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 413 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast we’re going to try to answer the question how do you know when you’re ready to write that script. Then we’re going to answer listener questions about rewrites and polishes and whether writing a bad script could put you on a do not hire list.
Craig: Do not hire.
John: Do not hire!
Craig: Do not!
John: But Craig, most crucially in follow up, a question a lot of people have been asking – Craig, what’s up? Are you OK?
Craig: I’m OK. So the last podcast was the one that you did with – and I was supposed to be there but I couldn’t, essentially connected to this same thing – you did the mental health podcast which we’ll get to in a bit. But prior to that I had to drop out of the race, the Vice Presidential race, the sexiest of all political races, vice president, because of a medical issue in my family.
So, a little context. First of all, no one is dying. I think that’s important for people to know. But I do have a kid who has multiple chronic health issues and there was – I think maybe, ugh, I want to say literally the day after I said, OK, I’ll go ahead and run for vice president we got a call that he had to go into emergency surgery for the second time in a year. And it’s a complicated surgery. It’s not the kind where they poke three holes in you. It’s more like the kind where they make a big line and go Wee. So, good news is he’s recuperating quite nicely, but he does have medical issues that we have to be attentive to. And it seemed to me not only that I was not going to be able to have the time or attention to give to the race, but even worse my ability to serve effectively for two years should I win was fairly compromised because, you know, if this happens again, or if one of his other conditions sort of acts up and that requires attention, then I just won’t be present or able to do the gig.
So, for that reason I had to drop out. But, you know, good news – to be clear – no one is dying. But, you know, it hasn’t been a great month.
John: Yeah. Life is challenging at times. And you and I both had some challenges as things happen. So, we’re glad to hear that he’s doing better and that you’re doing OK.
Craig: Yes. Yes I am. And I really appreciate. There was a wonderful outpouring of support and people were very lovely, which was nice to see. And we should. We should try and be lovely to each there is a medical crisis going on in a family, but nonetheless it was nice to see and encouraging that, you know, we all know ultimately what matters in life. There’s layers of importance and rankings of importance. And this is one of those things that’s more important.
So, we’re in a pretty decent place, but I think it was the right call to make.
John: I agree. Now, you also had a very bright moment of news over these last two weeks. You won a TCA, a Television Critics Association award for Chernobyl.
Craig: I won. I keep wanting to give it a name, like the Taco or something like that. The Taca? And I wasn’t able to go to the event and here’s why: because I had to then go to – I’ve been doing a lot of back and forth traveling – my son is at school in Utah, so we were going back and forth over the last few weeks from here to Salt Lake City. And then we had to go from here to Upstate New York to get my daughter from camp. She goes to a performing arts camp. And part of that final weekend when you collect your kid is that’s the big show. And if there’s one thing that movies have taught us, John, is that not seeing your kid in a production makes you a bad parent.
John: Oh absolutely. I mean, if there’s a third act lesson there, actually it’s often a first act indication that this is a terrible parent. But then by showing up at the third act moment you’ve redeemed yourself as a parent. So in the magical father wish comedy that is our life you showed up.
Craig: Right. I mean, the problem was I knew that there wasn’t going to be a show soon after that one, so I could have just first-acted that one and then arrived for the next one. Like, look, daddy gets it. But, no, I chose to do the right thing and go to see my child perform and it was great. So Jared Harris was able to accept on our behalf.
John: Oh nice.
Craig: And so it was great. I mean, I’ve never won an award before, I mean, in Hollywood. I’ve won things like in grade school.
Craig: Won some Mathlete challenges and such. But, no, it’s lovely. It’s a nice crystal slab and I’m very appreciative. So thank you Television Critics Association. That was super nice. And, you know, either I’m getting killed by critics or they’re giving me lovely crystal slabs. I’m confused. But it was great and very honored to receive something like that. And, you know, hooray.
John: Hooray. One of the things you did miss out on was this mental health and addiction panel. So that was last week’s episode we aired it. It really was just a terrific night and I’m so happy that people who have been writing in – it seems like it was meaningful for them as well. So, we talked about what it’s like to write characters with mental health problems or addiction issues, but also what writers should look for in their own lives when it comes to those two topics.
People wrote in with some really great personal stories, which we won’t share here, but it was clear that it touched a nerve for a lot of people. So if you haven’t listened to the episode yet I would recommend you go back and listen to that. Also listen to Episode 99. We will keep talking about these things in the future seasons of Scriptnotes because it’s not a problem that gets solved once.
Craig: It’s not. And it’s also not something that shouldn’t be talked about. We just naturally avoid it as people and we shouldn’t. We should be leaning into it. We should not feel any sense of shame. I feel no shame about my emotional issues and my mental difficulties and the medicine I take. And we do need to talk about it because our business, and particularly for writers I think the process of doing what we do as writers and then as writers for screen in particular is emotionally difficult and at times it can be extremely stressful.
And it is no surprise that a lot of writers end up with substance abuse problems. A lot of writers end up deeply depressed. A lot of writers end up with a kind of chronic anxiety that they find difficult to manage. And these are the things we want to avoid desperately, right. You can’t avoid them necessarily, but at least you can manage them and we can help each other by talking about them.
John: Yeah. The screenwriter classically is stressed out and isolated which is not a great combination for mental health.
John: And so we need to look at ourselves and as an industry how do we do better for everyone who is facing those situations.
Craig: Precisely. And so, yes, we should keep talking about this and – and – John, I have an idea.
Craig: You know so we do nice things for charities. Maybe there’s something we could do for a charity that is involved in this area.
John: That would be great. So, a charity that is focused on mental health. If there is a charity that is focused on writer mental health, even better. But we will find ways to do some sort of event that could be benefiting this. I will also say Hollywood Health and Society who organized this event, they’re great. They do a bunch of stuff. And so I hope this is the first of many of these kind of panels we do on different topics.
Craig: Yes. And I do hope that I’ll be able to be at the next one. I mean, weirdly enough part of why I wasn’t there was because of these chronic issues, one of which is a mental health issue. So it’s something that’s part of my family and it’s something that we deal with. And we are those people that aren’t embarrassed to talk about it.
Craig: I guess that makes us special.
John: Aw. Another very special institution in Hollywood is Deadline. Deadline is the website that we all feel a little bit of shame every time we open because we know it’s bad for us and yet still sometimes we open it up.
Craig: I mean, sometimes it’s fine. You know, it’s not all bad. Although I still have like Nikki Finke like PTSD. Because it used to be like just her going bananas. And now, well, now they do things like what they just did to you.
John: So, we have complained on previous episodes where they’ll take stuff out of our transcripts and call it an exclusive. Like, oh wow, it’s an exclusive of a podcast that we just recorded and put out for free in the world. I put up a blog post this past week about the myth that the WGA is not negotiating. It was a 1,088 word post that really talked through pretty clearly my thoughts. Deadline thought it did a good job as well and so they took the entire post and wrapped it around in some double quotes at times with like, “August said.” Basically excerpting the whole thing but kind of making it seem like an article.
Craig: I mean, you can’t really excerpt it if you take all of it.
John: No. So I bitched on Twitter about that and I wrote to the writer, David Robb, saying I don’t think that was appropriate at all. I didn’t say copyright infringement, even though it’s clearly labeled as copyright. Because there’s such a thing as fair use and I want to make sure that fair use is protected and it’s such a crucial institution for dissemination of ideas and culture, especially in a journalistic context.
But to take an entire blog post written by another person and just put it on your site is not really journalism. And as a journalism major back in college if I had done this for a news story–
Craig: Oh good lord.
John: My professor would not have given me credit for that. It would have been a lecture.
Craig: They’re screwing with you now. I really feel like they’re kind of doing it on purpose. I actually had a conversation about this with Nellie Andreeva who works at Deadline. I was talking with her at one of these HBO media events. And she admitted that exclusive was not appropriate. And she said they actually had removed that when they saw it.
But I think that you’re making a really good point about the nature of reproduction. So fair use does say, listen, if there’s newsworthy value to it you can take some of it – some of it. Not all of it. Right? So if you’re taking all of it then I think you would need to do, for instance, so the New York Times or the Washington Post if they’re going to republish say a court document, which is not copyrighted by the way, they still put it kind of in its own little box. And they say, look, here’s the document. We’re not just going to quote the whole damn thing as if we dug it up ourselves and made editorial choices about what to include and what to not include.
I just think it is a violation of some basic principles of journalism and they shouldn’t do it. Also, how about this? Just put the link on there, quote a few things like a normal person would, and put the link on and say if you want to read the whole thing to.
John: Like Variety did. That’s what Variety did.
Craig: Yes. Like a normal – correct, because that’s normal.
John: They made a little summary and they linked out to the article. And so that’s kind of the minimum you could ask them to do. But here’s my probably bigger frustration is that the headline for it is something like John August Sees Long Slog Ahead for Agency Deal Negotiations. And “long slog” was in quotes. And I’m like I really don’t think I said that. So I took a look at my original post, I took a look at the actual post that they had put, and they added the word long and put it inside quotes as if I’d said long slog.
So when I complained specifically about that they took long outside of the quotes, so it was clearly just editorializing that it was going to be long.
Craig: Yeah. That’s not right either.
John: That’s so wrong.
Craig: If you don’t call something a long slog they can’t quote you as saying long slog, nor can they describe it as a long “slog.”
John: Because you and I have both been through short slogs. That is a real thing where like, god, you’re grinding and you’re grinding and you’re grinding. It doesn’t mean it takes weeks. It means it’s just a really arduous process.
Craig: It’s tough. You can go through a slog of a negotiation for a project that they want to hire you for at a studio and it can be two miserable weeks of slogging. Where it’s back and forth and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. A long slog that’s months. That has a specific meaning. That’s not – I think they have failed twice in this regard.
John: So, and my frustration with this is that I got people who read – I tweeted out my link to my actual article on my blog and I got feedback from that. And then I got a whole different set of feedback for people who had seen the Deadline piece, not realizing there was a blog post, not realizing I had not said “long slog.” And I could tell they’d read the Deadline piece because it’s like you say it’s going to be a “long slog.” And I’m like, no I didn’t. I didn’t say that. Deadline did. And that’s the frustration, the degree to which it warps the conversation we’re trying to have.
Craig: Well, speaking of conversation, let’s have a conversation about what you wrote and your point of view, because I had a little bit of a different point of view on it, as I thought expressed by one of the great GIFs of all time. I thought I picked a great GIF.
John: I don’t know the source of that GIF. What is the source of that GIF?
Craig: I have no idea either. Nor can I even remember what words I typed into the search to get it. But it was so perfect because it was like – it wasn’t like bad it was just more like, hmm, I don’t know. It actually perfectly encapsulated my response. So, I wanted to kind of walk through it.
John: And I should say that my response GIF was Joey giving Chandler a hug from Friends.
Craig: So adorable. Nothing can keep us apart. I think it’s really important people understand this. Nothing.
Craig: Although that one person on Deadline does want you to fire me. Oh no, they were on Twitter. Sorry. They wanted you to fire me.
John: I don’t think you can really be fired Craig. I just don’t think it’s going to happen.
Craig: You can’t fire me. I quit!
John: I’m going to stop paying you, Craig!
Craig: Oh man. [laughs] So let’s talk through. So do you want to sort of encapsulate your position, or you want me to ask some questions basically?
John: Absolutely. Let me give the very short version. We’ll put a link to the actual blog post, not the Deadline post here. I started by saying that I think it’s incredibly important that we have robust discussion of ideas and issues but as a union it’s important to have a common set of facts. And I didn’t feel like we were having a common set of facts on this idea of no negotiation. And that this idea that we weren’t negotiating had become something of a straw man, where it was just presumed at the start and then you could argue against this idea. You know, the WGA says we shouldn’t negotiate. Well, we should negotiate. And so I cited three candidates who are saying we are refusing to negotiate and then I walked through what was actually said at the time that we said we were no longer going to be negotiating directly with the ATA but negotiating with individual agencies, and what had changed in the meantime. What actually happened in the meantime.
John: So that’s a very short summary of what I wrote.
Craig: Yeah. And your suggestion is essentially that the argument of the WGA refusing to negotiate is a bit of a straw man. And it is and it isn’t. So there is imprecise language there, no question. I guess we want to – my point of view is let’s talk about what is sort of the significant core of this complaint, even if the language is imprecise that the WGA refuses to negotiate.
The complaint is that the WGA refuses to negotiate in any effective way with the big four agencies that essentially, A, control the ATA, and B, represent the great majority of our membership. I don’t think there’s much of an argument there, is there?
John: I think there is an argument there. Here’s what I think is fair to say. That the WGA has said that instead of negotiating with the ATA that we wanted to negotiate with the agencies individually. Specifically in Goodman’s point he says, “The top nine agencies,” so the big four and the next five agencies. We want to focus on them. And so have individual discussions with those agencies.
So it is fair to say that we are choosing not to negotiate with the ATA, refusing – not negotiate with the ATA. And to the degree that you’re not negotiating with the big four because they are only agreeing to negotiate through the ATA. That’s not as well established. But it seems like their preference is to negotiate through the ATA.
Craig: Well, that’s where I’m not sure I agree on that. Part of the issue is you can say, listen, we don’t want to negotiate with the ATA anymore. We just want to negotiate with the individual agencies and that includes CAA and WME and UTA and ICM. But the problem is that when David Goodman makes that statement he is well aware – I think we’re all well aware – that because of the nature of the proceedings prior to that moment which is kind of nothing happening, they make a proposal, we do not respond in any way to that proposal. Then they come back. They unilaterally raise their proposal. And we say after some time we’re not negotiating with you anymore. That that was in effect a secession of negotiations. And that it was incredibly improbable that without some sort of significant change in something that the individual agencies would not then take David Goodman up on this invitation.
John: Can you wind back that last sentence? So you’re saying that it was improbable that any agency would agree to individually negotiate?
Craig: I’m talking about the big four.
Craig: And the reason I keep talking about the big four is while we have signed some other agencies, I think it’s important to say that – unless I’m wrong about this – I don’t think we’ve signed any agencies that actually were engaging in packaging fees and affiliate production in any significant manner. Meaning we haven’t done anything to change anything yet. In fact, after about a half a year what we’ve done is essentially bring back a few agencies to the state that they were in prior to the action we took. I don’t really think we’ve changed much there.
John: I don’t think that is accurate or fair in terms of the agencies that we’ve signed and also just the packaging deals that have not happened as a result of this action.
Craig: So they were packaging?
John: Some of these smaller agencies were packaging. Verve was packaging. As I believe Kaplan-Stahler had a package on a significant property as well. So these are agencies who I think given their druthers would love to continue packaging.
John: They’ve decided to not package in order to sign this deal.
Craig: I will acknowledge that. But I think in turn you would probably agree that none of those agencies were packaging in any significant way, or at least in terms of the percentage of shows that are packaged. They were responsible for maybe a cumulative total of 1%.
John: A much smaller percent than the big four. Absolutely. No argument there.
Craig: And so when we began this fight – look, when Chris Keyser came on our show and the three of us were in violent agreement that we needed to do something about packaging fees and affiliate production, the three of us were talking about four agencies effectively, because those four agencies account for the greatest majority, I mean, a vast majority of all of the packaging fees and packages that are implemented and all of the affiliate production that is implemented.
So, yes, we can absolutely say we have signed Kaplan-Stahler. Or Verve. But I don’t think we can say that we have effectively engaged in negotiations with the four agencies that are responsible for the problem that we are all really angry about. I think sometimes people think like maybe I’m on the agencies’ side because I criticize the way we’re handling things, but I’m actually – it’s because I hate the stuff that the agencies are doing that I criticize the guild because I want the guild to do better.
And now we have a difference of opinion of how to accomplish that, but I think I would push back on you in the sense of, listen, yes, there was some sloppy language there, but there is a decent point to be made that because of the way we have handled things we have yet to negotiate effectively, nor have we shown a great willingness through behavior to negotiate effectively with those individual four agencies.
John: I would say that folks who attend the WGA public meetings will get a sense of sort of where the strategy is currently and where it’s headed to. And that the big four – negotiating with the big four agencies remains a priority.
Craig: Well that’s good to hear. I mean, because I’ve been pretty consistent about this all along. That is where our victory is. Some people I think – I’ve seen some things where some members of our union seem to feel that we’d be better off without them and I will just continue to maintain that down that path lies peril for us. It’s not that we’re being deprived of their wondrousness. It’s that we may be subject to some anti-wondrousness. I mean, just this week I got a call about something and I was like, ugh, and it involved an agency – not CAA – which was my agency. One of the other big four agencies. That lit me on fire. I mean, I was so angry. I was just like pouring gasoline into bottles and shoving rags and I was ready man.
And then I’m like, OK, let’s just figure out how to deal with this and stop this. But it is infuriating. Some of the behavior that they engage in is infuriating. And I want to win. And the way I at least think about winning is that we figure out how to get them back from what they’re doing into a place where they’re actually advocating for us as clients.
So, I think you brought up good points. I thought that some of the people pushing back on you brought up good points. I think that as long as we keep our eye on this – what you’re saying is a priority – I don’t know how we get to this priority because there’s a lot of now anger between these parties and a lot of mistrust. But whatever can happen, hopefully it happens sooner rather than later.
John: All right. So let’s take a meta moment here to look back at the discussion we just had. And so you and I did not convince each other of anything, but we expressed our ideas and our opinions on sort of where things have been, where they’re going, and what the best course of action is. The degree to which we can model that behavior for other folks I think would be terrific. One of the functions I sort of see myself as a person who is not running for reelection is to remind people both in big rooms and online that we are remarkably lucky. That we are remarkably lucky that we are some of the most talented writers out there. We’re some of the most highly-paid writers out there. We’re the only writers in the world who get to have a union that gets to represent them this way.
So, we are starting from a position of just tremendous luck and luxury. And the fact that we have so many people who care so passionately about what the future is for all of us writers is great. And so let’s all approach this from a perspective of we may disagree on ideas and tactics and strategies, but the degree to which we can compassionately disagree and not question people’s motives but question people’s ideas, that’s how we come out of this in strength.
Craig: 100%. We should be able to stress test each other’s ideas on these things. And we should be able to do it publicly. I don’t think that asking why we are doing this or that in some way is going to damage our solidarity. Our solidarity at least to me is not a function of our allegiance to any given leadership. Because if it were our solidarity would have to kind of whipsaw back and forth depending on who just got elected.
Our solidarity is based on our willingness as members, even when we disagree, to follow our working rules and send in our dues. And what that means is when there’s an action like this one and we have a working rule that says you can’t go back to your agent until this is solved, you don’t go back to your agent. That’s where solidarity is. It’s not in agreeing with every single thing either Phyllis Nagy or David Goodman says. That would be – down that path essentially is just sort of a, I don’t know, a kind of a poverty of imagination and thought.
Craig: And I do think you’ve put your finger on it that as we go through these things to the extent that we can avoid deciding that some people are just bad because they think a certain thing about a strategy we should – it’s a shame. Because I do feel like every single person that is running in this race, every single one of them, legitimately wants to do something that they believe is best for writers. Nobody is getting a payoff or a kickback or anything. I mean, there’s been some crazy allegations made. So, yeah, let’s just reduce the temperature a bit. And I think maybe give ourselves credit for being strong enough to withstand an election which we’re supposed to have anyway.
John: Yep. And honestly I would rather have some disharmony than apathy. And so many years we’ve had apathy where we’ve had to basically twist people’s arms just to get enough people to actually run for the board or to run for office. So, it’s a good problem to have that we have many people who want to do this unpaid job for two years.
Craig: I completely agree. And one of the downsides to the – you know, we never really had uncontested elections and then suddenly we did just because we couldn’t find people to run. And one of the downsides is you start to create a generation of members who are not used to contested elections. And we can be frightened by them, even. And we don’t want that for the very reason you’re saying. We want a good competition of ideas and as long as our members are following our working rules and going by the kind of action that we’re taking then we do have meaningful solidarity. We don’t need solidarity of opinion. We need solidarity of behavior. And that’s important. And I don’t think that we should ever put something like an election in the context of hurting our leverage or anything like that.
If an election hurts our leverage than our leverage is terrible. That’s how I guess I would put it. So, you know, hopefully yeah, people can kind of just be nice to each other because they’re writers. And we deserve that from each other.
John: Absolutely. All right, let’s do a final bit of follow up. Back in Episode 399 we sat down with a bunch of studio executives to talk about how they give notes and how they could give better notes. Steph Cowan wrote in, Craig would you read what Steph wrote for us?
Craig: Sure. Steph writes, “I was right in the middle of a what-am-I-doing-with-my-life-I’m-not-cut-out-for-this moment when I heard your episode Talking Austin in Austin with Lindsay Doran. At the time I’d been working in the theater industry developing new musicals for about eight years. I’d been told that I’m too nice and cared too much to be a commercial producer and that I’m better suited for the lit department of a non-profit instead.
“Then Lindsay Doran said something like as a producer I consider myself the guardian of the storytelling. And I teared up. This was exactly how I felt. It’s still how I feel. And to hear a successful, admirable producer say it was deeply reassuring. I felt that reassurance again when Craig said I think you’re told not to be vulnerable, addressing studio executives in Episode 399. He’s right. We are, in the Broadway world anyway.
“Knowing that showing our love for the story and the team is strength gives me hope that maybe I am cut out for this. It’s also very exciting for me to hear how to give more effective notes. I can’t wait to share this episode with my colleagues.”
John, this is great. Especially because Steph comes from Broadway and we love Broadway.
John: We love Broadway. I’m headed to Broadway soon to see four shows in a very short period of time. But my experience making a Broadway show is that there is that function of a producer in terms of being a cheerleader, in terms of being a person who is putting a giant hug around an idea which is still forming. It is really crucial. And so you look for those ones who can do what Lindsay Doran says and sort of be a champion and a challenger and a person pushing you to make the very best thing. So, it sounds like that’s what Steph was taking out of these two episodes.
Craig: You know what? I’m starting to think this podcast is a good idea.
John: Maybe so. Maybe you should keep doing just a few more.
Craig: Why not?
John: Unless it turns out that we are wrong about the words of English.
Craig: Let’s find out.
John: “Hi Craig. I’m one of those Johnny Came Lately show listeners who have washed up because of Chernobyl. Sorry. I’m sure a bunch of people have already pointed this out but I just listened to a second podcast where you poured scorn on “heigth” specifically, characterizing it as a construction of illiterate youth. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is old school. It was good enough for Milton and it’s good enough for us, right?”
And then there’s a link, line 324 if you’re following the link in the show notes. “Cheers and thanks for a really well put together podcast.”
Craig: Well thank you anonymous writer. I’m glad you washed ashore as a result of Chernobyl. So, of course, I felt a little bit red-cheeked here. I mean, am I wrong? Is heigth a word? Maybe it is. If it’s good enough for Milton – that sounded like a pretty smart phrase.
So I went ahead and looked at the reference here which is, of course, to Paradise Lost, book two, line 324. And in line 324 it says, “In heigth or depth, still first and last will reign.” OK, that’s embarrassing. But I’d like to point out that five lines later it says, “War hath determined us and foiled with loss.” War is spelled with two Rs and foiled has no E. We don’t do that anymore. This is archaic. It is not applicable.
I mean, if we’re going to say that heigth is acceptable because it’s in Milton I guess we can start spelling war W-A-R-R. No. I reject this. I reject this.
John: [laughs] Yeah. And you know what? For arbitrary reasons. Language can change. Language can grow, evolve. Absolutely. But if Craig says no, Craig can say no. And he’s just not going to use that word. He’s not going to use the heigth. He’s not going to accept it.
Craig: And I’m also going to continue to say that people are wrong. Unless, here’s the exception: if somebody randomly says heigth and I’m like did you just say heigth, and they said, “Well yeah, I know, but Milton,” I’ll say stop, you can do it. Just you.
John: So the Milton clause is what gets you out of it.
Craig: Milton clause.
John: The Milton clause. All right. Let’s do our marquee topic. This was inspired by a conversation with Katie Silberman two episodes back. Also I just saw Andrea Berloff’s movie The Kitchen and I had a Twitter conversation with Alison Luhrs who is a designer at Wizards of the Coast and she’s going to be coming on the show in a future episode. But they were all talking about the process of writing. Katie Silberman did all these pages in advance before she started actually writing. She would dialogue pages endlessly to do stuff.
Andrea Berloff was talking about the research she did for The Kitchen. Alison Luhrs was talking about these giant encyclopedias they built for these fantasy worlds that they’re doing for Match of the Gathering and for Dungeons and Dragons.
And so I want to talk just a bit about how do you know when you’ve done enough of that prep stuff and that you’re really ready to write. And Craig and I have different perspectives on this. We do different kind of advanced work. But I want to talk about how each of us feels like, OK, I’m ready to actually start writing scenes.
Craig: Yeah. So this may be one of those things where we talk through it and ultimately what it boils down to is we each have our own finger print about this. And what it comes down to is when are you comfortable. When do you feel like you actually can do the good stuff? Which is finding yourself in that moment and writing out a scene and feeling really good about it.
And for me, and this has been this way for so long, I mean, it’s almost getting more this way: I really love to prepare. I love to know exactly what every scene is going to be and what happens in it, even though of course I can deviate. I’m one of those people that goes all the way basically to I need to know what the script is before I start writing the script. And I guess maybe in that regard I’m probably closer to Katie Silberman than I am to you I’m thinking.
John: Yeah. And I’m very much not that. But I think the kinds of things that I want to know are probably similar to things you want to know, it’s just that you’re actually doing a written down version of it and I’m just carrying a bunch of stuff in my head and not writing it down.
John: And why it’s relevant really for this season and this moment is I think you’re just about to start writing something new, or you have already started writing something new?
Craig: I’m about to start writing something new. Correct.
John: As am I. So this is top of mind for me. Also this is development season. So this is when new TV shows are getting pitched and people are starting to write them. So a lot of people are at this moment right now in town.
Craig: There’s still a season to these things?
John: There’s still a season certainly for broadcast. We’ve been through staffing and now the folks who are generally not in a room on a show are developing for stuff and they’re going out and pitching things to networks and studios. So that still exists.
Craig: All right. Well, good.
John: So let’s talk about the idea. And so for me before I start actually writing any scenes I want to know what is this movie or show, what does it look like/feel like if you sort of squint your mind a little bit. What is the shape of it? What category is it? What does it feel like? What does the music feel like? This is the time where I might start putting together a playlist of the music that feels like the show or the movie to me. I think about the trailer. I think about the one sheet. I just feel like pulling back far out, even not looking at specific story, what kind of movie is that. And I need to know that really early on and certainly before I start writing.
Craig: Yeah. Obviously I’ve just sort of given my thing away, but speaking specifically of that, that’s the big one. You can – I think anyone can start whenever they want, but after that. Because I think a lot of people think that what they need to start writing is an idea. And an idea, if it’s just the plot, if it’s just the log line, that’s actually not enough.
John: Oh not at all.
Craig: Not enough. If what you have is, ooh, what if a guy woke up and every day was the same day. That’s not enough. You need to know about why that idea matters.
John: Yeah. A thing we talk about on the show a lot is that many ways screenwriting is making a movie in your head and then writing the description of like that movie that you see in your head. And so if you don’t have the basis for sort of like what does this look like in my head, what does this sound like, what does it feel like, then you’re not anywhere close to really starting to write. So I suspect for Chernobyl you had done the research and you had a sense of like visually what does this feel like. What is going to feel like to be watching this show? And you have to have that early on.
And to me that comes before the characters. The characters are the next really crucial step here, but I need to know sort of what kind of thing am I trying to do and who are the characters who are populating this world. Not just my hero. I need to know what are the relationships between the central characters. Where would we find them at the start? Where would they get to by the end? What is the trajectory that they’re going through?
So even though unlike Craig I’m not going to do a full outline that’s sort of going scene by scene, I definitely need to know who are these people and what is the journey that they’re going to be going on through this block of time.
Craig: Yeah. You can see your guide posts along the way. So you understand no matter what’s happening, even if you’re not necessarily writing from a description of what the scene should be, you understand where you’ve come from and you understand where you’re going. And if you don’t know where you’re coming from and you don’t know where you’re going, that’s when screenplays start getting very purpley and self-indulgent and talky and flabby. I mean, I’ve seen this so many times where I just think they didn’t know.
John: They didn’t know.
Craig: They were just writing their way through a forest hoping that they would stumble across something. And eventually they do, but that’s their problem. I’m not here to go on your fact-finding mission. I’m here to go on a carefully curated tour of your deep dark forest. So, I mean, you can obviously find your way through those things, but you can’t show it to anybody until you’ve–
John: Yeah. And the thing is you can have your general idea, you can have your characters, but unless you sort of knew what is specifically the story of this movie, which comes down to a thing we’ve talked a lot about recently which is what is that central dramatic question, what is that central argument, what is the thing the movie or the episode of television is really about. And if you don’t know that going in – sometimes you can succeed honestly. There’s been stuff I’ve started writing where I didn’t really quite know what is that thematic thing that’s pulling it all together, but I had – even if I couldn’t say it aloud I had a sense of what it felt like. I had a sense of what I was going for. What space this occupied. And it’s the scripts that you read where I just don’t think you actually know where you’re going are the ones where they didn’t have a sense of that right when they started writing.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, listening to you, what you’re not talking about is plot.
Craig: I mean, I think this is where people go wrong. They think they’re ready to write when they know what the plot is. The plot – first of all, I don’t even know how you know what the plot is unless you know the things that you’re talking about. Because at that point then you’re probably just creating something episodic and plotty with no purpose or meaning or anything greater than that.
You do need to do all this kind of internal psychological examination of why this story should exist. I mean, when you write a screenplay you are writing a proposal for some entity to invest tens of millions of dollars into its creation. Why? Why? Why would anyone do that to your thing? Well that’s the question you’re asking yourself now and that’s the question you need to answer before you start.
John: Yeah. At a certain point you are going to start thinking about plot. You’re going to be thinking about what are the moments. What are the set pieces? What are the moments in the story where things take a big turn? If this were a broadcast episode or pilot you’d be thinking what are the act breaks? Where are the moments where things really take a big turn, where are the cliffhangers in the story?
Before I would start writing I would have to have a sense of what are those big really visual things that are going to show what has happened in the story. So that’s where I need a sense of what is the world like. What is the world like at the start of the movie? What are the different sort of sets or places I’m going to be seeing over the course of this story?
I say this on the podcast a lot, but Susan Stroman, director of Big Fish, said she never wanted to see the same set twice. I don’t hold myself to that, but I definitely like her sense that we should not be coming back to the same place without there having been a change. Without something fundamental having been changed about the character or that place or the situation if we’re coming back to this thing. So what is the geographic journey of this story and what is the color journey through the story. What is changing about how this looks on screen as I’m going through this story?
I’ll have that sense pretty early on, generally before I’ve started writing any scenes.
Craig: This goes a little bit to that notion of the dialectic. You’re creating something and then it must change. There must be a constant change happening in storytelling. If you end up in that flat space or that circular space people will start to feel bored and for good reason. You’re treading water. You’re almost wasting time. I don’t know how else to put it. You’re literally wasting people’s time.
Good stories are narratives in which people’s relationships with each other, themselves, and the world around them are constantly changing. Every single scene exists in order to create a change. So you’re absolutely right. Coming back around to some place you’ve been before is only interesting if you’re different or that place is different. And the contrast is the whole purpose, right? So, these things need to be determined. If you end up just sort of noodling your way I think you probably will find yourself in that same diner having a similar conversation again.
John: Yep. Let’s talk about the dangers of starting too early. And starting the process of actually writing scenes too early before you have that stuff figured out. To me it’s that in the times where I’ve done it myself I outline my supply lines, like I get too far ahead of myself and I just haven’t built the infrastructure behind me to get myself forward, to get myself to this next thing. And so, man, I wrote a great first ten pages. Man, that’s a good first 30 pages. Wow, I have no idea how to get through the next 90. I didn’t have enough story figured out or I didn’t have enough figured out about how I was going to get from this point to a point I know I’m going to head towards later on. So outrunning myself is a real problem if I haven’t really thought through where stuff is.
I’ve often found myself where I have the right hero in the wrong story. I have the right story with the wrong hero. If I haven’t done that real thinking I might have smooshed these two things together but they’re not well suited for each other. And I would have been able to figure that out if I really thought through all those other things before I started writing scenes.
Craig: Yeah. I also think one of the dangers of starting too early is inefficiency of storytelling. As you go through you will be incapable of writing tightly, meaning everything has been really carefully considered so that the audience has experienced a pure storytelling unfold in front of them, a kind of a pure storytelling unfold in front of them, rather than a meandering or a wandering about or any kind of circular motion. But rather everything has been carefully machined so that there is – we understand that scenes have transitions and that this scene is a reflection of a scene earlier. And that this moment recontextualizes that moment.
There is essentially craft going on. And part of craft is efficiency of craft. It’s no wasted space. No wasted cloth. No wasted movement. But rather an elegance as if this thing had landed whole and already told in your lap. And it’s hard to do that when you’re kind of making it up as you go.
John: Yep. Let’s also talk about the dangers of starting too late. And I don’t know if you’ve encountered this much in your career, but there have been projects where I kind of did all the prep work and I maybe overdid the prep work a little bit and by the time I started writing I kind of gotten past it. Where the thing that attracted me to it was no longer attractive to me and I was looking at this as a chore rather than a thing I was excited to write.
And so I think part of the reason why sometimes I don’t do the laborious preparation is that I’m afraid of falling out of love with something, or being distracted by something else that’s newer and shinier. I want to start writing when I’m still really attracted and excited by this property. There’s a passion to it. And sometimes if I’ve burned off that passion in outlines and other things, especially if I had to show them with other people, then the actual starting to write is no longer thrilling for me.
Craig: Interesting. Yeah, I can totally see that being a problem. Certainly I think one of the hallmarks of starting too late is you’re dealing from fear. Something is holding you – you’re afraid to write. I think a lot of times people abuse the pre-writing process, whether it’s outlining or research not to set themselves up for writing success but rather to avoid writing failure. They’re only valuable to set yourself up for success. They are only useful tools. They can’t forestall any trouble. So at some point you’re going to have to dive in.
For me, I do feel a little bit of a sense of exhaustion and completion once I’m done with a 50-page scriptment. But then take a week or two and then when you start writing what you find is – at least I find – that the act of now full creation of a scene is invigorating again. That rather than thinking about an entire movie and a whole series of movements and character changes and resolutions and reversals, all I have to think about is this one little short film. And that is – that kind of makes me fall in love with it all over again. And I get to do that without worrying that I don’t know what to do next, because I do know what to do next.
John: Yeah. That is definitely an advantage to that is – what’s ironic is that I’m a person who tends to write out of sequence. You’re more likely to write in sequence. You could write out of sequence probably more easily–
John: Because any of those moments – you could take a moment from page 30 of your script and just write it because you know it’s going to fit back in. I will write something because it’s what appeals to me to write that day. So even within I think all of our suggestions about figuring out adequate preparation and that everyone is different, it really does come down to people ultimately recognize what they need to have done before they start writing. And you should try some different things to figure out what works for you so you actually get scripts written and finished that you are happy with.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, maybe a general rule of thumb is if you find yourself frightened while you’re writing, and scared of the dark, then maybe you should be putting more time in ahead of time. If you find yourself feeling a bit dry and a bit like a horse on a lead, then maybe you need to do less to start with so that you have a little bit more of a sense of play while you’re going. You just have to dial into yourself.
But listen to what your mind is telling you as you go. Because none of this is orthodoxy. It’s all really about what makes your unique brain put out its best work.
John: Agreed. All right, let’s take two questions. First we have Leslie from Australia. She writes, “I’m questioning my sanity because I’m currently in a disagreement with a producer over what constitutes a polish versus a draft and I’m hoping you can help shed some light on this. I was hired and paid to write a feature for this producer. He and his backer loved what I did. I gave them a couple free polishes afterwards to address some feedback we got from a mucky-muck in the industry and they were delighted with that, too.
“A second producer has come onboard and given his notes on what he thinks needs changing. The first producer and his backer now agree with him and they’ve asked me how much I’d charge for a polish, or as they put it, ‘A strong polish.’ I told them the changes they’re asking for amounted to a draft, not a polish, or even a ‘strong polish,’ whatever that is, but they disagreed. So, when I gave them a reasonable quote for a draft they rejected it. I would love to get your take on what a polish is versus a draft. I may be way off base – I don’t think I am – but I’m willing to be schooled.
“Also, I’ve never heard of the term ‘strong polish’ before. Is that even a thing?”
Craig: That is not a thing.
Craig: No. No, no, no, Leslie. That’s not a thing. That is a term invented by con artists to get you to do more for less. I mean, that’s all that’s going on here. They want more for less.
Here’s a rough rule, because there is not a ton of super specificity about this. And when you say a draft, for those of us here we would probably call that a rewrite. In my mind a polish is something that happens in about three weeks, or less. And if it’s more than that, it’s a rewrite. That’s kind of roughly how it goes. So, that’s sort of what I would say. And then the question is how much can you do in three weeks? Whatever you’re comfortable with doing.
So generally speaking a polish would not be re-rigging the plot. It would be fixing some characters. It would be maybe one or two characters need some work on their dialogue. There’s two scenes that need kind of reinventing or reimagining. That feels like a polish.
If they’ve got systematic issues that they need you to address or want you to address, that’s a rewrite. And if they don’t want to pay for it they can gaslight you all they want. They can tell you it’s a polish all they want. They can invent new phrases like strong polish. But that’s gas-lighting. They’re just trying to get more for less.
John: So, Leslie, even if you were working here, even if you were working in this town with schedules of minimums and things like this, you would still be dealing with this question of calling this a rewrite, calling this a polish. Them trying to get you to do more for a little bit less.
WGA has specific terms for what polish means and for what a rewrite means. Polish involves character work and dialogue. Things that change story in a major way tend to be rewrites. But functionally Craig is correct when he says it’s really more about time. That’s what we think about when we think about a polish. A polish is a matter of just a week or two, three weeks. If it’s multiple weeks and a lot of work that tends to be a rewrite.
And so Leslie I think you were right to be suspicious and I’m sorry that this didn’t work out on this draft. But whether they called that a polish or a rewrite, they didn’t want to pay you money for it and that’s where I think it comes down to it.
Craig: Well they wanted to pay her something, just not what she deserves. And I’ll point out you’ve already done a couple of free polishes.
Craig: So this is what happens. We are not rewarded for “good behavior.” We’re punished for it. They don’t look at you as somebody who has done them a solid favor and therefore they now owe you something. What they do is look at you as somebody that they exploited successfully and so they will continue to exploit you. That’s what bullies do.
Now, when it comes to capitalism that’s essentially what capitalism is. It’s economic bullying. And they’re going to do what you’re going to do. And so you’re going to have to stand up for yourself and say no. And based on the way you’re describing this I’m just wondering where the copyright for this rests. You’re in Australia. I don’t think they have work-for-hire there. You may have more leverage than you think. I think it’s time for you to get somebody else involved to help represent you with them.
You’ve probably seen a lot of cop shows where the job of the police is to convince their suspect to not bring a lawyer in because if they bring a lawyer in it’s going to be much harder to get them to spill their guts and confess. Well, this is sort of like that. These guys don’t want you to bring a lawyer in. So, bring a lawyer in.
John: Agreed. Do you want to take Justin’s question?
Craig: Justin from Hawthorne asks, “Hello Screen Wizards.” I like Justin. “I’m writing today to see if the tales of the Do Not List from Hell exist in present times. I’ve heard rumors of this list but I can’t imagine it to be true. I’m worried I might be on it and I’m praying that the years of hard work attempts to crack open a career as a screenwriter won’t be thwarted by earnest and possibly haphazard times when maybe I was too eager or submitted my material too early? If it’s real, can somebody who is on this list ever get off of it?”
John: So I provided some off-mic context for Craig because this Do Not List is apparently an idea that producers or studios or other folks in town have a list of like never hire this person, or like there’s a do not list. This person is a hack and don’t hire them.
I think individual people will have their lists of writers they don’t want to hire, but it’s generally because they worked with the writers and the writers were bad for them. You writing something that wasn’t good, it doesn’t help you, but it doesn’t hurt you for a long time. It doesn’t stick around. People’s memories are kind of short when it comes to stuff they didn’t like. If they read a script that they really like of yours, they’ll hire you on to do more things.
So, I would say don’t be worried about your early work. Always be mindful if you’re sending stuff out make sure it’s good and it’s professional and that it’s showing your best light. But if you didn’t, stop worrying about it. Instead worry about writing good new stuff.
Craig: Yeah. When people read something that someone has submitted, an original or something like that, and they don’t like it, they throw it out. They don’t run to a special list called Oh My God This Person Wrote a Terrible Script. Because they know as well as anybody that somebody can write a terrible script and then four weeks write something wonderful. That does happen, right? Sometimes we’re working in the wrong genre. Sometimes for whatever reason it just doesn’t work.
John is correct. There are lists. First of all, there are lists. It’s important for people to know that. I’ve seen them. They exist. There are lists. And those lists are people that either a studio or a producer believes are well worth hiring and working with and they can make levels of them. I mean, the whole phrase A-list came from original list had A, B, C. And there are lists of, nope, we’re not hiring that person here. They usually don’t write that down because they don’t want to deal with any legal issues, but they are always on that list because there’s been a bad employment experience.
Craig: Not because they wrote a bad script. If the studio hasn’t paid for it, they’re not going to blame you for it, dude. Most scripts are bad. How about that? You’re going to be fine.
John: Yep. He’s going to be fine.
Craig: He’s going to be fine.
John: Let’s do our One Cool Things. I have two One Cool Things this week. The first is a delicious cookie. It is the Oreo Thin.
Craig: I love those.
John: If you’ve not tried the Oreo Thins, they’re good and they’re so much better. And they’re crispier. So you owe it to yourself to try an Oreo Thin. Even if you don’t really love Oreos you’ll probably love Oreo Thins. They are terrific.
The second is a thin book. It is Monsters and Creatures: A Young Adventurer’s Guide. It’s by the D&D people. And what I like about it is it’s designed for young middle grade readers and they’re smaller books. They’re hardcover, but they just have all the cool illustrations of dragons and owlbears and all this stuff. Basically art work that Wizards probably had sitting around and they found a good way to repackage it and write some new text. It’s written by Jim Zub.
Craig: Hold on.
John: What a great name, right?
Craig: I think Jim Zub is in the monster manual. I think I’ve faced off a crimson Jim Zub.
John: They’re nicely done and to me it feels like if I were a six-year-old kid who was obsessed with dinosaurs I would also be obsessed with these books because it’s dragons and cool stuff. There’s other books – Warriors and Weapons, Dungeons and Tombs. So if you have somebody who you want to give this kind of gift to who is not really ready for actual D&D it feels like a good starter thing.
Craig: You round the corner and see in the room a giant Zub. What do you do? [laughs]
John: Yeah. So is a Zub one of the things where you stab with your sword and then your sword rusts away?
Craig: Probably. That seems Zub-like.
Craig: It’s definitely Zub-like. Well, listen, you had two One Cool Things. I’m going to give our listeners a break and just say they deserve two One Cool Things. And also I didn’t have one.
John: That sounds good. So, Craig, I’ll give you half credit on the Oreo Thins because you also agree they’re good, right?
Craig: I have eaten them, so yeah.
John: All right. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Michael Karman. 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 like the ones we answered today. But for short questions, on Twitter Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. We get them up about four days after the episode airs.
People do recaps on Reddit so you can check the recap for this episode and a couple episodes back if you’d like. You can find the back episodes of the show at Scriptnotes.net or download 50-episode seasons at store.johnaugust.com.
Craig, it’s good to be back with you doing a normal Skype show.
Craig: Very good to be back with you and we’ve got some really interesting shows coming up, so–
John: We do. I’m excited. And off-mic we’re going to talk about some big special guests.
Craig: All right.
John: Have a good week.
Craig: You too.
- Myth of No Negotiation
- Deadline’s “Exclusive” on John’s Blogpost
- John Milton, Paradise Lost
- Monsters Creatures: A Young Adventurer’s Guide by Jim Zub
- Oreo Thins
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by Michael Karman (send us yours!)
Email us at email@example.com
You can download the episode here