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 451 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show Craig will offer some guidance on how to flip the script on tropes without landing on your face. We’ll also answer listener questions about phone numbers, slug lines, and short films. And in our bonus segment for Premium members we will discuss personal videogame histories and the possibility that I was raised in a cult.
Craig: Oh my god.
John: Craig has no idea what the Premium topic is until I read it aloud, so he’s excited.
Craig: I mean, both of those sound amazing.
John: Amazing. What else is amazing is if you are listening to this episode when it comes out on Tuesday then you are only two days away from our next live show.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: Thursday, May 14, we will be having a live conversation with Empire Strikes Back writer Lawrence Kasdan to celebrate the 40th anniversary of that film.
Craig: Wow. 40 years. 40 years and I don’t know, can we do spoilers? 40 years of Darth Vader is Luke’s dad. We not only will only be talking to Lawrence Kasdan but I believe we will be able to share either visually or through some sort of method of relaying his handwritten screenplay. And I’ve been looking through it and it’s kind of amazing because sometimes there will be things he’s written and you’re like that wasn’t in Empire Strikes Back. And then sometimes it says, “Yoda, you will be, you will be,” and you’re like oh my god. It’s written down on paper. So, it’s pretty awesome. I mean, it’s kind of a cultural document.
I’m excited. And always fun to talk to Mr. Kasdan. He is a good friend of the show and the greatest living screenwriter.
John: Yeah. We like all of these things about him. So, we will be doing this on video, but we’ll also have audio for it. So, you can anticipate this being a future episode, but if you want to join us live at the time you can join us on Zoom. There will be a link in the show notes and more information as we have it for how you can participate in it. We probably won’t be inviting guests to actually come on and ask questions. But Megana will be monitoring the feed and if there’s questions that come up we will try to get those answered while he is there with us.
Craig: OK. That’s a good plan.
John: Yeah. We’ll see. We’re winging it. So again this is done with the Writers Guild Foundation who we often do live shows for. So it’s exciting that even in this time we can continue to support their great mission.
Craig: You know, you and I, I think, are charitable people.
John: We try to be. We do.
Craig: We’re charitable. We like the charities. Now more than ever.
John: Let’s get to some follow up. Now, a few shows back I asked previous Three Page Challengers to write in with updates and so we have a first update from a previous Three Page Challenge entrant. Do you want to talk us through what Patrick wrote?
Craig: Sure. Patrick McGinley writes, “I sent in the first three pages of my science fiction script, Destination Earth, back in 2014. And you were kind enough to discuss them on Episode 159. I was never under the illusion that someone was going to make an expensive sci-fi spec without an underlying IP so I spent the last five years turning it into a feature length audio drama.”
“It launched in March. All ten episodes are out now and you can listen to them at destinationearthaudio.com. In a recent episode you talked about how difficult it is to get a spec sci-fi or fantasy script made. I think audio dramas are a viable path. You can produce them for almost nothing and you can get your story out in a way that can be enjoyed as entertainment and not just read as a document. Thanks to your great advice over the years I made the jump to fulltime writer in 2018. I’m writing on a show that’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime.”
That sounds like it should be a planet, by the way, in a science fiction thing.
“I always draw inspiration from your podcast and it makes it easier to sit down in front of the blank page every day and do the work.”
Well that’s great, Patrick.
John: Yeah. I’m happy for Patrick. So that’s one success story. People continue to write in with your experiences after this Three Page Challenge. Even if it’s not great news. I’m curious what’s happened to people.
John: Now on this idea of the audio drama, I’m struck by a previous One Cool Thing of mine was the show Bubble which was a fiction podcast by Jordan Morris which I really enjoyed. And just last week it was announced that they are developing that as a series now. I think it’s over at Sony. So that seems like a viable way to do it.
Craig: Yeah. I know that basically every podcast that is vaguely adaptable into something is being sold. Remember when there was the graphic novel gold rush?
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: It’s podcast gold rush now. I mean, that’s what’s going on. So I get pitched a lot of podcasts. But what I like about what Patrick did was he just got super creative and flexible. Flexibility is not necessarily something that comes easily or like second naturally to writers. Sometimes we can be a bit rigid. We get fixated on our creative expression as a way of being artistic and it can’t not be that. And what I like is that Patrick was like well what if I do get flexible and turn away from film to this other entirely different format and thus bring it to life. And it’s a really smart thing to do. I think that’s really clever. And I wonder if this is going to be something that’s more popular. That instead of trying to bomb people with your spec scripts via cold queries and so forth you just start reading them out loud.
John: Yeah. I will say that just reading them out loud is unlikely to really engage people. Like if you look at the audio dramas that work, if you look at things like Homecoming which obviously became a big series, they were really good as audio things. And the people who created them had very smart instincts about how it could work in an audio format. So it’s not going to simply be I’m going to sit at the microphone and read this thing aloud. You’re going to have to shape it to fit the medium. But that is work that a writer can do.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, definitely if you just read it that would be bad. That would be sort of “oh I need to sleep, put on that boring man reading a screenplay.” But hiring some folks or just bringing some folks together who feel like just doing, you know, having some fun and reading something and adding some sound effects. I mean, production for something like a little audio drama is easier now to do in a professional manner than ever before in the history of mankind. And that’s not the case necessarily with making films and television, although they are somewhat easier.
But, yeah, go for it. It’s fun.
John: Now, on the topic of reading scripts aloud, last week we spoke about table reads. And Craig you had a strong opinion that you thought table reads for production in features was generally not a helpful process for you.
John: Aline Brosh McKenna, our friend and the Joan Rivers of Scriptnotes, she writes in, “I was really interested to hear your conversation about table reads. I had a couple perspectives. I agree they can sometimes be detrimental in movies. Also sometimes on pilots where cast members don’t know each other and there are tons of execs. But for a TV comedy and series they can be super important. And on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend they were incredibly helpful. Not only to find where the laughs are, or aren’t, although that is useful, but to check the sturdiness of stories when you hear them out loud. We really relied on them.
“Also when I started writing I did multiple readings of all my scripts in my apartment with friends and that was probably the most useful thing I did and it’s something I always tell first time writers to try.”
Craig: Yeah. There’s a great distinction being made here. If you are working on a show, a repeating ongoing show with a stable cast, and definitely this is the case with comedy because of the aforementioned joke issue, but you can actually get a much more reliable sense of how the script is going to be when you shoot it from that reading. That’s a helpful reading because everybody knows their character. They have the benefit of god knows how many episodes behind them.
When you’re dealing with features, they haven’t done it before, and they don’t want to do it for the first time in front of you. They want to do it, you know, for the first time when it’s safe and they have takes and there aren’t executives around. Great distinction there. I can’t imagine any sitcom, whether it’s something that’s kind of quasi-experimental like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or not, not having read-throughs. You just need them for those. And also for your features if you want to have friends then that’s for you. And no one is judging you. There’s no professional fallout if it’s a bad read. So it totally makes sense. But yeah.
John: Yeah. Your distinction about safety I think is really crucial. It’s not a safe environment in features generally and people do get cut and no one feels secure in doing it. Which if you’re coming back and this is episode seven of this series and you are a regular on it, you feel like you can be free and experiment in a table read and other people wouldn’t be able to do that.
Craig: Precisely. It looks like we’ve got another comment here that sort of jibes with that if you want me to take that one.
John: Do it.
Craig: Anonymous writes, “In Episode 450 Craig commented that table reads are useless. Most actors couldn’t agree more. In television they’re often used as an escape hatch to fire an actor prior to shooting a pilot. An actor friend of mine went through three screen tests for one show. Yes, three definitely screen tests before being hired. The executive producer of the show, whose name I won’t use, even called my friend personally after hiring them to say how excited he was to work with them. The director echoed the sentiment and even execs at the network approached my friend prior to the table read and said they were excited to have him on, or her, on board. It’s this person.
“Then came the table read when apparently one exec who’d likely never even had read the script decided they ‘wanted to go in a different direction with the character.’ This happens all the time to actors. It’s almost a badge of honor to make it through a table read with a job when you’re a working actor but not a name actor. So the studio pays a handsome sum to the actor under contract to walk away, but they at least didn’t drop $4 million on shooting the pilot.”
John: Yeah. So what he’s describing here is it is expensive to fire an actor after the table read, but it’s much, much, much more expensive to have to reshoot a pilot because you don’t like that actor in that role. And so execs are sometimes taking this as an opportunity to go like, “I’m not sure this is really the right person,” and get rid of them.
Craig: And if I were a network executive, like a broadcast network, I would want to go ahead and commission a scientific study to find out how often we have done a good job making that decision. Because I suspect that perhaps a Pop-O-Matic would be just as useful. Do remember Pop-O-Matic?
John: I don’t. But as we get into the bonus segment you’ll understand why I don’t know what a Pop-O-Matic is.
Craig: Oh right. Because you were possibly in a cult. So there was a board game called Trouble when we were kids.
John: Oh I do remember Trouble. We had Trouble back in the cult.
Craig: And so the Pop-O-Matic was that little plastic dome with the die inside of it and you would push it down and it would go click-click and then the die would go boing because it was in this little flexible diaphragm thing. So, Pop-O-Matic is a great way to revolutionize dice rolling which as we all know was just excruciatingly difficult without it.
John: It is. The worst. I think it’s because you can’t lose the die because it’s inside the little bubble. That’s why it is. Because Trouble is exactly the same game as Sorry really, but it’s just the Pop-O-Matic makes it so you cannot lose the actual thing that tells you how far to move your little pegs.
Craig: That is a very practical explanation of why they put Pop-O-Matic in the world. I think the not practical and more commercial reason is they were like look at this gimmick. Look!
John: Makes a noise. Kids like making noise.
Craig: Sugar-fed lunatics watching this commercial at six in the morning on a Saturday will go bother their parents immediately.
John: Good stuff. Last week we also talked about virtual writer’s rooms which is where you are gathering together a group of writers and they’re meeting on Zoom or some other sort of video sharing service rather than being in a room physically together. And I wanted to make a decision between entirely virtual rooms, which is what people are encountering right now, and semi virtual rooms.
So Annie writes, “I work in a virtual room now and for all the reasons you mentioned on the podcast that’s not so much an alternative to a traditional room as a necessary evil to get us through this weird situation. But two years ago I was an assistant in a room where one writer had to Skype in for a few weeks while his visa was being figured out. It was pretty terrible. He had such a hard time being completely involved in the conversation, even with his writing partner in the room trying to help facilitate his participation. When he finally did come to LA his personality and presence were so much more than we’d experienced through the computer screen.
“I can’t imagine having a room with multiple writers in this situation. Plus, they’d be missing out on all the bonding that happens in the kitchen around lamenting snack options and comparing caffeine consumption, all of which actually becomes very important to the room dynamic.”
So what Annie is trying to draw a distinction between is if everyone is in the same boat, OK, you’re in the same boat and you sort of muddle through. But this idea that, oh, maybe I don’t have to move to Los Angeles from Milwaukee and I can just Skype into the room is probably not a realistic option for those writers who don’t want to come to Los Angeles.
Craig: Oh yeah. I mean, if you’ve ever had the experience of being in like a minivan type of vehicle and you have a bunch of friends who are in the second and third row and you’re all the way up in the front, you’re left out. They can’t hear you. You’re talking forward. You’re not part of the thing. And you’re in the van with them. Separation does have an impact. It just does. There’s nothing you can do about it. And the more you try and include yourself the more kind of frustrating it is for everybody. So I completely agree. This is a great indication to people that, yeah, while everyone has to do it, sure. But if not everyone has to do it, you want to be in the room.
John: Yep. Do you want to take this comment from Greg?
Craig: Yeah. Greg writes, “I’m working in a room for a big streamer right now and there’s one topic that keeps coming up that I wanted to add to your list – video lag. One day my connection was spotty and the effects of lagging in the room felt almost like I was having a stroke. I couldn’t control my voice or image and others were looking at me as though I needed some sort of professional help. Then my connection dropped the chat and it felt like a digital bouncer had forcibly removed me from the room. For the next ten minutes I worked in sheer panic to get back in and when I finally did I sat there sweating, wide-eyed, trying to pretend I was as calm and good-humored as everyone else for the rest of the day.
“I thought I was alone in this until it happened to one of the head writers. Her image froze. Then she logged back in on her iPhone, appearing next to her own frozen face.” That’s awesome. “We all laughed at this even as she looked confused and afraid and as we tried to explain to her what we were looking at she froze again. When her second video resumed it was of her rushing down a hall with sheer panic in her eyes. It was the look of someone trying to find a life raft off a burning island.” Greg is very dramatic, by the way.
John: Yeah, I was going to say.
Craig: “The worst part was that if any of us attempted to call out her terror in any way other by cracking a light joke it would have been like saying the emperor has no clothes. We would have imperiled the room, the comfort of the other writers and our productivity because Zoom chats are founded on the fundamental lie that we’re actually together when in fact we are alone and one second away from digital annihilation.” Again, I have to repeat, Greg is a very dramatic person. [laughs]
John: Yeah. But I wanted to include Greg’s full description there because it is a thing I have experienced and feared is that like when you can’t get into a group, when a discussion is happening without you and you feel like you’re pushed to the outside of it it is really panic-inducing. And you always feel like, wait, will I be able to rejoin this thing? You might have flow that is now broken. Particularly if you’re trying to run the show and then you’re not able to actually get into the conversation. It is, you know, it’s scary.
Craig: Yeah, so I don’t know what’s wrong with me but when I’m on one of these things and suddenly my video glitches up and I get booted from the room I feel a slight sense of relief. [laughs] Like, oh good.
John: You have an excuse for why you’re not there.
Craig: Yeah. I feel like I can just go now and do whatever I want. And later just be like, yeah, Zoom right? Geesh.
John: I heard about this on Twitter but – not this last session but the session before – the six of us were playing Dungeons & Dragons and it’s like midnight and I felt an earthquake. I’m like, oh my god, there’s an earthquake. And the other five people on the chat were like, including you, were like, “There’s no earthquake.” And then the next nearest person felt the earthquake. And the next nearest person felt the earthquake. And it was such a wild moment because I was closer to the epicenter of the earthquake I felt it first and then there was a lag before it got to Phil and then to you. It was just such a wild experience that even though we were all there virtually we were physically in the same city and so therefore we were feeling the same effects.
Craig: Yes. And that’s something that you don’t normally have access to, right? It’s a weird thing. Because normally when you’re experiencing something together you’re together. And in that sense you could actually kind of chart the movement of the shockwave, which dissipated dramatically by the time it made it to me and to Chris Morgan.
John: It was a long way to get there. The other thing I’ve noticed with video lag that can be so frustrating is obviously the big networks have gotten much better at all the live from home stuff and they’re generally faking the live-ness of it all. They’re not really live from home.
John: But one thing I do watch which is more live is Drag Race has this Werq the World Tour where they’re raising money for drag queens. My daughter is obsessed with it. And so we watch it and it’s two very funny drag queens. One is in Los Angeles and one is in New York. And they have great patter, but just that one or two seconds lag really makes it awkward.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: And you just cannot do it. It’s tough.
Craig: It’s brutal. Timing is everything. And when you have a forced lag it’s over. There is no – it’s why sometimes they’ll bring a comedian on to one of the news shows, like the kind of talking head news shows. And their stuff always dies because of the time delay. It just kills it. The expiration date on a joke is precisely 0.0001 seconds after it is said. I mean, if you wait any longer than that it’s just like stale air, stale air. “Oh, OK. Yeah. That was funny, the thing you said a little bit ago.” It’s the weirdest thing. Yeah. Timing.
John: All timing.
John: All right. Let’s get to our marquee topic. Craig, talk us through what you want to tell us about tropes.
Craig: Well, you know, I’ve been working on some new things lately and especially now that I’m in television – television, there’s so much more material you have to shovel into the engine of creation because there are episodes. Everything in television is longer than it is in film. And so you’re thinking about a lot of scenes, a lot of moments, a lot of scenes, a lot of ideas. And over and over it’s inevitable that you’re going to start to bump into places where tropes could go.
John: We should probably talk about what do we even mean by tropes? Because it’s a term that you and I throw around, but other people might not know what we’re talking about.
Craig: Cliché is a word that people use. So these are the moments, dialogue lines, scene, sequences, things that we have seen over and over and over in movies and television. It’s the guy walking away slowly from the explosion that he caused behind him. It’s the person saying something mean about somebody and then saying, “She’s right behind me isn’t she?” It’s that stuff. It’s crawling through the air duct to get to a place.
John: Absolutely. So they’re moments of narrative that are almost like stock photos that we’re so used to seeing them that we can kind of anticipate what they’re going to be like. And you could just string them together in forms that look like popular entertainment, but as a viewer we recognize that they are clichéd moments or they are sort of stock moments. And cliché would be too hard of a thing to bang them on because they’re natural bits of storytelling device in some cases, but we’ve seen them so often that they no longer feel fresh.
John: Jane Espenson often refers to clams. They’re old dead jokes for example.
Craig: Yeah. And there are also things that maybe in and of themselves aren’t considered tropes, but when you think of them naturally in the course of writing a scene you get a whiff of familiarity about them anyway. I mean, it’s not necessarily a trope that when there’s a horse racing scene and a character loses they rip up their little bet slips, but I’ve seen it so many times. So it’s like a little thing is like is there another way to do it?
And so I just kept thinking like, OK, what I’m really trying to do is every time I run into something like that I’m asking myself, OK, don’t do that. But then there is a question. Well then what do we do? Because that trope emerged in your mind for a reason. It’s accomplishing something. So we’re going to talk a little bit about how to handle that.
And I think the first thing we have to acknowledge is that tropes are not inherently bad. In fact, weirdly they’re inherently good. That’s how they became tropes. So, I looked this up. Everyone has heard somebody at some wedding say, “Throw your hands up in the air and wave them around like you just don’t care.” This has happened four billion times. But about 41 years ago Sugar Hill Gang wrote “Just throw your hands up in the air and party hardy like you just don’t care” and that may have been the first popularized use of that and it was awesome. Because no one had heard it before and so it was cool.
That’s why it became a trope. Tropes become tropes because they’re surprising and they’re fresh and they entertain and they solve problems. They solve problems. It’s like the first time you taste Hamburger Helper. You don’t know it’s garbage. It helped the hamburger. It worked.
John: Or first time someone said like, “Well let’s never do that again,” when something disastrous happened. It was actually a novel response to that thing that had just happened. But if we say that now it is still and is a trope. It’s shining a light on this thing which just went wrong. It doesn’t work anymore.
Craig: Yeah. It does not work anymore. The problem with saying, OK, well then I’m not going to do that is that we are disallowing ourselves from using something that at the very minimum accomplishes a thing. Hamburger Helper does accomplish something. It just doesn’t accomplish anything original. So our job here is to replace the trope with something that actually also accomplishes something. Different and good is original.
Different and bad just sucks. And so we have to be careful when we say, all right, no tropes please. We also have to caution that when you zig where everybody else would zag there is the potential that you might do something that’s just boring or self-indulgent or confusing or unimpactful or not believable. So, the challenge today is to figure out how to not do the tropy thing but still get all the tropy goodness from the heart of it while being fresh and surprising and entertaining.
John: That sounds great. And I think part of the reason why we’re emphasizing that tropes are there in the first place is that people approach anything we write or anything that they see with a set of expectations. They have expectations about the genre, about the kind of thing that they’re watching. So, they’re aware of what they expect to kind of happen in this. And if you’re so trying to avoid every possible trope then it’s not even going to resemble the genre it’s supposed to be in.
If you’re trying to write a vampire thing and all the vampires aren’t hurt by sunlight, or wooden stakes, or any of that stuff then at a certain point you’re not writing a vampire thing anymore. So you have to be aware of what the overall scope of tropes is for this and how you’re making your choice about what you’re doing and what you’re not doing and how you’re hopefully aware of the tropes and remixing them in a way that makes it feel fresh.
Craig: That’s a great example. The vampires. Because vampires are just like drowning in tropes. But you want the vampire to bit someone in the neck. That’s a thing, right? OK, or at least bite somebody in a vein. So, that’s something you need to do. And as you’re creating your vampire story you may come to that place where suddenly the vampire has to bit somebody and drink their blood. So that’s a trope. And I think the first thing you should do is not just deny it. Not say, “Well in my movie vampires don’t do that.” Just first say to yourself, OK, I’m going to allow myself to play out the tropiest version possible in my mind. What am I getting out of it? What are the things that matter?
Is this character particularly scared? Are they excited to be bitten by the vampire? Is the vampire reluctant, guilty? Is the vampire ravenous? What are the things that at least I want out of my characters in the middle of this tropy thing? Learn from that. That’s the stuff that actually you can keep and use. Because tropes are just expressions of intention. They’re just often clever or once brilliant expressions of intention that now become stale from overuse. But keep the intentions.
So, first off, listen to the trope as it happens and learn from it. So you’ve listened to the trope in your head. You’ve heard what the intention is. And now it’s really important for you to say to yourself I’m not going to actually do it. I think sometimes we get into a self-delusional state where we think, well, I mean, you know, we can get away with it. We can do just one. Or, it’s not like it’s that tropy, because instead of the usual vampire biting somebody in the next in a castle he’s biting somebody on a neck in a rooftop bar in modern day New York. No, look, if you blindly walk into a trope, that is to say you didn’t realize it was a trope in the moment, which happens, and then someone points out and says, “Oh, yeah, you know, I’ve seen that,” then you go, OK, OK, got it. Let me change that.
But if you know, don’t do it. Just resist the siren song.
John: Absolutely. So I think what your call to action here is like just don’t be lazy. Don’t use the trope without examining what the trope does and why you would be using it. So don’t go for the trope without thinking about what the trope actually does. In the vampire example why is a vampire biting someone’s neck? Well, it’s biting the neck to feed. Is that the most interesting way to show feeding? Is it worth spending the shoe leather to change that vampire behavior and go at it a different way? Is there something about the biting of the neck that you’re going to do differently that is important to your story? For instance maybe the vampire doesn’t have these pop-out fangs and so biting the neck is actually really difficult because they just have normal teeth.
Like that’s a change that you’re making which could be worthwhile. But basically your challenge is to always ask yourself why am I doing this thing that is sort of a stock photo in this kind of story.
Craig: Yeah. Because ultimately the audience will be sitting there going, oh, OK, well you know, see you borrowed that. You’ve started to bring up techniques like, OK, so what do we do.
So let’s go through, I’ve got seven suggestions. But I’m sure there are many, many more. But we’ll start with the easiest one which is just reverse it. So if the trope says boy meets girl when they bump into each other and you want them to have a meet-cute and you want it to be in the middle of the street because that’s kind of where they are maybe you just reverse it and they each bump – or they amazingly avoid bumping into each other. Like they’re heading towards each other with all of the attributes of a bumping together scene and they miss each other. And in missing each other they kind of turn back and realize that they had a near miss. And that’s the way it works.
Any trope there is you can just simply try, at least in your mind, to just do the reverse. If we know that vampires feed on people by drinking their blood then is there a way that vampires as it turns out need you to bite them so that they drink your blood. Whatever it is, reversal is always at least a simple strategy. If it works, great. A lot of times it doesn’t. But a decent first shot.
John: Absolutely. So you’re taking a look at, again, this is all going back to what does the reader, what does the audience expect. If the audience comes into it with a certain set of expectations and you’re able to kind of acknowledge those expectations and flip them then the audience is going to be hopefully even more engaged because they know that you know what they are expecting and that you’re taking an action to subvert that.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. With that in mind, one of the kind of more comedic ways to handle tropes is by being meta. So the idea is that the characters or the filmmakers are kind of silently acknowledging that they watch TV and movies, too. They know the trope. They are either – when they engage in a trope they’re commenting on it, or the movie is commenting on it, or it doesn’t go the way it’s normally supposed to go.
So parodies kind of truck in this steadily. We did something in one of the Scary Movies where it was the trope of somebody in a moment of kind of anxiety and the camera is moving around them in a 360. We’ve seen this so many times. And we were doing this and then the character kind of puts their hands out and goes, “Stop,” and the camera stops and they vomit. And so it’s like you just acknowledge that the trope is happening.
Lord and Miller are by far the masters of this. So if you want to study this kind of meta trope behavior look at 21 Jump Street or The Lego Movie or any of the work that they do. They’re brilliant at it.
One of the simplest methods of being meta about tropes is doing the trope exactly as it is except taken to its absurd extreme. So, classic trope. You remove the cover of a bomb and there are four different color wires and which one should I snip. We’ve seen it a billion times. But in MacGruber you take the cover off the bomb and there’s a thousand wires. A thousand wires. And that’s great. I mean, it’s essentially like you said, it’s playing off of the audience’s expectation.
John: Yeah. And again the movie MacGruber it’s a joke they keep playing again and again is that it’s about diffusing this bomb and then they don’t actually do any of the work to diffuse the bomb. They’re having a completely unrelated conversation when you know you are supposed to be focusing on the bomb.
Craig: Right. For drama, sometimes all you need to do to kind of subvert and untropify a trope is to just change the dynamics. So I’ll call it loud to quiet in this instance. So we’ve all seen a prison riot. There have been four hundred zillion prison riots on movies and TV shows and they all look the same. In the prison riot there is a bell ringing somewhere. There are prisoners running around in a violent scrum. There’s always two levels to the prison and on the top level they are throwing burning mattresses to the bottom level. Every. Single. Time. Burning paper, burning mattresses, and people are getting stabbed randomly. And everyone is screaming.
That is what a prison riot looks like in everything. OK. Well, if you’re writing something and it’s time for a prison riot is there a quiet prison riot? Is there a way to do a prison riot where basically the prisoners are methodic and strategic and careful, which is actually kind of terrifying to consider?
So just deciding I’m going to do the same thing but just way quieter, or way louder, may be enough to kind of detropify your tropy intent.
John: Absolutely. And that shift of dynamics could also, it doesn’t have to be the entire universe, but whoever the central character is in that we have an expectation of who that person is generally in that story and to put a different kind of person in that slot is incredibly helpful.
And so if you have the charismatic cult leader and we have an expectation of what a charismatic cult leader is, and instead you have somebody who seems just the opposite of that, or just dialed in a very different direction, that is fascinating because we understand the general dynamics of how this is supposed to work but that’s not the person we expect to be doing that. And that gives you opportunity.
Craig: Precisely. Again we are playing with their expectations. I mean, last week we were talking about comedy as a magician’s trick. It’s just subverting expectations. It’s misdirection. That’s what we’re talking about here.
Another method is just analogizing. You take the same kind of thing but if there is something that has been done to death and yet useful, find something else that has the same kernel of psychological payload but is just different in circumstance in a way we haven’t seen. Typical thing in a lot of movies, particularly sports films, is the wise old coach who used to be something but isn’t something anymore because something tragic happened to them like they lost the big game and now they’re a drunk. And they’ve got to pull it together to help the young hero. That’s pretty much a stock trope.
If you want that character, if you need that character, maybe just look at the drinking part and say is there some other kind of self-destructive addiction that I can put here that isn’t that. Because we’ve seen it. It’s been done a billion times. So what else? I mean, weirdly enough one of my suggestions was are they in a cult? Are they obsessed with following something? Are they and end-of-the-world prepper? Are they running from a crime they committed? Are they trying to win back an ex-lover who has clearly moved on? What are they doing with their lives that has consumed them and pulled them away from what they maybe should be doing?
So you don’t have to turn your back on the useful aspect of self-destructive mentor, but you just have to change the nature of it I think or you end up being tropy.
John: Absolutely. And so in this case we’re probably talking about that sounds like he’s either a protagonist or an antagonist. We’ve seen stories in which that coach figure is the central character, so The Way Back, the Ben Affleck movie recently, he’s sort of that central character. We’ve also seen that as the antagonist, the one who is helping but also challenging our protagonist along the way.
What we’re pushing for is to look at sort of what the outside frame is of that character and are there things about that stock version that you can strip away and subvert so that we can actually see something really interesting and find ways to sort of do the same effect but without the usual details that we’re used to in the story.
Craig: Yeah. You just get different lines, you know, different expressions. It frees you in a lot of ways. It really does. It frees you.
OK, we’re getting closer to the end of our list here. We’ve got three more. Mourn the loss of the trope. So tropes make things easy. And sometimes would benefit from the inclusion of a trope. If your 16-year-old protagonist is struggling with her physical identity or her sexuality, I think it’s OK for a moment where she acknowledges that there is a world where tropes exist which is fantasy world, where ditching your glasses or getting a haircut makes you a new human being to everyone. That doesn’t work that way in real life. And it’s OK to acknowledge the trope as almost like you the writer and the character are mourning the loss of it. If only the trope would world. But it won’t.
John: So let’s take Booksmart as an example. So in that script you have so many opportunities for these two young characters to engage in tropes, and instead we don’t engage in tropes, or we actually push against those tropes. So you have two young women who want to have the perfect night of high school, of partying, and in some ways they are longing for that trope. They are longing for this idealized version of what a high school party night is supposed to be like. And again and again they are not able to achieve it.
They’re also aware that they’re sort of going for this impossible thing at the same time. So the script is very smart about not letting them do the things that they kind of want to do. And sort of the sadness that it’s never as simple as you sort of wish it could be.
Craig: Yeah. And you’ve said an interesting word there which is smart or intelligent. That there is an implied intelligence when you fight back against tropes. Whether we like it or not, and whether we intend it or not, the use of tropes implies a certain kind of lack of intelligent or intelligence horsepower, because it’s a borrowing. So you will seem smarter, which is good.
OK, two more. This is an easy one. Eliminate the lines. Because tropy dialogue is what we consider to be written dialogue. It’s never going to be heard as authentic because it’s been said by a billion other characters before. And now one talks like that.
John: It’s hack.
Craig: It’s hack. Nobody in real life talks in trope lines. So, don’t have your characters say them. But those trope lines became trope lines because they did express something authentic at one time. So, whatever that authentic feeling is, it’s OK to have your actors express it. It’s OK to have your characters feel it, just not out loud.
John: Just don’t say those words.
Craig: Yeah. Just sometimes all you’ve got to do is if the trope comes to mind just delete it. But change nothing else and it just might work.
John: Absolutely. And if you are able to find that line that so perfectly encapsulates what that moment is like, congratulations you have now created a new trope.
Craig: A new trope.
John: A new trope line.
Craig: A new trope line. And finally, and this is really I think the best advice, and it’s the one I try and use the most. Be real. Tropes or at least are psychological processing of them is such that they feel connected to a glossy or melodramatic representation of life. They feel movie-ish. They feel TV show-ish. So the lines are kind of fake witty. I mean, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character wasn’t really witty but he would always have these snappy little one-liners, you know, because it’s fake. The behavior is fake macho. Nobody walks away slowly from an explosion. That’s fake. The choices are fake brave. The emotions are fake sentiment. There is never a slow clap in real life ever. There are no slow claps. [laughs]
So the question you have to ask yourself is in the moment that you have created what would really happen. Think about that carefully and then do that. Because there are mechanical ways as we’ve described to change tropes, subvert them, hide them, acknowledge them, but nothing is as interesting, I think, ultimately, than letting a trope happen in your mind naturally, you arrive at a point. Your brain says, oh, the trope would fit right here. And then you say that’s great. But what would really happen? And then you might get something.
John: So we have many listeners who are film historians and so I challenge them, can you tell us where the slow clap came from? What was the first cinematic depiction of the slow clap? Because as Craig points out–
Craig: The first slow clap.
John: It’s a thing I only associate with movies and I think I’ve seen people try to do it in real life and it feels incredibly weird because it doesn’t actually make sense. It doesn’t work. And so if someone can tell me the history of the slow clap I’d be delighted to hear it.
But Craig’s underlying point here about being real, like what is the actual real behavior that people in real life situations would do is the cornerstone advice here. Is that the way you get to making your characters feel grounded within the universe of the story you’re telling is to be consistent within that world. And so we’re not saying nothing can be heightened. Obviously things are heightened. And so Veep is heightened. That’s not how real people would speak. Never Have I Ever, a show I just watched and really loved, is heightened. And that’s fine.
Social Network is heightened. People are speaking at a clip that they couldn’t speak at in real life. But within that heightened universe there is an underlying reality that you’re never reaching for sort of stock ways to get through things. In any of those things if they reached for a clunky line like “Let’s never do that again” it would thud. It wouldn’t work.
Craig: Yeah. It just wouldn’t. And so, yeah, you are allowed to be not realistic in your tone, but in moments where tropes would fit the best way to untropify the trope is to say what would actually happen here. Let’s not gloss this over with some tropy paint. Let’s embrace the realness of it.
I thought that, you know, the movie that we were looking at the other week, Bad Education, did a really good job. I mean, there’s so many opportunities for tropes in that movie.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: And it seemed like, you know, they dodged most of them. I really do think so. I mean, you could feel like everybody was working hard, including the actors. Because, I mean, remember, some tropes aren’t just written. Some tropes are also acting tropes. Here’s one that I see all the time. In the place of somebody allowing themselves to experience something they just do a heavy breath out. No one does that. Normally in real life no one is like, [deep breath], well, but they do this sometimes. So everybody worked really hard to not do the tropy tropes and it’s appreciated. It really is.
John: It is. Here’s my actor tropy trope. I’m frustrated so I’m going to take off my reading glasses and throw them down on the desk and then rub my temples with my hands. That is my tropy trope.
Craig: Yeah. No, I mean, I think there’s a pretty great – there’s a few great Denzel gifs. A lot of times I feel like tropes begin with Denzel. Like Denzel does something amazing and then everybody else is like, ooh–
John: Oh, I’ll Denzel that.
Craig: I want to Denzel it. And then it’s like, mmm, but Denzel Denzeled it. So you can’t Denzel it, because he Denzeled it. So, anyway.
John: Craig, I think you Denzeled this topic and for that I want to offer you a—
John: I don’t know what it means. But it’s a thing that happens.
Craig: Just sometimes, yeah, it’s a thing that happens. It’s just so funny. The whole psychology of the slow clap is that everyone is stunned. And no one is quite sure if they’re the only person who thinks what they saw was great. And then one brave soul is like not only am I going to express that this is great, but I’m going to do it so deliberately–
Craig: And then everyone is like, yes, I will too. One by one. And then the applause. And then it has to turn into like the full applause.
John: Yeah. But it would be better if it didn’t turn into full applause and instead it was like they were keeping time, where everyone just starts clapping the same way, like are we supposed to start singing?
Craig: That’s terrifying.
John: That’s a way to subvert that slow clap trope.
Craig: That is absolutely terrifying. Yeah. And there’s always that moment where the person like when the slow clapping is happening the person on stage is like “what’s going on?”
John: Wait, what?
Craig: They’ve never experienced the slow clap phenomenon. [laughs]
John: Well, the challenge of the slow clap though is it’s also a mocking thing. You can make somebody by the slow clap. So it’s impossible to read what it actually is. And it’s a thing that just happened in movies.
Craig: In real life the only time you hear a slow clap is in a mocking reference to slow clapping. So, yes, in a movie if someone gets the slow clap their response should be like, “You know what, screw you man. I know what you’re doing.” Oh, slow clapping.
All right. Well, we’ve got some questions we can shuffle onto here if you’d like.
John: Let’s go for it. I’ll start with Paul in Wales. He writes, “I have a question about slug lines. I’ve seen them be bold, underlined, and with scene numbers if it’s a spec, but how about different colors? I’ve written a half-hour TV pilot that uses parallel realities, showing how different characters deal with the same problem. Because scenes from both realties are intercut I’ve given each reality a different colored slug line, pink and blue, and the rest of the scenes are in black. As someone with dyslexia I find this easy for myself to keep track of where I am in the story. Are there easier ways of showing a jump between realities on the page? I have written Reality A and Reality B in parenthesis at the end of each slug line. Should I instead put this before the INT or EXT?”
Craig, what’s your thinking on this kind of slug line questions and color overall in scripts?
Craig: The risk is just being distracting with the colors. That said, I don’t think it’s a bad idea. If you have something where you’re moving back and forth between various realities and you want to color code those slug lines, that to me is not a killer. If I were reading the script and enjoying it I think I would find that to be kind of a delightful help. If I were reading the script and thought it was boring then I would think of it as – honestly, I would just think I wish the writer had spent as much time on the writing as they did on the color coding.
So it always gets filtered through the quality of the writing itself. I am tempted to say that if the script is done properly and well you won’t need those. But, I don’t think it’s a huge problem. And if readers do say, “Listen, I really appreciate it,” go for it. It’s not like we’re dealing with the 1990s where everything was being Xeroxed on black and white machines. So, why not?
John: So when we had Greta Gerwig on the show her script for Little Women had pages in red, so the text was in red, for when we were in the past. And it was helpful because that was constantly playing with which timeline we’re in. And so she did not just the slug lines but the whole scenes would be in red when they’re in the past.
And that worked for her script and I thought it was a good choice for it. What Paul is suggesting I think could work, but I don’t know that going in color is really going to be more helpful than putting the past or present over it, or putting some little symbol, or maybe just bolding the ones that are in the present versus the past, or the different realities. The pink and the blue feels like a lot to me. And I do wonder and worry for Paul’s sake that someone who is picking it up is just going to go, “Huh,” and might toss it a little bit earlier than they should because they’re so thrown off by the color.
So I think a simpler choice that works is going to be better than a color choice which might work a little bit better honestly, but will just throw people off.
Craig: Sure. I mean, I think it’s also – you could also say, look, as a little note beforehand, “I have dyslexia. This is how I am able to write and navigate through the script. So apologies if you find it distracting.” I think sometimes just being honest about those things and people will go, well, I’m not going to be a dick and just be like, well, I don’t care about your dyslexia. Throw. You know? And fling it virtually across the room.
I mean, I would probably give somebody a bit more of a break because I understand the intention. As opposed to I am self-indulgent and I think that I’m going to make things pink and blue. Do you know what I mean? So, yeah, you know, I think in general he should be – I would be – let’s put it this way. That’s not going to be the problem. Do you know what I mean? In the end ultimately if there’s a problem it’s going to be because of the writing.
Alexandra from West LA writes, “Could you do an overview of all the ways a screenwriter could make money screenwriting?” Such a good question actually, Alexandra. Thank you. “How is the screenplay market structured? Where is most of the money? I know as screenwriters we aren’t here for the money, but current insight on this could help funnel my overrunning cup of creative desires, especially as so many different storytelling formats open up. Thanks. Thank you.”
I like that she said thank you twice. Alexandra in West LA. So, John, let’s do a quick rundown on how you can make some scratch doing this gig.
John: All right. So, the classic ways screenwriters, we’ll talk about film and TV as one big pile of writing, the classic ways they make money is I write a script all by myself, a spec script, and I sell that to somebody for a sizeable chunk of money and they say, “Fantastic, we love this script. We will make this into a movie. We will pay you this amount of money for the script you’ve written. We will hopefully pay you some more money to do the rewrites on it.” And that goes out into the world. I will get some sort of residuals and profit participation on that movie when it gets made. That is a classic way that people get paid as screenwriters, but it’s actually not the way that most screenwriters make money.
Most screenwriters instead make money by being hired to write a specific project. And so it could be their original project that they have an idea for, they pitch it to a producer, to a studio. That financier says, “Great. I will pay you X dollars to write that script for me.” Or it could be based on a piece of property that the studio or the producer owns and they are looking for a writer to adapt this into a movie. They come to you and say, “Do you have an idea for how to do this?” And you pitch them your idea for how to do this and they pay you money to do it.
Those are classically the ways that screenwriters make money is by creating material themselves and selling it, or by being hired to write screenplay material for somebody else.
Craig: Yeah. So there is open writing assignments where you’re hired to rewrite things. There is roundtables where they bring screenwriters together to have a kind of group effort to punch up a comedy script for instance. Or talk about how a dramatic script might be improved, sort of development style. And in television there are similar entrepreneurial avenues. You write a spec script, you set up a show. You can also be hired as a high level executive producer or story producer for a show that somebody else started. And of course you could be hired as a staff writer where you are helping break stories in the room and then you are assigned a script.
John: Yeah. So in our earlier conversation today about like writers in virtual rooms, those writers are being paid for their time in that room. And based on how their contracts work that time that they’re in the room may also be applied towards the script that they’re writing, or that script that they’re writing may not be part of that time that they’re spending, that weekly money they’re getting for being in the room. But that is probably the bulk of overall writer income in the WGA is TV writers who are in the room writing on a show.
Craig: Yeah. And then there are sort of nontraditional areas. I mean, well screenwriters also can work on variety shows. So they’re working on jokes and sketches. You can write on game shows, which do need writing. And then there are things that you can do sort of independent. I mean, you can write for commercials. Is it screenwriting? Well, it’s writing for the screen. It’s not necessarily unionized, but there is that.
But basically that’s kind of the run of it. I’m sure we’re missing a few things. But by and large 95% of the money that we make as screenwriters is through open writing assignments, through rewrites, through original material, through working in a room, or collaborating with other people on a television show. That’s kind of the run of it.
John: I would also say that a not insignificant part of income that comes into writers is stuff that’s not really writing, but it’s teaching writing, or it’s doing other stuff that’s sort of adjacent to that process. And so Peter Gould who is a fantastic writer and a director on Better Call Saul was my screenwriting, actually my film basics professor at USC. And so there’s a long tradition of also teaching or doing other things. We talked about assistants and readers, there’s other ways that these writers make their living while they are writing.
Craig: Yeah. So there are kind of screenwriting-adjacent gigs that you can do like teaching for sure.
John: Great. Jason asks a question. “On his blog recommended changing your phone number to have a 323 or an 818 area code. Is this still necessary in 2020?” So he’s referring back to a 2007 post I had done about moving to LA. And back then I had recommended that, yes, you should change your number to an LA number just so that people think of you as being an LA person.
That is just dead advice. That is not relevant anymore. Because people keep their cell numbers from wherever they were.
John: So don’t change your number.
Craig: No. Nobody has a number anymore. You’re a name. So, the numbers are gone. There’s a comedian did some joke about getting arrested – it was Kathleen Madigan I think. She gets arrested and they give her one call, but they take all of her possessions. It’s like I don’t know anyone’s number. You took my phone. I literally have no – I can’t call my own parents. I don’t know their number. [laughs] And that’s kind of where we are right now.
John: Mm-hmm. I still dial my mom’s number as numbers. I think part of it is just so I don’t ever forget it, just because it otherwise – that’s the number I grew up with. I can’t ever let that go.
I feel like I would be losing a part of myself if I didn’t dial that number.
Craig: Every day I wake up thinking I would like to lose a part of myself.
Craig: I’m all into Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
John: So while your phone number does not matter anymore, the area code for that, I will say that don’t use a goofy email address. So, I think proper email addresses are – Gmail is fine. Everyone has Gmail. AOL is still fine. Some people still use their AOLs. It’s fine. But never use Roadrunner. Never use like the free email that came with your Internet service when you first set it up. That always feels kind of weirdly unprofessional to me. So, pick something that is – if you’re putting your email address on the title page of your script, which is fair and genuine, you can do that, just make it an email address that you’re not embarrassed by.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, AOL is kind of a red flag. If you’re an older person and you’re using AOL and you want to make it some sort of a virtue of loyalty then that’s fine. Yeah, Roadrunner, Hotmail.
John: Yeah, if I see a Hotmail I’m like I’m a little dubious of this.
John: Yeah. All right. It is time for our One Cool Things. I have two One Cool Things that are sort of related. The first is a book. It is my friend Jordan Mechner who created Karateka and Prince of Persia and is an amazing videogame designer and screenwriter, he has a book out now called The Making of Prince of Persia, 1985-1993. It is a collection of all his old journals. And so he was a person who actually just kept a journal about what was going on day by day as he’s building what became an incredibly seminal game and helped change the videogame industry. And you’re just seeing this college kid working out sort of how to make this game and largely do it himself. Everything from how to sort of figure out the bit maps to some of the programming stuff, but really more the business and the logistics of how it should all fit and work together.
So, I really enjoyed it and I think the closest comparison I would have for it would be I remember reading Sex, Lies, and Videotape, the book, that Soderbergh wrote which is both his production journal and the script for Sex, Lies, and Videotape. It was like the first real screenplay I had read. But the actual production log, his sort of notes about what he was doing day by day were so helpful in seeing like, oh, you know what, it’s just a lot of hard work and he didn’t know what he was doing through a lot of it. And so if you are a person who aspires to make things I think you might really enjoy Jordan Mechner’s The Making of Prince of Persia, 1985-1993.
We’ll put an Amazon link there. We put Amazon links for most stuff. But we’re also going to start putting Bookshop links to things we can. Bookshop.org is a website you go to and it’s like Amazon but it actually feeds through local book stores. And supporting local bookstores in this time is incredibly important. It’s a really well setup system and so we’re going to try to be providing Bookshop links to anything we talk about on the show that we can find on Bookshop.
Craig: Yeah. It sounds good. It is a really cool read. And like Sex, Lies, and Videotape part of the fun of reading about Jordan’s process is that you’re looking at somebody who is dealing with enormous limitations. And so so much of the story of The Making of Prince of Persia is how do I deal with the fact that I have no resources. I don’t have a lot of money. I don’t have a lot of time. And I also have very little memory to work with to actually make a game that functions.
So, the way that a kind of deprivation can sometimes lead to creative epiphany is fascinating to me and so the story of how for instance the main antagonist of Prince of Persia is a direct result of a memory limitation and how that comes to be is really fascinating. So, it’s an interesting – it’s a really interesting journey. And Jordan is a great guy. So, well-chosen there, John.
My One Cool Thing this week is I think I’ve mentioned Maria Bamford as a One Cool Thing in the past before. She’s a standup comedian out of Minnesota. She is brilliant. She’s also odd. She’s like one of the great odd comedians. She has no problem being weird. Her eccentricity is sort of front forward. And she also has absolutely no shame about talking about her struggles with mental illness which were quite serious. And she did have to take a lot of time off because she does suffer from pretty significant mental illness.
And she talks about mental illness all the time. In this latest comedy special Weakness is the Brand she doesn’t talk about it a ton, but when she does it’s still pretty impactful and pretty – there’s funny and then there’s funny because, my god, that’s really, really true and you said it and it’s funny, which is different. I think she’s terrific. And so if you’re looking for some laughs and slightly challenging laughs, which is great, check out Maria Bamford: Weakness is the Brand.
John: Is it Netflix? HBO?
Craig: I believe it is on Amazon Prime.
John: Fantastic. Which is of course the–
Craig: Distant planet.
John: Distant planet where the Amazons actually came from.
Craig: Yes. Amazon Prime.
John: Amazon Prime. In our bonus segment we will talk about my cult history and our early experience with videogames. But until then that is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Special thanks to Dustin Box and Chris [Sont] for their help.
Our outro is by James Llonch. 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 find the transcripts.
You can sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments.
Craig, thanks for talking us through the tropes.
Craig: Thank you, John. And remember there’s no slow clap.
John: All right. So, our bonus topic. A couple of things made me think of this. First off is Jordan’s book. Craig, you are adapting The Last of Us. And I’ve been playing a lot of Animal Crossing.
John: So videogames are having a big cultural moment, but they’ve kind of always been a cultural touchstone. They’ve always been reflecting and sort of making the popular culture. And so I wanted to talk about our videogame histories. And I guess we’ll start with the distinction between videogames and arcades and videogames at home. Because I did go to the arcade with my brother some and I would play stuff, but I wasn’t a big arcade person. Were you an arcade person?
Craig: I wanted to be a big arcade person. My parents generally if they saw me deriving pleasure from something would put a stop to it. [laughs] So the arcade in the Staten Island Mall which I think was called something like Space Port. I think it was called Space Port. It was all I wanted to be in. I just wanted to be in Space Port. And they were like, no, that’s full of teenagers and trouble.
John: I just completely picture you on the most recent season of Stranger Things being one of those kids.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: In the Star Port Mall.
Craig: So Star Port – god, I really want to check. So the Staten Island Mall, which is still there. I lived about, I don’t know, like a ten minute walk from it, and it was just classic. It’s like a classic mall. And Space Port as I recall it was just poorly made up to look like you were entering some sort of space station.
John: Were there some black lights?
Craig: Yeah, I think there were. I think there were. I think there were some black lights. There was that carpet that had planets and crap on it.
John: Oh yeah. Absolutely.
Craig: You know that carpet.
John: Yeah. It’s good stuff.
Craig: And then a lot of delinquents. But I really wanted to. But mostly my early gaming was limited to the Atari 2600 and then games that I could play on the Apple II.
John: Yeah. So this is where we sort of get into the John was raised in a cult thing because so much of what people will talk about in terms of their videogame history but also their popular cultural history I don’t have the references for somebody who is my actual age. It’s like I did not live through the same timeline. And so I don’t seriously believe I was actually raised in a cult or I have missing years, but things like H.R. Pufnstuf or Fraggle Rock, people will bring up these things. Like, “Oh my god, I loved that,” and I have no idea what it is you’re talking about. It just didn’t exist for me.
And part of it was growing up in Colorado, you know, in a pre-cable universe you only have what the local stations would carry. And sometimes they wouldn’t carry those things. But it is just strange that there’s stuff I don’t know about that everyone else my same age seems to know about.
Craig: Well, Fraggle Rock was HBO, right?
John: So that’s cable again. So I didn’t have cable TV.
Craig: Yeah. And so I think that that’s fair. I mean, if you couldn’t afford HBO – I mean, first of all in New York we didn’t even have cable. I think New York was like the last place to get cable for some weird reason. We had these odd forerunners to cable like scrambled broadcast networks like WHT and weird stuff like that.
But if you didn’t have cable then you did miss out on things like Fraggle Rock. Honestly, I think I’ve only seen one or two episodes of Fraggle Rock. That wasn’t a thing for me.
So H.R. Pufnstuf was slightly before us.
Craig: A little bit older. Or at least the bulk of it was I think. It was like early ‘70s. Super early ‘70s.
John: All right.
Craig: I mean, I remember seeing some of it but I wasn’t super into it either.
John: Obviously there’s stuff which is just based on geography, but clearly I think a bigger factor for me was that my father was inherently a contrarian and so if there was a thing that everyone else was getting he would do the research and get the other thing which he thought was better.
Craig: Ah. Yes.
John: So I never had an Atari 2600. Instead we had the Sears Pong game.
Craig: Oh dear.
John: Which I had to Google to make sure that it actually was a thing and it really was a thing. But Sears came out with their own version of Pong and that’s what we had on our little black and white TV. We never had an Apple II. Instead we were an Atari family, so we had the Atari 800, then the 400, then 600XL.
John: So I would get whatever videogames would also be made for the Atari computer systems. But instead of Pac-Man we had Jaw Breaker.
John: We didn’t have Chop Lifter. We had something that was kind of like it. So we would always have these things that were approximations. Or games that my brother and I would have to type out of the magazine. So they’d have these games written in Basic and you would type them out of the magazine.
Craig: Oh yes. I remember those. I remember typing those.
John: Yeah. And then you’d save them. Once we had a cassette drive you would save them to a cassette drive and keep them there.
Craig: Yes. I remember. God, that brings me back. Typing them in. And that goes to show you how poor those games were in terms of their visual appeal because you could literally type them from a magazine into your computer. And save them on a cassette tape which was always fun to watch.
Yeah, I went down this memory lane about a month ago when we announced that we were doing The Last of Us because someone asked me what are your favorite videogames of all time. And so I had to go all the way back to kind of the beginning and ask like, OK, in the early days – because it’s easy for me to say like now I love, for instance, Fall Out and Bio Shock and GTA. That’s easy, right?
But in the beginning the first game that I remember falling in love with that pushed into my brain something was Adventure.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: On Atari. It was magical.
John: So, again, Adventure is a thing I never actually played myself. But I can picture it. I can just picture swinging across that little pit. But I could only play it at friend’s houses.
Craig: No, that was Pit Fall.
John: Oh, Pit Fall. Then I don’t what Adventure is. Oh, Adventure is the dot where you’re moving through the castle?
Craig: Yes. So Adventure is the dot.
John: Yeah, I never had it.
Craig: So it’s the dot. You have three castles depending on the difficulty level. There’s a white castle, a black castle, a gold castle. There’s a white dragon, a black dragon, and a gold dragon. The dragons looked like ducks. I don’t know how else to put it. They looked like ducks and they made this sound. [Groaning sound] And you had a sword which was a dash and a less than sign. I’m pretty sure. And you were a dot. And there was a bridge. The bridge is why the game was magical.
Never let anyone tell you that Adventure was magical because of the sword or the dragons. It was the bridge. And the reason why is the bridge allowed you to move through things you otherwise couldn’t get to. So there was like a little maze section that was sort of invisible. But as you moved through it would reveal itself. And you had to get from one part of the maze to the other, but there was no way to get there unless you had the bridge. The bridge allowed you to travel through an area you couldn’t. And that bridge was part of how you could start to screw with the game and go places you weren’t supposed to go and get your dot stuck in a corner. Or, get to the first real Easter egg of all time. So much fun.
So, Adventure was the first one that kind of lit me up. And never looked back. But I am concerned that you were not raised in a cult but rather you were manufactured and certain things were just left out. [laughs]
John: That’s entirely possible. And so I would say that during the time when I should have been playing some of these early videogames we had the proto Internet very early. My dad was an engineer for AT&T. And we had a terminal in our home where you could dial in and dial in to BBSs, Bulletin Board Systems. And so I was on that really early before most people were on that. And so the time in the afternoon when I would have normally been doing videogame stuff I was doing this.
And so message boards and chat boards and sort of chatting with people online. That’s probably how I got to be kidnapped into the cult. I do remember because unlike modern Internet where you just connect anytime you want, there were only a certain number of lines going into a bulletin board system and so you would get the busy signal a lot. And if I couldn’t get to the main bulletin board I wanted to get to I would try other bulletin boards. And so did join some bulletin board that I recognized along the way was some sort of religious kind of cult bulletin board. But I could always get into it. So I would log in there and check my email messages within that culty bulletin board.
Craig: That does sound like cult stuff. Yep. Yep.
John: But early videogames I did love from the Atari system we had, Karateka which is Jordan Mechner, and then ultimately we made a new version of Karateka with Jordan 20 or 30 years later. Castle Wolfenstein I loved.
Craig: [Speaks in German].
John: A sense of story was great there. It was the first videogame I really played where I was a character in a story, which I loved. And they’re making a Wolfenstein now again. They will always make Wolfenstein.
Craig: Oh, they’ve made so – there’s been tons of them. And they’re quite elaborate now. But back in the day it was a flat green monitored scroller with levels walking upstairs. It was very similar to Aztec, another early game I played. And you had the key and you had to open the locker and it had a three-code digit. And they would occasionally say Kommen Sie. And you would have to shoot them with your little gun and it was, you know, it was – weirdly I got more enjoyment out of that then some of the new Wolfensteins which are rather elaborate and pretty impressive, like especially the one on the moon.
John: Now, Craig, have you gone back and tried to play any nostalgic games and what has been your experience going back to play those nostalgic games?
John: Like the simulations or the–?
Craig: Sure. Like the mime simulator and all that stuff. It’s pleasant. It’s pleasant because it’s nostalgia. But rather than play it now what you can do it is instead of going through all that rigmarole – I don’t actually want to play it. I want to watch it.
Craig: So I was able – so the other game that I said early on was – there were a few. There was Adventure. There was Star Raiders. And there was Aztec. And so I went on YouTube and sure enough somebody had kind of a whole play through of Aztec which is – well when did Raiders come out? ’81? So somewhere in that zone of 1982ish this kind of copycat game called Aztec came out. And it was so much fun to watch it again and remember the enormous amount of time I spent playing it. But I don’t need to play it myself.
John: Yeah. Dark Castle, once I finally had a Macintosh.
Craig: Oh yeah, of course.
John: Was of course important and classic.
John: And the Atari game which was like – it was called Star Raiders – was the classic thing where like you warped to the next place and you have to defend your star bases. Loved it. It was all good. And that was actually a game that came on a cartridge.
John: Which made me feel like I was actually part of a videogame universe at that time when it was cartridge rather than having to load something up off a tape.
Craig: Star Raiders was a great game. So Star Raiders, like so many videogames, was inspired by a popular movie. It was clearly designed to look like you were in an [X-Wing] Fighter fighting [Thai fighters]. But it looked good. I mean, it was first person. There was like a reticule. And kind of the whole system was really brilliant. And it was just a great, great game. It’s funny how over time things have sort of flipped around.
For a long time they were trying to make Halo into a movie. And I always thought how do you make Halo into a movie when it’s a rip-off of a movie? I mean, it’s a great game. Don’t get me wrong. But it’s Aliens. It’s space marines fighting Xenomorphs and it’s Aliens. And there are a lot of games like that. Then you’re like, well, if I adapt it into a thing…
So, now that’s starting to change because videogames are getting more and more creative I think. And certainly more and more ambitious. And they’re taking you to places you wouldn’t otherwise go to and they’re also going to different time periods and historical periods. It’s fascinating. So, I mean, look, I think one of the reasons why videogame adaptations have struggled for so long is that people have been trying to adapt things that were already adaptations so there was a familiarity and tropiness to all of it. That could start to change. I hope it does.
John: This last week we rewatched Starship Troopers which I had not seen since it came out in theaters. And it was fascinating watching it because I had forgotten how Aliens Xenomorphy kind of it was. And so a lot of things I think as being, oh, that’s a thing that was established by Alien or Aliens, Starship Troopers also did quite a number on as well. It was a better movie than I certainly remembered it being.
Craig: Well, yeah. It’s this weird tongue and cheek quasi – it’s hard to tell if it knows it’s being funny. I think it does.
John: My take on it was that the filmmakers knew that they were funny and none of the actors knew that they were being funny. And that’s actually probably what makes it work is that the actors are so earnest in this absurd thing that they’re doing.
Craig: Yeah. “It’s afraid!” Yeah.
John: Good stuff.
Craig: Pretty cool.
John: Craig, so thank you for helping me deprogram my cult.
Craig: You will never be deprogrammed. You are the function of a program.
John: I am the program.
Craig: You are the program.
John: Thanks Craig. Bye.
Craig: See you next time.
- Join us Thursday, May 14th for a live talk with Lawrence Kasdan 4pm PT on Zoom here: Online Conversation: Revisiting The Empire Strikes Back with Lawrence Kasdan
- Submit to the Three Page Challenge
- Jordan Mechner’s: The Making of Prince of Persia, 1985-1993 and Bookshop.org
- Maria Bamford: Weakness is the Brand
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by James Llonch (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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