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 475 of Scriptnotes. A podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show I’ll be talking with legendary screenwriter Eric Roth about his writing process and his very long career which is probably the envy of any screenwriter out there.
Craig: Screenwriters envious? What?
John: What? I mean, Craig, can you think of anybody else who has had the length of career that Eric Roth has had?
Craig: Well, you know, my go to on this one is Robert Kamen.
John: Oh yeah
Craig: Who is right up there. I mean, Robert Kamen as we like to point out stretches all the way from Karate Kid in the early ‘80s to Taken and more in the 2010s. So, he’s been crushing it for a long time. But Eric Roth is no doubt one of our all-timers.
John: Yeah. So the first movie I can think of that was Eric Roth’s was Forrest Gump. But that was at the midpoint of his career. So, his first movie credit is back in 1970.
John: And he’s still working more now than ever. So he has A Star is Born. He has the upcoming Dune. He has a lot of other projects. He has Mank which he talks a little bit about on this interview I did with him which is a Netflix thing.
John: So he’s got a lot of great stuff out there. So this interview was done a few weeks ago on Zoom. It was for the Writers Guild Foundation. It doesn’t sound as crisp and clear as when we’re doing our live shows all in a room, so keep that in mind. But I think there’s really great stuff in here.
Craig and I will be back at the end for our One Cool Things. And a bonus segment for Premium members where we talk about, oh, that thing that happened this week. What was it, Craig?
Craig: The thing that was the week and that was our presidential election.
John: Yeah. So we’ll be back at the end to talk about that. But for now let’s transition to a few weeks ago and my discussion with Eric Roth.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August. It is my great, great pleasure to welcome you to this WGF event. We are here talking with the legendary Eric Roth. I’m so excited that we’re going to have a good long chat here on Zoom in front of 500 to 800 people watching us. So, we are in our respective homes. Just for folks who maybe don’t know your credits off hand I’m going to read just a shortened list of some of your credits. Forrest Gump. The Postman. The Horse Whisperer. The Insider. Ali. Munich. The Good Shepherd. Lucky You. Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Ellis. A Star is Born. The upcoming Dune. The upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon. Producer on Mank. There’s so much to talk about with you. But thank you for being here. It’s a pleasure to see you.
Eric Roth: I do. I’m glad you do this. I said to you earlier they sent me a list of people who could moderate it and I don’t really know you that well and I thought, well, he’s a talented guy, why not talk to you, you know? I love that.
John: So I’m excited to get into this. And usually in one of these things we would start back in the beginning about how you got interested in screenwriting and all that stuff and we’d spend about 20 minutes getting up to something like the present time and then start talking about the things we should talk about. So I’m going to do it the opposite way. I’d love to talk about what your writing process is like, what you’re working on, how you work in October 2020 as we’re recording this. What does your daily writing life look like?
Eric: My writing life really hasn’t varied since I gave up the typewriter which wasn’t as long ago as you might think. Because I’m really a luddite. I still work and I’ve talked about this a lot, so if anybody is bored with it they can tell me, but I still work on a DOS program. I have two computers. And I think half superstition and half a fear of not being able to learn Final Draft or something. It’s a program called Movie Master that actually is what they formulated Final Draft from.
The problem with it is that after like 40 pages it runs out of memory. So you’ve got to make sure – it’s about an act break, you know. And so I can’t do anything with the internet on that computer. That’s just solely for work which is good. And I still have to print out everything and I can’t email on it. So, the problem starts to become if you’re getting lucky and somebody is going to do the movie, it’s on their computer with Final Draft and creating the real document.
Other than that I start at like eight in the morning every day. I mean, I always use the example of John Cheever. He’d go to work every day. Take the train in from Long Island in his nice suit and a hat and he’d go and worked in a basement in New York City in Midtown. And he’d take off his pants and he’d take his shirt off, worked in his t-shirt and his underwear. 12 o’clock he’d get dressed again, go have a martini lunch. Come back. Work till four or five o’clock. Get dressed again and go take the train home. So it was like a job. And a great job for him and better than anybody probably.
And I feel the same way. I’m pretty disciplined. I don’t do as many hours as John Cheever. But come one o’clock, I mean if I’ve done four or five hours that’s about all creatively I feel I can do. And then I’ll work again at night. I’ll start around 10 o’clock and if I’m going good I’ll go as late as I can go. If not I’ll just do an hour so I can go to bed.
If I’m really crunched I get up really early like three or four in the morning and see as much as I can do. [Unintelligible] I like to bet the horses, so that’s my afternoons a lot. I have too many children and too many grandchildren, so I spend a lot of time, if I could, aside from the Covid. I’m a blessed human being. I mean, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to – I think the biggest thing that I taught myself and it’s obviously to be successful to do it, but I tried to pick – and I’ve been wrong many, many times – but projects I felt would somehow enhance my own self number one, and two some kind of legacy that I wasn’t just writing things for pay, which is a nice thing too. But if I could have a choice why not something I really cared about because I believe wholeheartedly that passion is two-thirds of the game and the other third is this kind of bastardized art form we do which is really a craft of a kind. And you can be a great craftsman. I’m not sure you’re an artist as a screenwriter, but that’s a whole different conversation.
John: There are so many threads I want to pursue off of this, but I’m going to start at the most recent one which is the degree to which a successful screenwriter like you are is largely – there’s an aspect of stock picking. Because you have your choice of the projects you could work on. Obviously you’re initiating yourself things, things you get offered. And there’s a decision process about which ones you’re going to pursue. So it sounds like you’re trying to pick projects that challenge you. Are they the ones that scare you a little bit? Are they the ones that you know you can do it? What is the decision process? Is it about who else is involved?
Eric: I think in a more intellectual way I try to pick things that the themes interest me and then who are the people involved and the characters. And I’ve done a number of adaptations. People think I’ve probably done more than I really have. But, I mean, even things like Benjamin Button was just a bad F. Scott Fitzgerald story if it’s possible that he wrote something that was bad. But of course the idea was a guy aging backwards. And I never came up with that one. But the theme of that I said well that’s interesting to me.
Elvis Mitchell, if you know who he is, the critic from the New York Times. And he does a NPR show. He’s a wonderful man. And he said that he felt – and it sort of stopped me because I thought it was kind of accurate, and I’m jumping. My mind works this way. That my films are about loneliness. And so I guess somehow – and then he started talking about it, and maybe you can make that case and maybe you can’t. But it resonated with me. I think there’s some truth to it. So maybe I pick out themes that have to do with some melancholic kind of [unintelligible]. And something about loneliness, you know.
I never had my own room my whole life. So, I guess I don’t know if I need that. I mean, I lived with my brothers and then – my brother I mean. And then I went to college and had roommates. And I got married very young. And then et cetera. So, maybe that’s part of it. This desire to have human contact nearby. I get very kind of funky in a hotel room alone at night. So not that I do anything exciting. I get too aware of everything I guess.
John: Now you can chart some of that fear of loneliness over the course of the 15 movies that I listed. But talk to me about the movies that I didn’t list, because I’m sure over the course of your career there’s at least as many movies that you spent a tremendous amount of time on, you worked your ass off on, that don’t exist. And to what degree do those movies still stick with you? The scripts that you wrote that are not reflected in your bio?
Eric: I’ll tell you one thing. I’m very lucky that my batting average is pretty great. So I don’t have that many. I regret they never made a movie that Brad Pitt was – it was actually Brad Pitt’s idea, Hatfield McCoy, that I think is a really good script. I told him eventually, said I’m going to give this to Kevin Costner to do it on television, very successful for him. I liked that very much because it was like about – that feud was kind of very interesting because there was no difference between the people. It wasn’t like the Hutus and the Tutsis, where there was religious differences between the Jews and the Arabs. You know what I’m saying.
And these people all came from the same place. But anyway it was interesting. It came down to the coal companies paid one group for the coal that was under their land because there was a lot of coal in one area and not the other. So that was one.
I wrote a big space thing that probably I don’t know if it was worthy of getting made, but the idea was that three prehistoric men were taken – they were triplets I guess – were taken to another galaxy where they’re like sponges, you know. I’m trying to think what else.
John: I can see a loneliness to that.
Eric: It’s very lonely.
John: It fits Eric Roth’s canon of loneliness.
Eric: Hatfield McCoy, the main character is lonely. So that one worked. I’ve had, just bragging I guess, like 25 movies made. And some of them I think are better than others. And some are my fault and some are other people’s fault.
I think I’ve had maybe seven that didn’t get done.
John: That’s amazing. That’s a remarkable batting average.
Eric: I think I started slipping as the business changed in the sense that I was able to write kind of the movie star driven movies to a certain extent. And then as that changed, you know, as movie stars became too common there was a change of course. And so I think those became – A Star is Born is kind of important to me because it reestablished for me that I could still do this in a way. Not that I had a question mark. But I think there were a few things that kind of lagged in the interim. I’m sure there will be others that come to me that didn’t get done. There’s a few. And there’s a few I wish didn’t get done.
John: We won’t make you names the ones you wish didn’t get done.
Eric: I’ll name them. I have no problem. I’ll tell you a very quick story that–
John: Tell me which one.
Eric: So this one I think people enjoy. So I wrote a movie called The Postman early on. And I wrote it for Tom Hanks and a whole bevy of directors were going to do it. Good directors. And it was supposed to be a satire, sort of Swiftian look at post-apocalypse idea, was supposed to be after nuclear war. A man who delivers the mail. Etc. Etc. And it was very tongue and cheek. But I thought it was kind of a good satire.
And then a number of years passed and Kevin Costner hooked onto it and he made it. And during the making of it the writer Brian Helgeland who is a wonderful writer who did Mystic River and he won an Oscar and really talented man. He had done the rewrite and he called me and he said, “What do you want to do?” He was very generous. “Do you want your name on this? What do you want to do? Do you want to just keep credit? Whatever you want to do.” And I said let me check. And I asked my agent. I said what do you think. And she happened to represent Kevin Costner and said, “You’ve got to put your name on it. I’ve seen the dailies. The movie is amazing.” I said really. OK. All right. I’ll take my credit.
And the movie won a Razzie as one of the worst movies ever made. [Barbara] gave us a Razzie, so it was pretty great.
John: I want to get into sort of the profession and this idea of rewriting and being rewritten and rewriting other people, because we’ve both done a lot of that. And I think we can clear up some misconceptions about that. But I want to get back to a little bit more of the daily work that you’re doing. Because you certainly treat your writing like a job. It’s not a thing you occasionally do. You treat it very seriously. You said you’re at your desk at eight in the morning.
There’s a scene for you to write. What is your first step in approaching a scene that you’re writing on a day? Outlining? What are you doing?
Eric: Well to go a step further, if it’s an adaptation I’m underlining the book and I find I underline the whole book, so then you say where do I begin. I’m not huge on outlines. I know, and I think every one of my movies has had the same truth. The first scene has never changed once I figured out what it was. And the end scene. The only one I can remember is in Munich Steven switched it to be at the World Trade Center for a good reason. It was in a different location, but the scene was basically the same. But the middle is this great big adventure. So I don’t know what it is. And it’s obviously a little more concise if there’s a book. But if it’s more original writing, no matter if there’s a book or not, then sort of that’s what the journey is for me.
So when I start a day, assuming I’ve gotten through the first two or three scenes, hopefully when I leave the computer I know the next two or three scenes, what I’m going to write the next day. That makes me feel very good. I sleep at night. If I don’t it makes me a little anxious.
John: Talk to me about when you say you know the next two or three scenes, that you know in a general sense what’s going to happen or how you’re going to get through the scenes?
Eric: I know what’s going to happen. I know where the characters are going. That doesn’t mean it works out always, but the characters lead me down there. And as long as I can stay with as I say the theme that’s all important to me. Like for instance I’m doing this little thriller right now for Oscar Isaac and Ben Stiller that I think is quite good. It’s from Jo Nesbo who is a Swedish mystery writer. He’s pretty terrific. Short story. And it’s an oddball story.
It needs me to keep figuring out where they’re going to go next, because it’s not a chase per se but it is in that English style of Strangers on a Train kind of thing. And so I know for instance that I know the next scene is in Paris in a hotel. I know what happens there. I know they have to then figure out how to get to sort of a farmhouse. And I know what happens at the farmhouse because I figured out that he does something deceptive. So I know those three, so I’m hoping when I get there I’ll know what the next three are. I know the trajectory of it though. I know what the outcome of the script is.
So, I’m on my track. Now this one has been a little trickier because I tried to be a little probably – I think it ended up being more clever than half. I tried to make it a little more post-modern kind of like adaptation or something. And I’m still with that but I had to tone it way down. So this one I actually had to rewrite quite a few times.
John: Can I stop you for one second? You say you rewrite a few times. So this is as you’re still doing the first draft you’re making big changes? Or this is after?
Eric: I start on page one every day.
John: OK so you are that kind of classic, like go back and read through what you’ve written and move forward?
Eric: I read everything and I make little whatever comments, fix grammar and spelling, whatever else. And it makes me go through another process and makes me more familiar with it. And they do say though that if you’re going to spend your time doing that you don’t give as much time to the ending because mathematically you’re running out of time at some point.
John: But let’s talk about the first new scene you’re working on. So you’re talking about the scene that’s happening in a Paris hotel room. You know sitting down basically what needs to happen in that scene, but what is your process in terms of figuring out who is going to say what, what’s the action in the scene, like how it’s going to unfold? Is that just a sitting and thinking thing for you, or is that fingers on the keys kind of decision?
Eric: I think it’s a little more intuitive. I’ll give you an example. I’m doing this thing for HBO, a TV show that Alex Gibney is going to direct with Laura Dern. And it’s a six-parter. I’m just doing the first episode. A true story about a woman who is a psychiatrist and her job is to interview serial killers and recommend to the court whether they’re sane or insane to be executed. And so I’ve sort of just begun, but now I’m coming to the interrogation of the guy that becomes our lead character in the first episode. And except for basic stuff I wanted to get out where he asks her questions, where did you go to school. I mean, it’s sort of expository stuff that’s just bad writing.
But I just started writing dialogue between them. And so some of it works, some of it doesn’t, but I just sort of feel my way. And I’m pretty good at it. I mean, I try to write a little off topic. I think the subtext is much more important than textual. So, that’s a thing I’ve had to learn over the years and it’s not something that I think you’re just given unless you’re just such a wonderful writer. But the best writing is not talking about what’s going on.
And so in this one I’m just trying what’s it going to sound like between this serial killer who killed like nine people and her. And so try to keep human and humorous of some kind and also get as much information we can get out of it. So I just dive in. And I’ve always done that. So it’s not a matter of just self-confidence from being successful. I think it’s just – and I embarrass myself by sort of saying the dialogue out loud. I’m like the worst actor ever. Because everybody’s voice sounds exactly the same. Which does remind me, I mean, as a rule that you want to have everybody’s character be something unique and sound different.
This came to me in a way, even though I think I knew it somehow instinctively from being just I like literature, so I read a lot. That Michael Cimino, if you remember that director, Michael and I were doing a movie. I had a rewritten a movie called The Year of the Dragon. It was OK. But it was by the same guy who wrote Silence of the Lambs. But he had given Mickey Rourke a wallet that had the character’s full life, like pictures of him in Vietnam and his children and driver’s license. I’m sure Mickey Rourke never looked at it, but it spoke to the fact that he had to know that person inside and out psychologically. And that’s how I feel as a writer that you have to do that. You have to know every one of your character’s complete lives.
John: You’re saying that you need to know your character’s complete lives, are you writing that down or are you just spending time thinking about that? How much of that bio work is something that a person could actually read versus just stuff you are thinking about in your head?
Eric: No, I don’t write it down. Except for little scribbles. Like in this thriller I decided that she was going to be a – because I thought it was clever – that she was going to be like Gillian Flynn, like someone who wrote Gone Girl. So she’s an author which I think is interesting because then it makes you wonder whether this whole thing is just a tale that she’s spinning, you know. So then I started figuring how old is she? And you go through it. And what are her neuroses? I’ll give something a little bit away, but like in the Laura Dern one I have her being like because she’s always stressed because of these horrible people she’s dealing with, I’m going to try to make her like a kleptomaniac. I just want to see it works.
So, what does that say? And then what does that say about your relationship, because her child then becomes a kleptomaniac? You know, that’s what I want to try. I probably shouldn’t say this too loud because it’s giving away something. But it’s just interesting to me. And so I don’t think I’m wrong. I’m maybe not right, but maybe that is a question.
I always think I’ve done that, though. That I just said to hell with it. Let’s get old and go down like the same bridge. I don’t mind trying things that are a little bit out of the norm, you know.
John: Now, you describe this Laura Dern project, there’s the Ben Stiller thing. It seems like you’re working on a bunch of things simultaneously. How many different projects are underneath your fingers at any given point?
Eric: This is unhappily, because I’m not really – it makes me very anxious. But I do have them stacked up which is nice for me, congratulations, but it just happened to be they dovetailed. And sometimes that happens. And the good news is I spent four years on, or five years on this book, with Killers of the Flower Moon, which everybody should read. It’s a wonderful book. And my screenplay I think was accurate to the book, but it was the book and the story of very quickly Osage Indians 1821 – 1921 I mean – poorest people in America and discover oil in this terrible land in Oklahoma they’d been driven to. And then every killer in America comes to kill 184 of them for their money. And this really heroic guy comes in.
So that’s still, you know, that’s supposed to start filming once the Covid clears out, and it’s Marty Scorsese, in March. So I have that. So there will be continuing rewrites with that. Leonardo wanted some things changed we argued about and he won half of them, I won half of them.
So that’s happening. And then these other two are works that are ongoing. And then there’s some older ones that pop up and I have to then address, which is just a factor of having been lucky enough to have a lot of work and some things are just dragging. We had this whole situation that’s developed with Cleopatra. I had done like seven drafts of Cleopatra at that point for Angelina. And it became a mess with the hack at Sony and Scott Rudin and this and that.
And now the project was announced the other day that Patty Jenkins is going to do one with Gal Godot and a very good writer named Laeta, I forget her last name.
John: Laeta Kalogridis.
Eric: Exactly. And so I’m debating whether this is going to be worth me racing with them. Probably not.
Eric: But that’s an old project. In other words I hadn’t worked on it for five years or something. But I think, look, that’s a function of some luck. Some people have given me the opportunity. And obviously I’ve been successful at it, which sometimes by design and a lot of it is not, you know.
John: Talk about rewrites. So talk about the rewrites that you go through in terms of getting the project up to the point where you’re happy with it. And then the rewrite process after you’re happy with it to get other people happy with it.
Eric: I mean, when I’m done – when I feel it’s done I’m done. And then I’ll turn it in. I don’t like turning it in just to a producer. I usually try to go around them and turn it into the studio at the same time if I can. And then we get the notes. I have rules about notes and now because I have enough cache I can say you cannot – only give me bullet points. I say would you consider this character doing that? Would you consider…?
I mean, I don’t like when they write these ridiculous essays on showing how clever they are with the notes, you know. And obviously if I did something stupid it wasn’t my intention to write something stupid. So that’s notes.
So then I’ll begin to rewrite. And rewrites are hard for me because I think I’m more of an instinctive writer. So, then I’m lucky enough to have worked with some really great directors. Some who are writers of their own and that’s easy in some respects because they get it and we can work it out together. Like Michael Mann. He’s a very tough guy and is hard to work with, for the right reasons. But he’s a writer so we would battle things out. But he knew if I didn’t quite have it we could feel the direction. While on the other hand, who can I think of, Robert Redford was a little more difficult because he wasn’t a born writer. So he wanted to prove things.
Marty Scorsese and David Fincher are very different people but phenomenal. Marty is the most willing to have you be inventive. And he’ll figure out how to film it and if he thinks it works. And he’s very generous if he doesn’t think it works. He says, “Let’s try it this way.” And David on the other hand is very, very specific. Very literal in a great way and as smart as a whip. And really fights you to get to where you want – he says, “I want you to tell me what you’re trying to articulate.” He just has a different way of doing things. And they both end up in different places. Their movies look different and they’re different people but they’re both incredible experiences which is incredibly rewarding. Which will just give me the time that – I have a movie coming out called Mank that I produced with David and his father wrote and we worked on the script to hopefully bring it up to where it’s really great. But it’s his father’s script.
And it’s about Herman Mankiewicz’s writing of Citizen Kane and his world with Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst and Orson Welles. And I think it’s an incredible movie. I’m tooting trumpets here but it’s black and white. It’s as skilled as David Fincher can be I think. And I think it’s probably limited for appeal to people because it’s such a narrow subject, but it’s a master work I think because of David’s abilities.
John: Its appeal is exactly the folks who are listening to this Zoom right now. Because it is about a writer’s relationship with a director and a visionary film that may or may not come into being based on how people did the stuff.
Eric: I think one of the reasons David brought me on was because I’ve been sort of an insider in Hollywood in that way for many, many years. You know, I’ve worked with everybody from Kurosawa through Spielberg through whoever. So I’ve had many relationships with many writers, directors, actors. So I know the process. I know what’s wounding about it. So when he asked me what does it feel like to feel like you’re not going to get credit I can write that. I know what that feels like. So it’s a real experience yeah.
John: Well talk us through that. Talk us through advice for writers who are dealing with a director for the first time and what those initial conversations are like. How do you feel out a director and sort of understand what that relationship is going to be like in that first meeting? Because I’ve been through some of them and I’ve come in with assumptions. Sometimes I’ve been right. Sometimes I’ve been wrong. Sometimes it has gone well. Sometimes it has gone really, really poorly. What advice can you offer to folks who are listening about that first conversation?
Eric: I want to talk about sort of earlier in my career because I think it’s a little different now because I’m kind of cocky. I’m a little cocky now.
John: You’re a legend.
Eric: Well, a legend, so funny. But I can come in and I can back up things. I say you might want to [unintelligible]. Early on I did – this is a good story and it’s not [unintelligible] it’s true. There was a director named Stuart Rosenberg who had done Cool Hand Luke and he was a very good Hollywood director and a nice man. And I was really young. I mean, I was 19 when I went down and rewrote The Drowning Pool in Louisiana. And then I was on Onion Field with him. And Onion Field ended up getting made by a man named Harold Becker and it’s an interesting movie.
But Stuart and I fought for like two weeks over one particular scene. And I thought it was a great scene and he didn’t think it was so great. And he finally said to me, and this just always stuck with me that “you can leave it in the script but I’m not going to shoot it.” So that was the end of that conversation. And that was the truth. So at the end of the day if the director is not going to be flexible you are stuck. So, you better try to find a way to be as best communal as you can be and also make the scene as good as possible. So you have to find, I think, and sometimes I’m good at it and sometimes I’m not as good, another way to do the scene. Another way to tell that piece of drama if that’s what you need to do. And each director approaches it differently.
Amenable to a point and yet I get very stringent if I think that they’re varying from what the piece is about. And then I think – I’ve been lucky because the people I’ve worked with, I mean, in the main are really good directors. I mean, it’s also something I don’t think I could do. I mean, I tried it when I was younger and I actually won some awards, a short. But I always felt like this isn’t me. I thought if I went on to direct I’d be like a B-minus director and what was the point of that, you know? And I didn’t want to leave my family and a whole bunch of other reasons.
But the directors have been, I mean, I think have yet to figure out the way they want to get at something. And if you want to be a dick about it you’re going to have a lot of problems. On the other hand I don’t think you should just roll over. It’s a balance. It’s a tightrope walk.
John: Yeah. A thing that people have a hard time understanding about the job of a screenwriter is obviously we’re putting words on the page the same way the novelist is, but there’s a whole social aspect to it. You have to be able to read people in the room and understand what they’re actually going after. Even before you get to directors, initially with producers and with studio executives, find out what they’re actually really after and what the note is behind the note.
Eric: Yeah. That’s well said, John. In other words it’s really trying to read the note behind the note. Because the initial note will just annoy you. I mean, in most cases you probably thought about it. Just somebody gave us a note on something recently that they felt there was too much description and I took umbrage at it. Said I’ve been very successful with a lot of description. But I got it. In other words I think it made it harder for them to read. It was too dense. And once I settled down and I thought well that’s OK. So in other words you have to be somehow – unless they’re nasty, then you don’t need to suffer that in any way, shape, or form.
But I think you have to be finding a way to be as communal – look, it’s a communal craft, right. Even though I do believe it’s a film by is a director’s film when all is said and done. They put all the pieces together. The architecture, the ship is the screenwriter. And you’re not going to go on the journey without that. But the director has to get it to the right place in the right way.
John: How different is it now than ‘70s/’80s, your early credits? How different is it doing this job? Or is it not really that different?
Eric: I don’t feel it’s that different oddly because I guess maybe I just stay with my process. I used to, I mean, just on a personal level I had a lot of kids and a lot of little kids. And I used to love to just – they would run around and I would just write in the living room, sitting down to type something. But I don’t know. I had a couple oddball little interesting movies made in the ‘70s that probably would be, you know, interesting today if they were streamed. And then I had some big movies. So, I don’t know. I think eventually it comes down to feeling like the same task to me. But, you know, I’m looking, you know, it’s like my dad said when you talk how does it feel to be 80, or whatever he was at the time, he said, “You know, I don’t look out of those eyes. I don’t look out of 80-year-old eyes, I look out of whatever eyes I am.” And that’s the same thing at 75.
I’m quite – this is just a kind of sweet, sad thing, but lovely in its own way. I’m very close with David Milch who I think is our American Shakespeare from television. David has some challenges with some Alzheimer’s. So I went and visited him. I visit him like once a month. And he was talking about how time goes so. And I said sure does. And I thought to myself, gee, when I was 60 I said, well, I mean 15 years from now 75, or 20 from now, that seems like forever. Well, it was a blink. It was a complete blink of the eyes. And now I’m 75. I said do you have any regrets. And he said, “I wasn’t more generous of spirit.” Which meant he felt that he had been too selfish his whole life. And whether that’s true or not we can think about.
But it made me think. I mean, I think that’s an important kind of lesson. I’ll put that in something, you know. Because that’s just something important.
John: Thinking about David Milch and his tremendous success in television and you said the American Shakespeare and I can believe that, he was making television at this pivotal moment where it became just a dominant American art form in terms of a written art form. And the writers who created that were so acclaimed and rightfully. It’s a little frustrating to me. I’m wondering if it’s frustrating to you that we as screenwriters are writing the features that are so iconic and yet there hasn’t been the same appreciation that we sometimes are writing these films that are known for that.
If you were to go back and rewind your career 25 years would you have still done features and focused on features, or would you have been more attracted to 25?
Eric: No. First of all I think, you know, I was taught that television is smaller than life and that movies are bigger than life. So I still look at the 40-foot-screen as being 40 even though it’s irrelevant I guess now. And I’m not sure I’m as good a short story writer as you have to be, even though I think I’ve written some good TV episodes. I wrote one for David that they never aired because it was never shot because of this show getting canceled. I thought it was probably as good of writing as I’d done. But I can just be brave because it wasn’t sort of my betting the farm.
No, I grew up with movies. My first experience was watching like War of the Worlds in the Brooklyn Paramount balcony. And it was like oh my god. This is like something that takes me somewhere else. Then I was very big on psychedelics in the ‘70s and late ‘60s, so I liked sort of mind expansion stuff where you can try to go further and farther. So I never felt that way about television.
And I think the difference is that you have some incredible writers who are also directors though. And that’s a great advantage. Because Ingmar Bergman or Fellini. In other words you could start naming them, Antonioni, and then Francis of course. So these people could then realize what they wrote. So, I don’t think there’s anything better than Godfather II probably that has ever been done. Or to me 2001 changed my life in some way. So Kubrick was able to get that out of his writer and was able to write what he did.
I think, I don’t know, maybe there isn’t an American Shakespeare in screenwriting. I think part of that is because you have to be a director maybe to do that. And then maybe Chayefsky was, you know, of a sort. There’s probably a few others, you know.
John: Yeah, I mean, and Sorkin would be in that list, but he’s also–
Eric: Aaron is wonderful.
John: Tremendous television stuff that he’s done before this. Nora Ephron.
Eric: I would think, like Bob Fosse, he’s pretty amazing. I mean, he’s a director though. I think there’s a major advantage in being able to direct and if you’re able to be good at being a director.
John: I’m going to tackle some questions from our growing list of questions here. This one is about adaptations from [unintelligible]. He asks, “There’s a ‘don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.’ How do you negotiate what should be kept in an adaptation and what should be left out when you’re adapting a true life story?”
Eric: That’s a great question. We just had this discussion the other night because I watched The Trial of the Chicago Seven. And I thought Aaron did a really great job. And I first had a chip on my shoulder, I was a little jaundiced because I knew Abbie Hoffman quite well and I knew some of the people and I had been involved with [unintelligible]. Anyway, and then it got, I’m not sure, I have to ask him because there’s a scene at the end of the movie, because I think the move eventually really becomes pretty great. And he has a scene where someone gives a speech in the courtroom and I’m going to guess that he wrote a speech that was not what was there. And so then we got into a debate about what you can do.
I said, well wait a minute, this is like an historical event. And it’s a trial. And then somebody pointed out I had done the same kind of thing in something of my own. And so that I think I guess your first rule is you’re a dramatist, you know. I’ll give you another example.
I did a script for Tom Hanks called Garden of the Beast which is an historical book which was about the American ambassador to Germany during WWII who was kind of a very big Nazi aficionado. Spoke German. Had gone to school in Germany. And then he saw kind of the errors of his ways as certain things happened. But I dramatized a couple things that Tom objected to. One was that I had a scene – I don’t think this is a big deal – but Hitler used to watch King Kong like three times a week. And so I had a scene where he and the ambassador are discussing whatever the drama was while King Kong was being played. Now that probably didn’t happen. I don’t think that changes the course of it or anything. But Tom took to me to task for it.
And then I had Hitler offered him a ride back to the embassy and I had him get in the car with Hitler with all the people on the streets. And I wanted to see how that felt like for anybody being inside of that and with flowers all over them. Tom objected to that. And he wasn’t right or wrong. In other words so that – my first job is I think as a dramatist. And we say this actually in the Mank movie that you can’t view somebody’s life in two hours. You only can do an impression of it. And the genius of Citizen Kane is that I think it’s the first movie that showed, and maybe there’s a Russian movie, that showed a character from multiple points of view. That’s very rare. In other words usually it’s [unintelligible]. But if you have a wife you have her point of view. If you have a child.
The other thing is I usually pick kind of bad books. So, you know, bad books and bad plays make really good movies because one of the reasons is you can just go take off on your own. So you can change things. I think you have to be careful in certain respects to what is the sensibilities of people. In other words I don’t think you just blithely decide to change what somehow is slavery or holocaust. In other words I think you have to be very careful.
But I mean there is a criteria that you have to dramatize it if you’re a dramatist. So you’re going to combine things. And this Killers of the Flower Moon is a perfect example because that was where I realized I had done the same thing at the end of a particular courtroom that’s at the end of the movie. And I had dramatized something that was not happening there, but I wanted to have.
So, I say go for it, but be a little bit cautious because you can get your assistant kicked if you’re going to start rewriting history that’s affecting people’s sensitivity. And I have never tried to do that. But, yeah, I think there is a burden.
I mean, look, a lot of people don’t like Forrest Gump. They think it’s a poke in the eye at liberalism and all sorts of things. I don’t have the same feeling about it. And Bob Zemeckis and I are quite different. He’s very, at that time, more universal poke in the eye guy. He didn’t give a shit if he made fun of the Black Panthers or Ronald Reagan. And I was a good staunch, I was born as a red diaper baby and I had great communist beliefs. Became watered down over the years.
So the movie was criticized probably rightly in some respects, but I think as Quentin Tarantino said, “I think people have lost the sense of irony.” Because the whole thing is supposed to be – it’s supposed to be a satire, you know. But I think you’ve got to be careful of that is my point. I think you have to really look – and particularly today, because people are very aware of their everything – heritage, what they feel about themselves. I mean, they should. They should.
John: Speaking of Forrest Gump, a good segue into a question from JJ. Can you talk about the process of getting hired for adaptations in particular? How do you get started doing adaptation work? So I think it could be, you could talk about Forrest Gump, obviously many of your later projects they came to you with a book and you could say yes or no. But earlier one there were going to be projects where do you want to do this. Do you want to come in and talk to us about this? Your pitching approach to a book. What are those initial conversations like as you’re describing how you want to take an adaptation?
Eric: Well that’s a good question. The good news is that those were things that were presented to me by like studios. It wasn’t anybody else really. Or a producer. There was an entity. It wasn’t me bringing them a book and trying to stand on my head and say this will make a good movie. So that was I think ahead of the game. Forrest Gump came as a book. I didn’t think it was a great book. And the man who wrote it should rest in peace. He gave me something that was like a gift. But it was a little farcical for me. And then I thought well this is a good way to tell the story of this year that I just lived through with time passing and all that stuff.
And I’m trying to think. Benjamin Button was as I said a short story of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s. He just did it for money. He did it for Colliers Magazine and had no stake in it at all. So I had the sort of permission to do whatever I wanted with it.
Munich was a true story. I was rewritten on Munich by Tony Kushner who I thought did a pretty great job in certain areas. Other areas I still resent. Not him personally. I mean, we can talk about that getting rewritten if you want. That’s why I brought it up.
John: Well let’s talk about rewriting. Because that’s a thing I promised we would get into. So, obviously you’ve come onto projects where there was already a script and you were coming in there to do work on it. And you’ve also had projects that you started and then someone else has taken over the project. So let’s start with when you’re coming in on an existing project and there is a script and you’re talking with folks about stuff. What are those initial conversations and how do you treat the material that you got from the start? Are you treating it like you’re treating a book that you’re being sent? This is the starting place and I’m going to write a new script? Are you trying to incorporate as many scenes as still possible there? What is the decision process for you?
Eric: I think it depended on where they are in the sequence of getting the movie made. Because I would never want to go in and destroy somebody’s having a movie get made. I’ve some good jobs in more limited basis. I thought I did good on Black Hawk Down. I thought I did some good writing on that. Leonardo and Russell Crowe was in. Ridley Scott directed it.
John: Was it Blood Diamond?
Eric: No. Something of Lies or something. Anyway, my point being I just don’t think I did much to help them. And they didn’t want much. But I don’t think what I did was great.
On the other hand I’ve come in on things like Cleopatra where I started from scratch. There had been a couple scripts before I did and good writers, but I just had a different point of view. And Benjamin Button was another one. And usually if I have the time I’ll put in the effort and start over if I think there’s a way. Or I’ll just say I can’t be helpful. I think it’s a more interesting conversation about not so much the work but I’ve rewritten people where it’s bruising to other people. And it’s one of the things I don’t like about doing it. As writers we scavenge each other. And then they don’t have a – something I’ve always spoken to that when you fight for credit and then if you don’t get it you don’t exist in that sense, however much time. And I feel the Writers Guild should change that. But I’m in the minority. I felt like they should have an additional writing credit or something, because everybody should at least share in what they did.
But the Writers Guild feels in the main that it diminishes the credit of the writers that get credit.
And then I’ve had obviously people come in and rewrite me. And I haven’t liked it. I said, you know, you feel like you’ve failed, you’ve been rejected. I knew for instance on this movie The Horse Whisperer, I liked Redford very much but I lived with him for like two months, two or three months. And I realized at one point he’s going to look in the mirror and not want to see me there. And so that’s what happened. And so a good writer, Richard LaGravenese, came in and did very good work. And I’m still not wild about the movie which I don’t think had enough adventure in it, but not Richard’s fault.
But that hurt. I was wounded by that. And you sort of lick your wounds. But I guess I’ll give you a funny story because it’s about this. I think it’s about rejection, you know, which every writer feels from day one. And I asked Warren Beatty the other day, I’m dropping a name here, but have you ever – I don’t know why this occurred to me. I said have you ever been rejected in your whole life. And he had to think for a long time. I said are done thinking? He said, “Yeah, I wanted to do Fistful of Dollars,” or one of those Clint Eastwood westerns. They picked Clint Eastwood. And he said, “But I got to do Bonnie and Clyde, so it worked out OK for me.”
John: It worked out.
Eric: The only thing he could think of about rejection. He didn’t say there was a woman who didn’t want to go out with me or whatever.
Eric: A man. Whatever he felt. But that was it. I said pretty good. I think him and I’m dropping another name. I worked for Mick Jagger on a thing and he’s the other one I thought this guy has never had a moment’s rejection in his whole life, you know.
John: We have real time follow up here. So Body of Lies was the movie that you were thinking about.
Eric: Thank you.
John: So we have 1,000 people here in the audience.
Eric: See, bad title. Bad title to begin with.
John: Not a good title. Not a good title. Titles are important. They help frame what things are going to be, the projects.
Eric: Oh boy, is it ever. And names, by the way. Don’t you think character names are key, too? Unless it’s a satire or something. If I see a name – here’s one of the things I don’t like about Dune. Because I had read Dune when I was like 15 and I thought it was OK. I wasn’t as wild about it like 16-year-old boys mostly are. But then as I went back into it now to do this version for a guy I like very much, I did a good rewrite on Arrival, which I think I did a good job on, for Denis Villeneuve.
So we were cogitating the whole thing and there was a character named Duncan Idaho in it. And I said wait a minute this is like the planets are billions of miles away. This isn’t a translation of some other language. That’s his name. And I said well how the hell does that work? But that was a famous character and still will be.
John: So you just don’t have characters saying his name aloud very often in the movie hopefully. So it doesn’t bum people so much.
Eric: I mean, it’s fun to do – I think if you can give characters to somehow reflect the tone of the movie, like I did something today. I called the villain in the thriller Mr. Lime. And the reason was because that was an Orson Welles’ name in The Third Man. So those few who will know that will – or they’ll just think that’s a stupid idea.
John: A question here from Ellen Cornfeld. She writes, “How to learn to trust your own voice when you are a people pleasure by nature and surrounded by smart voices giving you terrific feedback on your scripts?” So, basically really a question for you. You’ve written this thing. You had an approach. You had a point of view. There’s a thing you want to do. Now you’re getting these notes back. How do you stay true to your own voice and your own instinct when you start getting that feedback?
Eric: I think you have to find a different approach and try to hopefully make that similar to what you could then live with to be, you know, that says what you want it to say. It’s difficult because you feel inundated. There’s sort of a higher power that’s looking down and giving you these [theote] of notes. And obviously I have the power more now because I’m more successful, but when I was younger I’m sure I felt kind of a little buffeted by it.
But I’m not saying not to stick with your vision but I think you have to maybe find a way to do your vision differently I guess. And that’s probably I guess a little more communal in that respect, or a little more where you can mediate things. Because it’s not black and white I guess. And sometimes you’re surprised at the end.
What happens, I mean, eventually which is kind of funny is that you stake your claim on something and you really stick your sword in the ground and you’re not going to move and then you slowly move and eventually it’s gone and it becomes gone and you don’t remember even you were involved with it, you know, and that scene just goes into some void in the ether.
So, I think you have to be brave in a way. Be brave without being stupid I guess.
John: Always a good combination. I’m going to combine a couple questions here. People are asking about writing for an actor or writing with an actor in mind. Do you prefer writing something where you know who is going to be playing that role? Or would you rather have it be blank as you’re starting?
Eric: I think there’s an advantage to both. In many cases I’ve known who the actor was, so that was easier. Like Tom Hanks for Forrest Gump was the dream. Brad Pitt was Benjamin Button so I knew what he could possibly do or not do. I was a little more taken with in The Insider that Russell Crowe when he was hired I had already written the part and the part was very difficult because I couldn’t interview the real guy. So I had to go on basically who is the guy and I tried to then develop a character which you could always do. You say, well, who is this man who was a scientist for tobacco companies? And what does that say? That he wants to be a big fish in a little pond of scientists? Or he is insecure about his science knowledge? In this case he actually really just wanted to get his pension.
So I wrote what was I think a full-blooded character and then Russell came on and Russell had a lot of questions. And I can’t tell you the number of times I had to get on an airplane and go down there because Michael Mann didn’t want to fight with him and he didn’t want to have that kind of relationship. So I would go and say – because Russell wouldn’t come out of his trailer and I’d say what’s going on. He’d say, “I don’t get this.” And so you go through it and you hopefully convince him that this is the way that it should be. And then you make some accommodations. Things on that movie I’ll never forget is that Al Pacino called me one morning and he said, “You have a three-page monologue here. I could do it in one look.” I said if you can do it in one look do it. And he did. He did.
John: That’s good. It saves some camera. Saves some reel.
Eric: And he really did. He really did.
John: Eric, what’s been your experience, because I’ve had the same thing with actors who are incredibly challenging to deal with over little things on scripts and stories and I’m always wrestling with to what degree are they being reasonable but they can’t connect these dots either intellectually or emotionally they can’t make it work? And to what degree is it insecurity? With a Russell Crowe or with other actors you’ve dealt with how do you think a writer can or should interact with actors who are doing that thing? It could be on an independent film, a small independent film set that our people are working on, or a giant mega budget picture. What works?
Eric: I mean, I think rehearsals are really important. And read-throughs because I think you get a sense of what they can do or can’t do, or where there’s going to be bumps. Like for every movie I’ve written I think I go to the set, because I have anticipated what’s going to be a scene that’s going to be a problem. Or I’ll go to watch what I enjoy. But I think you have to befriend the actor in a good way, even if they’re a dick. And try to find a way so you understand their psychology.
I mean, I’m going to do it, and he’s a nice person, I’m going to do a movie in the future with Joaquin Phoenix which is a really tough subject matter, but he works very differently. And he really wants to get into the weeds and the emotions and the things. Like he doesn’t rehearse at all. He doesn’t like rehearsals. But I’ve already established a relationship with him and I think we intellectually can understand what we both want from it. So he’ll trust me to some extent and I’ll trust him. And some of that is just having the experience of having done it for so long, because I work with so many people.
But I remember as a young boy I was literally 19 years old walking on the set of The Drowning Pool, same Stuart Rosenberg had directed, and Paul Newman was the star. And they needed a rewrite and I came with my new pair of corduroys and my nice new briefcase and walked on the set. And Paul Newman said, “Our savior is here.” And I said good luck to him, me and him. And I don’t know they accepted me then. I guess I’m amenable. I mean, I don’t kiss ass particularly but I think it is a team effort of a kind.
So, if you can be smart about the way. I mean, I don’t think there’s any one way to do it, but I think part of it is your own personal skills with people.
John: As you’re talking about this 19-year-old you walking onto this set, if you could give advice to that 19-year-old you, obviously you made some really good choices along the way, but are there any other pieces of advice you wish you could whisper to that 19-year-old?
Eric: I think writing wise I wish I could be a little more concise. I think I tend to over-write because I’m a frustrated novelist. And so I write these long prose things and I think it probably gets in the way of things. So if I could articulate things a little more articulately in a smaller way. I don’t know. I can’t think of too many movies that I missed, in other words that I was offered and I said no. There’s a couple. The biggest one for me was I was offered to do Cuckoo’s Nest originally. And I was doing The Onion Field. And my agent said they’ll never make that movie. And then literally like a week later Jack Nicholson signed to do it.
And I did come back and I rewrote the fishing boat scene, because I was good friends at that time with Michael Douglas. But that was the only one I think that I said wow. But I don’t know, Bo Goldman who wrote it, even though he rewrote somebody, a guy named Larry Hauben who just out of the blue decided to write a script from it because it was owned by somebody. But Bo Goldman I think may be one of the better screenwriters who ever lived. I mean, he did Howard and Melvin and he did the best divorce movie, Shoot the Moon, I think. I haven’t seen it in so long. And Scent of a Woman.
John: All right. So, you’re going to whisper to him like do Cuckoo’s Nest but basically do everything else. Just follow your instincts because it’ll suit you very well.
Eric: Look, I don’t think everybody has that leisure. They have to work. So that you don’t get to always do – I think what you need to do though is try to do, and I’ll give you a funny example of this. So I had no money and I really needed work and I did Airport ’79 The Concorde. And I wrote a very wonderful line called, “They don’t call it the cockpit for nothing.” Anyhow, I tried to write, I mean, this is arrogance in a way, but I tried to write the best disaster movie, that’s what they called those then, ever made. You know?
And actually I got sort of half kudos for it. The critics in the New York Times said this is either the worst disaster movie ever made or the best. So, but I did try to make that something special for me. You know, I put in like Saint-Exupery about flying. I had Alain Delon reading poetry. You know, it was ridiculous, you know.
But I think you have to believe in what you’re doing and hopeful you make the best of it.
John: All right. Eric, thank you for making the best of it for all these amazing movies you’ve done and thank you for this conversation. I want to thank the Writers Guild Foundation for having us both here. So, they do amazing work throughout the year.
Eric: Yeah, they’re amazing. Amazing.
John: These panels are great fun but all the outreach they do to developing writers and other folks is remarkable. So please do support the Writers Guild Foundation. Thank you, Dustin, for putting this together. And, Eric, thank you so much. It was great to chat.
Eric: Thank you. I loved meeting you this way.
John: Yeah, it’s nice. Cool.
Eric: See you at the movies. Not really. See you on the television screen I guess.
John: And when do we see Mank?
Eric: Mank will be, I mean, I think late November/early December maybe. Dune will be next year. And Killers of the Flower Moon the year after maybe. But Mank I want everybody to look at. I think you’ll find it pretty special.
Eric: Thank you.
John: Great. Thanks. Bye.
All right, we are back here in the present. We are recording this on a Friday morning. As we record this it has not officially been announced that Joe Biden has won but it seems kind of inevitable that he’s won. So we’ll be talking about that in our bonus segment. But this would be the time where we would do our One Cool Things.
John: Craig, do you have a One Cool Thing?
Craig: I do. So last week my One Cool Thing was maybe America. This week my One Cool Thing is the person we should be talking about, but instead we keep talking about this orange ding-a-ling and his nonsense. Or alternatively in a hopeful tone we talk about Joe Biden and the fact that he is going to be the new President of the United States. But the person we should be talking about Kamala Harris. Because in our ridiculously long short life as a country we have had zero, that is exactly zero, female Vice Presidents or Presidents. Zero. And now we have one.
And, also, she is a woman of color. This is the first Black woman to serve, aside from the first woman to serve as either President or Vice President. The first Black woman to serve as either President or Vice President. The first Indian woman to serve as Vice President or President. This is the most historic election since Barack Obama’s election. And I am just amazed and thrilled and I feel a little bit annoyed that Orange Thunder keeps stealing the limelight when this is the big story. That we have finally broken through the stupidest barrier of entry to high political office that we have. So congratulations us.
John: Yeah. And I hope that by the time people are listening to this podcast we will have seen her on a stage and Joe Biden on a stage and other things so we can say like, oh, that’s right. This is what it’s going to look like and that’s kind of exciting and cool. Because you just need the visual sometimes. And I think probably because of the pandemic we just haven’t had the visual at times.
John: And I think when we see that that will be great.
Craig: And also good for all of us. More Maya Rudolph, clearly.
John: Oh, come on.
Craig: This is a huge Maya Rudolph boom ahead, which is good for everybody. We get four years of her saying Joe Biden which puts a smile on my face every damn time.
John: It’s going to be great. My One Cool Thing is two related things. First off is one of the few physical magazines I still read which is MIT Technology Review.
John: This magazine dates back to like the 1900s. It’s a very storied magazine talking about technology and sort of how things evolve. And one of the fun things about the magazine is that they will show like 30 years ago, 60 years ago this is what we were writing about and sort of compare stuff.
The best comparison for it would be Wired Magazine if it wasn’t so gadget focused. It’s really just more about the overall science and technologies behind things. But the actual article I want to point people to is by Richard Fisher in this last month’s issue called How to Escape the Present. And what I liked about it is it was talking about how human beings grew up in sort of cyclical time. It was all just the seasons and they planted crops, they grew stuff, and your ancestor’s life was not different from your kids’ lives. Basically everything stayed in this little circle.
And eventually we started figuring like, oh wait, there was the past. The past happened. And we started to think longer about the past. We started to be able to think about the future and like plan for future things. He points to a moment in the 1700s where you started to see writers talk about what life would be like in the 20th Century and the 24th Century and had these sort of grand visions of things.
And his point is that we’ve sort of stopped doing that. If you look at sort of how we think about the future it’s really, really short term. And in fact we sort of are obsessed with only the present. And that we are on these incredibly short cycles. So we have the 24-hour news cycle. We have two or four year election cycles. And it makes it very hard for us to do the long-term thinking that we need to do. It’s sort of like a cliff we run into and we can’t think about what happens after that time. And I think, Craig, in our lifetime I’ve definitely felt that.
I feel like as a kid I used to have a better sense of where the future was headed than I kind of do now. And it’s weird talking about this after this election, because I don’t even have a good sense of like what happens next week right now. And this present-ism is really troubling.
Craig: Well, we are told constantly to live in the now, as if that’s a virtue. I’ve always been a thinker about the future kind of person, because I like it. Our brains are not very good at this. We know that. But it is true that our culture essentially has made us obsess with a belief that by analyzing the state of affairs in this second we will somehow be able to control what happens next, or get certainty about what happens next, when all we really know for sure is that we will never have that, ever.
So we are taunting ourselves and torturing ourselves with this feeling that well if I just keep watching TV certainty will be created in my mind. Are you like this John? People will text me in these situations. I don’t know why it’s me. And they’ll say, “Can you just tell me what’s going to happen?” Like I would know? I don’t know. None of us know. Everyone wants certainty and they look to somebody to give them some kind of reassurance. But we don’t know until we know.
Math is a beautiful thing. It became incredibly clear, for instance, that Joe Biden was going to win because math is math. And much like Covid it doesn’t care what Donald Trump thinks. So that was nice. But I agree. I that we are locked in this obsessive now-ness because an industry that turns our attention into money has risen up to dominate our culture. And so it will keep doing that.
John: But speaking specifically to our audience, people who are writing movies and television shows, I do think that we only think about the future in clearly dystopian terms. We basically have a model of The Terminator, we have Hunger Games. Basically Mad Max. Everything is going to fall apart and what it’s going to look like when–
Craig: The Last of Us.
John: Yeah. The Last of Us. Go for it, Craig. What’s it going to be like when everything falls apart? And sure, we can do that. But we sort of stopped doing Star Trek. We stopped thinking about the future in terms of optimistic ways. And I feel like there’s a need and a vacuum out there for an optimistic vision of the future and sort of what we should aim for rather than what we fear.
Craig: Well, even Star Trek in its most utopian era, which was its network era, created a very virtualized view of where we as a human species would go and then immediately flung us into space to start shooting people. That’s sort of what happens. Because drama is drama. And that’s how it goes. And the earth is always under threat. And the whales are going to do something. And this is going to happen and that’s going to happen. I mean, that is part of what we do.
John: Famously The Next Generation wanted there to be no conflict among the crew. And I was like you need conflict for story. So I’m not asking for no conflict. I’m just asking for a vision of the future that is expansive and possibly hopeful.
Craig: Sure. I mean, look, for art that is ultimately boring. What we like to see is triumph. So triumph requires bad stuff happening. The things that are the toughest are the ones – and you don’t see this very often – where there’s a vision of the future, there is a struggle, and the struggle fails. But then the purpose of that art is to say there but for the grace of God go we, can we figure our crap out and not be like that?
John: Yeah. A movie that you and I both like and refer to often is Her.
Craig: Love it.
John: Which does posit a near future that is – the future doesn’t look bad. So his situation is not great, but the future itself is not a thing to be afraid of.
John: And just give me some more Hers out there, folks. I’d love to see it. Let’s make a few more of those.
Craig: Absolutely. I will not be delivering that. [laughs]
John: [laughs] It’s not in Craig’s–
Craig: Not coming from me.
John: All right. That is our show for this week. So thank you everyone for listening. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao, edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro is by Rajesh Naroth.
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. But for short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.
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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 are about to record about the election. So Craig, thanks so much.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: So, Craig, I went into Tuesday, well Monday and Tuesday, sort of getting into the election period noticeably more optimistic and hopeful than most of the people around me and on Twitter. And I felt like I wasn’t allowed to sort of express optimism because I was going to be ridiculed for it. And then as stuff happened on Tuesday I felt like oh should I have been more pessimistic. And then I realized like, oh, but being more pessimistic wouldn’t have actually helped this feeling right now. What were you feeling on Tuesday?
Craig: Yeah. On Tuesday I was feeling pretty confident that things were going to go well for Joe Biden and therefore for America and therefore for humanity. And they did. It was important to remind myself as Tuesday went on that we were facing an odd situation where the first votes were going to be counted last.
And this is something that I guess, I mean, look, on some level I’m sure most Republicans who are screaming falsely about fraud understand this all too well and they’re just yelling because they don’t know what else to do. I’m not sure Donald Trump understands it because he’s legitimately stupid. But the votes that are being counted now, those votes were cast before the votes that were cast on Election Day. And we knew that the votes that were cast before were largely going to break Democratic because for some reason, and I can’t explain why – I could – Democratic voters seemed more concerned about not getting Covid than Republican voters.
And sure enough that’s what happened. But therefore you had to be braced for the fact that on Tuesday or by Tuesday evening that things were not going to be simple. I was not onboard with the Ragin’ Cajun, James Carville, stating that it was going to be a huge rout and we would all know by, I don’t know what he said, 10pm Eastern Time or something. No. No.
John: Yeah. So I wasn’t there. It’s always hard to remember sort of what you were thinking at a certain point in time. But I was thinking that like, yes, if we did have a decisive victory in Florida then clearly it was going to be over. But when it became clear that it wasn’t going to happen that melting dread kicked back in.
It’s an experience I’ve felt enough in my life that I recognize what it is and sort of how I need to address it. And for me it was like go into the other room, sit on the floor, and actually just sort of doing the breathing exercises to calm myself down and just to not participate in the torture of it. And I just went to bed early. And that was the right choice for me.
Of course I’m thinking back to the 2016 election and the special episode that you and I recorded when the results came out.
John: And that sense that time forked and we ended up on the darkest timeline and then 2020 was just like the darkest part of the darkest timeline.
John: And so I was feeling on Tuesday night like, crap, am I in the coin toss where it actually went the other way? And that is such a terrifying feeling to know that, OK, this could actually all go horribly south.
Craig: Yeah. And so I did the same thing you did because I understood that being on Twitter and absorbing everybody else’s anxiety was not going to be good for me. What ends up happening, when people are anxious they’ll teach you – were you a lifeguard? I know you were an Eagle Scout so I figure you were a lifeguard.
John: I never actually lifeguarded but I’ve done a lot of CPR training.
Craig: Got it. So you know, as did I when I was going through that as a teenager, that when someone is drowning they’re very dangerous to you, because they’re in a full panic and they will try and drag you down. Not on purpose. But they will cling to you in panic and forget that you’re a living person and they can swamp you. And that’s pretty much what’s going on on Twitter on Tuesday. As I look around I just think everyone’s anxiety is just spiraling out of control and they can swamp me with this and it doesn’t have any connection to what’s coming. Right? Because we just haven’t seen it yet. It’s the thing of we’re looking at light in the sky but that’s old light.
So I turned off Twitter and I went and played MLB The Show 20 for quite some time. Did pretty well. Did pretty well. My character in Road to the Show has finally made it through his six qualifying years in the major leagues. He’s a free agent. He got a great deal. He’s a really good pitcher. That’s not important right now.
Here’s what matters. What matters is that it started to turn around as it was always going to go. And I never thought that Florida was going to be Democratic. I mean, yeah, you can fantasize about it. You can fantasize about Texas. And certainly Texas is moving steadily in a direction, so that’s nice to see. But it was – what did we all say? Like adults. This is going to come down to Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and to a lesser extent Arizona. And that’s what it did.
John: It is interesting to wind back a year and think about sort of what this election looked like a year ago. And we were told like, OK, the Senate is unwinnable just based on the states and the races and that it’s going to be really tough kind of overall. And I think, yes, we felt this certain optimism going in and we are not the podcast to actually figure out what happened with the polls, but clearly something about the polls got it wrong in a way that has to be figured out.
I mean, the question of can you even poll the American public or is there something special about this situation. Because the 2018 polls weren’t so wrong. I think the closest thing that I encounter in my work life to this is when – you and I have both been through this – when we have a movie that’s opening on Friday night. Because leading up to a Friday night you get tracking. And tracking starts two to three weeks before a movie comes out. You start to see what the interest is among potential movie going audiences for this thing you created.
And you’ll hear like “oh the tracking is great, the tracking is not going so well, they’re going to spend a little bit more,” and it’s all this sort of – it’s basically polling but it’s for your movie’s opening.
John: Then, we’re here on the West Coast, we know by about 5pm or 6pm how the movie actually did on that Friday night because we get the East Coast numbers and it can be cause for celebration or it can be cause for absolute just devastation because you realize like, OK, we tanked and this is not going to work. And I’ve been through both and it’s just the same kind of rollercoaster.
Craig: Yeah. It’s unpleasant. And that said tracking is fairly accurate. I’m pretty good at reading tracking. And so back when we used to have movies friends would call me and say, “Can you tell me what my tracking means?” And I would say, OK, I think this is what it’s going to be, and generally speaking that’s what it was going to be. Within a small variance tracking is pretty effective.
I don’t know if our polling industry is broken. I think perhaps what we’re dealing with is a political freak and that’d Donald Trump. And if there’s any weird hope that I have, because I know the next two months are going to be awful, 2.5 months, and I know that he’s not going to go away and he’ll still be out there. And people who like him will still be out there. But one day he will be gone as time does its thing and I don’t think that this is a movement that exists outside of him. I think this is just him. And I think he’s warped polling as well.
John: I agree with you there. Because the whole issue of what is Trumpism, because he has no actual central philosophy. It’s just a kind of narcissism. And what that looks like independent of him is really hard to see. And, yes, there are some common themes of people who support him, but it kind of feels like it’s a “him” thing and not something that can be applied to another person.
I don’t see Ted Cruz, for example, being able to take the reins of that horse.
John: And so we should acknowledge our ignorance about future events, but going back to my One Cool Thing from this week is be thinking about not just this next cycle but sort of an overall what are we trying to do, where are we trying to go. And that’s why figuring out how we’re dealing with climate change, how we’re dealing with systemic racism, how are we dealing with the projects that are going to take us decades is so crucial and so hard to think about when we’re stuck on what’s going to happen two months from now because we just don’t know.
Craig: Yeah. We are in trouble. And I keep looking back at this weird line in our history. You know, the McCain concession speech from 2008 is not old in the long run of it.
John: But it feels like a different lifetime.
Craig: Feels like a different nation. And I think in part that’s because between 2008 and now you see the rise of Facebook. And I think what Facebook has done to our national conversation is fatal. It is a fatal poison to our national conversation. It has united people who otherwise would have been separated by the insanity of their thoughts and statements. And it allowed them to – I mean, Facebook, when we look back at this there’s going to be a point where people say, “Wait, Facebook let QAnon be a thing for tens of millions of people for years.” They let it happen. And I don’t think we can wrap our minds around that yet. And we’re still dealing with it.
But what they’ve done, what they have enabled, is so horrifying. I don’t know what to do about it other than to say Facebook to me I look at the way I look at RJ Reynolds. A corporation that is just hurting people in our country.
John: Yeah. You can delete your account, so that’s what I’ve done.
Craig: And I have. Years ago, in fact.
John: And Facebook, yes, but there’s going to be other Facebooks. There’s going to be other things like that.
John: And just being really aware of sort of how something that can start off with one intention and become a very different thing. One of my One Cool Things last week was this book about money and it gets into the creation of mutual funds and how mutual funds became money and they had to all be bailed out. And how bitcoin became money and how basically things that start with one intention, it can become a completely different thing. And we just need to be really vigilant about what can be the next thing that sort of pulls the country apart again.
It apparently didn’t take foreign interference this time to have us all at each other’s throats. And so–
Craig: Well, the foreign interference is lasting interference. What they did was pour a lot of gasoline on something and then it’s still burning. I mean, the dumpster fire continues on. Because all foreign interference is is gasoline. That’s it. Putin just puts some accelerant on there. But he knew that our dumpster of racism was full. And all he needed to do was just set it off and it would burn for four years. And it is, still, burning.
And that’s on us. So if we want to be optimistic about it we can say maybe this needed to happen. You know? Like we had a Civil War that didn’t let quite all the blood out. Maybe this is what we needed to do and this will somehow let the blood out. I don’t know. But it has had a lasting effect.
My great hope is that once we get a grown up administration back of professionals we can not only wrap our arms around the pandemic that is killing hundreds of thousands of Americans, but we can also finally do the work that is required to harden our defenses against this very consistent, predictable enemy.
It’s not like we don’t know who they are, where they are, or what they’re going to do. We know all of that.
John: Yeah. Now, going into this, obviously to control the Senate would be amazing and there’s certain things you can do when you control the Senate that you can’t do otherwise, but the Trump administration has made it clear how important the President is just in terms of putting people in places that actually do the jobs that need to be done. And so that’s the Cabinet, but sort of all those roles in the government and sort of the trust in the folks who need to monitor the things that need to happen. Folks who need to actually mobilize the pandemic response. Just to have sane grownups doing those jobs is going to be so crucial and it will save hundreds of thousands of lives.
Craig: Well, what the Trumpy people call the Deep State, the word we used to use for that was Government. And the reason that the Trumpy people like Steve Bannon didn’t like the “Deep State” is because who those people were were the people who sat down and said things like, “I’m sorry, Steve Bannon, or Donald Trump, what you just said is either illegal or stupid. Or something we’ve tried a hundred times that doesn’t work. We’re smarter than you. We have more experience than you do. And we’re here to tell you you’re just wrong.”
And they didn’t like this. So, rather than say, OK, we will learn or get smarter or have the confidence to listen to people who have studied a topic their whole lives, or worked on something their whole lives, we’re just going to denigrate all of them or get rid of them. And instead fill these rooms with people that just nod along with the Chief Nut Job. That’s what we have.
And as a result–
John: Authoritarianism, fascism. Yes. We have all these things. It’s been bad. And so it will hopefully–
Craig: Get fixed.
John: It will get better. It won’t get fixed, but it’ll get better.
Craig: It will get better. A lot better.
John: As we wrap up election season, and it sort of felt like a show I was watching and participating in and I will miss some of it. I won’t miss most of it. But I wanted to single out some characters, some actual real people, whose stories I got to know in this show. Some people I’m going to kind of miss. So, Marquita Bradshaw who I only found out about very recently from Tennessee seems just amazing. And so she feels like a character in the story about someone running for Congress and she was great. And I was sorry she didn’t win.
John: Jessica Cisneros. Alex Morse. Abby Finkenauer who lost her seat in Iowa, she’s remarkable. She and I went to the same college. She was great and I just cannot believe that she wasn’t reelected. Mark Kelly. The last time I saw you, Craig, in person was at a Mark Kelly fundraiser.
Craig: It was the last party I went to before the country shut down.
John: Yeah. And Theresa Greenfield, also from Iowa. Again, just the kind of person you want to have in that office. And so my hope is that people will see these folks who ran, some of them won but some of them didn’t win, and will keep running because we need to have smart, dedicated people running for every office in this country to make sure we build a future that we all want.
Craig: Yup. Yup. Well, they’ll be back.
John: They’ll be back.
Craig: They’ll be back.
John: Cool. Thanks Craig.
Craig: Thank you, John.
- Eric Roth
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