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John August: Hey, this is John. Today’s episode contains some strong language. It’s also reflecting kind of how we’re feeling at the start of June 2020, which is a little bit raw and painful and uncomfortable. So, I just wanted you to know that before you started listening. Thanks.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 455 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show we are going to take a look at how police and policing are portrayed onscreen and writer’s responsibilities in doing so. We’ll also answer listener questions about freaking about in meetings and whether to write books or movies.
And in our bonus segment for Premium members we’ll discuss the possibility that Craig does not exist.
Craig: Oh god. I hope that’s true.
John: That would be wonderful.
Craig: Oh god.
John: Before we get to any of that we do need to acknowledge this moment that we’re in. So, we postponed this last week’s episode a day to sort of give some space. But if you’re listening to this years later we should explain what this moment is. The last two weeks we’ve had protests over the killing of George Floyd. The issue of police violence against Black Americans is at the top of the list. We’ve had looting. We’ve had curfews. We’ve had the National Guard. We’ve had more police violence. And this is all against the backdrop of a pandemic which still has no cure. It’s been a lot.
Craig: Yeah. And this moment that we’re in, it’s one of those moments where we just noticed that we’re in it. That’s all that’s happened is that we’ve noticed the moment that we’ve always been in. And we means all of us, but specifically people of color in this country. I guess we hit a point where we just – everyone. Everyone. And that’s been part of the kind of nice thing that’s come out of this is that everybody is standing up and saying, “Nope, no more. No more.”
John: Yeah. So a lot of our listeners are in LA. So some of what we’re going to say in the next few minutes is probably like “well, obviously, I have eyes and I have ears.” But we also have a lot of international listeners who wouldn’t be familiar with what is actually happening right here in Los Angeles. And you and I might be the only people they know who live in America or live in Los Angeles. So, I thought we might give some recap of what it feels like to be here right now, just a sense of you’re in this place.
For me the last two weeks has been kind of the situation where I thought I was in one genre of movie and suddenly I find myself in another genre of movie and I can’t kind of figure out where I’m at. Like I felt I was in a pandemic movie and now I’m in a dystopian movie, or a different kind of dystopian movie. An authoritarian kind of dystopian movie. A protest-y kind of movie. And I’ve been trying to get my bearings. And I keep cycling through these feelings of confusion, of grief, anger, fear, moments of hope, despair, and then it just sort of circles back around.
And as we’re recording this it’s a cloudy afternoon. I feel less despair than maybe I did six hours ago. But you just don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Craig: Yeah. I just feel like this country just hit a saturation point. We have taken it on the chin from ourselves and from our terrible federal government and from local law enforcement and the scientific response – the politicized scientific response and the way that our scientists have been shackled. The entire last five months has been awful. And all of it was built on top of something that has just systemically been awful. And we just hit it. We just hit the point where we just said, nope, that’s it.
And if people are wondering why the death of George Floyd was what did it, as opposed to the death of Breonna Taylor or anybody else that was murdered by the police, I don’t know. Other than to say that there’s just sometimes it’s time. And it just hit the time.
Craig: Boom. And I’m glad. I’m glad. And I hope it keeps going. And I’ve never felt like this before. That’s part of the happy circumstance of my easy life. But I feel like it now. And I’m just – I’m angry. I’ve got to be – like I’m angry every day right now.
Craig: That’s where I’m at.
John: Adam Lisagor, friend and writer, made a point that the feeling that fascism is happening, it’s the awareness that to the Black community in America they sort of always were living in a fascist state. There always was a fear of things. So we’ll get into this in our discussion of policing. But the other change of feeling was that after the 2016 election we did that little special episode where we talked about like not that everything is going to be OK but this will end. And I would say that a thing I’ve felt over the last two weeks is that notion that right after the election people could tell me, “Oh, you’re overreacting. You’re being crazy.” And now someone can’t say like, “Oh, you’re being crazy.”
Because when you see video, when you see these things happening in front of you, when you hear helicopters overhead and you see military vehicles moving down the streets, OK, you’re not being crazy. You’re actually seeing not just figurative institutions like the rule of law and justice eroding, but you’re seeing the things that you know in your daily life being destroyed. Literally restaurants I would eat at don’t exist anymore. That Starbucks where I met Melissa McCarthy, oh, that’s on fire right now.
And so to see those things be literally destroyed in front of you like you’re in a Roland Emmerich movie just makes it more present. Makes it more immediate. And you can’t – it’s just harder to deny what’s actually happening in front of you.
Craig: The stuff that’s been haunting me is weirdly watching the police abusing old white men. And here’s why. Because I see this – there’s a video out of Utah and video out of Buffalo which is just awful to watch. And the police just push these two different elderly men backwards and they fall. And one of them starts bleeding and is in serious trouble. And you watch that and you think, OK, if that’s how they’re treating old white men then how do you think they’re treating everybody else? Going all the way down their list. And I presume at the bottom of their list of who should be treated well are young Black men. And this is how they’re treating old white men. And I’m watching this and I’m just thinking this doesn’t happen randomly.
Because the police chief and will come out each time and say, “Well, we are shocked. That is not who we are.” It is who they are. It’s who they are. That doesn’t happen just randomly over and over and over in every city. There is a culture that has permeated law enforcement. It’s evident.
I mean, I watch LAPD beating people with sticks who were just peacefully protesting. They may be obnoxious, by the way. Protestors may be obnoxious. They may say things. They may get in your face. Too bad. You’re not allowed to hit them with sticks for that. Because, see, we’re in this place now where only certain people get to have the protections of being Americans. Like, I don’t know, white supremacists who show up in government buildings with semiautomatic guns.
John: Protesting that we need to open up the economy because of COVID-19. Yes. All that.
Craig: Right. Because they want to be able to go to Wing Stop. That’s OK. But somebody walking down the street saying, “You’re murdering people that look like me for no reason,” they have to get hit with sticks. The whole thing is outrageous. The entire thing. When you look at the entire thing it sucks. Our country right now sucks.
And I’ve said this before. I’m a Yankee fan. Through and through. That’s my team. I love the Yankees. In the 1980s the Yankees sucked and I would get so angry at how bad they sucked. I would yell at the screen “you suck” because I was upset. Because I wanted them to be good. Because I loved them. I can’t not love them. And I can’t not love this country. But I am so angry right now and it sucks so bad right now. Oh, god. We suck.
As a team our country right now is the worst. And its manager is the worst ever. And a lot of the people in charge of the organization are the worst ever. And people are dying. Because we suck. Those are the stakes. We’re not losing games. We’re losing lives. We suck right now.
And I am angry. Again, I’m sure this is evident to everybody listening to this, but I’m disgusted and I’m angry and I’m proud of our kids, you know, like my daughter who gets out there and makes signs and marches. Because I do feel like their generation understands so much more and so much better than ours does. So there’s a little bit of hope. But it doesn’t matter if they get hit with sticks. Then it doesn’t matter. So the whole fucking thing has to change. All of it. It has to change. And, I mean, if we cannot figure this out fast, as in like November, I don’t know. Then, I don’t know. Maybe it’s not the team that it used to be. Maybe I’ve got to find a different team to root for. Because it is dispiriting and breaks my heart.
Did you see this video of George Floyd’s daughter? Did you see that?
John: I have not seen the George Floyd daughter video.
Craig: Fucking heartbreaking. Because she says that her daddy changed the world. And I’m like, you know, that’s not what a little girl should be saying is that her daddy changed the world because he got murdered. Anyway.
John: So, as I watch – I never watch live TV, but I needed to watch live TV because I live near the mayor’s house and there are helicopters over my house as protestors are marching on this house. And to watch it in real time and not knowing like, OK, this is totally a peaceful protest. Will this stay a peaceful protest? What is going to happen next? And to find myself being both an audience member and a potential actor in this situation where like I don’t know whether this thing I’m seeing on TV is going to spill over the fences and become a situation in my life.
Or to watch live TV and to see Trump do that crazy press conference and then the chaotic walk to that church. And to be watching and like, wait, am I watching a Zapruder film happening in real time? At every moment it felt so dangerous. And you could tell like, OK, this is some sort of horrible anti moon landing. You could tell that some big moment was happening in live TV.
Craig: Anti moon landing. That’s exactly right. It’s a moment where we can all share and vomit.
John: Yes. So as I’ve been watching myself watching this thing I always come back to the sense of you are a protagonist in your own life and that one of the challenges is to both observe and recognize that in the drama of your life you are the central character and you are the hero in this moment. And you’re having to make tough choices the way that heroes in these stories have to make those tough choices.
And so the choices of like, OK, do I go out and protest knowing that there is an incurable virus out there that would put me at risk. It would put my family at risk. Do I let my daughter go out to these things not knowing whether this is a thing that could end up with police and batons and tear gas? These are the tough choices that protagonists in stories have to make.
Craig: Yeah. And we do the best we can. Because we’re not heroes in a movie. Heroes in movies get to walk away from explosions. We don’t. Heroes in movies can be beaten in the face hundreds of times. Watch any Rocky film, he would have been literally dead after three or four of those straight punches to the face. But that doesn’t happen in movies. In movies you can get shot and you just keep going. You just wrap a thing around your arm. That’s not how it works at all.
You have to make these choices. I’m happy to say that people are being brave, which is exactly what we need. It’s funny. It’s also exactly the thing that the worst of us keep insisting the best of us are. The worst of us keep saying that everybody else is this scared, easily triggered snowflake. No. No. No, quite the opposite. These people are out there facing down batons. They are not afraid.
And, yeah, look, did I like the idea of my wife and daughter in a crowd of people on the one hand? No. So, you know, you make sure – my wife is incredibly responsible. We’re wearing masks and you be really careful and you try and keep yourself socially distanced as you can. But, then I am not going to – I’m not going to deprive, especially my daughter who is very emotional about this. And I’m not going to deprive her of this. So I have to make that choice. And I hope it works out, you know? But I have to be brave, too.
Just, I am proud of the people. I am.
John: Yeah. A moment I’m proud of is that I saw white Americans actively seek out information about what Black Americans are facing on a daily basis and try to understand it. And try to actually not only to listen to it but to speak up and act out in protection of Americans who did not have the same experience. That gave me some hope. And I don’t want to make it sound like it was all storm clouds and dystopia for the last two weeks because that wasn’t my experience either. It was a lot. And I think we have to just acknowledge that it’s a lot. And that in not knowing what happens next that uncertainty is also draining.
Craig: This is an experience that you and I, I don’t think, have ever really had. This kind of America. We were not alive for the late ‘60s where this was going on quite a bit. And I guess it’s our turn.
There was a war, I think it was after World Wars, during the Hoover administration. This may sound familiar. A stingy Republican administration was stinting on benefits for veterans of WWI. And veterans of WWI marched on the government. And there was like a little war. And the government basically shot a bunch of its own veterans. This is kind of who we are.
If we have a moment now to change it somehow for good that would be great. I don’t know if we can. But we can’t not do it. We can’t not change things profoundly. When I look at not just in ’92 everybody could point at Daryl Gates and say your traditional here in the LAPD is no good. And you could say that from time to time about individual police departments. I’m watching police departments in Portland and Minnesota and Los Angeles and New York and Buffalo and in Utah and in Kansas. And it’s all of them. We have a cultural disaster.
John: Well, then let’s talk about that. Because there are many other podcasts and many smarter people who can talk about systemic changes that need to happen to improve policing and police and we will link to some of those resources because I think that’s another good thing that’s come out of here is some people actually have very specific plans for this is what we want to do. But let’s talk about that cultural expectation about policing because that’s a thing you and I can speak to because I feel like so much of my experience as a white American with police has been the police that I’ve seen on screens. It has been – because I have never been arrested.
John: I can count on one hand the number of interactions I’ve had with a member of law enforcement. There’s nothing more privileged than that to have to deal with with this. Either as a suspect or someone who has been a victim of crime. I just have not had to deal with police. And so my experience of police comes from watching police on television. I think that’s a truism for many white Americans is that we think of police as those people who solve crimes on television. So let’s talk about how police are portrayed right now and think through what are some possibilities for how we change how they’re portrayed on screens so that we get to some better understanding and better approaches to policing onscreen.
Craig: Sure. I’ve never written any kind of police stuff, but I’ve certainly watched it. I have a friend, Ken White, who goes by the name Popehat on Twitter. He is a former federal prosecutor turned defense attorney and he has his own podcasts and he appears on news programs from time to time as I guess a pundit. And for as long as I’ve known Ken, which is, god, about 17 years, he has always been a very staunch proponent of the notion that law enforcement is over authorized and law enforcement essentially has its thumb on the scales of justice in ways most of us do not appreciate or understand.
And it’s easy to sort of, you know, in times of what we think of as peace because we are privileged to be in situations where we’re not on the frontline of this, we think, oh come on, they’re doing a good job, they’re out there. And, look, it’s just like on the shows. And I suspect that if Ken White were to create a police show it would not be like that at all.
John: No. When I hosted this panel on criminal justice a few months ago, which feels like a lifetime ago, we were largely talking about from arrest to incarceration. But so much of what police do is well before that. It’s the policing. It’s the being out there in the world. It is solving the crimes. And so I wanted to talk through some of what we see police do on TV and then we can talk about sort of how that doesn’t match up to reality.
So, cops on TV, they are problem solvers. The problem is a crime and they solve the crime within 60 minutes. And now obviously I’m talking about sort of the police procedural show and we’ll talk about sort of the exceptions to those shows. But like in most of especially the CBS kind of crime shows, but also the NBC crime shows, there’s a problem, the problem is introduced at the start of the episode. And then by the end of the episode there’s a solution to the problem. And the solution is putting a bad person behind bars. Or killing the bad person.
The cops on TV, they are heroes but they’re not necessarily protagonists in the sense that they don’t change. They don’t experience ups and downs and huge growth over things. They start the episode super competent and they end the episode super competent and they did the job and they solved the problem. There’s not a sense that they are undergoing a metamorphosis over the course of the show.
Craig: Right. They specifically can’t because they have to be back next week to solve another problem. So, there is a presumption there just built in structurally to the police procedural that the police officer is doing a good job. Now, there are some shows like The Shield where part of it is about a police officer being corrupt. But for the most part in the procedural they’re often given a glossy paint of problems. Maybe they’re an alcoholic. Maybe they are divorced. Maybe they’re cheating on their spouse. Maybe they did something in their past. It’s very common that when we meet police in movies or television they have done something wrong in the past. And they are in the midst of atoning for it while they usually violate any number of reasonable police regulations to bring the bad person to justice.
This is very common. In reality the bad things that police do are being done all the time by police. And at this point I can hear somebody saying, “Not all police.” Correct. Not all police. Just like not all men. Just like – yes, yes, yes, we know.
John: But we’re talking about the overall system. And also we’re specifically talking about the police that we see on TV which is what we’re talking about right now. So, to this point of like the police we see on TV they can use or ignore the system as merits and there’s no consequences for ignoring the system. So I think back to one of my favorite shows of youth was Hunter which was a cop detective show with Fred Dryer. And he’s a maverick. Hand in your badge. Here’s your badge back. You solved the case.
Basically as long they got the results it didn’t matter if they broke the rules. And that is a thing we see in these systems again and again is that they have all the resources and they have the whole team but if they need to move away from the team and they need to go on their own as a lone wolf well that’s what they should do.
Craig: Right. So the frustration that these shows create dramatically in us is a cop is handcuffed. I know who the bad guy is. I know how to catch this person. But you and your stupid hippie liberal regulations are preventing me from delivering justice vigilante style. So, you suck. You, the police chief, the politicians, the DA, anybody that – god help you if you’re a defense lawyer. You’re all scum. And I need to be out there doing the job that needs doing.
John: Yep. Now, in doing that job they are fundamentally conservative in the sense that they are protecting institutions. They are protecting the status quo. And so anything that is a disruption to the status quo is something that needs to be knocked down within the course of those 60 minutes. And so it doesn’t matter whether the disruption was a murder or a plot. Whatever happens they’re going to bring us back to normal at the end of 60 minutes because that’s what you do in an ongoing series. It’s like there has to be a big thing that happens but by the end you need to be able to recycle back to where you started the whole show.
Craig: Yeah. So, you fix the world. That’s what you’re doing. As a cop in a procedural you are fixing the world. Now, in the actual world as it turns out it appears that police are one of the things that are breaking the world. Now, if you are someone whose child has been smashed in the head by a police baton or shot in their own apartment because they were in their own apartment, and you watch one of these shows it must seem like it’s beaming in from another planet.
John: Because that’s not been your experience with the police. That’s not who police are. Like what is that? I mean, come one, police are there to protect and serve. That’s what it says and that’s what we’ve seen on TV again and again is that that’s what they should be doing, right?
And so then you see these aberrations and like well that gets back to the “oh it’s one bad apple.” And Seth Meyers this last week made the point, “Listen, if the cops were bad apples like people die, then you’d say, no, you have a bad orchard. You have an orchard problem, not an apple problem.”
Craig: Uh-huh. Yeah, Chris Rock has a great bit from years ago because, see, it’s not like this is news, right? Where he said, “Uh, yeah, OK, well police officer is one of those jobs where you actually can’t afford to have a bad apple. Like pilots. You can’t – American Airlines can’t say after a crash, ‘Well, you know, that pilot was one bad apple.’” [laughs] We cannot have any bad apples walking around with the ability to shoot somebody in the head, or smash them in the face with a stick, or push them on the ground and put their knee on their neck, or take their life and liberty away. We can’t.
They can’t have bad apples.
John: And that’s one of the ways in which I would say reality does mirror the TV perversely is that the stakes are incredibly high. The stakes of these dramas are always like, oh my god, it’s going to get away. The bad guy is going to escape. In real life it’s the worry that like the ability to inflict deadly harm on somebody at any given moment, so the stakes are profound at a moment because of how we have armed our police.
Craig: Yeah, no, that’s exactly right.
John: Now, in these shows the world is a fundamentally dangerous place. And I think this is a thing that we don’t talk enough about is sort of the Jessica Fletcher problem is that in Murder She Wrote all these people are dying in her tiny, small town. What is up with her small town?
Craig: She’s obviously a murderer.
John: She’s obviously the murderer. But if you watch crime shows you believe like, oh, it must be very common for these kind of crimes to happen. And they’re not. The kinds of crimes you see on TV are not the kinds of things that a police officer is dealing with on a daily basis. And so it gives this really warped perception of how dangerous the world is versus what you’re seeing onscreen. And statistically we can show over the last 30 years the US has gotten just so much safer in terms of like the odds that a violent crime are going to happen to you, unless it is a violent crime happening on a person of color by a member of law enforcement.
Craig: Well, yeah. Because those aren’t crimes. See? They’re not listed as crimes. They obviously are crimes. But probably the number of assaults, physical assaults, that police inflict upon people is incredibly significant. And you can sense this kind of thin-skinned entitlement when I watch these videos of we deserve your respect, you can’t talk back to us, you can’t sass us. No. Actually, I’m sorry, but for all these people that profess to be defenders of the constitution and who declare that the 2nd Amendment and the right to own 12 guns is necessary to protect ourselves from a tyrannical government, how do you not then see that that’s exactly what the problem is right there? There.
Craig: I should be able to express my mind in front of a police officer at any point, including saying, “I don’t like what you’re doing. I detest it.” And, no, they can’t get all grouchy with me about that. Sorry. Because you’re not allowed to be a bad apple when you’re a police officer or a pilot. If I walk on a plane and I say to a pilot, “You know what? I don’t love the way you’ve been flying,” is he allowed to beat me up? I’m stuck on the plane with him. He’s stuck on the plane with me. No bad apples.
John: But, I mean, really we have to acknowledge though that in any place where there’s a position of authority, even like an airline pilot, your objection to the way he’s performing his job does depend on your race. And so you raising the same objection in a situation is all going to be influenced by their perception of you and your race. And so-
John: You, Craig Mazin, could raise objections to a pilot or police officer or a city official and have a different outcome than a black person would.
John: And that’s a thing which is so uncomfortable to admit. And I do feel like we’ve made some chipping away progress over the last two weeks to get more people to recognize this and how pervasive the difference is there.
Craig: Why is it that it’s hard to admit? What is that? I mean, I don’t feel am I responsible for racism and white privilege? No. So, why should I feel this need to deny that it exists?
John: Because you don’t want to admit that you’ve benefitted from it.
Craig: OK. But we have.
John: Oh, we absolutely have. I’m saying–
Craig: I know you know that. And I know I know that. But I’m just saying who doesn’t know this? Who is looking around and not getting it at this point? At this point.
John: I think we also want to believe in the American ideal that everyone can raise up through the ranks and it doesn’t matter where you started. It has no [unintelligible]. Yes.
Craig: It’s childish. This is what children do. When children are afraid of something they shut their eyes and they say it’s not there. It’s just denial. That’s it. Just straight up denial because to acknowledge it somehow is frightening to you. If you are invested in the notion that this is the greatest country on earth and the American dream is alive and well, and everyone here is treated equally and all the opportunities are the same, well, I’m not going to tell you to open your eyes. You already know that that’s bullshit.
You know it. In your heart. Now, it may be uncomfortable for people who are not doing well in this system to also admit that. It is hard at one time to say I’m struggling, I don’t have enough money, I don’t have enough work, I can’t afford healthcare, my children are sick. And also I’m white and I benefit from a system. And I can appreciate that to an extent. But then also this is part of empathy. You have to start putting yourself in other people’s shoes. You have to.
John: Yeah. I mean, it’s a fundamental ability to shift this is my own experience, this is your experience, to the degree I can look at it from your perspective I can understand we have different outcomes because of where we started, because of how society is treating us. It does not help that we have a president who has just a noticeable vacuum where empathy should be. A spectacular gap there.
Craig: Does not know what it is.
John: So two other points about TV cops. There’s a well-documented CSI effect which is that prosecutors and defenders when they bring evidence into trials they’ll say that juries expect that there’s technologies there and sort of precision that just does not exist in the real world. Because they’ve seen things on CSI to make them believe like, oh, you should easily be able to do these things. Well that’s fiction. And they don’t understand what the reality is.
A general case you can make for we have this idea of competence and professionalism from what we see in TV police procedurals that is not reality. And I think for people who don’t have interactions with police outside of what they see on TV they would believe that the police function the way they see on TV and that they are competent and professional at every moment. And that’s dangerous.
Craig: It is. Actual police work is, well, it’s work. And most law enforcement, most police work, and then on the other side of it the prosecution and defense of people is far more bureaucratic paperwork-y than people want to admit. And also the stakes of the police drama necessarily put forth that there’s a risk that justice will not be done. That someone is going to get off the hook. This is the always the problem. If we don’t have this evidence they’re going to get off.
No one gets off. How about that? How about in this country first of all almost no one goes to trial at all.
John: Yeah. It’s all plead out.
Craig: It’s all plead out. The whole deal is we make a deal and it’s plead out and you’re going to suffer. And if you want to go to court just know that everything is stacked against you. Your temerity to demand a trial is going to stack it against you. Everyone is pissed off that there’s a trial. The judge is pissed off. The prosecutors are pissed off. The public defender is pissed off. Everyone is pissed off. They don’t want to do it. They just want to bargain you down to something that everyone can agree on. The one factor that is always true in most things is that you are Guilty with a G. And that’s how it works.
So the stakes are not that high. You will say, OK, well you know what this is what we’ve got. Well, you know, you don’t have everything. True. You know what? I’m not going to spend an hour in police show time trying to find that thing. Let me just pop two years off this recommendation. What do you think? How about instead of 15 we go to 12. And the defense guy will say, “Eh, I could do 9.” You’re like, 11? “Great.” Done. That’s how years of human beings lives are decided.
That’s not conjecture. If you listen to the third season of the Serial podcast, which is brilliant, you’ll hear it. You will literally hear the discussion. And it is chilling to listen to. That’s the reality. So they’re creating sort of false stakes on a lot of these shows. And, by the way, I don’t know how you continue on as one of these shows without changing at this point. I don’t get it. I think you have to, right? How do you continue?
John: I want to get that. Because I do think we’re going to have to have a reckoning with the kinds of shows we’re making and how we sort of do that. So the last point I want to make about police shows right now is – and I don’t have data to back this up, so this is just conjecture – but my perception is that the people who are arrested or prevented from doing terrible things on these shows generally aren’t people of color. And you’d say like, well that’s good, because you’re not portraying those people negatively. But I think then you also risk that you’re actually not painting an accurate picture of what is really happening here and sort of who is being affected by the system.
So if it’s always just white blond guy who is the villain here, well OK, you may be demonizing blond white guys to some degree but you’re not actually showing who is being impacted by the criminal justice system.
Craig: Right. And it is incredibly purposeful. I mean, when we were making the superhero parody movie, way back when, David Zucker and I watched as many superhero movies as we could. This was back in 2008. So we hadn’t quite gotten into the big Marvel cycle. But there were plenty of Spider Mans and Batmans to watch.
And the character of white mugger – I think we called him White Mugger #3, was our favorite. So the white mugger is usually a 40-year-old, clearly a stunt guy. He likes to wear that knit wool hat. You know, that ridiculous mugger hat.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: And he’s unshaven. And he’s angry. And he’s like, “Gimme the purse.” And he’s got the gun. And we would just laugh at this because the whole point of white mugger was like, um, we’re uncomfortable showing the nature of how these things work, right? We’re uncomfortable showing the nature of poverty and we’re uncomfortable showing the nature of who the police are actually involved in. And, by the way, if superheroes were real who they would be beating up. So, we’re going to create this fantasy world and pretend that race doesn’t even exist. Isn’t that nice. There’s no race. Guys, we don’t have to address this problem because in our movie all the muggers are white.
Well, that’s bullshit. Right? It’s bullshit. Criminals are of all colors, but more importantly the interaction between people that commit crimes and the people who are there to enforce the law is completely screwed up. It’s screwed up. And here’s why. Let’s say you’re a mugger. And you come up to somebody and you threaten them and you want – you are a criminal. You are committing a crime. You do deserve to go to jail.
What we cannot do as a society is empower any individual person to beat the shit out of that guy on the spot, break bones, right, and possibly kill. Because sometimes you think someone is a mugger and they’re not. In fact, a lot of times it would appear the people that we think committed a crime are matching a description of somebody that merely vaguely looks like them. As in Black.
So even the superhero fantasy of punishing the mugger is nonsense. And so on police shows, yes, you see that stuff and it’s their way of just sidestepping the whole thing and not showing ever what is often common. A white guy with a stick hitting a black guy. That’s what’s common.
John: That is what’s common. So, we’re going to link to two other pieces that came out this last week. Kathryn Van Arendonk for Vulture and Sam Adams for Slate. And they talk through some of the issues of police on TV and there are of course counter examples. There’s The Shield. The Wire. Bosch. Justified. Fargo. True Detective.
A counter example from my own childhood I thought about yesterday was The Dukes of Hazzard. When you think back to The Dukes of Hazard, like Boss Hogg is the mayor. He’s the villain. The police officers are corrupt and incompetent. There’s Rosco P. Coltrane. There’s Amos who is sort of good-natured but still has to work for the police. That was sort of what my first impression of the police was, was weirdly this kind of strange southern fantasia of these good-old boys and the terrible sheriff who is trying to do them in. There’s a connection between that and Smoky and the Bandit in the sense of like, you know, literally a bandit or a Robin Hood kind of character who is up against this law enforcement.
But that was really the exception. So, let’s close out the segment by talking about what we think might–
Craig: Let me just point out that those heroes were always white. So, like, at the same time in the ‘70s you had like the one fantasy is white guys fighting back against corrupt police. My other favorite one was there’s a James Garner movie called Tank where he literally rides a tank, a military tank, to avoid a corrupt police officer. That’s what white people can do.
And at the same time Dirty Harry is just shooting Black people. Just shooting them because thank god he’s taking care of justice.
John: Yup. That’s justice.
Craig: Yeah. Those two paranoid fantasies right there can explain the two kinds of demonstrations in our country. It’s Dukes of Hazzard when the Ku Klux Klan dudes show up in a government building with long guns and it’s Dirty Harry when people of color are in the street protesting against innocent men and women being murdered.
John: Weirdly true. So you’re either Dirty Harry or you’re the Duke boys.
John: That’s what it is.
Craig: Depending on what color you are.
John: So let’s think through the future of police on TV. And let’s not be naïve. It’s not going to magically change. But I do wonder where we can get to in the next five-year period. Some of these shows I feel like as they restart production you’re going to have to – weirdly even in a bigger way than the pandemic impact and how we’re going to portray people interacting with each other on screen, just acknowledging that this moment has happened feels like it’s going to be fascinating.
I think there’s a real question of like should these shows continue to exist? Can these shows be changed in a way that’s meaningful? Or is it inherently the problem of the formula of a 60-minute crime procedural doesn’t really lend itself to anything other than this kind of thing?
Craig: Yup. I believe the latter. I think that we know that medical shows are essentially medical fantasies. Because when you actually do have someone in your family or if you yourself are seriously ill or injured you understand that the process is not at all like an hour of medical procedure television. But we’re OK with that because we’re too busy being healed or being cured or praying for – if you pray – for your family member who is sick.
But we don’t have the luxury of – if we are being hit with a stick or being shot in our own apartment, it’s not like we have the luxury of pretending that cop shows don’t cause trouble. They do. The reductive nature of the police procedural is either going to falsely glamorize or reductively criticize the problems with law enforcement in this country.
I don’t know how to fix it.
John: Yeah. This is not saying that we cannot do other things that are about police, but the sense of a weekly show that is about – I mean, procedure, they’re called procedurals because there’s a procedure. There’s a process that it goes through every week. It feels unlikely that we’re going to get to a place.
And I’ve seen some well-intentioned shows that try to take different approaches to them and they were not successful either critically or commercially. Someone may crack that code, but I don’t think it’s going to be by tweaking some of the ingredients within the basic nature of a police procedural. That’s why I think it’s important to have representation of various voices inside the writer’s room. But I don’t think it’s going to be a writer’s room problem to solve these existing shows. I think you have to make different shows that can work differently.
Craig: Yeah. This is going to have to be thought of in a different way.
Craig: Because – and what we don’t ever do with procedurals is show the long dragon’s tail of suffering. You have a police procedural where someone gets a little too crazy and beats someone up. And all the white cops get to be virtuous and say that cop is bad. Let’s get rid of him. And then they do. But what you don’t see for every single episode following that one for years is the person who is beaten up going through some sort of physical rehabilitation and living with brain trauma.
You don’t see that. That’s gone. In fact, you don’t remember their name.
Craig: Because they don’t matter. Because the entire thing is from a perspective of the police. And at this point I’m sorry I am only concerned with the perspective of citizens who are being policed. Because we’ve had enough of the police’s perspective. And I’ve had enough of being manipulated by the police perspective when I’m – when we are told that the old man in Buffalo fell. He tripped and fell. And then we see the video. And then they go, “Oh yeah, oof, those cops. Mm.” Well I think everybody all at once said at the same time, “Now if there hadn’t been a video…”
John: Oh yeah. That’s been the lesson of really the last few years, but especially this recent period. There’s video. You cannot tell me this didn’t happen because I’m seeing this.
Craig: Because I’m seeing this. And now you entertain the horror of knowing that prior to 1990 there was no video ever of anyone.
Craig: So that is centuries of police doing whatever the hell they wanted to.
John: In case we’ve not said this clearly enough in this podcast, it’s not that this is a new phenomenon. We’re acknowledging that this is not new. It’s that the arrival of video has surfaced an ancient evil which a huge chunk of the population already knew about, but a huge chunk of the population could look away from because we didn’t have it there on video to see.
Craig: Yeah. There’s just a – it’s exaggerated, it’s not that bad, I don’t have that problem. When I’m stopped by the police they’re incredibly cool to me. What’s the problem? Mm-hmm.
John: So, Craig, you and I did not solve the issues of police violence against–
John: Against Black Americans. Hopefully we had a helpful discussion for other writers thinking about what we are portraying police like on screens and the choices that decision-makers are going to be faced with as they decide what portrayals they want to put on screens.
Craig: And when they’re making those decisions. Don’t find yourself in a room full of white people all trying to figure out what the right thing to do is. If you are in the room with all white people trying to figure out how to make your show different, or better, or more responsibly you’ve already fucked up. You need to have people of color in the room. We need to employ writers of color for not just window dressing purposes, or to signal how wonderful we are, but for the actual stated reason behind the whole diversity thing. Which is that individual different perspectives matter and influence things in a positive way.
John: One addendum I want to put on that is the notion that it cannot fall on the responsibility of the one or two or four Black writers in the room to have to speak up and stand in the way of horrible choices and inconsiderate things being described. Like, they cannot take that burden all on themselves. And we cannot ask them to do only that. That’s why one of the things I’ve been somewhat hopeful about the last two weeks is I feel like people have actually been reading up and trying to understand a bit themselves what that is so it doesn’t fall entirely on the Black people in the room to explain why something is wrong.
Craig: Yeah. And that’s a particular problem when a staff has one person of color. And then everybody sort of turns to that person and says, “Well you’re here really as an ambassador from person of color stand. And so tell us what it’s like on your planet.” That’s not correct.
John: Particularly if that one Black person in the room is the lowest level staff writer, or is the PA. I mean, to ask that person to step up and do all that work when they don’t have any authority is crazy. So, we have to just acknowledge relative power in that room as well.
Craig: 100%. And most of these potential disasters can be averted if you simply look at it from their point of view, as best you can. And ask how would this seem to me if I were in their shoes? And do that as much as you can, all the time, with all the people that work with and for you. Just try.
John: Which shouldn’t be that hard considering we are writers and our whole job is to be able to understand–
Craig: Thank you.
John: What things look like from other people’s perspective.
Craig: But you know, and now I’m going to be critical of writers for a moment, that – for as long as I’ve been doing this I have been shocked over and over, which is surprising, because really I should stop being shocked, that writers whose job is to empathize and imagine themselves in other people’s shoes, writers who are supposed to be enlightened oftentimes are blinded by their own thin-skinned insecurity and ego. It blows my mind how frequently the blinders go on because they have their own set of shame issues and neediness and fragility.
John: I absolutely have those myself. I see them and I recognize them and I despise them when I see them in myself. But they are there. Another thing I see in myself that I see in other writers, too, is laziness. Is that it is a lot of work to have to be doing that and to be thinking that way. And it’s just easier not to do it. And so laziness is another contributing factor there.
Craig: Well let us affirm ourselves to working harder and let us affirm ourselves to doing what we need to do to kind of improve ourselves whether it is through therapy for our own issues, or just listening better. And see if we can’t make things better for human beings at least in our small circle. Because we can’t fix the world. We can’t. But if we fix little pockets. If we make little pockets better over and over and over, just like that, things get better.
John: We’ll hope. Let’s try to make the world better in two small ways with these two questions we’re going to answer.
Craig: Segue Man.
John: Jason asks, “Have either of you ever lost control of your emotions in a meeting or on a call—“
John: “With professional collaborators and needed to apologize or restore the climate back to a safe place to collaborate again? If so would you mind sharing how you did this? Is this common in creative collaborations? And how to best handle it when people find themselves in a situation where emotions get the best of them.”
Oh yes I have. Oh yes I have. I’ve lost it.
Craig: Oh. Oh? Go on.
John: In one case I was brought in for notes and I thought it was going to be one notes meeting and it ended up being just like a pile-on on me. And I was like I cannot handle this. This is not at all. No. This is not it. And I left.
And was it the right choice to leave? Probably, because I would have said even worse things had I stayed. And then in the follow up phone calls I could explain like this is what my expectation was. This is what the actual thing was. This is not cool. And I think I ended up basically getting out of that project.
In other cases, I described this on the Charlie’s Angels movies. There’s a thing we describe as like fighting the monster in that on any given day someone was going to be the monster and everyone had to sort of come together to fight the monster. And some days I was the monster. And it was the recognition that it was a tense situation and we were going to do it. And there would be some yelling. And afterwards we would talk it through and be fine because it kind of had to be fine because somebody else was the monster at that point.
So, I feel like anger and frustration in the pursuit of creative goals isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s when you stop treating people with respect that you have to really ask why are you letting your emotions get to that place.
Craig: Yeah. I have gotten emotional. I tend to not vent it outward, but to keep in inward. Although there was a moment, it was during Chernobyl. It was during post-production of Chernobyl. And it doesn’t matter what the specific thing was. I experienced the work of something and it upset me. It upset me. Because it was not at all what I wanted and I could feel myself being flooded with waves of negative emotions. And so I stood up. I said, “I’m going to get some air.” And then I walked like three miles. And I was aware that even that in its own way is kind of hostile to just stand up and walk out and then disappear and not answer your phone. But it was kind of what I needed to do to avoid something I didn’t want to do.
I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I didn’t want to make people feel bad. And I also understood what ever little part of rationality was left that wasn’t going to solve the problem. So the problem was going to be solved by kind of careful explanation of where what I wanted had not occurred and where I what I didn’t want had occurred. And by the time I was done walking and came back I had calmed down sufficiently to be rational. And to kind of help relay what I wanted.
It happens. But I try as best as I can to not – I’m not a big yeller. You know. I have been in situations where, I mean, the Weinsteins made me absolutely crazy. Crazy. I mean truly nuts. It’s quite likely that in the past I – especially when I was younger I probably did raise my voice. It just doesn’t get you where you want to go. But it’s been a long time for me. It’s mostly for me when that happens I do – my mode is to walk away, calmly. Walk away and then return when I’m OK.
This is an emotional job. And one of the reasons why is something that you and I have gotten into with our how to give notes thing. The thing we made we identify with. It is entwined with us. And so when someone is doing something that we perceive as injurious to it it’s like they are being injurious to us.
Craig: So it is always – I was on a notes call for something a few weeks ago and I said you know what just, sorry, holding up my hand. We’ve been at it for a while. I think I’m at the moment where I’m not quite absorbing things efficiently anymore. Why don’t we take a break? And we’ll pick this up again tomorrow or a day later. And everybody was like, OK, yeah. Great. Because I didn’t say it after five minutes. And if you can do that that’s always preferable.
John: Agreed. All right, Randy asks, “As someone who is interested in becoming both a novelist and a screenwriter which craft should I pursue first? And how do I effectively manage my time to learn both of them?”
So, I’ve written books and I’ve written movies. I’ve written many more movies than I’ve written books. Craig, you’ve done some prose writing as well. If I were to give advice to Randy about which thing to pursue first, I would always come back to kind of what do you want to exist in the world. What is the thing you wish you could see your name on most? Is it a movie? Is it a book? If it is a movie then you should be writing a screenplay. If it is a book you should definitely be writing a book. There are more books printed every year than there are movies made. So your odds of getting that creative work out there in the world to some degree are much higher with a book, because you can always self-publish in ways you can’t self-make a movie.
But it really comes down to sort of what you wish had your name on it in the world most to me.
Craig: Yeah. I’m not sure how to answer this. I feel like as writers or an artist of any kind the work that you’re going to attempt to want to do is the work where you feel love back. There’s a relationship between the artist and the audience. If people say, “Look, I love reading your prose, I just don’t care as much about the screenplay stuff,” then maybe follow that. And if people are excited when they read your screenplays but the novels feel a bit jejune then maybe stick with the screenplays.
What is the world telling you that they want? And maybe then, you know, that’ll kind of help you figure out what to do.
John: Yeah. There are definitely a class of screenwriters who would never, ever write a novel. And who fundamentally see themselves as people who can see movies well and they’ll put up with the having to write it part of it so that they can make that movie happen. That’s kind of valid. Novels are all you’ve got is the words and you’ve got to be able to hold someone’s attention over hundreds of pages with just those words. And it’s a lot longer of a slog than screenplays tend to be. But nothing is stopping you from doing both.
I will say that the sunk cost of a novel is a lot. And so definitely be – if you’re new to writing prose start on some smaller things rather than tackling a whole novel at once and just see how the form fits your brain and your fingers. Because it doesn’t fit everyone.
Craig: Yup. That’s absolutely true. But sort of an unanswerable question. Feel your way and see how it goes.
John: All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing feels like it should be a Craig One Cool Thing. It is a game. It’s on Steam. It’s also on Switch. It’s called Baba is You.
John: So Baba is You is one of those kind of puzzle games where you’re pushing blocks around in order to achieve the goal of the game which is generally to hit the flag at the end of it. And what is so ingenious about Baba is You is that the rules for that level of the game are also blocks. And so you can move the blocks around in order to change the rules of the game. So no longer do you need to hit the flag to win. You can change it so you now need to hit the rock. Or you can become the rock. Or you can become the walls. It’s very clever in how it does it.
It’s also really tough. I’ve been embarrassed how often I’ve needed to look up solutions to certain puzzles. But I really did enjoy it quite a lot.
John: For you, Craig, or anybody else who is looking for a puzzle kind of game, Baba is You would be my recommendation.
Craig: That sounds great. I do love a game as you know. My One Cool Thing is, and this is merely one of many options that people have. If you’re trying to support change in our country, especially in regard to law enforcement and policing, and you’re not quite sure where to go there’s a billion people who – there’s not a billion people. There are a number of nonprofit organizations that are working to fix things. The one that I was really impressed by the work they’ve done and so I did make a donation myself is called Campaign Zero.
And Campaign Zero is interesting because their entire focus is on reforming the way the police function and interact with communities. And they have 10 kind of points that they’re working on. All of which seem, well, very reasonable.
Craig: And very needed.
John: It’s hard to say like, oh, that’s a radical idea. No, that’s not a radical idea.
Craig: Yeah. Pretty much all of them.
John: And it looks like their activism is really about convincing local governments to insist upon these changes. And so there’s national stuff that can be done, but it’s also pushing on local levels will affect people’s experience on the ground.
Craig: Yeah. And one thing that strikes me about the campaign that they’re running, and real fast I’ll rattle off their 10 areas of focus. End broken windows. Policing. Community oversight. Limit the use of force. Independently investigate and prosecute when there is police malfeasance. Community representation. Body cams filming the police. Training. End for-profit policing. Demilitarization. And fair police union contracts.
So, if I were a police officer who believed in the rule of law and fair policing and the equal treatment of all Americans regardless of race, color, creed, I would want all of these things. I would be in favor of all of these things. And I know that there are police like that. I know that. I think it’s important to say that there are good apples as we say. It’s just that again, like pilots, can’t afford any bad ones.
So, if I were a good apple and a good police officer of which there are a number I would be desperate for all 10 of these things. And I would be desperate for a different kind of relationship with the community I police. And I hope that this is something that carries through. And this isn’t nonsense liberal fantasy. And weirdly the people who decry government tyranny and the tree of liberty must be watered with blood and don’t tread on me, they should be in favor of this, too.
Craig: You’d think that they’d be able to make that connection there. So hopefully people find some way. And if you don’t have the means, and this is a brutally difficult economic environment, so if you don’t have the means it’s totally understandable. And maybe there’s a way to volunteer a little bit of time if you have. But if you do have the means I think this is at least one reasonable way to donate. But, of course, feel free to research. There are a number of others.
John: Cool. That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli.
John: Our outro this week is by Jason Azziz. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.
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You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you find the transcripts. You can sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments, including the one we’re about to record really where we’re looking at whether Craig actually exists or is just a figment in all of our imagination.
Craig: Oh god. Rooting for figment.
John: Thanks Craig.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: Craig, so this occurred to me that the last time I saw you in person, that we saw each other in person, was February 28, 2020.
John: It was at a fundraiser for Mark Kelly who is running for senator in Arizona. And you and I were in a room. We shook hands. There were other screenwriter friends there as well. And at that moment it was like – maybe we didn’t shake hands – it was at the moment where like, wait, are we supposed to be in a room together? Are we supposed to shake hands? What’s going on? Is this safe? It was very early in the pandemic.
And then I have not seen you since.
John: And I started to wonder, I’ve seen you on video, but we have the ability to sort of fake video. Right now you and I are talking on Skype. You could be an elaborate computer simulation. Naturally you’d assume that I am the computer simulation, but you could be the computer simulation. Like someone could take all of the transcripts of Scriptnotes like I’ve done and put them into a computer system and generate with Markov chains things that sound like Craig Mazin there. So how do I know that you really still exist?
Craig: Right. We don’t. Neither of us exist. So, neither of us are real. This is a simulation. But, you know, inside of the simulation it feels real. And reality is only subjectively defined because it’s experience. We experience reality. So it’s from our point of view. This is why empathy is so interesting. You are attempting to experience somebody else’s simulation.
So, the important thing to make clear is I’m not real and also I wasn’t real that night either.
Craig: When you saw me there–
John: Pass the joint back. Now has your unreality changed though in this situation? Because it feels like, you know, when I see a person in front of me in a physical space they feel more real, and yet all of my interactions these days are basically on these Zoom rooms.
I was struck by a friend was talking about this writer’s room that she’s in. it’s been entirely a virtual room. And six weeks into this room one of the writers stood up and said, “Oh, I have to stretch. I’m really, really tall.” And everyone in the room was like, wait, you’re tall? That’s a thing, it was weird for them that this person that they’ve known virtually for six weeks. Wait, you’re like freakishly tall? It was a thing that would have been the first thing they noticed about them in real life, but not because of this virtual situation.
Craig: Well, what I would say to you is you are overestimating the value of your own eyeballs. If you are in a room and you look in a mirror and you see me in the mirror I’m right behind you. You see yourself and me in the mirror. That seems pretty real. But that is no different than seeing me on a Zoom. Your eyeballs are just seeing light that is being passed along. So instead of light going right into your tiny little organic cameras it’s just taking a little detour and then getting into your organic cameras.
And so I’m not arguing that Zooms are just as real as real life. I’m arguing that real life is just as not real as Zooms.
John: Yeah. So, where this goes to is the idea of sort of where we’re headed in the next few years where there’s going to be an increasing number of people who we interact with who we will never meet. And so traditionally if I was hired to write a film I would at some point sit down with the producers and with the head of the studio and we’d have this thing. Basically just a reality check that everyone exists and we’re actually going to do this thing. There would be some face-to-face meeting. And those are going to be less common. I think even after there’s a vaccine and things get back to a little bit more normal I feel like people are going to become more comfortable hiring people they’ve never met to do things.
I’ve hired somebody for my company who I’ve never met in person who is now working for us every day. So, that’s a strange thing I think this pandemic has brought us to.
Craig: Well, let’s say that, I think it’s reasonable to expect that we will have technology soon enough – we kind of do – where instead of just vanilla Zoom we can create a situation where the room that we normally, like a shared room, a conference room is scanned in perfectly down to the tiniest pixel, retina level.
John: A holodeck-ish kind of thing.
Craig: Yeah. So we can look around in 360. We have our little headsets on. Our oculi. And we can look around the room. And then eventually our avatars are res’d up to the point where they are essentially as detailed as our actual selves. At that point what’s the difference? I mean, at that point haven’t we created a simulation of reality that we’re in?
John: But thinking back to even the episode of Mythic Quest that you were in where you’re talking with the other quality assurance testers and there’s the passing of chips back and forth. There are physical things in the real world that we are all sharing the same physical reality that is different.
I mean, this episode we were talking about the importance of going out and protesting and marching. Nothing is more real and physical and sort of being in your body than going out and protesting. And protesting feels like a thing that is important to do with your body versus online.
Craig: But would it blow your mind if someone said to you you have actually already – it’s just that you’ve been living your entire life in a very elaborate, really res’d up Zoom.
John: A brain in a jar.
Craig: Yeah. And that’s the Matrix. And the truth is I do believe the people who say it’s incredibly unlikely that we’re not. It doesn’t make any of this less real. That’s sort of the point. I mean, pain is pain. Joy is joy. You touch something, you’re not really – when you touch something or when you taste something you’re not–
John: It’s fields of stuff interacting, yes.
Craig: It’s your brain telling you that you’ve touched something. It’s your brain telling you that you felt something or you tasted something. None of it is real. It’s not real, but it matters.
John: So that sense of it’s not real but it matters does get us back to the notion of empathy and the sense of even in the unknowability of things one’s choices have consequences. This is not nihilism. This is not the denial of an outside reality, at least in a moral sense.
Craig: Right. What we’re saying that what we think of “real” is a vastly overestimated concept because experiences are real whether or not the thing is real. I mean, you and I literally for a living create fake experiences that have real emotional impact. So the experience of watching a movie or a show or a musical creates real feelings.
If we can’t see the value of that then, you know. So, that’s why I’m all in favor of it. You know, to conclude, I do not exist.
John: Never has.
Craig: But I am important and I matter.
John: Aw. That’s nice to think. Thanks Craig.
Craig: Thank you, John.
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