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 450 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show we’ll discuss my proposal for the most essential and most difficult practice every screenwriter needs to follow. We’ll also be talking about set pieces, virtual rooms, and juggling multiple projects. And in our bonus segment for Premium members we will revisit our general advice about moving to Los Angeles given the pandemic.
Craig, I’m so excited to have you back. Because last week you were gone. You were off on a secret mission.
John: We can’t quite say what that secret mission is yet, correct?
Craig: No. We cannot say what it is yet, but the secret mission is coming to fruition and everyone will know soon enough. And let’s not raise hopes. I have not cured any viruses in the news. So just want to be clear about that.
John: Absolutely. You’re not the 83rd vaccine.
John: You’re something smaller than that. So somewhere between like you turned in a draft and cured COVID-19. Somewhere in that range.
Craig: Yes. It’s something that ultimately will be able to be shared with everyone.
John: Yeah. So we had an episode that was already on ice that we pulled out and Sam Esmail was gracious enough to come back and record a little wrap around. It was nice to have another New Jersian in your stead.
Craig: Got to be there.
John: So he does remind me of you in certain ways. And you will never go back and listen to the old episodes, but the conversation we had was really interesting because he’s a person who really wanted to be a director and started writing because he realized he needed to write in order to have the material he wanted to direct. So he really did everything he possibly could to avoid writing. And then it turns out he’s a really good writer.
So, it was a very different perspective getting into the writing craft than most of the guests we’ve had on the show.
Craig: Yeah. I’m trying to see where he’s from in New Jersey. The name of it is not popping off to me. I don’t know if it’s like southern, or northern, or wherever the hell it is.
John: What is it about people who are born in New Jersey and identifying the small little town they’re from?
Craig: That’s what we have. So New Jersey in a way that a lot of northeastern older states do has divided itself into tiny, tiny townships. So there are some cities in New Jersey that people know of, like Trenton or Princeton to a lesser extent, but then there are a ton of tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny townships, each of which generally has some sort of English-y Revolutionary kind of name.
John: So my mom was from Matawan.
Craig: Matawan, which is very close–
John: Or Red Bank.
Craig: Yeah. So Matawan and Red Bank are both very close to where I was. I would often bowl in Matawan. I would go bowling there. So I get it. Let’s see, Sam is from Gloucester. Oh, I see where he is. Yeah. That’s a weird part of New Jersey. [laughs]
John: Doesn’t even count.
Craig: Well, it’s Southwest New Jersey, which we think of that more as–
John: It’s the New Mexico of New Jersey.
Craig: It’s Delaware. It’s Pennsylvania or Delaware. It’s not like Jersey-Jersey to me. I don’t know what it is. It’s a weird Jersey. I was very Central New Jersey. I’m Katie Dippold New Jersey. I’m your mom New Jersey. Michael Gilvary, our D&D buddy, also from I believe Red Bank.
John: So our international listeners or basically anyone who grew up west of the Mississippi, all of northeast geography is just a big mess. They’re these tiny little pieces that sort of get lost in the puzzle. We just have no idea what you guys are talking about. So we said like Pennsylvania or Delaware, you could just be making that up. I have no idea how all those things fit together.
Craig: Yeah. You’re from the part of America where every state is really large and mostly square.
John: Yep. We like straight lines.
Craig: Yeah. We like squiggles.
John: All right. Let’s do some follow up. So we’ve been talking on the show about the origin of the modern screenplay format and how it evolved from being more like a shot list to the literary document that we’re kind of used to. This week my former assistant, Matt Byrne, who is a writer on Scandal and many other shows, he wrote in to say, “I was listening to your very helpful back to basics episode. There’s a world in which the live reading of a screenplay is a huge consideration in the writing in television. These are often cold reads in rooms of actors and executives and department heads, none of whom have seen one word of the script. So there’s a different literary approach and criteria to the script form borne out of the immediacy of all of that, rather than one that’s handed in to a studio or a producer who might be reading it on their office sofa, or on the iPad by the pool. So the stakes are high because you’re in this room and it’s more like live theater. So, it’s a test of every aspect of every scene which requires some cozying up to the audience and some hand-holding of your actors and a fair amount of show person ship over all. So there’s a lot more directing on the page, both with camera and performance indicators, as well as over-communication of scene direction in regards to tone and pacing and all the rest.
“So all this is way more than the holders of classic or minimalist screenwriting rules would be comfortable with. It sets a certain expectation in television scripts that may be kind of strange when you’re being read by some of these shows who are used to their own scripts having a lot more detail in them than what you’d naturally think.”
Craig: Yeah. I can certainly see where this would be the case. And it brings an entire other topic to bear which is these readings. Script readings are a part of our business. They’re a part of what we do. I hate them. I’m still not quite sure they’re actually useful. I’ve done so many of them and I’m racking my mind to think if I believe they’re useful at all. I think that the benefit that you can get from a seated reading with your cast is minimal compared to the damage that can be done which is not only serious but likely.
John: All right. So I’m going to spill the tea on two different readings I’ve had of scripts and one that was incredibly helpful and one that was incredibly destructive.
Craig: Ooh, yum.
John: So, a helpful one was on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – actually, I have two good examples. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Big Fish. Big Fish was a chance for everyone to get together. We were in this room in Alabama. It was a chance to sort of see what the whole movie felt like kind of all together with this great cast. Get everyone’s accents kind of in the same universe. And so people weren’t giving their fullest performances, but it gives everybody a chance to get together and see what the whole movie felt like, especially the parts of the movie that they weren’t in at all. Because none of these actors is going to have a great chance to sort of see what the whole shape of the movie is.
Actors tend to read the scenes that they’re in and really kind of focus on that. So they may not really know how all the pieces fit together. So, when you have one of these readings you know that everyone has read the whole script at least once. And that sounds like a very low bar to clear, but that is really important. So, Big Fish that was super helpful.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory we had all of these young actors. It was great for them to all be in the room and sort of get over their nervousness about Johnny Depp and sort of get past that. It was really good. Johnny did not really perform, but he sort of got through all the words. And that helps.
Craig: There’s the issue, isn’t it.
John: Yes. But here’s the counter example. Here’s a case where I thought the table reading did a disservice was on the first Charlie’s Angels. We all got together in this room. We were super excited. We worked really hard on the script. We were very excited about sort of getting together. The three women had really formed a good relationship at this point. And there was one supporting actor who had been cast who I had not met with who just decided I think deliberately to tank his performance and cause a panic so that we would focus on his storyline stuff. And I thought – to me it felt like a deliberate choice and I’ve kind of despised this actor every moment since that point.
So that was a case where a power play happened in that moment and it was really frustrating.
Craig: Yeah. Here’s the thing about these – I like this ad hoc topic, by the way. The issue that I have with the table reads is let’s say it’s going really well. That in and of itself can be misleading. Just because somebody is being really funny in the room on that day reading it does not mean they’ll be funny on screen. In fact, the room tends to reward the broader performances. And then what happens is other actors start getting broad to try and get the same laugh or something, because they’re getting feedback.
Executives are often swayed by that sort of thing when they shouldn’t be. And there is no sense of intimacy. The room is completely leveled. Everybody is exactly the same distance from the “camera.” So, there is no subtlety allowed. That said, what then occurs is that good actors or insecure actors, doesn’t matter which, will often tank these performances. Sometimes they tank it because they’re trying to do something, right? Because they’re being naughty. But I think a lot of times they’re tanking it because they don’t recognize this as the thing they do well. And they do not want to be judged for it. They don’t know how to do their job in that room, so they don’t do any job at all.
I cannot tell you how many times I have witnessed not just good actors but huge movie stars, award-winning actors, just mumble everything into their hand the entire time. Because they don’t want to be held accountable to this table reading and they’re going to give you nothing. And their understanding is you’re not going to fire me over it, so beat it. And because of all of that I just never know what I’m supposed to learn from it.
Honestly I don’t know if I will do it again. I don’t know if it’s necessary. I just don’t. I think it’s something we do because we’re supposed to do it, we feel like we have to, but I’m not sure I want to anymore. I mean, we did one for Chernobyl and it was – honestly, I think we would have been better off just keeping that day and having a little cocktail session for everybody, where everybody can meet each other and get to know each other and talk to each other if they wanted about character. Or ask me questions or anybody questions. But the reading which went swimmingly well ultimately didn’t really give me information. It gave me non-information.
So that’s my rant on those things.
John: All right. So, two topics. First off, Mike Birbiglia, friend of the show, this is part of his process. And so as he’s working through the script he will bring his actor friends together and he will do a reading of the work sort of in progress. That to me is a little bit different than what we’re talking about. When we are talking about these live readings it’s generally right before you start production. It’s sort of that kind of last look before you get started in production.
And the same reason why it can be dangerous for us as writers, it can be an enticing opportunity for producers and other people to muck about with things. And so when they see that after really not performing all that great they might try to swap that actor out, or ask you as the writer to make a change for the sake of that actor. And that is the real issue.
I’ve also been in situations where you sort of plead with an actor to go in and just do the reading, it’s fine, you already have the part. And people have lost the part that thought they already had once they don’t live up to the expectation in the reading. It sucks. And there are actors who are really good at these situations. And there are actors who are kind of only good when you stick a camera in their face and they’re just not good in groups.
So, pros and cons.
Craig: You put your finger right on it. Like the studio or whoever is doing network, they’re saying well this is what we do and it’s purposeful. And so then it happens. And then they come to you afterwards and say, “We have drawn a conclusion from the purposeful thing we’ve done.” And it’s very hard to say to them, yes, except it’s not purposeful, therefore your conclusion isn’t valid and we shouldn’t have done any of this. We’ve learned nothing. This is a terrible scientific experiment. Because it is. It’s just bad science.
Like we use rats because in some ways they resemble humans in certain process and pathways, but in others they don’t. We try not to use rats for the things that aren’t applicable. This would be a non-rat test. It just doesn’t make sense.
John: An actual screen test where you have those actors in front of a camera, even if it’s not the real sets and everything, would be a much more accurate reflection of what kind of performance you could expect from the actor than this table reading situation.
Craig: 100%. And the truth that nobody wants to acknowledge, but it is true, is that the table read that matters, the moment where you kind of get a sense of whether or not you’ve chosen well and the words are working, is on the day and particularly the first week. Because 400 decisions are made that first week based on what you’re watching. And nobody wants to think about that because it’s scary, but it’s true. That’s when you start to learn things. That’s when you can fine tune things. That’s when you can make adjustments. Because at last you’re looking at the thing you’re supposed to be doing, not some other thing you’re not.
John: Yep. A topic which we’ll try to get to in future episodes is there were a bunch of pilots that were in production when the pandemic hit and everything had to shut down. It’s been so fascinating talking to friends who have these half-finished pilots. Because they are trying to cut together their half-finished pilots and the TV season is still kind of happening and so these things are being picked up or not being picked up based on how many days of shooting they were into their schedule. And some shows had put all their big meaty action stuff at the top and other stuff hadn’t happened yet. It’s a really strange situation for these shows caught in this bubble.
John: And in some of these cases that table read which they may not even really want to have is the last experience networks and studios have with the show they had envisioned.
Craig: Well, it’s useless. I wish I could just convince them all it’s useless. I mean, unless there’s something specific that a showrunner or screenwriter can glean – repeatedly and reliably glean – they shouldn’t do them.
Craig: They just shouldn’t do them.
John: All right. To a new topic–
John: Virtual rooms. So last week on the show I asked listeners to send in their experiences with virtual rooms and we heard back from some writers as well as assistants. So Megana has been going through the emails that have been coming in and also just reaching out to folks to sort of see, hey, how is life in these virtual writer’s rooms?
So, a couple things we heard back consistently. One is about the issue of the whiteboard. And so generally when you’re breaking a series and episodes in a TV writer’s room you have a bunch of whiteboards up and that’s how you’re planning out season arcs, character arcs, what happens in this episode. There’s a lot – you’re just looking at a lot of whiteboards. And that’s the general planning process for stuff.
So different virtual rooms are trying different techniques for how they’re doing that stuff. So, a shared Google doc is a really common way people are doing it. There’s other corkboard type software that people are trying. One writer wrote, “This room has been really tough because there’s no quick way to bring up a character’s season arc. Usually we can all just look at a board. Now it’s like a ten minute ordeal.” So you’re used to being surrounded by this visual information and you just don’t have it the same way if you’re all sharing a Zoom call.
Craig: Yeah. I think if I were running a room I would probably make sure that all of my writers – I would just send out tablets, iPads or whatever. And that tablet would just be for a shared view of a corkboard. So, whatever is on Zoom is on your laptop, that’s fine. But then you have this other thing you can just glance over at just the way you would in a room that’s separate, so you’re not switching back and forth between things. Because I imagine that’s where it gets a little dicey.
John: One of the things we’ll say at the end of this is we mostly heard what’s challenging. What I’d love to get to in the next couple weeks is some shared what are best practices. What are rooms finding that’s really useful? Because we’re kind of all in this together.
So, let’s continue with what’s challenging right now. The challenge of social cues and when to speak. Because when you’re in a room with physical people it’s pretty easy to announce that you kind of want to say something, or if someone is talking too much it’s easy to sort of make it clear that, OK, shut up a little bit.
Someone wrote, “It’s really hard to gauge how the room is feeling or how someone is responding to a pitch.” And when we say pitch, like when you’re pitching a joke, or a take, or how to approach this scene. “Can’t read anybody’s tells or body language. Makes it really hard to fall into a rhythm. I still love everyone in my room. It’s a really open, really great room. But still tough getting into a groove because it’s all virtual.”
Another writer says, “Even when you’re on a conference call you’re still very isolated. When there’s a great pitch you’re happy but it fades pretty quickly because you just can’t feel everyone else’s excitement.”
Craig: Well, I can absolutely see that being an issue. And I don’t know what the answer. I’m excited to hear if somebody solved that. I mean, you know, I’m such a weird lone wolf that it never – it doesn’t come up that much for me personally, but I can see that being an issue.
John: Now with Mythic Quest you were in the room on that first season some. Have you been in any virtual rooms since everything got broken apart?
Craig: Not virtual rooms. I did come back and do some early room work with the team to set up season two, which obviously we had to hit pause on in terms of production. But since that time I have had a number of sort of smaller discussions with Rob McElhenney or Megan Ganz or David Hornsby. So there have been further discussions, but they haven’t been a full big room type of thing.
John: There’s no online version of sort of what would have happened in that room?
Craig: For me, no. They may very well have been having those. But I’m a little bit more of a–
John: A sniper?
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. That’s the most charitable version of it. I’m sure they would be like, they’re more like–
John: Ruiner of dreams.
Craig: Well, he shows up early, gets us all whipped up to do something incredibly ambitious and difficult, and then never comes back.
Craig: That’s sort of my thing.
John: Another thing Megana heard a lot about was exhaustion. Someone wrote, “I think the one thing people don’t talk enough about is how we’re exhausted all the time in a virtual room. We’re much more tired than you usually are in a normal room and I think it’s because when you’re in a room breaking story together you feed off each other’s excitement. You get energized by a good pitch.”
And I think that’s also a general problem with video conferencing I’ve noticed and other people have been pointing out is that you kind of feel like you’re always on when you’re on a video conference. You don’t know when someone is watching you or not watching you. So that constant sort of readiness which when you’re in a room full of people you sort of have a sense of when you can sort of slink back and when you can sit forward. It’s just different when you’re on a video conference all day.
Craig: Yeah. There’s this interesting psychological thing where if I’m in a room with somebody, let’s say we’re all having a kind of television room like setting. So maybe ten of us are sitting around a table and we’re talking and one person is kind of just like looking down at their pad and doodling a little bit, but they don’t seem uninterested, this is how they’re thinking. You can just tell, you know what, they need to go somewhere and think for a bit. I understand it because they’re doing it in front of me which means they know I see them doing it and we all get it.
And when we’re on video I think sometimes people look and they see somebody not paying attention or perhaps doing something else and they just think, oh, they think they’re getting away with this but they’re not. And it’s a different vibe.
John: Yeah. It’s also I think exhausting because when you’re waiting for your time to speak you’re sort of always cued up and it’s a little bit harder to know when to break in and when to be able to get in on things. There have been a lot of video conferences I’ve been on lately where I haven’t said a word the whole time. I’ve basically just been muted the whole time. And it wasn’t that I didn’t have anything to say, but I didn’t have something that was so compelling to say that I felt like I’m going to try to break into the conversation flow or digitally raise my hand. I’m just going to be an observer in this conversation.
And that’s where you lose people because in a writer’s room you’re paying those people for their time and their brains to be able to speak up and contribute. And it’s challenging in these situations.
Craig: Particularly in comedy where when you’re in a comedy room it’s inevitable that there’s going to be a moment where some sort of riff magic occurs and there’s sort of a rolling pile of pitches and ideas and lines and thoughts as people are growing a concept. And inevitably two or more people will be speaking at once. And your ability to process that is actually quite good. You can hear multiple things happening. And overlap is part of the fun of it. Unfortunately given the way the technology functions overlap is a disaster on video conferencing. And inevitably one person wins out. Sometimes you think you’re not being heard and you are. But most of the time a bunch of people are just gone. They’re obliterated. And so you’re not getting – OK, sorry, I didn’t hear, what was your pitch? And then you’re like, oh god, it really wasn’t – it’s already dead.
I can see it being a real issue.
John: Lastly, the question of whether these virtual rooms open up opportunities for writers who are not in Los Angeles. So we’ll get a little bit more into this in our bonus topic for Premium members, but a couple people have reached out on Twitter saying like, “Oh, great, with virtual rooms I don’t have to move to Los Angeles. I could still stay in Chicago. I could stay wherever.”
And to me – I hear you laughing.
Craig: [laughs] Yeah.
John: I think it’s a little early to be going for that. Because virtual rooms are a stop gap for now.
John: And while I think there’s things that studios love about them, and the ability to just stick people together and get scripts out of them, there is still some correlation between the room and physical production. And once physical production resumes you’re going to want to be able to communicate between those two environments. And so these virtual rooms may be good for short seasons that can be pre-written and figured out ahead of time, but for something like a Chicago Fire I don’t know that it’s really going to be realistic that that one writer is living in Florida the full time. I just don’t know that’s going to happen.
Craig: It’s not. It’s just not, because of the aforementioned things we’re talking about. There are certain things about rooms that work really well in person. The whole function of a room is to collaborate a number of individual minds into one large hive mind of narrative invention. And so what we’re doing now is the best we can do, but it’s not what we want to do. And all the people in these virtual rooms were in the non-virtual room prior. And they will return to the non-virtual room.
I do think that we are going to see more and more meetings held this way.
John: And as we said if I never have to drive to the west side at 5pm I won’t be grateful to the pandemic, but I will be grateful for the technology that allows me to not drive to the west side at 5pm.
Craig: Yeah. The comfort level has increased dramatically. So whereas if I had said before, “Hey, Casey Bloys, I definitely want to have this meeting with you at 4:30, but I don’t want to drive. I don’t feel like driving. You’re not worth it. [laughs] So, we’ll video conference instead,” he would be like, “What? That’s kind of a dick move.”
But now if I’m like, hey, would it be OK if we Zoom’d it anyway just because we’re all good at it now? And hopefully he would think that that would be OK. Not that I don’t want to – I mean, there’s certain times where I’m happy to go to Santa Monica and then those certain times are between 11:30 and 1:30. And that’s not it.
John: Yeah. This next week I’ll be going out with a pitch and here’s the pros. So we’re doing this all virtually. We can go to a lot of places. The list is probably longer because we can visit those places virtually, which is true and is good and that’s wonderful. But it is going to be exhausting. And just because we could stick four of these things in a day because I’m not having to drive around town, I don’t think it’s a good idea to be doing four of these in a day.
John: So it’s going to take a lot of my week to do this pitching, but I’ve gotten better at it. And we’ll talk about this on a future show, but with experimentation I’m much better at being able to show slides and be able to talk and do stuff. And so it’s required some rehearsal, but it’s been interesting.
John: Yeah. Last thing that an assistant noted is that while many of these virtual rooms do have a writer’s assistant who is responsible for gathering up the notes from everything and doing all the standard thing a writer’s assistant would do, they generally don’t have writer’s PAs anymore. And so that’s like a whole job that’s been lost from most of these rooms. Because that writer’s PA was largely responsible for the lunch order. And that lunch order goes away because there’s no lunch.
Some shows are actually giving a $75 credit to writers to make up for the free lunch that they would be getting. But that doesn’t pay for that one person who used to be employed.
Craig: Yeah. I got to say that’s a tough one to sort of justify. I do think that anyone running a virtual room would be well served by a mechanism by which people who are not necessarily there to contribute steadily, like for instance a writer’s assistant who is mostly listening and writing, can signal the showrunner there’s something important or worth saying. A little light could go on. That would be helpful.
John: Yeah. What I’ve seen some people do is you text to the person who is running the meeting to say like, hey, I have a thing. And so they can sort of naturally fold that in and it doesn’t have to be a public raising your hand of things. So, I’m sure – that’s exactly the kind of thing I’d love for people to write in to us with sort of their suggestions for best practices for virtual rooms. Because even though this is a stop gap, we’re going to be living with these for a number of months. And so as we get better at doing this stuff let’s share the knowledge to everyone else who has to do one of these rooms.
John: Indeed. All right. So now to our marquee topic for this episode. So after 450 Scriptnotes episodes–
John: We’ve been discussing our advice on screenwriting and sort of what the process and the craft is like, but this last week I had an insight. So, like a lot of writers most of my insights come right when I’m trying to fall asleep. And so what I’ve taken to doing recently is I have a stack of index cards beside my bed and if it’s something I need to remember I just write it on an index card and stick it by the door so I remember it in the morning. But it just gets it out of my head and onto a card.
And so here is what I wrote down. Craig, only the interesting scenes.
Craig: That’s what I’ve been doing wrong. Goddammit.
John: So basically a fundamental piece of advice I wanted to offer to all screenwriters is only include the interesting scenes. And that sounds so incredibly obvious, but it’s actually really challenging. It’s probably the most difficult thing I’ve told people to do on this podcast. Is because as a reader we can tell when we’re not interested, but as a writer sometimes you work really hard to justify why those uninteresting scenes need to stay in your script. And so I want to spend a few minutes sort of wrestling through the problem of uninteresting scenes.
Craig: It’s a great idea. And I think that it’s a very common thing for new writers to think that the movies that they see, their experience to those movies psychologically is that there are three or four scenes that make them go, oh my god. And the rest are sort of filler in-between. And so that’s how they approach the writing. What they don’t understand is that everything gets diminished in that sense and every scene in the writing must be important, compelling, and significant. And four of them must be really huge.
John: Yeah. Exactly. So, yeah. And so here’s what we’re not saying. We’re not saying every scene in your script has to be like on a 10 out of 10 and sort of like the most compelling, most dramatic everything you’ve ever seen. You do need ups and downs and peaks and valleys. And these scenes need to be interesting in different ways, so it’s not just banging that drum as hard as you can in every scene. But to not give you permission to include those scenes that are boring. And so let’s talk about what boring or uninteresting scenes mean.
So, these are scenes where I don’t care what the characters are doing or saying. Or scenes where nothing is happening. Or probably more subtly, things are happening but they’re sort of exactly the things I expected were going to happen. So, two scenes ago I could have told you this scene is going to happen and this scene happens exactly the way I thought it would happen.
John: A classic mistake of characters telling each other things that I already know.
John: Oof. Scenes were there’s no emotion, no excitement, there’s no emotional engagement between the characters in the moment. And really from a reader’s perspective any moment where I’ve stopped leaning in. Where I’ve stopped being curious about what’s happening in this moment and what’s going to happen next. That’s a sign that this scene is actually not interesting.
And here are the common excuses for how we’ve gotten to these scenes. As a writer I know that I need to go from X to Y. That there’s a thing that needs to happen and so like, OK, well, I’m just going to bite the bullet and have it happen here.
John: My hero needs to learn this information. I’m setting up something great. That’s probably the most insidious trap. I know this is not the best moment but it’s a path that’s leading me to something else.
John: These are justifications we make for including uninteresting scenes. But they’re not good justifications.
Craig: Yeah. You have to have an inner, like a little guy on your shoulder, a little lady, not the devil, the angel one. But the angel one is saying, “Hey, that’s not enough.” Because there’s just a certain thing, like you say, listen, I know that I want her to go to this store and buy this thing. Because she’s going to give this thing to her husband later. And I need her to buy it because I need her to see her make that choice. That’s not enough. You just have to know that’s not enough. There has to be something else happening in that scene, in the background, or to her, or in her relationship with the person selling it to her. Something has to happen to make me go, whoa.
Craig: Or else it’s not enough. And you just have to know that.
John: Absolutely. So, here’s the problem when you include these uninteresting scenes is that if you have one boring page in your script that’s potentially one boring minute in your movie. One boring minute is a really long time. If you’ve ever sat in an editing room looking at one minute of film, oh my god, it’s so long. And when you suffer through one boring minute you’ll do anything you can to cut out of that minute or sort of get rid of that minute. You will do savage things to sort of get rid of that terrible minute. And the reason why you try to get rid of it is you’re breaking the social contract you have between the audience and the movie, or between the writer and the reader. And that contract is that if the viewer/the reader gives you their full attention you will make it worth their while. And for that minute you are breaking that contract because it’s not worth it for this minute to be sitting there. And if it becomes another minute or another minute you’ve lost them. They’re not coming back to your story. You’ve failed to engage them.
So often I think the trap is that we keep thinking about the function of a scene without worrying enough about the actual form of the scene. And good scenes have to do both. They have to be these beautiful, ornate, attractive pieces of architecture that actually still also meet their needs. Their bridges that sort of get us from this moment to that moment, but are actually interesting to walk on while we’re walking on those bridges.
Craig: And also someone is going to have to spend all day shooting it.
Craig: And it’s going to get cut. You’re absolutely right. There is a shaken faith that occurs. When you watch a scene in a movie and you feel like you just didn’t need to see it, or in your mind you went somewhere. Then what’s happened is you have removed a bit of trust from the filmmaker. And you’ve withheld it. And the good ones, the good scripts, the good shows, the good movies, they make me feel so comfortable. When I watch something from Vince Gilligan or Peter Gould and Thomas Schnauz like Better Call Saul or Breaking Bad there is not ever one minute where I think, “Mm, is this going to work? Or why am I here? Does it…?” I just trust them. They have earned my trust because they’re never boring. They just don’t put in boring scenes.
And I like to think of things, because I think that interesting has to be the default setting, rather than saying that something isn’t interesting I just say it’s now boring. It’s binary. Either you are actively drawing me in or I’m leaving you.
Craig: So these people maintain trust with us. And when you fail to do that. And certainly as a reader I’ll tell you it’s even worse. Because when you’re watching something, well, all right, fine, I’ll just keep watching it.
John: Yeah. Inertia will just keep you going for a while. And you have to actually work pretty hard for me to get to like, “OK, I’m giving up on this thing.”
John: But reading? Reading is so much more work that like if I have any excuse to not flip a page I’ll stop.
Craig: Well, even if you have to read it.
Craig: You will just accelerate. You will accelerate and the kind of speed read will turn to a skim will turn into barely a flip just so that you can justify saying that you read it. But you cannot go through those experiences with those things. And it’s why when I’m going through my work or when I’m working on something with someone else and I’m going through their work I am meticulous and it’s something that I got drilled into me violently by Scott Frank and gently and gingerly by Lindsay Doran, but it was this notion that there is not fine enough view to improve things toward interest. Get as granular as you can. Be as ruthless as you can. It’s never good enough. That’s not a thing. You have to finish that scene and go, no, no, no, everyone get away from it. This is correct. Leave it alone. This is good. Moving on. That’s what you’re always aiming for.
John: So here’s the challenge that I would like to propose to our listeners is to take one of your scripts and go through it scene by scene and ask yourself, and be honest, is this scene interesting. And does this scene in and of itself not just sustain your interest but also actively interest you. And hopefully many of your scenes you’ll put a checkmark like, yep, this is interesting to me, this is interesting to me. I really want to see this scene. And not just because it’s in my movie, but because I think this is an interesting and a good scene and this is compelling to me.
But for the scenes that don’t get the checkmarks, then you really need to think about what is the hard work that is going to need to happen here. One of the first options is could I just cut this scene all together? And a lot of times you probably could. A lot of times you’re putting that scene in there because you feel like it has to be there, but there’s maybe a way to not include that scene.
But if the function of that scene is necessary, like a crucial bit of story needs to happen, then you’re going to need to really look at like well what are the obstacles keeping this from being an interesting scene or how can I reimagine the scene in a way that is actually interesting and compelling. So it doesn’t become one of the worst scenes of my script but it becomes one of the best scenes of my script. And really try to rise to that challenge on every scene in one of your screenplays.
Craig: If you run into trouble and you think to yourself I’ve got a problem, this is a load-bearing wall. It’s just a boring wall. Then your job is to think how could it not be? And it’s actually a wonderful writing experiment to say, right, this is otherwise an incredibly mundane, boring scene. Now what can I do to make this exciting? Here’s a very simple thing. In any scene if somebody in about 10 seconds in cuts themselves on the neck and is spurting blood but has to complete the scene, this is now a much more interesting scene.
Now, you can’t do that all the time, nor should you. But there are all sorts of things that recontextualize the action of things to make them terrifying, or funny, or compelling, or weird. All of those tools are at your disposal. You don’t need to throw it out because you’re bored by it inherently. You need to ask why is this not yet really a scene. It needs to be its own movie. What if that’s the only scene you can show people? Make it better.
John: Yeah. A thing we’ve said on the show many times is that in the really great movies that I love you can take any scene from that movie and sort of plant it in some fertile dirt and it would grow into the shape of that movie. It basically has the DNA of the movie in every scene. And so that is a thing we’re talking about. There’s a quality of what’s in this scene or this sequence. You can go as granular as you want to get to. But within that little bit of movie is the whole essence of what the movie is about and what the movie feels like. Tonally how it all engages and what the engine of that film is.
So, you can feel free to write in with examples from my own work that sort of don’t meet this threshold where I have uninteresting scenes in my script. And go for it. But I do think that at least the movies I’m best known for there are not uninteresting scenes that have made it through to the final cut. And I think that’s because I’ve been pretty ruthless with myself over the years about not sticking in those scenes that are just perfunctory, that are just sort of complacent to get to the next thing that needs to happen. That they’re not just little lulls between the big moments. They are hopefully all engaging moments along the way.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, you definitely want to hope that that’s your goal but that is what you achieve. You are usually aided by any number of collaborators who are there to watch and consider and advise. The movies that I had the least tolerance for any kind of wiggle room or lack of lean in were the spoof movies I did. They are relentless. They are sprints. And so you start running, you start telling jokes, you do not stop telling jokes until the credits roll. Period. The end. No space. No time. No breath. No pause. They are typically 80 minutes. Sometimes they’re 80 minutes including credits. I mean, because you’re compressing essentially a movie and a half into one. Because there’s no air. It’s brutal.
It’s also a great exercise, but it’s a miserable exercise.
John: Now, contrast that with Chernobyl which has fair moments of air. There’s moments which are not pressure cookers.
John: Especially in the middle episodes. But it’s always consistently interesting because you’re always concerned for those characters, curious about what’s going to happen next. You see characters approaching things with different energies and with different motives. And you’re curious how it’s all going to work because you’ve set up the things and you’ve created these moments that are all going to work. But in setting up those moments you didn’t just plod along and bore us with why these characters are on the path they’re on. Each of those scenes that got to us the place were also interesting.
Craig: Well, thank you. I mean, I hope so. And there’s certainly moments where you can be visually poetic and that alone even if it’s not advancing the story in a specific way, it is imparting a feeling. And it’s imparting a feeling effectively. So those are moments in the editing room where you really watch and you go, yeah, that’s great. That’s beautiful. Let’s keep that.
Sometimes the best way to approach stuff is to fake people out. People love to be fooled. This is why we love going to magic shows. And comedy shows are just magic shows with your mouth. That’s all they are. You’re just fooling people.
For instance, there’s a shot in Chernobyl Episode 3 I think where we see a bulldozer just rumbling along. And it’s like, OK, well it’s a bulldozer. And then you reveal that the bulldozer is essentially bulldozing crops in exactly the same formation that a harvester would be harvesting the crops. So there is an irony and there’s a punchline. There’s a visual punchline.
And you can actually get quite a bit of points I think from people when you get them leaning towards, oh this is being boring, and then you go, surprise. There was a plan. They like this.
John: Yeah. My One Cool Thing to set it up and spoil it, the first 12 minutes has no dialogue. And yet it’s really compelling and interesting, and partly because you’re waiting and wondering when is somebody going to speak. And yet it works really well. So it doesn’t mean that everything has to be chock-a-block pacing action suspenseful. It’s really about what is going to keep people compelled and interested in what you’re doing.
Craig: I agree with you.
John: That’s nice to hear once.
John: Once. Once or twice. The last little bit of advice I’ll have along this line is that a lot of what we’re talking about is sort of going through the script that you’ve already written or the script that you’re writing in front of you. This mindset is also helpful when you’re conceiving of the pitch or describing the project to other people. I’m thinking about a recent project that I was working on and they came back to me with this well what if this, what if that. And they had all these things which were thematically yes. I get why they’re going for that. But I could answer and answer really honestly, “I don’t know how to make that interesting.”
John: And there’s nothing wrong with that idea. But I could tell you as the craft person who actually has to do this I don’t think I can actually make that compelling in the moment. And I was able to win some of those discussions just by sort of being honest about I don’t know how that’s interesting. And that’s really how when you’re conceiving of a project from the point of view of how will those moments along the way be interesting that’s helpful.
Craig: Yeah. It’s really hard for people. Because anything is possible before something is done. And there are all sorts of examples. We talked about this in our How to Give Notes thing about you can caught up in this example sickness where you’re like, well, in this movie it wasn’t boring. Well, yeah, but in this movie they didn’t do any of that. OK, well but in this movie they did. And you’re just like, yeah, each one of those movies wanted to be the thing it wanted to be. And this one wants to be the thing it wants to be. And the person who knows that is me. So, just quiet. Just be quiet and let me do the thing that I do. And then we can all discuss. And we’ll have this discussion many, many times. But until you sort of see it all in one you may think that you need more than you need, or you may think that you need less than you need.
John: Yeah. All right, let’s segue to more than a scene, a sequence. And this is a discussion on set pieces. This came up because last week I was talking with a TV writer. She was out pitching a feature. It was an open writing assignment. And the producer said they wanted to hear two or three set pieces for this comedy. And she was asking me basically what do they really mean by set pieces? Because coming from a TV perspective she had a certain idea of what a set piece was. And set piece is something that you’ll hear us talking about in production because it’s generally a big thing to do in production, like there’s a whole discussion of how we’re going to handle the set piece. But also in narratives we use the term set piece. So I thought let’s have a quick discussion about, Craig, what do you think of when I say a set piece?
Craig: Well in feature comedy it means one thing. A set piece means a comic sequence that is self-contained with a premise. And then it plays out. So, simplest example I can think of right now is in Bridesmaids they go to a bridal shop and they all have food poisoning and it plays out. That is a set piece. So it always has a premise. The premise drives action through. There is always some sort of setting. And then the jokes escalate. It is not a joke, but multiple jokes.
Set pieces in comedies can sometimes be fights. They can be action sequences that are funny. They can be a situation like that. We had a set piece in Scary Movie – I mean, Scary Movies are mostly set pieces. Brenda played by Regina Hall dies and there’s a funeral for her. And a fight ensues at the funeral that escalates and gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and bigger. It ends up with electrocutions. That’s a set piece.
So, premise, escalation, play it out.
John: Yeah. So set pieces are little mini movies within your movie. And when Craig says beginning, middle, and end, that’s it. Because there’s a whole arc to them. Another way to think about it is if you just saw that set piece excerpted on YouTube it would make sense. So, independent of knowing who the characters were at the start and who they are at the end, you can get a sense of sort of what’s happening there.
A musical number from a musical will tend to be a set piece. Because there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. There’s a flow to it. There’s an arc to it. And so when this writer was saying well what do I need to be able to pitch in terms of set piece, you need to describe what that action is. So what Craig was describing with Scary Movie it’s like if you were pitching that moment you would say like, “So we’re at this funeral and this happens,” and then you show what the escalation is and sort of how it wraps up. And what the producers are asking for are two or three examples, set pieces, that would match the overall premise of this open writing assignment.
Craig: That’s exactly right. And it’s not complicated, but I will say that I remember hearing the phrase “set piece” when I was hired with my writing partner to work on our first movie, which did end up having quite a few set pieces in it. It was a movie for Disney. And I had no idea what the hell they were talking about. I just didn’t know what it meant. I’d never heard it before. I did not know. I thought it meant something that had to take place on a set. Which wasn’t a bad guess.
John: No, not at all.
Craig: But also wrong.
John: But wrong. All right. Let’s answer some listener questions. So, two weeks back I was posting on the blog about getting things done in a pandemic which is a to-do list of sorts that I fill out every morning and I sort of plan what my work is going to be that day. And I found it really pre-pandemic but it’s also been very useful during the pandemic. So, I’ll put a link in the show notes to that.
Adam wrote in to say, “I spied an Easter egg of sorts on the peek page of your to-do list. You have eight writing projects. I’m super curious how you manage so many projects at once? Firstly in terms of servicing the scripts and other filmmakers and your time and focus. But also in terms of expectation and exclusivity from those paying you. Is it understood that writers have many projects on the go, or does it have to be explicit in contracts? Or perhaps it just comes with a career progress and a studio has to deal with an in-demand writer being on many projects at once?”
John: So, what Adam is describing is on my to-do list I can sort of fold back and it will show just a reminder list of these are all the things I’m kind of working on, the things that are in my head. And so if I’m thinking like what else do I need to work on I can look at this little peek page and it’s like, oh that’s right, I need to be doing that thing for Arlo Finch, or whatever. So it’s a reminder of like, OK, these are all the irons that are in the fire.
So, first answer is I’m not writing all those things at once. And some of those are in different stages of progress. Some of those projects I’ve been working on for like 10 years. And, you know, small progress is made at a time. In general I’m working on one thing, one paid assignment at a time. And the exceptions will be if I’m delivering a draft and I’m pitching something else, or something is handed in and I’m just doing the rewrite on something else. But I’m not on the clock for two people at once with very, very rare exception.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, that’s basically how it goes. Here in my office we have a whiteboard with the various projects that are in play. They’re in different stages. Some of them will be getting done. Some of them have been done but I may need to go back and revisit for another thing. But they’re different kinds of things. And, yeah, every now and then you have to kind of do a little bit of double duty. It happens. But generally speaking you just try and – you’re going to be hired for more than one thing at once. So there’s this classic thing where everybody – they’ll call you and say, “We really want you to do this.” And I’ll say, well, I can’t because I’m doing this. And then they say, “Well, just, you know, like you can squeeze it in and just do it while you’re doing that.” And I’m like, well, here’s the thing. Will you be OK when I do that to you with something else that somebody else tells me to squeeze into your thing? And they say, “No.” [laughs]
And I say well there you go. I try and be – the good news is if you hire me then you know I will be doing your work responsibly and professionally. Yes, every now and then someone calls me and says, “I need a week on something,” and I’ll go, all right, I can hit pause on this, do a week, come back. It’s not the end of the world. No one is going to cry foul. Everybody understands it’s the way the business works. But, yeah, we balance lots of things but in the moment we are traditionally working on a thing.
John: Yep. Absolutely true. So when I was doing the Arlo Finch books, during the time I was in a draft on those Arlo Finch books I was really just doing Arlo Finch for that whole time. If I needed to do a week on a project or fix a little thing on Aladdin I would do it. But in general I was full time on that. There’s one big writing project, but there’s always a lot of little things that sort of stack up. And the reason why I keep those on my list, and some of those were place-holder like fake code names because I did recognize that I’m putting this on my blog so people are going to see what’s there, some of those are things that are kind of in the pitchy kind of stage. And I just need to remember that I have to move the ball forward a little bit on that because this is an animation project that is going to take five years anyway. So I have to be making some forward progress on that or else it will never happen.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly.
John: Do you want to take the question from Chris?
Craig: Yeah. Sure. Chris writes, “In terms of No Work Left Behind, I’ve always understood this to mean don’t leave pages in a pitch meeting after you’ve run through the thing. Don’t give executives a reason to pour over a document that they will almost certainly find fault in or obsess over some minor detail. But as I watch the WGA video and hear you guys discuss it on the pod…”
Oh, god, you know I hate it when they say pod.
John: Yeah. Pod Save America.
Craig: Birbiglia says pod. I know. Everyone says pod.
John: It’s the worst thing Pod Save America has done.
Craig: I know. I know. And everyone calls it the pod. Ugh. I’m going to fix it. “But as I watch the WGA video and hear you guys discuss it on the podcast, I’m curious if I’ve been misunderstanding the concept. Does No Pages Left Behind also apply to the development process with producers? For years I’ve sent pages to producers in order to show them where my head is at or use as a conversation starter. Has this been a mistake? Should I only work up a pitch verbally from now on?
“Example, I’ve been trying to zero in on the strongest pitch for a spec pilot I wrote. I’ve been working with the producer for a while refining the script, batting around ideas via email, and trading documents back and forth to clarify the thinking. But after hearing your renewed call for No Pages Left Behind, that is to say no free work, I can’t square how best to proceed. Should I tell him that from now on no more pages? We’ll only discuss verbally? Should that be the rule going forward? I want to be on the right side of this, especially if I’ve been doing it all wrong. But I want to make I sure I [grock] it 100%”
John: Yes. Great word.
Craig: I think from like the ‘50s, ‘60s, Robert Heinlein kind of thing. It is. It’s Heinlein. Oh, Nailed it.
Craig: It’s Heinlein. 1961. So it means to like really get something.
John: Yeah. To know and to love all at once. To be water brothers or something.
John: All right. No Writing Left Behind. So, I was one of the champions of this back in my time on the WGA board. Here’s what it means. First off, it does mean the first thing we’re talking about which is when you go on a pitch don’t leave your pages behind and don’t email the pages behind. Keep things in a verbal realm to the degree it is possible. Just don’t give them pages, because when you give them pages it messes things up for you and for every writer after you.
Now, in situations where you’re developing a spec thing, it’s different than an open writing assignment or for anything where you’re going in to pitch on their property. You own all of this. And so if you choose to write up stuff you own the things that you’re writing. So if it’s helpful for you and your process to write that stuff down and to share it with these producers who you’re going to be taking this out on the town and the pitch with, OK. I still think there are some problems with that. I still think the basic problems of you are potentially making a lot more work for yourself is there. But, it’s still your thing. So you don’t have to worry about getting micro-noted on all this stuff or them falling out of love with your project because of little obsessive details. Because you still own the whole thing.
So you can do whatever spec work you want to do. You can write that whole script. You can write pitch pages. You can sell a treatment if you wanted to. If that is helpful to you, you can do it. But what No Writing Left Behind means is when you’re going in to land a job don’t be giving them writing because writing is what they should be paying you to do.
Craig: And I think that’s probably the best way of thinking about the rule of thumb. If you’re supposed to be getting paid for this writing prospectively then you should be paid for it. You shouldn’t give it to them. You’re not supposed to be paid for the prospective spec writing. That spec is going to be purchased. That’s literary material that would be purchased and then you will be employed to rewrite it and expand it and develop it and write more episodes.
But when it comes to a company that’s saying, yeah, we’re looking to hire somebody to rewrite this or to write that, then you’re supposed to get paid to do that work. So don’t give it to them for free. Period. The end.
John: Do you want to take the question from Zander?
Craig: I do. Zander asks, “In our post-COVID world, Hollywood is starting to experiment more and more with VOD and Premium VOD. News outlets state that Trolls World Tour has earned an estimated $100 million to date in PVOD sales. My question is what do these numbers mean? How do they compare to box office revenue with respect to how much money goes to the studio versus how much money goes elsewhere? And what does this mean for screenwriters and residuals?”
John, what do you think?
John: These are all good questions. So, Zander, first I’ll say $100 million to date, that’s good I guess. I mean, considering it was a choice between zero and $100 million I think Universal is really happy with $100 million. There’s a reason why they’re not putting the Bond movie on VOD right now because they know they can make more money theatrically. But for some of the projects that were originally theatrically going to be released and now they’re going to Video on Demand, you see that they’re ones that they were kind of on the bubble about whether they were going to be big hits and it felt like the right choice to bring them home. So I get why some of those movies are going that direction.
In terms of how much does that compare with what a studio would be getting from a movie theatrically versus on home video, a useful way to think about it is the movie theaters take about half of the money that comes in. It really varies on what weekend you’re looking at, but a lot of money does go to the theatrical distribution part of it. So the studio gets maybe half of those dollars back in. As opposed to this Video on Demand, they’re getting a tremendous amount of that money back in. And they’re not getting all of it, but a lot more of it in. So they’re getting more money in.
But, if this movie had been released theatrically it would still be making a ton of money once it was released on video anyway. So, basically they’re cutting off one of their revenue streams in order to get this money just on the Video on Demand.
So, there’s no magic way to sort of compute how it’s all going to work.
Craig: Yeah. We’ve got a little bit of a weird teeter-totter going on here. Because John’s right. If it goes into the theaters that is a primary exhibition. They make a certain amount of money. Basically they split that 50/50 with the movie theaters. And then there is this secondary ancillary viewing market that will be on Premium VOD. They’ll generate a certain amount from that from repeat viewing, which is a very common thing. Rentals, and purchases, and so on and so forth.
One way of looking at it is, well, they just did really well on the market they were going to be doing really well on anyway. John’s right. Instead of a 50/50 split in Premium Video on Demand it’s probably more like 80/20, I think. So the studio is getting about 80% of that money. So that’s great. But now let’s look at the other side of the teeter-totter. To put movies in theaters is expensive. The marketing costs are vastly higher. If you’re just running it on Premium Video on Demand there’s a certain kind of built-in marketing effort that you can use on your own platform.
So, if Warner Bros now has HBO Max. If Warner Bros wants to put out a movie on PVOD instead of on – they may have some special way to promote it on HBO Max. And then you can go ahead and make this special purchase. My guess is the marketing costs will probably not be as big.
So, you can see where maybe there’s some cost savings there. And of course it costs money to actually make and distribute the stuff. Even though it’s all digital, there’s a whole physical process of servers that send files and yada-da-da-da.
So, hard to say. Hard to say. But we can answer this part of your question. What does it mean for screenwriters and residuals? Well, to the extent that we may be getting cheated out of residuals from movies not being in movie theaters, the answer is no impact at all. We don’t get residuals for that. We don’t get residuals for movies airing in theaters. We don’t get residuals for movies airing on airplanes, oddly enough. The only way it will impact us negatively is if a lack of theatrical exhibition somehow reduces the amount of sales on Premium VOD.
But I got to say I’m skeptical of that. See, it may be that the studios ultimately end up not making as much money in this model, but I think we – writers, directors, and actors – will probably make more. Because more people will ultimately have to purchase this through PVOD or VOD. There is no primary [residualous] exhibition availability. So, we’re going to get residuals on all of it, instead of just some of it.
Now, I can absolutely see the companies coming back to us and trying to get rid of that. I can smell it. But at least for now I think this probably works better for us.
John: So, a couple of clarifications on Trolls World Tour is an animated movie. I believe it was probably made under a non-WGA contract. So there were not–
Craig: Yes. That’s different.
John: There were not WGA residuals for that regardless.
John: Here’s where it gets tricky in terms of residuals is that the movies we’re talking about were initially intended to be theatrical movies that because of the COVID-19 they ended up debuting on Video on Demand. If these movies are set from the outset, or if they are sort of retconned into being like, oh no, we always intended to release this on Video on Demand, or on Disney+, that is a big factor and a big distinction. Because suddenly the metrics for what you get paid if the movie debuts on Disney+ versus debuting theatrically could be a lot. And so if it’s not available anyplace other than Disney+ that is potentially really challenging.
John: So, at some point I’m going to publish my residuals from Aladdin so people can see sort of what I make off of Aladdin, but I make really good money off of residuals of Aladdin because it was the theatrical movie that then had this life on iTunes and all the other places you can see it. And now it’s on Disney+. And those formulas are pretty good. If this movie had been debuting on Disney+ I would have made a tiny fraction of those residuals. And so that is the downside of these movies not coming out theatrically.
Craig: Yeah. We just don’t know. All we can do is rely on the companies’ greed. Right? So what Disney won’t do is make an Aladdin movie and put it on Disney+ for free for its subscribers. They’re never going to do that. Because they’re losing money. They know people will pay for it. Right?
So, there is a PVOD model where it’s over-the-top of what you would get through your normal subscription fee. And that will not go away. Especially if it’s a primary exhibition. They’re just going to say, look, if you want this it’s going to cost you $4. And people will pay the $4.
Look, the truth is this may get decided anyway just by reality. We don’t know how this is going to shake out. I’ve always been rosy about movie theaters and their prospects. I’m less so now. And the fact that this movie did so well just on PVOD is – it’s an eye-opener. Let’s put it that way.
There are movies that will still require those huge runs. But, that is an eye-opener, I got to say.
John: Yeah. All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things.
John: Let’s see. I have two One Cool Things because I’m sort of saved up from previous weeks. The first is Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Boltcutters which is just a remarkable album. So this is coming weeks after its debut.
Craig: Ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies. Ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies.
John: So here’s what I want to talk about with Fiona Apple’s album is that it’s a remarkable album, but I would also say that you could give it a Tony award. You could give it other awards, too, because as a character study, as something written from the point of view of a character who is kind of at their midpoint and headed towards the third act, it’s just a fascinating portrait of sort of who she is. And so if you look at it as like if this were on stage and it was a one-woman show I would just give her all the awards. Because it really is just remarkably well crafted in terms of its storytelling. I thought it was remarkable as a piece of performance, independent of how musically wonderful it is.
Craig: Yeah, no, it’s terrific. It’s on heavy rotation in my house. That’s for sure.
John: Yeah. The other thing I want to recommend is a movie End of the Century by Lucio Castro. And I don’t want to spoil too much about what actually happens in it. It’s a gay film. Two guys meet in Barcelona. And as I said in the setup the first 12 minutes there’s no talking. And you’re sort of waiting for people to talk.
What I admired so much about this movie is essentially it’s just a three-hander. There’s only three characters in the whole movie who speak. And yet so much happens and there’s so many interesting questions being raised by it. And again it’s a movie that feels like when something is only a two-hander or three-hander you think like well could it just be a stage play? But this one could not be a stage play. And I thought it used cinematic language really, really well.
So I would recommend you check out End of the Century which is on iTunes and other places where you can rent it or buy it.
Craig: You guys have spent time in Barcelona, right?
John: Oh, Barcelona is amazing. Love it.
Craig: It’s a pretty magical city. So I have two One Cool Things also. I have got Two Cool Things. First, this is a little bit of a follow up from a prior two-time One Cool Thing for me. Nate Carden who is one of the crossword constructors and I think kind of one of the editors and supervisors of Queer Qrosswords, which is a pack of crosswords that are made by LGBTQ+ crossword constructors and generally built around LGBTQ+ themes. And a packet that you generally purchase by contributing to various charities that’s for LGBTQ+ causes.
Nate is saying, hey, given what’s going on right now we are happy to send people both packs of Queer Qrosswords, because there’s two of them, each one about 15 puzzles I think, without them even needing to donate if it’ll just help them weather the isolation. So if you are a little strapped for cash, you can’t quite make those donations, but you do want to fill your time with some fantastic puzzles, including two puzzles by my favorite puzzle constructor, Mark Halpin, then just get in touch with Nate and the Queer Qrosswords folks at firstname.lastname@example.org. And they will send you your packets.
Craig: And then secondly hooray there is a new game from the Rusty Lake people. Rusty Lake has been one of my Cool Things before. There’s a new game out by them called Samsara Room. It is a very classic kind of Rusty Lake game. It is creepy, eerie, funny, disgusting. All the things it’s supposed to be. But above all bizarre. I’m enjoying it. I feel like I’m probably close to the end of it. I’m already a little sad. But it’s excellent stuff. And it is available now for iPhone or iPad and maybe for Android. But I don’t care. Samsara Room by Rusty Lake.
John: Fantastic. That is our show for this week. So stick around if you’re a Premium member because we will be discussing whether you should move to Los Angeles given the pandemic. But otherwise Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli.
Craig: You know it.
John: Our outro this week is by Ben Grimes. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. I’ll say that the folder of outros is getting a little bit sparse, so I feel like there’s people who are home who could maybe make us some more outros. We’ll happily take those in. If you have an outro, send us that link at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you send your longer questions like the ones we answered on the show today. But for short questions on Twitter, I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s where you find the links to things we talked about. You also find the transcripts.
You can sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net. That’s how you get all the back episodes and bonus segments.
Craig, thanks for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: All right, Craig. So this is a chance to revisit longstanding Scriptnotes advice which is our general advice has been at a super point if you want to be working as a film or television writer you need to move to Los Angeles because Los Angeles is sort of like Nashville is for country music. It’s just where stuff is sort of centered. So, New York is also possible, but really Los Angeles is where most of the stuff happens.
John: But Kara wrote. She says, “I’m well poised to break into the film industry. I’ve written and produced an independent feature which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.”
John: “Written several pilots and screenplays and I’ve developed an authentic relationship with several folks in the industry. The rub is I don’t live in Los Angeles. I live in Chicago. I’m particularly interested in writing for TV and as you know the vast majority of writer’s rooms are in LA or they have been. So, I’m finally moving to LA and not on my own. I’m bringing my husband and two young kids with me. Because of this there’s been a lot of planning. My husband is a professor and he got a year-long sabbatical so we can all be together. I found a great school for my kids where they could go to school with their cousins, because my brother and his family are in Los Angeles. And we’ve worked out the finances so that for a while we can spending savings where we’re not going to want to go in debt.
“I thought I was being so smart but now with COVID it’s starting to feel like this is a dumb move. With virtual writer’s rooms and no definitive quarantine end in sight should I just stay put and save the money and the heartache and moving kids until we know more? Am I playing my hand too early? My stomach is in knots that I’m wasting our time and resources heading to LA now. You’ve both been diehard proponents of the need to be in the Los Angeles area, or at least Craig has been, so do you still stand by that, or does this feel like something that’s going to change the dynamic of where people need to be?”
Craig: Oh, now my stomach is in knots.
Craig: I mean, this is a lot of responsibility. [laughs]
John: It’s a lot of responsibility here. What should Kara do? Kara is a filmmaker whose movie is available now. It seems like she’s very hirable.
Craig: Well, OK, so let’s take a look at some of the facts. And then we’ll deal with some of the premises. Here’s a fact that we know. Kara has written and produced an independent feature that is streaming on Amazon Prime and she’s done that without being in Los Angeles. So, it’s not that she is prospect-less. However, the implication that I’m getting is that she with her several pilots and her several screenplays and authentic relationships with folks in the industry it feels like if she were here that she would probably end up in some rooms or be meeting with people face to face, etc., and not kind of being her own cottage industry out there in Chicago.
So then the question is has COVID changed all that? First of all, Kara, congratulations to you not only for what you’ve done so far but also how carefully and thoughtfully you’ve planned. This is rare. It’s particularly rare among the people that ask us questions. A lot of these people are like I’m a lawyer, but I’m bored, should I just dump it all and move my wife and 12 kids? And I’m like, no, don’t.
But it sounds like you’ve really thought this through and that’s great. You know, obviously spending savings is scary, but again it feels like you guys have thought this through. Yes, there’s no question that COVID has thrown everything higgledy-piggledy. The issue with moving now is – for instance, I’m here in Los Angeles, I have no idea when my daughter is going back to school. She’s in 9th grade. 9th grade is almost over, question mark. Don’t know. Don’t when school is – the last we heard maybe school starts back up in July. So even that is entirely up in the air.
So, it may be that at the very least you might want to hit pause until we know what the hell is going on over here and you can even start having meetings.
However, I will say that I still maintain that once this is over things will go back to the way they were to some extent. Virtual rooms will not take over. There will still – almost every show you can think of will still have a room-room. And if they’re allowing people to pipe in virtually it’s because they know those people from real rooms.
So, I don’t think that in the long run there’s going to be a newly viable path for people that didn’t exist pre-COVID. I don’t think that. At least not for a long time. What do you think, John?
John: So, I agree with you that I think long term she’s going to be better off being in Los Angeles. I don’t think she’s going to be able to stay in Chicago and be a television writer long term. The three to five year timeline is not appropriate for this.
What I will say as I looked at people’s responses to the COVID-19 epidemic the people who impressed me most are the ones who are data-driven and who are basically saying given what we know these are the scenarios and this is how we’re going to move from this phase, to this phase, to this phase. And I think Kara needs to have that same mindset as she’s planning for this. And basically thinking like what are the benchmarks that I would need to cross in order for me to know like OK now is the time to pack up and move to Los Angeles.
And traditionally in a non-pandemic world she was probably thinking in terms of school years with her kids and stuff like that. And really basing on sort of how normal life works. But we’re not in normal times right now. And so there could be a scenario in which you’re moving in the middle of the year or the middle of the semester or whatever and that is going to have to be OK because that’s the situation we’re in.
So, I would say you independently and you with your family figure out what are the thresholds that would make you feel OK about moving to Los Angeles in terms of what things are like in Los Angeles. And you have your family here who can also give you some sense. But there’s no sense I think in moving your kids here to go to school virtually in Los Angeles schools. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. And I don’t think you would be meeting face to face with people in Los Angeles in the next three to six months realistically.
So, you could be kind of virtually moved to Los Angeles and be doing all the stuff that a writer who is trying to be hired in Los Angeles would be doing from Chicago and maybe don’t even tell people that you live in Chicago, or just make it seem like you’re in Chicago temporarily because of whatever. But I don’t think it has to be a limiting factor for you overall right now.
So, what I think Craig and I are both probably agreeing on is that at some point it will still make sense for you to move to Los Angeles. This is not that point right now. But you need to be thinking about what thresholds make sense for you to be moving here.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, in a way Kara you are as much in Los Angeles as any of us are right now. I mean, if there’s a way for you to start for instance having talks to agents and managers and lawyers that you are going to be having out here, well they would occur the same way, whether you are next door to those people or in Chicago. You’d be Zooming. So, it seems like maybe you can do that until this all gets settled. I would be concerned – I know that part of the trick here is that there’s timing. Your husband has a yearlong sabbatical. I don’t know if that’s something that can be rejiggered. I don’t know if he can hit pause on that. Because a year seems like it would be a pretty good amount of time for all of this to settle down and for you to have some clarity about what comes next.
But if he can’t, then maybe this is also an opportunity for you to figure out how maybe long term there may be a different employment prospect for him in Los Angeles. I mean, he’s a professor and there are plenty of amazing schools out here. I don’t know. All I can tell you is moving now seems – I mean, I’m feeling so stressful about it listening to you talk about it. I’m getting sweaty.
John: Honestly, as I do the introspection here I’m just trying to think of how do you even – even the process of going to look for an apartment would feel really stressful for me right now. Because I’m sure there are vacancies, but there’s not going to be a ton. And just going to meet with landlords to see places, it all feels like a really strange time to be doing that stuff. Because everyone is sort of frozen in place. And so it’s hard to sort of do the things would be challenging otherwise, or especially difficult right now. So that’s why I don’t think this week or next week or next month are probably going to be the right times to try to do this move. Even though the summer would seem like a natural time to do it, I don’t see that happening.
Craig, I’m also thinking about stepping aside from Kara for the moment, our general advice to people who’ve – you know, young people who just graduated from college who would classically be moving to Los Angeles, I’m usually the guy like, yep, yep, come on. You know, it’s going to be a tough time but come on and do it. I’m a little less enthusiastic about people trying to move here this summer to get started simply because the unemployment among these entry level jobs is going to be so high for such a long time that it’s going to be especially hard for new people to get their foot in the door here.
Craig: Look, we’re currently at depression levels of unemployment. Now, obviously that’s artificial. It’s not because everything went out of business and no one has anywhere to work. It’s because the businesses have temporarily closed their doors. But that still means it’s hard to just support yourself while you’re trying to do this other thing. I mean, I’ve always said make Plan B your Plan A. And then you won’t be writing scared. You’ll have money in the bank. You’ll be able to pay your rent. Harder to do that now. Harder to do.
It is a difficult thing to make a decision like I’m going to pick up and move, especially when you have a family. So, to finally breakthrough all of the fear and worry to get to yes is so momentous and so difficult and exhausting that when you finally do it and say yes it’s nearly impossible to un-yes it.
Craig: And I can see how that would be very distressing to have to un-yes the yes on this. But that may be what’s required. And if there’s any way to take some comfort in it it’s that this is a once in a lifetime event. God, I hope it’s a once in a lifetime event. And honestly the world is rarely thrown upside down this quickly and this dramatically. But it is a big deal. So, I think you have a ready-made excuse here to maybe take the easier path. I don’t know how old your kids are. Sounds like they might be on the younger side.
John: Yeah, she says two young kids.
Craig: Two young kids. I mean, their world is stressful, too. And in the best of circumstances moving is stressful. Leaving your friends and going somewhere new. It’s an entirely different climate. A different state. It’s all stressful. And then you do it on top of all this stuff, it just seems like maybe you can let yourself off the yes hook on this if that’s the hook that you feel like you’re on.
John: If Kara’s husband does still need to take the sabbatical this next year, an opportunity I could see is that if he takes the greater part of the daytime parenting responsibilities and Kara has the opportunity to just write her ass off that could be a very useful way to spend this year is for her to really focus on getting that writing done, taking all those virtual meetings she possibly can so that she’s in a really good place to kick ass in Hollywood when she gets here.
I do want to segue back though to the idea of like the general like college grad who would normally be moving to Los Angeles about this time of year. If I were in your shoes I would probably look for what is the unique situation happening in 2020 right now that I am well qualified to engage in that’s not Hollywood. So, this feels like a great time to get virtually involved in any of the relief efforts, in any of the political campaign stuff. There’s going to be people who can really use smart twenty-somethings who can work for no money. And just get some experience doing that. Because I feel like moving to LA right now is not going to be a great experience.
Craig: Yeah. I got to go with that.
John: Yeah. All right. Sort of bummer news for a bonus topic, but I mean also hopefully helpful. So I think we’re happy and proud of Kara and she is right in that we would normally be saying pack up the car, Kara. Come on out here because this is your moment. It’s just not quite the same with this situation.
Craig: Yeah. But it’s wait. It’s not don’t. It’s just not yet.
John: Yeah. Make your plan, make your thresholds, and come when you cross those thresholds.
Craig: How about life, huh? You know, you plan, you plan, you plan.
Craig: What can you do? [sighs] Heavy Jewish sigh. That’s my new thing. Instead of actually doing it, I just say it. Heavy Jewish sigh goes here.
John: End of episode. [laughs]
Craig: [laughs] This entire episode can be called Heavy Jewish Sigh.
- Getting Things Done in a Pandemic
- Fetch the Boltcutters
- End of the Century
- Queer Qrosswords, email the team at email@example.com
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.