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 434 of Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, you’re back. You’re recovered from your flu.
Craig: Yeah. That was a little nasty. I thought it was just the cold. I never think that I have the flu. But you know what, a cold will kind of over the course of a couple days just get worse and worse. This thing started in the morning and by the evening I thought I may be dying. And I went over to the urgent care. Do you know how they do the flu test? Have you had that done before?
John: You described it to me on the bonus segment. So we’ll spoil it for people. They stick something far, far up your nose and swab.
Craig: Yeah. Nasty. Did in fact have the flu. They put me on Tamiflu and holy cajole that stuff worked great. I guess if you get it really early at the start of your flu. I basically had that day and then the next day I wasn’t feeling too good and then I was fine.
John: Great. Glad to have you back.
Craig: Happy to be here.
John: You missed a terrific episode with Greta Gerwig. So folks if you skipped that episode, go back and listen to it. It really was terrific. We got into a lot of very specific stuff on the page. We talked about parentheticals. Craig will be so envious of this conversation we had about real specificity on the page.
Today is also a specificity on the page, because we’re going to be doing another round of the Three Page Challenge.
Craig: Oh yes.
John: That’s where we take a look at the first three pages of screenplays that people send us and we talk through what’s working and what’s not. We will also be talking about the difference between ambition and anxiety and how writers can find a balance between those two opposing forces.
Craig: This sounds like a pretty good day. I love talking about pages. I love talking about screen pages. I also love talking about anxiety. I was feeling rather anxious earlier today. I was in my car and I just got the feeling in my stomach, and I just thought, well, this is terrible. And but I did my breathing. You know? And while I was doing my breathing I thought, OK, I’m doing all the right things. This is just anxiety. It still stank.
John: Yeah. It does stink. Even when you know you’re doing the right things to take care of it, it can stink.
Craig: I know. It stinks.
John: And our Premium members will also hear a bonus segment at the end of the show where I will rant about mugs, because I have really strong opinions about mugs and I feel like I need to talk to somebody. So I’m going to talk to Craig and our Premium members.
Craig: This is where the Premium members question the wisdom of their subscription.
John: But so many people have joined the Premium membership program. So thank you everyone who has subscribed. The Premium membership is at Scriptnotes.net. For $5 a month you get these bonus segments, you get the bonus episodes, and all the back episodes. We’ve crossed a threshold so I feel pretty confident we’re going to be able to hire somebody new to be able to help on the technical backend side of Scriptnotes, which is great.
John: So thank you very much to everyone who subscribed.
Craig: Spectacular. Thank you.
John: And reminder to everybody that the old feed, the one that was on the app, that will be going away, so everything is going to be on the new thing. But thank you to everybody who has signed up now at Scriptnotes.net. And news today that we now started accepting Apple Pay. So you don’t even have to pull out your credit card, you can just hit the little Apply Pay button to subscribe to Scriptnotes.
Craig: I have to admit that whenever I see Apple Pay I get super excited because I can just use my face or fingerprint. I’m that lazy. They figured it out. They knew exactly what needed to happen and it was to make me be able to buy things without moving.
John: Yep. Now if you’re buying things this week a thing you could pre-buy would be the third Arlo Finch book. So I finished my trilogy.
John: So people who have listened to this show for a while will know that I started writing these books, Arlo Finch. There are now three of them. The third one comes out February 4 here in the US. February 4 is also my Half Birthday, so you can help me celebrate by buying Arlo Finch 3, or the whole trilogy if you haven’t bought it yet. Craig, were you ever a person who would not start a series until he knew that all the books were written?
Craig: Absolutely not.
John: No. But there are those people out there.
Craig: That’s a person? Really? That’s the weirdest thing.
John: Because they don’t want to get trapped by an unfinished series.
Craig: No. It’s called Anticipation. When J.K. Rowling was still working on the Harry Potter series–
John: This is before she was canceled.
Craig: [laughs] She is uncancelable as it turns out. I think I started reading those books I want to say when she released the third one. So I caught up quickly. And then for the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh when those books would come out it was kind of a little holiday for me. I would take the day off and I would just read the book that day.
Craig: And it was great. I loved those days. They were great. And the waiting made it all worth it. I love that. We can still wait. We don’t have to binge everything.
John: What’s exciting about the third book in Arlo Finch is the first two had advanced copies, and so there were these sort of special paperback ones that would come out a few months before the hard cover. And so folks would read those. And so it was sort of a soft rollout. Kind of no one has read this third book. Like I’ve read it. Megana has read it. My editor has read it. But very few other people have read it. I’ve slipped it to a couple kids who are big readers and they are very enthusiastic.
John: I can’t wait for folks to be able to take a look at the third Arlo Finch.
Craig: Spectacular. And congratulations, by the way. That’s a real achievement.
John: Thank you. For people who want the custom bookplates, you can go to johnaugust.com/arlofinch and there’s a place where you fill out the little form and I will send you a custom bookplate with your kid’s name on it, or your name on it if you prefer.
Craig: Is that an illustration? Is that what a custom bookplate is?
John: Yeah. A bookplate is a sticker that goes in the front of your book so in lieu of me coming to sign your book, it’s a way that you have a signed copy without ever meeting me in person.
Craig: We had a woman that worked for us for a while. She was a housekeeper. And her thing was more like, mmm, today instead of cleaning I’m just going to pick a project for myself that has not been assigned and do it that nobody wanted her to do. And, I mean, lovely person though. And there was apparently a pile of these little – I guess you would call them stickers that said this book belongs to….
She decided to go through all of the books in my daughter’s bookshelf and put them in there, except that a lot of those books were Melissa’s books when she was a kid. It’s like some of them were worth some money. Well, not anymore.
John: Ugh. Sorry.
Craig: You know what? What are you going to do?
John: What are you going to do? I would say putting one of these author signed bookplates in a book would probably actually increase its value rather than decrease its value.
Craig: That will increase the value. Your custom bookplate sounds like a positive thing.
John: But if you’d like me to sign your book in person you can come to the signing at Chevalier’s on Larchmont. It’s a bookstore on Larchmont. That’s February 9 at 2pm. So, it’s a chance to say hello to me and buy your Arlo Finches and I will happily sign them. I will also have some sort of talk which I have yet to figure out. So I’m not doing a big book tour this time. Just small little events, including February 9 at Chevalier’s.
Craig: Fantastic. Well, again, congrats. That’s pretty awesome. How many total book papers have you generated?
John: Wow. That is a good question. Words I can tell you. I can figure that out more easily. About 220,000 words.
John: The three books. It’s a lot.
Craig: That’s so many words.
John: It’s just a lot of words.
Craig: So many words. God.
John: That’s the thing about books versus screenplays is just all the words.
Craig: I feel like, I mean, in our careers just in terms of screenplays we certainly are over – I never know how many words are – but well over a million words, right? Each?
John: Oh, we have to be. Oh yeah.
Craig: 10 million?
John: I don’t know. We could figure it out. That would be a challenge for us.
John: I’ll have Nima write a little program that will figure it all out.
Craig: [laughs] That would be so great.
John: That will be in Highland 4.
John: Calculate your entire – all your work.
Craig: I’m almost a million miler on American Airlines.
John: Oh, nice. And the pilot will come back and congratulate you–
Craig: Is that right? Do they do that?
John: Yeah, they do. They come back.
Craig: Holy crap.
John: When you’ve reached a million medal miles they come back.
Craig: Wow. Amazing. OK, cool.
John: Things to look forward to.
John: Before you can hit that million mile status you actually have to earn a living. And that is something that is a little bit easier for some CAA assistants this week. Craig, talk us through it.
Craig: Well, you and I, we can’t take all the credit for this. We did start I think a very worthy conversation. But it was prompted by somebody who wrote in. And this ball has really been carried forth by a lot of other people. But the good news is it’s working. So, earlier I guess last month Verve, the agency Verve, said, hey, we’re going to bump up our pay for our minimum wage for our assistants from $15 to $18 an hour. And this week CAA, which is the second largest agency in Hollywood, announced that they are doing the same. That’s a big deal. They employ at least a thousand people in that building I would imagine that could work as assistants, mailroom folks, etc. Between their two offices in New York and LA. It’s a lot of people. It’s a lot of money. And it’s a pretty good thing.
So, you know, we are always monitoring the whole hourly wage versus hourly work guarantee thing to make sure that you’re not getting more per hour, but fewer hours.
John: Absolutely. As we stressed on the show really your weekly take home pay should be the metric by whether you’re able to survive in Los Angeles. And so we want to make sure that this higher hourly rate really does translate to people being able to afford to do this job in Los Angeles.
Craig: Right. I think one of the things that was really positive about what CAA announced is also that there’s a different way that they’re contemplating raises. Raises at CAA used to be basically, well, if you’re an hourly employee at the end of the year there’s some kind of – I mean, my guess it was a probably perfunctory raise. And it was just a function of, well, you made it. Congrats.
And what they’re saying now is, no, that actually you can get raises based on upward movement in the company. That it’s not just about the fact that you were a warm body there for a year, but if you take on more responsibility you can get more money. This is – it’s kind of crazy that I’m saying this like it’s something new and exciting. It should have been that way and it should be that way everywhere. And I’m hopeful that now UTA and WME and ICM and Gersh and all the rest of these places will do the same thing. This is how the market should work.
If they don’t, well, they’re going to lose a lot of people to CAA and Verve it would seem to me.
John: I would agree. So let’s talk a little bit about our role in this in terms of you and me, because this was sort of a special case. I’m represented at Verve. You know a lot of folks at CAA. As folks wrote in to us at the Ask account the folks who were talking about Verve we took all those emails anonymously and sort of gathered together in a document that we were able to take – that I was able to take to Verve – and say like, hey, just so you know former and current assistants at Verve have these concerns and you should have a discussion.
You were able to do the same for CAA.
John: Again, all anonymous. But this is really specific things that folks who were working at CAA had concerns as assistants. I do think those helped initiate some conversations within those agencies.
So, if folks who are listening to this who are at the agencies want to write in with their specific information about what they’re seeing at their agencies, we are happy to gather this together and also take them to those agencies to help stoke a little bit more fire underneath them.
Craig: Yeah. I think that’s great. This is sort of an absolute good. If we can keep doing this and improving people’s lives. Look, it’s not an enormous amount, but it matters. This is an amount that matters. And our hope is that not only will it make life better for the people who are doing these very important jobs that support all of us, it will also make these jobs potentially available and feasible for a lot of people. Everyone. And not just people who maybe have additional financial support from their families.
John: Agreed. But that was not the only agency news this week. So we’re recording this late on Friday afternoon. It was announced earlier on Friday afternoon. As we were recording it just went out the actual red lined agreement, so I have not had a chance to read through it carefully. The biggest changes from the previous agreement which was with Rothman Brecher is the extension of when this all sunsets, when packaging gets sunsetted. Some different language in terms of auditing and reporting.
But it’s kind of largely the deal that we’ve been seeing in all these other agreements along the way.
Craig: Yeah. This is good news. Gersh is what I would call, and again, apologies to everybody else, but I think it was the first what I would call major agency to sign. I mean, I guess Verve is sort of a major agency. I would count them, I guess. But I guess traditionally Gersh was always up there with sort of like – I would think of them in the tier of Paradigm and Writers and Artists and people like that.
John: Gersh also represents actors and directors. They represent a huge swath of kinds of people, so they’re not just a literary agency in the way that Verve is.
Craig: Right. Exactly. They’re a multi-service agency. I’m not sure how many writers they represent compared to say people like at ICM, but they were my first agency back in the day. So this is good news. So glass half full. They signed it. And the modifications that I’m looking at here don’t seem particularly problematic in any way, shape, or form. Packaging fees sunset period going to July 15, 2021. I mean, we’ve been living with packages for half a century, so I think another year and a half is no big deal.
Glass half empty. They weren’t a huge packaging agency to begin with. It took us about a year to get them to sign this.
John: Nine months. So, three-quarters of a year.
Craig: There we go. I’ll take that back. It took us about three-quarters of a year to get them to sign it. And I think we’ve run out of this kind of target. I think we’ve gotten the Vs that can matter. And so now what remains are the problems that have always been there and that is WME, ICM, UTA, and CAA.
On the legal front things haven’t been going great for us it seems to me. Can you walk us through that?
John: Sure. So let me talk both of those concerns. So, we’ll start with the legal side. The legal news recently, there’s been delays, pushes. I think from the last time we spoke the Justice Department had tried to intercede on the case. The judge says, no, no, that’s OK. You don’t need to intercede. So they were not invited to intercede on the agencies’ behalf, which I think is a great development.
But clearly the timeframe on the lawsuits is long. And if you go back to sort of like the initial conversations about how all of this was going to go, one of the things that was sort of stressed in those WGA meetings was like the question was always like why don’t we just do the whole thing as a lawsuit, well the lawsuit could take a really long time. And that’s sort of what we’re seeing. It’s not a speedy process to go through this. So, the timeframe is into 2021 before it looks like we have resolution on some law stuff.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, we did get handed a defeat in there, because we were hoping to get the court to toss the agency lawsuit against us, which accuses us essentially of an antitrust violation, and the judge said no I’m not tossing that. So, that’s not good.
John: That’s not good, but it’s not unexpected I would say. So, I mean, I would say that the legal tussling has been the legal tussling that was sort of anticipated. I think the difference being that it’s happening in a federal court rather than a state court which was the initial plan.
John: So the legal stuff is long ongoing.
Back to your previous point though in terms of the big four. The time before that we spoke about this I said that one of my frustrations is that I know a lot of things that I can’t tell you. And I said a possible solution for that which would make me feel better would be to type them up in an encrypted PDF and give you the encrypted PDF so that when this is all resolved I can give you the password and you can see like, oh, that’s why John was feeling the way he was feeling because he knew those things. And so I did give you that PDF.
Craig: Yes. I have that. Obviously I don’t know what’s in it, because I don’t know the password.
John: Yes. And so all the hacker teams you’ve pulled on the PDF to try to break it open, I know they’re trying their very, very best, but strong encryption is really, really strong.
Craig: I have not even inserted it into my computer.
John: So, but here’s a thing that is on that list that I’m actually now allowed to say. I have official approval from the WGA to say is that the guild has been negotiating with the agencies this whole time. So, not just the Gersh who signed this deal now, but these negotiations have been happening since the middle of the election, up until this past week. And it’s not just the agencies five through 12. Like it includes three of the four big agencies, ongoing negotiations.
So you say that you don’t think there’s more progress to be made, that’s why I think there’s more progress to be made.
Craig: Oh yeah. Don’t get me wrong. Well, first of all, I presumed that there were ongoing back channels. I mean, I know that there haven’t been official negotiations, in other words you guys haven’t gotten back into the big formal room with anybody. As far as I know that would have to be announced. But then again I don’t think that that’s the proper venue for negotiating, nor was it ever the proper venue for negotiating this kind of deal.
So, that’s not a big shock to me. All I’m saying is that in terms of I guess what I would call the “easier victories,” the agency that would be more likely to sign this without major reconsiderations, we’re kind of out of those. And it’s a little discouraging that it took this long to get Gersh to sign it. Again, because not a big packaging agency. Obviously I am rooting for all of this to conclude as soon as possible in a way that is favorable to us. And whatever the negotiations have been, they have been long. Longer than negotiations that we typically have for instance with the companies, which while can be bruising and difficult they tend to finish within a matter of say, I don’t know, three months.
This has been much, much longer. And also with what I think we all presumed would be much more effective pressure. They have gone along for nine months now without collapsing which is, you know–
John: So, just to point out though Gersh is a major agency that was part of the ATA. And so all the deals that have been made now are with ATA agencies who have said like, OK, no, we’re dealing with the ATA anymore. We’re dealing individually. So I want to distinguish between back channel and individual, because back channel I think implies it’s those sort of unaffiliated folks who are sort of like sticking off in a distance. That’s not what this is. It’s been individual negotiations. And it’s been a lot of what I would say papers being pushed back and forth rather than sort of like the weird Kabuki thing that we do in MBA negotiations where it’s a bunch of people in the room.
Craig: Yeah. And I like that.
John: That is different.
Craig: Yeah. No, I do like that. I think if you’re negotiating individually with CAA or ICM or WME or UTA that’s great. I mean, that’s all I think we’ve all wanted. Well, I don’t need to get into communication issues. I mean, the Writers Guild tends to communicate in a way that I don’t understand or think is effective. But, on the other hand nine months is not an eternity. The closer we get to a year the more difficult this becomes.
And I do have some concerns about the fact that these lawsuits are hanging out there. There’s some weird stuff in there that I am, well, I just find concerning. So, as always, I am hopeful that this gets resolved in a way where the great majority of writers who have not signed on to the agencies that have signed on to our code of conduct, but are in fact waiting to get the agents that they wanted back can get them back.
John: You and I share that goal.
Craig: Yes. I cannot wait to see this conversation in print verbatim in Deadline again.
John: Oh my. [laughs]
Craig: Can’t Deadline just say, “Hey, listen to their show.” Wouldn’t that be better?
John: Yeah. That would be terrific.
Craig: That would be great.
John: You know what we should do? We should put all of this conversation only on the Premium feed so that they have to–
Craig: They have to pay us $5?
Craig: I think they will. [laughs]
John: They probably will.
John: Let’s move on to another piece of follow up. Akiva Schaffer wrote in to us about his frustration with all the waste being generated by DVD screeners and scripts and everything that we get sent during this awards season. And asked like couldn’t we possibly just have this all under an app. He wrote back in with some follow up.
Craig: Yeah. He says, well, so Akiva just to refresh you guys is one of the three members of Lonely Island. And of course therefore he is friends Jorma Taccone and Jorma Taccone is married to Mari Heller. Everyone is a friend of the podcast. Akiva took a look at Mari’s Academy account to see how they laid things out. I want to be clear. He wasn’t looking at the screeners or anything illegal like that. He just saw how they basically do their thing.
And he said it looks amazing. That the Academy basically has figured out how to do the screener thing. “Every movie is HD or 4K with 5.1 sound. They are laid out and organized in a way that is easy to use.” And honestly his hope is that the Academy could reach out to the guilds, WGA, DGA, SAG/AFTRA and help them do that. Because there is really at this point no reason for us to be getting paper scripts in the mail and DVDs in the mail with all the attended packaging and then I guess associated carbon that’s being spewed out of the trucks. It’s all silly. None of it needs to happen that way. It has to stop.
So, I think good advice. Everybody should be calling the Academy and saying help us do it the way you do it.
John: Yeah. It really has been quite good. So, during the nomination season as the For Your Consideration season the interface was a little bit wonky on it, but the minute the nominations came out the screen was redesigned. So it just goes by category. And so it’s like Best Picture and here are the movies available for Best Picture. All the way down through things you can see like, oh, in this category these are the movies I’ve not seen. It’s really well done. I’ve had zero problems with it. So, yes, my hope is that the other guilds can go to the Academy and say like, hey, can we piggyback on this thing or whatever vendor it is that is providing it can also provide it for the guilds. Because it is just a mitzvah to everyone.
Craig: I love hearing you say mitzvah. I have a voting question for you, John.
Craig: I have noticed both the DGA and the WGA appear to do some kind of staggered voting, where you get a window to vote for a certain number of categories, but not all of them?
John: Yeah, I don’t know why.
Craig: Then you get another tranche where you get to vote for – why don’t we just do it all at once?
John: I don’t know.
Craig: I’m not wrong about that, right?
John: I think you’re not wrong. I think there are certain categories which get held out for certain reasons. There’s also certain categories for nominations where you have to be on a specific committee, like foreign film.
Craig: Well, I’m not talking about nominations. I mean, like just voting to see who wins.
John: Oh, category wise I think I vote for everybody all at once. I could be wrong.
Craig: But for the guild we don’t seem to be.
John: Yeah. Because I don’t remember, I mean, I’m going to vote for Chernobyl, but I don’t remember voting for Chernobyl yet.
Craig: I don’t think that that has opened up yet. So, like the last one was feature screenplays and a couple of other things, and drama series, and news series. This is for WGA. All sorts of voting. I don’t know why they don’t – I’m sure there’s a reason.
John: There’s always a reason.
Craig: There’s always a reason.
John: I don’t know why though either.
John: It’s probably about some weird thing that’s in the guild bylaws about when things have to happen.
Craig: Oh god. The guild bylaws.
John: It’s probably the bylaws.
Craig: Oh god. The guild bylaws.
John: The most important thing about mentioning Akiva Schaffer is that Akiva Schaffer brings us to Jorma which brings us to the news that MacGruber–
John: Is coming back as a TV series on the Peacock which is the only real reason I’ve heard so far for why we need another streamer. It’s so we can have MacGruber.
Craig: Well these streamers aren’t dumb, right? They go I think people need something. And somebody over there must have realized that MacGruber is this quiet sleeping giant.
John: Oh, 100%.
Craig: That is ready to be awakened. As anyone who has been listening to this podcast since, god, the beginning practically knows that I’m obsessed with MacGruber. And I have read various incarnations of a second MacGruber movie. None of them ever happened. I can’t wait for this.
John: Yeah. It’ll be great. I’m very, very excited for it.
Craig, will your kids watch MacGruber? Will they find it funny?
Craig: My son will not watch MacGruber. He doesn’t really watch any television like that. That’s not what he does. My daughter watches an enormous amount of TV. Will she watch MacGruber? No, I don’t think that’s her gear. No.
John: Yeah. And so my daughter wanted to watch a comedy this past week and so we ended up watching Airplane which was phenomenal.
Craig: It’s the best.
John: It’s just great. And I was happy to be able to get her to that place. But I think comedy is an especially tough thing to watch with teenagers because what the teenager wants to watch that’s funny versus what I remember being very funny as a teenager, there’s just not an overlap. It’s such a – so many movies that were funny to us are just not funny to them.
Craig: And aren’t really funny anymore.
John: Sometimes they’re not funny anymore.
Craig: They’re just not funny anymore. I mean, Airplane is kind of permanently funny. But I do remember the feeling of my father saying you will love this movie, it is so funny. And I was just like brace for impact. And it was usually not that funny. But, you know, you watch it with your dad.
John: So, comedies can bring us together. Action movies can rev us up. But news came out of London this week that the film Aladdin, my film Aladdin, could actually save your life. We’ll put a link in the show notes to according to the University College of London going to the movie theater to watch a movie can be as good for your heart as going to the gym.
John: So in this study of 71 people they had folks who were watching Aladdin with all sorts of monitors attached to them and folks who were reading a book with all sorts of monitors attached to them, and the folks who were watching Aladdin had a better, more beneficial heart outcome than the folks who read the book.
Craig: The folks who were reading the book died. [laughs]
John: Oh, I should also say that this study was put together by a movie theater chain.
Craig: So cigarettes don’t cause cancer?
John: It’s funny.
Craig: Books are bad for you. Movies good.
John: Cigarettes improve your vim and vigor. Yeah.
Craig: Four out of five doctors agree. Not a ton of stock to be taken in this particular study. But it is nice to see at least watching movies isn’t something that will kill you. I mean, every day there’s a study that explains why something that you like doing will kill you. So, you know, I’ll take that. I’ll go as far as saying it doesn’t appear that they kill you.
John: So this was arguing for why seeing a movie in a theater is a beneficial thing for you. And a point it makes here which I think is probably a valid point which they could study some other way is that it is a communal experience but it’s also an experience of focused attention. Because in theory when you’re watching a movie in a theater you are not doing anything else. And in our 2020 world we’re always doing nine things at one time. And so to be doing one thing and being focused on one thing at a time is probably a novel experience for someone in 2020. So in that way it probably is helpful for your mental wellbeing.
Craig: It’s like going to the spa.
John: Yeah. It’s like the Onsen but for cinema.
Craig: What’s the Onsen?
John: So some future episode we will talk about public nudity, but Onsens are the Japanese spas–
John: It’s where you hang out naked with everyone else. And it’s uncomfortable for a moment but also kind of a nice thing.
Craig: Yeah. I’m not going to do it.
John: Nope. Last bits of follow up. Highland2. We came out with a student edition. So people were writing in saying like, hey, I am a film student at this school. We would all like to use Highland. Final Draft will give us a discount. Can you give us a discount?
And so we found out a way to do that. So, if you are a film student at a school, and at a school that uses an edu or something that’s clearly a school email extension where you are, we have a program now where you can sign up to get basically the full version of Highland2 for two years for free.
John: So send us in at email@example.com and cc your professor or whoever runs that program so we can get your school signed up so that you guys as film students can use Highland2 for free.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, a discount off of Final Draft may reduce its price to nearly what you ought to pay for it, but you’re probably still paying too much.
John: Yeah. So send this is in, firstname.lastname@example.org and we will get you hooked up.
Craig: Great. Good job.
John: Lastly, Weekend Read, the other app my company makes, we have I think all of the nominated scripts for the 2020 awards up in Weekend Read right now. So if you want to read what those screenplays are you should take a look in Weekend Read. They’re there. I think one of the best ways to really celebrate the movies that you’re seeing is to see what those words were like on the page.
Craig: Excellent. Smart idea.
John: All right. Let’s get to our feature topic today which is anxiety and ambition. We’ll start with a listener who wrote in. “I’m a 29-year-old aspiring writer who is currently working a ‘job with value’ from Episode 422 for a major TV network here in Los Angeles I am not gainfully employed as a writer, but I’m hoping to be one day. For much of my adult life I’ve been dealing with some form of manageable anxiety. To cope I’ve always brushed these feelings aside. After all it’s easier to blame the news cycle, Twitter, a bad relationship, or some other external influence.
“I tell myself things like this must be part of what makes me me, or aren’t the most shining archetypes of writers always battling and embracing their own demons in one way or another? After years of brushing my anxiety issues under the rug with little work to show for myself I thought it time to reconsider my practices. During the past few months I’ve started seeing a therapist, practicing yoga three or four times a week, journaling daily, and exploring the many realms of meditation. Before these practices it felt like I’d been subconsciously wearing a heavy jacket of tension that forced me to suffer in silence.
“Paying attention to mindfulness seems to be impacting my life in dramatic, positive ways. I feel happier, healthier, and more able to connect with my inner voice. A lot of the credit for me taking the step to see a therapist goes to your discussion in Episode 99 with Dennis Palumbo. So, thank you. Out of curiosity what sort of mindfulness practices do you both engage in? I apologize if you’ve already talked about this in some form and it missed me.”
Craig: Well, that’s terrific to hear. I think you’re not alone, friend. A lot of people cope with anxiety by brushing it aside, which of course is not coping, and nor is it aside, nor can it be brushed. It never goes away. Avoidance is everyone’s first move. It’s the path of least resistance. And we’re humans. We’re built to be efficient. So if someone is walking down the street and suddenly they turn left and they’re walking on a bunch of nails they’re going to stop and go a different way. Avoidance. Pretty normal.
Unfortunately with things like anxiety and depression they can’t necessarily be avoided because you are the nails. You’re generating pain. So a lot of people, they engage in mindfulness exercises – meditation, yoga, deep breathing. Some people just sit really still and think. Honestly, whatever works. I mean me, personally, I’m a breather. I just stop and I really just work on breathing for about 45 seconds. I hate it. I’ve got to be honest with you. I hate it.
Craig: But then like suddenly it works. But while I’m doing it I just feel stupid and angry. And then it works. So, you know, it’s like eating vegetables. You’ve got to do it.
John: So the listener mentions meditation. So I started using Head Space. I don’t use it regularly right now but I will say that going through the practice of like that first month of it got me much better at being able to mentally open up my fist and sort of let that anxiety go. There’s a way in which your mind grabs onto things and holds them really tight. And it just lets you unclench and let that thing float away and you find like, oh, I can actually get that thing to not be occupying every thought in my head.
Mindfulness to me is really about sort of recognizing where you are in the present moment and so it’s not ruminating on the past or like over-planning for the future. It’s really sort of being like where you’re at right now and sort of checking where you are in that space. So, breathing is fantastic.
Another thing that can be really helpful and this sounds really simple and dumb but it’s just like to sit where you are and take a survey through the room and just like notice everything in the room. And not try to put judgment or value on it, but just be really seeing everything that’s around you. And it just sort of stops kind of your brain from doing other stuff.
John: Those are things I find myself doing when I get stressed out.
Craig: I do think that for some people, and I’m likely one of them, sometimes there is an anxiety because of some emotional things that you’re holding onto or you’re struggling with, or you’re afraid of. Sometimes I think I’m experiencing anxiety because my brain is designed to work. It’s designed to chop a certain amount of wood. And if it’s not chopping the wood it can start chopping itself.
And it’s one of the reasons why I love puzzles so much because they kind of just – it’s like my dog will just sit there with that rawhide bone and she’ll just chew, and chew, and chew. And I just think well what for? It’s not food. You’re not getting anything. Well, because she needs to chew. And puzzles are like my rawhide bone. And I think it’s important for writers to also remember just because their mind is worrying and they’re kind of feeling that sort of brain churn it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re broken or flawed or sick. It’s just that’s how your mind works. And sometimes all you need to do is give it a bone to chew.
John: Yeah. I want to talk about an aspect of anxiety that’s probably more common to writers than sort of the general population which is ambition. And so I was having a conversation with some USC film students this past week and they were talking about this need they feel to like I have to say yes to every project. I have to always sort of be climbing ahead, ahead, ahead. They sort of sounded like Silicon Valley types. That they were constantly sort of chasing. And they were overworking themselves. They were suffering from burnout. And like, wow, you shouldn’t be suffering from burnout when you’re in your second year of film school. That’s too much.
So I wanted to distinguish between some good things about wanting stuff and going after stuff, which I label ambition, versus anxiety. If you’re going to say yes to a project here are some good reasons to say yes to a project. It might be because there’s something you’re just genuinely excited to do. Or there’s a specific thing you want to learn or a specific person or group of people you want to work with.
You’re asking yourself why do I want to do this. And if those good reasons are there then, yeah, that’s a project you should consider. But, if you’re approaching a project and you’re wanting to say yes because of these bad reasons that’s anxiety. So you might be thinking you’re afraid if you don’t say yes there won’t be another opportunity. You’re jealous of other people doing stuff like that. Or you’re just kind of adding to a list. And it’s understandable why people sort of want to do all the things but really if you just take a second and think about why you’re trying to do this thing you may decide, you know what, I don’t really need to or want to do that. Because every time you say yes to a project you’re de facto saying no to something else. You have a limited amount of time and there’s a bunch of stuff that you probably should be writing, that you want to write, that are really uniquely yours to write that if you’re always chasing after other stuff you’re never going to get the time to actually do them.
Craig: And you will make mistakes. You will say yes to things that you shouldn’t say yes to.
Craig: You will say no to things you shouldn’t say no to. You will say yes to something that makes total sense and then 12 days later somebody comes along with something that’s so much more interesting and better and now you’re not available. These things will happen, so just price it in. There’s no way, there’s no perfect strategy. You’re not going to be able to solve this. You just kind of hope for the best.
I think your list here is great. The only thing I’d probably add into the bad column is that you don’t want to say yes because someone is giving you approval through the offer of work. When someone comes to you and says we think you’re amazing, we love what you do, only you can fix this, you’re incredible, and it’s a big deal, you might go, well, who am I to say not to that? I mean, this is amazing, right? They’re telling me I’m great therefore their opinion of whether or not I should write this is more valid than mine. And as it turns out it’s not.
John: Craig, I got a shiver as you talked through that because that still works on me, honestly.
Craig: Oh yeah, it works on me, too. It never stops. I’m trying to become more aware of it because I think 90% of the time people are being honest with you. They’re saying we love you. And as somebody who is – you know, we all start in this business unloved. Right? We’re out in the cold. We’re desperate for somebody to take us in. We’re like the Little Matchstick Girl in Hans Christian Andersen, freezing out there, while everyone is inside eating that big turkey.
And then suddenly people are inviting us inside and we’re so delighted. And we never really lose the trauma memory of being shut out and undervalued and underused and underemployed and underappreciated.
So, when people come at us with honest approval it can sometimes screw up our brains.
John: Yeah. It overwhelms your pleasure sense. You’re just like, oh yes, this is what I’ve craved all this time.
Craig: Exactly. 10% of the people know exactly that they’re doing that. And those are the worst people. And you’d think, well, 10% is not that many. It’s a lot. It’s actually numerically a lot of people. So you just have to allow yourself to enjoy the approval of somebody wanting you to do something without feeling that that obliges you to do it.
John: Yeah. Now, I also want to be aware that what we’re talking about may seem like luxury, like we have the choice of things, where you’re not stuck doing a thing because you have to keep the lights on, because you have to sort of pay rent. Totally understand and get that. But the things you’re doing for yourself, the choices you’re making I’m just arguing to avoid sort of meaningless grinding. Like there’s that videogame quality where you’re just killing orcs in order to make enough leather to do at thing.
You know, sometimes you have to grind a bit and just try to make a meaningful grinding and at least be aware of why you’re doing what you’re doing. And if it is just to keep the lights on, that’s fine. That’s good. But don’t pretend that it’s also your artistic satisfaction if it’s not.
Craig: Yeah. No, I mean, if you’re doing it well you will end up in a place where you will have more things offered to you than you can do. That’s inevitable. So, yeah, we don’t mean to rub it in because some of you are listening to this going what a wonderful first class problem. But, my friend, if you are struggling right now but good you will have this problem.
John: Yeah. Absolutely. The other last thing I would say to avoid burnout is to focus on the process and not the results. So obviously you want to come out of this with a great script. It would be wonderful to get awards. But really look at how do you make the days’ work meaningful? That doesn’t mean it’s actually fun and joyful at all moments, but that you could wake up in the morning saying like, OK, this will be a difficult day but I will get to learn this thing. I will get to see these people who I like. There will be a good reason for me to go through this day. And I will go to bed knowing that I did something that mattered today. If you can do that–
Craig: [laughs] I always struggle with that.
John: But if you can do that then you’re finding some meaning in the process and it’s not all about sort of chasing this thing down the road.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, I say all the time that what we do is a process job, not a results job. And yet there are days when you kind of feel bad because there weren’t results that day. Over time you will be able to recognize that just because you didn’t get results on a particular day doesn’t mean that you’re result-less.
Look, it never ends. It never, ever ends, no matter what you do. No matter how you do it in this business. Your brain is going to mess with you somehow. It messes with you on your worst days. And I’ve got to be honest, it messes with you on your best days. It just gets in there. You know, you’d think like, whoa, hey, cool man. You won some awards. And then you think, oh, never going to do something that good again. Then your brain starts doing what it does. It’s just part of who we are and you’ve got to kind of give yourself a break as your brain undermines itself. It’s just inevitable.
John: Yep. It is true.
Let’s move on to our next thing, and we can frame this with a question that we got in from Michael. He lives in East Hackney, London, UK. He writes, “I was curious to hear your thoughts on how much knowledge and spatial awareness writers should have of interior spaces. Seemingly subtle things like the location of a bathroom or the distance between your character’s living room and their study may play an important part in your story, but its location has been scouted or built is there an industry standard for how specific you should be when it comes to describing specific interior spaces?” That’s a good question.
Craig: It is a good question. I don’t believe there’s any kind of standard of how specific you should be when it comes to describing those spaces. But I’m a big believer that you should know them. Because what you fail to do if you do not know them is write something that will easily map onto real physical space. If you have thought about the physical space clearly, and then written the scene, nothing that you write will be incompatible with the physical space.
Very frequently new writers will write scenes and then you get there and you’re like so this person just, what, teleports to the other side of this room in one second? How does that work? Because they haven’t thought about the space. So this person is coming out of the thing but they’re facing towards the door so the bathroom is in the street? What’s going on here?
And, Lindsay Doran, famous for asking me, “Where are they standing?” It’s a big thing. Literally where are they standing in the space. So I think about that a lot. A lot. And the fact of the matter is the more you have a sense of what it ought to be when the rubber hits the road and reality shows up and you’re shooting somewhere that isn’t like what you imagined in your mind what you imagined in your mind can still exist in it, because what you imagined is consistent with reality.
John: 100%. So I want to offer as proof of concept of this is Rian Johnson’s screenplay for Knives Out. So we’ll put a link in the show notes to the PDF.
John: It’s a pretty good script, I guess.
Craig: Garbage. And nominated for an Oscar. Congratulations, Rian.
John: Yes. A wonderful movie. But we’ll look at the first two pages of this, just as you take a look through them, he describes “The grounds of the New England manor. Pre-dawn. Misty.” We come inside the house. I’m not going to read the whole thing aloud. But he talks about the first floor, what’s there. “The detritus of a party. Stray champagne flutes.” It’s minimal. We follow a housekeeper named Fran carrying a tray of coffee up a flight of stars. The second floor doors are all closed. “The house has not woken up, and Fran steps lightly.” So he’s describing this tracking shot which is going to establish the geography of this house, which is of course incredible important. But it’s so well done. And it doesn’t feel like D&D descriptions. It’s not talking about a 20×30 foot room with ceilings of a certain height. He’s telling you what the character of the house is, but also giving you a sense of the unique geography. The way the hallways get narrower and narrower. The stairways get narrower and creaky. It completely tells you what you need to know about this house.
I’m assuming he wrote this way before he knew what the actual locations were he was shooting in and he was able to find locations that gave him what he wanted. It’s a great example of sort of how important it is to think about these interior locations as you’re writing.
Craig: I mean, I haven’t even asked him this question. My guess would be that the house was a set.
John: No, the house was not a set. I heard him on another podcast talking about it.
Craig: Wow, really?
John: So – actually when they screened it for the Academy Rian and everyone else was there talking about it. And that was the question, like what was the set? And basically it wasn’t a set. It’s a real house. There’s certain rooms in it where they shot at other houses. But, no, it’s not sets.
Craig: Wow, great. Well, it’s a terrific job that he does here. First of all, he’s directing on the page. And you can say, no, he’s a director, too. Yeah, uh-huh. OK. So it’s our job is to direct on the page. And it doesn’t involve camera, zoom, lens, blah. It’s just I need to know what’s going on.
I love how short and terse and readable it is. There is exactly as much information as I need. And none of what I don’t need.
So, and this will come up as we read through these things here. Here’s a wonderful thing. The very first line of action description. “The grounds of New England manor.” “The grounds of a New England manor” is not a sentence. Doesn’t matter. I get it. Great. “The grounds of a New England manor. Pre-dawn misty.” 999 writers out of a thousand, particularly those who are aspiring to be professionals, will come up with some sort of purple, rosy, fingers of Jesus pre-dawn haze lingers like the breath of an angel. Blah-blah-blah. “Pre-dawn misty.” Got it. Next.
Do you know what I mean? Like no time for baloney. Just here’s the deal. “Inside the manor. Unlit and still.” That’s how we do it. “Unlit and still.” It’s just like when we talk about how to describe characters. Wardrobe. Hair. Makeup. Things I can see. “Unlit,” view, and “still,” sound. Wonderful. Three words. Also not a sentence. Doesn’t care. Lovely. Great job.
John: Yep. Lovely. And by doing things so efficiently he’s able to give us a dead body at the bottom of page one.
John: Well done Rian Johnson.
Craig: Yeah. He deserves an Oscar.
John: All right. So he did not submit his three pages for us to critique.
Craig: Should have.
John: But a bunch of other people did. So thank you to everyone who submitted to the Three Page Challenge. Here is how this works if you’re new to the podcast. We have a page on the website, johnaugust.com/threepage. People send in the first three pages of their screenplay. They sign a little form saying it’s OK for us to talk about them. And they go into a big hopper. Megana reads through them. This time we had help from Bo Shim and Jacq Lesko in your office. Thank you very much for lending them to us.
John: To read through all of them with a specific mandate for what we wanted to talk about this week which is how you establish settings. So that was the mandate we gave them to look for scripts that would let us talk about settings. So in some cases they did it brilliantly, or there were some issues. But that’s what we’re really going to focus on as we look through these three pages. So if you want to read along with us you can find links in the show notes and pull up the PDFs. But we’ll also give you a quick summary of the three that we’re going to take a look at today.
John: We’ll start with Bruja by Janelle B. Gatchalian.
Craig: All right. Shall I read the summary?
John: Read the summary for us, Craig.
Craig: I shall. Outside of a condo building two security guards fan themselves off with folded cardboard as a swarm of bats flies past them. One considers shooting at them but stalls. He looks up at a window. Inside a child’s bedroom we see a dresser, a doll on the floor, and four clocks set to different time zones on the wall.
On a calendar we see that it is April 13, 2001, Good Friday. There’s a crucifix on the wall and below that two cribs. A mother tucks her twin daughters in. They’re infants. One has a twinkling face. The other has watery eyes like she’s going to cry.
Nearby her son asks from his bed about the aswang. His mother replies, “We don’t believe that stuff anymore.” And he says that he heard bats. She says, “No, you didn’t. The sounds would be too high-pitched.” She says go to sleep. She leaves. Turns off the light revealing glow-in-the-dark stars.
Later we watch the stars fade as a breeze sweeps through. The door hinges open. Bats fly into the room in a cluster. The bats take form into a Filipino woman wearing white. We see her black hair in the mirror reflection as she makes her way to the cribs. She floats above them. Then wraps her tongue around one of the crying baby’s necks before she eats its head and then the rest of it.
The little boy is scared but watches as the aswang makes its way over to the other twin. And holds her, resting the baby at her shoulders where we see three small freckles on the baby’s ear.
And that is the first three pages of Bruja by Janelle Gatchalian.
John: Fantastic. So small exception here. There’s actually an extra page here because Janelle has included a glossary. It’s between the title page and the real page of script. There’s a glossary that lists seven terms and sort of gives descriptions of them. For some scripts I would be fine with this. I didn’t need it for these three pages. For a longer script it might be helpful. Craig, how did you feel about the glossary?
Craig: I don’t mind it. It’s not ideal. If you can get away with not putting the glossary in you’re better off because the audience will not get a glossary.
John: Nope. They will not. Also panopticon I don’t think belongs in a glossary because that’s just a normal English word.
Craig: That’s just a word.
John: All right. But getting to the actual text on the page, you know I did have a sense of the space and the place. I liked what we were doing in terms of establishing that there are security guards, that it’s hot, that’s it is in an environment that is sort of interesting and exciting to read. I have nitpicks on some of the writing on the page in terms of like some of the word choice. But I will say that I read this this morning and did sort of stick with me. If you were going to have a lady made of bats who then eats the head of a baby it’s going to stick. And at the end of these three pages I was curious to read more.
Craig: Yeah. This is meant to be a pilot for a series. My biggest issue really was with the very first scene. So this exterior condo building, night. I don’t know what a condo building is.
John: I don’t either.
Craig: I mean, I know it’s an apartment building that has condos, but how many, what, three stories? Four stories? 100 stories? And then I don’t know where it is. Is it in a city? Is it in the suburbs? Is it outskirts.
John: Yeah, only when we get to the caption near the bottom of the page it says Manila, Philippines. Give that to us at the start. It’s important. Really anchor us into the place where we are.
I love that it’s hot. I love them fanning with the cardboard. But we’re talking about the stagnant air and yet I can’t feel that. We need to see what’s happening to the security guards who also a little too generic for this. I want to see them – distinguish them. Make them sweaty. Tell us more about where we are.
Craig: Yeah. So this condo building is a nondescript building. It’s in the middle of nowhere that is defined. The two security guards emerge out of a guard post. What? What guard post? A guard post in front of a condo building?
John: I don’t know what that’s like.
Craig: Is there like a guard arm? Is this to enter the parking lot? Is it just a kiosk? What are we looking at? Why do they emerge? When it says to beat the hot still air, I need to see that they’re hot before they emerge. Usually if you’re hot on the inside there’s a little fan or something. So, they’re just coming outside. And I don’t know why. It seems like they’re emerging just because the writer wants them to emerge.
And then this is one of the stranger bits, because we’re talking about geography. It says, “Their eyes roam to motionless wheels of a parked car.”
John: I had a big question mark there, too. I don’t know what that means. They’re looking at a parked car?
Craig: The one thing that will never attract anyone’s attention ever are the motionless wheels of a parked car. Also, is it just one car? Is it alone? What kind of car? Why would they care? And then it says, “A swarm of bats rush in.” To the outside? You can’t rush into the outside. They’re outside.
John: They can rush past.
Craig: They can rush past. Where do they come from? They don’t just materialize out of thin air. This is exactly the kind of logic geography that we need to consider or else on the day of production meetings people say, “Are the bats just poof? What’s up?”
John: Yeah. So let’s describe the fantasy version of this scene which I think is what we were maybe trying to go for. Is that you have these two security guards who it says, “Swelteringly hot night.” They’re near their little booth, whatever it is. Have them already be outside the booth. There’s no reason for them to be inside and then come out. They’re already outside this booth. They’re fanning themselves with the cardboard. I love it.
Suddenly a thousand freaking bats are swarming past them. They freak out. They get inside the booth. One of them pulls a gun like should I shoot the bats. Like, no, of course you don’t shoot the bats. That is an interesting opening and I think that’s kind of what we’re trying to get to here. But the words in this opening section didn’t land for me.
Craig: They didn’t. And also it says that one of the guards “aims his gun at the bats. He stalls, shivering with fear.” Nobody actually shivers with fear. Not like that. And then it says, “He looks up at a window.”
Craig: Why? And which window?
Craig: How do we know he’s looking at a window? You know what it will look like when he looks up at a window? He’s looking up. That’s what it will look like. We won’t know. There is a version of this, by the way, just occurred to me, where you start with these two guys in their guard kiosk and it’s super-hot but there’s a little fan going [spinning sound]. And then the fan goes [sound of fan dying]. And it stops. And they’re like, oh no, because it’s super-hot, but they don’t want to go outside, which is information. Like well why don’t you want to go outside? What’s the problem?
And then they’re like, screw it, let’s just do it. It can’t be that bad. And then the bats come. Because the implication is that they know, I guess, that there’s some sort of supernatural thingy out there.
John: Yeah. Could be. So let’s take a look at this moment of looking up at the window because I think the instinct was to be, oh, that’s going to help the transition into the apartment. It doesn’t help. It’s just confusing. So if we see these guards and all these bats go past, the fact that we’re cutting to the inside of this apartment with this mother and these kids, we are expecting those bats to come. And that is tension that is great. And so that suspense is going to be there because holy cow something is happening.
Craig: Well, yeah. But the problem is that the bats appear to be in some sort of JFK air traffic control holding pattern for a very long conversation.
John: They do. Yes. So I think we can probably lose a little of this conversation. I also want to lose the mother’s line on the bottom of this first page. “Naku. It’s 2001. We don’t believe those things anymore.” Scratch that line. Just say like, “Mama, what about the aswang?” “Naku.” “I heard the bats.” Cross all the rest of this out. “Just close your eyes. I’ll keep the AC on. You’ll fall right asleep.”
John: That’s all we need.
Craig: That’s it.
John: We’re set.
Craig: We’re done. We’re good. The scene where the woman appears, it can be scarier. The truth is that the – like when it says, “Hard to make out her face. She flips her raven hair back.” You know, like my daughter’s friends flip their raven hair back. Do you know what I mean? There’s a way for the hair to – you want to feel like this – is it stringy? Is it wet? Is it dirty?
John: Dirty fingernails claw through her stringy hair.
Craig: Or does the hair just float away revealing this terrible face? We’re missing something. And then honestly when she eats the baby it’s gross. There’s a line – sorry folks – “a bloody flesh of flesh, eyeballs exposed, floats and enters her mouth.” Well that almost sounds funny. Because like how does – flesh doesn’t have eyeballs. Anyway, there’s some issues here like this. And in the middle of this page – there’s about a page description or three-quarters of a page of this creature eating a baby.
Craig: And when it is done eating the baby our writer writes in description, “She just ATE THE BABY!” Yes, we know.
John: We were there. We saw it.
Craig: Yeah. We saw it.
John: But did the young boy see it? And that’s where I got a little frustrated with the sequence.
Craig: Yeah, where is he? What’s he doing?
John: So I was confused by sort of the boy is in the room with the twin babies. OK. That’s great. But we lose him through all of the baby eating and then suddenly he’s there on page three. “The young boy grips the covers. He can’t control his heavy breathing. The aswang turns its head to the other baby twin, unfazed.”
So, he’s there but we don’t clock him for a very long time in there. And that should be – we should be worried about him. We should be seeing him.
Craig: Perspective. Right? You want to talk about what’s scary? Well the kind of objective perspective of this creature is not scary. A little boy’s perspective of this creature as it floats by him and then eats one of this infant siblings–
John: Love it.
Craig: And then we’re like peeking. We’re getting peeks. We’re getting things. And then it looks over and he hides. You know, you’ve seen this stuff before. I mean, so anyway, that’s – yeah. But, you know, it seems like a good setup for a show.
John: It does seem like a good setup for a show. So this is a show about setting and sort of places things in a specific place. I like Manila, Philippines as a place to set this story. I have not seen it before. I’m curious about the mythology that Janelle is building for all of this. And while I didn’t love some of what happened on here I did like the idea of like, OK, there’s this woman who is made of bats who just ate a baby. That’s compelling.
Craig: Yeah. Bat-cloud lady baby-eater is good. So, we’re really talking about, again, living in that space. Looking around. Seeing it. And asking what do people need to know. Space. Relationship to space. Time matters. If bats are going to fly toward a thing they need to show up at bat speed, right? That’s just how it goes. So it’s stuff like that.
John: Yep. All right. Let’s travel still in the southern hemisphere for Night of Game by Alex Beattie. We’re in Kruger National Park at night. We see 50 white rhinos migrate through the plains. We hear the buzz of cicadas. And through the long gross we spot a silver tip of a rifle and then a few yards away more silver tips. We watch a rhino grunt as it charges ahead only to be shot with bullets and the wail of the rhino as it collapses. We see these white Boer poachers rise from the grass, removing their knives.
Then we cut to the Zimbali Lodge at night. Masks and sculpt animal heads lining the lobby. We follow the footsteps up the stairs to the hotel rooms. There’s a beep as a card swipes and a door opens. Miles, 18 years old, sleeps. We pull up on him as his eye flickers open and we see his seven-year-old sister Caitlyn. She’s fully dressed, trying to wake him up.
Miles protests that it’s too early. It’s 4am. Miles gets up and meets his mom, Lori, in her hotel room. He looks at an old framed photo of his parents as Lori makes a comment about the night she met Miles’ father with a melancholy tear in her eye.
We cut to a game reserve with an anti-poaching sign. The family rides in a jeep. Caitlyn is asleep. Miles is in the back. Lori is up front with her guide, Barry, who welcomes them to the park saying it’s the largest white rhino population in the world. Lori says it was her husband’s second home. And that’s where we’re at at the bottom of page three.
Craig, start us off.
Craig: OK, well, keeping with our topic today of location we begin with exterior, the bush, night. Super: Kruger National Park, South Africa. And then we see a crash of at least 50 white rhino. That is a lot, by the way. We tend to underestimate the size of numbers when we look at these things. 50 white rhinos. A ton. Migrate through the vast rugged plains. A rhino lingers behind and wanders into the thicket.
Well, is it plains or is it thicket? Because plains ain’t thicket.
The huge bull feeds on a nearby thorn bush. And so hidden in the long, dry grass a silver gun tip. I feel like this is an area where you’re setting up a rhino is about to get picked off by predators. And therefore I need to know specifically what’s going on. Is it a little area that’s through a gorge? Is it flanked on both sides by tall grass? Is the rhino aware? I mean, this is the setting of a kind of a murder, right? So what we have is a little too generic. It’s sort of like Africa. Here comes guns. But then it charges and it dies. And they come out in their night vision goggles. OK, so that’s kind of, you know, it’s fine.
But I would do, I don’t know if you thought the same, but I would be far more specific about the arrangement of cover and stuff to create a sense of suspense and danger and also give the people who are making this movie a fighting chance at actually picking a location or designing something or even filling it in to fit the vision of the writer.
John: Yeah. So going back to Rian’s script for Knives Out. The grounds of a New England. Pre-dawn misty. So incredibly minimalist but we also identify it as Thrombey Estate Manor House. So it’s pretty easy to summon an image in your head of what kind of place we’re at. This right here I do feel like we’re sort of generic African savannah. I need to be grounded a little bit more clearly. You’re going to have to paint me a picture a little bit better, in part so we can get the suspense that Craig is looking for. Like, you know, if we’re just seeing these rhinos here, well, I mean, is this going to be a predator attacking? What’s going to be happening here?
Once we see a gun, OK, it’s going to be some sort of poaching thing. Is there going to be a twist? How many people are there? What’s happening? And I didn’t get that sort of grounding that I wanted here.
Craig: Yeah. It’s hard to generate surprise when you haven’t really laid in the arrangement in my mind of where these things are coming from and why it even works at all.
So, our next location is Zimbali Lodge and we start inside Zimbali Lodge which is an interesting choice. Typically we’re going to want to see the exterior of something like this. But hopefully we get the sense of what it is. We’re going to need a break in between the scene before and this scene, which is why I’m thinking you might want some sort of exterior. And we’re in the lobby and we’re creeping low along the stone tiles and faint footsteps climb the steps. I was a little confused by that. Are we the footsteps? I think so.
So, it’s OK in this point and here’s where I would say golly gee, don’t be afraid to say “we.” This is a perfect time to use “we.” We are climbing the steps slowly. At the top of the landing, hotel rooms. Beep. A swipe. We push the door open. A fan whirls. Reveal we are, blah-blah-blah, if we needed to, right?
Why is this little girl in a lobby at night? I have no idea. She’s seven. I understand why a little girl would want to sneak out of her room to wake up her brother because she’s bored. But why would she start in the lobby?
John: Yeah. That didn’t track for me either. So, this little girl, so story logic wise, this little girl is excited to go on their safari. They do start at the crack of dawn. I’ve done them. They’re fun. But you do start at night, so that’s not unrealistic. But it’s unrealistic that she’s out of the room. I also get concerned by – so if you’re in a location that has multiple sub locations you can do the thing like what we’re doing here which is just hotel room, but I didn’t get a sense of like, wait, are we inside the room? Are we outside the room? You got to make it more clear where we’re at here.
John: I didn’t know why we were sort of sneaking up. But then through binoculars we see Miles Abbott, 18, slim build, sprawled out asleep. Wait, were we in binocular vision this whole time? What’s going on? I was just really confused by why we were doing what we were doing. And are we supposed to feel frightened for Miles? That these poachers are after him? I didn’t get what the writer was going for here.
Craig: Well, I think it is fake suspense. By the way, it’s not shootable. You can’t shoot the thing through binoculars. It just doesn’t work like that, unless they’re fake binoculars because they’re a toy apparently. She’s holding a tiny pair of pink binoculars. Maybe they’re a toy. But even then you’d have to vignette it like binoculars which would just be confusing to people.
And like you said are they doing that the whole time? So it’s meant to be a misdirect and it just doesn’t make sense.
So here’s the thing about misdirects. Totally cool to do. But when you reveal they have to make retroactive logic, otherwise their just a cheat and the audience loses faith in you and they feel like you’re just cheating, which you are.
John: Which I worry you would feel that way in here. So, the actual conversation between the two of them if you just strip away all the other stuff is just like the girl is really excited to go, the boy is 18 years old and sort of being a teenager and wants to sleep in. He then goes into the mother’s room and has – this is the kind of scene that I really – it’s not quite the air vent for me, but it’s close. Where there’s a conveniently placed photo of the person who is dead. And for no apparent reason one character picks it up and starts talking about it and they have a conversation about this dead person, which is meant to set up something else. You got to find a different way to do that, folks, because it can’t be there. It can’t.
Craig: Well, when a man dies and leaves behind a wife and two children inevitably about three years later one of the kids will look at a picture and the wife will start talking in an impromptu fashion about the first night they met, as if the kids never heard that story.
It’s just, yeah, it doesn’t make any sense at all.
Craig: It’s not emotionally logical.
John: And here’s the opportunity that Alex has given himself for getting that backstory out, because they’re going to go on safari and she gets the opportunity to say like my husband was a safari leader. Basically we don’t need that information on page two because it’s going to be very easy to get out on page three if it really is that crucial. So, I think that’s interesting and helpful.
I had a question on page two about accents. I think they have British accents but I’m not sure if they have British accents. You got to tell us, because I don’t know how to read some of these lines until I know what accent these people are.
Craig: I mean, generally speaking cheeky would imply British to me. Or Irish. Or Australian.
John: Or they could be South African.
Craig: Or they could be South African. Actually you’re right.
John: There’s a lot.
Craig: There is a lot. It could be a lot of different things. This is not a sentence. “Hluhluwe home to the largest population of white rhino in the world.” There is no verb.
Now, people don’t necessarily have to speak with verbs in their sentences. But this is a sentence that would normally have a verb like “Hluhluwe is home to the largest population of white rhino in the world.” Why is he suddenly saying that? I mean, normally we want to come into these scenes in the middle. He’s going on and on. He’s rambling.
John: Yeah. OK. But let’s talk about transitions between moments in scenes. Because page three, the end of the Lori/Miles scene, “Where’s Caitlyn?” “She’s already started her little safari adventure!” It’s not a good out. So we talk about the out of a scene is like how do you stop a scene so you can get onto the next thing? Or leave a scene with enough energy that you’re spilling into the next one. I didn’t buy it. Especially with “They both laugh.” No. That’s not–
Craig: What’s funny?
John: Yeah. Maybe laugh at something that’s funny. This is not a moment that’s funny that’s going to give you the out. And in so many cases stop trying to write for the out and look for what is the last thing that sort of necessarily wants to happen in that scene so you can just cut to the next thing and move on. And you can come into the next thing a little bit later. I just felt like we always have these opportunities to be moving ahead.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I think we’ve covered this one.
John: I think we’re good.
Craig: Yeah, we did it.
John: But I want to say setting something at a safari park is good. That’s a space that I’m not seeing in a lot of other things, so I think there’s really good opportunities to do fascinating things there. But describe what’s interesting and new and different. And unfortunately in these pages we got kind of generic-y Africa and we got a hotel room.
Craig: And generic people and generic emotions.
John: Again, we want you to take advantage of the specific things you can do in that place which is to make your movie and your first three pages different than all other three pages.
Craig: Exactly. All right. Well, let’s move onto our last one. This is Upward Mobility. It’s limited series pilot. Oh, I like limited series. And this is story by Carol Gold Lande, Lande I’m going to guess, L-A-N-D-E, and Linda Minnella Yardley. And it is written by Linda Minnella Yardley.
We watch an opening credit sequence of the Diego Rivera Detroit Industry Fresco Murals. The show opens in the dining room kitchen of the Ford Bomber Plant, late morning. A busboy unloads Ford monogramed china while a black waiter, Lester in his 50s, and a young white trainee walk through the kitchen. Lester explains to the trainer that Mr. Ford and his executives eat breakfast in the dining room every day. And Mr. Ford prefers his milk unpasteurized, believing that it’s healthier.
Trainee doesn’t like this, doesn’t appreciate that he has a person of color as his boss. We head into the dining room. Other waiters are getting the room ready for lunch, but Henry Ford, 79, and Harry Bennett, 55, are in conversation. Harry hands Ford a photo of a University of Michigan football player. And throughout this exchange we learn that Ford is disappointed in his own son and is looking for someone to spy on him. He rejects the football player, thinking that his son would identify him as a spy. Lester serves Harry a steak. The trainee gives Ford his milk and cereal.
Ford looks through and finally picks a photo of a middle-aged man named Joe Salvo. Lester brings the phone from the kitchen. There’s a call for Harry. Harry listens briefly and has to leave. He tells Ford one of their planes has blown up and the entire crew is dead. He also says to Ford that Edsel has landed. Ford drops his napkin and then tucks it back into his neck and tells Harry to get Joe Salvo hired for his son, Edsel, quickly. And that is our summary of Upward Mobility.
John, what did you think?
John: So, the pages we’re reading are not the first three pages. Apparently there’s a teaser that happened right before this. I’m guessing in the teaser we actually saw a bit more of factory-factory because in what we’re seeing here we have the opening title sequence and then we’re into this sort of executive dining room.
But, with what I saw I was intrigued by sort of some of the setting, the geography, and curious about what was happening, but a little bit confused.
So, let’s talk about this opening title sequence. I know Diego Rivera Fresco that she’s talking about. I think that’s actually a great idea for using in these opening titles because it feels dynamic, it feels period, it feels really cool. In my head because I recently saw Ford vs. Ferrari I keep picturing that Ford Motor Company. So this is a few years earlier. I need to know a little bit more place and time. And I might have gotten those in the first three pages before this, but I was missing some specificity about exactly what year I’m kind of in. And I would love to have seen that.
That said, I’m excited to see Lester and, you know, the black waiter who is training the trainee, and that little bit of racism. I always love a moment where a phone gets brought to a table. I find that to be a good period detail.
But I also got a little bit lost in the we’re hiring someone to spy on the son. And I felt like there could have been sharper moments than that. Craig, what were you feeling?
Craig: Yeah. If I had to guess, I mean, again who knows? But I would think the teaser might be the plane crash.
John: Yes, OK.
Craig: That would be a fun way to open a show is a plane crash. I mean, everybody likes a good old plane crash. I mean, except for the people on the plane. Or the people under the plane. Yeah, the opening title sequence could be pretty cool. You know, the thing about opening title sequences is if they’re not actively telling story, like for instance the title sequence for Game of Thrones, then they might not even need to be detailed if they really are just graphic title sequences.
The bomber plant, again, I would probably not start inside a kitchen if I don’t know where the kitchen is. I haven’t seen the exterior. I’m guessing I don’t see the exterior in the prior bit. That’s if I don’t. I also don’t know what bomber plant means. And bomber plant is kind of a strange phrase. It means bomber airplane. So maybe just a little clearer there.
But there’s a good job here of using space. I like steaming fog. I like rattling. I like flinching as he plucks hot plates from the rack and stacks them.
Craig: I can feel it, right? Like I can see it. I can feel it. I’m not sure why young white trainee who is part of this scene and who is bristling under the training of–
John: He gets a name. He should get a name.
Craig: Yeah, I think so. Right? He gets a name. Otherwise I’m less interested in his racism to be honest with you. It just has less impact because he’s not a real person.
John: Craig, I want to delete the paragraph, “Even though he’ll never hold paper on a spec of land, Lester addresses the trainee with the posture and confident formality of the man who owns this kitchen.”
Craig: I agree with you.
John: Don’t need it.
Craig: Because his dialogue does that for you.
Craig: I think the actors can see what’s going through here.
John: I like Lester’s line, “Fix that good in your mind.” It’s specific and kind of weird and it sticks. I mean, and it doesn’t feel too written. I dug it.
Craig: Yeah. I wasn’t – so we have to talk a little bit about when people say names. We’ve had a few of these in here. People are just announcing names. Generally speaking a cook, “Lester, food is good to go here.” No, I don’t think so. Cook taps the order-up counter. “Food’s ready.” Or just taps it. And they take the plates. There’s an opportunity if Mr. Ford knows Lester’s name that’s good. Or if Harry says, “Thank you, Lester,” because they know him. That’s good. It’s just finding those moments. Speaking of names, a lot of people aren’t going to know that Henry Ford’s son was named Edsel. In fact, most people will not know that. So when it says, “Even Edsel could spot him as one of your moles,” is Edsel a competitor? Does Edsel work for the government? Who is Edsel? Is Edsel confusion? Hard to say.
So, “Even my son could spot him as one of your moles.” Something. You just have to be a little clever about this, otherwise we’re going to get a little – I think that’s part of the confusion. Because this is also a confusing thing they’re doing. They’re looking through photos to find somebody who can spy on or look after his kid and they’re not even sure what the criteria are.
John: Yeah. I mean, it sounds like a Talented Mr. Ripley situation where he wants somebody to kind of befriend or sort of get close to his son so he can keep an eye on him. That’s my guess is that Edsel is sort of a mess-up and he wants somebody to watch over him.
Craig: Right. Exactly. So it’s a little bit – and I love that. I think that’s a really cool idea. It’s just that I’m not quite sure when he says I don’t like this guy, I don’t like that, I’m like why exactly? Altar is spelled incorrectly by the way. A-L-T-A-R.
And also I don’t quite understand what’s going on when Harry says, “One of our planes blew up. The whole crew is dead.” Ford doesn’t care. Lester is worried. And then Harry says, “And Edsel just landed.” That’s all in italics. And that seems to jar Henry Ford. Why?
John: Yeah. So I don’t think we have – it’s not that we don’t have information, but we’re not sufficiently curious to make us really want to go to like got to have the answer to that question. And I think some tightening in these scenes could get you to that place.
Craig: Yeah, I think so.
John: We may have seen Edsel in the first three pages which is why we’re focusing on this. So we don’t know everything about this.
Craig: We don’t.
John: Something I want to talk about with title pages on all of these projects. In this case it’s story by Carol Gold Lande & Linda Minnella Yardley, written by Linda Minnella Yardley. It wouldn’t be written by, it would be screenplay by. So, written by is both screenplay and story. So, if this is a situation where the two of you came up with the story together and one of you actually wrote these pages, Screenplay by is what you would actually be putting in that place.
That date belongs in the bottom right corner of the page.
Generally you won’t see the Written by or Story by, you won’t see the word written or story capitalized. Those would be lower case by themselves. It’s not a big thing. But most scripts you’re going to read are going to have that be lower case. So you might as well do that.
Craig: You know, it’s funny. I’m just thinking about this because it’s television, I don’t know – would it be screenplay by–?
John: Sorry, teleplay by.
Craig: Teleplay by. Yeah.
John: Teleplay by. You do television now, Craig, so you’re going to have to learn this.
Craig: I mean, I am so far behind on everything.
John: All right. I want to thank everyone who submitted. So I guess it’s more than 60 folks that we read through. But especially these three/four people who wrote in with their scripts. Thank you for sharing them with us so we can talk through what we loved and what we thought could be improved upon. If people want to send in their own scripts again it’s johnaugust.com/threepage. And you will be able to submit for the next time we do this.
It’s time for our One Cool Things, Craig.
Craig: Oh, good, you know I have one this week.
John: You go first.
Craig: So many, many, many moons ago one of my One Cool Things was a game for iOS and possibly for Android, although I don’t care about Android, called House of Da Vinci. And House of Da Vinci was kind of a Room knockoff. It wasn’t kind of Room knockoff. It was a Room knockoff. But it was pretty good. And as I recall I said this is like a good stop gap for people who love the Room. And they have a sequel out now and it’s really good. And it’s not really a Room knockoff. It still has very similar mechanisms in terms of picking up objects, manipulating them, folding them, turning them, twisting them. And some of the same sounds. But the nature of the gameplay is quite different. And it’s really well done. I have to say. And it runs beautifully. Very smooth for a game that’s clearly complicated and large in terms of its demands on my iPad.
So, strongly recommend. If you do like puzzle-solving games like the Room, check out the latest House of Da Vinci.
John: Fantastic. I will check that out. I have two One Cool Things. The first is How America Uses its Land, which is a Bloomberg thing, which apparently is from 2018, but I just saw it this last week because people were tweeting about it. It’s this really good map of the US that sort of shows acre by acre or however they’re dividing it up sort of how America actually uses its land. And so of course all the cities in America could fit up into the northeast. And most of our land is pasture and other sorts of things. Really it’s a great way of describing the choices we made as a country in terms of what we’re using our land to do. And we could probably use our land better than a lot of golf courses.
The second thing is an article in the LA Times about Sweetgreen. So I eat at Sweetgreen every week or two. They make good salads and they try to compost and do things. This article talks through the struggles they’ve had actually composting and sort of they try to have no waste go into landfills. And it’s very, very hard. So the article does a good job showing the real struggles they’ve had with waste management in terms of it’s one thing to try to source recyclable products and things that are made of compostable materials, but actually getting them from the store to those facilities is really difficult. So, just a good article about sort of the really complicated production chains of modern commerce.
John: Nice. That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao with production assistance this week by Bo Shim and Jacq Lesko.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Jemma Moran. 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.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. We try to get them up about four days after the episode airs.
You can sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments, like the one you’re going to hear right after this music where we’re going to talk about mugs.
Craig, thank you for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: OK, here is my issue with mugs.
Craig: I cannot wait for this.
John: All right. So I think mugs are a good invention. I think they’re delightful for coffee or for tea or for whatever you want to drink. My issue is with novelty mugs that are given to me as gifts or as part of gifts. And I don’t want your mugs. I don’t want the mug you’re giving me for this school where I did an Arlo Finch event. People give them to you because they’re thankful for you doing something for them, but you can thank me by not giving me your mug because I don’t want your novelty mug.
Craig: You’re a real mug Grinch.
John: I’m really Grinchy about mugs. Craig, so let’s say you went to some award show. You’ve been to a bunch of award shows lately. And in the gift bag there was a mug. What would you do with that mug?
Craig: I’d probably shove it in the mug cabinet.
John: So, you have a mug cabinet. And tell me about your mug cabinet.
Craig: You know, it fills up with mugs. [laughs] The thing is like the mugs – I want you to direct your mug ire at Color Me Mine. This is an entire business where you’re paying them for you to end up with an endless mug.
No, I get it. I mean, you know, there’s a lot of stuff that accumulates. The things that bums me out is there’s all these gift baskets and things. Like people send you a gift basket, great, that’s awesome. But there’s an actual basket. It’s like this woven thing.
John: What do you with the basket? Yes.
Craig: You got to chuck it. There’s nothing else to do with it. You can’t have a room full of baskets.
Craig: And at least, look, it’s basket material. It’s not made of iron. Or chemicals. But still like it’s just more junk.
John: There’s a limited number of Baby Moses, so I cannot send him down the river. I mean, there’s nothing for me to do with this basket.
Craig: Like back in the day of Moses when he was sent down the river, do you think when people found him they thought it was a gift basket? [laughs]
John: They did. Like, whoa, look what we just found.
Craig: What a bummer. It’s not even like – there’s no wine. There’s no crackers. It’s a freaking baby.
John: Yeah. There’s no fancy cheeses in there. There’s nothing.
John: No, not a bit.
John: This year I got only one gift basket. And so I realize – I think it’s partly because, well, the agency I was at which usually sent me a gift back, they’re not my agency anymore. Bruckheimer did not send me a basket this year. Another director I worked with before didn’t send baskets this year. And you know what? I honestly didn’t miss it that much.
I missed sort of like not having that moment of thinking like, oh yeah, I remember I used to work for them. But I didn’t miss like the stuff that I didn’t want that I was going to throw away.
Craig: Yeah, you know, it’s funny. CAA doesn’t send gift baskets for Christmastime. They usually just send – they do a charity thing and then they’ll send a little booklet to show you, OK, here’s where your money went, I mean, here’s where we donated money instead of buying you a basket. Which honestly I think is great.
The thing is sometimes I think – so there’s a whole world of company junk out there. My late father-in-law was a Burger King franchisee. He owned a couple of Burger Kings. And he and my mother-in-law would go every year to a Burger King convention. And kind of the whole deal was like stuff. Junk. Pads. Pens. Clips. Mugs. There’s like a world of crap that gets generated with logos.
Craig: It’s the logo crap industry.
John: Logo crap. Yeah.
Craig: And, you know what? You’ve converted me. I’m out. I’m out of the mug business.
John: I’m out of the mug business, too. So, I say, Craig, just take that – Marie Kondo that mug cabinet. You don’t want those mugs. So what we’ve done is we got rid of all our novelty mugs. And so all of our mugs are the exact same identical mug from Pottery Barn. And you know what? I make my coffee in the morning. It’s indistinguishable from any other mug. And it’s better that way.
Craig: Look, we have these glass coffee tea mugs that are kind of like that insulated glass so you can have a hot thing and it doesn’t hurt your hand. That’s all I need. But I guarantee you if I throw one of those mugs away I’m going to hear about it from one of the two women in my house. No question. One, either my wife or my daughter, is going to say where is my blankety-blank mug? And I’m going to say, really? You wanted that? And then I’m going to get in trouble.
John: I want to be able to opt out of mugs. And so I want to be able to like – I want there to be a polite way for me to be able to say like, hey, I’m excited to come to event. And if you’re thinking about giving me a mug, or a baseball hat, with a logo on it please don’t. Or pen. These are things – you’re actually going to make me feel worse about the event for giving me this thing.
Craig: I will always take a pen. I love pens. So, I’ll take your pen.
John: Another bonus segment will be about my strong feelings on pens.
Craig: Oh, I love them.
John: All right. I love pens, I just don’t like any pens except for the pen I actually want.
Craig: Ugh, god, you’re a robot.
John: I am. Craig, thank you.
Craig: Thanks John.
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