The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Oh my god. My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 409 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast it’s another round of the Three Page Challenge, where we take a look at three pages from scripts our listeners have written and give our honest feedback. We’ll also be discussing to what degree our characters should have self-awareness and answer some listener questions about meddling actors and producers.
Craig: Ooh. Meddlers. Love meddlers.
John: Now, Craig, just to save the people at Deadline some time is there going to be anything in this episode that they’re going to want to do a transcript of and pretend that it’s an exclusive article.
Craig: Well, I wish they would do a transcript of this part where I say, “Deadline what are you doing?” I mean, we literally said – so in our last episode you and I had a conversation about the WGA and the agencies and the fight that’s going on between them and we both predicted that Deadline would just life the transcript of it without permission and print a whole lot of it, reprint a whole lot of it without permission, nor would they call us to even ask for comment or follow up or insight. They would simply just copy it over and turn it into an article.
And they did. Except they did something else. They called it an exclusive.
Craig: I’m sorry, how is this an exclusive when we put it out there to the world already?
John: Yeah. So, a free episode that had dropped hours earlier is now an exclusive because you typed it up a little bit I guess.
Craig: And sort of pushing the boundaries of free use? Like can they go ahead and just publish the transcript of our entire show?
John: I don’t see what would be stopping them. So, yeah, I just don’t think it was cool.
Craig: No. It’s just not. It’s gross. It’s gross. Not like you and I are necessarily running to talk to trades at any given point, but you know Deadline come on. We know you listen, so like this is the second time. Can you please just cut it out? It’s weird.
Also, the characterized the entire thing as a debate. No it wasn’t.
John: No. It’s just us talking.
Craig: Which we’ve done 408 times. [laughs]
John: Yes. That’s what this show largely is is a dialogue between me and Craig and we don’t always agree on everything but that’s sort of the nature of why you want two people talking.
Craig: Weird, right?
John: Nuts. I mean, we did innovate the form of two people having a discussion, so.
Craig: Correct. Well, we may have actually innovated the form of two people talking about this topic without being dicks to each other. We may be the only ones. I don’t know. It’s nice to model good behavior, how about that?
John: That’s what we’ll try to do is some good modeling of good behavior today. And actually it fits very well with a lot of the things we’re talking about in today’s episode including the exclusive breaking news that we’re actually hosting something new. So, we love to do little live events and we’re doing a new panel. This is on addiction and mental health. It’s organized by Hollywood Health and Society. We are going to be talking with showrunners and mental health experts about portrayals of mental health and addiction in film and television. Really looking forward to this one. It is Wednesday July 31, 6:30 to 9:30pm. It’s going to be at SAG on Wilshire. It’s a free event but there are not a lot of tickets left. If you really want to come in person and see this thing and ask questions you can join us – the email address you email to is email@example.com. But for the first time, Craig, you and I will be streaming this live apparently on Facebook. So people who are not physically in Los Angeles can also see us have this conversation.
Craig: Well, I’ll trim my beard. This is wonderful. I’m so glad. And this was entirely your thrust here. You’re very smart to kind of contact these people. You and I both have enormous interest in this topic. Look, we’ve been talking about mental health issues with writers, going all the way back to our famous episode 99 I believe with Dennis Palumbo.
Craig: Doing a series about mental health is something that I’m contemplating anyway doing. So, I’m fascinated by the portrayals of it in film and TV. And I’m not – you know, I’m not one of those people who gets real fussy and angry at television and movies for getting things somewhat wrong. I don’t really go on the outrage boat too often. And so it’s not that I get upset about the way that mental illness is portrayed in media as much as I’m just missing the truth. Because I’ve never really seen the truth of it. Because the truth is actually kind of hard to get across. It’s not simple.
So I’m really interested in this discussion and I’m glad that mostly we’re going to be hearing from experts rather than insisting to people that I am an expert, even though of course I am a doctor in a number of fields. Credentialed, just not by any state.
John: Absolutely. Credentialed in your own mind.
Craig: Correct. [laughs] Self-credentialed.
John: That is the definition of good mental health. Yeah, I’m looking forward to this conversation, too, both about how to portray things realistically, but also responsibly. And sort of what the line is for us as creators of content that the world sees, how do we do the best job we can do about portraying those things on screen? So I’m looking forward to this conversation very much.
John: Ditto. Now, we have our follow up on our last sort of live thing which was understand your feature contract. That was an event we did at the Writers Guild where we talked through what a screenwriter should look for in their contract. We got two pieces of follow up from that. So, Craig, do you want to start us off?
Craig: Sure, Alex asks, “Is there any chance that John and Craig can do a similar episode for TV, episodic contract, development, and/or overall deals? I’ve been a working TV writer for 15 years and I still have no idea what most of my contracts say. Specifically I tend to get confused about the different definitions of profit participations. Points can mean so many different things and it’s different for TV than film. And also the difference between that and residuals. How ‘locks’ work in development.
“There are a million other things that I will never understand, but I don’t actually know enough to know what’s significant.”
Well that’s a great question and there are a lot of tricky weird things in those TV contracts. I have no idea why we wouldn’t want to do something like that.
John: So the guild actually did the same kind of event that we did for features the week before. So they did understanding your TV contract. But I think it’s a good thing for us to do on the show at some point. So let’s make it a goal to do the same kind of thing for TV contracts because here’s a situation where I just genuinely don’t know how a lot of this works. And you don’t really either. You’ve not been through those things.
Craig: Yeah. I’m just learning. I mean, the only experience I have is my contract I have for Chernobyl which was kind of a single author limited series thing. And I do have an overall deal at HBO. Hey, Deadline, would you like that to be an exclusive? Would you like that? It’s not exclusive. I just reported it. Everyone knows it know.
And so I understand the basic workings of that. But we do need to dig into this and study up on it because – and we don’t want to get into this on this episode but Disney and specifically Disney+ is essentially challenging the entire way that profit participation in television is going to work. And that goes directly to this question that Alex is asking about points and how they can mean so many different things. They can also mean a whole new thing that they are proposing. So lots to dig into there.
John: Absolutely. And so I think whenever we do this thing we will have me and Craig there, but we’ll also have some experienced TV writers who have been through it all. Because as I have those conversations for WGA topics about this unique thing they’re facing I’m having to do so much catchup work to figure out what even is the current situation so we can anticipate what the next thing is. And so, yes, I think it’s really crucial. But the nuts and bolts of understanding what your existing contract is like is also crucial.
Craig: Correct. Agreed.
John: Cool. Also about that same episode we had a question from Sarah. She asks, “About annotations, when more than one writer works on a true life story that requires annotation who does what? Does each writer need to annotate everything relevant in their draft or only what they personally added? I’m the last writer on my current project. Being the third of three writers. And the first one who wrote in the initial draft in a foreign language was a decade ago and doesn’t even speak English.”
So, Craig, your experience with Chernobyl you were the only writer so you did all the annotations. What do you suspect is the best practice for multiple writers when coming to this situation?
Craig: Sure. If you’re coming onboard a project that is going to require annotation, it’s based on reality and research, and you know that you are not the first writer, and you also know that per your contract you’re responsible to turn in an annotated draft, it is fair and reasonable for you to ask that the provide you with the annotation to date. And that you are only responsible for all annotation from this point forward.
If they say well we don’t have an annotation for this draft then they have to waive that responsibility for you. It cannot be your responsibility to annotate other people’s work. They, your employer, are the legal author of that work. It’s their responsibility to have that for you when you come onboard. But in terms of everything that you write from that point forward, yes, you should be taking care of the annotation.
John: Absolutely. And so I think this is a situation where if you are the third writer on here you’re not going to know where everything was before this, so Craig’s suggestion that they need to provide all that stuff up to that point is crucial.
I think fundamentally there’s going to need to be some fact checker, maybe some third party who is going through this one more time to really make sure that all these things are verified because you won’t know everything that was there.
Craig: Yeah. And I should add I don’t know if there’s still seats available, but I am going to be doing a seminar at the Writers Guild about research. And it will cover annotation as well. For those of you that are working on projects that involve research and are wondering how I tackled that for Chernobyl or how you might tackle something like that for your project it’s going to be Wednesday July 17 at the guild in the 1A conference room on the first floor, which sounds lovely.
And it will be from 7 to 9pm. Please arrive no later than 15 minutes prior to the event. And that’s at the Writers Guild. And I will be bringing with me at the very least one of our research associates, a professional researcher named Mimi Munson who will talk about research in general. So a good thing if you are tackling that stuff.
John: Possibly could we send Megana Rao over there with a recorder as well so that we can have the audio for that?
Craig: I insist upon it.
John: Fantastic. Sarah also has a second question about the Start Button. She writes, “I’ve just been commenced to write a pilot based off a signed certificate of authorship, but my long form contract probably won’t be finished for months. So do I use the Start Button now and file the short form contract I have?”
That’s an easy answer. Yes. So if you’re writing a pilot hit that Start Button, send in what you have, send in the long form contract when you have the long form contract. Craig, you just this past week provided me some really great feedback on a situation you were having with the Start Button. It continues to evolve, so thank you for that.
Craig: No problem.
John: It gets better because people use it. So, the default should be like, yes, you should use it with whatever information you have. It’s helpful for you and for the guild to understand what’s going on.
Craig: Yeah. And I should say that – because Sarah says that signing a signed certificate of authorship is sufficient in television to get paid as opposed to features, honestly in my experience it has also been sufficient in features, although I know in some cases it’s not. The certificate of authorship is usually like a two-page document, so you might think do I need to file it. Yeah, because it’s at the very least providing the studio proof that you are writing it and they’re the legal author of it. That’s what allows them to release the money. And that is important for the guild to know at the very least so they can say, OK, so the chain of title and all that stuff begins here.
John: Yeah. So do it. All right, so let’s get to our marquee topic for today which is self-awareness. So this morning I was walking my dog and listening to the latest episode of Trumpcast and so Virginia Heffernan was talking with a psychiatrist named Bandy Lee about how a professional assesses somebody’s mental fitness, not just for being president of the United States, but for any situation that requires decision making. So it’s not trying to give a diagnosis of what’s going on, but basically regardless of what’s going on can this person actually do the task for which they are assigned.
John: So some of the characteristics that a psychiatrist would be looking for would include the ability to understand and integrate new information. To not react exclusively emotionally. To plan beyond the short term. To consider multiple scenarios. And to recognize that they might be wrong. The awareness that their assumptions could be incorrect.
Craig: That’s a chilling list, my friend.
John: Absolutely. A chilling list for someone who has–
Craig: Who has none of those things.
John: And has access to our nuclear weapons.
John: So that is not what we actually want to talk about, specifically him, but it got me thinking about our heroes and our characters and specifically the kind of things you were talking about in your solo episode, talk about thesis and antithesis, and to what degree our characters can be a little delusion. Delusional at the start of the story but actually some of the progress they need to make is towards achieving self-awareness. So I thought we might spend a few minutes talking about self-awareness in terms of our characters, our heroes, and also our villains, and the degree to which we want our characters to have insight or achieve insight over the course of the story.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, we have a traditional desire, and again in traditional narrative, for characters to develop. And certainly Hollywood movies are built around the notion of character arcs and character development. This is a big thing with them. But really what it comes down to is just sort of mirroring what we hope might happen to us in life. We are not perfect. We will never be perfect. That means every moment of every day we are less than optimal. Which means every moment of every day there’s an opportunity for us to grow or improve. That implies that we walk around with these thinking flaws. And the less we are flawed the less real we seem when we’re creating characters on film. And the more narrowly we are flawed the less we seem like real people. Because real people’s flaws are actually kind of integrated and complicated.
John: Yeah. I’ve decided now I’m always going to think of this classic hero, so the classic hero of a Pixar movie, but also the archetypal hero as the Joseph Campbell/Craig Mazin hero.
Craig: Oh, great.
John: And by that I’m defining the hero at the start of the story has a flawed vision of who they need to be. Sort of like they have a flawed vision of themselves in a way. So we’re going back to Marlin in Finding Nemo, he has a flawed vision of sort of what kind of father he needs to be. And that over the course of the story they are challenged and eventually learn after great difficulty to embrace this new vision for themselves. And that is a degree of self-awareness or a degree of self-actualization which feels very much in keeping with that kind of classic hero’s journey that they return to a place transformed.
And they cannot have the ability to do that transformation until they’ve left and come back.
Craig: Yeah. There’s a sense that all of us are cradling something that’s broken. We like to think of the mental aspect of ourselves as wildly different than the physical aspect because it’s how we think and imagine it feels different, but in so many ways just as the body will begin to protect a tender spot, the psyche will protect a tender spot. And through the protection of those things you have a chance to heal.
The problem is that some people just never move beyond the protection and it goes from a healing process to a semi-crippling process. I mean, if I twist my ankle they’re going to say don’t put weight on your ankle. That’s a great idea for a while. If you never get out of your chair again you have crippled yourself out of the fear of this injury being reinjured, right, or re-hurt. You don’t want to experience that pain again. You’re so frightened of that pain you don’t want to do it.
Well, that extends similarly to the psyche. And a lot of times when we meet characters we’re looking at people who have done an actually rational thing which is protect something about themselves. The problem is it’s become dysfunctional. It’s no longer actually serving a purpose other than limiting them. And that the wound is not so much the wound, it’s the fear of the wound that is holding them back.
John: Yep. And one of the real challenges we face as screenwriters is that unlike the novelist who can literally tell us what is happening inside of a character’s head, as screenwriters we don’t have the ability to provide that insight into the character’s head so we can only externalize what’s happening internally. And so what you’re saying in terms of like they’re keeping their weight off of their damaged ankle, the novelist can show us what emotionally they’re doing, the choices that they’re making internally and let us into that process. The screenwriter does not have that ability. We can only externalize those things by things that characters say, things characters do. We have to find ways to present that information without literally carving open the character, unless we decide that we need to have a voiceover which is an opportunity to do that.
So, that is our unique challenge.
Craig: And it’s also our unique opportunity. Because when we get it right, and it is portrayed onscreen in this way, I think we have a better ability to inject it into other people’s psyches than a novel does. There’s always going to be something that’s a bit abstract by taking just the words and turning into that in your head. But watching or experiencing another human being is just a different level of empathy.
I think about our friend Mari Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? and how we’re dealing with a character in the beginning that Melissa McCarthy plays who has clearly designed her entire life to be a cast around a bone she thinks is broken. She is just terrified. Absolutely terrified. And you can tell. And so she’s created all of these maladaptive behaviors to protect herself from a pain that is simply too frightening for her to contemplate feeling.
And then as the movie goes on she is forced to confront that. And so it’s not surprising that we think of all these transformative metaphors like the caterpillar turns into the butterfly. I mean, are you a Kung Fu Hustle fan by any chance?
John: I love Kung Fu Hustle. It’s been years since I’ve seen it but it was terrifically well done.
Craig: So great. And in there in a very kind of fairy tale way Stephen Chow just goes for it. Like at the end when the character finally becomes actualized he literally shows a pupa popping open, a cocoon popping open and a butterfly emerging. It’s literally like, got it, we’ve shed all this old stuff we don’t need and out comes this actualized person. The danger of these narratives, the danger of all traditional narratives, is that they essentially are promising a kind of perfection which of course is not actually achievable.
All you can hope for at the end of your own real move, whether it’s your week, your month, or your year is that you’re hopefully a bit further along and a bit better than you were before. But you’re never going to get to perfect.
John: The past week I watched Midsommar which I liked, I didn’t love, but what I found so fascinating about it is it’s designed as a horror movie about kind of self-actualization or about sort of dealing with the grief that you cannot actually process. And so the central character is dealing with a horrible tragedy that’s happened and the writer-director, Ari Aster, decides to have her confront these things by putting her in the craziest Scandinavian cult you can imagine.
And what I found so fascinating about it was that as extreme as it was it was about a very human relatable thing and trying to externalize an internal process in a character who was deeply stuck in a moment and becomes unstuck only through horror, through terror, and through a completely Alien kind of encounter with a different culture and civilization.
And that brings me back to your initial description of this journey that characters are on is that the role of the screenwriter is to continually challenge those characters. You described it as sort of the evil god who is making them go through terrible things. It is not that you are necessarily trying to torture them. You are forcing them to confront the natural way that they would respond in these situations and making it impossible for them to go back to their old ways.
Craig: Yeah, there’s a kind of instruction manual we’re providing people in the audience. What we’re saying is – well, here’s what we don’t want to say. What we don’t want to say is, hey, you in the audience, it’s actually quite easy to get over a broken heart. You just do it. Get out there, kid.
Well, the world is full of people giving you that terrible advice. It’s not easy to get over a heartbreak. The answer isn’t just “get out there.” Something else has to happen. So what we want to show people in the audience is that it’s just as hard for the people onscreen as it is for them. In fact, it might even be harder. And that we’re using those people as sort of an inspiration. Look what they went through. Look how scared they were. And look what happened on the other side. And we’re going to give you a chance to see it from all the perspectives.
So you’re not looking just through the eyes of someone who is in pain, like you might do with yourself when you’re in pain. You’re also seeing everybody else trying. And you’re picking up on the way that the person who is like you is making fundamental errors of thought.
John: Yeah. What’s fascinating about a movie is that it gives you a chance to actually look at a character and see that person from a third party perspective, as a third person out there, and see that they’re going through the same kinds of things that you’re going through. And so self-awareness really is that ability to see yourself both in the first person and the third person simultaneously. To recognize that you are inside your body having these experiences but also have an awareness of what you are like to the outside world and sort of where you are fitting into this society around you.
And when characters are struggling it’s because they’re not able to integrate those two realities.
Craig: Yeah. It’s frustrating to watch. You know, there’s that moment in a show or a movie where you get frustrated that somebody is missing it. That they don’t get it. That they’re drawing the wrong conclusion. It’s something that screenwriters use all the time to create a sense of imbalance and tension. For instance, I just started watching the new season of Stranger Things, or should it be Stranger Things? What do you say, Stranger Things or Stranger Things?
John: Stranger Things.
Craig: Stranger Things.
John: I guess I’m putting the emphasis on Stranger.
Craig: Yeah, Stranger Things. But shouldn’t it be Stranger Things?
Craig: Because Stranger Things kind of implies like, oh yeah, last season was Strange Things. This season is Stranger Things.
John: Or they are things owned by a stranger.
Craig: Stranger’s Things. So I just started watching that and there’s this little plotline, I think I’m on episode three or something, where two of the kids have this lovely little teen romance but they’ve been split apart. And they’re kind of misunderstanding each other. And it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating because they don’t have the self-awareness to understand what’s going on or to ask the right questions. And if only they would it would get solved. And when we watch these things, whether they’re children or adults, it’s frustrating for us because we’re watching someone make a mistake.
And it is a weird feeling to watch people make a mistake that you know is a mistake. You know it. If you’re watching someone putting a jigsaw puzzle together and they’re looking for this one piece and they can’t find it and you know where it is, you can see it. And their hand keeps going past it, it’s enough to make you crazy.
Well, that’s kind of what we’re doing here. And the idea is that you at home would pick up a lesson here which is maybe when you yourself are absolutely sure that something is true, or you are stumped and can’t figure something out, to take a moment and imagine someone watching you. And taking comfort in the fact that there may be something here that you can learn about yourself or somebody else that might improve it.
I mean, we don’t tell stories pointlessly. There’s some instructive value.
John: Definitely. When I give my presentations to grade school kids for Arlo Finch I have the same presentation that I’ve given 100 times. But one of the things I try to get to is I talk about what heroes in stories do and these are the things we look for heroes to do. Then I bring it back around to you can always see yourself as the hero in your own life. And so being able to think of yourself as the fictional character who is confronting these challenges can be a very useful psychological trick to explore what are the challenges you’re facing and what would the hero version of yourself do. And recognizing that that hero is going to face real challenges and real adversity and self-doubts and all those things. But would find a way through it. And would figure out what do they actually really need to accomplish. Who are their allies, because heroes very rarely work alone? What are the real goals they’re trying to achieve there?
And so that is a form of self-awareness is being able to think of yourself not just as the person who is stuck but as the person who can get through this thing.
Craig: No question. And that’s exactly how I talk to writers when I do my seminar at the guild about how to make your way through development. And that is to think of yourself as the hero of this adventure. And therefore what’s holding you back and who do you need? And what kind of relationship will help and what will hurt? And what are your needs? All these things. We’re wired to do it. We might as well take advantage of it.
John: Absolutely. All right, so let’s segue from that into some real scripts that we can take a look at and maybe offer some insights as well.
Craig: No maybe about it. We’re gonna.
John: We’re gonna. We’re going to offer some insights.
Craig: We’re gonna.
John: So this is our Three Page Challenge. So, for folks who are new to this segment we ask listeners to submit three pages. They can go to johnaugust.com/threepage and fill out a little form. Then our producer, Megana Rao, reads through all the entries. She picks three or four of these samples that she thinks are going to be most useful to our listener base. And so she’s not necessarily picking the best ones, or the most messed up ones. She’s picking the ones she thinks are going to have really interesting things for us to talk about.
Craig: I like jacked up. [laughs]
John: Jacked up.
Craig: These three pages are jacked up.
John: So we will sort of synopsize these before we get started, but if you want to read the real pages, which you probably should, just follow the link in the show notes. We’ll have a link to the PDFs. Or just go to johnaugust.com and look for this episode and you’ll see the PDFs that you can download.
So, since we did this last time we’ve gotten 177 new submissions. 56 of these were from women, so that’s progress.
John: Well it is progress.
Craig: Where were we at before percentage wise?
John: So I think we’ve been as low as like 10%.
Craig: Oh god. OK, yes, then this is better.
John: So we are making progress. So thank you to folks who have been sending in.
John: Everyone who has been sending in entries, because it’s very generous, but especially we love that more women are sending in their entries as well.
Craig: Yep. We aim for – what is probably, you know, everyone always says 50/50. But I think if you go by the statistics you may actually want 51/49 in favor of women. I think there’s slightly more women being born. I don’t know why.
John: I think it’s probably some replacement rate kind of thing happens.
Craig: I’m down.
John: Good. All right, Craig do you want to start us off with Edith Rodriguez’s?
Craig: Sure. Edith Rodriguez has written The Days Ahead. We open on an engineering lab at night. Jeff, a classically handsome scientist, speaks with a female voice, meaning he is conversing with a female voice. He asks her to describe a sunrise. We learn that the female voice named Demi belongs to a computer. Demi struggles to complete the task. Frustrated, Jeff returns to his bedroom where he is greeted as Citizen by an automated voice. Jeff clicks a switch to change his bedroom settings from day to night.
We then cut to a rainforest where five massive defense machines known as Guardians patrol a building. Inside the city center we meet Alric Fischer who watches the humans, robots, and androids move about their daily routines before Ella comes to greet him with a kiss.
That’s Edith Rodriguez, The Days Ahead. John, what did you think?
John: What Edith does so well in these three pages, which people should definitely read through, is create the visual world of where her story is taking place. I could see it and I could feel it. And I could sense where I was in these three pages. And sort of – I think we should distinguish between world-building and sort of scene-setting, but I got a good sense of the physical space that I was in which was useful. And I got a sense of what universe I was in.
I would distinguish that between world-building in that I don’t know sort of the rules of this world at all, but I do know kind of what this looks like and it feels like a science-fiction kind of thing. Somewhat dystopian but sort of that beautiful dystopian. I got a good sense of that and so often as I read three pages of a screenplay I don’t get a sense of what I would be seeing onscreen and I feel like I’m getting this here. And her pacing on the page was also really good. I was never sort of slammed with big blocks of this stuff. I got a good sense for what this was.
Where I had some challenges was some of the stuff felt a little bit familiar. I felt like I’d seen a version of this in Westworld a little bit. And I didn’t have a great sense of what I would be looking for next. I got the general idea that these characters are trapped within this sort of utopian experiment but I didn’t know which horse to be betting on quite yet. And I would have loved to have a little bit more sense of that by the end of three pages.
Craig, what were you feeling?
Craig: Well, I had a very similar positive response. First of all, the pages look right. So we sometimes talk about the visual look of the pages. There’s a great balance between action and dialogue. I mean, the third page is all action and one little bit of dialogue. That’s fine by me. The fact is that there’s lovely amounts of white space. It makes me happy.
And I was really interested in this first page in particular. I’m not a huge fan of the classically handsome, somewhat weathered. It’s just – because it’s a little bit of “hot but doesn’t know it.” It’s just so shopworn. That description is somewhat weathered. And sits at a tech desk holding a thin silver tablet does feel a little bit like a generic future man at future place. We’ve seen that so many times. The thin silver tablet. And I don’t know what a tech desk does. Small grammar thing: “A dimly lit windowless lab” Those are the first words we see in action. Dimly-lit there I think should take a hyphen.
John: It’s debatable. I will tell you from doing Arlo Finch proofing is that adverbs that end in LY generally do not use the hyphen after them.
John: Yeah. So it’s the adverbs that, so fast-moving does take it. Dimly lit generally does not.
Craig: I’m down with that. That’s cool. I take it back. I retract. What I will not retract is that I don’t believe in 2019 you can name your futuristic science fiction enclave Zion. I believe the Matrix did that and you can’t do it anymore. It’s just too obvious. It’s too done, right? So there just needs to be a general kind of cliché and generic patrol.
But here’s what I was really excited about. I liked this conversation. Jeff says, “What do you see?” And he’s looking at an image of a sunrise. And this voice across says, “A sunrise. A beautiful sunrise.” He says, “Can you describe it?” She says, “We are both looking at it.” And he says, “I know.” That’s really good. That’s unexpected. And with that simple exchange I understand, at least my understanding, is that he’s kind of running a test. He’s evaluating. Is this entity fully intelligent or not?
And she says, “It is a seamless outpouring of color. Unmatched by any brushstroke or artist.”
“Good, you’ve been studying your prose.” Meaning he knows where she is. “Now how does it make you feel?”
And she says, “I feel like I would like to see it.”
Jeff tries to mask his disappointment. Now here what I wanted so much was for her to have made a mistake. In other words she’s imperfect, so she’s describing it because she’s taking in some of the data but then she says, “I would like to see it” revealing that she’s actually not really looking at it at all. But what happens after is it kind of feels like – because she keeps going, “Do you think I’ll ever see one out there.” She’s almost explaining like she didn’t make a mistake and that kind of bummed me out.
I was confused in his apartment which is, again, it’s just cliché future apartment. Everyone is still drinking from near empty bottles of whiskey in their cliché future apartment.
John: Yeah. That was a moment I marked as cliché. The character sipping on a glass of whiskey. I just feel like, you know, it’s a challenge. But in that same paragraph she sort of saves it. “Despite the view, there is somber mood to this place. He leans his forehead on the glass…close enough to reveal that the ocean sunrise view is made up of tiny almost imperceptible pixels.” So, the idea that that’s all a screen is kind of cliché. How she’s revealing it is terrific and I’ve not seen that pixel-y thing.
Craig: I agree with you. And this is why I really appreciate for instance the movie Her. Because a lot of moments like this wouldn’t be kind of – there wouldn’t be extra gloss with sipping on my brown whiskey out of my glass. It rather just be I’m eating some weird piece of cheese or something while this happens. It’s a very mundane life.
What I was confused about was the automated voice says, “Good morning, Citizen.” Jeff presses a moon symbol on the wall and the morning sky slowly fades into darkness. Why? Because it was morning and so–
John: Maybe there’s a good reason for it and we’re going to find out. But I flagged that as well because in the moment it was confusing and we can’t have too many of those in the first couple of pages because we could check out.
Craig: Yeah. Even if you just acknowledge an action. “Oddly, Jeff presses, this inspires Jeff to press a moon symbol on the wall.” You know, it’s just something so that you let me know that it’s OK to be confused by this.
Then when we get to this rainforest, so now it feels – I think we’re outside of whatever this city is. And then along the rooftop are these guardians. They’re huge machines. They look like prehistoric beasts. Their technology is super advanced. I don’t have a sense of how big they are. It says behemoth machines. But then they stand guard along the roof and nearby a door panel beeps. They remain motionless. Well door panels don’t really compare to behemoth machines, or behemoth machines, however you pronounce it. So I was kind of confused by size a little bit by that comparison of the door to these prehistoric things like dinosaurs I guess.
They haven’t moved. So I don’t even know if they’re like statues or what.
John: Yeah. So let’s talk about how you might get a sense of scale because it can be tough to do that. So you can literally tell us how big they are, but another way to do it would have something that we know the size of it next to it. So obviously a person standing next to it, but a bird lands on it and we get a sense of how big these are. That might be a helpful way just to – again, always thinking visually. How do you convey the size of things?
Craig: Yeah. And I was a little concerned that we’re just meeting these things in what I would call the normal world phase of our movie or show and then some rain goes through and already kind of looks like it maybe damages one of them. It’s just hard for something to get immediately damaged. I don’t even know what it is and you’ve damaged it.
John: Yeah. I wasn’t reading that as damaged. I was just reading like maybe it was cycling through our something. But I agree. It was not the right kind of confusion at the moment for an overall setup that I really liked a lot. I liked that we were in the rainforest which is not a classic place where we’re seeing this kind of science fiction story.
Craig: Yeah. And lastly we end in this atrium, which again I think is sort of sci-fi/high-tech city atrium. It just felt like that, you know. Alric Fischer is “handsome in a carefully manicured kind of way.” No, no, no. That’s hot-but-doesn’t-know-it. It’s the same. It’s from that category. I’m looking for something so much more interesting. You know?
John: So, he’s described next as a “clean-cut thoroughbred.” That’s better. And if I just got clean-cut thoroughbred that would help me.
Craig: Yeah. I think so. That would help. Now obviously short dark hair and crisp, tailored shirt, I’m a big fan of wardrobe, hair, and makeup. All that is great. It’s just this kind of handsome thing. It’s the same thing, it’s hot, pretty, beautiful, handsome, stunning, chiseled, weathered, manly, macho. It’s all the same. They’re actors. We get it.
And then Ella behind him is thin and tall. That’s just, no, nope. Thin and tall is not a thing. That’s not a person. That’s a shape. I don’t know if she is white, black. I don’t know if she’s a mess, if she’s fantastic, if she’s a thoroughbred, if she’s blue collar, she’s nervous, angry. I don’t know–
John: You know who is thin and tall? Shelly Duvall.
Craig: Shelly Duvall.
John: But I don’t think she means Shelly Duvall.
Craig: Shelly Duvall is thin and tall. Yeah, it’s just too reductive. You don’t want to reduce a human being down to weight and height. It just feels wrong.
John: Talk about the choices the character is making. And so how the character is dressed is a choice. How the character has got their hair. That can be a choice. But the jeans that they got, that’s not a choice.
Craig: Agreed. And Edith finally, because I really do think you’re on to something interesting here and you’ve got a really – I mean, I’m really intrigued by this AI thing and how he’s conversing with her. There’s something fresh about that. So every time you kind of muddy your freshness with something that feels like it’s off the regular shelf at Walmart it’s going to hurt you. So here’s a phrase from the Walmart screenwriting shelf. “There you are.”
Nobody needs to say that any more. Nobody needs to walk out to where someone is and then announce, “There you are.” It’s just so like blech.
John: Yeah. And here’s the way to think about it is like instead of saying that line they can say an actual interesting line.
John: And so every line is precious. Make it an interesting line.
Craig: Or say nothing.
John: Here are a few little things I want to point out just as other people are reading through this. She’s starting with a fade in. You don’t need to. You sort of get a free fade in at the start of your movie, so you don’t need to have that setup there if you don’t want that fade in there. And if you are using fade in again a convention is that fade in tends to be on the left hand margin for starting. Fade-ins tend to be on the left hand side, fade-outs tend to be on the right hand side. It’s just what you most commonly see.
She’s not uppercasing her sounds. So thunder echoes and booms over the El Yunque rainforest. Usually you would still uppercase those ECHOES and BOOMS. Again, this isn’t old radio theater where we have to pull out the coconuts to do stuff, but still most times in screenplays you will see those uppercased and it’s convention and I look for it and I find it. So same thing with secure door panel BEEPS. It’s just what we’re used to seeing.
Craig: Yeah. And even if it’s – I mean, it’s certainly not a requirement in the sense that you’re fulfilling some sort of formal need for format. John and I obviously are dead set against that sort of rhetoric. It just helps people. I think it just makes it more interesting to read. It breaks things up a little bit. You get a little bit of an impact. When something booms and you write it down that way it passes by with the same sort of impression as something beeping. But in a movie theater a boom literally shakes your abdomen because of the base. So, you know, give it to us.
John: All right, let’s move onto our next one. This is Carolyn Getches and Hilary C. Gish writing Formerly Fat Housewife.
Standing on a physician’s scale, Jean, who is 38 describes her failed history of dieting to a thin, model-like nurse and a gruff physician. They take her measurements and the doctor assures her that on his plan she’ll lose 75 pounds. He offers his beautiful, skinny nurse as proof of his program’s success.
Jean leaves to collect her pills from the reception area. Jean references an ad she saw in the Yellow Pages to get a free trial of the pills. She then runs into Barbara, a portly housewife from her son’s school. Barbara swears by the pills that Jean has just picked up.
Jean then goes home where we see her add these new diet pills to her collection of diuretics, amphetamines, laxatives, and more. She pops the pills and swallows without water.
Craig, what did you think of these few pages?
Craig: Carolyn and Hilary, I think you guys did a great job. And I want to talk about what I loved.
John: They knocked it out of the park. I’m so excited.
Craig: So good. First of all, it’s a great idea. A lot of times we’ll read three pages and we’ll say you’ve done a great job in these three pages in service of something that no one is ever going to make. Someone will make this. Someone should make this. Maybe I’ll make it. Because, you know, my grandmother was on Weight Watchers literally for 17 years of her life. It’s just – it’s an incredible kind of thing. And it never occurred to me to tell the kind of origin story. But it’s brilliant.
And the first great decision comes before the three pages. It’s a page with a quote. Now, you’ll get a lot of yammering on Reddit and Schmeddit, and all these other pages about where to put a quote, and should you put a quote, and is a quote pretentious, and blah-blah-blah. Yeah, you know when quotes are pretentious? When they’re pretentious. When you start off with, I don’t know, Nietzsche intoning about something really, really important and then you begin your post-apocalyptic Mad Max rip-off.
But here, this is what they write, “Weight Watchers International has generated over $20 billion in revenue since its founding. It all began in 1961.” That’s it.
Craig: So good.
Craig: So good.
John: This is a title I can imagine actually showing up on screen. But here’s what this does. Is it says this is going to be about Weight Watchers and it’s going to be starting in 1961. And it immediately says like, OK, take everything I assume about 1961, you get that for free because it said it on this dedication page.
Craig: It also says this matters. $20 billion is a lot of money. We’re already going, OK, how do you get to $20 billion from this one woman, a 38-year-old woman who is overweight. And I want to know.
Now, here’s where I just was so happy with this first page. All the things they do right. So I’m in an exam room at some place. Astoria Weight Control. It doesn’t matter necessarily – the only thing I would have loved is just to get a hint that we were hearing people with accents from Queens, because it says it’s going to be Astoria, Queens. But that’s fine.
So we meet our character. We know exactly what she’s wearing, which is wonderful. And they’re even saying that she’s wearing these earrings in hopes you won’t notice that her tailored housedress is a size 33. And by the way, I know the housedress because again my grandmother wore it. And what’s happening is she’s doing something that normal humans do. It’s very recognizable to us. But for some reason writers seem to forget people do. She’s nervous. And she’s not stuttering, and she’s not shaking or sweating, she’s rambling. This is very common. She’s rambling about all the things she’s tried to do, which in its own way is an indication that Jean Niedetch – apologize, I’m not sure how to pronounce it – but that Jean is aware that she is failing.
And so a lot of this is a kind of rattling sort of covering dialogue. The nurse and the doctor could not care less. The nurse is incredibly thin. The doctor, they point out, is not. But he doesn’t have to care because he’s a man. They don’t say that. They don’t hit you in the face with it. It’s just there for you to figure out. And you do.
And she goes on and on. We hear the weight. There’s another excuse, a wonderful excuse, “My mother thinks it’s glandular.” The nurse says, “There’s no such thing, right Doctor?” Oh, it’s so mean. But it’s great because the doctor doesn’t care at all. He’s not talking to her. He’s not asking her questions. He just says, “Do what I do, you’re going to be down 75 pounds.” She says, “You really think so?” And he says, regards to the model nurse, “Look at her. She’s my best work.” As in that’s not a person. I made a thing. And I’m going to make you a thing like the thing.
I’ve learned so much already. And most importantly I am on this woman’s side. I’m not on her side because she’s yelling at someone or angry at somebody. I’m on her side because she is agreeing with people that are demeaning her and that is so identifiable. It makes me want to hug her.
Out she goes into the reception area. She pays money, or gets some freebies, and then you realize, and another thin person handing them out, there’s no regimen here. The dude is just handing out speed. He’s just handing out pills.
She runs into a friend of hers who is in a very similar situation. She says, and this is my favorite thing, of all three pages. And Jean says, “Barbara, hi. I’ve heard such good things about these little pills, I just had to give them a try. The doctor thinks it’s glandular.” She lies.
John: She lies.
Craig: She lies. I love it. It’s so good.
John: But, Craig, for folks who aren’t reading this, right before that is my favorite moment in these three pages. So Barbara says, “David’s mom? Is that you? What are you doing so far from Ridgewood?” That is such a great moment where it’s like you don’t actually know her name, but you know that she must be David’s mom.
Craig: David’s mom? I love that. It’s so great. And it’s so true, by the way. It’s so true.
John: She has no identity of her own.
Craig: She has no identity of her own.
Craig: It’s so great. And then when she goes back to her apartment she sees – there’s already a ton of these pills. And there’s way too many. Now, it’s a tricky thing here because what Carolyn and Hilary are doing at the very end is essentially identifying what those pills are for us. And that’s a little bit of a cheat, because a lot of people aren’t going to necessarily know that in the 1960s the cutting edge of dieting was giving women speed, laxatives, and diuretics. So, some kind of indication of what they are per label could be helpful.
John: But the basic visual works even if you don’t know what they specifically are. She has a medicine cabinet full of these things and she’s just trying the next one.
Craig: It’s wonderful. I mean, it feels like the kind of thing that should be made. And I would continue reading this in a heartbeat. I mean, I just think this is terrific. I loved it.
John: Yeah. So, we didn’t say at the outset, this is written as a pilot, because it says end of teaser. It feels like a limited series that gets you started in things. It just is great.
Craig: I want to read it.
John: Send the whole thing through.
Craig: Yeah, I want to read it.
John: A couple things on the first page, because I think it’s really good and it’s only because I think it could be even better that I’m going to offer some suggestions and sort of move some stuff around.
Jean starts by her monologuing here. “I’m telling you, there’s nothing I wouldn’t try. Last year I spent two months on a carrot cleanse. I lost fifteen pounds, but my skin turned orange.” As written, we’re interrupting with a nurse motions for Jean to step on a scale. She looks more like a model in a short uniform. Jean says, “Have you seen that before?” Breaking up that dialogue actually hurt the joke a little bit.
John: So I would propose keep all of Jean together along with Jean turns to the doctor, gruff man. So keep that all together and then put the nurse a little bit later on. So the nurse is not breaking up that really great joke and still establishes the doctor being the primary person she’s trying to talk to. Because right now it looks like she might be trying to talk to the nurse.
Craig: Right. Your other option in that is to pull it up a bit. So you have Jean saying, “I’m telling you, there’s nothing I wouldn’t try. Last year I spent two months on a carrot cleanse.” The nurse tells her to get on the scale. She does. While on the scale, “I lost fifteen pounds, but my skin turned orange. Have you ever seen that before?”
John: Absolutely. You could break it that way. Or you could put the nurse above the two things. But basically we’re just saying keep that dialogue together so it really is clear that have you seen that before goes towards the doctor, not towards the nurse.
John: I think there’s a good case to be made for getting rid of the model nurse’s line. “There’s no such thing, right Doctor?” By giving her lines you’re making her seem more important in the scene and she’s really not important in the scene. She should just basically be a prop.
Craig: I would fight for it.
John: OK. So I think you can do that with an eye roll.
Craig: Here’s why I would fight for it. Because what it tells me, she’s still a prop. In fact, she weirdly becomes more of a prop because of that line. What I like is that the model nurse is clearly a subject of the doctor. It’s like a child going, “Uh-uh, there isn’t glandular. I got told, right Doctor?” And he’s like, uh-huh. He doesn’t care about her or Jean. So it’s like women competing for the attention of this overweight man who is going to decide their worth. I kind of dug it.
John: So I would say as you’re shooting this try a version where she says the line and try a version where she says the lines just with her eyes and a reaction.
Craig: Always a good idea.
John: Last thing I would say is we’re using script here rather than prescription. I think just for clarity at this moment because it’s just action lines I would spell out prescription just because it potentially is confusing that people are holding scripts, like what scripts? Just take away any possible little hiccups where a person could be confused. Like are they holding a screenplay or are they holding a prescription until you’ve established that script is what we’re using for prescription.
John: Great. Just delightful. So this is a case where please send through the whole thing if it’s all written.
Craig: Yeah. I want to read it. I want to.
John: Let’s do our third and final one. Do you want to take this one, Craig?
Craig: Sure. We’ve got something from Christine Hoang called Fly Girl. Linh, a 42-year-old Vietnamese-American woman lies in bed. She picks up her phone from its charger. It’s 3:21am. She scrolls through Facebook through the posts on her page. We learn that it is Linh’s birthday. She smiles at a long post from a Ruben Ramirez who calls her a queen. Linh’s eyes widen as she sees a happy birthday post from Harold Williams. Linh goes to Harold’s profile. As she swipes through Harold’s photos we see that Linh used to be in his life as his wife.
She is relieved to see his profile says he’s single. Linh sets her alarm and we cut to the next morning as Linh gets her eight-year-old daughter, Nini, ready for school. On the drive to school Linh and Nini brainstorm tardy excuses. Linh reminds Nini that her dad is picking her up after school. Nini leaves and wishes her mom a happy birthday. And that’s Christine Hoang’s Fly Girl.
John: So, what I really liked about these three pages is I had not seen this character before. And I had not felt like I’d seen this story quite before. Sort of her situation. And that by setting it up as her birthday I believe that we are going to be told a story that is a one-time thing so that today is not like other days, which is what movies are is days that are different than other days. So that got me excited.
I think there’s stuff on the page which is a little bit messy and it isn’t sort of providing the best shape and focus. But I like the kinds of things she was trying to illustrate which is that sort of deciding whether or not to like a post and the way you sort of find your identity through people’s reactions to you was cool and interesting. That her life felt kind of messy in ways that made me excited to see more about what she was doing.
Craig: Yeah. I wonder if this character of Linh, because in the script Linh Hoang Williams, 42, Vietnamese-American woman, and our author is Christine Hoang. So I’m wondering, OK, is this Christine and is this autobiographical? It’s hard to tell just because she’s used the same name. But what I do like is that we don’t typically see this character, a 42-year-old woman, I love size 12, sometimes size 14 depending on that week’s carb intake. I like that she’s got this insomnia. It feels true. And we get introduced in the second paragraph a screensaver photo of a cute biracial Asian-white girl. Now just keep that in mind. So we’re good at picking up things. That’s probably her kid is what we’re thinking.
I really like that she was checking Facebook for birthday greetings. Birthdays have become a full-time job of just dealing with Facebook greetings, and I’ve left Facebook so I’m free of that world.
I was a bit confused. Who is doing this at 3:21 in the morning unless she’s looking at yesterday’s thing, but it’s her birthday today. We know that because we’re going to hear that later. No one is doing that at that hour. It’s usually – you know what I mean? So I didn’t quite understand – it felt like she was trying to get two things in at once. I mean, you could just as easily have her wake up, have her doing this, and have that be the reason that she’s late bringing her kid to school. Because I would believe that.
There’s a post from her friend. I’m a little nervous that we’ve got gay-based best friend trope going on here. It’s hard to tell. But, you know, it’s not that you’re not allowed to have the gay best friend. It’s just one more check in the “we’ve seen it” column.
Harold Williams is a terrible name for a character. I’m sorry. Especially when you’ve got something so wonderful and specific like Linh Hoang Williams, and the Linh is L-I-N-H which is a Vietnamese spelling. I just feel like Harold Williams seems like White Whiteman or something. It just feels a bit too, I don’t know, uninteresting. If you’re going to do it, then make fun of it at least. Because there are people named Harold Williams. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a ton of them.
I don’t think we get two swipey scenes in one scene. I struggle with swipey scenes. I think you get one and then you move on.
John: Yeah, at the top of page two I wanted to get rid of all the profile photos of Harold, because it’s just like we’ve been staring at phones too long.
Craig: And it’s really just become Exposition Book, not Facebook. We know now what’s happening. You’re forcing us to learn stuff because she’s looking at things. And I’m sorry, I just don’t – I mean, yes, of course people moon at exes on Facebook and they kind of Facebook stalk them, but not like this, where you just magically get the seven pictures you need to see your entire relationship. You know, picture from one year ago, from five years ago. There’s Harold and Linh embracing a biracial Asian-white little – it’s literally the same exact language. We know. We get it. You might as well just tell us it’s her daughter in the first thing because then we don’t have to keep saying it over and over and over. Because it’s a little bit weird. Like is that kid theirs? Why is she not telling us it’s theirs, because it seems like it’s theirs. And so it just goes through all the way, you know, kind of here’s the story of my life. I kind of don’t understand why she had to do that in the middle of night and then go back to bed again and then wake up again.
And then there’s this scene with her daughter who I presume is that girl, because she calls her her biracial eight-year-old daughter. So, I’m assuming it’s the same girl.
John: That’s a case where usually you would say like the girl, like in parenthesis, like the girl on the phone on screensaver.
Craig: Right. The girl from the picture. The drive along is fine. So we’ve seen a parent drive a child to school four billion times. The park in front of the school, what’s my tardy excuse today, that’s not something you ask when you’re getting dropped off. That’s the first thing you ask when you get in the car and you realize you’re going to be late.
And I think just the rest of this exchange offers me no insight into their relationship. None.
Craig: And it’s not a lot of space to have insight, so it doesn’t need to be a great insight. I just need one thing to know. That there’s a thing. Just one.
John: So, let’s imagine that we lost the driving scene at the top of page three. We’ve lost really nothing. Nothing super important. I do like them sort of swaying their heads to 1986 Control. But it’s not crucial. And if we just went from driveway sort of baby penguin/Nini getting into the car to elementary school, and lose Nini’s first line.
Linh says, “Tell your teacher traffic was a nightmare.”
Craig: Yeah, way better.
John: If Nini were to answer, “That’s what we said yesterday.” That is a better way to get that information out that this is a recurring thing than to have the little girl lead that exchange.
Craig: Such a good idea. Much better.
John: I agree with you on so much of where we can sort of do better. And it got me thinking back to Barack Obama Burnham’s movie Eighth Grade which I loved so much. And we’ll find a link to the PDF of that so you can take a look at sort of how he did the stuff on the phone on the page. Because it was a really good use of we know we’re going to be staring at screens a lot and how you convey that information and make it clearer, not just what you’re trying to tell the audience but how our central character is reacting to that information.
Another thing which I think you should be looking for is how you’re setting up your physical environments. Because you’re not giving us anything about her bedroom a lot. You’re not giving us anything about her car, her house. We just don’t get a good sense of where she’s at. I don’t even know if this is east coast, west coast. So, I want that vibe. Just anchor us into a place is really important.
Craig: So true. Outside of elementary school. Who goes there? Is it mostly white kids? Is it a mix of white kids and Asian kids? Is it black, Latino? Is it public? Is it private? Rich neighborhood/poor neighborhood? Is this a line of Mercedes and Linh is driving a Toyota? What’s going on? We just need stuff. Like all these little tiny bits are teaching us things. And someone is going to have to decide those things.
See, the most important thing I think for you to realize when you’re working on this stuff is, no, you don’t have to decide everything, but everything you don’t decide somebody else will for you. So, think about that. And then say, OK, I wouldn’t mind if I knew that this was a middle class suburb, you know, racially mixed kids. I don’t mind how they racially mix the kids on the day when the first AD goes and makes selections from extras casting. I just mind that they’re not all white. So I’ve done my job. I made my decision. So you have to make a bunch of decisions to help production or they will fill it in for you and trust me when I tell you they will get it wrong. They will not read your mind ever.
John: Nope. And so it’s not just production but it’s also the production happening in a reader’s mind in terms of like how they’re sort of filling in the backgrounds of things. And so do a little of that work so that you’re creating the right image in people’s heads.
I want to thank all of our entries to the Three Page Challenge and especially the three people who we talked about today.
John: You’re all very, very brave. Four actually. You’re right. Because we had a team there. You’re all very, very brave for sending stuff in. And so thank you for letting us discuss these things on the air.
If you want to send in your own Three Page Challenge you can go to johnaugust.com/threepage. All spelled out.
We have two quick questions. Let’s try to get through these today.
Craig: Let’s do it.
John: Kate from London asks, “My question is about working with actors. How much freedom do you feel should be given to them when they want to change their character’s dialogue? I recently started working on a quiet and established TV show here in the UK and one of the supporting actresses would send through her amendments to every one of her scenes, changing her character’s lines to what she thought was better dialogue.
“Do you feel writers should be very open to an actor doing this?” Craig?
Craig: It depends. If you are – so, Kate says she recently started working on an established TV show. OK, now, in certain cases when you have an established TV show, you’re in your fifth season of a series, or as they say your fifth series in UK, and one of your actors, well, she’s been doing it for five seasons. She’s done 25 episodes. You’ve written one. In that circumstance there may be – the actor may have very valuable insight. She may know what has worked in the past and how the rhythms worked before. And because you’re new that may be worth a discussion and may be worth opening to.
However, for me, my relationship with my cast, for instance on Chernobyl, was of course. If you have a suggestion or a thought please come tell me. The final determination is mine. And that’s it.
In movies it seems that actors can sometimes hold productions hostage to these things because of a movie star kind of system, but in television, you know, look, my experience is one show but I was working with a very large cast and a lot of really excellent, well-established actors with long careers who could have been, I suppose, very obstreperous and demanding about these things. But they weren’t. And everything – for instance Jared and I spent a lot of time going through the script and any suggestion he had was put forward as a proposal with an explanation so it could be evaluated. And you know eight times out of ten I was like, you know what, that’s better. I’m changing that. That’s great.
Yes, we should always be open. We should reserve the right to be the final arbiter of what the dialogue of the show is. With the one caveat that sometimes you have to be aware that somebody else, an actor, may actually know this character than you do if you’re new and they’re not.
John: Yeah. So standard advice I always give is that if an actor can’t find a way through a line, there’s a problem with the line and you’re going to have to change it. Because if the actor can’t find a way to deliver it it is not going to be a line that is going to serve the story well. So you’re going to need to work with that actor to find what that situation is.
I agree with Craig that if this is an established show and the showrunner is not stepping in there to stop this from happening then that’s just the way that this show works and sorry. But I want to point out that very rarely does one character’s dialogue not impact every other character in that scene.
John: And so it’s going to be very hard to let that actor rewrite all of her stuff without all the other actors feeling like well how am I supposed to respond to that. Basically are they rewriting everybody’s dialogue? That can be the problem and the challenge. And where as we’ve talked to other showrunners they try to nip that in the bud so that the seventh person on the call sheet doesn’t feel like they get to rewrite all their dialogue, too.
John: So that’s a thing you’re going to be mindful of throughout all of this.
Craig: That’s a great point. When I did my tiny little acting job and I had to memorize lines that was the first time I realized that a huge part of memorizing your lines is memorizing your scene partner’s lines. Because those lines are the trigger for you to do yours. That’s when you know you’re supposed to be jumping on top of them or reacting and then saying something. So if their stuff is all of a sudden different your preparation is kind of down the tubes.
Craig: So, no, it’s a real thing. And in movies when you sometimes hear of these horror shows, this is partly what’s going on. So hopefully we’ve answered your question, Kate.
Alex from the Wilton Exit off the 101. I know it well. Writes, “I’m working on a pilot with a person I thought was my producer, but who is now turning into a cowriter.”
John: Oh my.
Craig: Ugh, here we go. “I developed and scripted his idea, and now as I rewrite and work on his notes he’s also sending me new drafts he’s worked on. I see now that he won’t OK anything I do and will slowly take my script and chop it up, rewrite the dialogue, and even change whole scenes and characters. I feel that his work is a significant and noticeable drop off in quality from mine. His changes are not only for the worse, but also confusing and contradictory. What should I do when we pitch this thing?
“He has a showrunner friend he’s talking to. How do I explain which parts are mine, what the script used to look like? I want to meet his promised connections to start making my own and hopefully jumpstart real work, but I don’t want my name attached to something I don’t like at all and doesn’t reflect my ability. What’s the point in meeting a connection if I know they’re going to read this and think, wow, this guy sucks? As someone working to break in I feel like I’m in a bind here.”
John: Oh, Alex, step close. I’m going to wrap my arms around you and just give you a great big hug.
Craig: Yeah. Group hug, Alex.
John: Yeah. Sorry. And, so let’s talk what you can do now, but also hopefully try to give some advice for other people so they don’t find themselves in this situation.
This producer is not being good or fair or honest about sort of what their intentions are, sort of how they see this all working. And it was probably gradual and it got to the place where it’s at. They are now your cowriter. That’s terrible. And you’re going to have to have a sit down with them I would say in a neutral place. Say like, listen, I’m not happy with the script. I’m not happy with how this has gone down. I don’t like this. I would rather write my own script, but I don’t think this here is working. So let’s figure out a way for this to work or maybe just move on and move past. Because this doesn’t seem to be the right thing.
It’s not clear in your letter whether any money has been exchanged. I’m guessing it hasn’t, which is good. So there’s no sense of a binding sort of commitment here to anything. But this did not work out. And, Alex, I’m really sorry.
Craig: So am I. And I can’t blame you in any way, shape, or form. When we are starting out and we are really striving any lifeline is worth grabbing a hold of. It’s just that a lot of bad actors out there – not bad performers, but people working in bad faith – are going to throw us fake lifelines when really what they’re doing is just exploiting us. And I would say just as a blanket bit of advice: don’t develop non-writer’s ideas.
It’s just down that road is madness because really what’s happening is someone is saying I have an idea. I have imagined a movie. But I’ve imagined it without any of the confinements that come with the responsibility of creating it. So now you’re going to do that. You’re going to paint my fence for me and I’m just going to complain about it the whole time because it doesn’t match my wild unachievable imagination of what this thing is. And they will eventually haul you out and destroy you. So, this is a terrible situation.
In terms of what to do next, remember if you make sure that your name is on this and that you’re a cowriter, you actually have one bit of enormous leverage. It can’t be sold without you. You can’t sell something if you don’t want to sell it. You have to sign a paper that says I’m transferring copyright. I’m selling this literary material. Etc. Etc.
What you desperately need is your own individual counsel that is not connected in any way to this producer of yours. A manager, lawyer, agent, what have you. Because that person is going to need to represent you carefully in this.
When you ask what should I do when we pitch this thing, I don’t know if you should be pitching this thing. Because the questions you’re asking are not in any way achievable. Not remotely. How do I explain which parts are mine, what the script used to look like? There is no way to do that.
John: You can’t.
Craig: It’s just not possible. I know you don’t want your name attached to something you don’t like and all. Hopefully if this producer is as small potatoes and irrelevant as I suspect he is you’re not going to be meeting anybody that’s going to ruin you for the rest of your life. There’s no one brief moment where the window opened and if only you had subjected yourself to a little bit more humiliation you’d be famous ten years later. No. That’s not how it works.
So, I would say make sure that you stake your legal ownership claim to half this script. That you then behave the way you want in terms of who it gets sold to, if at all. But that you let go of any thoughts or imaginations that you’re going to be able to prove to people that in fact this thing that you’re asking them to buy is bad but there’s something else that’s good and that they can really buy that. That’s just not going to happen.
John: If there’s some comfort I can offer Alex is that any successful screenwriter you’ve met probably has some stories that are kind of like this about early on in their process in their career. Where things that didn’t work out, relationships that turned really weird, stuff that they’re sort of embarrassed has their name on it. And at a certain point you stop caring about it because it just doesn’t matter anymore. So take this as the lesson that it is. Write your own things and just try to be mindful not getting into these situations again.
Craig: Yeah. You’re not a sucker. You’re just basically average. It’s a very average, sadly, it’s an average occurrence in this town.
John: All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is the word verse when used as a verb. So, Craig, this is a thing I’m sure you’ve heard. We’re versing the team from centennial this week. So it’s a thing you mostly hear little kids do, but increasingly teenagers and other folks using as well.
Craig: Oh yes. Now I understand.
John: Yeah. So it comes from versus. And so if we say it’s John versus Craig, kids will hear that as the third person singular of a verb, so they think there must be a verb called verse and that means to challenge somebody or to compete against somebody. And it’s an example of sort of a back formation where you’re trying to take a grammar rule and apply it to something that’s not quite right. And it creates a new word.
And so I assumed it was a new thing probably coming out of videogame culture, because I heard my daughter using it when she was little. I found a post this last week from Mark Liberman in Language Log that talks about this dating back to 2004 and earlier. So it’s a thing that’s been out there for a long time.
Some dictionaries are starting to include verse as a verb. I’m mentioning it on this podcast here so that you will now listen for it and we’ll see where we’re at ten years from now. How much verse has propagated?
Craig: Yeah. I had not thought about that for so long until this moment when you mentioned it. But when my son played baseball in little league kids would say we’re versing the Pirates. And it would put my teeth on edge, of course. And then I would beat them. I would physically beat them with bats.
They didn’t get better at playing baseball, but they stopped – no.
John: They stopped saying verse as a verb.
Craig: They continue to say versing. The one that is – and I wonder if some of these are regionalisms or just generationalisms. But my children’s generation when you say I’ve done something on purpose, or I’ve done something by accident, they say on accident. So they keep the preposition the same even though the word changes. So, it was on accident they’ll say. And I’m hearing adults say it now.
John: I think I’ve probably said it. It’s one of those things that I think is probably sliding into mutual usage. And it’s not quite the same situation as like demagoguing as a verb, where we know it’s a noun and we’re making it into a verb. That happens all the time and English is really good at that. It’s a different thing where you’re just applying a grammatical rule in a way that’s not sort of intended but just creates a new usage.
Craig: Yeah. It’s fascinating. I remember the first time I heard it I just went, “Huh?” Nobody else seemed to have a problem with it. It’s a little bit like the first time I heard someone said heigth instead of height.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: Which is now, I mean, honestly I would say 70% of people I hear who say the word height will say heigth.
John: Yeah. It’s because of–
John: Length, width, and height.
Craig: So they’re just carrying a rule through incorrectly. And if I had my way they would all be executed at dawn.
John: So and some of that is probably coming from non-native English speakers who are learning the words later on–
Craig: Not as far as I can tell.
John: But here’s the thing. Non-native speakers who would apply that and then online they’re using those things and because our kids are seeing that used online I think that’s how it helps propagate.
Craig: I’ve got to be honest with you. The first time I heard it it was from older white guys who were working like in construction gigs.
Craig: Yeah. They’re just like, “Well, you know, you need like this much heigth to get this thing through.” And I’m like what did you say? I mean, I didn’t say that because then I’m literally the parody of some fussy Jew.
Craig: Excuse me, sir, what did you say? Did you say heigth? I don’t know why I’m also British. Or snobby old weird Jewish/British. That’s me.
John: Good stuff.
Craig: It’s the new Craig.
John: It’s a new character?
Craig: It’s height, sir. Height.
John: Craig, what’s your One Cool Thing?
Craig: My One Cool Thing is this nifty little product that I’ve been looking for something in this category forever that would work and stay working and I think I might have found it. So, like everybody else in the world I have a problem with my smudgy screens on my phone and my iPad. And they have all sorts of like this thing rolls it and it wipes it and blah-blah-blah.
Well, I’m not a big fan of the tear a thing open, pull a thing out, wipe the thing, take another thing out, wipe that stuff off. Then they have some that are like rollers but they’re kind of like they need to stay moist sort of and then they dry out and then they’re no good.
So, I was just reading an article about, you know, little life hacky stuff. And they sent me to a product called iRoller. Ugh, revolutionary name.
John: That’s an eye roll.
Craig: Yeah, exactly. It is an eye roll of a name. iRoller screen cleaner reusable liquid free touchscreen cleaner for smartphones and tablets. And lo and behold and it works. It works really, really well. It’s not like a lint brush thing where there’s like an adhesive. It looks like it’s more of one of those static films that actually just does a really good job of picking stuff up. And then when it stops working you can wash it and it just sort of goes back to the way it used to be.
And it’s very portable. It’s very tiny. And it’s not, I think it’s $20 or something like that which is, I don’t know, a profit margin of $19.98. But it actually does the job. So if you’re looking for one of those things and you’re grumpy because none of them have worked, check out the iRoller.
John: So, and it works better than my solution which is just rubbing it on my shirt?
Craig: It does. The rubbing it on – listen, I’ve rubbed many a phone on my shirt. It tends to take spots, which are really just accumulation of grease and dust, and just disseminate it over the entire screen.
John: Equalize it.
Craig: Yeah. There’s like a light fog over everything, as opposed to clean which is different. Oh, and it works on laptop screens, too, which is another plus.
John: Because it’s really embarrassing when I have to pick up my laptop screen and rub it on my shirt. It’s awkward.
Craig: I’ve done it. [laughs] I’ve done it. I’ve got real problems.
John: That is our show for this week. Our show is produced by Megana Rao. It was edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Mackey Landy.
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 longer questions. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts which go up about four days after the episode airs.
If you want to read the recap of this on Reddit, go for it. We’re R/Screenwriting.
You can find the back episodes of this show at Scriptnotes.net. Or download 50-episode seasons at store.johnaugust.com.
That is our show for this week. Craig, thank you for helping me achieve some self-awareness.
Craig: I love that and we’ll do it again next week.
John: Thanks. Bye.
- John and Craig’s panel on Addiction & Mental Health organized by Hollywood, Health & Society Wed, July 31, 2019, 6:30 PM – 9:30 PM PDT at SAG. Limited tickets, email: email@example.com
- Research Methods for Writers with Chernobyl’s Craig Mazin Wednesday, July 17, 2019 @ 7:00 PM
- Trumpcast Is Trump a Disease? A Medical Perspective
- Edith Rodriguez, The Days Ahead
- Carolyn Getches & Hilary C. Gish Formerly Fat Housewife
- Christine Hoang Fly Girl
- Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade Script
- ‘Versing’ Verse as a Verb
- Screen Cleaner
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by Mackey Landy (send us yours!)
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.