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 454 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show we’ll be discussing the difference between story and screenplay, both as official WGA categories but also what we mean in everyday use. We’ll also explore that icky feeling that something is wrong with your script and what to do about it when you feel it. Then we’ll be answering listener questions about age, starting over, and whether you should turn in the Final Draft file when the producers ask for it.
Craig: Oh, yes.
John: And in our bonus segment for Premium subscribers, Craig and I will read erotic fiction.
Craig: Now if that doesn’t cause a stampede toward the subscription button I don’t know what will.
John: It could all be a big tease. We’ll see.
Craig: By the way, the erotic fiction we’ll be reading from is called Stampede Toward the Subscription Button.
John: Ha-ha. Really it’s good. It’s a very meta kind of thing.
John: Hot. Some news about writing. Last week on the show I mentioned that my local bookstore, Chevalier’s was reopening and a bunch of local authors we’re getting together to celebrate its reopening – of course delivery or takeaway. But still it’s great that indie bookstores are being able to reopen. So we’re hosting a special event this coming Saturday, June 6, at 2pm. We’ll have a dozen authors, including myself, Aline Brosh McKenna, Derek Haas, Stuart Gibbs. Other middle grade YA and adult authors.
Craig: Stuart Gibbs! I’ve known Stuart Gibbs forever.
John: He is a lovely, lovely man.
Craig: Yeah. He really is. I’ve known him since I first arrived in Los Angeles.
John: Yeah. He’s a good guy. So we’re going to be talking through our summer reading list. So these are books we recommend people take a look at, both all the way from picture books up through grown up adult novels. So we’ll be talking through the books we love, books you should read over the summer. People should buy those books from Chevalier’s or whatever your indie bookstore is. But come join us on Zoom. It’s 2pm this Saturday, June 6. We’ll be hanging out and discussing summer reading.
John: Second bit of follow up. Last week on the show we were talking about how to reopen the town for production. And several people wrote in about French hours. And they’re making a point which we didn’t really make in the show is that to summarize French hours are where rather than working these endless long production days you limit yourselves to 12 hours and there’s no lunch break. You don’t stop for lunch. You work through lunch and everyone goes home at a reasonable time.
John: And, Craig, what is the downside of that from an economic standpoint for an individual person?
Craig: Well…I think maybe it’s that there’s a less likely chance that there will be overtime.
John: That’s exactly it. So people were writing in to say that French hours sound great and they probably are healthier for everybody concerned. The reason why you’ll see pushback against it is that after eight hours people on these union sets tend to get overtime. And so you want to work more than eight hours because that’s how you bring home the big bucks.
John: And so that’s the thing we’d be balancing out is how to we get to a place where people value their life and their livelihoods and having a quality of life rather than just the sheer number of dollars they’re taking home.
Craig: Well, if you recall when we were talking about this Rawson got emotionally pleased at the thought of French hours. Most filmmakers do. And so what I would say – let’s say for instance on the next television show that I’m showrunning and EP’ing, I’d say to the producer, meaning the person in charge of the budget and also the studio, “Hey, what if we offer the crew more money per hour? We sort of say, look, we’re just going to go apples to apples here.” So we would probably end up doing this many hours over the course of a week with this much at time and a half, which is standard overtime. We’re going to give you a little bit more for your standard hours to get to that number and in exchange we’ll do French hours just because it makes us happier.
John: That is the right conversation to have.
Craig: Yeah. And hopefully that would go well. Because the benefit of French hours is not – look, maybe there are bean counters who say the benefit is that you’re saving money. But for us on the creative side the benefit is just that it’s just better creatively. And also for the purpose of managing COVID and etc. It’s vastly superior.
John: Yeah. So my hope is that as we start having these conversations about reopening the town some of the necessities, like French hours, become the norms. And that we really do move to a place where we are thinking about the health and safety and creative function of the people who make film and television and that it becomes a matter of course that we’re limiting our hours to things that make sense.
Craig: Yeah. I’m all for it. But point well taken. We should not put this on the backs of working people. That’s not who should be absorbing the cost. Nor should there be a cost to absorb. We’re already paying people this much money. We should keep paying them that much money, if not more, and just shift the way we do the work during the day.
John: And now there’s not a real state update in terms of when we are going to have guidance about how we’re reopening the town. As we’re recording this, this is on a Thursday, we thought earlier this week there would be an official state of California guide and plan for how it’s going to work.
Craig: Yeah. What happened there?
John: It didn’t really happen. I’ve heard rumblings that it’s really on the actors’ side. That there’s real concerns about, again, safety and basically what we talked about in the show. They are the most vulnerable people on a set because they cannot wear masks. Social distancing won’t apply to two actors who are in a scene together likely. So, there are real concerns about maintaining their safety.
What I hear, and this is all just people gossiping, is that’s one of the hold ups about having official guidance behind this. Still, when I talk to showrunners there’s ongoing discussions about maybe it’s July, maybe it’s August. That there’s going to be an attempt to get TV production at least back up and running.
Craig: Yeah. It will continue to be the actors and it should. Because they are going to be the ones who are the most risk. And they are literally incapable of doing their jobs properly if they are physically restrained from being near each other or revealing their faces. Unless we just go to an all Iron Man kind of thing. [laughs] Where everyone is just Iron Man’d up.
John: 100% of the time.
Craig: Yeah. Or Banes. Just Iron Mans and Banes.
John: Iron Man or Banes. Or a tremendous amount of visual effects to paint out people’s masks, sort of like how we painted out Henry Cavill’s mustache.
Craig: That didn’t work so well.
John: It was phenomenal. It’s what everything should look like. There’s vaguely a little bit long. Like an Animal Crossing face.
Craig: [speaking like Bane] I don’t want you to worry, John. I’ve had my COVID test.
I would do Bane all day. If I could do Bane all day I would. If it were allowable. If my wife would allow it.
John: Yeah. But she would never allow that.
John: All right. Let’s get to our two main topics. Our first is story versus screenplay. So, on the show many a time we have talked about writing credits and what they mean, but we should probably recap that because for American movies the credits you see onscreen have very specific meanings and Craig can you talk us through what the very specific meanings are for the writing credits we see on a feature film?
Craig: Again, and first thing to know just as a little bit of background is that these writing credits that we have onscreen are the production of negotiation. So it’s actually writing into our collective bargaining agreement with the studios. And because that bargaining agreement is a massive contract these terms actually are legally defined in the contract.
So, what is story? Well, let me give you the dry version. Then I’ll give you – then we can discuss what we think it is. The dry version is “the term story is all writing covered by the provisions of the MBA representing a contribution is that is distinct from screenplay and consisting of basic narrative, idea, theme, or outline indicating character development and action.” And this is something that when we did our rewrite of the manual for clarity this was a section that I worked on pretty carefully. And this is a bit of my hobby horse. What it now says in there is “distinct from screenplay means that the contributions considered for story should not be applied to screenplay credit, nor should contributions considered for screenplay credit be applied to story.”
But what does that clunky lawyer-written phrase actually mean creatively? I’m kind of curious what you think it means.
John: So, when I think of story I think about if I were to sort of pitch the movie or pitch what’s happening in the story and write that down, so my written version of a pitch would probably be story. And that is it’s what’s happening but it’s not the specifics of details, individual scenes, how it works. It’s really more kind of what happens and the overall shape of things rather than the specificities of how it’s being told onscreen.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s generally the way people approach it. I mean, there’s all sorts of ways you can work it in your mind. I mean, one tactic I have sometimes is to think what part of this could have been expressed in a treatment without any of it seeming like it might belong in a script. You know, people can put dialogue in treatments. Well, that could fit in a script. But if it’s just sort of a treatment-only kind of thing then it’s likely that it’s story, but not necessarily. Basic narrative to me kind of feels like broad plot. Not the specific little ticky-tacky moments but broad plot.
John: Now, the very specific language you gave, here’s why that language is important. Is that ultimately at the end of a writing process and as we’re determining credits it’s that very specific language that we are going to be using in our arbitration statements, or if you’re an arbiter determining credit you are going to refer back to that very specific legal language to say this is why I’m defending this decision on this. So, when Craig and I are talking in generalities about story, great, we can talk in generalities. But if we’re talking about the specific credit for this piece of literary material we are always going to reach back to that legally language because that is how WGA credits are determined.
Craig: Yeah. So when I’m doing an arbitration I will talk a lot about what I consider to be the basic narrative and who contributed to the basic narrative. Idea. I think everybody kind of gets what that is. Theme. Everybody kind of gets what that is. And then outline indicating character development and action, which to me means again kind of a – well, it’s an outline. And then the question is how fine or specific of an outline. Generally for story I tend to think of it is more on the broader side of things because of the nature of the definition of screenplay which I suppose we should get into.
John: Let’s get into that.
Craig: So, screenplay. And remember this is story is distinct from this. “Screenplay consists of…” and this by the way I’m about to read one of the worst sentences ever written.
John: Oh yeah. Full of semicolons. Yeah.
Craig: To this day I cannot parse it properly. It’s brutal. And here’s what it says. “A screenplay consists of individual scenes and full dialogue together with such prior treatment, basic adaptation, continuity scenario, and dialogue as shall be used in represent substantial contributions to the final script.” What? [laughs]
John: Yeah. But there’s even more.
Craig: There is more.
John: There’s four bullet points.
Craig: So, what the credits department did in their wisdom was sort of say, look, let’s take that and actually turn it into something that’s fairly useful as a general rubric for arbiters who are analyzing screenplay. We tend to look at screenplay as contributing to four major factors. The first is dramatic construction. The second is original and different scenes. The third is characterization or character relationships. And the fourth is dialogue.
So, what do you think those mean?
John: [laughs] So, and again, if you’ve ever done an arbitration either as a person seeking credit or as a person determining credit you have used this exact language in defending your decisions and your choices.
John: Dramatic construction. I think we all get what that means. It’s how the puzzle pieces are put together. This is how you’re telling a story. These are the ups and downs. The twists, the surprises, the reveals. It’s how the story tells itself.
Craig: Right. It’s different from just if I said, OK, what is the outline of John Wick. John Wick is a hitman. His wife dies and leaves him a puppy. Bad guys kill the puppy and steal his car. He declares revenge. He goes and kills this guy. And then he kills this guy. And then he kills this guy. The end. And there’s a hotel. Right? I mean, those are the big, big moments.
But the dramatic construction are the way that things unfold. The way that the bad guys explain to John Wick is to his son and how that, you know, factors into the way he deals with John Wick. Those are sort of – it’s the specific stuff, right? The specifics of the dramatic. Which leads us into original and different scenes, which you know, I think we get, right?
John: Yeah. We get a sense. A scene is as a moment begins, as a moment ends. It’s how the moment begins. How the moments ends. And crucially what happens in that scene. It’s the very specific beats within that scene. And so while in an outline or a treatment you might give a sense of the shape. We might get a sense that there’s a scene here that does this, it’s the actual scene itself is what is considered part of screenplay credit.
Craig: And that’s why the word “different” is in there. Because we are oftentimes parsing out this contribution between multiple writers. If there is a beat. If you and I are both asked to adapt something like Fiddler on the Roof, which by the way was just announced is going to be a movie produced by Dan Jinks, your former Big Fish producer.
John: And directed by Tommy Kail. Excited about all this.
Craig: And directed by Tommy Kail. Sounds like it’s going to be – I mean, I’ll see nursery school productions of Fiddler on the Roof.
John: Craig, let’s stop the podcast now. You clearly are going to be cast in Fiddler on the Roof.
Craig: I should be.
John: There’s no way this is not going to happen.
Craig: I should be.
John: Yes. If you’re not a Tevye there is a role in that production for you.
Craig: I’m weirdly too old for Tevye. Isn’t that terrible? I’m too old for Tevye. I always think of him as an old guy because Zero Mostel was probably – but he’s like – well, actually, maybe I’m not. Because his youngest daughter–
John: No, he has teenage daughters.
Craig: Yeah. You know what? I’m a perfect age for Tevye. And I can sing that – you know what? I’m going to do it. I should do it. I’m the best. I’m the best Tevye available. [laughs] I am. So we’ll discuss that with Dan.
John: And Craig can sing. I mean, I really don’t know why you’re not working on your audition right now.
Craig: Oh yeah. Dank Jinks, I will go on tape. And you will be amazed. You will be amazed.
Craig: Also, I’d like to point out I’m Jewish. That matters. Seriously. I totally get the white-washing thing. Like so just side note on Fiddler on the Roof. I’m a huge Fiddler on the Roof fan. To the point where I can explain why Zero Mostel is a vastly better Fiddler than Topol and I know people are going to say, “What?” But I really do think so. Because I think that Fiddler on the Roof is a very Yiddish kind of thing as opposed to a Jewish kind of thing. It’s different feel in a weird way.
And then there’s Alfred Molina. [laughs] I mean, Alfred Molina is a brilliant actor. And he can sing. But you got to be Jewish. You just got to be. I don’t know how you do it without being Jewish. I really don’t. I don’t know.
John: So that ties into our next topic which is characterization and character relationships.
John: So back to the screenplay. And I like that character relationships is pulled out as a separate thing because as we talk about on the show a lot it’s very hard to imagine a character without really imagining how those characters are interacting. That’s how you actually reveal how two characters fit together. How a character is demonstrated in a screenplay is generally through its interaction with other characters in it. So the relationship between two characters or nine characters is crucially important for a screenplay in ways that it may not be in a story document.
Craig: No question. And so the reason Fiddler showed up in the first place here was when we say if I say to you I need you – we have a story beat. It’s story. And the story is that Tevye is going to marry his daughter off to the butcher. You and I will write very different scenes of that. Any two writers will write different scenes of that. Same basic story point, but different and original scenes.
Similarly, with character – so character development and action is story. So, who is in it? Like the guy that delivers the milk in this little village of Anatevka and he has five daughters. OK. And he is a big believer in tradition. Characterization is literally how that character is expressed.
Craig: The things he says and does. His temperament. His choice of words. And the nature of his relationship with his wife and his daughters and the townspeople and the Russians. All of that is script. And, of course, the primary way that that is expressed is through dialogue. It’s not the only way, but the primary way. Dialogue is essentially entirely a contribution to screenplay. Those are kind of the two big things.
John: Those are the big things. And so as we’ve said before sometimes in treatments you’ll do the parenthetical dialogue or the italics dialogue to sort of indicate what the things are. But it’s really a screenplay aspect. And that matches up I think with our basic expectations of what a story is versus a screenplay. The story is sort of the gist of it. It’s like this is the overall shape of it. But the screenplay is the on paper representation of what the movie is going to look like and feel like.
Craig: Right. Right.
John: And so from a credits level if the same writer has both story credit and screenplay by credit those compress down to become a written by credit. There’s special cases in weird situations based on underlying source material. So sometimes they don’t compress. But in general if you see a written by that means that the writer who is credited there is entitled to both story by credit and screenplay by credit so they’ve smooshed together.
Craig: That is only what it means. That is it. That is the definition of written by. And we’ve been working on this, and hopefully one day we’ll get there, but if you have written a story that is based on something, so it’s an adaptation, but it is quite a bit different. It’s clearly significantly different than the underlying material. Then you’ll get screen story by. And if you get screen story by and screenplay by unfortunately they don’t squish down, which is I think silly. But it’s the way it is. So, alas.
John: Yeah. And every once in a thousand credits you’ll see adaptation by which is a very unique credit that is only given as a result of arbitration.
Craig: It doesn’t mean what it says. And–
John: It’s a way of acknowledging that a person contributed to a thing that is important but isn’t meeting other thresholds. It’s a weird credit. We’re going to sort of ignore that for now.
Craig: I don’t think it has been given out. I don’t know when the last time it was. But I honestly don’t think it’s been given out within the last ten years.
John: So this is talking through credits when a project is completed, so the end of the process. But what I want to really focus on today is figuring out story and screenplay credits earlier in the process, when you’re thinking about writing something or you’re working with somebody and figuring out what are we going to put on the title page of this script because that is really important. Because that title page for your script is what sets the precedent for who wrote this thing that they’re reading.
John: And so figuring out story and screenplay credit is really a writer’s decision at the very beginning of the process. So let’s start with some listener questions because this might help us frame our conversation. So, a listener wrote in saying, “I have a question regarding credit on a screenplay I wrote with a partner. The project began with him pitching me a general premise and a very basic description of a couple of the main characters. From there we broke the story, even completely overhauling it at one point, and created the characters together. We’ve agreed to take a 50/50 credit on the screenplay but he is suggesting that he also get a story by credit. It seems to me that story by is too much for just a basic premise and some general characterizations, but I do think he deserves some sort of added acknowledgment for having the original idea.
“We were wondering if you could tell us whether ‘idea by’ is a legitimate credit in these types of situations, or if you have any other suggestions.”
Craig: [laughs] I like when questions are clear and easy. So, the deal is that there is story credit. That’s a thing. There is no idea credit. Story credit includes idea. So, while he’s correct in suggesting that he should get story credit, it’s also quite obvious that you should get story credit because like you said you broke the story with him, created the characters together, and then wrote the screenplay. Which, by the way, remember screenplays contain story elements. Story credit can be generated even if there’s no treatment or outline or something like that. So, the fact is you both deserve story credit and he doesn’t get special story credit or first story credit. No such thing exists.
The answer is no. He does not get anything special. It is 50/50 for the screenplay. It is 50/50 for the story. And your partner should take a look in the mirror and ask himself what kind of person he wants to be. Because this is not how you get ahead in the world as it turns out. And this is just separate. This is psychological. And I’m not condemning him. I understand it. Everybody is starving for a credit. And then along comes food and people are like “but I found the food I should get an extra chicken wing.” I totally get it. It turns out in the long run being generous with your partners will generate far more success for you than being stingy and parsimonious. Oh, there we go.
John: Yeah. So specific advice in this situation. So, you two writers should say title of screenplay, written by, because you’re both going to claim story credit and screenplay credit, written by your two names. Now, a thing you might decide to do is to put his name first because maybe that’s a way of acknowledging that he was the first person who came up with the idea. You guys can decide that. But, no, don’t break it up into separate things because it’s not going to accurately reflect what’s happening. It’s not going to be a good idea down the road.
Do what Craig did. Be generous, both of you, and god-willing you’ll sell this and many other things down the road.
Craig: Yeah. Just be cool about it. And in case you are wondering the order of names within a writing team has no significance. It’s not like the Writers Guild determines which person in an ampersand situation should go first. We do not.
Let’s see, should we do a Francesca question?
Craig: OK. Francesca writes in, or Francesco, depends, “About eight years ago I was pitching movie ideas to my friends. Most if not all got shot down except for one. The friend I pitched it to said to rename it 299, because it’s a play on the movie 300. Sure, why not? Titles change. Since then I’ve heard him talk about this movie he came up with by himself called 299. He’s done this in front of me once and in group chats. Like, hey guys, when are we going to work on the movie that I came up with. This was recent. 2020 pre-COVID. I sent a message in group that basically was like, hey man, we created that, not you alone. And he said, oh yeah.
“But even then, knowing he claims he created this movie I didn’t want to argue that in fact it was my creation. But really it was. He had a title and some suggestions. But I pitched him, not vice versa. What do I do and how do I keep stuff like this from happening again?”
Oof, we get this quite a bit.
John: We do get this quite a bit. So, there are a bunch of small things to unpack here. Listen, nothing was written down yet, so there’s not like a title page thing to be worried about yet. What we’re really talking about is what is that line between just sort of shooting some ideas around with friends and colleagues and saying like, oh, we’re not writing this thing together. At what point is feedback sort of like actually contributing to the underlying thing?
And there’s no clear answers here, but I can give you some – hopefully together we can give you some guidance and also some commiseration because even among us, among our friends, this still does happen. So, it is a little bit frustrating. Craig, how we would start off with Francesca here.
Craig: Well, in terms of this situation I think what you don’t want to do is soft pedal things. It seems like what’s happened is he’s somehow managed to bargain himself into being the cowriter of this when he’s not anyway. Or the co-creator of it. So, I think you want to be clear. “Look, this is what it was. And then say I’m going to not use the title but thank you. And this way we’re nice and clean.” If that’s really all of significance. And if there’s anything else you can say I’m not going to do that either. Sometimes you might be considered that, well, he’s going to go off and he’s going to write a movie called 299.
Look, if he is a better writer than you than he’s a better writer than you and his is going to go and yours isn’t. Odds are he’s not. Just going – odds are that nobody is a good writer, right? That’s just generally the odds as we know. So I wouldn’t worry too much about that.
In the future, going forward prospectively, one thing you can say to people before you ask them for advice or pitch them is say, “Listen, I was wondering, I’m writing something and I was wondering if you’d be willing to just give me some friendly feedback, just sounding board stuff. I’m not looking for anything, you know, I’m not looking for producers or writing partners. I was just really just looking for a sounding board. If you’re interested in just being kind of one of those no attachment sounding boards for me then that would be awesome. But if not, I totally understand.”
And then before you’ve ever said a word you have anchored dialogue in the proper context. Because people sometimes misconstrue things when you come to them and you’re like, “Well what do you think about this?” And they’re like, “Well what if you did this.” Oh yeah, and now we’re riffing. And suddenly we’re writing partners?
John: Yep. Yeah. So I was going to say exactly those same three words which is the preface to your pitch is “I’m writing something.” Just declare this is a thing that I am working on. And if you put it in that context then it’s harder for them to say like, “Oh, I thought we were working on this together?” It’s like, no, no, no, I said from the start I am writing this thing.
John: And that makes it clear this is the scope of what you want their feedback to be about. And that’s good and that’s helpful. Now, this thing that Francesca is describing happened eight years ago. So I do also question why haven’t you written this thing? Like if it’s really such an idea that is important to you why didn’t you write this? And there is also a time limit on this stuff. And if you really haven’t done any work on this in a year or eight years you’re probably not actually really writing this thing and maybe you’re just looking for a reason to be angry about this.
Craig: Yeah. You don’t want to be the proverbial two bald men fighting over a comb. If neither one of you – and that’s me and you basically – if neither one of you have written this thing within the last eight years then it kind of is neither of yours at this point. Do you know what I mean?
John: It’s the universe’s, yeah.
Craig: It kind of belongs to the universe. The other trick that you might want to try before you talk to somebody about something is say, “I’m halfway through something. I’ve been writing it.”
Craig: It’s much harder for people to imagine jumping on a bus that’s in motion than one that’s currently being assembled at the plant. So, another little trick there. But, yeah, I agree with John. I feel like the bigger question Francesca is what’s been going on for eight years? And maybe spend less time in group chats and write your stuff.
John: Yeah. And I think it’s a great way to wrap up this conversation about story versus screenplay is that story is not that hard to do. Story, it can be – generally it’s a document. It’s something you’ve written but it doesn’t have to be an incredibly elaborate thing. It could be a page and you could get credit on a movie for having written a one-page story synopsis. That’s possible.
Screenplay is a lot more work. Screenplay is an actual screenplay. You’re really writing a full thing here. And so, you know, I would challenge to Francesca and to other folks here is that if you don’t fixate so much on story credit and really think about what is the work you’re doing. And if you’re doing the work of writing a full screenplay then that is the work that becomes screenplay credit. And to really think about those things on that scale of like one page versus 120 pages. And when you think about it that way it’s easier to suss out who deserves story credit and who deserves screenplay credit.
Craig: That’s a great point. And one thing to be aware of is that the Writers Guild rules are an evolution of copyright rules. And so story is compensated significantly in the sense that 25% of all residuals are given to the person or persons that get story by credit. Now, you could say that’s only a quarter and 75% goes to the screenplay, but again, you can write a single page and get story credit. The person who gets the screenplay credit may have worked for five years and generated a thousand pages. So, that’s the Writers Guild point of view.
But what the world values, meaning the studios that pay us, is the screenplay. And we know this because there’s a screenplay bonus that is oftentimes multiples of what they’re paying you to actually write the screenplay. Meaning, if we make this thing and you get screenplay credit you’re going to get like a million dollars, two million dollars, just suddenly. Boom. Out of nowhere. Because you did the thing that they value the most. This comes up time and time again.
I’m sure that you have had these experiences where someone says, “Hey, we would love for you to write this.” And you’re like, oh, I don’t have the time. But I can maybe work on the story for a week. And they’re like, “We want you to write the thing.”
John: The thing. Yeah.
Craig: “Thank you. But what we want is the thing we value.”
Craig: So write your script is the point.
John: The other analogy I’d have is the story is like the trailer for the movie. And the screenplay is the movie. It’s the whole thing. And it’s like they are very different scales of time and work and sort of what you’re getting out of it. So, they’re both incredibly important but they’re going to pay you to make the movie. They’re not going to pay you to make the trailer.
Craig: Correct. Correct.
John: All right, Craig, let’s get to your topic here which you pitched to me as what to do when you sort of feel like your story – you get that icky feeling that your story is not working, your script is not working.
Craig: Something is not working. This happens to me at least once in everything I write. I will – it will suddenly occur to me in a vague sense that something is terribly wrong. And I attempt to specify it. I attempt to figure out where it’s wrong, why it’s wrong. But mostly it kind of manifests as a vague nausea that it’s instinctive. Something is wrong.
And when that happens over time I’ve started to come to an understanding of how to get through it and how to get out of it and what to not do. And I’m sure that you’ve had this feeling, too. I can’t imagine. I mean, as robotic as you are you’re still a human being. You have human feelings.
John: Yeah. I’d say most projects that I’ve gone through have some version of this. And including things which no one has ever read because I never really got through these situations. And so that may be an escape hatch we talk about in your overall discussion here is that sometimes these aren’t solvable. But trying to figure out where the problem is is so crucial. So talk us through where you figure out the problem might be.
Craig: Well, the first thing that you have to kind of wonder is what is the specific nature of the problem that is presenting itself to you. And we’ll find out if that really is the problem or not. But initially these things crop up very typically as, OK, I’ve got a plot knot. And you can call it a plot hole, a plot discrepancy. Things aren’t adding up. I’m supposed to have somebody be over here, but they’re over there. They managed to cross a continent too quickly. Or this happened the day before and it’s the day later. There’s like time problems you can’t get around. Or, I need them to know this thing, but they never knew it before. They haven’t met that person but they need to have this.
So you start to go, OK, there’s trouble. Just circumstances. And then sometimes you have concerns that are entirely focused on characters. The character needs to do something, but it violates some aspect of who they are or how they feel or what they’ve done before. There’s just a basic inconsistency. Their motivations don’t match their needs. These are the kind of problems where you just know before you ever hand a script in that if you did you might sneak it past somebody but never an actor. Never an actor. They would be like this doesn’t add up. And they’d be right.
There are also, man, this one comes up all the time. What I call immovable objects. And when writers sometimes will – I’ll call a friend or they’ll call me and we have these problems and we’re asking for help. They often are in the phrase in this context of immovable objects. The story requires this happens. But I don’t know how to make it happen. I don’t even know why it’s happening. And I don’t know how it should happen. But it has to happen. These are immovable objects and you just don’t know what to do with them.
It’s like I’m driving down a road and there has to be a wall in front of me, also I need to keep driving. What?
John: And so you and I have both encountered this situation where we are working on an adaptation of something, and so there are immovable objects because the basic nature of this property – this is a thing that must happen. Like the audience has expectations. This moment must occur.
John: And yet given the logic of the story we’ve built and everything we know there is no reason for that moment to occur and we have to figure out – either create a new reason. I mean, it is a problem. So we’ll get into what some of the solutions might be to that problem, but it is a thing that happens especially often in adaptations because you’re stuck with – some rules are being imposed upon you that would not be the rules you would set for yourself.
Craig: Very much so. It’s a little bit of like if I pull this string the curtain opens too much, so if I pull this string it closes all the way. So I pull that one again. I need this person to be more like this. But then this [song] needs them to be more like this. And you go crazy.
John: So somebody is going to be listening to this podcast about three years from now and they’ll be like, “I know exactly what both of them were talking about,” and it’s going to be delightful. So, check back in three years from now. Set yourself a reminder to check in and you’ll know, ah-ha, this is what they were talking about.
Craig: Put it on our calendar. And that leads me to the sort of final specific one, which are competing interests. Lindsay Doran has a great phrase. “Close up with feet.” She’ll say, “I want this moment to give me this feeling. Also, I want it to this thing that is completely incompatible with that feeling.” You want somebody to do something bad, also you want to feel like this person falls in love with them. You want them to run away but you also want to feel that they’re brave here. You want somebody to make somebody happy, but you want that person to hate them.
You feel these competing needs. And they negate each other to the point where you clench up and do not know what to do. And all of these things are all wonderfully specific and yet less common than the most frequent one you encounter which is something is not right and I don’t even know what it is or why. It’s just not good.
John: So, Craig, before we move on I’m going to pitch two more things to you which I often feel–
John: Which give me this vague ickies. One is the awareness that something is repeating and I don’t want it to repeat. And yet I sort of can’t figure out a way for it not to repeat. I recognize I’m repeating the same moment, the same beat, the same idea, and I don’t want to but I don’t know how to not repeat it. I’m trying to stay – basically I’m trying to stay on theme and I’m trying to stay consistent, but in the consistency I’m being repetitive. And what’s often a related thing to me is something we talked about recently on the podcast which is like this is just not interesting.
John: I recognize that it’s doing what it functionally needs to go, but I just don’t care.
John: And that to me is probably the most troubling of these vague ickies because it’s like if I don’t care about it no one is going to care about this.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a bad feeling to know that you have managed to build a house that is resting on a single load-bearing wall. And that wall sucks.
Craig: That’s a bad feeling. And it happens all the time. You said you had two. I’m curious what the other one was.
John: Oh, those were the two. I would say it’s the “this is not interesting” and the “I am repeating myself.”
Craig: I’m repeating myself.
John: Like I recognize that this a repetition. So it’s kind of the opposite of “close up with feet.” It is consistent and yet it’s too consistent. It’s actually just the same moment happening again.
John: And when it is a scene that’s repeating, like you can figure out ways to like, OK, I could put a little shading there. But you recognize this whole sequence is really doing the same thing that the previous one did, crap, I didn’t recognize this until now.
Craig: Well, right there you’ve kind of avoided the first big pit fall right here because I think some people encounter this feeling, this icky feeling that there’s a problem, and they go, “Nah, you know what, no there isn’t.” Takes them to Jedi mind-trick themselves.
No, no, there is. There’s absolutely a problem. If you know there’s a problem, there’s a problem. Even if you’re technically wrong. Even if somehow you’ve been deluded into thinking that there’s a problem when there isn’t one, the fact that you think there’s a problem means you’re not writing it well anyway. So you cannot ignore this feeling. It’s incredibly important to accept it.
John: Mm-hmm. Agreed. You have to – the first step of solving the problem is acknowledging that there is a problem. So yeah.
Craig: There you go. Exactly. The very common instinct in your desire to immediately get past this problem, because nobody wants to sit with this icky feeling, you just want to get it out of you, is to solve it with cleverness. You’re going to solve it by using a lot of scaffolding. You’re going to contort your plot and your characters to make the problem go away. And you will technically make the problem go away. You will solve it. It’s just that now it’s boring and it sucks. Because solutions aren’t what people are going to see a movie for. They’re going to see a movie or watch a television show because it is this beautiful, whole natural narrative that is there because it’s correct.
When you write a scene that solves your problem, that scene is bad. Because it exists to solve your problem. It is for you, it’s not for the audience.
John: Now, a corollary to this which I’m thinking back to the second Arlo Finch which I ran into sort of a – I ran into problems. This is just not going to fit right. When you talk about a scene that is just there to sort of fix the problem or muscle you through a problem and get you to the next thing, that’s an unsatisfying boring scene. But where scaffolding can become useful is I’m going to wind back, I’m going to unravel some stuff, and actually build in a scaffolding. And I’m going to support this idea by going back in time and making it so it is a natural extension.
So basically I’m going to build a bridge from where I was to where I’m going, but I actually have to step back a bit and build that bridge.
Craig: Right. So that’s an actual bridge. It’s not scaffolding.
John: That’s true.
Craig: That’s the thing. You absolutely should go back and support it. And then it feels natural and it unfolds and it looks correct. Yeah, you’re not just – you’re like, OK, we were building a house and this room was supposed to have a hallway to that room. But they’re offset by 12 feet. So let’s just build a weird hallway that just does this weird juke. Nobody wants that hallway. Nobody. I mean, yeah, technically I could walk from one room to another but this hallway sucks.
Craig: So, how do we fix this? So there’s this phrase that always comes to my mind when I’m in these moments and it’s from Searching for Bobby Fischer which I would like to nominate to be our next deep dive movie.
John: Oh sure. We could get Mr. Scott Frank on to talk about it.
Craig: No. We’ll get Mr. Steven Zaillian on to talk about it.
John: Oh, I forget. Steve Zaillian. I always [crosstalk]. Steven Zaillian.
Craig: We want to over-credit Scott Frank with everything, but we’re going to get Steven on.
John: We shouldn’t. We shouldn’t.
Craig: No, we shouldn’t. We’re going to get Steve Zaillian on to talk about it. And it’s one of my favorite screenplays. And also he directed it beautifully as well.
So there’s a moment that recurs where Ben Kingsley’s chess professor is instructing this young child and they’ve got a chess board in front of them. And he’s saying to this kid you can get to checkmate from here in 12 moves. Don’t move until you see it. And the kid is like I can’t see it. And he says don’t move until you see it. I can’t see it. And then Kingsley says, “Here, I’ll help you.” And he just wipes all the pieces off the board and they all clatter to the floor. And he has the kid just look at this blank board. And sort of makes him go through this mental exercise of trying to do it without being stuck in the weeds of the pieces themselves.
And this comes up in the end, in the final match. He’s got himself to a point where Ben Kingsley who is watching the match from another room goes, “You’ve got him. You’ve got him in 12 moves. Don’t move until you see it.” And then the kid is just looking at the board and in his mind he’s just whispering to himself “I don’t see it.”
And then back to Ben Kingsley. Don’t move until you see it. Can’t see it, I don’t see it.
And I’m thinking this all the time in these moments. I’m like don’t move until you see it. And then I’m like but I can’t see it. And I’m like, fine. Don’t move until you see it. And this is why this has become kind of a mantra to me.
Because when it happens it is not hard to solve. Once you see the problem, the real problem, then the solution is evident. It’s easy. It’s elegant. There are not a lot of moving parts. It’s easy to write. Because you’re correct. So, the question then is maybe this sick feeling I had was about what I thought was a problem. I didn’t understand the nature of the problem at all. So, the feeling was correct but my identification of the problem was wrong.
That’s why I’ve been kind of walking around in circles going “I can’t see it. I can’t see it. I can’t see it.” And then one day I go, oh for god’s sakes. Of course. And it’s outside of the problem that I thought it was.
So, one way we get through this is patience. And patience means not only being patient with yourself and giving yourself time to finally see what the real problem is, but also the patience and wisdom to not move until you see it. Because the more you write, the more you try and write your way through this problem, the more invested you are in the writing you’re doing to solve the problem that probably isn’t the problem. So all that writing is going to be wasted. All that effort is going to be wasted. And you’re going to maybe be loath to let it go. So don’t move until you see it.
And then when you see it you’ll know.
John: I want to believe everything you just said, and yet I can also imagine myself or other writers in situations where this becomes an excuse for paralysis and perfectionism. Because all writing is difficult. All writing, there’s going to be some moments of self-doubt.
John: And so how do we help distinguish between, OK, this icky feeling I need to stop and wait it out until I really find the perfect solution versus, no, writing is hard. Writing is hard and you just have to do it. And you will discover things in trying to work on it. Because you and I both on our daily writing situations we reach places where we’re like, argh, I can’t make this thing work. And then you just work through it and you figure it out.
So, how do we help distinguish between the moments where you really should stop and wait versus just sit down and put your butt in the chair and get some words written?
Craig: Well, there’s a circumstance where you know what you’re supposed to do, you just don’t feel like you’re doing it well. That’s different. You need to just keep working. You need to work on it.
I know what the scene is supposed to be and I know what it’s supposed to accomplish. All that is correct. I just don’t like what I’m doing. OK. Think of a different way to do it. Write that. Try a different way. Try a different way.
But when there’s something that is fundamentally wrong it’s not that you should go to bed or take a vacation. Start taking walks and thinking about it. In fact, it’s important to think about it and think about it and think about it. It’s important to struggle with that problem because the struggle with the problem is what will eventually get you to the place where you see what the answer is. So you’re working. I mean, you don’t take the day off. And the “don’t move until you see it” part is essentially write the solution that you know is right. That’s really what I’m getting to. Is don’t write the bad ones. Don’t write the ones that just rush you through it. Write the one that feels good.
Because when you get it, I mean, I had this problem man on Chernobyl, oh boy. I mean, there was a dark week. There was one very dark week where I was just walking around thinking. There’s this awful wrongness in the midst of something and I don’t know how to solve it. And I did not move until I saw it. And then a few days later I went, “Oh for god’s sakes.” And almost inevitably it’s like all the pieces were there. I was looking in the wrong spot and I was thinking about it in the wrong way. And that there’s something that with all the pieces I already had that is so simple and obvious and once you see it it’s obvious. It’s just like solving any puzzle.
I mean a real puzzle. Not a jigsaw puzzle. [laughs]
If somebody comes along and goes, oh here’s how this works, you go, “Oh for the love of god,” right? So that’s it. It’s really just going through that and then when you know you have it you have it. So you certainly don’t want to do this as some excuse to not write. In fact, the hardest work you should be doing is this kind of work. Just struggling through the problem. If you don’t feel that you’re exerting yourself then, yeah, you’re probably just avoiding and you don’t want to avoid.
John: So, the solutions you’re describing, it almost sounds like you’re really talking about – you’re reframing what the problem is. It’s basically you’re working and waiting for your brain to come to a place where it is reframing the situation. Basically change the context so you can actually see like, oh, these are actually the ways these things could line up. This is what the – basically forgetting my original expectations about what needed to happen here so you can actually approach it with the things you actually have and what is going to work for the pieces that you have.
Craig: It’s exactly correct. It’s exactly right. We usually end up in this space because we have falsely determined that a bunch of things are givens. And they’re not. Sometimes most of them are given but some of them can change in pretty dramatic ways. And suddenly, it’s so interesting, like when you’re trying to solve these problems some of the, we’ll call them the grindy non-solution solutions, seem like they’ll be a lot of work. But you’re willing to do it to make the ache go away.
Then you come up with the real solution. The real solution is way more writing and it’s much less work.
Craig: Because it’s correct. And it’s actually a joy. That’s how you know.
John: Great. All right, let’s tackle some listener questions. Aaron wrote in to ask, “How old is too old? After working in digital media in New York I recently moved to LA to find an entry level job as a writer’s PA or a writer’s assistant. Although I have some contacts in the industry I did not have any gigs locked in. And now with COVID my chances of landing such a job this year or even next seem slim. I’m 25 years old and I know many people trying to break into the industry start their careers by working in these assistant jobs.
“That said, I’ve also heard that once you’re approaching your mid-to-late 20s it’s harder and harder to find these opportunities as people start wondering why you’re 28 and begging to be a PA for example. Basically my question is is it already too late for me to take this path breaking into the industry? Or should I start thinking about other ways in? And how necessary is assistant experience to foster a successful career in entertainment?”
Craig: My god.
John: Yeah, I know. I have a bit of “my god” in me too.
Craig: I mean, what has happened in our world where somebody who is 25 is like I’m over the hill. No, Aaron. Look, how old is too old? 112. Death.
You’re not too old. Objectively speaking in no way, shape, or form, in any hallway, in any building in Hollywood is 25 years too old, unless you’re talking about who is going to be playing a nine-year-old character on television. So, look, yes, tough times. And anybody that – I’ve also heard, he says, “I’ve heard that once you’re approaching your mid-to-late 20s it gets harder.” Who told you this?
John: [laughs] Yeah. Some grizzled 29-year-old.
Craig: Right. My god. Nobody knows a goddamn thing. Remember, Aaron, nobody knows anything. Nobody knows anything. Nobody knows anything.
John: The underline is on the knows.
Craig: Knows. Nobody knows anything. Is it harder and harder to find these opportunities? I’ve got to be honest with you. I don’t think so. I don’t know how old PAs are. When I see them I don’t know how old they are. But in my usually they’re in their 20s or early 30s.
Craig: Assistants are usually in their 20s or early 30s. I don’t know. I mean, yes, if you’re in your 40s it’s going to be much tougher. People at that point sort of are like, “Look, you’ve been 15-20 years, we’ve had a pretty good look at you.” It’s just like sports, you know. I don’t think you’re making it to this show in this capacity at this point. Maybe think about a different thing.
That’s not, by the way, different than writing or anything that’s purely creative that way. But in terms of production work and stuff like that, yeah, I think it’s a reasonable question. But, no, 25. Come on. No. No.
Look, if you have trouble there may be a series of reasons why. One of them will not be your age.
Craig: Joe in NoHo asks, “A writing partner and I recently optioned a script to a big digital media company that is venturing into making features. We delivered the rewrite and the polish we were contracted to send them. And now they’ve emailed us to ask for the FDX version of the script.” That’s the Final Draft source file. “When we asked why they wanted the FDX they responded they needed it to run breakdowns for budget and casting, etc. We’re kind of split on how we feel about sending an editable version of our script for several reasons. Most of our working writer-director-producer friends say it’s not kosher and it’s disrespectful. But our attorney doesn’t see an issue with it. Thoughts?”
John, where are you on this one?
John: I used to have a strong bias – a strong opinion that I’m never going to send them the FDX file because that’s an opportunity for people to rewrite me, to make it easier to rewrite, to make little tweaks and changes to stuff. And so like, no, I’m only going to send in the hard copy or the PDF. And then I made an app called Highland which makes it really, really easy to take a PDF and make it back into an editable file. And so I realized it’s all moot.
They can edit the file if they want to. They can make the FDX. All I’m doing is creating a hassle for them to not give them the FDX. So I will send in the FDX file if they want it. Craig, how are you feeling these days?
Craig: The same. Although, yeah. So, Joe, it is a valid thing. There are budgeting and scheduling breakdown software that use the FDX version. They require that. I think you have to ask yourself how much of a protection are you affording yourself if it can be defeated by them spending $100 on a typist? Because that’s really what they could do. They could just say like, “OK, give us the PDF. We’re going to go hand it to a temp who is going to spend four hours just touch typing your thing into Final Draft.” That’s literally what – that’s the big obstacle that you’ve thrown up for them. It’s not an obstacle at all.
What you need to do is just make sure – make clear – that this is the writing I did. And since you have an attorney the attorney is wise enough to know that this is really not something that comes up a lot. Especially if you’re working with a reputable company. A big digital media company has concerns about liability. They’re not going to want to…
If you’re dealing with some rat, you know what I mean? Like some, I don’t know, fringe sleazebag then I guess. But you’re not. So, not a problem.
John: Yeah. There was one studio executive at a studio that is no longer a studio.
Craig: I know exactly who you’re talking about.
John: [laughs] Who was notorious for just like, you know, typing up scenes and pretending that the current writer wrote it.
John: And that’s a situation where not ideally want to give them your FDX file. But you know what?
Craig: It couldn’t stop him from doing it anyway.
John: It wouldn’t have stopped him one bit.
Craig: Is he still around?
John: He’s still around.
Craig: OK. I’ll have to ask you off-the-air where he landed. OK, well anyway, we had an answer for you, Joe, which is nice. Do you want to take Jordan’s question?
John: Yeah. Jordan asks, “I wondered if you and Craig had any thoughts about when to put a project aside or even start anew? I’ve just hit a point in my pilot script where I realize things aren’t working. It’s too convoluted. I need to simplify. And I was 45 pages in. So it’s disheartening that I even got this far into it. I wish I realized earlier that there were issues. Something I missed in development I guess.
“Is there anything that raises a red flag for you or Craig and tells you it’s time to take a step back and either reevaluate the story, the structure of the script?”
So, Craig, this ties in very well with what you just were talking about.
Craig: Hopefully this episode does give Jordan some general advice. But Jordan you’re asking kind of a different question than the first question. Right? So the first question is when should I put it aside or when should I start anew. But then you describe a circumstance that requires neither of those things. You don’t need to start anew. If you’re 45 pages in and things aren’t working, if you still love it and there was something about it that does work for you then just you’re rewriting, aren’t you? I mean, yeah, take a moment, hit pause, walk around, think about it. See if you can figure out what exactly isn’t correct.
OK, it’s too convoluted and you need to simplify? Do it. De-convolute. Simplify. Make it elegant. I prefer the word elegant to simple. And, yes, would it have been great if you had realized earlier that there were issues? Yeah. But you didn’t. And guess what? That’s the way it goes.
As time goes on you do start to take some seconds off of your realization time. But you don’t get it down to zero. All of us end up in that situation. You know, just mourn for a day or two and then see if you can tuck back in. If you’ve gotten to a point where you’re like oh my god this is just junk, and actually what I’ve realized by writing 45 pages is that this – I don’t even want to watch this thing in any way, shape, or form, then dump it. Move on.
John: Yeah. There’s an episode we did a zillion years ago sort of centered around Marie Kondo and her big thing about how to get rid of things. How to say goodbye to things. And this could be a project where like you just don’t want to write this anymore. It does not interest you. You can basically hold it in your hands, or mentally hold it in your hands and say like thank you for teaching me that I didn’t want to write this kind of story. And then you can set aside and not feel any guilt about having not finished it. Because you did learn something from it. If you are going to abandon it it’s fine. It’s cool. It helped you. It taught you that this is not a thing that you wanted to write and you are a better person for having done that work.
Craig: 100%. We’ve got time for one more?
John: Yeah. Want to take Matt from London?
Craig: Yeah. Matt from London asks, “Hi John and Craig.” Hi Matt. “Longtime fan of the show. Your conversations are such a friendly comfort, particularly in these strange times.”
Glad to be a comfort.
“I have an admin question, specifically about digital organization. I’m hopeless at it. Files and folders are littered in scatter shot locations all over my laptop. It’s a mess. Lockdown seems like a great time to do a bit of spring cleaning. What are some techniques you guys employ to keep your digital houses in order? How can I Marie Kondo my hard drive?” Is he psychic?
John: It’s weird that he was referencing that. It’s a thing that happens. I feel like we’ve talked about this on the show other times but I keep one folder per project. I keep everything related to that project in one folder. Those folders all go in Dropbox. It works out really well for me and it’s just not complicated. And so this is a good time to sort of clean up your stuff and get things sort of neatly tucked away. But I’m just a big fan of the folder that is everything related to that project and leave it at that.
Craig: Yeah. Folders are your friends, right? So your laptop is essentially telling you here is how you should do it. And what you’ve been doing is not doing that. So why don’t you listen to the laptop, whether it’s Windows or Mac. It’s going to afford you the same opportunity. My basic method is similar to John. I have a folder for each project. Inside that folder all of the files that eventually lead up into the first draft I will then once the first draft is handed in consolidate into a sub-folder called Draft 1. And then all the stuff that is draft two gets into Draft 2.
And then if the show goes into production then I have a production folder and production drafts. And I have casting. Everything gets its own little folder inside of the big folder. And I have one mega folder called Scripts in Progress. That’s where all the stuff I’m working on right now goes. All those folders go in there. And when I’m done with something and it’s no longer in progress it leaves the Scripts in Progress island and it goes off into the Writing Archive folder where all the old stuff lives.
This is not hard to do.
Craig: It’ll take you a couple hours to sort it all through. You’ll feel great. And then once you have that set up as a system you’ll just know to do it next time.
John: Absolutely. And once you have that setup you’ll also back up your stuff. So if you’re using Dropbox or whatever cloud service, great. That’s one level of backups. But you’ll also turn on Time Machine. Turn on whatever other system you want to do so you have redundant backups. Stick it on a USB flash drive so you can put those someplace else. Just make sure you hold onto those old drafts because they are useful. And you will want to refer back to them at some point.
Craig: John, do you have – a producer emailed me the other day. It was a project that I’d done with them back in I want to say 2001.
Craig: And they were saying, hey, you know, would you be interested in kind of reviving that? And I wasn’t. But I did go and look for it. And it was in an – I think it was in an old Final Draft format that no longer seems to exist.
John: FDR. Yeah. I can open up FDR.
Craig: I don’t think it was FDR. It was something – I don’t know what it was.
John: I don’t think there was anything before FDR. Wow.
Craig: You know, I should look at what it is. Maybe it was an FDR. I’ll look and see actually. I’m looking right now.
John: Send it over because literally we have these sort of magic cameras and we can smash up nearly anything and convert it.
Craig: So the file, I’m looking at the information on it, a kind document. [laughs]
John: That’s not–
Craig: There’s no extension listed for it.
John: Send it over and I’ll get you an update. But I will say it’s 95% likely that Nima can smash it open for us.
Craig: I’ve got to be honest with you. I don’t need to smash it up. [laughs] I really don’t need to. But it is interesting that there’s a line where things before that line are sort of–
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: You know, and then there’s the world of PDFs came along at some point and everything theoretically from that point forward is easily readable.
John: It’s readable.
John: Cool. All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. I have two small One Cool Things.
John: The first is – so my daughter when she was little she was in gymnastics and when she did gymnastics they would get these medals when they completed like one – they learned how to do the fall, they learned how to do this. And so she ended up with like 60 medals. And she’s now coming on 15 years old.
John: Doesn’t really care about these medals at all.
John: Because she was getting six medals a month for this. And so we had all these medals. What do we do with these medals? And so my husband Mike found a place called Sports Medal Recycling. And basically you tell them what you’re sending them and you send them like all your old sports medals and they just recycle them. Because they can’t be done in normal LA recycling.
Craig: That’s interesting.
John: This place can melt them down and actually reuse them. So, just a good way to sort of get rid of those old things and not feel so guilty about just throwing them in the trash where they’re not being recycled properly.
Craig: Ah, well how about that. All right.
John: Second thing is something you may enjoy. It’s a video about Pac Man and specifically it focuses on how the ghosts work in Pac Man.
Craig: I’ve seen this. Yes.
John: And how they follow you. And it’s an actually very clever sort of pre-AI. But the algorithm for why the ghosts chase you the way they do is so much smarter than I would have guessed. And so I’ll put a link to this video on this. Behind the scenes of Pac Man.
Craig: Damn ghosts. Early AI enemies those ghosts. Nasty. Hopefully lots of people have seen the Mythic Quest quarantine episode that came out a week or two ago.
John: And I noticed the Scriptnotes t-shirt that Craig Mazin’s character wears.
Craig: Multiple. I wore two different ones I think. Three different ones possibly. And it was very gratifying to see how well that episode was received. Excellent work by Rob McElhenney and Megan Ganz and David Hornsby who are the primary writers of that episode
One of the things that I was kind of fascinated by was the way we did it. And we had kind of talked through a little bit in our last episode. But there is an app that we were using to actually do the filming.
So we were using iPhone 11s. I guess that’s the latest iPhone?
Craig: But it wasn’t just like the regular camera thing. It was an app called FiLMiC Pro. And FiLMiC Pro has like four billion little settings on it and the DP kind of had us make sure that all the things were set correctly. Shutter speeds. And exposure curves. And f-stops. I’m the worst at the DP stuff. I really don’t know anything about it. But it looked really good. It definitely looked better than I think it would have looked otherwise.
And so I thought, oh, well this FiLMiC Pro probably costs – it’s like one of those professional apps that cost like $150. $15. $15 for FiLMiC Pro. And it makes everything look quite a bit better, at least as far as I can tell. So, that’s my One Cool Thing of the week.
John: So, Craig, talk us through a little bit more. So, watching the episode all the times – we’re supposed to be looking at your laptop or your computer screens through this thing. So we’re looking that way. So, are you looking at the iPhone that’s doing this? Or is there another laptop? Who else is seeing the feed of that camera at the same time?
Craig: So we have – my personal laptop is running Zoom. And then we have this flexible gooseneck thing that props up the iPhone so that the iPhone is pointing – the camera is pointing at me. The screen of the iPhone is pointing back towards the laptop. So the laptop camera is seeing essentially the monitor, right?
John: Oh great.
Craig: Which was annoying. Because I would have to adjust the laptop screen to give a better view of the monitor, but then also adjust the camera to give them the camera angle they wanted on me. And then readjust the laptop camera to get the better angle.
John: So I assumed that it was piping out over the Internet.
John: And recording – that would be great if it could. But it did not.
Craig: No, no. It was not doing that. So all FiLMiC does is just suck in data at very high resolution with all sorts of little – so one of the nice things is you can create settings profiles. So before they sent us the phones the DP and production staff went through and made sure that FiLMiC Pro was dialed in exactly as they wanted. And then they put it under a Mythic Quest setting.
John: [Crosstalk] and such, yeah.
Craig: All of that stuff was kind of done, all the color temperatures, and yada-yada. But there were still a few things that we had to do to make sure it was correct. And it did seem to work really well. So, yeah, our deal was we were basically, as actors, we’re looking pretty much directly into the lens. So it’s interesting because I’ve got like my earbuds in and I can hear for instance Ashly Burch who plays Rachel, I can hear her. I can’t really see her, because she’s–
Craig: Blocked. So I can hear her. So I have to talk to her as if she’s the iPhone lens. And one of the just little techniques that Rob said seemed to work really well and so we would do it is leaning in closer to that lens. If we wanted to make a point. But it was an interesting thing to not see someone like that.
John: How were you recording sound? Was that recorded separately?
Craig: No. It was recorded at the same time. So with sound we were using a Shure mic. The Shure brand. Classic mic brand. And so this particular Shure mic would connect into the iPhone through the lightning port or whatever that port is on the iPhone. I guess now it’s a USB-C port, isn’t it? No, it’s still lightning, right?
John: The iPhones are still lightning, yeah.
Craig: So it’s stuck in there and then we would point it at us and then there was a separate Shure mic that had the audio department. So then the sound guys had their settings for that. And so–
John: And so it was a lav hidden in your shirt? Or where was the microphone?
Craig: No. The microphone was on the phone pointing directly back at me.
John: I got you.
Craig: Because they didn’t want to have us like lav’ing ourselves up and then wiring something back over. The phone was the issue, right? Because they didn’t want to send over a separate recorder. There’s also no syncing.
So in production, you know, people think the clapboard is just for like, clap, but it’s got a crystal in it that’s syncing the audio with the numbers on the slate which the camera is filming. That’s how they sync everything up. So they didn’t have that opportunity here. But FiLMiC Pro understood that it was going to be pulling audio in from the Shure. And, I don’t know, it was all very well thought out.
John: Great. And so did you end up clap syncing before you started recording things or not?
Craig: You know what? They had us do it like once and I think they gave up. [laughs] Because I think they were like, OK, everybody clapped at once.
John: Yeah, it’s hard to do.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, everybody is getting their Zoom audio at slightly different times and so I think they just had to kind of eyeball it.
John: I was looking at how Seth Meyers is doing his show from his attic. And he’s just on an iPad. And the iPad is working as the teleprompter and it’s using the front-facing camera on his iPad is what’s recording him. And it works.
Craig: Yeah. So, the front-facing camera is generally nowhere near as good as the back camera. But if you want to be able to see yourself you need the front-facing one, right? So that was the weird part of this is we did use the back camera because it’s a far better camera, but you couldn’t see yourself. Which I guess kind of you didn’t want to anyway. I mean, I don’t want to see the monitor when I’m acting. I just want to be able to see the person.
Because, you know, John, I’m a very accomplished actor. [laughs]
John: Yes. So as you’re putting yourself on tape for Tevye, that is choices he’s going to make.
Craig: I mean, I’ve been around, man. I’ve acted in a show for a number of episodes that is fewer than 10. [laughs]
John: That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by John Venable. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I’m @johnaugust.
We have t-shirts and they’re great. You can see some of them featured in Mythic Quest. They’re available at Cotton Bureau. There’s a link in the show notes for that.
In the show notes you’ll also find other stuff we talked about. At the site you’ll find the transcripts. We get them up about four days after the episode airs.
You can sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments like the one we’re just about to record on erotic fiction.
Craig: Oh my god. That’s awesome.
John: Craig, thank you so much for a fun episode.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: All right. It’s our bonus topic. So back when I was writing Arlo Finch I met with a bunch of the audio book narrators and you can hear some of that on the Launch podcast I did. And one of the things that was interesting as I was talking with them is that most of them use their real names for when they’re recording normal books, but they use special names, alternate names, for when they’re recording erotic fiction. And I just love that the same folks who are reading children’s books are also reading erotic fiction.
And also that there’s still erotic fiction. There’s still a market for erotic fiction.
Craig: Is there anything less erotic than the word “erotic,” by the way? It’s such a boner killer.
John: When Madonna sang Erotic for her album Erotica she had a good intonation for that, so I get that. But erotic is not–
Craig: Nah. Blech.
John: But this is maybe an unfair and misleading setup for I really want to talk about meta fiction and fan fiction and sort of that intersection because while there still is erotic fiction even in the age of Pornhub and stuff like that, what’s probably most fascinating is user-generated fiction which is often porny but not always porny. Sometimes it’s slash fiction. But there’s a whole different category of fiction that didn’t exist when we were kids.
Craig: This is one of the great bait and switches of my life. [laughs] I can’t believe. I mean, if people are listening at home and they are upset, I just want you to know I am, too.
Craig: I was told that we would be reading erotic fiction.
John: All right. Well, we can at least talk about erotic fiction.
John: Craig, did you read erotic fiction at any point in your life?
Craig: [laughs] Oh, I think we should ask Sexy Craig that question.
John: Sexy Craig, have you ever read erotic fiction.
Craig: I’ve lived erotic fiction. I’ve lived it, John. Yeah.
Craig: Yeah, I never thought this would happen to me. Yeah, of course I did. I mean, when I was a kid. So the porn that was available when you and I were youngsters–
John: Was all printed.
Craig: It was all printed. The thing that you would go to – if you were a young straight lad like myself you wanted Penthouse. You didn’t want Playboy. Playboy was too fancy. It was too classy. Hustler was hard to get and really did make you feel like you were wrong. So Penthouse was a fantastic middle ground. It was dirty enough but you didn’t feel like you were just falling apart as a human being.
And Penthouse had this section called Forum. And in Penthouse Forum people would write these stories in.
John: Like I never thought it could happen to me, but…
Craig: Every single story had some guy who was like I never thought this would happen to me but I went to a laundromat and I was doing my laundry and three women came in and…
Yeah, and they were great. They totally worked. [laughs] They did the job.
John: And they were all fake. None of those were actual real things that happened.
John: And those were probably the direct predecessor to online sort of porny fiction which was very much imagining scenarios with like famous people. And sort of a newer phenomenon as I was sort of researching this was have you ever heard of Y/N?
John: So Y/N is Your Name. It’s a placeholder for your name. And so it’s fiction where the reader is inserted into the place where we see Y/N.
John: So it’s a thing that you see on like Wattpad and other sort of online fiction pieces.
Craig: Oh, that’s interesting.
John: Yeah. So it’s first person/second person. It’s a weird sort of POV thing. But where you as you’re reading it you’re supposed to put yourself into that position.
Craig: Do you actually enter your name so that it is stringed in to a variable?
Craig: Oh, you have to do it in your head.
John: You have to be your own variable–
Craig: Somebody ought to take care of that because that would be way better.
John: Yeah. If you’re going to insert your variables.
Craig: Do your variables, come on. Come on, man.
John: Get yourself some good, fun times. My experience with erotic fiction was, yes, like friends would have Penthouse or Playboy or that kind of stuff, but there were also these trade paperback books that were – they were definitely mostly oriented towards women but there were some that were sort of general purpose or sort of male-oriented.
And they’re weird. I can’t imagine that there would be any market for those kind of things now. But there was a market for everything because that was all you had.
Craig: That’s all you had. But I mean you were like in a porn store?
John: Yeah. Like in a porn store. So the same kind of place that would ultimately sell videotapes before then would have like cheapy trade paperback kind of–
John: Fiction like that.
John: I’m sure there’s people who collect. Maybe I’ll look for those because I’m sure the artwork was all fantastic.
Craig: There’s an interesting just topic of the porn gap for gay boys in the 1980s, right?
John: Oh, for sure.
Craig: How did – I mean, now it doesn’t exist, right?
John: There was Playgirl.
Craig: Yeah, there was Playgirl, but like where did you even find Playgirl? It seemed like Playgirl was a myth. You would talk about it but I never saw it.
John: Yeah. So but it was hard to find nude male representations outside of medical things. It was literally sort of hard to find that source of stuff. It’s also why I feel in writing and in fiction you found people searching for queer characters even when they really weren’t quite there. Or they were being so carefully coded into what was there. And so you ended up like, you know, if you could see a movie like Maurice, like oh my gosh, there’s actual men kissing.
Craig: Yeah. Well wasn’t the birth of slash fiction was – maybe I’ve got this wrong – but in my head the first versions of it were homosexual romances between Captain Kirk and Spock.
John: Yeah. That’s what I consider the initial slash fiction. I’m sure there’s some other history but that’s what I think popular culture considers the first slash fic.
Craig: They should do that. I mean, honestly. Like we’ve had 400 Star Treks. Just do it.
John: Go straight for that.
Craig: Yeah, just do it. I would watch that.
John: So slash fic sort of leads into – what I will segue into talking about like why these exist in print forms. We haven’t seen a lot of them in actual video forms or at least we don’t see this in actual real entertainment that people are making out there. So the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt special I thought was terrific. It was the most recent Netflix special where you get to make choices between who is going to – at decision points you decide should Kimmy do this or should Kimmy do that. And it branches out in sort of a Choose Your Own Adventure kind of way.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, we try. I think part of it is that we just like receiving video. You know, we like receiving it and–
Craig: Yeah. It’s passive. When you and I were kids they came up with the Choose Your Own Adventure books and they were great. And we enjoyed them. But I mean the stories weren’t good.
John: They were not good.
Craig: Because the point is they were designed for you to go pick your way through them, but they were kind of disposable. And they weren’t literature. I mean, literature you want to receive. But what is interesting is that there is this whole the world of receiving literature that is interactive in the sense that fans are creating it. So you mention in the show notes here Wattpad. I mean, my daughter is on Wattpad all the time. I mean, she is reading Wattpad constantly.
John: Yeah. And I think within Wattpad it is fascinating that there are genres that exist within Wattpad where it’s like how is this a genre and yet it’s such a thriving genre. So there’s like gay military werewolf is like a big Wattpad genre.
John: Which is kind of great. It’s scratching an itch that you wouldn’t realize that people out there had.
Craig: So specific.
John: Yeah. And so I do wonder at what point we’re going to be mining some of those if not specific stories then the general universes of those kind of stories to create – where is the True Blood for the people who want to see the military werewolf gay romances?
Craig: Yeah. Well, eventually we will be able to have an entire channel. There will be the network, right? We are fragmenting things out beautifully. I mean, Wattpad, my understanding is – the way my daughter explains it to me, and I hope you didn’t just get into trouble, is that it’s not erotic fiction.
John: Oh, no, no, no.
Craig: It’s fan fiction.
John: It’s fan fiction but like–
Craig: It’s like romances and stuff.
John: And so what I’m saying about military werewolves, it can be romance without being sort of erotic.
Craig: They kiss and they’re in love. Yeah. Are they both werewolves or is it like a non-werewolf? Like he’s in the military and sergeant has a secret? And then the moon comes up. Is it like that?
John: I don’t know the outer limits. I don’t know what the fans would consider the boundaries of what that would be. But, yes, that feels right and also it feels like the overlap of what a pack would be like and those – that kind of order and the wildness versus the military thing feels right. So, there’s a lot of good space there.
Craig: The idea of representing unbridled, unrestrained masculinity in a safe context of a story.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: Because werewolves are dangerous and brutal and they bite your face and stuff. But, you know, I feel like either you or I could write the greatest gay werewolf military story on Wattpad. We just come in and just dunk on everyone. [laughs]
John: Maybe we already have. Maybe this is all a setup for just this.
Now, I can’t believe I’m this far into the conversation without bringing this up is that of course we look at 50 Shades of Grey. This is an example of exactly what we’re talking about. So this was a woman who wrote fan fiction that hit exactly the right nerve and became an international sensation when it crossed over into popular culture. So, I guess I’m just – I’m reminding us that this has happened before and it seems so right to be happening now.
Craig: Yeah. It’s interesting. You would think that there would be more. 50 Shades of Grey seemed like it was heralding the beginning of something. But it may occupy a unique space. Because I haven’t seen it happen again in that regard. Unless I’ve missed something major. And it’s been quite some time.
John: It has been a long time.
Craig: Yeah. And that was fan fiction that was roughly based on–
John: On Twilight.
Craig: Twilight. Which has werewolves.
John: See? It all fits together. I mean, it’s really our calling. It’s what we need to do.
Craig: Yeah. Werewolves.
Craig: Gay werewolves in the military.
John: It’s what we want.
Craig: OK. I’ll do it. I mean, I will. Is there a ranking on Wattpad? I want to be number one.
John: Whatever the top things are, that’s what our goal is.
Craig: I want to grossly abuse my power as a writer to pointlessly make my way to the top of that chart.
John: Ah-ha. Yeah. We’re really nothing if not competitive.
Craig: It’s weird. I’m a weirdo. This was great.
John: Thanks Craig.
Craig: Thank you.
- Larchmont Author Extravaganza with Chevalier’s this Saturday June 6 with guests Stuart Gibbs, Aline Brosh McKenna, Derek Haas and more!
- Sports Medal Recycling
- How Pac Man Works
- FiLMiC Pro
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- John August on Twitter
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- Outro by John Venable (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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