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 Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast we’ll discuss when you need to be tough on yourself and when you need to back off. Plus, we’ll have lots of follow up discussion on Austin, television, assistant pay.
Craig, it’s so nice to be back with you. You were in Austin all by yourself last weekend. But that’s not really true because you were there with a huge panel of people for the live Scriptnotes show. I listened to it. I thought it was great.
Craig: Oh, thank you. I’m so glad. You know, I’m very nervous when I’m without you. I’m nervous that I’m going to do a poor job and then I’m nervous that I’m going to do what I think is a good job, then you’ll get angry. [laughs] So, this is how I view you as a parental figure. So, I’m glad you liked the show. We had a great time. The audience was probably the most ruckus I’ve ever experienced in all of our many years doing a show there. So good on them for being ruckus. And we had a terrific panel. I thought it was a fantastic mix of people.
John: Agreed. And it was very interesting for me to listen to you running it by yourself because you definitely seemed like you wanted to keep the trains running on time. And when there are that many people on stage sometimes it is awkward when both of us are there because it’s hard for two people to cohost that many people. And so it was great – I think it was honestly probably better that it was just you up there trying to wrangle those people into talking about things.
My frustration though as a listener I don’t get to chime in. And so I was listening to your discussion on television seasons and the model where you drop all the episodes at once versus week to week. And people made really good points, but the point I kept waiting for someone to make and no one was making is the benefit creatively for dropped in all at once and the downside in a marketing sense for dropping them all at once.
So two anecdotes I would have shared had I been there on stage. Susannah Grant has a new show out called Unbelievable on Netflix. It got rave reviews. But one of the things she pointed out on another interview was that Toni Collette who is one of the biggest stars in the show doesn’t appear until the second episode. And what Susannah was saying was that it was very helpful for all those episodes to drop at once because people might not, you know, actually know that she’s on the show if you had to wait till the second week for her to show up.
So, them all coming out at once was really helpful. She felt like she would have gotten noted early on that like, oh no, that actor has to appear in the pilot episode had it been a traditional drop of series.
Craig: Well, that’s an interesting point. I mean, the fact is I had that precise issue with Chernobyl. While we had Jared Harris briefly in the first episode, but Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson did not appear until the second episode.
John: It worked out OK for you.
Craig: Well, HBO never gave me any flack about it. And basically what we all did was just make sure that the marketing materials put everybody front and center so people understood that those people were coming. And I don’t know necessarily where Toni Collette sits on the spectrum of actors that demand people’s attention but it seems like she’s kind of in the same zone as an Emily Watson or Stellan Skarsgård.
John: I agree.
Craig: So it didn’t seem to hurt on our end. But I understand the nervousness. Certainly when it’s time for, you know, the ongoing awards season, the never-ending awards season with 4,000 awards, you will occasionally have to submit and say I want you to read or watch one episode. For the Emmys I could send in all of the episodes, I think. But when we have to choose one episode, typically we’ll send episode two because it is more of a traditional episode with our actors and all the rest of it.
Craig: So I kind of understand it. But, I don’t know, I don’t think it hurt us.
John: It didn’t hurt you. It worked out OK for you.
Craig: Yeah. Worked out OK.
John: The other thing I would say that is a benefit towards the more traditional weekly release schedule which I think we talked about before, I think did help Chernobyl because the conversation kept building, is I would argue is almost like a disease model of television which is that you are trying to infect as many people in the world with watching your show. And if you are only releasing it all at one time you have a very limited window. And you could infect everybody with your show, but they will have less opportunity to spread the virus to other people. And by releasing week after week you’re continuously re-infecting those people and getting them talking to others. Getting them to go online to talk to others.
So I do feel like it is a great way for a show to build and snowball in ways it’s very hard when you release the entire thing at once.
Craig: I agree. I mean, look, pretty clear where my interest lies. I like that model. It worked really well for us. You’re right. You do get to infect people slowly and people can spread. And what happens is when somebody catches up to you and infects you by saying, “You have to watch this show,” what you don’t have is that feeling of, oh god, I have to watch all of a show. No. Maybe you’re going to get there and you’re like, OK, I just need to catch up. I’ve got three episodes or two episodes and I’m caught up and now I’m on the wheel.
Craig: Of whatever that show is. So I think that that makes total sense. I agree.
John: A show that people could catch up on for three episodes is Watchmen, the Damon Lindelof show. And, Craig, you are now hosting a podcast about Watchmen. Tell us about this.
Craig: I’m hosting a podcast. I’m hosting the official Watchmen Podcast. Because, you know, the Chernobyl Podcast was this – if Chernobyl the actual television series surprised HBO with its performance, I think the podcast really surprised them. Because they had no interest in podcasts whatsoever before that moment and they were kind of legitimately taken aback. 10 million people listened to the Chernobyl podcast, which is nuts.
So they were talking about, you know, we need to do more of these. And I said, you know, I would do one with Damon for Watchmen. And they were like, “Really?” I said, yeah, I would do that, why not? And then he said, “Really?” And I said, yeah, why not? And we did it.
So, it’s a little different than the Chernobyl Podcast for a couple of reasons. One, it’s not a nonfiction show so there’s a little bit less science and history going on there. And we also only do one episode for every three episodes of the show. So we have stuff built up to talk about. But our first episode airs this Sunday right after episode three of Watchmen. And I think it’s really good. Damon really is a great articulator of his own process and intention.
And I find the show fascinating. I mean, I love that show. And I’m a fan of the graphic novel as well. So we got into everything. We talked about everything. And I think if people like Watchmen they’re definitely going to like that podcast.
John: Fantastic. Now, another thing that happened in Austin that I was not there for was that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had a panel where they talked through Game of Thrones. People in the room seemed to love it a lot. People on Twitter did not seem to love it as much. We have two people writing in, at least two people wrote in with comments about it.
So, Jason Kabala from Austin wrote, “I was hoping you could address the backlash that Dave and Dan have been getting in the days following their panel at the Austin Film Festival. I was fortunate enough to be in the room and hear them speak and I just don’t understand how the media and Game of Thrones fans across the Internet could further vilify these two talented individuals based on some paraphrased snippets on one person’s Twitter feed.
“It is incredibly disappointing and disheartening to see this kind of lunacy unfold in real time, especially when I feel it contradicts what I heard with my own open ears.”
Craig: Yeah. Brief summary from what I could tell, because I was not at their panel but I read the comments. They were saying things that they’ve said many times that are a reflection frankly of their humility. They are generally humble guys. They don’t go on a panel and explain to you how brilliant they are and why their show got 50 million to people watch it year after year after year. And why it became a phenomenon and the biggest TV show in history basically. They don’t do that.
Instead they tend to lean more towards self-deprecation and humility and that somehow has become a problem. So, as far as I can tell the argument that sort of came out on Twitter, and it was one person writing it and then everybody kind of glomming on to that one person’s account, it seemed to rest on a lot of bad math or strange math to me. It goes like this. They’re saying that they kind of didn’t know what they were doing. Therefore they didn’t know what they were doing. Women and people of color, writers of color, never have an opportunity to get a job where they don’t know what they’re doing, therefore Dan and Dave are incompetent and bad.
And I read that I thought, well, OK, rebuttal. A, everybody watched the show. It was a huge success. That should be the end of that discussion. Literally. We should just end at A. The show was great. It doesn’t matter if they’re being self-deprecating or humble. The show was great. And people can argue about the last season or the last episode and I understand that. But for whatever, if you didn’t like Season 8, and hey, you didn’t like Season 7, fine. There were six seasons of essentially undeniably brilliant television.
They were complaining also that Dan and Dave said we mostly wrote everything ourselves and we didn’t have a writing room. Amazing. That’s mind-blowing to me. It’s incredible that they were able to do that. And that’s probably why for so long the series was so consistent and consistently brilliant because it was part of one unified authorial voice.
So, that’s A. B, let us stipulate that female writers, writers of color, would maybe not get the chances that those guys had after their first pilot, which was not good, or they wouldn’t have been allowed to learn on the job. OK. Let’s stipulate this as true, and honestly I think it probably is true. What does that have to do with them? I mean, that’s not their fault. Now we’re talking about corporations that hire people and give people chances. Why are we angry at them for that? I mean, if anything what they’ve proven if you believe their self-deprecation and humility is that second chances turn out great sometimes. And they do.
And so really all we’re saying I guess then is that second chances are good. But what’s underlying all this I think is anger at very, very successful people. And I think this is connected in part to anger at the last season. Literally. I think what’s happened is a lot of really hardcore fans who are hardcore fans of the show because of the work that Dan and Dave did were upset with the last season and now hate them. And that’s just sad.
John: I think it’s a symptom of our time, though. That sense of turning on the thing that you once loved. Yes. We get it. We sort of know how that happens.
One small element here that we should acknowledge is that in some of the discussion I saw on Twitter about it, it made it sound like Dan and Dave just stumbled off the street and pitched it to HBO and said like, “Hey, will you do this thing.” And they’re negating sort of like the tremendous track record they had before this, especially David Benioff who as a feature writer at the time was as hot as you could possibly get.
John: So for HBO to land him to do a series for them was a big get. And so I think people don’t actually acknowledge what careers these gentlemen had before this all started. And that’s worth remembering.
Craig: It is. And listen, David Benioff, and full disclosure, Dan and Dave are my friends. I presented them with their award, absurdly at the same festival where one of the people in the audience was complaining about them, they were also in a different event receiving the 2019 Outstanding Television Writing Award from the Austin Film Festival. And I presented that award to them. And if it makes people feel better, my speech was 90% making fun of them, and 10% praising them because they deserve that. But partly I can do that with them because, yes, David Benioff is really tall, and good-looking, and he was born rich. I mean, there’s a lot of reasons, sure, to say, yeah, I’m going to throw a tomato at this guy.
But, he works so hard. They uprooted their lives and their families for nearly a decade back and forth from Los Angeles to Ireland to Iceland and Dubrovnik. And they did this tirelessly and they got so much right and we loved their show collectively as a culture. And I’m talking about the world. This was a global phenomenon. And, you know, it does inspire strong emotions. And I understand that people get upset if they don’t like that final season or if they feel that characters were betrayed. And so they’re going to latch onto things these guys say as evidence of some disease that was always there. But, no, they’re incredibly decent people, hard-working people who did a brilliant job. And for the life of me I don’t understand how people can love something so much that they forget they loved it. That’s the part of this that’s so strange. They forget.
And people are going to yell at me for this because this is emotional to them now. They are invested in the notion that these guys are villains and they’re not. They’re writers who wrote a terrific show that we loved. It really doesn’t go much deeper than that. Is there a reason to say that our business doesn’t give non-white male writers more chances and deserved chances? Yes, that’s right. And hopefully our business gets better at that and fixes it. But I have no idea what that has to do with the fact that the business did get this one right. This is not like they gave two mediocre idiots a second chance to make a mediocre show and then kept pushing it in our faces even though we didn’t want it. We loved it. It was huge. What else can I say?
John: Well let’s leave it with Nate who wrote in to say, “What’s most frustrating about this for me is that it seems to further reinforce incorrect notions that creative pursuits spring fully formed from the instant the creator gets the spark of their idea, like a muse gifting an artist with a story. Instead of the actual truth which sees artists having to fail countless times in figuring out the best way to bring their stories out into the world.
“In other words, if you’re lucky enough to be labeled a genius it only comes through never-ending process of trial and error.”
Craig: Yeah. I mean, you know because you did Big Fish on Broadway so you know that process, which is designed ultimately to seem like one day you went, “Oh, I know,” and then out comes this perfect crystal of a show. That’s not how it works.
John: Not a bit.
Craig: I mean, it is a constant reimagining and reconfiguring and rethinking and re-staging and recasting. And that’s the way movies go. And that’s the way TV shows go. And we’re partly to blame as artists because we are peddling the illusion of intentionality. We always meant it to be this way. But, you know, it’s not. And I just, again, don’t understand why anyone is angry about the fact that they fixed it. I mean, that’s what happened. I saw that pilot. It was bad. I told them it was bad. They agreed it was bad. Everyone agreed it was bad. They redid it completely. I saw that. And it was awesome.
John: That’s what you want for every writer to have the ability to go back and fix these things.
Craig: Yes. Yes. Exactly. I want that for everyone.
John: That’s what we’re saying.
In hiding the work, we’re only seeing the end result, which is great for most audiences. The audiences don’t need to see all the work. But, that work was there and to not acknowledge all the work was there is a disservice to the artist and the final product.
Craig: Yeah. And, listen, when writers go out there and say things like, “We didn’t know what we were doing,” they’re being humble and they’re being self-deprecating. I assure you they knew what they were doing more than most people. Because most people can’t do that. Almost no one can do that. It’s really hard to be the people that come up with the biggest TV show of all time. I’m pretty sure it was just them that did it. And from their point of view, of course, they must feel stupid and like they don’t know what they’re doing, just like I felt stupid and felt like I didn’t know what I was doing when I was making Chernobyl, or everything I do, because that’s kind of my anxiety. I mean, have these people never heard of–
John: Imposter syndrome?
Craig: Imposter syndrome. I mean, all of us have that. So you have these two guys being very human and vulnerable up there and sharing their imposter syndrome and I guess the answer is, “And therefore they’re imposters.” Well who made the show that you loved? I’m so confused by the math.
John: All right. Here’s a simpler thing we can resolve. So, in a recent blog post I had to spell out the word writers room. So television is written in a writers room. We all agree to that. What I said is completely accurate and clear until you actually have to spell the word writers and decide whether it has an apostrophe or not an apostrophe. So I asked a poll on Twitter about apostrophe/no apostrophe. But, Craig, I want to know what your opinion is. Writers room – apostrophe or no apostrophe? And where does the apostrophe go?
Craig: I struggle with this myself. Probably technically I think I want there to be no apostrophe and just it is the room with writers in it.
Craig: However, the problem is when I look at that it looks wrong. So then I do want it to be possessive. I want it to say that this is the room that belongs to the writers. But then that’s plural. And that’s a bit goofy looking. So, the most pleasant looking is the least right one, which is that it is a room that belongs to just one writer, which I just don’t think applies. So my suggestion, and I’m excited to hear where you’ve landed on this, but my suggestion is we just dump the term entirely and call it the writing room. And then problem solved.
John: Yeah. So the room of requirement. Yes. So I did it with no apostrophe with the logic that it is the room full of writers rather than the room owned by writers because in a possessive sense technically the apostrophe goes after the S because it’s a plural. I agree that also looks weird. It looks like you’re leaving something out. Apostrophes in English are just a kludge and, you know, it’s weird we have the apostrophes. We pretend we have the rules for them. We really don’t have good rules for them. So I’m doing it without the apostrophe.
The poll results were 55% with S’, 45% with no apostrophe. I didn’t give the ‘S as an option. That split tells me that both are really common and therefore we should not rend our garments over which spelling we use. They’re both good. They’re both acceptable. They both make sense. And we should focus on what is happening in that writers room and not how we’re going to punctuate writers room.
Craig: I’m going to still push writing room and we’ll see how far I get. We know I’m not getting far at all, but I’m stubborn, you know. I’m stubborn.
John: Yeah. You are stubborn. We like that.
All right. Let’s talk about the people inside that writing room. We have a lot of discussions about assistant pay over the past few weeks. Brad wrote in to say, “I’m a principal consultant to a large corporation in a major US city. My blood pressure was running high by the middle of episode 422. Similar to how we set professional expectations in the wake of #MeToo, no dinner, no drink meetings, no hotel meetings, is it time to reset the role and responsibilities of an assistant?” Would that it would be so simple as to do that. Basically there’s a clear concise way to say that an assistant does exactly this and nothing more. Brad, I get the instinct. It’s not going to be just a simple job description listing I think that’s going to fix this problem for me.
Craig: Agreed. Would that it were so simple. We all use assistants in different ways and also the word assistant is covering many, many different kinds of assistants. So for instance John just referred to the sort of assistant that’s in the writing room. Ha, I did it.
John: Keep trying. The more you say it.
Craig: Selling it. But of course there are personal assistants that don’t work in a writing room. They are there to work for an executive or somebody and they’re really just there to do personal things. Then there are assistants that are more like executive assistants. They’re there to work for someone at a desk, at a studio, or an agency. There are all sorts of different kinds. We’re going to struggle to codify what that word means. And I don’t necessarily think we need to as long as the people doing the hiring are disclosing fully what the nature of the job is before people accent it.
What we do need to do is set a floor for how much people are paid.
John: Agreed. I think part of the challenge, this term assistant which means one thing in all other industries, it means kind of a different thing in Hollywood, is that the assistant position is kind of an apprenticeship. Ideally it’s kind of an apprenticeship. It’s where you get to learn how the industry works. And that’s why we had people write in talking about working as an assistant at an agency even though they had no intention of working at an agency ultimately for their career because it was a great place to learn the business.
And so that apprenticeship is broken. It is busted right now for issues that are beyond just how pay is working. But it is a fundamental nature of how this all happens. It’s why most people who are working in the industry did have a job as an assistant at some point in their careers which is different than a lot of other industries. So it is a natural place for people to get started in this business. We just need to make sure that it’s paid properly.
John: And in future episodes we’re going to talk more about what assistants should be doing. Because some of the email that has been coming in has been talking about sort of, “My boss has me write scenes and stuff, is that OK?” It’s like–
John: Complicated. Yes. Partly that is a thing that you aspire to do, so in some ways it’s great that that person is involving you in the creative process.
Craig: Paying you as a writer would be great.
John: It would be.
Craig: I think that you’re right. It is a broken apprenticeship. Although I suspect it’s always been broken. I mean, I assume that throughout history here in Hollywood the percentage of assistants that have gone on to become the things that they wanted to be is rather small. Because the percentage of everybody becoming the thing they want to be in Hollywood is very small. But if we are going to have this brutal system where 10 million people are competing for three jobs, three dream jobs, then while they’re here competing and working on desks and picking up lunches and dry cleaning and answering phones they should be treated like human beings, meaning not abused, and paid a reasonable wage that allows them to live in Los Angeles while they do this job.
John: Agreed. So this week on Assistantdom I thought we would talk about showrunners and the holidays. So, this past week I put up a blog post that went through some of the letters we’d gotten in about how showrunners were stepping up for their assistants, especially writing room assistants, to make sure they were getting paid enough. So, I’ll point to that blog post. We’ll have a link to that.
But there were also some additional letters that came in and I thought we’d have Megana read through them. She’s our voice of the assistants. So producer Megana Rao can read a little bit more from what some people had to say about their bosses stepping up.
And I really want to focus on some of the strategies that these showrunner bosses used. This first one really speaks to understanding and sort of selling the value of that assistant. Let’s take a listen.
Megana Rao: Bianca writes, “Before going to the studio about a number the showrunner discussed it with me first, making sure I was OK with that rate. We shot a pilot in Croatia this past spring and the showrunner advocated for me to go with him and be bumped to script coordinator with a higher rate. When the script coordinator job finished as our pilot wrapped the showrunner asked the studio to keep me at that higher rate as a raise. There have also been several times when I was supposed to wrap but he asked the studio to extend me by telling them how important I am to his writing process.”
John: Great. So I think this is a really strong example of the studio is more willing to pay for somebody that is deemed vital to the production. And if the showrunner is saying, no, no, this person is vital to my creative process, they’re going to listen more carefully. They’re not going to argue like this is a disposable cog, that anyone could do this job, if you’re telling them, “No, no, most people couldn’t do this job. This person is special,” you’re more likely to get them the salary they deserve.
Craig: Yeah. In a very broad way I think that the studio is probably waiting for the showrunner to say something. If the showrunner isn’t necessarily advocating for something then the studio doesn’t have to worry about it. I mean, they’re the ones who are paying this. They don’t want to pay more than they have to. But if a showrunner says, “I need this person. That’s that,” generally speaking, assuming that the show is going well, that’s going to be honored. They don’t want to cause a problem there. And I think in this case there’s a pretty interesting thing going on here. Whether or not the showrunner was coming up with these ideas or whether Bianca was coming up with these ideas, I suspect Bianca had a plan.
So if you’re an assistant and – let me take that back – if you’re an employer and you’re concerned that your assistant isn’t getting paid well enough, ask them what their plan would be. I bet they have one. They’ve just either been hesitant to share it with you or they didn’t think it could ever come to pass. But they’ve probably thought this through and know more about their situation than you do.
John: So next strategy is for the showrunner to have business affairs deal with them, the showrunner, rather than dealing directly with the assistant. So it’s a case where you sort of intercede early in the process to make it clear like, “No, no, this is how much I want this person to be paid,” rather than having to come back in later on to negotiate it. Let’s take a listen to that.
Megana: Kaitlin writes, “For season one of the show I currently work for my boss actually negotiated my pay on my behalf. I never needed to negotiate for myself in person with the studio. I believe this was an outlier experience because she was a first time showrunner who had the time and the drive to go bat for us before the show actually got rolling. The way this worked was I gave her the number I planned to ask/negotiate for with Netflix, asking if she’d be willing to back me up when I did. And she said she would.
“The she reached out to me telling me that she herself had asked Netflix to pay me that amount and they came in a teeny tiny bit under. Would that be OK with me? It certainly was because I had asked for higher than I planned to receive. She totally had my back.”
John: Great. So this was a first time showrunner, so this was not a person who had experience doing this negotiation, but had the time and had the energy and sort of the pluck to step up and say this is what I want this person to be paid. Didn’t quite get all the way there, but got much further than this assistant would have been able to by him or herself. So that feels like progress.
Craig: Absolutely. And maybe it’s because that this person was a first time showrunner they were kind of fresh and new and had a healthy attitude about how this should all work. I could see how after your 30th year running TV shows you didn’t want to also add on this extra aspect of being an HR person for what is now the 4,000th assistant that has come that has kind of gone through the system. But hopefully if we can kind of get things better then individual showrunners won’t have to.
The more you do it as an individual showrunner the less likely it is you’ll have to do it next time because there will be a reasonable base pay for assistants and you won’t have to personally advocate. It will just be there waiting for them.
John: Yeah. Business affairs will see you on the phone. OK, this showrunner is calling to get this person bumped up. It’s a thing that happens every time. It’ll be OK. So maybe they won’t even have to make the phone call because it will just default to a higher level.
Craig: Correct. That’s the plan.
John: So the next strategy for showrunners is to keep hammering. Let’s take a listen.
Megana: Andy wrote in, “My boss had to lobby for me to superiors on four separate occasions. I’m fully aware that not everyone is willing to do that for their employee and can put him in an uncomfortable position with his superiors. I’m very grateful to my boss and feel very lucky. I will say my mental health has benefited the most. Constantly being stressed out about money is such a burden. It affects your relationships, your mood, and you feel like you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. I feel so much better and can see a future for myself in this industry which wasn’t always the case.
“It’s kind of crazy what a huge difference something like that can make. But keep in mind this was all for just a $5 an hour raise.”
John: Yeah. So a $5 an hour raise is not a big deal probably in the course of the show, but it’s a huge deal for someone like Andy who is in that situation. And so for the showrunner who has a thousand other things to juggle, to keep coming back to, OK, and I’ve got to get Andy an extra $5 an hour is a lot. But it is really important to Andy. So that not sort of giving up at the first no is crucial. And believe me, that showrunner wasn’t taking no on a lot of other levels as well.
So, to keep hammering, to keep pushing for what Andy needed was crucial.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I had to do quite a bit of that when I was making a deal and I wanted to make sure that my employees had health insurance. I had to fight. What I am sort of shocked by, but I guess I shouldn’t be, is how weirdly pennywise and pound foolish business affairs and studios can be. They will fight you tooth and nail on these things, like a $5 an hour raise, which they can afford, and isn’t a huge deal. Maybe because they’re just terrified that they’re going to end up having to do what you and I want them to do, which is give everyone a pay raise across the board who does that job. That seems to be the big fear. That’s what they’re scared of the most.
So they are acting like McDonald’s, which will lobby against increases in minimum wage everywhere they are because that’s what they pay and they have to multiply it times every single employee they have. Well, tough. We’re just going to keep doing this because that’s what needs to happen.
John: So the last strategy a showrunner might consider is really focus on the total dollars. So, not focus on how much they’re getting paid per hour or how many guaranteed hours, but how many they’re bringing home on a weekly basis. Let’s take a listen to that.
Megana: Margie wrote in about kit rentals. She says, “I was a director’s assistant during post on a Netflix movie in 2016 to 2017. Part of Netflix’s policy for kit rentals for laptops is that they’ll pay up to $500 for however long you’re on the project. It was a great extra $50 a week on my paycheck for a couple of months. Then, when I hit the $500 max and I stopped getting paid to bring my laptop in, well, $50 extra a week is a huge deal for me. Losing $200 a month in salary would hurt a lot of people.
“I asked the accountant if I could renew the kit rental or if they would provide me a work laptop. And I got a curt email from Netflix production restating that $500 was their max policy and said I should have asked them for a work laptop from the start. So, they wouldn’t budge. The post supervisor knew all about this and wouldn’t do anything to fight for me. He was afraid of and loathed the producer. I got so fed up I approached the director and asked if he would talk to the producer about increasing my weekly rate to compensate for the loss of my kit rental.
“He did. And the producer upped my rate for the remainder of the project, which was nearly ten months.”
John: Great. So what I like about this is it’s not being hung up on the principal of like, no, no, her rate needs to be this versus that. It’s how much is she bringing home. And so she was getting this extra $50 a week as a kit rental. Once that ran out, how do we get her an extra $50 a week? Bump it someplace else. If they had to make up an excuse for it, or they’re going to rent something else of hers, great. But really for Margie what made this job survivable was that $50 a week. And so how do we get her to that number rather than figuring out exactly what this hourly rate needed to be?
Craig: Right. And as we go forward in this discussion I’m going to keep coming back to the notion of the bottom line, because we know now after listening very carefully to so many people over so many weeks now that the employers can play a ton of games about how they pay you. They can change your hours. They can change the amount of overtime hours. They can change how much they pay for overtime. So when you get a number, a blankety-blank per hour that actually isn’t the bottom line. They can make that rather elastic actually.
What really matters is what is the bottom line. How much money do you get per week? That’s what matters. So that’s what we’re going to concentrate on whether it is a question of improving an hourly rate or improving guaranteed hours, or improving kit rentals. Whatever it is. The bottom line is we need to find a reasonable amount per week.
John: Agreed. So in the weeks ahead I think we need to have a discussion about what is the amount per week that is livable and survivable on in Los Angeles and see if we can get something approaching consensus on what that is and then figure out how to get people that money.
John: So that’s our goal. A small goal for the New Year.
John: But before we get to the New Year we’ve just crossed through Halloween, which means that it’s now the holidays. It’s now the official holiday season. We can now play All I Want for Christmas for the next two months solid. But, a thing that’s come up quite a bit in the letters that have come in to the mailbox is that the holidays are actually a really tough time for assistants because many assistants are not paid during those holiday weeks. And so in some cases it’s two weeks off, or a week at Thanksgiving. There’s real problems for assistants in a period where they should be excited to have vacation it’s actually much worse for them because they are not bringing in the money they would normally bring in.
So, Michael Greene, a showrunner, has a Twitter thread from a couple years ago that we’ll link to that talks through his recommendations for how a writing room can figure out how much to give as a holiday bonus to the assistants who are working for that show. And it’s very clear simple math based on what position you are how much you kick in in order to get people paid so they can make it through those holiday seasons well.
So, that is a first step I would point people towards.
Craig: Yeah. Nothing says Christmas spirit like telling people this is a time of year where you have to buy extra stuff. Also we’re not going to pay you. I mean, how about this just as a simple bottom line. Pay people. Every week. If you have an assistant they should be paid every week. They should get a couple of weeks of vacation time and they should get holidays off. And you should also pay them for those.
On top of that – on top of that – you should be giving some sort of Christmas bonus or gift, presuming that the employee is somebody that you’re not, you know, in the process of getting rid of, because that’s what freaking Dickens tells us. I mean, honestly how many versions of A Christmas Carol has this town made? 400?
John: We’re doing some more, too.
Craig: Yeah. And they keep coming. And yet – and yet – it’s just Scrooge all the way down. And it’s not fair. It’s wrong. It’s kind of anti-progressive. It flies in the face of everything we say we care about. It’s just wrong. Boo.
Craig: Boo to Scrooge, you know? Like people should be paid. So you shouldn’t be looking at Christmas as a time of tension because you’re going to have to drive an Uber for two weeks. I mean, this is wrong.
John: Yeah. It is wrong. Also, the holidays are a time where you theoretically should be able to travel back to visit your family.
John: And so that’s what this holiday spirt is about. Have movies taught us nothing? That the holidays are for getting back with your family and coming to appreciate your family as an adult. And we are not allowing these assistants to go travel back to their families and appreciate them as adults and have awkward conversations about their Hollywood careers. That’s why we need to give them holiday bonuses.
Craig: Let’s not get crazy. I mean, let’s not necessarily that we have to go back to see our families at Christmas, right. I mean, can’t a few of us get waivers on that one? I need a waiver.
John: Some sort of waivers will be allowed.
Craig: Thank you.
John: Let’s end this segment on some good news. Matt wrote in. He was a key set PA on season two of Fresh Off the Boat. I won’t read the whole story, but essentially because of how their schedule was working they were going to be off a week at Thanksgiving and then more time at Christmas. And it became really tough to figure out like how are we going to survive with only three out of four weeks’ pay. It was stressful. So they went to their ADs. The firsts. The seconds. The seconds-seconds. They voiced their concerns. They went to the UPM and the producer. And successfully got them to carry them through Thanksgiving and one week at the holidays.
Craig: There you go.
John: And so–
Craig: There you go.
John: That’s an example of a show stepping up and recognizing we are putting an undue burden on the people who have really stepped forward to bear it.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, we shouldn’t necessarily be giving the Fresh Off the Boat people too much credit for doing what I think should just be the base right thing. But, you know, tip of the hat because a lot of people are not even doing that. So, everybody – everybody – should be paying their employees for that stuff. I mean, come on. Come on. When you were a kid did you think that my dream is to grow up and deprive my employees of pay during Christmas? Who wants that? That’s just wrong.
John: Your college roommate wanted that.
Craig: Oh god, did he ever – oh, what a disgusting person. Ugh. Did you see him at the – well, you don’t watch sports.
John: But I saw a photo of him wearing the Astros outfit at the game.
Craig: He’s the reason they lost. I’m telling you.
John: He’s a curse.
Craig: He puts on any team’s uniform and that’s it. It’s just that all the wheels come off. Ugh. What a repugnant person. Anyway.
John: Anyway. Let’s do a last bit of follow up. This is from a stuntman named Kevin who writes, “I just did my 20-year anniversary working as a stuntman in LA. I emailed you guys once before and said Craig is right, stunt people don’t punch each other in the face.” That was in relation to a Three Page Challenge we were looking through.
Craig: Oh, yes, yes, yes.
John: He says, “I also loved the Seth Rogan episode. His perspective on stunt people and how they process pain got me thinking. It reminded me of a conversation I once had in a [trans-mo] van from set to base when someone in the van asked me and another stunt guy doesn’t it hurt. And the delivery had the tone of why on earth would you do this. Right then I had a moment of clarity. Explained it in a way that still encapsulates how I feel about what I do. I said, ‘It hurts more not to pay the mortgage.’”
Craig: Well, Kevin, I don’t believe you. Because here’s the thing. There are a lot of ways to pay the mortgage. But you’re a stunt guy. And you’re a breed of people. I mean, listen, I always describe all of us collectively as show folk. I mean, we’re show folk. We’re carnie people, right? We’re in the business of putting on things. And so we’re special. And stunt people are a special brand of show folk. And they – you have to like it. You have to. You can’t – there’s no way you go to work and you’re like, “Oh my god, I approach falling down the stairs with the same trepidation as everyone.” You do not.
So, I’m going to push back a little bit and actually say, Kevin, no. There’s more to it than that. Every stunt person I’ve ever met on set and talked to has a certain kind of thing. And it’s awesome. And I don’t have it at all. But I’m glad that they do.
John: Cool. All right. Time for our marquee topic which is tough love versus self-care. So this is inspired by a Chuck Wendig blog post over this past week where he talks through the dueling notions of sort of do you buckle down and sit in that chair and get all those words written when you’re hurting, or do you take a step back and practice some self-care. And he’s really looking at the trap you can fall into where you’re just self-caring all the time and you’re not actually doing the hard work. And as we head into NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, which is where I started Arlo Finch, I thought it was a good time to look at the dueling instincts to you’ve got tough it out versus relax and be easy on yourself.
Craig: Yeah. I loved this. I thought it was really smart. And the reason I really appreciated it is because there are two positive ways of thinking about things and one positive way is I need to take care of myself and be gentle with myself and not beat myself up because that’s going to be counterproductive. And there’s another positive thing that says I need to apply myself and motivate myself and push through difficult things and be resilient in order to get things done.
The problem with both of those things is that bad sentiments can easily masquerade as those things. That’s kind of the part that I thought he really put his finger on brilliantly is that the two things I just said are correct and good, but here’s something that can masquerade as tough love: a kind of brutal self-loathing and self-denial. And here’s something that can masquerade as self-care: just fear and withdrawal and a sense that engaging isn’t worth it. So, I thought it was really important that especially now because we do concentrate so heavily on self-care that somebody said, “Just watch out. There are these two imposters that will wear the clothing of these two things and neither one is going to help you.”
John: Yeah. Let’s go back to that tough love, because you know someone who is advocating tough love will say, “Yeah, so what? Writing is often hard. You’re not digging a ditch.” And to some degree writing is exercise and it’s just like working out. You get stronger sometimes by pushing through the pain. And you’ve got to rip those muscles a little bit so that they can get stronger. I don’t know if actually physical science would hold that up to be true.
Craig: That is – you did it.
John: All right. So, and I get that. And writing for all of us, actually sitting down in the button chair and getting to that thousand words or those three pages can be really tough sometimes. It’s hard to string the words together. We’ve talked about this a lot on the show. But, what Craig describes as that imposter is a real thing where sometimes it’s your romantic notion that art must be suffering. That writing must be hard and so therefore if writing is hard then I’m doing the right thing because that’s what writing is supposed to be like. That it’s supposed to hurt and it’s supposed to be torture every time you do it. That’s probably not true. And that’s not a healthy way to be approaching the craft that you’ve chosen for yourself.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, you can easily get into a trap where you think of yourself as stupid or lazy because it just didn’t happen that day. You can try and try and try. There are days where it’s not going to happen. And the healthy thing is to say that is normal. I am not perfect. Not every day is going to be optimum. But that imposter dressed in the clothing of tough love will say, “You suck. You’re weak and lazy and dumb and a real writer would have gotten it done. You’ve just failed.” Well that’s not helpful at all.
John: Let’s look at self-care because you and I are both dealing with shoulder pain and part of the recommendation for that is, well, take it easy on your shoulder. Don’t do things that are going to hurt your shoulder. And that really is a form of self-care. And so if you are encountering a lot of mental anguish and other things in your life that makes it hard for you to write, possibly pushing through and forcing yourself to write is going to make that mental anguish worse. And so to be mindful that there could be a good reason why you should step off the accelerator and give yourself a little bit of a break and not be pushing yourself so hard.
Chuck was writing from the perspective of he’s a guy in a shack who is writing books. I’m reading his book right now. His book is really good. He wrote a big giant tome called Wanderers. It’s sort of like The Stand. It’s as long as The Stand. It’s a big tome that drops down. But Chuck is a guy writing by himself out in the woods. He is not in a writing room. I’m going to keep using that word as much as I can.
Craig: Good for you.
John: He’s not in a writing room in a social environment with other people. And so therefore he only has himself to turn to. And so some of his advice can be a little bit different about self-care when you are surrounded by a group who can be pushing you, or also be supporting you.
Craig: Yeah. The self-care thing is interesting because we didn’t really have it until a few years ago. Of course it existed and people would come up with different names, but the notion of self-care and the popularity of it is a relatively modern phenomenon. And I think it is important for somebody to kind of, you know what happens is there’s this backlash where people say, “Problem is all these snowflakes with their self-care, ergo self-care is stupid.” By the way, the people that say that never use the term ego. But whatever.
That’s not correct. Self-care is actually crucial. What is correct is that self-care can be used as a name for something that isn’t self-care at all, but a different kind of self-abuse, which is hiding. And we can when we are afraid sometimes put on the clothing of somebody that is trying to take care of themselves, when really we’re just scared. And people might think, well, how exactly is writing scary. Well, when you don’t know what to say it’s terrifying. It really is. It’s as scary as a dream where you have to go on stage and give a speech but you haven’t prepared one. That’s what it kind of feels like.
John: Yeah. There’s a natural anxiety that happens. Like am I going to be able to do it? If I can’t do it then it’s going to suck and I’m going to be embarrassed. Even if I’m the only person who is going to see that I can’t do it it’s going to be embarrassing. So, yes, there’s a whole cycle that can stat about should I sit down and actually start writing today.
Craig: Correct. And you can wear the clothing of modern parlance and say, no, today is a self-care day. It is worth taking a real clear moment when you say today is a self-care day to say, “Or is it?” It doesn’t mean you’re lying to yourself. It just means let’s really ask and evaluate first. Then if everything checks out, then yes, it’s a self-care day.
John: So I put together a list of five questions that I thought would be a starting place for looking at is this a time for self-care or is this a time for some tough love with myself. So, let me read through here. Craig, I suspect you’ll have other things to add to this checklist.
So first I would say is check the facts. And basically that’s a chance to sort of step outside yourself and just look at the situation you’re in. Is this a situation where you’re dealing with some big stuff that anyone in your situation would say like, OK, given what you’re going through, like the loss of a family member, a big breakup, you’re moving, there are some real reasons why you are not equipped at this moment to be doing this stuff. So just check the facts. Like independent of your emotions, what are the actual facts about this situation?
I would ask are you taking care of the basics. I would ask are you taking care of the basics. Are you actually eating properly? Are you sleeping enough? Is there some basic survival function that you’re not doing a good enough job at and is that the thing you really need to fix rather than worrying about how much you’re writing on a day.
I would ask can you take smaller bites. And by that I mean rather than committing to three hours of sitting writing can you just write for 20 minutes, or an hour. Can you do a little sprint to get you through some stuff? Can you write 100 words rather than forcing yourself to write 1,000 words at a sitting?
John: Can you lower the stakes? And this is where I come back to Aline Brosh McKenna’s method of getting in the ocean. I don’t know if you remember her describing this at some point. But this is how Aline describes starting to swim in the ocean. Is that you sort of step on the sand and you get your toes wet, and then you get your ankles wet. Then you splash a little water up on your shins, and then your knees. And eventually you’re in the ocean and you’re swimming and you don’t even realize that you started swimming. And I always loved Aline’s visual for how she gets into the ocean, because it’s sort of true. It’s scary to jump into the ocean, but if you sort of just wander in there like, oh hey, I’m in the ocean, I’m swimming.
Craig: It’s literally how every Jewish woman I’ve ever seen gets into a pool. It’s like every Jewish woman slowly like wets the arms, wets the legs. It’s so careful. Maybe it’s just my family. Maybe it’s just the women in my family. I don’t know. But it’s such a weird stereotypical thing.
And I guess as far as stereotypes go fairly harmless. Because it is a smart way of acclimating to a new environment. And I think lowering the stakes is a brilliant point of view on this. Because there are times where you may say, “Listen, I think today is a self-care day. You know what? Today is a self-care day. That said, what if I did some writing on a self-care day? It doesn’t even count. It’s like free calories. Because it’s a self-care day. So if it happens it happens. And if it doesn’t it doesn’t. I’ll just try it now with like zero stakes attached because it’s a self-care day. I don’t have to sit there grinding my teeth because it’s not happening.”
I think that’s really smart.
John: Katie Silberman when she was on the show recently she talked about how when she starts a project she’ll write scenes and scenes and scenes that aren’t going to be in the movie that are just the characters talking. Perfect. Those are kind of throwaway scenes. It doesn’t matter. You’re just getting a sense of the voices. There’s no demand that those actually have to be the real scenes in the movie. So try writing those. You’ll be surprised. Some of those will end up in the movie. But it’s lowering the stakes. The world isn’t going to come crashing down if those scenes are not perfect.
Craig: There you go. Yeah.
John: Last I would say can you define what you’ll need to be able to do in order to get back to work as normal. And so if you say like this is a self-care day, I can’t do it. Great. What are the criteria you need to meet for you to be able to get back to work? And if you can be just a little bit more concrete about that. OK, I need to be able to sit for ten minutes without bursting into tears. Great. So that’s a thing. If you can do that then you’re on your way to being able to do the next thing.
I need to be able to focus on one thing for 20 minutes. Give yourself some real criteria, benchmarks that you need to hit, so that you can actually say, OK, I’m in this state or I’m not in this state. There’s a sense that there’s an end date to it. That it’s not going to be a permanent condition for you.
Craig: Those are five great questions to ask yourself. I really only have one other one to suggest. And it is simply is the biggest problem on this particular day your writing. Because if the biggest problem, the thing that is taking the most wind out of your sails, the thing that is making you the sickest in your gut is the work itself, it may not be a self-care day. It may be a day where you just have to kind of re-approach your writing and think about what’s not working.
Because otherwise you could hide forever from that.
John: Yeah. When I was writing the Arlo Finch books, so the third book is in and done, so I’m essentially done with them, it was a lot more regular writing than I’d ever had to do. So it’s been four years of like really regular writing to get those books done. And the word counts were just so much higher and the workload was so much higher than before. And so I did have to be little tougher on myself in terms of like, yeah, I don’t necessarily really want to do it today but I kind of need to do it today and I’m going to do it today. And I would schedule like even family vacations I would say, OK, I need an hour this morning to write. And I’m not being selfish. It’s what needs to happen. And so I would plan for, OK, I’m writing during this time.
And then once I got that writing down I was just free in a way that was great. It wasn’t looming over me because I knew I’d gotten that work done.
So I bring this up because sometimes writing actually is what you need to do.
John: Sometimes writing is a really important way to get healthy again because it lets you step outside of yourself, outside of your own internal narrative into a different narrative. And really focus on that for a time. So, it can get you out of your head with the right project.
Craig: That’s such a great point. And I’ve got to tell you, that’s me. There are times where I needed a day off or even a week off because of extant circumstances. Things that are going on in my family. My son has surgery. Do you know what I mean? Like you got to deal with life as it comes and there are days where you just can’t do your work. But in all honesty 90% of the time when I am feeling miserable it’s because something is wrong with what I’m writing. And the only way to fix that is to solve that problem. So it doesn’t mean I have to write the solution. Sometimes I just have to take a long walk or a long shower. Sometimes I just don’t know the answer and I have to sit in that discomfort. But that is still a work day to me.
My fingers may not be moving on the keys, but I am thinking. I’m trying. And I know exactly what you said is correct. When I do solve it and when I write that solution the pain that I’m feeling will go away. Therefore I can’t self-care that. That can’t be self-cared away. That has to just be worked away. And it’s a really smart distinction that you’ve made there.
John: Cool. So we will link to Chuck Wendig’s original blog post which we thought was terrific. Chuck Wendig also writes a lot about writing and the writing process, so if you’ve not read any of his books on writing you should do that as well because he’s a very smart, clever guy and talks really honestly about the frustration of writing but also what’s cool about writing. And has a very good voice. So I would encourage you to check out his books as well. We’ll put links to those in the show notes.
Also, it is time now Craig for our One Cool Things.
John: And I see you have one.
Craig: I do. What a shock. This one came from my old friend Craig Perry who is part of an exclusive club of people: Craigs. And it was right down my alley. This is an article in The Atlantic written by Olga Khazan and it is entitled The Therapeutic Potential of Stanning. And it’s about superhero therapy, which I did not know existed, but I think it’s amazing.
And basically, I mean, people can read it for themselves, but the basic idea here is that there are psychologists who are engaging with their clients and having their clients kind of imagining themselves as superheroes in their own lives. And processing their issues and their problems as superheroes encountering obstacles. Using people’s natural desire to interact with the world through narrative to help them unwind their own personal narrative. And obviously it’s not delusional. Everybody understands they’re not really a superhero. But it’s this kind of interesting geek therapy. And it seems to be working.
And I’m not at all shocked. Therapy has always been about kind of looking at your life as a story. What caused you to get this way? What was your beginning? What was your middle? How would you like your end to be? So this doesn’t surprise me at all. I just thought it was really fascinating that it was happening in kind of a codified way. So check that article out. The Therapeutic Potential of Stanning.
John: Yeah. I really liked this article a lot. And the idea behind this therapy. When I give my Arlo Finch talks to grade school kids part of my discussion is about what we mean by hero. And hero is the one who grows and changes. The hero is the one the story is about. The hero is the one you’re rooting for. And I flip it at the end saying like in real life you are the character who the story is about and in real life you are the person who has needs, hopes, dreams, and wants. You are the character that you’re rooting for. And if you look at yourself as the hero in your story that can be really helpful. It gives you a different way of looking at the obstacles in front of you. It gives you a different way of looking at who are your allies because very few heroes don’t have allies, someone who is on their side.
John: Everyone in these stories is an ally to somebody else. So gets you thinking outside of yourself. So to put it in a superhero context makes a lot of sense, especially in this Marvel moment that we’re living in. Smart.
Craig: Every superhero seems to have an origin story that is built around some kind of trauma. Well, a lot of them do. So, it’s just a natural thing to connect to. What about you’re One Cool Thing this week, John?
John: My One Cool Thing is a thing you’ll enjoy very much as well. It is called One Page Dungeon. It’s by Oleg [Dolya] who goes as watabou on the internets. It is a machine generated D&D dungeon, sort of like a one-page map for a dungeon that sort of is algorithmically generated. So each time you click it it’s building up a new little map of this place. It’s really great-looking little dungeons that you could imagine in any sort of published module. And sometimes the encounters are built in there. But I just really loved that it could procedurally generate these great little D&D maps that look so much better than anything I could ever draw on graph paper. So, I just loved it. It inspired me to just generate one and then build a one-off one-night encounter for some of my friends.
Craig: This is really cool. I also like the – they do – they look beautiful. And I like the titles that get generated as well randomly, one presumes, like this particular page. Let’s see, I’ve got Monastery of the Silent Dragon. And Secret Maze of the Dread Master. That’s pretty great.
John: I’m looking at Subterranean Monastery of the Red Titan. And I’ve got some rooms with some pillars in them. I’ve got different encounters. It looks great. So I just thought it was a cool way to use, you know, machines to generate some really paper and pencil kind of results.
John: Fun. And that’s our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli, who also did our outro this week. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send questions and feedback on things like assistants and other such.
But for short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I’m @johnaugust.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts.
We have exciting news coming out very soon about the future of the premium show. But you can find all the back episodes for now at Scriptnotes.net. You can also download 50-episode seasons of the show at store.johnaugust.com.
Craig, thank you for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John.