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 411 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Now in the past few weeks we’ve been talking a lot about the journey of a single hero. Today on the program we’re going to be focusing on two-handers, movies with two central characters. To do so we’re joined by writer Katie Silberman whose credits include Set it Up, Isn’t It Romantic, Booksmart.
Katie Silberman, welcome to the show.
Katie Silberman: You guys, I’m so excited to be here. This is a real thrill for me. This is like the Universal Theme Park of me. [laughs]
Craig: So we can get in a tram and experience what you’re experiencing right now?
Katie: I’m going to spend at least $250. I’m going to take a lot of photos.
Craig: This is so great. I’m always mystified by why people – because it’s just us. I mean–
John: It’s just us talking.
Katie: I still feel that way about scripts. Like if someone tells me that they liked a script my first instinct is how did you get it? Where did I leave my computer?
Craig: Why would you read a script?
Katie: Yeah, exactly. [laughs]
John: Now, you’ve also just sold a pitch to a new movie, so I want to talk to you about that whole process of selling a pitch in 2019. Because that’s a thing that used to happen a lot.
John: Daily. And it doesn’t happen so much anymore. So you are the person we can ask about sort of what that’s all like.
Katie: It was so much fun. And I feel really lucky. I have experienced pitching when it’s just an idea, you know, to producers when it’s a script you want to write. I’ve been able to pitch with a bigger package. I find them both so fun. When it’s just you in a room trying to sell a story that to me is the greatest challenge of trying to convince someone to like something as much as you like it. It’s fun, too, because you get to present ideally what your job will be in the context of all these other people.
This was particularly fun because it was an idea that Olivia and I came up with on the set of Booksmart. We enjoyed working together so much that we wanted to do something else together. And so it’s been a very collaborative process getting it to the place where we were ready to take it out into the world. And then it was really fun to be able to do that.
John: Great. So we’ll get into concrete details about sort of how you figure that out, so that will be our third segment probably of the show. But first we always have some follow up. And so first bit of news, next week we are doing our first live show on the Internet. We are going to be doing this special panel on mental health and addiction organized by Hollywood Health and Society. We are excited to do this. This is next Wednesday at 7:15pm. You can see it streaming on Facebook. Ultimately this will be an episode that we will air in the feed, but if you want to see it happening live–
Craig: There’s video.
John: There’s video, too. You can see what Craig looks like, and what I look like. Which is always jarring for people.
Craig: What you look like or what I look like?
John: Just that we actually have faces.
Craig: Oh yeah, that we have faces. Well I remember when I was a kid I would listen to Dr. Ruth. That’s how I learned about sex. And I would listen to Imus in the Morning. This was before Howard Stern.
Craig: And I had ideas of what they looked like. And then I saw pictures and I’m like what? What? That’s not what they look like. But they do. And this is what we look like.
John: This is what we look like.
Craig: I know. People have these weird feelings. Well, they get to see us doing it.
Katie: You could hire someone.
Katie: To be on the video.
Katie: Whomever you wanted.
John: Yeah, I have a voice double, so maybe he could be my voice double.
Craig: You have a voice double?
John: Yeah. It was a One Cool Thing earlier. Maybe an episode you weren’t around for. But I heard a guy on the radio I was like that’s actually my voice.
Craig: And a lot of people said that Charlie Booker sounded like a British me. And I listened to it because I wasn’t there for that one and he does.
John: Yes. He sounds like a British you.
Craig: Or I sound like an American him.
John: People thought that it was just Craig doing a British accent pretending to be Charlie Booker.
Craig: Some people legitimately thought it was just a long con of an episode. My British accent, not great.
John: We have some more follow up. So, in a previous episode I talked about Midsommar and Rodrigo wrote in. Craig, can you read us what Rodrigo wrote in about?
Craig: Yes. Rodrigo writes, “This may sound petty, but in your last episode John referenced Midsommar and may have done damage to an industry we are all trying to keep relevant. I planned on seeing this film but after hearing you say that you ‘liked it but didn’t love it’ I became less enthusiastic to purchase a ticket. We all want audiences to buy tickets to movies showcasing new and original content and so many from this audience listen to your show and are influenced by what you say, myself included. I only ask that you guys keep aware of your power to elevate or dilute a frenzy for audiences to go watch and support films.
“Your point you made about the film was spot on and super productive. But I think the brief one-thumb- up review may have done more harm than good. And for the record I have absolutely no affiliation with Midsommar. I just know how fickle influence can be when getting people motivated to go see movies in the theater.”
John, Rodrigo has got a bone to pick with you.
John: He does have a bone to pick with me and I think, he’s actually right. So, even as I said it I remember hearing myself say that I liked it and didn’t love it, and why did I add that ‘didn’t love it’? And I hear myself doing this in real life when I’m not being recorded. I’m going to stop doing it. I want people to call me out when I do it next time because it’s such a weird hedging. I don’t want to fully commit to loving something so I’m going to say I liked it/didn’t love it. I could have just said I liked it. And it’s fine to have reservations about a thing or things not working fully, but that liked it but didn’t love it is such a 2019 sort of like I’m not going to be fully invested in a thing.
Katie, do you find yourself doing that like it but not love it, or hearing it and being frustrated?
Katie: Yes, I mean, I’m someone who on average uses about seven exclamation points in every text message, so in general if I say I like it if people know me well enough they’re like she hated it. Because I speak in such hyperbole. I would give a slight counterpoint to Rodrigo who I respect that opinion totally, but I also – this is such a collaborative business. I really like when someone says I didn’t love it. That makes me want to see it more to see if I think they’re right. Or if I can come back at them and say I did love it and here’s why.
Craig: That’s interesting. I’m such a Pollyanna about this honestly on Twitter and all that stuff, anything that’s public, on this show. I just never say anything bad about – and not because of what Rodrigo is saying, interestingly. So Rodrigo is making a point like, look – and I think he may be overstating our influence, honestly. But regardless he’s saying you can actually drive people away from a movie. That’s not why – I’m less worried about that. My emotional connection to people who make things and who are suffering is so intense, and it’s so empathetic, that I never want to be an additional cause of problems.
It’s so hard to make things. It’s so hard to make things. And I am often struck how intensely we feel our own pain and then miss that other people are feeling it, too. So, you know, I try and avoid that. I think Rodrigo makes, at least it’s a good idea to avoid that. And I will say John that saying that you love something actually is an act of vulnerability.
John: Of course.
Craig: Because, yeah, if you say you hate something then you’re cool. And if you say you love something you’re admitting that you were touched, you were impacted or affected. And a critic, I can’t remember who it was, it was a critic writing basically saying it’s so much harder to write a good review than a bad review because you’re vulnerable.
Katie: Yeah. Especially in comedy I feel.
Craig: Oh man. Can we talk?
John: Well, especially, with any comedy it’s your immediate reaction to that time that you saw it, but also hedged by saying like will this hold up five years from now, or is it too timely of its moment. You kind of can’t do any of that. It’s just what is your reaction in the moment? And I think in the case of Midsommar it’s a movie that stuck with me for a long time so whether it’s a 10 out of 10 for me is less relevant to it actually had an impact on me which is kind of rare sometimes.
Craig: Yeah. Well, you know what? Thank you Rodrigo. You’ve inspired a good self-examination.
John: Now, for these next two segments I need your help Katie because we’re going to talk about some WGA stuff and we could go on for an hour. And we should not go on for an hour.
Craig: God no.
John: So if you can help us out by limiting us to one-minute per topic. And then we will plow through this and not speak of it more in this podcast.
Katie: Yes sir. Do you want like a 15-second warning to wrap up?
Craig: I think it would be fun to be just surprised.
Katie: OK. Mid-word.
Craig: Literally mid-word. Just slap the word right out of our mouths.
John: And go. Now on a previous episode we talked about the upcoming WGA West elections and the news that Craig will be running for the board. That is now incorrect. Craig is running for Vice President. And it’s a change. It’s a different.
Craig: Yeah. It’s different. I wish I weren’t running for Vice President, but I am. And so I guess the big deal is I actually agree with everything that the union is doing in terms of its fight with the agencies. I support that fight. I just don’t love the way they’re going about prosecuting the fight. And I want more of a voice to see if we can get it resolved quicker. That’s basically what I’m going after.
But there’s less daylight between me and those folks than people might think.
John: Now, Craig is no longer running for the board, but 21 other people are running for the board, for those eight seats that are available. So we will figure out some way to talk about this on the podcast coming up. But there will be a candidate’s night August 28 at the Writers Guild Theater. So that’s a chance for people to ask questions of all these people running for the board.
Craig: Yeah. And it’s good to see a contest back at the Writers Guild again.
John: I agree. Having multiple people running for things is a good thing.
Katie: And that’s time.
John: We did a good job there.
John: Boom. Fist bump.
Craig: Fist bump. It turns out actually there’s not that much to say.
John: All right, and go. On Monday of last week Kaplan-Stahler Agency became the first midsize lit agency to break ranks with the ATA and sign a new agreement with the WGA. Then on Wednesday three lit agents broke off from Abrams to form a new signatory agency called Ultra Creative. Those are some changes on the smaller side of the WGA.
Craig: And that’s where we’re seeing the changes and that’s to be expected. We know that in terms of the big four agencies it’s increasingly unlikely that we’re going to see any sort of spontaneous change like that without some sort of negotiated deal. And we also know that there are thousands of writers represented by those agencies that cannot be absorbed by the smaller ones. So this is nice to see. I encourage it. But it’s in no way indicative of a kind of permanent resolution.
John: That’s fair to say. There are going to be member meetings for all the WGA West folks August 7, 8, and 10. So two of those are at the Writers Guild. One of them is in Burbank, I believe. But that will be your next chance to sort of gather with a big group of people to ask questions of negotiating committee, the board, and everybody else about what’s going on.
Katie: And that’s time.
Craig: Nicely done. I had nothing else to say.
John: It’s the equivalent of our podcast ads. Like they have to be a certain length but not longer than a certain length.
Craig: I wish we did do podcast ads, but for fake things. Because I think it would be fun to do ads, I just don’t like prostituting myself for Squarespace which by the way did not give us money.
John: They have not given us money yet, so we need to follow up with them. We sent them a nice email, but I think some public shaming may be the next step.
Craig: Well the fact that I just described ads for Squarespace as prostituting myself may have limited us somewhat. But, yeah, I think it would be fun.
Katie: Make up a fake mattress name.
John: Ooh yeah.
Katie: There’s like 50 of those.
Craig: Every week we do an ad for a fake product that doesn’t exist. I think we should start doing it.
Katie: Create the fake website.
Craig: Yep. Do the whole thing. Maybe start selling some mattresses.
John: Katie, let’s get into it. So tell us a little bit about your origin story, because I first knew you through Dana Fox. So you were an assistant to Dana Fox, but I don’t know how you came to Hollywood overall.
Katie: I feel so lucky about my origin story. I think it’s incredibly serendipitous and I mostly feel lucky because I just came into all the greatest people and I feel like I benefited from that. After college I – I should say during college I decided I wanted to be a writer. The first script I ever read was Juno.
John: Holy cow.
Katie: By Diablo Cody. I know. Because my roommate had a connection and she put herself on tape to play Juno’s friend. So I read off-camera with her the screenplay. And it was the first time I’d ever seen anything in script format. And I fell totally in love with it.
John: So the first script you ever read was–?
Craig: Oscar Award winning Juno.
John: A fantastic game-changing script.
Katie: Quite literally. And a genre-builder in my opinion in terms of kind of stories about those kinds of young women. And I was so in love with it I came out during my off term from college and interned at 20th Century Fox Television during their pilot season. My job was to digitize their script library. They had an enormous closet full of physical scripts of writing samples of writers they might want to hire for shows. And they were in the process of trying to turn them into PDFs. And so my job was literally–
Katie: File it into a PDF maker which was extraordinary. I just read all day. And while I was there I wrote down the names of writers that I loved and scripts that I loved so that when I went back to college I decided I was not quite brave enough to come out to LA and just start trying to find an assistant job. So I ended up going to Columbia Film School to study for a little bit longer. But while I was there I cold emailed almost all the people I had found in that closet and two of the people I emailed were Dana Fox and Lorene Scafaria.
Craig: Wow, how about that?
Katie: The two nicest, most talented people in Los Angeles.
Katie: And they wrote back. And they said that they didn’t need assistants at the time but they offered to be essentially pen pals and answer any questions I had which was so extraordinary.
Craig: Those two.
Katie: I know. They’re the greatest.
Craig: They make me feel bad about myself. I mean, honestly.
Katie: And then when I was at Columbia I wrote a script that found its way to Mason Novak and Michelle Newson, two really extraordinary managers who knew them socially because Mason represented Diablo. And when I signed with them that’s kind of when I followed up with Dana and Lorene and I was less a crazy person from the Internet and I felt a little more established.
John: But is it weird that – they were all friends. And so separately you’d written out to them and you had no idea that they’re all talking.
Katie: It was a crazy coincidence. I mean, I say it’s a coincidence. I was desperate to work with anyone associated with the writers that I loved. So I did kind of send things specifically to–
Craig: You sort of independently picked out members of the Fempire.
Katie: Yes. One by one.
Craig: One by one.
Katie: I tried to pick them off one by one.
Craig: I like this person, I like this person, I like this person. And then later on realized, oh, they’re part of the Fempire.
Katie: Yes. Well I knew that they were part of the Fempire. I mean, I had that New York Times article cut out in my binder. I was kind of excited about it.
Craig: Got it. You were very aware of the Fempire.
Katie: Yes. But so then I’m emailing with them. I met with them a few times when I came out to LA. And I graduated from Columbia in the fall of 2011. And the day that I landed was the day that Dana’s television show Ben and Kate was picked up by Fox. And so she had my old email asking if she ever needed an assistant to please call me. And she emailed me and said I need an assistant. It was literally the day I landed.
Craig: Wow. Oh, come on.
Katie: It was crazy. I know. And so I started working for her a few days later. And it was extraordinary, not only because as you guys know more than anyone Dana is the most generous and intelligent and just kind of inspiring person to be around. But also because the year of making that television show was condensed film school. It went from casting, to choosing the director, to shooting the pilot, to filling the writers’ room, to then following Dana as a fly on the wall all day from set, to the writers’ room, to the edit, and then watching them create those 13 hours of television. I mean, it was extraordinary. And I just loved spending time with her. And when you’re making a TV show you’re spending, as you know, 100 hours a day with whoever you’re with.
Craig: She’s amazing. I mean, ugh, I hope she listens to this.
John: I hope she does. And so people may not know that she is the basis for the Lucy Liu character in Set it Up, the monstrous boss.
Katie: It’s just so extraordinary to be able to turn those stories into art and share it with the world. It was funny though because to go – anytime talking to the press about Set it Up I was like I need everyone to write down that Dana is the greatest boss that’s ever lived. Because she’s kind of the only boss I’ve had outside of camp counselors and, you know, summer jobs at Urban Outfitters and stuff like that. I mean, I knew enough people with terrible stories but it’s kind of how they say that only really smart people can play dumb people. I feel like only if you’ve had the greatest boss in the world could you write a story–
Craig: Can you know what–
John: You recognize the tyranny.
Craig: The anti-Dana.
Craig: I mean, she is an endless ray of sunshine.
John: So Dana Fox works really hard and writes a ton. And so how much of your daily life was involved in writing and sort of getting – on a show like Ben and Kate she is going through and she might be rewriting scripts. She’s doing stuff. How much are you touching the words versus how much are you just getting life to work properly for Dana?
Katie: I felt very lucky because it felt very equal. It felt about 50/50. In any assistant job your job is to make sure that they are living their happiest and most productive life. And so a lot of that is the day to day jobs that they don’t have time to do, they can’t do, and making sure that life is running smoothly for them. But from the get Dana was so generous with allowing me into that process and the words process and sitting with her and talking things out and beating out episodes occasionally, scenes occasionally. The time that I was most grateful for was – because we would have a very long day. We would get to set at six and we would be there until about three and then we’d go to the writers’ room and then we would go to the edit when everyone else went home.
But sitting in the edit with her was probably the most I’ve learned in a condensed period of time. Because she’s not only a great writer, she’s an extraordinary producer. She’s now a wonderful director. And she has such a sense of story and such a sense of what the audience will be feeling. And not only watching her translate the episode, you know, the script to the episode, but seeing how you need to be able to give up what was on the page into what you’re creating, what you’re actually giving to the world. That was really, really invaluable for me.
Craig: That’s the real stuff, right? I mean, I think a lot of writers, Ted Elliott always used to say that screenwriting is one of the only jobs in the world where you can get paid for years and only do half the job.
Craig: Because a lot of people, particularly in features, they write and they write and they write but they don’t go through the process of production which is when you learn so much kind of retroactively. And in comedy, which you write, you know that editing is kind of – that’s the music. That’s the final playing of the tune. And it all comes down to that. I’ve learned more about comedy in an editing room I think than anywhere else.
Katie: Absolutely. I mean, it’s like designing the most beautiful blueprint and you can frame that somewhere but you still have to build a house. And Dana actually taught me this, that when you finish a script, when you’re happy with a script, you take a beat and you celebrate it. Because the script is great. And now it’s the script. But then you’re going to make a movie. And you have to have celebrated what the script was and now be ready to turn it into something that’s a totally different medium.
John: You’re working really hard for Dana Fox, but how are you finding time to write for yourself and what is the process of getting your own scripts written while you’re working with Dana?
Katie: Yes. Well, I was lucky because Dana really did bring me into a lot of things that she was working on. Not just Ben and Kate, not in an official capacity, but it felt like stretching that muscle over and over in terms of talking out scenes and pitching dialogue and what not. And then when that show was over, you know, at the same time every night I was going home and noodling on my own ideas and sketching things on a legal pad.
But when Ben and Kate ended she had other jobs she needed to work on, to complete. Other feature jobs. And so she and I actually started writing those together as a writing team. And so then it felt like just a wonderful halfway house towards really doing it on my own in terms of splitting up the work in real ways and working together in a tangible way where I felt like I was really contributing as a partner as opposed to someone who is there who got to contribute every once and a while.
So, that led to more time to be able to work on my own stuff as well at home, so that was kind of the transition period where I would wake up early in the morning and write before I went in to work with her.
Craig: Ah, youth.
Katie: I know. [laughs]
Craig: Youth. Do you have children by the way?
Craig: OK. John and I have talked many times on the show about how children basically suck the life out of you. I think it’s one of our common themes.
John: It is.
Craig: And, yeah–
John: It makes it impossible to do that sort of stuff that’s outside of work hours.
Craig: Yeah. But I do remember that there was that time where I could do that. And good for you to kind of capitalize on it.
Katie: It’s crazy. I feel really lucky. Even now I’m married and I have a dog, and I know it’s incomparable in terms of the time they suck–
Craig: Depends on the dog.
Katie: But to think that there was a time where writing was the priority, kind of before you have a partner, before you have anything to take care. It’s such a luxury. And I’m glad that – I think Dana helped me be aware of that at the time because she had other responsibilities.
Craig: She has 200 children.
Katie: Yeah. She has 789 kids. And 40 dogs.
Craig: [laughs] She does. I’ve seen them all.
Katie: Yes. But so that was another thing, I mean, among everything else that she taught me was to really take advantage of when you’re able to give it your full self because that’s when you’re kind of creating the muscle and the framework to then be able to hopefully continue it when you have the time.
Craig: I wish she had been my boss. First of all, I want Dana to be my mom.
Craig: And then if I can’t have her to be my mom, then I would definitely have her be my boss. Because I mean talk about somebody that just coasts on positivity and gets it done.
Katie: Truly. It’s like someone asked Mike Nichols what the secret to a long marriage is and he said marry Diane Sawyer. And people say what’s the secret to working in Hollywood, I say work for Dana Fox.
Craig: Work for Dana Fox.
John: Dana Fox was my assistant before she went off–
Katie: Yes. So it all comes from this.
John: It does all come from me.
Craig: No question.
John: But I will say that Dana was my assistant, and Rawson Thurber was my assistant, Megan McDonnell who just left the show is now writing. I never did that thing where I invited them so directly into the process. And so that kind of apprenticeship that you’re talking about is a thing that happens in TV all the time. Whether it’s the newest staff writer on a show or the writer’s assistant, they’re always there for part of that process and it’s really hard to get that experience in features. And so you had a unique opportunity with Dana to be able to do that stuff.
Katie: It really does feel very singular. Because you’re right, in a television show, even just by osmosis people are sitting in a room and watching how it happens so often. I mean, that’s why – not to kind of butter you guys up, but the website and the podcast is so invaluable. I remember how ravenous I was for any information as to how the process went. Whether it was pitching, or writing, or finding an agent, and wanting as many details as possible. And I’m so excited for young writers coming up now that there is such a wealth of information and places to access that information in terms of just trying to understand what it looks like before you show up.
Craig: You know what? I remember when I first came to Los Angeles I was an intern also at Fox Network. It was through the Television Academy. So this is 1991. And when I got there I realized I really didn’t understand anything. I had grown up and watched networks. I knew there were networks. But now people are talking about Fox Television, but there’s also Fox Broadcasting. And I realized I actually didn’t understand anything.
Well, what do you do at that point? There is no Internet. There’s no Wikipedia. There’s no podcast. Nothing. So, I went to a bookstore and I bought – Ken Auletta wrote a book called Three Blind Mice which was kind of a history of the three networks. And I read that mostly just to learn like, oh, OK, they weren’t allowed back then to produce their own stuff so that’s a production company. They deficit finance. I learned what syndication was. I literally didn’t know that there was a difference. I didn’t know why one channel had reruns and the other one–
Katie: Why does a channel get to air four and this channel only airs one?
Craig: Right. And I learned it all from a book because that was the only way you could learn in 1840.
Katie: I mean, I’ve never admitted this, but when I came out here for that internship I heard from someone that the writers from the Office, because this was 2007, right in the height of their popularity, although I guess it lasted for a decade, but that they used to hang out at Molly Malone’s on Fairfax. I don’t even know if that’s true. I just heard it. And I used to go there almost every night.
Katie: Hoping to see them.
Craig: Oh my god.
Katie: I guess assuming maybe they’d be writing at 9pm at a bar. Like maybe I’d see them in the middle of their process. But I was like just to be in the same city where all these people who are doing the thing that I wanted to do were actively at it was so exciting to me.
Craig: There’s a wonderful romance of the writer. Then you become one, you meet them all, and you’re like, ah.
John: Maybe not so much.
John: Let’s talk about the movies you actually got made though. So the first thing I saw that had just your credit on it was Set it Up on Netflix which was delightful. So congratulations on that. So it was a big hit for Netflix. We have no idea what that actually means in terms of numbers, because they will never tell us that.
Craig: Between one and everyone watched it.
John: Yeah. But everyone was talking about it and that’s when you define a hit on Netflix is it’s a watercooler conversation moment. It was just a delightfully well-done romantic comedy. And talk us through that script. And had you written that script trying to do it in another way and Netflix ended up being the buyer? What was the process of getting Set it Up set up?
Katie: First of all, that’s a really lovely thing to say. Thank you so much. Set it Up was so much fun from beginning to end. A very good friend of mine named Juliette Berman who is also a really wonderful producer, she and I met as assistants and at that time we’re working for two women and met on a film set. And then a few years later she was a lower level executive at a company. And I had just started writing with Dana. And she reached out to me and said she wanted to make a movie about assistants setting up their bosses. She had that log line.
And I said I love that idea. I think that’s great. So I went off and spent a few weeks breaking the story and went back to her and said this is how I would like to do it. I would like to make a real throwback kind of screwball romantic comedy. And to her immense credit didn’t say no one is buying those anymore so don’t do that. And she said, OK, that’s the movie I’d want to watch, too, so write that one and then we’ll take it out.
So, I just wrote the movie that I wanted to see and didn’t really worry about where it would end up. I was–
Craig: Let’s pause for a moment so that people can really hear what you just said. Because I think a lot of times they don’t quite get it. Because they think that they’re supposed to write what supposedly the marketplace is demanding or their agent or their manager or their lawyers or their friends are telling them nobody wants that, write this.
Don’t do that. Do what Katie did. Write the movie you want to see.
Katie: And also that’s fun. Because then you’re writing what you would want to be watching. And then your day is fun and you know you can lean into that strike zone. And if it’s a genre you love – I love the genre. I love the classics. And so it was a wonderful excuse to investigate why I loved it and the things that worked and the things that would have to change in a modern setting. And it was just a really fun experiment in addition to a fun job to take on.
I had wonderful support in Juliette and Justin Nappi who runs that production company, Treehouse. And when the script went out it was exciting because a lot of places said that they wanted to make movies like this again. A lot of places also said we love these movies but we can’t make them because no one will see them. But it was exciting at the time that it felt like studios wanted to try and take that risk. And we were set up at MGM and briefly Fox 2000 for a little while. And it was a great college try from both of those places in terms of trying to figure out a way to make the movie in a way that would make sense to them. And then everyone kind of amicably realized that was not going to happen.
And that is when Netflix stepped in. And they said the same thing that we said. Matt Brodlie who at the time was running that program said this is a movie I want to watch and so I want the opportunity to make it. And they were so supportive and so extraordinary. I mean, we described it a little bit like the inmates running the asylum in that we had so much creative control. We almost weren’t ready for it.
Craig: I’m kind of curious for older writers I think they still look at the theatrical release as this magical thing as opposed to being released over a streaming service like Netflix. But my daughter I don’t think really cares. I don’t think she notices much of a difference except that for one you have to drive a little bit and park.
Did you feel any difference yourself or were you like, yeah, no, it actually doesn’t matter?
Katie: I certainly didn’t feel any difference in the making of the movie. They feel the same wherever it’s going to end up I would say. And you know we tested Set it Up in theaters. We took it to the traditional kind of testing process. So I had seen it in theaters a few times before it was going. So even that process felt very similar. It was interesting, in the mix it’s different, in the sound mix, because you’re never worrying about the theatrical Dolby experience. That was the first time I realized, oh, this will only ever be watched—
And it was interesting too because at one point Matt reminded us, he was like, you know, you’re not in a comedy – you’re not spacing out for the laughs. This is usually going to be someone alone in their room or in a living room with two other people and you don’t have to wait for the person behind you to stop laughing to hear the next joke.
Little things like that were interesting. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have experienced both versions, kind of back to back in a way where it really is comparable. And there are huge benefits to both, and things you miss from both I think. I also feel lucky, I think romantic comedies are a genre that are really aligned with that kind of experience, which is where everyone wants to watch them anyway.
There is a thrill to seeing it in the theater with a lot of people. I mean, we premiered Booksmart at South by Southwest and that theatrical experience will probably be the highlight of my life. It was extraordinary. But there’s also a thrill in being able to tell people you’ve already paid for it. It’s at home this Friday.
Craig: It’s at home. No pressure.
Katie: Yeah, no pressure at all. And to watch it grow in ways like that as well. And, you know, internationally it’s fun I think for Glen and Zoey especially to feel like it has the equivalent of an international release that essentially only Mission: Impossible gets, but that they can travel globally.
John: Day and date worldwide, yeah.
Katie: Absolutely. And so the reach of it is really extraordinary. So, I feel lucky. There were things that while experiencing both I was like, oh, it’s maybe a little better over on the other side of the fence. But I think there are movies and there are experiences for both kind of at all times.
John: Set it Up is a romantic comedy and every romantic comedy is going to have those sort of two co-equal leads, or those two characters are going to be so central to everything. But I want to segue into Booksmart which also has two characters who are driving the story, who are at the centerpiece of the whole thing rather than a single protagonist.
And for folks who haven’t seen the movie, what is your short version of what the movie is about? How do you describe it to people?
Katie: I would describe it as it’s a high school comedy about two unapologetically brilliant best friends, girls who have been best friends for ten years in high school, who have prioritized school work, have prioritized their future, taken themselves seriously, and the last day of school realize that all the kids that they thought prioritized fun and didn’t take anything seriously were just as smart as them and got into schools just as great as they did.
And so they’re rocked by this knowledge that they were the only ones who chose, and everybody else got to do everything. And so they only have one night to prove that they also can do everything. And the night before graduation they try and fit in as much fun as possible to kind of prove to everybody that they’re just as multi-dimensional as they are.
John: Now, this was a script that was loved for a long time.
Katie: Yes, for a decade.
John: This was a Black List script. Emily Halpern, Sarah, Haskins, Susanna Fogel had been on this. And when you came on board what was it that made you want to do this movie?
Katie: Well, I think as you said the original draft that Emily and Sarah wrote was about two smart girls and a buddy comedy of two smart girls. And that was a dynamic that I was so excited about. Even when it came out. I remember when, because I used to be obsessed with the Black List, I still am, and when it came out in 2009 in college you had to pay to print every page. It was like ten cents to print a page at these public printers. And I printed out the script of Booksmart I was so excited about it, because I wanted to read it.
John: Holy cow. So this is 2009,
Katie: Yeah. So I was like tossing money towards the Dartmouth paper collection or whatever it was.
Craig: I hope it wasn’t very long.
Katie: It’s a comedy, so it’s OK.
Craig: Yeah, it’s 95 pages.
Katie: Like 115.
Craig: Well, 115.
Katie: The librarian was like what is this?
Craig: That’s $11.50.
Katie: I know. I was committed.
Craig: That’s real.
Katie: And so I was incredibly excited about that. And Susanna Fogel, who is so talented, had done a big update a few years later and it was the same core idea but kind of a different context. But I was excited to both I think try and tell a story about smart girls that I hadn’t seen before, because I do think that in most movies if there’s a smart girl that’s 90% of her personality is that she’s intelligent. And I feel really lucky in that the women in my life are all really smart and no one would list that the first thing about them.
And I was excited about the potential to explore that. I was also excited to try – the high school movie is such an established structure and framework. And I felt like there was a really unique opportunity to take the archetypes that we’re used to and reveal all of them to be something more than that. Because I knew that, much like high school, when you start watching that movie you’re able to label everybody as a certain thing. And in so many great ways in high school movies they play either a comedic relief or a tertiary role that way, but I was excited to try and flip all the preexisting notions you have about these movies on their heads and reveal all that.
And mostly honestly I was excited to work with Olivia because she was attached at the time and had made this extraordinary deck and had such an undeniable and clear vision and tone for what she wanted the movie to be. She said she wanted it to be Training Day for high school girls.
Katie: And I was like that, I would work the craft table for. I’ll do anything for that movie. So I was really excited to be able to tackle that. And we talked a lot, too. We started developing this script right at the time of the Parkland students becoming so political and outward and so many young women, teenage girls of this age showing up in huge public ways so courageously and so bravely, both on the political spectrum, kind of throughout every spectrum. And we were really excited to try and tell a story to honor how brave and cool and tough girls of this age – what it’s like to be a young woman in 2019 which in the last three years had changed so astronomically.
And what it’s like to kind of be burying the burden of society as of now at that age and what it means. And so we wanted to celebrate how inspired we were by the women of that generation.
Craig: Here’s a writer-y question for you based on what you just said, because I think a lot of times when you are writing movies that are two-handers and you have two people you do start with this question of who are they/what do they represent/how are they connected with society of large/what’s their relevance? All the things you were just saying.
But at some point while you’re writing you realize, OK, but to each other they’re none of those things.
Craig: To each other they’re just people, so how do you – as you dig into the relationship do you start to feel like you’re shedding a little bit of the kind of concern over what they represent to an audience and start delving into what they mean for each other?
Katie: Completely. I mean, that’s the nail on the head in terms of how we wanted to structure it which is we talked a lot about how intense high school girl best friends are. And it’s an incredibly codependent borderline unhealthy relationship. It’s your first soulmate in a real way. But we were talking about how they’re the only person who sees all your dimensions. So that friendship gave us an opportunity to quite early on and kind of throughout the movie and the story show what the rest of the world saw these girls as. And most of the time it’s how they’re presenting themselves. You know, a character like Molly who is played by Beanie Feldstein so beautifully, she projects this intensity and this seriousness and this kind of no nonsense. And when she’s with her best friend she’s warm and goofy and funny and that’s the only person who sees that side of her. And so depicting a friendship like that in a buddy comedy you’ve got to show the interior and the exterior almost at the same time.
And that was such a fun opportunity to also right away establish this is who they present to the world and this is who they are when they’re gooey at home.
Craig: Right. Exactly. And you start to see them as people-people.
Craig: Which is fun.
John: Well let’s talk about the Amy character then. So Molly’s character is the prototypical if Amy didn’t exist you could still make a movie that was essentially the Molly movie.
Craig: This force of nature.
John: This ocean liner that’s going to be ploughing through here. And if this were Election then she would be Reese Witherspoon’s character. She’s the one who is just in charge of everything and clearly has stuff together. But to see the Amy character who is as smart and has very specific other things, came out as a lesbian in the 10th grade, and has no experience, in your writing process and figuring out how you were going to structure the story what were you thinking about the beats between the two characters and sort of the journey of their relationship? Sort of like what was that stake for the two of them over the course of that night? And decisions about how far to carry that out?
Because you describe it as codependence and it really is. It’s uncomfortable to watch at moments, sort of how deeply into each other’s lives they are. And you recognize that they have to find some space between each other, and yet you don’t want them to break out. So, as you’re plotting this out how are you trying to tie this into the actual events of the evening?
Katie: Yeah, well from the beginning Olivia and I decided we wanted to structure it almost like a romantic comedy knowing that it was a breakup movie. That as you’re saying what they really needed from each other was some freedom to figure out who they were. And so we went through and structured the story as if it were a romance but as you’re saying essentially at the beginning of the movie Amy knows that they need to be independent and Molly does not.
And so the structure throughout is Amy trying to make that happen in a way that doesn’t feel like an explosion, until Molly forces her to blow it up basically. You know, I’ll give maybe a slight spoiler alert because we’ll start to talk of some of the real plot.
Katie: Spoiler alert! But over the course of the story Amy is trying to live her own life, even in small ways, saying I’m not going to go out, you go do it by yourself. I’ve gone out to one party. You keep going out to the other parties. It’s not until Molly really makes herself vulnerable at one point in the midpoint and admits that there’s something she hadn’t been sharing with Amy that Amy puts herself in the driver’s seat and decides that for Molly she’s going to continue this night out.
But I think what’s been fun is to listen to people talk about their own friendships in terms of the person who pushes and the person who maybe needs to be pushed. Because I think they both have a valid argument. I think Molly would say without me Amy wouldn’t do anything. She wouldn’t try things. She wouldn’t be brave. She wouldn’t experience things. And Amy would say you force me do everything and I would get there on my own if you gave me the time to do it.
So, that back and forth and making sure that structurally the arcs are lined up with each other in that one person realizes something before the other because the second can’t catch up in time, it’s going to come to blows almost.
Craig: Right? We talk about this. Conflict.
John: You need two characters who want different things. So let’s try to step back and generalize for movies with two central characters and the questions you need to ask yourself if you’re trying to write one of these stories. So you have two characters who need something from the other person. And they may already be getting that at the start of the movie, or they may meet over the course of the story and discover they’re getting this thing from each other, but they each have their own journey they need to be on and you need to find ways to structure your story so that each of them is challenged to grow into the next person they need to be and that it’s not just about the two of them going through a bunch of stuff.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is a great two-hander.
John: Where those two characters, they needed to be together and they provide specific things to each other, but by going on this trip together they’ve both grown and changed. And in some ways it is just a single hero’s story with two heroes. You really have to think through each of them are kind of driving their own story and making sure that it really is meaningful. That you’re getting all the way through with this character’s – what they need at the start of the story and where they got to by the end of this, especially in a movie setting where it should be a one-time transformational event.
And that’s why being structured around this last night before graduation makes so much sense. That this is the only chance they’re going to get to do this thing while they’re still in high school.
Katie: Yeah. And I would even say, too, because I love Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. I love Tommy Boy, I think is structurally like an–
Craig: It’s the best.
Katie: –an ideal buddy comedy. Sometimes it’s that one person needs something from the other and the other needs to realize they don’t need something from the other. That’s kind of the Amy – Amy needs Molly to give her some space, and Molly needs to realize that she can’t have Amy around all the time in that same way. So I think as you’re saying break it so that each individual arc would live on its own. And ideally it’s a character that’s interesting enough that you would watch a whole movie about them without the other. But the secondary buddy is forcing them to become the best version of themselves.
Craig: Yeah. I think of it, when I was working on Identity Thief and I had to balance out Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy, it seemed to me that, well like from a classic point of view clearly they’re each missing a piece that the other one can provide. And they can each illuminate each other’s condition and all that.
But underneath all that, even when you’re saying, OK, well it’s a two-hander, it seems to me that of the two people one will be fundamentally different by the end of the movie and the other one will have learned something but generally is going to be the same again. Like if there is a sequel, you know that one of them will be quite different and one of them has learned but is still – like Melissa McCarthy’s character is never going to be like normal. You know, whereas Jason’s character learns something.
Katie: Yeah. And that’s, I mean, it’s so fun to look at – it’s the same way. Tommy is never not going to be Tommy. But he’ll have learned something and David Spade’s character will have been transformed by–
Craig: Spade’s character is transformed. Like he gets it. You know what, just because the outer thing looks idiotic and stupid there is some magic in there.
Katie: And that there’s usually someone whose worldview has been so dependent on thinking they understand that and then realizing that it’s going to shift their entire worldview.
John: Here’s a difference between a two-hander versus a classic protagonist/antagonist setup is that in a two-hander generally we have POV from both characters’ point of view. We can watch scenes from either character’s point of view and it makes sense. And a good example of this in Booksmart is literally their big fight which is staged as a single tracking shot that just angles on one and angles on the other as one long take. And it’s an example of why we are seeing this from both character’s point of views.
If this were a classic protagonist/antagonist situation we’d be focused on our protagonist learning this lesson or taking this in or winning this fight. Instead we’re focused on these two as sort of co-equals trying to find their space in this place.
Katie: Yeah. And fight scenes are in my opinion so fun to write because you get to – it’s like a debate. You get to fully embody both arguments. And I think Molly and Amy have equally understandable arguments. I think they both – even when they make up at the end know that they’re right and that’s the most fun fight to write in my opinion.
Craig: I love a good fight between characters. If we care about both characters then what’s interesting is they can both cut each other to the bone and we will not hate them for it. We will feel bad for each of them. Because they get hurt. And then we also see that the person who hurt them feels bad about hurting them. Because, in fact, in reality most arguments are between people that like each other. It’s very rare that you end up in some sort of Burr/Hamilton duel on the street, right?
It’s like you have a friend and then something goes wrong and you guys get into it. And the cost of those things are people that actually are good and care for each other hurting each other.
So, I like that kind of concept of what a two-hander can get you as opposed to when you are dealing with the protagonist/antagonist, the antagonist is hurting the protagonist and we hate them for it.
Craig: We don’t feel bad for them. Nor do we believe that they could be hurt. They don’t have feelings.
Katie: You’re right, though. I think the best fights are the ones where the thing that’s most devastating is the fact that they said it. Not that you hear it, but that they said it.
Craig: Right. That you put it in the air. And my ears heard it. And you can’t take it back. And you can see somebody wants to take it back. I love those moments. They always work.
John: So let’s talk about this new project you just set up. We won’t get into details of what the actual story of it is.
Katie: I will say it is a buddy comedy, which is why, I mean, we’ve been talking about What About Bob and Tommy Boy and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and even stuff like Elf. They’re the most fun movies – we talked about Identity Thief a lot.
Craig: I don’t think so. [laughs]
Katie: We did. Dana and I watched – I was there when she emailed you about it because we watched it together at their old house in the Hollywood Hills. And it might have been the hardest we’ve ever laughed in our lives. We had so much fun. So it’s a buddy comedy.
Craig: All right. You can stay.
John: So it’s a buddy comedy. Same director, Olivia Wilde, who directed Booksmart. But you did the thing where you pitched to a whole bunch of buyers and a bunch of studios over the course of a day, a few days?
Katie: It was three days.
Craig: Three crazy days.
John: So you’re going into the room and how long does the pitch take. Clearly you know what you’re going to say. It’s been practiced. What was the process of beating out story and the pitch and then figuring out, OK, you’re now ready to go take this to places? What was the lead up that got you into those three days of pitching?
Katie: It was really interesting. I have done this before where it’s just the script. And that’s just you alone pacing around in a room and getting it to the point where – I mean, in general I think you get it to the point where you would write it anyway. Like that’s when I like to pitch. Because then you’re going in with the energy of I’m going to do this either way and if you’d like to be a part of it that’s wonderful. But also if it doesn’t work out you know enough about it and you’re still excited enough about it that you’ll go right in and it’s not wasted time up until then.
So, usually it’s kind of – once I feel like I have the story broken to the point where I would be ready to go write that’s when I will feel good taking it to other places. Which was the case here as well, but because I was pitching with Olivia, with a director attached, and we were both going to be producing it, it was really about pitching the movie we were going to make as opposed to the script I was going to write.
And so that was a different, equally exciting, but a different process in terms of how we were presenting it to the room as opposed to me just getting to like snap my fingers and talk about sequences.
Craig: Which feels a little more modern to our time. You know, when John and I were starting out you would go around and pitch an idea. And you could talk about it without anything attached, no directors, no actors, and you’d give your 15-minute or 10-minute description of the movie. And then somebody might buy it or two people might fight over it.
But the idea of going on, well first of all, you’re not just going in with a director. You’re going with a director that is part of a team that worked. So now they know there’s a team that worked. They know what you guys are going to do. It’s a movie. Now the question for them, and this is a question I think they ask all the time, they used to ask, “Well, how much money of our development fund should we spend guessing?” Now the question they have is, “Hmm, when can we put this on our schedule?” That’s kind of the question they ask, right?
Craig: So they’re not really buying a pitch. They’re green-lighting a movie. And that’s the consideration that I guess you make a lot easier when you’re pitching what feels like the beginning of an actual process as opposed to sort of a big guess.
Katie: Yes. And that was – and Olivia being able to talk about casting, about locations. She made a gorgeous visual deck that they got to look at while we were pitching the story itself.
John: Pause for a second. So was the visual deck something you were showing on a screen, or you had cards that showed?
Katie: We did not. We were very analog. Every meeting we went into there was a person waiting to hook up our AV and we were like we don’t need it, we’re so sorry. And instead I just went to Kinko’s every morning at 7am and went to their color printer–
Craig: 10 cents a page.
Katie: Yeah. It’s much worse than Dartmouth. The color printer at Kinko’s I was like now we really have to sell this. Yes, so we handed them something that they could look at in that concept. But it was so much fun because we, you know, we love each other and we had so much fun breaking the story. And we took it out to pitch as previously when we were ready to do it. We were ready to make the movie. And so the experience was, even though it was a long experience, it was getting to go into rooms and tell them about something that we were just giddy excited about. And we knew we were going to do regardless.
And so then it also felt a little bit like figuring out what vibe felt best for us.
Craig: Well, right. So at that point you’re not pitching them, they’re pitching you. And I think they can smell that. I mean, look, there’s a lot of things that they, meaning studio executives, can’t do, like write scripts. But there are also things that they can do really well, like sense in the air what their position is in terms of power and potential. And I think sometimes they just know, right, so they’re coming in, this is what they just pitched. This is who is pitching it. I know they’re pitching it at other places. This is definitely going to be a thing. And now I have to convince them.
And that’s when you know you’ve got them.
Katie: That’s, again, very kind to say. But I do think 98% of it, too, is just how much we loved it. Because if everyone had said no thank you, here’s your valet ticket, please don’t take the water bottles, we would have gone home and just done what we’d been doing every day which is beating through scenes and making each other laugh and talking it out that way. So it’s like how you end up playing hard to get best when you actually are too busy to go on a date.
Craig: When you’re actually hard to get.
Katie: Exactly. Exactly. So it was fun. And, you know, Dana gave me some wonderful advice, too, in terms of pitching. Because the previous times I’d taken scripts around to pitch I had not made any movies. And so it really is a song and dance of you pitch everything. I would throw in lines of dialogue. There was so much tonal stuff I added to try and get them to understand the kind of comedy it would be. And I was ready to do that again this time. And Dana was the one who kind of had to remind me that you’ve established a tone and you don’t need to pitch every line of dialogue in that same way. You can just tell them what the movie is going to be in a more macro sense and they’ll be able to fill in the blanks.
John: Did you practice pitch to Dana or anybody else?
Katie: We practice pitched with each other. I think we both practice pitched to a few people maybe on the side when we had time to kill, like over the phone I practice pitched to my mom, I practice pitched to my husband. But not in any official sense I think because we knew that because we’re such good friends and because we have a conversational manner the more we practiced the more it would feel formal. And we wanted to come in and say like, OK, this is what we’re excited about, here’s the movie.
Craig: Totally. Even the act of feeling rehearsed will indicate to them that you’re scared. Because that meant you worked on this really carefully. And you’re right. The best way is to walk in and go, “So, anyway, check this out. Oh, did you not understand it? Did you not like it? Cool we’ve got somewhere else to go. We can go grab a coffee before we go sell this to a competitor.” That’s kind of the attitude.
Katie: It’s also I think – someone, I forget, I wish I could remember who said this. But someone said the best way to pitch is to act like you’re trying to convince your friend to see a movie that you saw last night.
Katie: Maybe you guys said it actually.
Craig: I think we might have.
Katie: You can cut that out and give me full credit.
Katie: Those geniuses. What geniuses said it? And that’s how we thought about it the whole time. But to do that you have to know the movie well enough.
Craig: You have to have seen the movie in your head.
Katie: Exactly. So it has to seem casual but it can’t be casual. And I think a lot of my confidence came from knowing that it would be maybe a more broad strokes pitch, but any question that they asked I would have the answer to.
Craig: You’d have the answer. Right.
Katie: Because I think if I had only had the broad strokes and then had to in the room scramble to figure out what the answers were it would have been like an Albert Brooks flop sweat.
John: And so the process of going into that room and describing the story is the same for any kind of pitch, but it is a little bit different when it’s your own original thing where there’s multiple places you could go versus coming in to pitch on a piece of property that somebody owns. Because then I’m just like, OK, here’s a thing that you already have and I need to convince you that I’m the right person to adapt that thing that you have.
It is exciting when it’s like and I’ve got another meeting in an hour so I’ve got to go. And I’ve not enjoyed my TV experience all that much, but one of the things I kind of did enjoy was going out and pitching to the three networks in a day because it’s like–
Craig: Those days are great. I mean, I remember going around with Lindsay Doran when we were pitching the adaptation of the book Three Bags Full which ended up at Universal. And it was just magic because it was that kind of deal where you knew like, look, we’re doing it anyway and we’ve got this. So jump onboard or don’t jump onboard. But you feel like for once you’re driving.
The thing about coming and pitching on their stuff, it’s actually just auditioning.
John: It is. It is.
Craig: You know, it’s just a totally different thing. You’re already there wanting. You know, and really when you have something terrific that you’re bringing out you’re kind of saying you’re going to be wanting.
Katie: Yeah. And when you’re pitching on property they own they’re the ones with three dates lined up after this.
Katie: And you’re the girl coming out of the limo trying to impress them on the first night so you don’t go home. And this way you get to–
Craig: I feel like that all the time. I do.
John: Let’s see if we can answer some listener questions. Frederico wrote in with a question asking, “What are some of your suggestions to make a protagonist who is in a situation he or she can’t control feel more active? It’s not an uncommon note to get. Sometimes a series of unfathomable events drive the narrative forward rather than the realization of a personal arc as in 2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Katie: That’s such an interesting question. I would say I feel the most active sometimes when things are out of my control because I’m trying to find a way to respond to it. So, I think a character making decisions responding to something out of their control, how they respond to it, as long as they’re not letting things happening to them and then waiting for the next thing, something out of their control can instigate numerous different responses in terms of, are they fighting against it. Are they trying to find a way out? How many versions of a way out are they trying to find? So I think it’s an exciting opportunity to show what they do in those times of crisis and very rarely are people sitting around waiting for the next thing out of their control.
So I think kind of like a rat in a maze, whatever they do when they get to that end that’s blocked off and how they figure out how to back out of it can be I think as interesting as if someone is in the driver’s seat.
Craig: Yeah, I agree. I’m not really sure what Frederico is hung up on here, because that’s most everything. Most stories, things happen to you. I mean, nobody was controlling whether or not the Titanic was going to hit the iceberg. It’s how you deal with them. Your action is how you respond to changes in the world around you. And it’s almost necessary for some things to be out of your control, otherwise you’re not really in any kind of crisis. You’re determining everything. So–
John: I would say there’s going to be some macro events that are way out of the character’s control, but as a writer you’re trying to establish story drives that are within their control as well. So their interpersonal goals. What they’re trying to do on a smaller level, making sure that you’re setting those things up well enough that you can see progress and you can see them making choices that are hopefully fulfilling those smaller things.
Because Titanic, you know, boat hits an iceberg, but the actual movie is about all the characters doing the things that they’re doing and the choices they’re making in that time.
Craig: Making plans is always good.
Craig: If a character makes a plan you can screw the plan up as the writer, and you probably should screw the plan up, but it’s a sign that they have a goal. And humans are planning creatures. I always just go back to what’s normal. Like Frederico just ask yourself what would you do? When we are in trouble we immediately start planning, so yeah.
Katie: I mean, Titanic is a great example because you not only can’t control the iceberg but you can’t control that you’re down on the lower decks and the person you love is up with her fiancé and he’s trying to put her on a boat. All of that is out of your control. What do you do about that scenario?
Craig: With that guy with a gun.
Katie: Ugh, Billy Zane.
Craig: Billy Zane.
John: Billy Zane.
Craig: I make my own luck.
John: Let’s try one more. Craig, do you want to ask Cameron’s question?
Craig: Sure. Cameron asks, “I’d like to know how you go about the character prep and research? That is to say knowing who your protagonist is, their background, the people around them, and how that will play out in plot? I’m curious how much you plan and how much you like to discover on the fly?”
John: You’re a perfect person to ask this question of. So, let’s go back to Set it Up. And so how much did you know about each of those four central characters right at the very start of this? How much was discovered in the writing process or while you were in scenes?
Katie: I really like to over-plan. I like to have more information than necessary times a thousand. So I made pretty long and detailed character biographies for most of the main characters. For Harper and Charlie, the two assistants, for the two bosses. And for most of their friends. I also think tonally it’s helpful sometimes to put even little jokes for yourself in there. When they lost their virginity, what their worst breakup was, their worst vacation. Little things like that so you have in memory for when other things come up.
Then I think once it’s cast you redo all of that. Or you redo as much as you need to and you refine it to the person who is actually playing the character. So some of those background stories will occasionally pop up, whether it’s if you need an alt or dialogue or when you’re talking with the actor for me. And some are just for you.
Occasionally I use things I came up for one character in dialogue in a whole other script if it’s just a story I like or something came up. But I always like to overdo it and let it inform the tone of how they’re talking about everything else later.
John: So that’s helpful for you and it’s not busy work. Because I think sometimes I worry about people who do extensive character write-ups. They’re trying to stall and get themselves out of writing. And clearly that isn’t for you. For you it’s part of the process of discovering the character.
Katie: Yes. My busy work is like going to Staples and finding a better pen than the one I’m using now and a better notebook and which notecards will best–
Katie: Kind of infuse me with – that’s my version of busy work. But, yeah, I mean, I find it helpful in terms of letting it infuse everything going forward. Because I think also if you give yourself a day to say, OK, I’m just going to spend all day working on one character and their background and practice their dialogue, then maybe you will come up with something that makes you laugh unexpectedly that you’ll end up wanting to put in later. So I tend to do it – once I know I think in general what I’d like the arc to be then I go back and figure out, OK, who do I want it to be.
John: You just said the phrase “practice their dialogue.” More on that. What do you mean by that?
Katie: I love to – once I kind of feel, this sounds very writerly in a way I don’t usually identify myself with, but I feel like once you’ve written maybe five or ten pages of dialogue that’s when you know who someone is. And so before I start writing I’ll practice things, whether it’s them calling Time-Warner and trying to change their service. Them calling their grandmother on their birthday and checking in on that. Them interacting not necessarily with characters I know I want to have in the story but how they would deal with all these – with my friends who I know what they sound like and how this person would talk to my friends.
I’ll do that maybe ten, 15, 20 pages of dialogue. And once I feel like I get a sense of what makes me the happiest or what makes me laugh the most about the way they speak then I’ll feel like I know the core of who they are, the way they’ll react to everything else.
Craig: That’s great. You know what? I do this, too. And I think actually, Cameron, there’s two different things you’re asking about. You’re asking about character prep and research. Research is where I think people can start to hide. It depends on what you’re writing. I mean, if you’re writing something that’s historical obviously there’s a lot of research to do. But even then that research is very – it’s about facts and context. It’s term paper stuff, right?
But character prep is different. So, Katie, you write it out. And the movement of fingers on keyboard is really – you’re helping your mind write a person. You’re starting to build a human being. You can do this taking a walk around your neighborhood. You can do it daydreaming in the shower. But the practicing of dialogue, the talking like that person, you begin to become a person and you find their rhythms and what they sound like and what they would and wouldn’t say.
All of that is essential to preparing for the moment you then do it for real.
Craig: Otherwise, because I know, when he says how much do you like to discover on the fly? As little as possible.
Craig: I’m open to it. Always. But I don’t want to rely on the fly revealing anything.
Katie: Yeah. It’s a treat if something pops up but you can’t be depending on it.
Katie: Another trick that is really fun that I do sometimes is if there’s a movie that I love as a comp for what I’m working on or something similar I’ll practice writing by inserting a new character into that scene and the way they would react to that.
John: Oh wow.
Katie: So like for example something like What About Bob or Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, those are very specific tonally and it might not even work if you’re doing a buddy comedy because those are so kind of nailed and in the world that they’ve created, but figuring out how they would interact with other characters you really like just because anyone – that’s why I use my friends, too. I know their voices better than anyone. So I know how they’d always react to something and then it’s a matter of figuring out how someone new would.
But sometimes a character is so well-established that it can be a good litmus test. You know that voice well enough to then see how it would interact with other things.
John: It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is the Alamo Drafthouse in Downtown Los Angeles which just opened this past week. That’s where I saw your movie. It is a great place to see your movie.
Katie: I’m so excited.
John: And see other movies, too. So for folks who don’t have a Drafthouse near them, they have food in the theaters. They have beers. They have cool things that run before the shows. This one in Downtown Los Angeles also has a video store where you can check stuff out for free. There’s games you can buy. It’s just a really good space.
Craig: So hip.
John: So hip.
Craig: So hip.
John: So if you are in the mood to see a movie and you live in Los Angeles it’s worth it to take one trip down there at least see the Alamo Drafthouse. It’s really nice. And if you’re someplace else that has them, like this is old news John. Why are you bragging about this one?
Craig: Well, it’s good that we have one because I only knew about the one in Austin. So, great. I’ll check it out. My One Cool Thing this week is a One Cool Person. And I would like to just acknowledge Jennifer Burt. So for people who don’t know Jennifer Burt works at the Writers Guild. She has been working at the Writers Guild for, well, at least since 2004, because I remember meeting her then when I was on the board then.
And Jennifer Burt is in charge with coordinating all of the election stuff. So especially in an election like this one with how many people are running?
John: 21 board candidates.
Craig: 21 board candidates and whatever seven officer candidates. Everyone’s statements. Everyone’s photos. Everyone’s list of service. All of it has to be in on time. It all has to be prepared and go into the booklet. It is all governed by these rules. And then there’s election laws and labor laws. And she does it all.
And so I just wanted to acknowledge Jennifer Burt because she is like an unsung hero of the guild that keeps the machinery of our democracy spinning smoothly.
Katie: I can’t wait for one of the elections in my life to be down to single digit candidates.
Craig: Wouldn’t that be fun?
John: It would be so nice. Katie, what’s your One Cool Thing?
Katie: This is so exciting. My One Cool Thing is technically Two Cool Things, but it’s really One Cool Thing. There’s a restaurant that is relatively in the arts district called Lupetti which is a delicious pizza restaurant. And this place has a secret vinyl listening bar in the back that I have recently discovered. And you knock on a little secret door and you walk in and the entire place is designed for the best olfactory – is that the word I’m looking for?
Craig: Olfactory would be smell.
Katie: Yeah. Well it smells great, too.
Craig: I would go auditory.
Katie: Auditory experience. Please don’t cut that. I want everyone to know.
Craig: People need to know what happened here.
Katie: People need to know both definitions.
John: People need to know.
Craig: People need to know.
John: What is the cost of lies?
[They all laugh]
Katie: The vinyl listening bar is called In Sheep’s Clothing and during the day it’s a beautiful bright coffee shop essentially that’s terrific for writing and the entire space is designed for the best listening experience. So the walls, and the ceilings, and everything. They play great records. And it’s a wonderful place to write. And then at night it becomes a cool little bar.
Because the two things that keep going while writing are usually pizza and music.
Craig: Pizza music.
Katie: And so this is a full combination of both of them.
Craig: Love it.
John: Love it. Katie Silberman, thank you so much for joining us on this show.
Craig: Thank you.
Katie: You guys, this was so much fun. Thank you for having me. It’s going to be like Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. You’re going to come back and I’m going to be living in this studio for the next two weeks.
Craig: I’m OK with that because we’re at John’s house. So it’s perfectly fine.
John: Scriptnotes is produced Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Mackey Landy. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions like the ones we answered today. But for short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. Are you on Twitter? Are you a Twitter person?
Katie: I am. I don’t use it very often. But it’s @katiesilberman.
John: All right. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts.
Folks do recaps on Reddit so you can check out the recap there. And back episodes of the show are at Scriptnotes.net or download 50-episode seasons at store.johnaugust.com.
Katie, come back any time.
Katie: I’m so excited. Thank you guys for having me. I’m a big fan. So this will be the only one I don’t listen to.
- We’re hosting a panel on Addiction & Mental Health organized by Hollywood, Health & Society Wed, July 31, 2019, 6:30 PM – 9:30 PM PDT. Watch the Facebook livestream starting at 7:15pm PDT.
- WGA West Unveils Officer Board Candidates
- Wednesday, Aug. 28 Candidates Night at the Writers Guild Theater
- Member meetings August 7th, 8th and 10th
- Booksmart Reunion Olivia Wilde Katie Silberman New Project Universal Pictures
- The Alamo Drafthouse Downtown LA
- Lupetti Pizzeria and In Sheep’s Clothing Hi-Fi Record Bar and Cafew
- Katie Silberman on Twitter
- 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.