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 448 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. One of our favorite recurring segments on the show is How Would This Be a Movie, where we take a look at stories in the news and discuss how to turn them into features. Today we’re going to take a look at the outcome of that process with a new HBO movie Bad Education which is based on actual events and written by our guest, Mike Makowsky.
And in our bonus segment for Premium members Craig and I will talk about our own first Three Page Challenges and why those early pages are so important.
But first we have some follow up. Craig, do you want to start us off?
Craig: Yeah. We got some feedback here from a different Craig, because there are others.
John: There’s one or two more.
Craig: I’m sort of the premier Craig. A different Craig writes, “Last week Craig,” that’s me, “said that the brain is very plastic. He is incredibly correct.” John, I kind of want to just stop there. I feel like that’s the best bit of follow up we could imagine. But I will continue.
John: Not only is Craig correct, he is incredibly correct.
Craig: Incredibly correct. But, you know what? I’ll continue.
John: Although if you think about incredibly, incredible comes from like it’s not believable.
Craig: Like he’s correct in a way that is not credible.
John: Is not believable. Yeah.
Craig: Correct. The different Craig continues. He says, “I suffered a brain injury when I was three and this prevented me from learning how to read and left me with dyslexia. I got through school with a good memory and a basic handle of English. The ability for a PC, meaning a computer, to read text changed the world for me. I spend most of my working day with headphones on. My team knows that’s just me. As you can imagine movies were my life as books weren’t an option. At 50 I decided to give writing screenplays a go. I wasn’t after a career, but I knew how films worked as I had spent years watching them.
“I have sold two specs in the last year. Small indies. Mostly because of the assistance of you both. If people doubt that they can do it, well, they should only see themselves as a barrier. There has never been a time in human history that has allowed for the leveling of so many playing fields. I am not saying that every hurdle can be removed, but effort can be recognized and rewarded. There are mechanisms that can be used. Thank you both again.”
Well that’s lovely.
John: That’s great. So congratulations to other Craig for all the hard work he’s been doing and the ability to use the tools that are out there to sort of move past some barriers that are being put in your way. So that’s very encouraging.
Craig: Yeah. And it’s also good for people who are later on in years. Sounds like the other Craig is about the same age as you and me. You know, if you want to start something there is no time limit on starting. And if you’re not ready right now that’s OK, too, because there’s more time later.
In general, very encouraging note from Craig. So thank you other Craig.
John: Excellent. So another bit of follow up. Last week we spoke about what screenwriting actually is. And after stipulating that you and I are not film historians we said that early screenplays don’t closely resemble what we now think of as screenplays. Elizabeth on Twitter wrote to steer my attention to the book When Women Wrote Hollywood, Essays on Female Screenwriters in the Early Film Industry. I’ll put a link in the show notes to that. And I just started reading it and it is a good overview of sort of those early days of the film industry and early days of screenwriting.
And one of the realities is that a lot of people who were writing the initial screenplays were women. And that history has sort of been erased. Kara Green-Epstein also wrote in. She said, “The idea that screenwriting was just short lists until Casablanca is really a narrative that was created originally to discredit the work that female screenwriters were doing and pushed them out of the business once men realized that filmmaking had legs and that it was a money-making industry.”
Craig: Not sure about that one.
John: I’m not entirely sure about every part of that, but what I do think is that as we were very quickly describing the initial things that became screenwriting I think it is important to acknowledge that there were people who were writing those early screenplays and those early screenwriters were often women. And it’s a thing that you see discussed in sort of the history of Hollywood but I don’t think it sort of makes it out into the broader industry awareness too often. So I think it’s good for us to focus on this for a moment.
Craig: Yeah. I think that’s absolutely true. It’s a great point. I’m glad that Elizabeth brought that up. What I would say to Kara Green-Epstein is that she is right that there are a number of things that film historians do to overlook the contributions of women. And for our lapse in not bringing that up in our last conversation I do feel regret. I don’t think you or I really meant to imply that screenwriting was just short lists until Casablanca. That’s clearly not the case.
Casablanca comes out after World War II. There are god knows how many brilliant movies that are written in the ‘20s, but really the ‘30s. I mean, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. These obviously had full featured screenplays. They weren’t merely lists. So, I don’t want anyone to think that we think that until Casablanca there weren’t fully featured screenplays. There were tons of them.
John: Yeah. So a thing I want to throw in the show notes is a link to the History of the Screenplay Format by Andrew Gay which really talks through the various kind of formats that were built along the way. The reason why Casablanca is often put down as a dividing line is not because there’s something remarkable about the Casablanca script, although I will put a link to the Casablanca script in there was well. It’s that from that point forward screenplays tended to look very, very similar in terms of what they were describing and they were much less about the continuity. They were much less about the like “this shot and then this shot and then this shot.” They were much more of a literary document.
So it wasn’t that Casablanca was the one that made it a literary document. It’s that pretty much all the scripts you see moving forward after that point were really much more written to be read than to be a shot plan for these are the exact shots that are going to be in the film.
Craig: Yeah. And I just – because now I’m all like, I’m sitting here rather sensitive about the things that I’m saying. I don’t want anyone to think that I think that Casablanca came out in the 1950s. It came out after World War II commenced. Now I’m getting worried that we’re going to get more letters.
John: Those film historians will come after us. All right, let’s get to our feature topic here which is about features themselves. About how we take things that exist in the real world and turn them into features. It’s a thing we talk about a lot on the show. And our guest today has done just that. His new movie, Bad Education, opens very soon on HBO. And he’s here to talk about the process of getting from true story to movie, to a movie that is now streaming everywhere. Mike Makowsky, welcome to Scriptnotes.
Mike Makowsky: Thank you guys so much for having me. This is so cool.
Craig: It is so cool. I agree. I agree. It’s so cool.
John: Mike, are you actually a Scriptnotes listener?
Mike: I am. Yes.
John: So you have listened to us talk through the How Would This Be a Movie segment before. For people who haven’t seen the movie yet talk us through the very generalities of what happened in the real world – what is the true life event that inspired this movie?
Mike: So basically in 2004 at a public school district on Long Island in New York called Roslyn there was an $11.2 million embezzlement scandal perpetrated by the superintendent and a couple of other administrators and was thought to be at the time the largest public school embezzlement scandal in history. And it happened at my school while I was a student there.
John: Great. So you had a very personal connection to it because this was literally the school district that you were going through. But if someone didn’t have that sort of special flash of insight what was the media coverage of this event that a person could have latched onto? What were the stories that were out there that a person could have found out about this event?
Mike: Yeah. So the New York Times was covering it week-to-week as the case went into trial. And the different administrators were arrested and ultimately five people went to prison. It was covered pretty perennially for probably two or three years by media outlets across the country.
John: And when did you first have the decision to like, OK, I’m going to try to make a movie out of this? What was your way into this?
Mike: That came much later. In 2004 I was in 7th grade and was far more concerned about my impending Bar Mitzvah. So, it was not the first thing on my mind. But it was very clear to me even as a 13-year-old who couldn’t kind of fully process the ramifications of what was happening as it was happening that this was a really, really big thing. It’s the biggest thing that had ever happened in my town. And after graduating from college and moving out to LA and making a couple of smaller independent films I had always wanted to try to write a true story. I always wanted to write something that took place on Long Island because it’s a very specific kind of region and upbringing.
Mike: I was thinking about stories that were close to me or were stories that I knew that other people might not necessarily be aware of. And this came back into my consciousness. And I went back to my hometown to do all the research in 2016. And I spoke with a bunch of my old teachers and parents of friends who were on the PTA and went through all of our local news archives and yearbooks and essentially outlined the whole script out of my high school cafeteria. So it was a really, really insane, cool, surreal experience.
Craig: I mean, that’s amazing that first of all you have the benefit of having lived in the milieu of this movie. So you know the people. You know the places. You’re soaking in all of that. So that’s research you don’t even have to do. It’s also a gift to be able to write something inside of a place, sort of be in a place when you’re referring to it in your own little fictional sub-world of it. But one of the things that we talk about all the time when we do these How Would This Be a Movie segments is, OK, so here are the facts. And, yes, it’s the biggest thing that ever happened in Roslyn, Long Island, but in the end it’s a thing about crime. Right? This lady and this guy stole a bunch of money.
So, at some point you as a writer go, OK, but what’s this really about. And where were you in the process when you kind of landed on what it is about? And if you can articulate for folks listening what you think this is really about?
Mike: Sure. So I think that one of the things that was really, really interesting to me going through the research process and specifically talking about kind of like the primary subject who was this superintendent, a man named Frank Tassone, who had built our school up to this point of national prominence. The year that he was arrested we were ranked the number four public school district in the country by the Wall Street Journal. Because he was such a really, really passionate educator who made a lot of inroads in our community and a lot of kids were getting into Ivy League schools and doing really, really well on their SATs because he was placing this real premium on their higher education and learning.
And the parents were really happy. And the health of the public school district, especially on Long Island, is directly tethered to the property values in the community. So there was a lot actually at stake in our town. A real, real direct relationship between the schools and the continued prosperity of our little suburb on Long Island.
John: Let me jump in here for a sec to explain, because international listeners may be puzzled by why there would be that connection. But in US public schools it’s very often the schools are funded by property taxes, taxes paid by land owners in that area. So it’s a very local kind of thing. And so the more the land is worth the more that school district has. And therefore it becomes this weird cycle where the richer school districts also attract wealthier families which brings up property values and becomes a sort of strange cycle.
So, if you’re listening to this in France you’re like that doesn’t make any sense. But this is a really common way things are structured here in the US.
Mike: Yeah. What the film at least tries to interrogate is this dichotomy between our superintendent who seemingly cared so deeply about the community and the town and the students. And really had a one-to-one relationship with so many – I mean, he ran a Dickens book club on weekends for parents. He was the Roslyn Rotary Club Man of the Year. Like the idea that then he could just sort of turn around and victimize that entire community and steal from the students’ pockets was something that struck a lot of my community as very, very upsetting and maddening. It was a huge betrayal that still has really, really deep-seeded tension to it, even today.
So I was just fundamentally curious about how can good intentions pave the way for something I think a lot more insidious. When I wrote the script in 2016 the college admission scandal had not happened yet.
Mike: But I think that this is something that we saw at least a year ago play out on a much broader scale. Just what would bring these parents to compromise their integrity so thoroughly for their children’s benefits. I mean, it just seems to perpetuate itself over and over again. You see these stories every couple of years.
Craig: As a culture we clearly struggle with the notion of assigning value to children based on outcome. And the ultimate outcome for so many people in the United States is where does your child go to college. And it was certainly that way with my parents and me. It’s not that way with me and my kids. But it is with a lot of people.
So, this theme keeps burbling forth throughout this kind of pressure. The idea of education as a function rather than something of value in and of itself. But it does seem to me that you took a surprising angle on this that I don’t think I would have thought of and I’m glad you did, because I appreciated it. And it comes out most clearly in the end really when Hugh Jackman, who does a wonderful job playing Tassone, is sitting there with Ray Romano who plays the head of the school board, and what comes out is a question of class. That there is a wealthy community that expects this man and all of the staff and teachers below him to provide a service that increases the value of their children and the value of their homes, but he’s not one of them. He works for them.
And he is I think in an interesting way as a character who seems fueled by some small amount of resentment or a large amount of resentment. He’s starting to feel like he is underappreciated and underpaid and maybe just nothing more than a glorified janitor to them. And I thought that examination, as the child of public school teachers in the New York City Board of Education system, this is not a foreign thing to me. I’ve heard this kind of resentment over and over and over as a kid at the dinner table. And I thought that was a really interesting angle. The notion that we expect this service class to benefit us but they’re not allowed to actually live well. And that’s seemingly what’s behind his crimes more than anything else.
Mike: It was something that I found very much by accident, and I’m so glad that you remarked on it. I think that the title Bad Education is a bit of a misnomer. I received such a great education at my middle school and high school. Teachers who believed in me and were the first people to really foster my interest in writing. I mean, I remember I had a teacher in 7th grade which was the year that Tassone was arrested. Every day during recess I would just go to his classroom because he was an aspiring novelist and we would just write together and give each other notes. And I think he was just humoring me at the time. But it just meant the world to me that a real adult believed in me and encouraged me.
And it was then sort of cool to be able to go back in the research process and reconnect with a lot of these old teachers that I hadn’t seen in years. And see them more as people and not just these functionaries. Some of them were even my first readers on the script. So you have your English teacher in high school, you know, you’re used to him scrawling notes in the margins of your essays, but it’s a whole other thing when he’s doing it in like a Final Draft document. So it was just a really unexpected outcome of this in that I was able to both reestablish those relationships but also kind of see Tassone more through that lens.
These people saw me through the most formative years of my life and years where I was kind of the worst. And they saw me through it. And it was nice to sort of just be able to go back and in some small way be able to thank them.
Craig: Well, and I think you did. I mean, there’s that moment again near the end where Tassone is talking to an unreasonably complaining mom who is trying to get her child into an accelerated program when it is quite clear that the child does not belong in the accelerated program because the child cannot even read the word accelerated. And what he says in his kind of final breakdown moment is essentially, “You all just use us, get what you want, and then you’re gone. We give you things. We care about things. You expect us to care about all of your kids individually, and we do, and then you leave when you’re done with us. You just toss us aside like a husk and you’re gone forever. And you never come back.”
And, again, it’s that feeling of class, you know.
Mike: These teachers not only remembered like surprising small details about me, but remembered the names and the seating charts of every student that they had. It was something that I felt like it would be irresponsible not to put in the script at least in some form. And it was a way for me to find some sort of window of empathy with Tassone himself, the superintendent, who really, really did care I believe ultimately about the students despite what he did and didn’t do.
John: So Mike let’s get back to the How Would This Be a Movie. So you have your setting, which you know the setting, you grew up in that setting. You have the basic plot. You know that it’s ultimately going to lead to his being found out and being arrested and the consequences of that. How early on in the process and how did come upon the decisions about which characters to feature, which real life people are making it into your story, and which characters you may need to create or do composites? What was the process in terms of figuring out which characters would be in the story and which ones would have storytelling power?
Tassone is a real person. Pam Gluckin is a real person. Is the Ray Romano character an actual person or is that a composite?
Mike: Mostly a composite. I mean, Ray Romano plays the head of the school board. And the school board are basically just parents in the community that have taken a leadership role within the management of the school as well. And ultimately what had happened in real life and in the film was that the school board caught wind of the embezzlement scandal about a year and a half before it was reported and they agreed to sweep it under the rug rather than to report it to the authorities or to the community, partially because they were compromised by not wanting to invite any sort of blight or scandal on the school district that they were directly benefiting from, that their children were benefiting from.
John: Now in the film you establish stakes that there’s going to be an upcoming vote and they don’t want to jeopardize things before the vote. Is that an invention of your story or is that a thing that would have happened in that same timeline?
Mike: It would have happened. Yes, it did. What we do in the film itself is we consolidated to kind of fit one school year just for, you know, simplicity sake. And I don’t think that it compromises the chronology to a [unintelligible]. Every year, every May, the school budget vote is the thing that administrators prepare for and steal the community for. And at the time of the scandal because the school district was doing so well and the students were doing so well the tax payers, the parents in our community, were all too happy to basically give Tassone and his cohorts whatever they asked for every year. So we had one of the highest operating budgets in the country.
We had, in 2004 I believe an $82 or $83 million a year operating budget.
Mike: That was being inflated year by year with very, very little oversight.
Craig: As you’re writing you need to assume I think who a hero is. Who is the protagonist of this movie?
Mike: I like characters that exist in moral gray areas. And I think that there are, you know, some people that are going to watch the movie and root for characters like Tassone and Pam Gluckin who is Allison Janney’s character, two of the let’s call them conspirators in the embezzlement scheme, if only partly because it’s fun and you almost identify I think as a viewer with characters who are trying desperately to bail water out of a leaking boat. One of my big comps was Shattered Glass, which I think that Billy Ray does that so well with Hayden Christensen’s character in that film.
Craig: I mean, just as a side note, the end of your movie feels like a direct homage to Shattered Glass.
Mike: Thank you for calling it an homage and not an outright steal. I appreciate that.
Craig: We’re nothing if not kind.
Mike: But there is also a clear-cut protagonist and audience surrogate in the student reporter character. Her name is Rachel in the script. And in real life another really, really crazy facet of the story is that our high school newspaper was the first to break it. It was then picked up by Newsday and the New York Times but only because the newspaper reporter’s son was a Roslyn student who brought home his copy of the school paper and his dad read it and then reported on it the next day.
With Rachel we really tried to unpack the entire breadth of the crime through her eyes and kind of see each of the different cards fall really through her and kind of have her carry us through the different machinations in the story as best as possible.
John: All right. So you have your central characters here. You have Frank Tassone is arguably a protagonist. He’s the character who we actually see sort of change the most over the course of the story because he’s trying to bail water of this sinking ship. But an interesting thing that you decided to do is to conceal information from us as an audience about this character. And so we’re discovering over the course of the story things that he’s doing and lies that he’s been telling that go beyond the surface scandal of the embezzlement.
Talk about your decision process for that and sort of I suspect in your different drafts you probably made some different choices about when to reveal certain things about this central character.
Mike: Yeah, for sure. Even in the first draft I think I definitely tipped my hand a lot quicker to this guy might not be what he seems and that he is somehow complicit. And it was something to the credit of my director, Cory, that I think we needed to kind of find going through the drafts and how to disseminate information in a way that constantly felt surprising, but also organic. Ultimately the sense of structure that we landed on very much mirrored really the process by which our community in 2004 found out information about both Tassone and the scandal at large through media reportage.
It seemed like almost every week there was some new tidbit or some new salacious detail either about the extent of the grift itself or frankly about Tassone’s own personal life which got kind of really unfortunately ensnared in the reportage in a way that I don’t think was wholly positive or beneficial to anyone.
John: I want to play a clip here. So this is a clip that happens a little past the midpoint of the film. Something that has already been in the trailer so it’s not a huge spoiler here. But this is a group of the school board and Tassone coming in to talk with the Allison Janney character. They decide to label what she’s going through is that she’s a sociopath. And I thought it was such a fascinating term to apply to her. So, let’s take a listen to this clip.
Hugh Jackman: You stole from the schools and from the taxpayers, from the kids we’re supposed to serve. I think this kind of behavior goes beyond the bounds of immoral. It’s cruel. It’s heinous. It’s sociopathic even.
Allison Janney: Sociopathic? What?
Hugh: Shameless self-interest. The unstable personality. The parade of rotten marriages.
Hugh: You need help, Pam. Real medical help. You’re a sick woman.
Female Voice: We’re concerned about you, Pam.
John: So, Mike, what I love about this scene is that it’s really funny but it also gets to again that thematic question you’re trying to wrestle with. What is their actual motivation? And these characters are performing the script, you can kind of see them as sociopaths. You can read them as they actually have no sort of moral underpinning underneath this. They are just doing whatever they can do to make that money.
Where do you as the writer of the story come down on Tassone being a sociopath, on Pam being a sociopath? What’s your judgment on these characters?
Mike: I don’t think that they’re sociopaths at all. And obviously I think that was what happened in real life, too. It was easy enough to just sort of chalk it up to “oh these people are just mentally disturbed.” I don’t think that that’s the case. I think that these kinds of situations are very complicated. I think as we also saw in the college admissions scandal, right? I don’t think that these are just a matter of good versus evil. I think that that really doesn’t do the complexity of it justice.
There’s another scene in the film, Tassone sort of expounds to Ray Romano’s character on how all of this really began. And I think it was something that I really identified with. He basically says that it started – he went out to a pizza place and ordered a slice of pizza and a coke and he used the wrong expense card by mistake. He used the district credit card instead of his personal card. And he said to himself, OK, Monday morning I’m going to go back into the office, I’m going to reconcile everything. I feel so guilty about it. And then Monday comes and goes, nobody calls him on it, and then on Tuesday he buys a $0.60 bagel. And then before you know it you’re at this $11.2 million price tag in the blink of an eye.
It’s like this frog in boiling water kind of dynamic.
Craig: But he’s saying this to a guy that he also points out lives in this beautiful house. He’s saying in so many words like you all look at this school as a machine to get your kids into the right college so they can be rich. It’s all about being rich. And so why am I not allowed to be rich when I’m doing the best job making everyone rich? It’s just that resentment underneath it. I mean, that’s what I found fascinating about the character and the way you portrayed him was that it wasn’t like he mistakenly became, you know, there was a choice he made on that Monday to not pay back the slice of pizza. And then to go further and further and further.
And obviously his cohort, Pam Gluckin, felt precisely the same. It’s amazing to me that he – I mean, look, it’s always amazing to me that these people think they can get away with stuff. The level of self-delusion there is remarkable. It was the same thing in Shattered Glass. They always remind me of Wile E. Coyote after he runs off the edge of a cliff. For a moment there if you just keep running you’ll be fine. But the moment you stop and look down, that’s it.
John: Now, so generally in this segment we talk about How Would This Be a Movie and we’re thinking about just the creative decisions. But in this case it’s like how do we get from you’ve written this script to this becoming a movie. So talk us through, you’ve written this script, what are the steps that happen that got us to this movie debuting on HBO?
Mike: So I wrote the script on spec sort of without a net. I thought if I had to ask someone for permission that the person just wouldn’t give me permission, or they would be like, you know, if I brought it up to my agent or manager they’d be like, “Well, it feels like kind of a tiny story.” And fortunately I went ahead and I wrote the story. Sent it first to a producer that I had previously partnered with on one of my independent films, a guy named Fred Berger who is great. And he really believed in it. And together we just sort of started going out and submitting it around.
And I was very fortunate in that the script was received well initially and was on the Black List that year.
John: So this is Black List 20–?
Mike: 2016. Yeah.
John: 2016, great.
Mike: But really what ended up making the difference was finding Cory Finley, our director. The script has a very, very specific tone that I think ultimately on the screen is very execution dependent. So pairing it with a director who could really navigate that darkly comedic tone was really, really important. And in 2017, soon after I wrote the script, you know, Cory’s film Thoroughbreds premiered at Sundance and just had a very, very unique view of the world and depiction of its characters and questionable morality. It felt like a real kind of one-to-one match for him to come onboard.
And suddenly I think people saw it a lot more clearly. And this is crazy, this never happens, but within like a month or two Hugh Jackman had come aboard and we were suddenly in the throes of preproduction.
Craig: That worked nicely.
John: That’s great. And so at this point the film is kind of a classic indie. So there’s money being raised from outside. You have a star, you have a director, you have a script. You’re bringing in Allison Janney. You’re bringing in this cast and you’re making this movie. But you don’t have a place that’s going to – you don’t have a buyer yet. So this is the kind of thing that is made for price and then you’re going to go to a festival and sell it. That’s the plan at this point?
Mike: That was the plan. And, yeah, so we premiered the film at Toronto last year in 2019 but nobody really knew if there was going to be a market. And we were, of course, incredibly nervous. I mean, I was just crawling out of my skin. I also just wanted people to like the movie. And I also felt this tremendous debt to my hometown where I wanted to make sure that I got everything right because if I didn’t and I made this sort of turd then my town would be like, oh, and then he made this bad movie about us.
Ultimately, I mean, HBO has been this incredible partner. And it wasn’t necessarily the way that I thought that all of this was going to go down. But ultimately what you really want is a distributor that cares very, very deeply about your film, that’s passionate about it, and that’s willing to get as many eyeballs on it as possible.
And we found just really like the ideal partner in them. There is a version of the movie that gets perceived as this very small, tiny, secular story about bureaucratic nonsense on Long Island. And frankly, I mean, who knows if people go out to see movies in the movie theater unless they have that sort of four-quadrant appeal anymore. There’s been a lot of skepticism about it. And there certainly was. I think even within the market in Toronto. HBO believed from the outset that this had a bigger appeal. And I’m so, so thankful for them.
John: That’s great. So like an I, Tonya which sold at Toronto this could have been a thing that went that route and it’s billboards and award season campaign and it’s all that. Going to HBO you miss all that, but also you get to miss all that, which is a lovely thing, too. Craig can talk you through the award season stuff for HBO. He’s been through all of that. But it is a different scale of crazy than trying to get Oscar nominations for your two lead actors there would certainly be in the conversation for those things and they will still be in the conversation for Emmys down the road.
So, Mike, what are you working on right now? What’s your next project?
Mike: I am moving definitely more and more into TV, kind of like this darkly comic true stories that can benefit from eight episodes of runway to really develop the subjects and paint a very sort of broad picture. So I’m writing – I’m adapting this series of Texas Monthly articles from the 1970s for Hulu right now. This crazy, crazy murder trial in Texas lore that is both like disturbing and disturbingly funny. It very much kind of I think builds on the tone of something like Bad Education. And I’m really, really excited about it.
John: Cool. Do you want to stick around with us while we answer some listener questions, because you may have some good answers yourself?
Mike: Sure. Yes.
John: Craig do you want to start us off with Stacy?
Craig: Yeah, sure. Stacy writes, “I recently began work on adapting a book I loved into a film. I didn’t have the rights nor ever expected someone to try and make my script. But I loved the book and wanted to try my hand at adapting. However, very soon after starting I found out that not only have the rights already been purchased but a very well-known writer-director is attached to make it. While this did validate my initial inclination to adapt this slightly plotless, absurdist book into a movie, I’m now wondering whether it makes sense for me to try and write it in the first place. Should I continue working at it or move on to another project?”
John: My advice to Stacy is to move on. So, yeah.
Craig: This is pretty much an easy one, right? A layup to begin with.
John: Here’s what I’ll say though, Stacy. Yes, it should validate your feeling that there is something to be made there. Think back to what is it about that project that would appeal to you, about that book that appealed to you? What is it you have in your own life, in your own brain, that can sort of scratch that same itch? Get to work writing that thing because that will be a thing that you can take out on the town and sell and show as your own work. This thing that you’re doing as a labor of love, it’s going to have a hard time showing up as your work just because it’s based on that book and people know the other version of it. So stop and work on something else.
Mike, anything more to add to Stacy?
Mike; I think you said it beautifully. I think you really, really try to hone in and diagnose just what appealed about it to you in the first place and what feels really, really personal to you. And if you can distill that, build on that foundation but build something wholly original from it, or find a story that has some similarities but is also different enough you should do that. Of course.
John: Yeah. All right, Demi asks, “The thing I struggle with most in writing is theme. Specifically when am I being too explicit with it? Like is it ever OK for a character to directly state/discuss the theme in dialogue, or must it be demonstrated through what happens? If you can put it in dialogue how explicitly can you address it? Do you have any examples or suggestions?”
That feels right to our conversation here because in your film we are talking about these themes of class and who gets to do what. And so Mike what’s your first instinct for Demi here? Do you think stating the theme is OK?
Mike: Yeah. I do. As long as you’re not putting too much of a hat on it and kind of obliquely reference something without making it feel blunt, I guess, if that makes sense.
Craig: I think it depends a little bit on the genre, the kind of movie you’re doing. I mean, The Matrix didn’t need to beat around the bush about its theme. Believe in yourself and you can do anything. So, yeah, some movies you just want to hear it be said. Batman, the Nolan Batman movies were never shy about stating their themes completely. And those were morally complicated films, but still he was just like here it is. This is what it’s about.
And that’s fine. In other movies I think where maybe reality is not pushed in any way, shape, or form you do have to pull back a little bit on that because in movies where people have superpowers or the world is slightly technicolor it’s OK for people to say things like that. No one really talks like that in regular life. So if you’re movie is parroting regular life you probably want to ease off on the theme announcements.
John: I worry that we are mislearning a lesson about not speaking your subtext and trying to bring that over to not speaking the theme, because I think it’s probably a good instinct to actually try to have the character say the theme at some point. I’d say use it and then you can always pull it back, you can always move away from it if it feels like oh my god that’s a giant flashing light there.
Craig is right. Comic book movies, with great power comes great responsibility. They can just announce it there. And you can’t do that in most other movies. But if a character has a moment of discovery and realizes something and articulates that discovery that they’re having. That feels genuine. That feels earned. If they’re whispering it rather than shouting it that feels like the kind of thing that you want to see in movies.
And we’re talking about literary themes, but think about sort of musical themes. Like sometimes you are just actually literally playing the theme music of the film that we’re going to hear at these crucial moments. So think of your theme that way. It is the emotional music that’s underlying all these stuff and sometimes it needs to be in the foreground so don’t be afraid to foreground it at times.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, honestly I pretty said what the theme was of Chernobyl in the first line of dialogue. I wasn’t shy about it. I mean, sometimes it’s just about where it happens. You know, if you say your theme in a big climactic moment where someone turns to the camera and says, “Ahhh,” then you go oh my god it’s the theme moment. But sometimes you can just sort of like slide it on in there and people will kind of get it as they go.
Craig: All right. We’ve got one more question here.
John: Go for it.
Craig: From Matthew. He writes, “I have a pending option agreement from a two-time Academy-Award winning actress-producer for a screenplay I wrote. And she wants to turn it into a TV series.” Yes please. “This will be my first option ever. Should I have her draw up the option agreement between me as an individual or under my S-corp?”
John: I love the easy questions. It’s your S-corp.
Mike: Oh yeah.
Craig: Yeah. Always. Always.
John: It’s your S-Corp. So we’ll explain very quickly for folks, and I think we’ve probably talked about loan-out corporations.
Craig: We have, yeah.
John: In previous episodes. But either S-corps or C-corps are common in this industry. They’re a way of sort of insulating yourself as the artist so that the studios or other people can hire your company rather than hiring you directly. It makes sense for tax reasons and also for liability reasons. This is an example where you would use that S-corp so that she would be hiring your loan-out corporation rather than hiring you directly. That’s totally appropriate.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t see why you wouldn’t. My guess is that you would realize that when you looked at the option agreement and noticed that she was also using her S-corp. So that’s probably a good sign.
John: Yes. It’s time for our One Cool Things. Craig, what is your One Cool Thing this week?
Craig: Well, you know, I have been struggling John at home with this printer. I’m not going to say which large corporation made it – it’s Hewlett-Packard. What I will say is this laser printer, it was like living with a very unstable girlfriend. There were times where she loved me and there were times where she wouldn’t pay any attention to me at all. There were times where she told me she would do something but didn’t. You’d hit print and just, well, who knows. You wouldn’t know.
And I just gave up. I was so tired of it. So I was looking for a new printer and I came across this Epson brand called EcoTank and honestly they had me at EcoTank. The brilliance of this thing is it doesn’t use the freaking toner cartridges. Oh, what a joy. You just – they give you ink like it’s a bottle of ink. And you just go glug-glug-glug into the little ink holder and that’s it. That alone is so – because the cost of those toner cartridges, it’s like they’re made of plutonium or something. And they’re terribly wasteful to the environment. And lo and behold I said, hey Epson, print. And it went, OK, no problem man. Here you go. That’s what I’m here for.
So, so far so good. Very pleased with the Epson EcoTank ET-4760.
John: All right. We’ll flag that for follow up two years from now and see if you still like that printer. Like, oh, curse this printer.
Craig: Turns out she was also an unstable girlfriend. Argh!
John: Oh, printers. My One Cool Thing is a program #StitchUsBackTogether. It is being run by my friend Jamarah Hayner. What Jamarah has done, she’s an organizer of people and things, she recognized that there is a shortage of gowns for hospitals. So basically – especially in the pandemic when you have healthcare workers interacting with patients they should in theory be changing out their gown between each of those visits so that they’re not spreading stuff around. There’s a shortage of gowns in Los Angeles and in New York and other places across the country.
She’s focusing right now on Los Angeles and she’s basically worked with a bunch of vendors. If you are a person who sews and has a sewing machine and would like to help make these gowns, basically people will show up at your house with the fabric. The patterns are already set. You sew them and other people come and pick up these gowns you’ve sewn and take them off to hospitals who need them.
So, it’s a thing that I’m doing. I’ve been sewing a bunch of masks here at the house for the past couple weeks. I’m going to try my hands sewing these gowns. I’m not great at sewing but I’m OK at sewing.
Craig: You know what? I bet you are great at it.
John: All right, I’m being a little modest. I’m pretty good at sewing.
Craig: I bet. I mean, can you imagine what my gowns would look like?
John: They would not be good. Craig has seen me duct tape a picket sign and he knows I have some pretty good craft skills there.
Craig: It was just these beautiful parallel/diagonal lines. Like he was making a candy cane. And then I was over here, you know, with just tape on a thing. I’ve always struggled with that. If I tried to sew a gown it would have either only one hole or six holes.
John: It would be really good for the three-armed doctors there.
Craig: Correct. Side note, seamster is a word.
John: Yeah. So as I was trying to set this up I was looking whether seamster was the matching word for seamstress and apparently it is.
Craig: It is.
John: So if you are a person who does sew, obviously if you work in this industry in the costume department you may have the ability to do this and actually have a sewing machine that’s sitting idle. There will be a link in the show notes. The hashtag is #StitchUsBackTogether. You may also just have parents or other people in your life are looking for a thing to do that can help. This is a thing that people can do that can help.
So right now in Los Angeles. They’re going to try to expand to New York if they have the capability.
Mike, do you have a One Cool Thing?
Mike: I do. When I wrote Bad Education I optioned the rights to a New York Magazine article that I felt at the time was the most sort of comprehensive and literary portrayal of the scandal. And it was written by a guy named Robert Kolker who released a book about two weeks ago called Hidden Valley Road that I’m in the middle of reading right now. And it is really, really amazing. So amazing in fact that it is now Oprah’s Book Club pick for the month.
John: Oh wow.
Mike: And I can’t recommend it more highly. It’s a nonfiction book about a family of 12 children in Colorado in the 1960s. Six of the 12 were diagnosed schizophrenics. Apparently I guess contributed in large part to how we understand from a medical perspective schizophrenia and mental illness today. I guess that their genes were mapped and studied.
But the book itself is harrowing. It’s probably not the most uplifting content to be recommending in the middle of a global pandemic, but it is just a very, very beautifully written, well researched, and human book. It’s like very, very emotional and cathartic in a way that I hadn’t necessarily expected when I first picked it up. He’s just a brilliant, brilliant writer. The book is awesome.
John: Cool. Excellent. That is our show for this week. So, if you’re a Premium member stick around after the credits because Craig and will be talking about our own three pages. But otherwise that’s the show.
It is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro is by James Llonch. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions like the ones we answered on the show today. But for short questions on Twitter, I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Mike, are you on Twitter?
Mike: I am. I’m @mike_makowsky I believe.
John: Fantastic. So you can tweet at him to tell him how much you enjoyed Bad Education which debuts I think the week that this episode drops, so check that out on HBO.
You can find the show notes for the episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts.
You can sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and some bonus segments as well.
Mike, thank you so much for coming on the show and congratulations on your movie.
Craig: Thanks Mike.
Mike: Thank you guys so much for having me. This is so cool.
Craig: You got it.
John: All right. So, we got a question in that I thought might be a good Premium topic. Aaron writes, “From watching your latest Scriptnotes Episode 447, the live Three Page Challenge, a question occurred to me that might also be of interest to your listeners. What’s your personal favorite first three pages of any screenplay you’ve written or worked on, produced or not?” Which was interesting for me to think about.
So I have a couple of choices, but I also want to spend some time thinking about why we talk about the three pages, the first three pages being so important, and why they’re important to me as a writer.
So, first three pages of stuff I’ve written that has been really meaningful to me. Big Fish, the opening of Big Fish was probably of anything I’ve written in my entire career was the most classically sort of like rip the page out of the typewriter, crumple it into a ball, and start over. It was just very hard to set up all the things I needed to set up in Big Fish about sort of that they’re moving between a fantasy world, a real world, who the characters are, who had voiceover power. All the stuff that had to happen. Once I got that working in those first three pages in really setting up the movie the whole movie became possible. So that was a case where those first three pages were not just to sort of get the audience on board, but they were kind of the key to unlocking here is how I’m going to actually make this movie work.
So, as I looked back on things I’ve written the Big Fish first three pages are probably the most important ones of my career. Craig, do you have anything in your work that you feel like those first three pages are so crucial? I mean, Chernobyl feels like it’s partly – we just talked about in this episode about how sort of speaking the theme of Chernobyl at the start was so important for you there.
Craig: Yeah. Although I’m struggling a little bit Aaron because here’s the funny thing, every first three pages of every script I write is something that I torture myself over repeatedly because I want to get them right. And there are so many things that can go wrong. And there’s also so many opportunities to do good work in those three pages, to establish tone and place and character. To establish a feeling, a kind of emotional truth, and to also create the beginning point of something that will ultimately be revealed to be a circle. It’s degree zero of a 360 degree circle, so therefore it’s degree zero. And it is degree 360.
And so all of them I feel this way about. I can’t look at any particular script and say, oh, this is my favorite first three pages. They’re all my least favorite. I feel like they are all – I failed every time to be perfect in those first three pages, but I do try. I try my best. And I think as time goes on I get a little bit better and a little bit better. And I suppose when I get to that place where I’m no longer getting a little bit better than I realize that the plateau has occurred, followed by the inevitable decline. But, if you’re listening to this and thinking, oh, this may explain why he gets so fussy sometimes when we are reading these three pages, because I beat myself up so furiously over the first three pages. So when we get somebody’s first three pages and there are typos or things that just don’t make much sense or the worst sin of all – wasteful writing.
It’s like being a starving person and looking at somebody throwing food out. I don’t know how else to describe it. The real estate is so precious. I’ve said it so many times. So, mostly my sense memory of writing the first three pages of screenplays is pain and self-recrimination.
John: So, a project I’ve been writing more recently, I’m looking through my Dropbox at more recent stuff, The Shadows which is this movie that has a blind central protagonist, which at some point I hope to go off and direct, but the first three pages of that I think about in two different ways. Because it’s a thriller that has scripted opening title moments that do not involve the central character. So, it basically just sets up the universe and the world. And so the first two pages are really just getting us through those opening titles and sort of setting up the universe a bit. And I think that it’s really good writing, but I don’t consider that really the start of the movie.
Obviously you’re reading those pages to get a sense of the feel, but it’s really I’m so happy with the first three pages in the actual story part of it because I think I do a nice job establishing who this character is and sort of why she is a uniquely interesting character to be following through this story.
So, those are pages that I spent a lot of time on trying to figure out the right way into it. That said, I could completely imagine six months from now recognizing the movie really wants to start a different way and those three pages would not be part of it at all. So those pages were key to me to be able to understand how to write the movie, but they don’t necessarily need to stay the first three pages of the movie that we’re shooting.
Craig: Yeah. There is a certain amount of flexibility that you always have to have. But in movies those first three pages, they’re such a load-bearing wall. That if you are going to change them you almost assuredly are going to have to change other things.
If you can just replace the first three pages without doing any other work like the way a magician pulls the tablecloth away and leaves all the stuff on it, then something is wrong. You have not essentially built this opening in an integral way. Ideally you can’t really pull that Jenga piece it. It is crucial to everything. So when I do look back at those first three pages and make changes I know that the second I’m done with that work I need to go ahead in the script and find the things that this has affected and impacted.
Craig: You know, to kind of make sure that, again, it feels like a circle and not just like a line.
John: That’s fair. And I think back to sort of the idea of scripting opening titles versus just the movie starting. I remember Laura Ziskin, remarkable producer, she made the movie Hero with Dustin Hoffman. And when she showed it to us, we’d read the script and then she showed us the movie, and the script was better than the movie. It just was. And one of the things she pointed out was that they had built this opening title sequence that was not part of the actual script where they do all the opening titles and Dustin Hoffman’s name and basically all the opening credits. And then that first scene afterwards is really boring and slow because it was really intended to have those titles over it. It was intended to be sort of that placeholder thing that sort of got you introduced to the world. And the opening title sequence had really stepped over it in ways that you couldn’t have anticipated.
So even though the script document probably had a great first three pages, as a film they stuck something in front of it that actually hurt those first three pages.
Craig: Well that’s a great point. And this is why I find that television openings are so frequently more interesting and compelling than movie openings. Meaning the opening scenes. Because no one can mess with it. I mean, the writer pours an enormous amount of intention, hopefully, into what that opening scene means and is. And then someone comes along and goes [barfing noise] and they don’t always know that they’re stepping on something important but they do. They just trod on the grass and they step on the flowers and suddenly something is wrong. Because they think, oh my god, we got to open with something exciting and flashy, or whatever it is that they think. It doesn’t matter.
Whereas when you look at the beginnings of – I mean, look at the way Vince Gilligan routinely does his openings. They are little short film masterclasses. And they are above all else so carefully crafted and intentional. And that’s something that’s very rewarding about television that you know that your intention and the craft that you put into this. I mean, this is why with features it’s so – like I say, I beat myself up, I grind myself to a nub to try and make sure that the opening is just gorgeous and perfect and tight and then, you know, who knows. Someone goes, meh, or maybe not. Maybe we’ll do this instead. So anyway I work in TV now.
John: That is the clear explanation. There’s a project I’m working on which I may be able to talk about soon and it would be for TV. And I am very excited honestly about the first three pages and the first three minutes, anticipating, you know, what that is going to feel like and sort of the rocket sled of being able to launch people into the world.
So I do get very excited about those and I recognize from – I’m about to pitch it now, you really are pitching those initial first three pages to sort of get people hooked into the idea and excited to see where the story is going to take them. So, when I see – like you when I see the first three pages people are sending through and they don’t seem to have a clear intention, they just weren’t put together with care and real passion, I can feel it and it makes me less enthusiastic to read the stuff that’s going to happen afterwards.
Craig: No question. No question. And you’re right. If you have conceived of your first three pages correctly then they are exactly mimicking the feeling you want to impart when you’re pitching the beginning of something to somebody. You’re setting a stage. You’re creating a mood. You’re baiting a hook. All of those wonderful things to make people lean forward and you’re also doing a lot of hidden work that they don’t even see. Because we are magicians. So while we’re wowing them with what’s going on in our left hand, our right hand is casually in our pocket, setting something else up. So that’s the fun part of it. But it does require care and effort. So, as you do consider, you at home, sending in your first three pages, listen to what we’re saying here because if you’re not working as hard at them as we are, well, you know, it’s not going to go well.
John: In the cases where we have just really gone crazy over those first three pages it’s because they did show such real attention to what they were trying to do and made us so excited to keep reading that movie. So that’s what you’re always looking for.
John: Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you, John.
- Bad Education on HBO April 25th, 2020
- Elizabeth on Twitter wrote to steer my attention to the book When Women Wrote Hollywood: Essays on Female Screenwriters in the Early Film Industry
- Casablance script
- History of the Screenplay Format by Andrew Gay
- Bad Education True Story
- #StitchUsBackTogether organized by Jamarah Hayner
- Epson EcoTank ET-4760
- Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker
- Sign up for Scriptnotes Premium here.
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- Mike Makowsky on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by James Llonch (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
Email us at email@example.com
You can download the episode here.