The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 410 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast it’s a variation on How Would This Be a Movie. Instead of looking at three stories in the news we’re taking three articles off Wikipedia and looking at what you get by using just those facts versus using a more detailed article.
Then we’ll be taking listener questions about real life subjects, showing your work, and applying the Mazin Method to television.
Craig: The Mazin Method. Yeah. The original Mazin Method was just helping couples conceive children. Which works great by the way. But this is a new one. So I just don’t want people to confuse them.
John: Absolutely. Because they have similar things, because there’s that thesis and antithesis in both situations.
John: You’re trying to arrive at a middle place. But they are different.
Craig: Yeah. And one of them you do have to take your temperature each morning.
John: Yeah. The answer will surprise you.
John: But first some follow up.
Craig: I like this. I like the show already. I’m pleased with it.
John: We are hosting a panel on addiction and mental health that’s organized by Hollywood, Health & Society. It’s already sold out, but the good news is there will be a Facebook live stream for it. So this happens Wednesday July 31st, 2019. The live stream starts at 7:15pm Los Angeles time. There’s a link in the show notes for how you get there, but if you don’t follow the link just look up Hollywood, Health & Society on Facebook and you will join us there. I’m very excited about this.
Craig: Yeah. And this is a SAG-AFTRA production, correct?
John: This is actually Hollywood, Health & Society which is a WGA partnership with Norman Leer’s foundation and USC. So we’re doing this at SAG but these events would usually be at the WGA.
Craig: I see. I’m just really glad that we’re doing this. Obviously it’s a huge topic. You and I have both talked about this a lot on our show, but I also have talked about this in other venues as it relates to creative professionals, writers in particular, and then also our families, and our children. We are going to keep chipping away at the taboo and the shame that surrounds this stuff until people finally just relax and begin talking about it freely.
John: Yep. So our producer, Megana Rao, has been on the phone doing sort of pre-interviews with the people who are our guests so we have specialists in both mental health and addiction. We have a showrunner tackling these topics and a journalist. So we will be able to discuss not only the things that they wish they could see portrayed more and better in our film and television, but what things we could stop doing which would be helpful for everyone out there. So.
Craig: Love that. I think that’s great.
John: So we’ll get into that.
John: Further follow up, last week my One Cool Thing was versing, that sort of newish word called versing, which led to a discussion of words like heigth, but Bob wrote in with his experience with this. Do you want to share that?
Craig: Sure. Bob writes, “I teach screen and TV writing at Chapman and so I’m in daily contact with scores of fairly literate people.” That’s the best review of your own student body I’ve ever heard. Fairly literate people, 18 to 22 years old. “And I’ve noticed that they are slowly rewriting our language and they have no idea it’s happening. In addition to ‘on accident,’ which you’ve observed, I’ve found two others. Like on accident, they both have to do with changing prepositions. So, arrive at the building has become arrive to the building and bored with it has become bored of it.
“I think bored of it comes from tired of it and on accident comes just as you said from on purpose. And while Craig’s story about heigth is probably right on the money, these other cases might well have started by people who learn English as a second language. Although I’ve been fascinated by words my whole life, I’ve only recently learned that unwieldy isn’t unwieldly. The latter seems to me to make sense since it’s an adverb so it should end with LY. But it just doesn’t.”
Well, unwieldy isn’t an adverb. It’s an adjective.
John: Yeah. I’m trying to find ways you can force it into an adverbial role.
Craig: I’m struggling.
John: I’m trying to make it modify an adjective in a way that an adverb would.
Craig: Like I lifted this unwieldly?
John: Yeah, I mean, you could–
Craig: I mean, that’s wrong. Obviously it’s not a word.
John: It’s wrong, but yeah.
Craig: But, yeah, unwieldy in and of itself is an adjective.
John: Is a true adjective. But I agree with his basic points that younger people are going to start using words in different ways and you could try to fight that or you just accept that they’re going to be using language in different ways. And that’s actually one of the reasons why so often when you translate things from another language you have to have a native speaker doing that work because they’re going to recognize the small little subtle things that people say in real spoken language versus “proper” English.
And some of these things that you’re bringing up here would make so much sense in character dialogue but you wouldn’t necessarily do them in scene description. It’s that subtle distinction between how people speak versus how they might write.
Craig: Yeah, exactly. And, look, there is a huge part of me that is orthodox about this stuff. And I think that the instinct to want to preserve the let’s just call it the correct way of speaking or writing is that it’s not necessarily to punish the kids, but rather to honor your love of the language you were given. So I come from it from a sort of positive place of wanting to preserve.
That said, of course the language that I was given, that I received, and that I call correct in and of itself was inflected and modified by people that spoke and chopped things up and messed them up. So, you strike a balance.
John: You do. And I’ll just close up by saying to ignore that language changes by pattern matching is the heigth of stupidity.
Craig: Please don’t. It’s so awful.
John: It’s just the worst.
John: I don’t like heigth, but we all understand how heigth comes to be because width, length, and heigth. Of course you want things to match.
Craig: It’s pattern matching. It’s just that pattern – let’s just not do it.
John: Yeah. I get it. I get it.
Craig: Let’s fight back.
John: We will fight back. And we will still try to preserve beg the question, because beg the question has a useful meaning and so when we see it used improperly I will still always note that it’s being used improperly.
Craig: That’s not even a question of usage. That’s just being right or wrong.
John: It is being right or wrong. Let’s take a look at How Would This Be a Movie. So, to give some setup here because we do this segment fairly often. And usually what happens is people will write into us with a link to an article, or people will tweet at us with How Would This Be a Movie and some great article there in the news. And sometimes I’ll agree, sometimes I won’t agree, but if there’s something that I do that find fascinating or I find on my own that feels like it’s right for the segment I will bookmark it. And I bookmark it in a place called Pinboard. And maybe I’m mentioned this before on the show but Pinboard is a really useful bookmark storage service. So it just shows up on all your devices.
I pay for it. It’s cheap. It’s really barebones but it works really, really well. And I go through Pinboard and I tag those things How Would This Be a Movie. So HWTBAM. And as a little tag so then I can look through and see, OK, here are some articles that I flagged for this. And I noticed that in some cases I was flagging Wikipedia articles which didn’t seem like quite enough to be basing a movie around. But really in real life sometimes that is my entry point for a movie, or at least for some aspect of the movie.
And so I thought we’d talk about Wikipedia as the starting place for ideas. Because you’ve encountered this, too, haven’t you Craig?
Craig: Sure. And this is strangely an extension of the discussion we were just having about language. Because I think for orthodox researchers Wikipedia is still something that sets their teeth on edge. But the fact is that for the great majority of people who are suddenly interested in learning about something the very first stop they are going to make is Wikipedia. That’s it. That’s the first stop. It’s not the last stop, but it’s the first one.
And such was the case for me and Chernobyl. I read an article in the New York Times about the construction of this new cover over Chernobyl. I got sort of vaguely curious. So I went to Wikipedia and I started reading the Wikipedia article. That is, again, it is a decent place to start. With all the caveats, it is a user-edited encyclopedia. They actually do a pretty good job of keeping everybody accurate and honest. Sometimes the most valuable parts of Wikipedia are really the citations, where you can go down to the bottom and see where they’ve drawn information from.
But mostly if it does capture you it sends you on a journey where you start to really learn about something rather than reading a kind of Cliff Notes summary. So we should acknowledge that that’s where a lot of people are going to start if they’re considering writing something based on history or real events or real people.
John: Yeah. And so the three things I’m going to single out here, in each case I was able to find an article that went into greater detail than what was in the Wikipedia summary. But the Wikipedia summary was a useful place to be thinking about what are the possible stories you could tell here. And then the articles helped frame a more interesting story within that. So, let’s start with 8chan. And so I kind of knew what 4chan was. I didn’t really know what 8chan was. I saw a reference to it so I looked it up.
So 8chan is an online site, a website, a community in a very loose sense. 8chan can be thought of as a discussion place for topics. 8chan is particularly freewheeling and has very few sort of controls over it. And so the Wikipedia goes through its history, about the guy who created it, but mostly about its controversy. So it was heavily involved in Gamergate, swatting, child pornography, the Trump campaign QAnon, the Christ Church mosque shootings where they were singled out and called out for that. Another synagogue shooting. So it’s–
Craig: What a resume.
John: It’s notorious. I mean, I think it’s not thought of as a good part of the Internet. But it’s not the dark web. It’s not something that is strictly behind sort of proxy servers and hidden away from the rest of the world. It’s something that anybody could go to. And so Craig what did you know about 8chan going into this?
Craig: I know quite a bit. I mean, I don’t go – I’m not a member, like a community member, an active person that participates on 4chan or 8chan or anything like that. But, you know, I’m a nerd and I’m a history nerd, a computer history nerd. I love the Internet and the history of the Internet and how it evolves.
The other day I was telling somebody, they had totally forgotten, do you remember Excite? Do you remember that search engine Excite?
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: For a while Excite was the thing.
John: Yeah. Excite. Alta Vista.
Craig: Where people would be like, yeah, I use Alta Vista or I use Yahoo, and I’m like, no man, you’ve got to use Excite. It’s way better. And then Google came along and that was the end of Excite. But, no, 4chan has been around for a long time. 4chan in and of itself is an adaption of a Japanese style of – it’s essentially an image board. That’s all it is. It’s very low tech. And remarkably these chans, and there are a lot of them, there’s like probably 50 different chans, all something-chan-dot-something. They’re all basically the same very basic software that has not changed since whenever they first appeared on the Internet. And people post an image and then there’s commenting.
The thing about them is, they almost everybody is anonymous on it. And at least in the case of 4chan it became this fascinating double edged sword. So when we talk about 4chan and then 8chan, there’s a fascinating story where this guy named Fredrick Brennan founds it and he in and of himself is a fascinating character. A lot of it was about kind of for the lulz as the kids would say. I think it began with a certain kind of goofy anarchy, like a comedic anarchy. The sort of like teenagers, younger people are going to just have some fun. And sometimes their fun is at the expense of other people, but it’s mostly in the form of pranks and things. They would do raids where they would show up in some very nice forum for people that, I don’t know, enjoy macramé and they would ruin it. And then leave.
So it was kind of like that. And then it began to become much darker. But along the way the chans are where a lot of meme culture comes from, which is our culture now. Even pre-dating Reddit. So, it is an interesting place where there’s actually fascinating things that come out of those chans and funny things, brilliantly funny things.
And then unfortunately some terribly ugly things. And Fredrick Brennan, well, tell us about Fredrick Brennan because he really is a fascinating person.
John: Absolutely. So the Wikipedia article has a brief mention of him and they call him Hotwheels, and sort of a little bit about sort of why he set it up. But there’s an article called Destroyer of Worlds by Nicky Woolf, I’ll put a link in the show notes to that, which really goes into the history of 8chan from his point of view, from Fredrick Brennan’s point of view. And so this is a kid who is born with a profound disability, what’s often called brittle bone syndrome. So he’s confined to a wheelchair. Has very little access to the outside world except through computers. And so he starts going on 4chan. Is active in the videogame sites there. And sees sort of what’s there and what’s possible and ultimately decides to build his own version of it. And so his own version of it becomes 8chan and it was largely at the height of Gamergate, as Gamergate folks were getting kicked off of 4chan he’s like, “Hey, come here guys. You can do all that stuff on my place,” and it blew up and became a big thing because of Gamergate.
He ultimately then sold 8chan to somebody else and has largely disavowed it. But he’s a fascinating character because just his origin story is fascinating. And him grappling with what he’s done is fascinating.
Craig: Yeah. It seemed as if – or at least from the article that I read here – that he was lonely.
Craig: And his initial encounter with 4chan actually was that he had created a group for people that appreciated a certain videogame and then 4chan came and did what they did, which was raid it “for the lulz.” It worked. And instead of him being angry and miserable about it he thought, ooh, that looks like fun. I would have rather been on the other side of that. And so he joined up with 4chan and then I guess as moot, the founder of 4chan, started to push back a little bit against the total freewheeling anarchy which as you said was leading to a lot of illegal pornographic content and discussions of things that were starting to edge towards violent acts in real life, and doxing of people. A lot of bad stuff. He said, “OK, well, if you’re going to push back against that I’m just going to start my own thing where it’s really up to the users.” Even more freedom than 4chan offered.
And it sounds like he got what he wanted. He just didn’t expect that it would maybe go the way it went.
John: Yeah. So the stories that this is suggesting is about the questions about freedom of speech and the boundaries between freedom of speech and radicalism and hate speech and sort of what is law versus anarchy. Those tensions are natural there. So you think of movies like The People vs. Larry Flynt where it’s one guy standing up against a government, but in this case there really isn’t a government that you’re really up against. These chans are so formless because the Internet is sort of formless and you don’t really know who is behind things. It’s all anonymous. All those things are fascinating.
But you need to be able to aim the camera at something. And so that something could be Fredrick Brennan. It could be other users. But you’re going to have to find a central focus for a story that’s going to be about 8chan or any of these aspects of some of the controversies that have happened.
Craig: Yeah. And you run a terrible risk of misunderstanding certain things because there are some aspects of these places that are just as bad as they appear. I mean, talking about a community where somebody comes on and says, “I’m about to shoot some people in a mosque,” and other people say, “Well, aim for the high score,” that’s just horrible.
And there’s no way to look at that except terrible. You know, and then in another corner of that same chan on a different board there are people who are discussing their sexuality with other people safely because they can’t at home. Even look at a guy like Brennan who is severely disabled and didn’t have friends and was reaching out and making connections with people that accepted him. What’s fascinating – anyway, the point being you can be reductive about it and that in and of itself then what happens is people go, oh, well they just did a hit piece on it.
It’s tricky. It’s a tricky thing because I don’t know if I could define at all what 4chan or 8chan even is. I don’t think I could – because it’s too many things.
John: Yeah. Where I think Brennan’s story is potentially useful as a framing around it is that it sort of mirrors the central question that you’re going to have about something like 8chan which is to what degree can you think about teenage boys doing teenage boy things versus the actual consequences in the real world. And so to what degree is it important to create a place where people can blow off steam versus a place where they can plan or at least celebrate mass shootings.
John: That aspect is really tough. And so Brennan himself who has this condition which has confined him to a wheelchair and made his life very, very difficult starts all this because he’s really – part of the reason he starts it, he’s really interested in eugenics which seems like a weird thing for a person with a debilitating disease to be focused on, but that inherent paradox is very much at the root of – we need absolute freedom of speech, nothing can contain us. They are all part of the parcel.
Craig: Correct. And I will say that when you are reading a Wikipedia article about something and you’re wondering is this something that I can write a movie about or a series, what you’re hoping to find without trying to find it but just honestly letting it happen is something that grabs you. Some strange thing you snag on. And in this story it is without question the fact that this man who does have a severe disability has written really offensive and disturbing essays in favor of a kind of eugenics that would have eliminated him. And he’s saying that purposefully. He’s said he wished for some kind of Nazi movement to come and get rid of people like him.
And when you dig into that, I mean, you snag on that for sure. And when you dig into that you find, you know, well know he’s sort of letting that go. And it brought to mind this quote that Adam McKay posted on Twitter today that I saw that I just thought was amazing. It’s a James Baldwin quote. So James Baldwin, one of the smartest writers that ever walked the face of the earth. And the quote is this: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense once hate is gone they will be forced to deal with pain.”
And I just thought well right there is Fredrick Brennan. If he turns the anger off then he’s got to deal with accepting something that is incredibly painful for him. And I get that. I understand that. And I have a feeling that that syndrome is powering a lot of what is going on in these places because a lot of the people who come there are young. I suspect a lot of them have some kind of mental health issue, or a learning disability, or a social disorder where they are alone, they’re bullied, they’re outcast. They feel unloved or uncared for and they’re hurt.
And so as it turns out these places are probably the worst kind of areas to get therapy. But I can also see why people are attracted to them in the first place.
John: Yeah. It also ties into like the YouTube algorithms that will keep sending people down a darker and darker spiral. So they’ll start watching one thing and it will push them to more and more extreme things because the algorithm just is looking for ways to keep them engaged with YouTube longer.
Craig: Yeah. It’s the–
John: The way that cycles perpetuate.
Craig: It’s that syndrome where they say if you’re kind of addicted to pornography you keep going further and further, like crazier and crazier porn. Because you just get used to the regular porn I guess. And it’s the same here. And I think that that’s a very trap like thing for people – particular people who are a neuro-atypical, when you’re on the spectrum. All that stuff is going to hit your buttons. And I guess you can get addicted. And at that point you go deeper down the rabbit hole.
John: Let’s go back to that James Baldwin quote because it is so fantastic. And there would be a temptation to use that as the dedication page, so your title page and then you put that quote and the script begins. You could do that. You can make a compelling case for that. But I think if you can find a way through your script to embody that quote you’re much better served.
So saying the quote is a nice thing on page zero. Actually manifesting that quote in your script, like no one says that quote but that idea comes across is much better use of that idea.
Craig: Correct. And going back to the Mazin Method, not the one for conception but the one for writing, so you can see a central dramatic argument that you can craft out of this which is it’s better to deal with your pain than to mask it with hate. Or you can turn it around and say you will never stop hating until you face your pain. Whatever it is. But it does feel like there is – that’s a very interesting way of creating a kind of synthesis/antithesis point of view about a complicated thing.
John: Sarah Silverman this last year engaged with somebody who was being a dick to her on Twitter and said like, “Oh, it sounds like you’re really hurting.” And that conversation really changed his mind.
Craig: I saw that. It’s amazing.
John: So we’ll put a link in the show notes to that, too. Sarah is a person I very much want to have on the show at some point because she’s so smart.
Craig: Let’s do it.
John: And she sings Slaughter Race from one of my favorite movies of the last year, so.
Craig: So many reasons to have her on.
John: All right. Next Wikipedia article that I dove into. In this case I was cheating a bit. I read an article first and then I went back and looked at the Wikipedia to see what else there was about this. But so often in our fiction we talk about mirror universes, parallel universes, multiverses, the thing that shows up again and again especially in our popular culture, in our comic book culture even more so. But in the real world there’s an article here by Corey S. Powell. “Scientists are searching for a mirror universe. It could be sitting right in front of you.”
It tells the story of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Eastern Tennessee and a physicist named Leah Broussard who is trying to open a portal to a parallel universe. That makes it sound like, you know, uh-uh, the catastrophic thing she’s going to try to do. In fact, her experiment is really straightforward and smart and simple. She’s shooting a big beam of neutrons at a brick wall and if some of them get through that brick wall it is because they’ve popped out of the universe and popped back in.
Craig: Yeah. What could go wrong? That doesn’t sound like Stranger Things at all.
John: No. In fact the actual opening scene of the third season of Stranger Things. Yeah.
Craig: Right. Bingo. There it is. Except she’s not Russian. That’s terrifying. I mean, I know I shouldn’t be terrified. I know that in television that’s what happens. You shoot a beam at a wall and creatures come out and infest your body and take over and kill rats. In science what happens is the beam is shot at a wall and some incredibly imperceptible thing is finally picked up and someone says in theory based on this math. But there are no creatures.
John: Three weeks later they’ll actually have studied all the data and they’ll say, “Yes, this had a 90% chance that this actually happened.”
John: Yeah. Looking at this, looking at the general Wikipedia articles about multiverses, about mirror universes, about this sense that given what we understand of the Big Bang and cosmology there’s a compelling case to be made that the circumstances that created our universe could have created other universes at the same time, or that there may be more to our universe that we’re not actually able to see at this moment. That it’s sort of like right next door.
John: And scientifically that all makes sense. But on a personal level, on a spiritual level, I think we have an innate belief that there must be something just right beyond this that explains more. We always have been searching for some mysterious force that’s just beyond our reach, be it ether that is holding everything up and together. We’re looking for explanations behind the things that we can observe that don’t quite make sense. The biggest scientifically right now we have dark matter and dark energy to help explain why the universe has a mass that doesn’t match up with our expectation.
So this is right now searching for an explanation for that phenomenon.
Craig: But I think when we’re adapting these things, again, for film and television there’s a certain narcissism involved because we always seem to want to find another universe to help reflect back who we are. That other universe is going to teach us something. It’s either going to be a warning about what we’re going to become. Or it’s going to teach us how wonderful we could be. Or it’s going to make us confront our failures. It’s, you know, it’s always about us.
John: It’s about us. And it’s about the what-ifs. Like what if we were to change this one variable? So what if the Star Trek Enterprise in a mirror universe was evil? Like what if everything was flipped around? And that’s a convention that we have but I think it’s also fun to imagine ourselves in a slightly different version of our universe.
Craig: Well Spock would have a beard, for instance.
Craig: No question.
John: There’d be more vests.
Craig: [laughs] Did you read Flatland?
John: Of course. You have to read Flatland.
Craig: It’s a great book. Flatland was written like early 1900s maybe?
John: Sounds right.
Craig: Essentially it’s a book about math, but it’s a very sweet book and it helps explain geometry and things like that. But there’s one moment that always stuck with me. So our character is in Flatland which is two-dimensional. So he’s a two-dimensional character. And he’s visited by a sphere. Now, he has no concept of what three dimensions are. But he’s visited by a sphere. And the sphere appears to him as this tiny dot that then gets wider as a line until it’s really wide and then it goes back again to a dot, because it’s a sphere moving up and down through a plane.
And I just thought, wow, that’s a great example of how blind someone can be if they’re missing a certain aspect. And then the sphere tells a story about how he was visited by a creature from the fourth dimension. And as I recall it’s something like the fourth dimensional creature appeared as sort of links, but the links could come apart without breaking. Because it was going through a fourth dimension that we don’t understand.
And I thought that was really cool. That part is cool. I like the idea of the promise that there’s more than we see with our eyes. That there’s something greater to aspire to that maybe one day we’ll taste.
John: Yeah. That sense that there’s an extra dimension that you could sort of walk through that extra dimension to get around a thing. And so Arlo Finch has a lot of that in it. So the Long Woods are essentially an extra dimension so you can move things through that dimension–
John: It’s early on in the book.
John: But you can move through things by going there. So I can get from point A to point B by stepping through the Long Woods and coming out the other side.
Craig: Well, it makes hiking a lot more pleasant.
John: It really does. Good views. So, in looking at the Wikipedia starting place for multiverse, for parallel universes, mirror universes, it’s just too broad of a category. You could start there, but you would need to go down many, many links to get to very specific sort of implementations of that idea to get you to either a real life scientific thing that would be interesting to pursue which could be something like this physicist who seems like she’s an interesting character, especially if she’s able to prove this thing that she’s been doing the experiment on. Or some phenomenon that is a good jumping off place for a high concept/high premise science fiction story.
Craig: Yeah. When I think about the movie that did the best I think with just making this the deal, it’s probably Contact, which wasn’t necessarily another universe, but they did do some weird like interdimensional kind of crap. And even that movie ultimately what does it come down to? A father and a daughter. And that’s the thing about all these stories is there is no relationship inherent in the notion of a multiverse. So when Chris and Phil and Rodney make the Spider-Verse movie that is really just a delivery system for them to create new relationships. And in that movie this crucial relationship between this Miles Morales, young new Spider-Man, and this other dimensional Peter Parker, old, grumpy Spider-Man. And that’s it. Right? That’s why that exists to create and then service relationships.
So, you’re always going to be looking for that kind of thing. I think the multiverse will always be an instrument.
John: Yes. An instrument rather than being the actual plot or story itself. Largely because it has no characters. It has no characters that come with it for free.
John: So you’re going to have to use it as a background for who are the characters that are having an interesting time in this world that you’ve created.
Craig: Spock with a beard.
John: Spock with a beard. All right, so the last Wikipedia article is the exact opposite of this where you have a character, you have a person, and then it’s a question of what story do you tell with this person. So, this is the story of Lisa Ben, which is an anagram of Lesbian. She is one of the first lesbian journalists. So her real name is Edythe D. Eyde. She was born in 1921. She was basically a zine writer back before there were zines. So she created the first known lesbian publication in the world, Vice Versa, and she distributed it locally around Los Angeles.
She looks to be kind of a fascinating character in a very fascinating time. I’m not even sure why I ended up bookmarking this. I think someone had said that name so I looked it up and was like, oh, well that is actually an important person in LGBT history that I did not know of, so I bookmarked it.
But, there’s something fascinating about her. And one of the things that was kind of nice about her story is it reminded me of times before I was a fulltime screenwriter where I was an assistant with not quite enough to do. And so she was working at a record company. She had a typewriter, which was a big thing to have, and so she just started writing and typing this magazine. So she put in like 12 carbon copies and that’s how she did her first zines was just like typing them and then distributing them to people she knew.
Craig: It is a fascinating story. First of all, I’m grabbed by her name which is nearly palindromic. It’s so close. We’ll talk about the snaggy things, right. There were two things that snagged me. One was that she for her whole life – and it was a long life up until she retired – but for many, many years she worked as a secretary. She worked as a secretary for lots of different places, lots of different people. And this is during the ‘40s, and ‘50s, and ‘60s, which were not the most socially progressive time in America. So I’m already thinking to myself that’s interesting. I wonder what that was like. I wonder who the people were that hired her. I wonder how she maneuvered that. I wonder if it was sort of something that people knew. Did they like the idea of it? Were there men who thought, oh, this is good because there won’t be a husband to steal her away or reduce her hours here?
I’m fascinated by how that functioned. So that’s interesting. And then the other thing that snagged me was that she died utterly alone and her death wasn’t even noticed. And it was only until later that people started to really understand the impact she had. Those things are very dramatizable. And so I think there’s a very cool story here, whether it’s a movie or a short series. But what we’re talking about is one of the more invisible people in 1940s America. And the fact that she was so invisible she was able to kind of be visible. You know, so she’s sitting there, and I love the way she does this, to make her zine – she’s also basically the first, like somebody who started a zine before zines were things. She’s so cool. She would do like quadruple carbon paper and so she would type up her little zine and that was four copies. And then she would do it again. And that was four more copies, which is incredible.
And then she would circulate it at the one or two lesbian bars that were around and people knew about. And then she moved on and started writing articles in sort of a more, I guess, a real lesbian publication – a real publication for lesbians, like a real magazine. And that’s where she adopted – she wanted to be I’m a Spinster. That was the name she wanted. But they were like, no, so she went with Lisa Ben. And so there she was kind of just living her life. She had a relationship with a woman for a while until that woman spent all their money gambling.
Oh, I love that, too. You know, there’s a tendency sometimes when we’re telling stories of marginalized groups to sanctify everyone. But people are not saints.
John: No, not a bit.
Craig: Like that’s why I love – one of the great cable movies of the last ten years I think was the one that Richie LaGravenese wrote, Behind the Candelabra, about Liberace. Because he’s not a saint. In any way, shape, or form. He’s not. He’s actually a jerk. You know, I mean, he’s not a murderer, but he’s a cad. And in part, right. And I love that because that’s human.
And so here her partner spends all their money because she’s a degenerate gambler. So she ends that relationship. And just continues on living her life in the open and yet somehow not noticed. And I think that’s really interesting. I’ve never seen something like that before.
John: I think the setting of 1940s California, 1940s Los Angeles, is terrific. Just because it’s familiar but it’s also different. We’ve never seen it from this character’s point of view. Something about her reminded me a bit of Selina Kyle from Tim Burton’s Batman movie. Where it’s like she just is overlooked and she’s just kind of invisible. And she’s actually probably the most fascinating person in the room. And that is a great line to walk.
She doesn’t arc in this giant way where she’s like, you know, she created this thing and then she becomes a huge success. So it’s not joy where she becomes this huge entrepreneur who is self-made. It’s a small thing. And so the challenge of this movie would be to find how do you – what path do you actually show? What years do you show? What does victory or at least a conclusion look like for this two-hour story or four-hour story, however long you want this if it’s a short series to be? What are you trying to chart? And so even having a fascinating character like this at the start, you still have to do the work of figuring out where do you want to take her.
Craig: 100%. You would need to dig much deeper and ideally uncover one thing that’s a real event that you can work towards. That is essentially the climactic moment of your story. Because right now there isn’t one.
But if you had one, you might have something there.
John: So an interesting situation to talk about the Wikipedia of this all is that the Wikipedia article on this is actually really good. And really detailed. And kind of more detailed than most of the articles that it links out to. So whoever put together most of this Wikipedia page deserves a lot of props because it’s actually really well done.
Craig: Nice work.
John: So it’s linking out to books on queer history and stuff. So you will find her in other people’s books but it doesn’t seem like there’s one definitive book out there to option or buy to be like this is the Lisa Ben book.
But, Craig, let’s talk about this for a moment because let’s say you wanted to write the Lisa Ben movie or maybe many people out there will now want to write this, it’s a real question of like what would you buy to cordon off a certain point of view or entry into her story? I’m not sure there is going to be one thing.
Craig: I would buy nothing. There’s no reason to buy anything. If she were alive then life rights would be interesting because you could then sit with her and she could give you unique information. But she is not alive, nor has she left behind relatives as far as we know. She had no children. So at that point you’re dealing with just basically reportorial material that is available to everybody. They’re facts.
You could find people that she used to work for. You could talk to people at the magazine. You know, I assume the magazine is no longer functioning. But you could find people that were there. I think you would probably want to do quite a bit of research about what lesbian Hollywood in 1940-something looked like. Because that’s probably fascinating. For instance, there’s a bar that they call out. And you’d want to find out, OK, where was that bar. Who owned it? Is anyone still alive that remembers it? That’s interesting.
You would have to become a little bit of a detective, but no, I don’t think there’s anything to buy.
John: So, I had a good conversation with Guinevere Turner about Charlie Says which is her story of the women involved in the Manson murders. And in that case there was a book they ended up buying which was sort of to cordon off some rights. And yet she felt like it wasn’t really the right book to be using. So it’s a situation where she was given a piece of material that she didn’t necessarily really want and had to sort of find her own research to do the way into it.
And that can be a situation where with the Manson murders there’s so much out there that you wouldn’t necessarily need to buy any specific thing, but this producer came in with a book and so no matter what Guinevere is going to do that book is part of the chain-of-title to the project.
Craig: Right. And that’s something that happens a lot in these situations. Producers want to do something. They want to feel like they own something. And so they will buy a book. I cannot tell you in the wake of Chernobyl how many people have called me up and said, “We have the exclusive rights to a book that details the history of such and such.” And I think you have the exclusive rights to that book but I can read that book and use everything in it. Because it’s facts. I don’t know what to say to these people. I don’t know why you’re buying these things. I really don’t.
John: The only reason to buy a book about history if you are running a company or something like that is to have access to more of what the author has and also to get the book before it gets published. That I get. Because then you get a head start on all those facts that the author has found that aren’t necessarily going to be accessible to other people. But if the book has been around for seven years, the rights don’t matter. As far as I can tell it’s just facts.
So I suspect there are going to be cases where it’s not just the facts but it is a framing, there’s a storytelling aspect to how the book is put together that brings it beyond just the facts. I think of some of those books on famous murders which are very much told from a specific point of view. And in those cases I can see why adapting that book is different than adapting some other set of rights to things.
John: But what Craig says is really the crucial takeaway is that facts you can find anywhere else. They’re free to go. So to make the Lisa Ben movie or to make a movie about 8chan you do not need to go after some specific book.
Now, if you were trying to make the 8chan movie and you’re trying to use this specific article or you’re trying use Fredrick Brennan’s story as the centerpiece, he’s a living person.
John: And so you can do it without his permission and his involvement, but it’s going to be challenging. And so there can be reasons why you want to get his cooperation.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, that’s a circumstance where you’d want life rights because you can then sort of say, listen, I want to know how this really happened. Just walk me through it and tell me things that you haven’t said in an article.
John: Another reason why you want to get some life rights is as part of the discussion you will have some language that makes it clear that they will not come after you for libel. And so libel is when you are deliberately falsely misrepresenting something about that person. Basically when you’re lying about that person–
Craig: It’s going to be defamation is probably what it would amount to. And that’s the thing that they’re all concerned about and they should be. You don’t want to defame people. And so when you do write things that are touchy you need to support them. And, man, I’ll tell you the lawyers on Chernobyl sometimes – I got some winners, man. I got some winners. Like someone said I was using the name of an actual KGB person and I eventually decided I would not, I’ll just sort of create a stand-in for the KBG. That’s fine.
The lawyer said do you have evidence to support your suggestion that this high ranking KGB official would have ordered false imprisonments of people. [laughs] I just thought, because he was in the KBG? Isn’t that enough? Right? We all agree KGB falsely imprisoned a lot? No, anyone?
So, sometimes in the burden of caution you make changes to protect yourself. And I get that. I understand that.
John: Yeah. So, some takeaway from our Wikipedia discussion. It seems like Wikipedia, we should just acknowledge, it’s a very useful place just thinking through the broad strokes of an idea as a jumping off place for exploring topics in the real world and people in the real world. It should not be your ultimate destination for the crucial facts you need.
Craig: Agreed. It’s a great entry hall. It’s a primer as they say. But it is not – you’re going to want to get down to the bottom of those Wikipedia pages, look at some of those sources, and then do your own work as well.
John: We always make predictions about which of these ideas will become movies. Craig, which of these will become a movie?
Craig: Well, the multiverse doesn’t count, right? Because it’s in 70% of the movies they make right now. So, I’m going to say that there will – somebody is going to tackle a chan movie, a 4chan, 8chan movie. Someone is going to do it.
John: I think so. I think it feels like a made-for-HBO the same way that Brexit was. Someone is going to do it.
Craig: Yeah. It seems–
John: That would be a smart person.
Craig: It wouldn’t be me. I don’t – it’s too big. I don’t know how to wrap my arms around the multitudes that those places contain. You know, it’s very strange. They’re very strange places.
John: So the Deadline article is “Chernobyl writer scared of 8chan.”
Craig: [laughs] Well, yes, by the way, I am. Everyone should be terrified of them. They can do stuff. No, from a creative point of view I just don’t know how to – I don’t know how to tackle it. Yeah. I’m saying don’t choose me for the job.
John: No. All right, let’s get to some listener questions. And this first one is related to what we’ve been talking about. Gregory writes to ask, “Can you explain the legal process on a movie like the 2016 Black List script Blonde Ambition. Madonna has said on her own Twitter page that she does not agree with the movie and that she will disown it if it comes out. Does this mean you can write a script about a famous person/celebrity even without their consent?”
Craig: Well you can.
John: You can.
Craig: You can. She said disown it. She didn’t say sue it.
John: Disown it/disavow it.
Craig: Disavow it.
John: She’s anti.
Craig: She’s going to crap on it in the press is what she’s going to do. And that’s fine. That’s their right. They can say that it’s a bunch of crap and I don’t like it. Your challenge when you’re making an unauthorized biopic is to not get into a place where you are defaming the subject of your story. And if they can prove defamation meaning they can show that you said something for which there is no basis then they’ll get you.
My suspicion is that if someone is going to make an unauthorized biography of Madonna that she finds offensive that a thousand lawyers will have picked through it very carefully first.
John: Yeah. So I’ve not read Blonde Ambition. People liked the script, so obviously it scored well on the Black List and people are enjoying it. So if that movie gets made the same kinds of people who are going to be going through Craig’s Chernobyl scripts will be going through that script to make sure that they are documenting all the stuff that has to be documented. Music rights are going to be really complicated because obviously Madonna doesn’t own everything she ever sang, but there could be situations where that is problematic.
And, of course, it’s not – in any biopic it’s not just Madonna. It’s all the other people who are in her life. They can have rights, too. And so it’s making sure that the movie is protected against all the forces that could come after it. So it’s a challenge.
Craig: The point you raise about the music is a really good one actually because whatever the songwriting credits are you have to go the artist for the right to reproduce the mechanical recording itself. And she’s not going to do that, of course.
So what you would have to do in that instance is only take Madonna songs where she did not have any writing credit and then re-perform and re-record them with a sound-a-like. Which is, you know, not ideal.
John: Doable but not ideal. Do you want to take the next question?
Craig: Sure. Michael asks, “Craig’s recent solo podcast How to Write a Movie was super insightful. Thank you. And his methodology is obviously applicable to narratives beyond just features, but I’m curious what kind of specific differences you might both employ when applying the Mazin Method to either the conception of a child or an episodic series? In particular how might you apply his method to breaking a pilot, season, or entire series? What would be different?”
John, do you know how to do that?
John: So, I’m going to take the easiest case. And so let’s say you are doing a six-episode series. I think you can do largely what Craig is describing in his sort of two-hour Pixar thing. Those same kind of lessons could apply to six hours. Where you really are – it’ll take a character from point A to point B and see them wrestling with all of those challenges, those thematic challenges along the path.
And so you’ll figure out what your stopping places are along the way, but you can look at a six-hour television project as being a long movie. And so some of the same logic can apply.
Where it’s tougher is when you’re trying to do a series where you don’t know where the end is, where you don’t know how many seasons this is going to go. You don’t know where it stops. Because what Craig is describing really does need to end because if you’re just stuck in this middle place the whole time it is not going to be satisfactory.
Craig: I agree. And even in a short form series like the one I just did, it’s not as applicable as it is in a movie. Because a movie you really do have to just have this very clear, crisp story from beginning, middle, and end if you’re making that sort of movie. Whereas over the course of five episodes you are in a much more elliptical narrative path. And so, yes, in the beginning, in the end you want to see some sort of closed loop and you want to feel like people grew and changed and you want to feel like there’s something that they’re all pushing against.
And I think that is something that I did to an extent. But it’s not quite as helpful. The truth is I – look, I’ve done one thing in television. I can’t formula-ize it yet.
John: But Craig we’ve gotten this far in the podcast, I haven’t congratulated you on your 19 nominations for Chernobyl. Congratulations Craig.
Craig: Oh boy. [laughs]
John: What got me thinking about it though was another show that got a bunch of nominations which is Russian Doll which I think probably much more so than your own show showed the kind of Mazin Method to it.
John: Because that is a show that she makes some progress every episode but there’s clearly – Natasha Lyonne’s character is clearly on a very deliberate arc. And it felt like there was real closure at the end of that story. The character who arrives at the end of that series is not the same character who begins the show.
Craig: That’s a great point. In fact, I’ll take back what I said. Because I think in part I’m a little skewed by the nature of the thing that I wrote which was based in history. But when you are dealing with something that is purely fictional like Russian Doll and you’re telling that story over five or six episodes, or I think in the case of Russian Doll it was seven, and you have to create something out of whole cloth it is useful.
And I think you can see that she is doing something like that very clearly. There’s a very clear character problem that she has that she has to overcome. So, yes. And congratulations to Natasha Lyonne who, by the way, we’ve not had on the show?
John: No, she’s never been on the show.
Craig: That’s crazy.
John: We’ve shared stages with her, but she’s never been on the show.
Craig: I feel like she’s got to be on the show.
John: She and that whole team are remarkable.
Craig: Can we get them all on the show?
John: Let’s get them all on the show at some point.
Craig: Let’s get them all on the show, because I’m obsessed.
John: Yeah. Nice.
Craig: Oh, and thank you for saying that nice thing about me.
John: Oh, of course.
Craig: I just get – because, you know, I’m definitely not used to this!
John: Do you want to take the question from Paul?
Craig: OK, why not? Paul from the UK asks, “I’m a first-time screenwriter based in the UK. Through a random discussion with a friend in LA who has a production company with a released film I’ve had a request to send my script across. I keep thinking of your No Work Left Behind episode. And whilst this person is a friend I’m naturally cautious about sending a script 5,437 miles where I then have no control.
“Registering the script with the WGA is impossible if you’re not physically based in the USA. And the script vault in the UK seems to act as equivalent but doesn’t answer the geography problem. I am very aware that this is an opening, but I need to be sure that my derriere is suitably covered in the very possible event the content ripped off. Can you please help?”
John, we can definitely help.
John: We can definitely help. So, Paul from the UK, send your script. Send your script to this person. To anyone listening, stop worrying about someone stealing your script and stop worrying about theft. So the very possible event the content is ripped off, it won’t be. That doesn’t happen.
You need to be like whoever wrote Blonde Ambition and actually share your script with people so that people can read it. Because it is doing you no good sitting in England where no one is reading it. What will also not do really any good is registering it with the WGA office or with Script Vault or any of those services. Those are kind of proxies for – they’re not copyright protection in a real meaningful way. I don’t even know what the laws are in the UK, but you basically have copyright when you wrote the thing. If there’s a real copyright office you can send it off to in the UK, fine, do that, whatever. But real people don’t do that very often. What they do is they send scripts to people who want to read them and so those people who read the scripts say, “You’re a good writer. I want to make this thing or hire you to write something else.” That is why you wrote that script and that’s why you need to send it.
Craig: Yeah. And let’s also draw a little bit of a line in the sand between your circumstance and what No Work Left Behind covers. Because No Work Left Behind is when producers or executives are soliciting writers to come and write something for them. And then ask those writers perhaps to be prepared to talk about a first act or second act or the whole story. And you may come and you may be reading off of a document you’ve written to help you get that job. Don’t leave that document behind because they haven’t paid you for it. That’s a different situation. That’s a solicitation of work.
Or if, for instance, someone says I would love to hire you to write such and such part three, but can you write the first ten pages so I could see how you would approach it? No. You can’t do that either. So that’s called writing on spec and all of that is unacceptable. You cannot write at an employer’s request something new that is derived from their stuff without getting paid.
In your circumstance, you’ve written a script. You own it. They have no rights to it in any way, shape, or form. Absolutely send it. Send it freely. Send it without concern. And hope that they love it enough to either buy it from you or perhaps hire you to do something else.
John: Absolutely right. I understand why people get confused by No Work Left Behind in a sense of like, oh, then it means I can’t ever give people documents. No, no, no, that’s not true. It’s only if they are asking you to write up something for them, work that should be paid work that they’re asking you to do for free. Don’t do that. That’s not a good thing to do. And that hurts everyone when you do that.
Craig: Right. Exactly.
John: All right. Let’s get to our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is an Instagram account by Sam Marshall called Breezeblockhead. And so I came across this from Austin Kleon. Craig, if I say Breezeblock do you know what that is off the top of your head?
Craig: I do not.
John: So click on the link and you’ll see like, oh, it’s that thing I didn’t know what the word for that is.
Craig: Oh, cinderblocks.
John: Yeah, the cinderblocks that are designed with patterns so that when they’re stacked up neatly they form walls but that air passes through. We associate them largely with midcentury modern design. I think about them a lot in Palm Springs. But they’re actually global and you see them in a lot of places. And they’re just really cool. So they’re probably one of those things that you kind of like but never really knew what they were called or why you liked them.
So this Instagram account is a good collection of what you might see there. And it will probably inspire you to just notice them more when you see them out in the world.
Craig: This reminds me, I believe in the second season of Westworld when we see the real world house. I think there’s a Breezeblock wall.
John: Uh-huh. Yeah. I mean, anything that is sort of cast concrete sort of gets you into that sort of Frank Gehry kind of space.
Craig: Cool. Excellent. My One Cool Thing comes from the puzzle world. You know I’m a puzzler. And there’s a great guy named Eric Berlin. I’ve had the joy and pleasure of puzzling with him on some of the more advanced puzzle hunt things that happen, like the MIT puzzle hunt. Or, no, it’s the Galactic Puzzle Hunt. I can’t remember the name. Honestly, I’m the dumbest person on the team. That’s the important thing for you to know. And Eric is not one of the dumbest people on the team. He’s one of the smartest. And he also creates daily puzzles on Twitter.
And he has a book called Puzzle Snacks which is great which is available. And he has a whole site for Puzzle Snacks which is at puzzlesnacks.com. And what I like about them is that they are a great variety of word puzzles, different kinds of puzzles, mostly centering on words. But they’re not too hard. They’re not too easy. They’re not too hard. And he also has specific ones for kids which I think is great. And he even breaks them out by age, so for instance your daughter/my daughter are both 14. So, they can kind of do the adult ones with as he puts it the occasional nudge. But if you have a kid who is 12 or 10 or eight then you can kind of gauge for that as well.
So, anyway, very cool. And he’s a great guy. Eric Berlin. So check it out. And you can subscribe at like $3 a month and you get bonus puzzles and things. So, yeah, if you’re a nerd like me, and I hope you are, check out Eric Berlin’s Puzzle Snacks.
John: Great. I have follow up on two of your previous One Cool Things. And so you had recommended Dig It, a puzzler for iOS. I ploughed through all the levels. I got the additional levels. I am waiting for the next level pack. It has become my go to sort of time-waster game. So thank you for that.
Craig: Love that. I’m still not done with it. Good job.
John: Also thank you/curse you for that. Also a previous one of your One Cool Thing recommendations was Lab Rat, a terrific escape room that we did yesterday.
John: And it is genuinely great. And so I like that it uses the mechanics of escape rooms and pushes the form in a slightly new direction. And it was just very, very well done. So, good recommendation. And I actually got to meet one of the writer-founders-creators of that thing at a WGA event. He’s a new WGA member which is exciting.
Craig: Great. And how many people just out of curiosity did you take into Lab Rat?
John: We took in seven people to Lab Rat which was a good number.
Craig: Good number.
John: Including Scriptnotes producer Megana Rao was there. So we had a good team.
Craig: Fantastic. It’s wonderful. I actually went with another group and just watched them.
Craig: Occasionally if they needed a hint I’d give them a little mini hint. But it was just so much fun to watch them do it. It was great. Loved it.
John: So I don’t think this is a spoiler in any meaningful way but in terms of the form of escape rooms evolving in talking with the person who was running the room I said what’s the escape percentage. And he’s like, “Oh, we don’t actually think about that anymore.” We want people to experience the whole story. So we will provide hints if we need to provide hints so they can actually find their way out. And so we didn’t end up needing that many hints, but I thought that was an interesting way of approaching it is not approaching it as a pass/fail but sort of how you get through the experience.
Craig: Yes. It is – I’m seeing it more and more. Because there are rooms where it really is, look, you need to be smart and power through these things or you’re going to run out of time. And that’s fine. Because there’s not a huge narrative to them per se. But in some of the rooms where they’ve really invested in the narrative elements, they want you to see the ending. So, they’ll definitely kind of nudge you along. And they’re really good about it. Especially not like nudging you too soon.
John: Yeah. Great. That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Alex Winder. 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. That’s also a place where you can send links to How Would This Be a Movie.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts.
You can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net. Or download 50-episode seasons at store.johnaugust.com.
Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: And congratulations again, sir.
Craig: Thank you so much.
- Addiction & Mental Health Panel organized by Hollywood, Health & Society Wed, July 31, 2019. Follow along with the live-stream here at 7:15pm PDT.
- Pinboard for bookmarks
- Wikipedia 8chan
- Destroyer of Worlds by Nicky Woolf
- Multiverse, Mirror Universe on Wikipedia
- Scientists are searching for a mirror universe. It could be sitting right in front of you. by Corey S. Powell
- Lisa Ben on Wikipedia
- The First Lesbian Magazine by Erica Davies
- Breezelblockhead on Instagram by Sam Marshall
- Eric Berlin’s Puzzle Snacks
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by Alex Winder (send us yours!)
Email us at email@example.com
You can download the episode here.