series.
Craig: No question.
John: In that a pregnancy is about one change and then a birth. And so that’s what we kind of want to see. Or, if it’s going past the birth it’s not going much past it probably.
Craig: Yeah, there’s a built-in ending. Yeah.
John: A literal ticking clock.
John: Do you want to set up the next one?
Craig: So our next pitch is from Hayley Grgurich. And it is entitled Uncertain Texas. Let’s take a listen.
Hayley Grgurich: Here’s my pitch for a comedic TV series called Uncertain Texas. Rival podcasters arrive in the same tiny East Texas to discover they’re after the same true crime story. The series follows their attempts to out-maneuver each other without much help from the locals who are suspicious of the podcasters’ motives and inclined to keep their hometown business to themselves.
This idea comes from actual people and places I encountered while living in East Texas, along with the popularity of true crime podcasts and two news stories that stuck with me. The first story was about a man who went missing in an 11-person town in the Australian outback. Police suspected foul play almost immediately. And after interviewing the remaining ten residents also suspected everyone in town.
The second story I learned while I was interning at Esquire. Chris Jones, one of the top features writers, went to a small town in Ohio to report a story. After finishing an interview with the key source he said, just as a bit of housekeeping, that he’s appreciate it if the source didn’t share the information they discussed with anyone until after the story came out. The source looked kind of sheepish and told him he already had. It turned out there was a reporter from GQ in town for the same reason. The discovery sent both writers into a neurotic tailspin as they tried to file competing takes from the same motel.
The combination of Texas characters, professional rivalry, and the goofiness of podcasting really delight me and I think Uncertain Texas can also resonate on a deeper level through exploring the conflict between small town culture and big city interference. Thanks for your feedback. I appreciate it.
Craig: OK. Well, John, what did you think about Hayley’s pitch for Uncertain Texas?
John: I think Hayley set the table really well. She had a good way of describing what the show was kind of going to feel like and what the real life background was behind this kind of stuff. This idea that there were multiple people who would be going after the same story and crossing paths was real. So I like all of that and I liked her sort of quiet delivery of it all. I think that all worked really well.
She didn’t get to any characters or any story or any plot or any things that would sort of tell us what we’re actually going to see on a weekly basis in this series, or an episodic basis on this, which could be fine. I felt like this was honestly the first 90 seconds of a pitch and right after that then you say like, “Now let me tell you about the characters and what would happen next.” But I’m kind of fine with that. Having heard this, I wanted to hear more which I think is a good sign for a pitch like this.
Craig: I agree. Right off the bat you kind of want to be friends with Hayley, you know. She just sounds friendly. You can sense emotion coming through. There’s a little moment at the end where you can tell she’s smiling, even though she’s not visible. And it’s a really interesting idea. It’s a great premise, I think. And what I loved about her pitch was that she explained why she wanted to do it.
Craig: So instead of kind of hitting me with the good old, “Jim, 25, is a blah-blah-blah.” She just said I’m Hayley, I’m a writer, here’s what turned me on about this whole thing. There were two stories and they made me want to write this. That’s a huge thing. That actually imparts that sort of passion that you’re hoping for so it doesn’t feel so dry. I really liked it. I thought she did a terrific job.
John: I think it’s also good that she wove in the fact that she was an intern. Gives a little sense of her history and backstory within the context of what this project was.
You know, this idea reminds me a bit of A Very Fatal Murder which is the really terrific Onion podcast about a fictitious true crime, but in the best ways. And I think it’s the right way to approach the absurdity of a podcasting universe descending on a small town. Everyone is looking for the dirt and sort of how outsiders stir things up. It reminded me a bit of Schitt’s Creek.
John: Which is another great sort of outsiders coming into a place. I think there’s a lot of comedic potential here. So, she definitely – she baited the hook really well.
Craig: All right, well, John, do you want to take the next one, our third pitch?
John: Our third pitch is by Jake Arkie. It’s called How to Make a Man. Let’s take a listen to Jake’s pitch.
Jake Arky: Hi Scriptnotes. My name is Jake Arky. And I’m a writer who has a half-hour family comedy pilot to pitch to you guys. My pilot is called How to Make a Man and it’s for a series about when a Mormon family adopts an Indian child with special needs and the patriarch jumps ship which forces the eldest son to step up to become the man of the house.
This is partially based on a true story of my family growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah. We weren’t Mormon, but we were heavily involved in communities that were. And when we adopted my brother from India he kind of change our lives in many different ways. And I wrote this series kind of as a This is US meets Malcolm in the Middle, so there’s some poignant stuff, there’s some comedy stuff, but it’s really about the relationships within the family, especially between the two brothers. And the idea behind it is that we’re seeing so much right now about toxic masculinity and how men are being raised in certain ways that turn out to be bad. So I thought what about making a show semi-based on my life about how we can actually make better men and raise them better.
So, that’s my pitch for you. Hope you enjoy it. Thank you so much.
John: Craig, what was your impression of Jake’s pitch, How to Make a Man?
Craig: Well, it was nice. It almost sounded like somebody else had written it and then he was describing it because he’s like, “Yeah, it’s got a little bit of this, it’s got a little bit of that.” There was a certain casualness to it. I think it sort of took off at the end. The advice I would give to Jake is that what’s interesting about his pitch is what he said at the end of the pitch which is why do I want to do this. Because for most of the pitch what I’m hearing is, OK, so it’s just a family and there’s a kid and a kid from India isn’t really a reason to have a show. It’s just a kid.
And so I’m just waiting for why I care about this. And then I get to this end part and I go, oh, OK, that’s a whole different thing. I would argue that if you’re going to tell a story about How to Make a Man then you kind of need to do it from the perspective of the person that’s raising a boy into a man, not a brother. So, there’s issues going on there. But it was – I was engaged and I was listening along. I just I think this pitch would have gone 50% better if he had taken the stuff at the end and put it at the front.
John: I had a hard time picturing anything as he was describing it. So, I think about the other pitches and I could see something, I was starting to form characters. And I think part of the challenge is I didn’t have a sense of how old the brother who is being adopted into the family was. It’s a very different story if we’re talking about toddlers or if we’re talking about teenagers. And I didn’t have any sense of the grounding of sort of what kind of story I was looking at. So when he said Malcolm in the Middle I’m like, oh OK, so it’s more that age great. And the patriarch thing threw me off a little bit too because I took that to mean the father but I wasn’t quite sure that’s really what I was supposed to be meaning.
John: You know, sometimes using too specific of a word or too nebulous a word kind of knocks me out of the story for five seconds and when it’s only 90 seconds long it’s a challenge.
Craig: That makes total sense. And you’re absolutely right. I mean, there wasn’t much to sort of imagine there. And there was a lot of ambiguity. It’s a weird thing, Jake, because sometimes when you’re basing things on real life you will elide over details that are absolutely crucial to everybody else but they’re not worth mentioning to you because just you know it. But we don’t, so definitely something to think about.
John: I would also say that Jake it’s great that this involves part of your real life story. And so including that in the pitch I think is crucial because otherwise we wouldn’t have a sense of why you are the right person to write this story. And so explaining that in part of any pitch is really important.
Craig: Agreed. Well, our next one is from Guy Patton and it’s called Sinnerweb. One word. Sinnerweb. Shall we listen?
John: Let’s listen right now.
Guy Patton: Hi, I’m Guy Patton and my show is called Sinnerweb, and hour-long supernatural police procedural in the vein of X-Files with the feel of a modern western. Essentially it asks what if a young female Longmire were the Sheriff of Twin Peaks. Much of the uniqueness comes from the setting in rural Pennsylvania Dutch Country among the Amish and Mennonite communities there. And draws on the real life legends in mythology of those worlds, a rich and uniquely American folklore pantheon to explore.
For example, Hexenmeisters, essentially witches and warlocks who practice a folk magic using Hex signs and symbols to encourage good harvest or to curse someone and destroy their lives. These are powerful figures in this culture and exist in various forms to this day.
The title is also the main character, Sinnerweb, the sheriff of the strange town of Cavalry and a train wreck. Obviously if you name your kid Sinner there’s probably some family issues there to explore as well, and we do.
Initially when we meet her she is doing some decidedly un-sheriff like stuff. She’s in a bar, drunk, making out with a stranger in a bathroom. Then her deputy arrives to let her know there’s been a tragedy. A young Mennonite woman is found dead at the scene of a devastating fire yet her body is unburned. The investigation of this event, based on a real life story, provides the plot of our pilot. Thanks so much for listening. And if you like Sinnerweb you can read the pilot on the Black List website.
Craig: All right. John, what did you think about Sinnerweb?
John: So, Sinnerweb, it is two words. So Sinner Webb is her name. So now I know that. I didn’t know what a Longmire was. And so again I got thrown thinking like what is a Longmire?
Craig: What is a Longmire?
John: We can Google it now.
Craig: Let’s do it.
John: Longmire was a TV show. It’s a dedicated, unflappable staff of–
Craig: Oh, it’s a western.
John: It’s a western.
Craig: Yeah, it’s a western.
John: Great. I liked that there was a supernatural quality to this. I liked the idea of a really folklore kind of place. Twin Peaks is a good reference for it, but it feels like it wasn’t specifically Twin Peaks-y. So, I like the visuals that you gave me in terms of an unburned body in a burned building. That’s really cool. So I think all these things are really intriguing.
Honestly, Longmire threw me off a little bit and I had a hard time grabbing some early straws in that, but I was intrigued by where it was going.
Craig: Yeah. A little bit of overload in the beginning. So in the beginning it’s Longmire, which I don’t know what that is, and it’s a western, and it’s Twin Peaks, and it’s Amish people. Help me. But really, Guy, the funny thing is all you had to say was, “It’s Twin Peaks but Amish.” It’s Amish Twin Peaks and there’s all these mythologies and things and demons and witches and so on and so forth in a culture that we are very familiar with and yet don’t know at all. And then I get it. And then I’m down.
I personally detest characters with names like Sinner Webb. Because I just feel like they were not born of a woman but rather a laptop. Do you know what I mean?
John: I totally know what you mean.
Craig: I just don’t buy it. I just don’t buy it. I mean, the one that always killed me – I like the big robot movie. What’s the big robot movie where it fights the–?
John: Pacific Rim?
Craig: Yeah, Pacific Rim. I like Pacific Rim. But that one character is Stacker Pentecost and I’m just like, no, no, no one’s last name is Pentecost and no one’s first name is Stacker. Or, if they are, they would never be together. It just seems so written, you know what I mean?
John: It’s like a hat on a hat. Yeah.
Craig: It’s a bit of a hat on a hat on a hat. So, I’m like – it’s like a super cool sounding name, Sinner Webb. I don’t buy it. So it kind of like knocked me out a little bit because what I really want is for that person to just be named Carole. I mean, they do this so well on Fargo. By the way, Fargo is how you should be referring to this, I think. Not Twin Peaks. Because Twin Peaks is its own weird freaky thing and it doesn’t sound like you’re doing it. It sounds like you’re doing Fargo but Amish and supernatural stuff.
So, really cool. I would take a little bit of the practiced rehearsed edge off of your thing.
John: Yeah. It felt a little salesman-y, like listen and subscribe and give us a ratings on iTunes.
Craig: Smash that like button. [laughs] No, but it’s a really cool idea for a show. Don’t name it Sinnerweb and don’t name her Sinner Webb. That’s my god honest opinion.
John: All right. Our final one comes from Laura Beck. It’s called Hard Core Vegans. It’s described as a series. Let’s take a listen.
Laura Beck: Hard Core Vegans is a 30-minute dark comedy pilot in the vein of Good Girls meets Barry with a little shaggy dog thrown in. What would happen if there were vegan activists who were willing to do literally anything – and I mean anything – to save animals? Hard Core Vegans follows the two founders of San Francisco Vegans Unite. Ally, a granola-munching, Birkenstock-wearing self-righteous mess, and Sam, a fantastically gorgeous and painfully perfect Instagram celebrity vegan. Because of their warring ideologies the two women are always at each other’s throats and one day, after a particularly contentious vegan bake sale, the two women witness a man die and then through a case of mistaken identities are assumed to be the hit people behind the job.
This leads them into an underworld of murder-for-hire where a shadowy character named Rufus gives the women their second job: kill beloved vegan superstar Moby. It turns out Moby isn’t actually vegan and is running a cannibalism ring. I know! Can our heroines kill one of their idols? Will human blood on their hands be OK if it means they can use the money to rescue a bunch of animals? Will they become straight up hit women and murder hella people? That’s Hard Core Vegans.
I’m vegan, and while I’m not a murderer, I swear, I spent quite a bit of time volunteering for animal welfare causes and met some of the most wonderful, funny, passionate people ever who were also a little bat shit crazy.
Ultimately Hard Core Vegans is an extremely dark comedy about what it means to follow your passions and live your dreams. Even if that means you’ve got to get a little dirty. And by dirty I obviously mean murder.
John: Craig, talk me through some Hard Core Vegans. What was your first impression?
Craig: My first impression was that every single first impression I had was wrong and then I’d have another first impression and then that was wrong. First of all Laura is delightful to listen to and that was a very funny ending. And I happen to know that there – I’m not a vegan – but I read an article once about this crazy schism in the vegan community and it was really vicious. And you think of like vegans as being super positive peaceful people I guess. Nope. They’re just people.
So that part actually was kind of intriguing. I like the sort of satirical aspect to it. Where I just kind of felt myself lifting off the ground in confusion was when Moby suddenly was involved. I just was like I don’t know what this is anymore. But this is one of those pitches where you listen and you go I’m not sure I’m qualified to comment on this. I don’t know what I just heard.
John: I think I’m qualified to comment on it. So, like you I kept having new first impressions. Because it’s like, oh, I get what this is. Like, no, it’s not quite what I thought. And it just kept pulling me a little bit away from where I wanted to be. So she starts by Good Girls Revolt, which I don’t know, but Barry, and I can see that. Where it’s like it’s well-intentioned people and it goes into a very dark place. And I love this idea of sort of warring factions of vegans and sort of people with noble intentions who to really dark, dark places. It’s sort of that question of like well what would you do to make the world a better place?
John: How far will you go? That is so intriguing. And I think that is why it is a really good premise for a TV show. And I can see that. The details of sort of how these two women meet and compete and sort of like what their unique lanes are I wasn’t entirely getting. And I didn’t like that they’re mistaken for murder. Like that to me doesn’t feel like – they’re not making an active choice. I want to see these women make a choice that takes them to this place. And that to me is what’s great.
There could be an element of accident, but I think back to 9 to 5 and you look at the murder that seems like it happens in 9 to 5. You are completely on their side and yet they know they’re done something horrible. So, that to me is an opportunity of a way to look at how these women come together to do this thing.
Craig: I think that’s really smart. That may have been the thing that ultimately started knocking my dominoes down and I was just so confused was the whole mistaken – mistaken identity, like two people mistaken for hit people, just understand this Laura. That plot point doesn’t just say something about those two characters, it says something about the entire world of your show. And what it says is the world of your show is a bit stupid. Because no one actually confuses a hit person like that, much less two people, much less two vegans. It’s just not a thing.
And then weirdly they are hired to kill a non-vegan who is posing as a vegan. So there’s this weird coincidence that they happen to be confused for killers and also now must kill somebody that’s directly related to the thing that… – You know what I mean? It just starts feeling a bit silly in a bad way. But I’m with you. Like all the things you say you like I like. So I would say Laura you should do what John just said.
John: Yeah. I actually like the idea of Moby being a character in this because he’s identified with this kind of movement. I just don’t know that he’s the target for being a hypocrite. I think there’s some interesting way to use him that could be fascinating. If he is the kingpin behind stuff that could be great, too.
I liked him as an element, I just didn’t think killing him was necessarily going to be rewarding for – the best comedic reward for using that element.
Craig: Yeah. I’m not going to stick around and watch that season. I just kind of don’t care about Moby.
John: Craig, what did you think of this whole pitch idea?
Craig: I liked it. I mean, it’s definitely a different thing for us and what we’re talking about now is something that we – it’s actually really hard to get to and this was a fun way to do it. How you interact with the world when you’re talking and being a writer in a bar, in an office, on the street, how do you come across and how does your story come across? It turns out actually this matters quite a bit. And so maybe this is the beginning of little kind of training for people about how to just talk about what they’re writing and why.
John: I think it’s also a useful way for us to divorce the words on the page in the Three Page Challenge from this general idea. Because when we do the Three Page Challenge it is so focused on what I got out of these three pages and less of like do I think that that’s actually an idea, a premise that is going to be sustainable for a feature or for a series? And we can talk about it kind of on those terms. And also I know Mike, my husband, just tunes out all the Three Page Challenges because he won’t read them. So I think he might actually stick around for these.
Craig: He might. I mean, listen, if we can get Mike back we’re onto something.
John: We know we hit something. So thank you to everyone who sent in their pitches. I think what we’ve been doing for receiving pitches is you write into email@example.com. You attached the recording you’ve made of your pitch.
I think Megana was sampling for a range of storylines and premises and also genres, but also a bit for quality in the sense of like actual recording quality. So just do it in a quiet room. That’s great. But you can use your phone for it. So, send those in and we’ll do it as another feature down the road.
John: Cool. Craig, this week I sent a little message to you asking about the font you use in Chernobyl. So this is a thing where I’m watching Chernobyl, I’m enjoying it very much, I’m listening to the companion podcast.
John: But you have not spoken about the font that is used in Chernobyl and the font is terrific. And so since I actually know the creator of the show I emailed or I messaged you with the most important question about what typeface is being used as the display face in Chernobyl.
Craig: So, this was something that Johan Renck and I were very, very, very, very, very, very fussy about. Because for starters we don’t have an opening title sequence. It’s not something that people have remarked upon particularly. We tried. We thought about it. We talked to some incredible people who have designed amazing opening title sequences. We just couldn’t find one that seemed to not disrupt what we were going for which was that kind of verisimilitude. You know, we wanted you to forget that you were watching a television show.
So, with that in mind we said, OK, it’s just going to say Chernobyl. And then we have quite a few place and time fonts as well, or subtitles, that we have to put on there. So the question is what do you show. Here’s we knew we didn’t want to do. That really goofy fake Cyrillic English font thing where, oh look, the R is backwards. No. No. [laughs] Definitely not.
What we wanted to do was impart something that in keeping with the rest of the way we do this show some kind of accuracy to time and place. You know, we can’t show Cyrillic to people. They won’t understand it. But what Johan did was he worked with his brother. And I’m still working on getting all the details for you. But essentially they created a font, as far as I understand. And the font was kind of inspired by Cyrillic fonts. And there’s a number of Cyrillic fonts that came out of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had their own state-run typography department and they did create a number of fonts, including something called – well, it’s referred to as Poor Man’s Futura. There’s a bunch of them. Anyway, the point is rather than font out and dork out, what we went for was that. Essentially an English font that conveyed the truth of what Soviet fonts looked like at the time.
They’ve got weird kerning. Some of the numbers are slightly bizarre for us. And then we messed around with the color a little bit and we fuzzed some of the edges just to make it feel like it was part of 1986. So that is the long and short of – and I suppose we’ll have to come up with a name for it. I mean, I’m going to propose that the name for that font be Renck.
John: Oh, Renck would be fantastic. There’s already a typeface called Chernobyl so that would be confusing. What I like about it, Futura is clearly a reference for it. And if you use the What the Font app to look at screenshots of it, which I did, there are faces that are kind of similar to it, but the numbers are really strange and different. You know, it’s a Sancerre face. It has that aspect of weird kerning. You are only using in uppercase which is appropriate because Russian is written in what we would consider uppercase only.
John: But anyway, it was well done. And I was just – I agree with you that it feels very specific even though it’s not Russian at all. And I think it’s consistent with everyone is speaking English but all the other signage is in Russian. It makes it feel like the right mix.
Craig: Great. Well I’m glad it’s working for you. We certainly put a lot of intention on that. I think at times Carolyn Strauss and Jane Featherstone were like are these two font nerds going to ever shut up? Johan far more than I.
John: Couldn’t it just be Arial?
Craig: Well, Johan definitely took the lead on that one. He gets the credit for this font. And the Renck family, the extended Renck family.
John: Nice. It is time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a book that I finished last week. It is called Blueprint: Evolutionary Designs of a Good Society by Nikolas Christakis. It’s really terrific. I heard him on the Gist podcast and he was halfway through his interview and I was like I’m going to buy that book.
The book talks about how humans evolved both biologically and culturally to have a set of social ideas that are really important for how we can function together as groups and as a society. So ideas like love, altruism, selflessness, learning, collaboration, individual identity. They seem really obvious to us, but very few other species on earth have these qualities, or have all these qualities. And it’s hard to imagine that we could actually do most of what we do as human beings if we didn’t have this sense. For example, if you didn’t think of yourself as an individual and think of each other person as an individual who is consistent in time you couldn’t do most of the things that humans do.
So as important as speech is, as important as our hands are, these are probably qualities that let us do what we’ve been able to do on the earth. So, I thought it was just a terrific book. Highly recommend it. It’s sort of in that same zone as the Jared Diamond books or the Steven Pinker books. I loved it.
Craig: Great. That sounds like one for me. I like that sort of thing. I wrote a paper about altruism in college and the notion of – and I’m sure that Mr. Christakis gets into this in this book, but the notion that there is a social or rather a survival advantage to being part of a group.
John: Oh absolutely.
Craig: And so pro-social behavior is encoded into us, in other words we are to some extent at least for a number of people instinctively pro-social. We want to do things that would help keep the group together and cohesive. But interestingly that occasionally expresses itself in ways that are directly detrimental to the individual person’s survival.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: Which to bring it back is sort of when you watched things, when I was reading and doing research about Chernobyl and I would see these people do these things I would just think–
John: Oh, that’s episode two. That’s like I’m going to walk into the water.
Craig: Pretty much. And you’re seeing the expression of this pro-social behavior. There’s a very famous story about a plane crash in the ‘80s in Washington, DC, and the plane essentially went into the Potomac and it was freezing cold. And a man just jumped like 100 feet into the water or whatever it was to save people. And he didn’t know any of them. And he had no connection to any of them. He just did it. And in that moment you think, yep, there it is. That’s that little gene going do-do-do-do.
John: Yeah. So it’s obviously – if that person is your own child there’s a genetic component to that so like that would happen with other species. But it clearly goes beyond. We’re wired and our cultural switches are flipped in a certain way that you will do that stuff. You will help a stranger even though it is no benefit to you.
Craig: Exactly right. In fact, this explains things like colony insects, like bees.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: Bees will happily sting you and die as a result just to protect the rest of the hive. Well why are bees so hive-oriented and so kind of pro-social? Because the way bee reproduction works they are all highly related to each other, more so than say humans. There’s way more overlap. In other words, if I’m dying to protect you I’m still furthering our genetic code because we’re really closely related. It’s a world of twins.
John: You can also think about the organism is really the entire colony. The organism is not the individual bee. And to some degree the organism is this human group. And so you will do whatever it takes to keep this human group alive, which could involve individual self-sacrifice. And so when you see nationalism, bad nationalism, it can be as a result of over-identification with that group and not thinking of yourself as an individual.
Craig: Yep. No question. No question. That’s a great point actually and the way it backfires.
Well, I’ll go with something that – we’ll just keep along the idea of pro-social work here. So Chernobyl Children International is a wonderful organization. It is based out of Ireland run by a wonderful woman name Adi Roche. And it is a charity that helps support children and various people that have been affected by the Chernobyl disaster across Belarus and Ukraine and just Eastern Europe in general.
And I was lucky enough and had the honor of speaking at the United Nations. Did you know that, John? I spoke at the United Nations.
John: You know what? Someone might have told me. It was you. You told me that you were speaking at the United Nations.
Craig: John, I have news for you. I spoke at the United Nations.
Craig: So, anyway, when I was speaking at the United Nations because I spoke at the United Nations I was there with Adi Roche. And she really was the one that put it all together. She is a dynamo. And, of course, as people watch the show they may want to be charitable. I think that her organization is a terrific place to start. HBO and I and Carolyn and Jane all were donors. And so I just wanted to put that out there for people if they were feeling like they wanted to throw a little money towards some people who might be in need, Chernobyl Children International is a terrific organization. Obviously a proper charitable organization. And we’ll link to their website in the show notes.
John: Fantastic. And that is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from the fantastic Jonathan Mann.
Craig: Is this the one?
John: This is the one from last week.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: So enjoy this one everyone. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send questions like the ones we like to answer on the show. For short questions though I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin on Twitter. Those are fantastic.
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Craig: Oh man.
John: If you’re going to download that one you might want to check out the Scriptnotes Listener’s Guide because that has recommendations on previous episodes that you should not miss. So that’s at johnaugust.com/guide. And you can of course through the app listen to any episode you want at any time and just go to Scriptnotes.net for instructions about the app.
John: Thank you so much for a new feature. 401 and we’re still innovating.
Craig: Unbelievable. Here’s to the next 100 and I’ll see you next week.
John: Thanks. Bye.
- Scriptnotes LIVE on June 13th at the Ace Hotel with Alec Berg, Rob McElhenney, buy your tickets here!
- Order your Scriptnotes 400 shirts, sweatshirts, and tanks (Light) and (Dark)!
- WGA Start Button Video
- John August and Michele Mulroney discussing Issues Affecting Screenwriters
- Verve Signs WGA’s Code of Conduct, Citing ‘Meaningful Dialogue’ With Clients
- WGA-Verve Code of Conduct Agreement
- Pitch Session selections: Karen Welsh You’re What?!, Hayley Grgurich Uncertain Texas, Jake Arky How to Make a Man, Guy Patton Sinnerweb, Laura Beck Hardcore Vegans
- Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society by Nikolas Christakis
- Donate to Chernobyl Children International
- Watch Chernobyl on HBO and listen to The Chernobyl Podcast with Craig and Peter Sagal
- Find past episodes here, Scriptnotes Digital Seasons are also now available!
- Thank you to everyone who submitted to the pitch session! If you’d like to be considered in the next Pitch Session, submit your entry here.
- John August on Twitter
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- Outro by Jonathan Mann (send us yours!)
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