The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, it’s John. Craig uses the F-word a couple of times in this episode, so just a warning in case you’re in the car with your kids.
Craig Mazin: Sorry about that. It just happened. It slipped out.
John: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 460 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show we look at adapting features into TV series and adapting to changing norms of portraying people of color and historical figures. And in our bonus segment for Premium members we’ll talk about Hamilton on Disney+ and what it means for musicals on screen. To help us with all of this we will be welcoming writer-director Justin Simien.
But first we have some industry news. Craig, what happened this last week?
Craig: So on July 1st the Writers Guild announced, that’s the Writers Guild West, in conjunction with the Writers Guild East, announced that conjointly they had reached a tentative agreement with the studios on a new three-year contract. You were on the negotiating committee. This was kind of a strange one because of the pandemic and all the rest. And I think this may have been the first in my memory, this may have been the first deal that we negotiated after both of the other two major creative unions.
John: That’s right. So in our backstory here, so as we’ve talked through the lead up to this, generally the three big guilds, the Directors Guild, Screen Actors Guild, and the Writers Guild, each of them is negotiating a three-year contract. I forget exact expiration dates but generally the DGA goes first, SAG generally follows after the WGA. Sometimes it goes before the WGA. But our contract had actually run out and we’d extended two months because of the pandemic basically.
We started all the process of gearing up for this negotiation. So we did the survey to members. We did the pattern of demands. There was a vote on the pattern of demands. We had member meetings. And then suddenly we could not have member meetings anymore because there was a pandemic. We could not gather together.
Craig: Yeah. And a lot of people had asked me at the time when we were running up against the expiration what would happen if there wasn’t some sort of official extension. And the truth is there kind of is an implied official extension. If your collective bargaining agreement expires and there is no strike and there is no lockout, essentially the contract remains in place and is largely enforceable. There are a few things that go away like grievances and things, but mostly it extends itself.
So people were a little concerned, like wait, do residuals stop on that day? No. Everything just keeps on sort of motoring along. But what you don’t get are, for instance, increases, or any of the things that you’re hoping to get, or probably know you can get. So it’s a little bit of a game of chicken. You don’t want to extend forever. You want to get a new deal done. So, I was not particularly freaked out by that.
John: No, I wasn’t either. Things to keep in mind though is that so the pandemic, of course, meant that we could not meet in person, but also meant that all production had shutdown. So suddenly the entire town was not working, except for weirdly the writers. We were still employed. And we were still employable. And we had virtual rooms. So it was a weird situation that we were going through. And then in the middle of these negotiations, which were all happening on Zoom, we had the George Floyd protests, Black Lives Matter. We had a lot of other stuff sort of happening in society. And that was impossible to ignore that these other things were happening while we were trying to negotiate a three-year contract with the studio.
So there was a lot going on is basically what I meant to say.
Craig: There was. Look, you and I know that for, I don’t know, a while now there had been a lot of talk that the writers would be going on strike. I would hear it all the time. And I just didn’t ever think we would. It just didn’t seem – this was before COVID, before the world started to turn upside a little bit. It just didn’t seem likely to me. I didn’t quite understand why everyone was freaking out. Maybe I’m just naïve. But it didn’t seem like it was going to be a strike situation. It really didn’t seem like it was going to be a strike situation once the DGA and SAG had already cemented the pattern in place.
So, I was not surprised by this. I think some people were. Nor was I surprised particularly by how it all worked out. It kind of seemed to me like it worked out the way I expected it would.
John: I would say it didn’t work out quite the way I expected it would. So, and again, perspectives in terms of like who we’ve been talking with and sort of which rooms we’ve been in, but let’s go back and talk about sort of the strike idea, or the strike threat. Because in our last negotiation, the 2017 negotiations, there was a strike authorization vote that happened. And that’s one of the things that unions do when they are in a negotiation to show like, hey, we actually will – we would step out. We would stop working if this were to happen. Much harder I think to play that card when the entire town is shut down.
Craig: Yeah. That’s true. Although I’m happy that we couldn’t play that card because I don’t really think we should be playing that card the way we do. First of all, I don’t think it comports with our constitution. But also I’m just – we had gone through this last time and I was like on record I am not doing this whole – even if I don’t want to strike I have to vote yes for a strike. I’m not doing it anymore. It’s just crazy. We shouldn’t be in that business of just constantly asking our members to vote for something they don’t want just so that it won’t happen, and then it happens. I’m glad.
We do have to figure out how to have a reasonable strike threat without taking that vote. I think we did in 2001. We did a really good job of pushing it right up to the brink. We didn’t have a strike authorization vote, but it sure seemed like it was inevitable. And then at the last minute a deal was worked out.
John: So let’s recap what the issues were going into this, pre-pandemic, sort of what was on the table. So, for a change it wasn’t about the health plan. The health plan is actually funded and fine. We knew that the DGA had taken a rollback on residuals for TV syndication, so that was a thing that was going to be pushed at us. We talked a lot about pension and keeping our pension funded, so that we actually can pay what’s being owed to writers.
We talked a lot about streaming and SVOD, specifically residuals for streaming and SVOD. The idea that if your show is a massive hit for Netflix or for Amazon your residuals should reflect that. And right now they don’t. We talked about getting rid of the reduced rates that studios can pay for writers, newer writers, so there’s a new writer discount. There are trainee rates, which mostly go to underrepresented class of writers, minority writers, Black writers.
We talked about teams and the way that – writers are the only group in this industry where two people are sharing one salary and in sharing one salary there’s some real inequities that happen there, in their rates and also how things are calculated for pension and for health.
Comedy and variety, so when we had Ashley Nicole Black on the show talking about how if you’re writing on one of these talk shows, like late night talk show that’s for a steamer, there aren’t even minimums. There’s not residuals. It’s all sort of a wild free for all.
In feature land, because Craig and I focus on this, there was a proposal for a theatrical residual for foreign distribution. So essentially the same way that when an American TV show is shown overseas we get residuals for that. Shouldn’t we get residuals for an American movie that is showing overseas?
We talked about a second step for screenwriters. This has been a thing that Craig and I have been hammering on for years and years. The idea that especially writers who are being paid less than a certain percentage of minimum, or certain double of minimums, that you need to guarantee them a second step. They are the most vulnerable feature writers and they are being exploited in one-step deals.
Craig: Yeah. Generally speaking I think all these things are important. The guild has to figure out what their priorities are and what is more getable than others. I just want to mention that pension was a real issue. I mean, you all saw that. Somebody should be apologizing to Nick Kazan who went out on a limb and made a very strong statement during the last election that our pension was in trouble. And I believe he got just a ton of anger about that and denial. There was just like official Writers Guild denial that the pension was in trouble. And he was right. The pension was in trouble. And somebody should apologize to him for that.
And I’m glad that we were able to address it because the guild essentially has two major moral obligations as far as I can tell. One is to the emerging writers and one is to writers who are in the sunset of their life, because that’s when we need the care the most – when we’re coming up and when we’re on our way out, not to be too grim about what it means to be a retiree. I’ll be there soon enough.
The feature thing is obviously – it just hurts. And we are either going to be in a situation where we keep kicking that football down the field and punting forever, or we make it a point of saying that that is now the priority and it’s more important than other things like the every three years improving the payments and rates and terms for television writers. We’re just going to have to do it or not. Right? But right now we are on a pretty much a 25-year streak of nothing for screenwriters specifically.
And so I don’t know what to say. Certainly I’m going to be voting yes on this contract. I think most reasonable people would. But I just don’t know what else we can do internally, other than to continue to encourage screenwriters to run for the board. I know Michele Mulroney is a big advocate for screenwriters. I’m glad she’s there in the room.
John: She was co-chair of the negotiating committee.
Craig: And I hope she keeps pushing this. I know she wants it. I know that.
John: So you were saying the guild has a specific focus on writers at the beginnings of their careers, emerging writers, writers at the end of their careers. Another area which was on our pattern of demands was paid parental leave which is a real crux point there because for many writers it’s the moment at which they have to decide am I going to continue a writing career or am I going to have a family.
John: And so one of the sort of real breakthroughs I think of this negotiation was for the first time, for the first guild ever, we have a paid parental leave which is entirely funded by studio contributions. It’s 0.5% of writer’s earnings go into a fund that pays for paid parental leave. It’s worth $30 million over three years. No one else has it. I genuinely believe DGA and SAG have to get it for their next round. I think it could be groundbreaking for writers, especially women, who feel like they have to choose between a family and a writing career.
Craig: Yeah. No question. This is definitely of greatest value to us because it supports women continuing in the workplace. We know that just because of the nature of the way birth works that parental leave accrues to the benefit of women in the more immediate and important way. And because – I’m not sure if it ever will carry over quite the way it has for us to the DGA and SAG, because the nature particularly in television is that it is a Monday through Friday gig. You show up, if you’re in a room and you work and you go home. Directing, there is no ability to take leave in the middle of a movie as a director. It just doesn’t work financially. And the same goes for actors. It’s going to be much more difficult for them.
I’m not saying that they deserve it any less. It will just be much more difficult for them to get.
John: Craig, I think you’re misunderstanding it though. This is actually – it’s fully portable. So I think a feature writer is in much the same situation as a director. And a feature writer will be able to use this because the money that has been socked aside from this is going to go to them. So, you know, while you may not be leaving your exact job the way that someone who is working as an executive at Disney would leave to go on parental leave, when the time comes and you are not taking work because your job is now to raise a newborn you will be able to use it.
So the fact that it applies not just to TV writers but to all writers, to comedy/variety writers, is crucial.
Craig: Of course. Absolutely. I think, no question. I wasn’t questioning whether or not it applied to all writers. And I’m glad it does. I’m just suggesting that it’s going to be harder for the DGA and SAG to get it. But I hope they do.
But, no, I’m thrilled that we got this. I think it’s incredibly important. And it is going to make it easier for us to improve our parity, well, we don’t have parity statistics, but will improve our statistics and help push them toward parity, particularly in gender. So this was a big win for us and I’m thrilled that we have it.
John: Cool. Let’s wrap this up by saying the things we did not get, which I think are still really important. That sense of tiered residuals or some way of recognizing that if something is a giant hit for Disney+, like Hamilton, it should be paying out more in residuals than something that is not a hit. And there needs to be some way to recognize that and to pay that.
Craig: You’re talking about like elevations of the formula itself?
John: I’m saying elevations of formula or an actual true formula. How often something is streamed impacts how much a writer gets in residuals?
Craig: Well, there’s not connection whatsoever to the amount of showings? It’s just a flat number?
John: It’s essentially a flat number?
Craig: Isn’t there a formula with [imputions] and [unintelligible].
John: No. So right now the way in which you figure out how valuable something is is kind of an internal calculation based on the market value of the thing. But it doesn’t actually make sense when Netflix is making something for Netflix. They’re not selling it to anybody else.
Craig: Got it.
John: And so there’s no transparency.
Craig: They’re self-made stuff. And there is no transparency. We know that. And this is – this is a really tough nut to crack. Because even if you come up with a tiered plan you have to rely on their numbers. Because there is no Nielsen. There’s no ticket sales. There’s no box office. I mean, Netflix repeatedly says that people watch their shows. It’s some number that’s absurd. It’s just like, “Yeah, 400 billion watched our latest—“
No they didn’t. No they didn’t. They have their whole like, oh, they watched it for two seconds. But then in reality they’ll come back to you and say, “Oh yeah, no one is watching it.” I don’t know how they – how do you get that without transparency from them?
John: But the reason why this is so crucial just to wrap this up is that as more and more stuff goes streaming first, as what we consider theatrical features are made streaming first, this matters. Because the future of residuals is going to be on streaming. And so we need to make sure that residuals actually make sense on streaming.
Craig: Look, this battle is hugely important. And this is a battle that will cover both feature writers and television writers.
Craig: Because right now I’m looking around, I’m not seeing theaters even open. And when this ends I don’t know what that looks like. And I also don’t know – I don’t think any of us really truly understand the economics that the studios are currently contemplating. The cost of putting Hamilton on Disney+ is vastly lower than the cost of putting it in theaters. Vastly lower.
Now, are they losing out on ticket sales? No question. Do they make it up in subscriptions and subscription retention?
Craig: I don’t know.
John: I don’t know.
Craig: I don’t know. But what I do know is if things continue to go the way they are, I mean, even prior to COVID Netflix had no problem making movies for Netflix that just stream. So, yes, we need to figure out that formula. And that will be a strike issue. And that’s something that we’re going to have to – I would love if we could somehow talk to DGA and SAG about that, too.
Foreign theatrical is probably not as big of a deal. I don’t that that’s – for me, personally is much of a – that feels a little bit like arguing over a somewhat sun-setting thing.
John: Just to help the Deadline Hollywood headline writers who are going to say, “Craig Mazin: We must strike.” All right.
Craig: [laughs] Well, I’ve always said [Wannsee] and we have to strike over something. They really need to look carefully at that. But I also do think at some point we are going to have to as a union collectively, and I’m talking to television writers now, do for feature writers what feature writers have done over and over for television writers.
John: I would also want to include comedy and variety folks in there as well. We think we get the short end of the stick. They get no stick at all.
Craig: They get no stick at all. So I think we should concentrate on the no sticks and short sticks people in our next go around. But for this go around I think that you, your committee, the guild pretty much did the best they could. I don’t see, I mean, just because I’m disappointed that certain things aren’t there, well, duh. I mean, I guess if we’re not disappointed then we really under-asked, right?
Craig: But this seems like a pretty solid deal. And pretty much what I imagined it would be. And we should all vote yes and get back to – well, keep working I guess.
John: We’ll keep working. All right. Now for the marquee attraction of this podcast. Justin Simien is a writer-director whose credits include Dear White People, which won the US Dramatic Special Jury Award for breakthrough talent at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. In 2017 his television series based on the film debuted on Netflix. Now two seasons in it’s received a notable spike in attention given the protests and national conversation about race and racism in America.
His follow up feature, Bad Hair, debuted at Sundance in January, which feels like a century ago. Justin, welcome to the show.
Justin Simien: Hey, thanks. Good to be here.
Craig: Great to have you on, man.
John: It is a pleasure. So, where do we find you today? Describe your surroundings as we’re recording this.
Justin: I am Skyping from lovely Los Angeles where coronavirus is everywhere. And, yeah, where I’ve been just sort of working out of my house, you know, since February like everybody else.
Craig: You’re nesting. You’re nesting. We’re all nesting.
Craig: Which I like. Yeah.
John: It’s a good instinct. So, let’s talk a little bit about your background. So you are a film school person, is that correct? We get so many questions on the show about like, “Hey, should I go to film school?” People who are in high school or people who finished college and thinking like, oh, should I go to film school. You are a film school person. I am a film school person. Tell me about your film school experience.
Justin: Wow, I’m a film school person, guys. You know, it was interesting. I have to say I figured out what kind of storyteller I needed to be/wanted to be in high school because I had the fortune of going to a performing arts high school. I studied theater. What was I called? I was a theater major with a musical theater emphasis. And truly if it wasn’t for that experience I don’t know what I would be, where I would be, how I would be. And so for me college was actually a little bit more like a high school in that there was certainly a film school component to Chapman University, but there were also other schools there. And there were other kinds of folks there. And there were quite a few people who had grown up and spent their whole lives in Orange County and had never met Black people before.
So it was a little more I would cliqued than my actual high school experience. But, the thing that I really loved about the Chapman film school is that, you know, there’s really this emphasis on making things from day one. You’re not sort of learning theory. I was making short films right away. And they were probably really terrible and I haven’t watched them in a long time. But it felt so great to be able to, you know, apply what I was learning kind of immediately.
And I think there’s a lot of stuff that I learned. There’s a lot of stuff that I’m realizing I didn’t learn in film school that has become essential to me.
Craig: Oh, well, let me stop you there. Because I’m not a film school guy like you two fancy lads. So I’m kind of curious what are the things, and I would imagine people who run film schools should be curious about this – what are the things you didn’t learn that you maybe think you should have, or at least film schools could do better?
Justin: Well I think film schools, well, I don’t know if this is true for all film schools, but it feels like it’s all about preparing folks for a certain kind of job. You know, you’re taught single protagonist storytelling. The things that I learned were very focused on like how to fit within Hollywood’s existing framework, which I think is valuable and interesting and helpful, but is incredibly limiting, too.
Specifically when we talk about cinema history, specifically Black people and African-American sort of contributions to not just Hollywood but cinema history in general are almost completely ignored. You maybe get like a conversation about Blaxploitation but like, you know, when everyone learns about Birth of a Nation we all watch the movie or we all watch clips on that. We discussed in great detail how D.W. Griffith invented cinema language and editing and cross-cutting and all of these things. And everyone is very careful to parse out the egregious racism in that film from its cinema techniques.
But then no discussion is ever given to the fact that that actually begins the independent film movement in America because, you know, Black Americans were so outraged by that film that you have the rise of someone like Oscar Micheaux who actually creates an entire Black Hollywood system, with its own stars and its own theater chains and all this stuff.
And this is stuff you just kind of have to find out in life if ever. And it’s actually like essential knowledge. This is actually the framework, the groundwork, for independent cinema as we know it. And of course independent cinema is what I’ve been operating in since I got my break.
Craig: It’s fascinating I think the general perception in let’s just call it the hegemonic culture in the United States is that universities and higher education is a hotbed of Marxist hyper-progressive thinking. And in fact the more I talk to people the more it seems that at least in a lot of these institutions things are fairly regressive. I don’t really understand. I mean, I’ve got to be honest with you, just as a side note about film school. A lot of people bring up Birth of a Nation. It’s been brought up a lot lately. John, have you ever seen Birth of a Nation?
John: I’ve never seen Birth of a Nation. So it only adds a thing that people talk about rather than an actual thing to watch.
Craig: Let me go on record here for a second. Birth of a Nation sucks. And I understand that people, like why they study it, because it was the first one. But it sucks. It’s sort of like let’s all study the first sandwich that was ever made. It was one stale piece of break that was folded over a shitty piece of meat, but look, a sandwich was born. Well who gives a shit?
Yes, OK, so he created these things. But it doesn’t matter. We all know what those things are. It seems like such a pointless exercise. And it’s a boring, overlong film. And the heroes are the Klan. It’s just stupid. I don’t know why anyone is bothering with it. Here, you want to summarize the value of Birth of a Nation? Let me teach you what cross-cutting is. There, that’s what it looks like, in 4,000 other movies since Birth of a Nation. Who gives a damn?
So, anyway, that’s just my rant on Birth of a Nation. I don’t understand why film schools are so obsessed with this boring, crappy thing. It just sucks. Come at me Birth of a Nation stans.
Justin: I know.
John: Send your emails to firstname.lastname@example.org
Justin: A very controversial statement.
Craig: Yup. I’m out there.
John: But before you got into that rant I think you were asking why film schools and the Hollywood studio system are so regressive or so traditional and they are institutions. It’s basically they have a gatekeeper function. They classically have had that. And for people who were excluded from that system you have alternative systems that rise up. Just like we have alternative press and alternative newspapers, you had alternative films and independent films. And that’s what I think Justin is signaling that we have not been paying nearly enough attention to the history of independent film. We’ve only been paying attention to the history, the line that goes from Birth of a Nation through Casablanca up through, you know, Jaws.
Craig: Or when we do look at independent film we’re looking at our single, typically white male hero directors. That’s kind of the ‘70s worship of the guys that came in from USC and all that.
Justin: And those guys are great, you know. But the truth is that that kind of – these pockets of filmmakers exist all over the place and exist all over the globe. They exist in every race and every gender. But it’s only a certain grouping of them that we talk about.
And this is something that I deal with in the show Dear White People because the Ivy League that the kids attend in Dear White People is meant to sort of be an analogy for America or for imperialism or whatever. But the thing is all colleges are kind of based around this Ivy League system, at least in America. And the Ivy League system really came out of specifically preparing white, I believe Protestant men to be a part of the American workforce.
And so even though we’re moved from those days, college is really just about preparing a person to become a product. You are–
Craig: This is so good.
Justin: You are preparing to establish your market value. This is what I deserve to earn as a filmmaker. And so things that college is particularly concerned with is what the market is already looking for, what it already demands. You’re looking really to figure out how to fit yourself in a can of soup so that it can appear on the proper shelf. And I think that that knowledge is important and is interesting, but it isn’t like sort of the same as like, you know, knowledge in general. It isn’t the same as art and conversation and dialogue. These are things that happen in a culture and a society actually all over the place and in ways that might surprise people and are unexpected and don’t sort of fit neatly into a curriculum.
So, I really enjoyed film school. It was kind of like an escape. It was a way for me to get out of Texas and just sort of make movies every day and have that be normalized. But, a lot of what I needed to learn to sort of become the filmmaker that I am I had to figure that out on my own. I had to go find that stuff.
Craig: I fell into your discussion of higher education like a cold man going into a nice warm bath. That is so – I cannot tell you what a breath of fresh air it is to hear somebody talk about the higher education industry the way you just did, because it’s so spot on. I mean, the Ivy League tradition was originally meant to educate the wealthy sons of wealthy captains of industry so that when they took over the business they had some, I don’t know, general understanding of just well-rounded liberal arts and weren’t just kind of narrow dumb-dumbs.
And what we’ve ended up with, you’re exactly right, is a system where we actually before you get to college you are already a product that is being analyzed and tested and tested and tested. And the purpose of the testing is to get into a school. The school does nothing more than prepare you ultimately, I mean, what do Ivy League schools really prepare you for? I went to one. So I can tell you. To go work on Wall Street. That’s what they prepare you for.
I had no interest in that. So, I don’t know why I went there. This is a great – we should have a whole other discussion, like a very radical discussion about higher education on another time, because I’d love to dig into that. But obviously we have many other things to talk to you about.
Justin: We do. But just really quickly I have to insert like a really—
Craig: Go for it. I love it.
Justin: Something that just came up, because we research a lot every single for Dear White People and I was researching the admission standards and how that works. And not only was the goal of the initial Ivies to prepare white Protestant men to lead what they felt was going to be a new empire, the American empire. But specifically it was designed to weed out in this country at that time Italians, Jews, Black people, women, you know, everyone else so that they couldn’t sort of take the reins of this new empire. It was a way to make sure that only a certain sect of people would get to lead it.
Craig: It’s a weird thing. It is a weird thing. When you start to look back at how recent this was not just like an implied bias or a secret bias but just an open policy. Open.
Justin: In fact, it was created to enforce the bias.
Craig: Correct. I mean, we have a world where Einstein is teaching at Princeton and is generally considered the smartest man in the world and the father of the nuclear bomb that helped us win WWII, blah-blah-blah. And there is still a strict quota on Jewish students at that time at Princeton. Anyway. And by the way, no women. And Black people…what?
Justin: Oh please. No, Black people – you know, this idea of systemically taking Black people out of the history of various things, that really begins in WWII because they felt like the general public couldn’t take the idea that there were Black people fighting in the war, but what we were fighting was white supremacy. Like wasn’t that what we were fighting? Weren’t we trying to end fascism?
John: Who is the white supremacist actually?
Craig: Their white supremacy has a crazy costume, so that’s bad. But ours…
Justin: And so instead of going into it let’s just remove them from it. So that’s why you don’t see any Black people in WWII. That’s why you don’t see any Black people in the history of cinema ever talked about before the ‘70s.
John: All right. Let’s get back to your university setting. So can you talk us through the decision to do Dear White People as a feature, the original feature you made, and then the decision, let’s transition into making it into a TV series? So the initial idea for Dear White People as a feature. Where did that come from?
Justin: I was sitting in college after one of many very funny conversations between the few Black people that went to Chapman. I was in the Black Student Union. And I was just having a conversation with a friend about how funny is it that like for certain Black folks, you know, we will tolerate all kinds of personalities because we like need each other in a way that’s different. And we just had this conversation about friendship and race that was like why isn’t this kind of conversation in a movie. I of course adored Spike Lee and Robert Townsend and John Singleton and Charles Burnett and sort of the Black filmmakers that came out of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. And I loved that, it’s probably problematic to say it now, but I guess it was then so I can say it. I was super into Woody Allen. Dun-dun-dun.
Craig: That’s all right. That’s OK. They’re movies.
Justin: Sort of like dialogue-laden, talky, articulate comedic satires. And I felt like I wanted to do that, but I wanted it to be new and fresh and speak to something that wasn’t being talked about. And what I felt at the time was that there really wasn’t anything in popular culture that was reflecting specifically my Black experience of being a Black person among mostly, vastly white people. Yes, I had my sort of community of Black people and Black friends, but most of time was navigating a very white world and having to cross in between those two things. I felt like that was an experience that I was having that all of my Black friends are having but yet none of us had a movie or a TV show that reflected that.
And so that’s really where it came out of. And at that time I just really knew that I loved multi-protagonist movies. It was like the one thing that no one at film school seemed interested in teaching me how to write or make. But I knew that I loved them and I loved Altman and I loved Do the Right Thing. And I loved Election. And Fame. These movies that nobody is right. And it’s not about consolidating around one particular point of view. It was about challenging the status quo from a bunch of different points of views.
And even though I didn’t really have language for all of that at that time I knew that my first movie had to be in that kind of world. And so ever since I had the idea to do that I really, you know, I spent years and years just sort of really self-educating myself how to write something like that. And in doing that it just became obvious to me that like within an hour and 40 minutes I could tell this story. But if this were ongoing somehow, if this were a series, and again in 2005 when I first started the idea of something like Dear White People being on television was laughable.
Justin: I mean literally it was unheard of. Nobody thought that that would ever happen. But in my imagination I thought, boy, this would really make for a great show. And I was inspired specifically by the MAS*H becomes a show. You know, Altman who is sort of a master of multi-protagonist cinema. It was already in my head. So by the time it started to come up it really wasn’t a decision. It was like do I want to pay rent and follow this opportunity to make Dear White People a show, or do I want to spend another eight years trying to get another movie made. So I picked the one that paid my rent and allowed me to keep going.
John: Justin, I want to stop you there on your decision to write the script while you were in film school. The idea that like, OK, this is a movie that I want to see that doesn’t exist but I want to see. And I think a message we keep trying to get out is that, you know, people ask us what you should write and we always say like write the movie you wish you could see. And it sounds like it’s exactly, Dear White People was exactly the movie you wish you could see because it did not exist out there. And you would have bought tickets for the very first showing, the very first day if it did exist. And so you had to make that movie. Is that fair?
Justin: I think that’s fair. And I think that’s a really important thing to stress because I think what we’re all taught, not only in film school but in film books and just by popular culture in general that like the most important question to ask is who is your audience. Who are the strangers that you’re sort of pouring your guts out for? And let’s make all of our creative decisions based on that hypothetical.
Whereas I always bought that, because I was like well I actually want to make things for me because I fucking love cinema. Like I will drink cinema’s dirty bathwater. I love it so much. And so what I want to see is a valid thing to bring into the equation because I’m not getting, you know, me as a gay, Black lover of cinema I’m getting hardly anything that’s geared specifically to me. It’s always an adventure from the outside in, you know, when I watch movies. And specifically when I watched the movies that people say are the great ones and the ones to watch. Like I’m having to look from outside a window into usually a very white life that Black people hardly ever show up in.
Craig: Well it’s described as this empathy gap where people who are in marginalized communities, in your case Black, gay, you are forced by culture to witness straight and white over and over and over to the point where if you’re going to appreciate what are an enormous amount of brilliant cultural works, you have to find a way to empathize with that culture. That culture doesn’t necessarily have to find a way to empathize with you. Right? Because they don’t have it. And, in fact, when you ask them to empathize with the other they really seem to struggle.
And what I find so interesting about the way you’re describing your relationship to the audience is that you have combined what you have taken in and who you are and then you say I want to make something that I’m passionate about that has a purpose. There’s sort of a purposeful self-expression. And I will argue over and over again until I expire that if you have a personal expression that is unique to you, meaning you’re not copying other people, right, so you’re not cynical, and you are not concerned with hitting a target. You’re simply expressing a concept that you believe hasn’t been expressed in this way and could not be expressed by anybody else like you can do it. If you have that, plus talent, then the audience will show up. Right?
So that’s like the old joke of like how do you avoid paying taxes on a million dollars. Step one. Get a million dollars. Right? So you definitely need talent. But there are a lot of talented people who don’t really get – look, for whether or not, people can argue about what my talent level is, but coming out of this very middle class kind of workday ethic background that I did my attitude was you work the jobs they give you. And that was where I was. And that’s where I was for a long time.
You were clearly and are clearly a braver person than I was. And it’s for the better. If you have talent – I mean, that’s obviously the key, then you trust it. You will essentially create the audience for the work that you do.
Justin: Yeah. I mean, I think that that that’s true. But I also think that for somebody like me, specifically Black, gay, it isn’t a given that an audience will show up. You know, there are so many brilliant storytellers who are braver than I am frankly and who are really out there, you know, doing something that popular culture is not ready for. But because they are a woman or because they’re gay or because they’re something other than straight white men audiences don’t find it. And people don’t champion it.
And I think my bravery, if you could call it that, really comes from a sense of urgency. A sense that like if I don’t do this and if I don’t take this chance and if I don’t sort of make the loudest version of this thing I will be completely ignored. You know? It’s sort of like there’s a pressure there.
You know, Dear White People is not the only thing I came up with. Dear White People is not the only thing I was thinking of in 2005 when I started writing it. But I knew that it was the one that had to come first because it was loudest. It doesn’t feel courageous in the moment. It actually feels quite terrifying. But I appreciate that it reads as brave. [laughs]
Craig: Well, you know, you can’t be brave if you’re not scared. Right?
Justin: That’s very true.
Craig: Bravery is action in the face of fear, I think.
Justin: That’s absolutely true.
John: Well, Justin let’s talk about the actions you took in that face of fear. What were the steps from I have this idea, I’ve written this script, to actually we’re rolling cameras and we’re finishing a film? What was the process of getting from idea to there’s a movie that can debut at Sundance?
Justin: Well, for me the process was really about motivating myself to do the work. There was a tremendous amount of work to do for Dear White People. One, I had to learn how to write it. I had to learn how a multi-protagonist film works. Because they don’t work in the same way that a single protagonist film works. And the kind of obvious thing of like, oh, it’s just like a single protagonist film but with many protagonists. It actually doesn’t answer a lot of questions. And it’s a really easy thing to get lost in.
And so part of my process was to watch everything that was multi-protagonist first and foremost. And then watch everything that felt like issue-driven. And whether or not it felt like Dear White People tonally, whether or not it was a comedy, I needed to get into my DNA the way these movies operate because, you know, something like Do the Right Thing for instance, you know, Mookie is technically the protagonist but he actually isn’t the one that breaks us into act two. It’s actually Buggin Out that breaks us into act two by bringing up the brothers on the wall.
But then it’s Mookie who breaks us into act three, but [unintelligible]. So just like little things like that, having to sort of – you know, what are the rules here? And so that was actually a really wonderful process. And then the other part I’ll be honest is I watched the Star Wars documentary Empire Dreams countless times because what George Lucas was trying to do with that film was also to make something he wanted to see but that did not yet exist and in fact really nobody, even the studio up until the day before release, nobody believed in that project.
Craig: They let him have the rights to the merchandise. [laughs]
Justin: Oh yeah. And I think they put it in two theaters or something. It’s like no wonder it’s a blockbuster because it’s only playing on two blocks. I needed those stories and I read a lot of biographies just to know that I belonged in the room. Because the self-doubt is crippling, I think for anybody trying to break into this industry or be an artist.
But especially for me because I was trying to say and do things that frankly I had no indications that I would be allowed to do.
Craig: Love it.
Justin: So there was a lot of that. And there was a lot of table reads. There was a lot of self-prodding. Self-given deadlines. Forcing myself to, OK, I’m going to figure out this plot problem this week. I’m going to table read with this group of friends by this month. You know, that kind of thing just went on for years and years.
John: But at what point did you have – there’s a budget, there’s a schedule, we’re actually going to make the movie? What was the transition point from this is a script that I’ve written to this is a movie I’m making?
Justin: So around 2011 we had a table read and I felt like people got it. I felt like people were picking up what I was putting down. And there was a conversation after that table read that was exactly – that’s how I knew that the script was in a place where I felt it was ready to be produced because people were having the exact conversation that I wanted people to have in the lobby after seeing the movie.
And so I made a concept trailer, because I mean there was just absolutely no – there was no market for what I was doing at that time.
John: Let me push back against that. It wasn’t that there wasn’t a market, because we actually know there was a market because the movie did really well. But there wasn’t an obvious prior to say like, oh, an audience will show up for this movie. You had no evidence of that.
Justin: The movie did OK. But it was, you know, I remember sitting with my agents and these people who were very passionate about me and my career and the movie were like, “So just so you know, 90% of all independent financiers we actually won’t even be able to go out to because they won’t even look at the package because it’s a Black ensemble”
So, yeah, it was like really I didn’t have any clue how to get the movie made. So, I just took whatever next step was available. And I felt like, wow, we should make a concept trailer so that people can get what this is. Because on the page it’s multi-protagonist. It doesn’t read like a script that a reader would expect to receive. You know, some readers, particularly white male readers were incredibly offended by aspects of the script. And so I made this concept trailer so that people could see it and get a feel for it. And that went viral online. And instead of at the end of that trailer “coming soon” it would say, you know, “Don’t you wish there were movies like this? Me too. Give us some money and maybe we can make that happen.”
And we raised about $45,000 and we were able to hire a casting director. And essentially we made YouTube videos about the making of this movie until a bigger financier eventually maybe a year and a half later came onboard to properly finance the film at about a million dollars. And, you know, because of the virality of that original clip we were, you know, there was a studio that was interested for a while and then they dropped us. And then spread a story that I had dropped them. It was all of this BS like political stuff going on.
But the net result was the movie wasn’t getting made. And then a year and a half in, because we had built this fan base online, and then we were continuing to water it and foster it, you know, this financier, Julie Lebedev, who also financed my second film, Bad Hair, I mean, she was just like, “You guys have an audience before there’s even a movie. Like let’s do it. And can you do it for $1 million?” And I said I don’t know, but I know that I’d rather try than not. And that’s exactly what happened.
We went to Minneapolis because they had a rebate program called Snow Bate that had just come back. We landed and looked at the University of Minnesota and we were told, well, you know, if you want to shoot here, and at that point in time it was the only college in the nation that we conceivably had a timeframe that we could shoot at. They said, “Well then you need to start in two weeks.” And that’s what we did. We hunkered down. I started casting. And all of a sudden we were making a movie.
Craig: I just love this so much. I love stories like this because it just shows a certain kind of indomitability and an impossible persistence is required.
Craig: It also – I think it also goes to the heart of this very strange paradox. I think people think that studio productions are all about minimizing risk and independent film financing is the riskiest proposal of all. It’s actually backwards. Most independent film financing is the most cowardly kind of financing. They only way they’ll give you that financing is if they can do foreign pre-sales which make them make money before you even start shooting.
Justin: Absolutely. Absolutely. And foreign pre-sales work on specifically white star talent.
Craig: Yes. White and generally male star talent. And that system is, I mean, we have a certain kind of wonderful racism here in America. There’s a very old classic racism overseas. It’s a different kind. It’s a different vintage.
Justin: Nostalgic racism.
Craig: Yes. Yes. And it is very much their theory is that “Black movies do not travel.” I mean, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this. And we know for a fact that it’s not true. We know that.
Justin: We know it – it is proven untrue constantly.
Justin: And yet it’s still the paradigm. And so when people talk about how does racism persist, it’s like it’s not necessarily even an attitude. It’s not like – there maybe, but I don’t envision this hidden meeting of all the independent financiers and they’re like, “How do we keep the Blacks out?” Like it’s not like that. But when there’s these informal rules in place that’s essentially what we’re doing.
Craig: Yeah. There’s a received wisdom. And then every time a movie with a – let’s just say a significantly Black cast or a predominantly Black cast, or a movie about issues pertaining to Black people or race does well overseas they just say, “That’s the—“
Justin: “The exception.” Yeah.
John: The exception that proves the rule.
Craig: The exception. It’s an exception that proves the rule. Well, if every single exception is an exception then they’re not exceptions. It just happens so often.
Justin: It does.
Craig: First of all, hat’s off to the financier who was bold enough to say, “You have an audience. That’s all I need. I don’t need to be repaid by Spain, France, Germany, Italy before you can roll film.” I mean, to me that’s what independent film financing should be. So that’s good for her.
Justin: Well I think that’s great about Julie is that she would like that, but she recognizes that it’s wrong that that isn’t happening for certain kinds of stories and I think Julie is in the business of making – of proving markets that haven’t been proven by other people. And certainly with Dear White People and then again with Bad Hair, I think we’ve been able to do that.
John: Now, so you made this feature. It gets a great reception. The decision to go and make this as a TV series, in some ways it seems kind of obvious because when you have a multi-protagonist story, well, TV is multi-protagonist. You’re always going to be following multiple characters. So it seems like a pretty straightforward transition. And yet it’s so much more time and space and storytelling and a crew that is not just to make one feature but to make a whole series. You have potentially other writers. What was your process like figuring out how to move from I’ve made a feature to now I’m making a TV series?
Justin: Well, at that time I was certainly inspired by what was happening in streaming. I was inspired by things like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black because I felt like there was this new paradigm. There was this new space for cinema on TV. We were sort of moving beyond the idea that a show had to be very tightly formatted so that a kind of rotating set of creatives would come in and essentially make the same thing each time.
We were moving past that. And we were now moving into this world where you could stream an entire season of something as if it were just a really long movie. And that was really exciting to me. And I remember one of the early screenings of Dear White People there was an executive, her name was Tara Duncan, she’s president of Freeform now, but at the time was a creative exec at Netflix. And she said, “Have you thought about making this as a show?” And I said I absolutely have. And she said, “OK, well when you guys sell this,” at the time Netflix wasn’t really buying movies at that time, “so when you guys finally sell this I want you to think about it.”
And as I toured with the movie doing Q&As across the country a lot of which were at colleges, mostly white colleges where the BSU was throwing an event to show the film, or even in other countries like in Paris in particular, in London, Scandinavia, I was having these moments where I was realizing like, wow, the Black experience is actually a global one. And there’s so many things that we didn’t even begin to get into with this movie. So I started preparing just in my mind what would a TV show be like for this. And I started thinking about what could we do that would be new and fresh and exciting. And I came up with this idea of why don’t we give each character at least at the beginning their own episodes. So it’s a multi-protagonist show but it’s not a multi-protagonist show about this one light-skinned girl Sam and her friends. It literally is like when we’re in a Lionel episode we’re meeting everyone else from his point of view.
Wouldn’t that be interesting if we did something like I’ve seen Robert Altman do and I’ve seen other directors do with feature films, but we did that on TV? And that’s really where it grew out of. And there was a lot of material that didn’t get to be filmed that eventually became episodes. One thing that I recognized is that there were a lot of different kind of people showing up for the movie, but reliably Black women, young Black women were showing up. And were identifying with Sam and Coco. And I felt it was a priority to get Black women both in the writer’s room but also behind the lens to direct these episodes.
I never felt like this should just be coming from my point of view. I felt like my point of view should maybe set the parameters, but then I want a bunch of artists that are like me and I want to give them what I never get, which is room to do them and to say something that is specific to them. And that’s really the technique that I went into that with and I was able to do that. I was able to build a writer’s room where people felt empowered. Where people felt like they could bring their real stuff to the table.
We did the same thing with our creative departments, and particularly with the directors. And it’s been like going to graduate film school. I get to sit there and learn and mold and shape these world class directors.
John: Now, you have two seasons that are done and they’re out on Netflix.
John: I’m sorry, three seasons. But are there plans for – like what would you do next essentially? If there’s another season how does this current cultural moment we’re living in, how do you see that shaping the future of this show? What does it feel like to you?
Justin: We were actually writing season four when the lockdown happened earlier this year. And so we finished writing season four over Zoom. And then about the time that we were done writing it, and it was very emotional and of course it was like nobody knows that this is even happening, but we’re like oh my god this is the end of the show. Because it’s also our fourth and final season, I forgot to add.
And so the lockdown happens. And then the scripts are just sort of in a vault somewhere for a while. And then, you know, all of the protests around George Floyd begin to happen. And when the video of George Floyd went out, you know, as a Black person you don’t know if this is going to start a movement because frankly videos like this have become just part of the everyday fabric of life. And especially as a Black person it’s like every other week there’s something like this that happens. And when it starts to become a movement, you know, that was really mind-boggling and inspiring.
But then you realize that all of the same complications and all of the ways in which racism persists even among really well-intentioned people, well-intentioned white liberal people especially, all that stuff is still there. It actually felt like we had written a season especially crafted for this moment, but we of course had no idea that that’s what we were doing. The sort of method of attacking each season always involves deep, deep research. And a constant trying to tune in to what is in the Zeitgeist. Like what is just below the pop culture that’s happening.
And we end up making these wild predictions. And I can’t say much without spoiling it, but we end making these predictions that tend to come true. And you’re going to see the season and think that we wrote it in response to what’s happening, but we didn’t.
Craig: I have had my own weird dance with that very thing. And it turns out if you just look at the world and talk about it honestly that things that happen after are going to see like you predict them. You’re not predicting anything. You’re just accurately reporting what other people may not have been looking at.
Justin: I think that’s absolutely right. I think that’s absolutely right.
John: Cool. We have one listener question that I felt was especially relevant for this. Craig, would you mind reading us what Ryan in Brooklyn wrote?
Craig: Yeah. Ryan in Brooklyn, where I was born, writes, “My writing partner and I spent the first half of 2020 researching and writing a script based on a very well-known character from 18th Century American history. He is by no means the most heinous of culprits as far as racism, sexism, colonialism and the like go. But, he owned slaves and benefited from systems of white supremacy none the less.
“As our current culture reevaluates how we see these figures who in our case have for the most part been known as heroes and pioneers, we have taken a pause to ask ourselves for reasons both moral and creative if the project is worth even continuing with. How does one strike a balance between giving history its due but also taking into consideration modern sentiments?
“For instance the only people of color in the script are either servants or slaves who would have been paid very little mind within the limited scope of our narrative. But I feel like leaving them out altogether is white-washing. Artificially propping them is white-savior-ing. And leaving them as they are is lazy.”
Well, that is I suspect a dilemma that a lot of people are wrestling with right now.
John: Absolutely. And Justin it feels like the kind of dilemma that your characters on your show might be arguing. So talk us through what you’re thinking as you hear Ryan’s question.
Justin: Well, one, I applaud Ryan for having the dilemma, because there are examples of many people in this particular situation who don’t see a dilemma at all and just sort of well we’re just going to not talk about the slave people. Or that’s a very easy decision. Or we’re going to hang a hat on it. So kudos to you for recognizing the difficulty of the moment. I think for me and this is not really going to sound like advice, but for me it’s not just about how I’m telling a story or why I’m telling a story, but timing is a very important factor in storytelling in my opinion.
There are certain – there’s a time for certain stories. Because we’re trying to speak to a certain moment. There’s a reason why out of all the things people could be thinking about or talking about or experiencing we want them to experience this little slice of life right now. And for me – for instance I got a script the other day, it’s a wonderful script. Wonderful story. But it’s about a white boy sort of among a bunch of Black and Brown people where he is the outcast. And we’re sort of getting something of the experience of prejudice from his point of view. And I was like this is a good story, but I can’t tell this right now because this isn’t – this is a point of view that everyone is already pretty saturated in. And actually the story about the Black and Brown people who sort of just kind of accompany his world, those are the stories that have been left out. So actually I would like to tell those stories right now.
So, it doesn’t mean like abandon your story, but I would say, you know, I think you’re right to maybe give it a think and give it a pause. And if the Black people, the sort of subjugated people in that story are not the focus of it, you know, maybe they could be. Maybe we don’t really need a historical heroic example of a white person from a backwards time right now. Or maybe there’s something else to say about that person that is pertinent to the moment.
I think stories do exist in the times that they’re born out of and they should speak to those times. At least that’s how I feel as an artist. And everyone can do and make what they want. I may not go see it. [laughs]
Craig: I love that answer. I think that’s great.
John: Our friend Aline tipped me off to a podcast that charts all the presidents in order going up through modern day. And just because I know so little about the presidents, and my daughter is starting AP US History. And so I’m listening to the first episode and they talk about young George Washington who I only have the one image of George Washington which is sort of what’s on the dollar bill. But if you actually go back and look at he was pretty hot when he was a teenager. He had a reputation. He would have been a social media star essentially. He was known around the community and he was sort of heroic and dashing and sort of a wild adventurer. And there’s a story to be told about young George Washington, and yet I have exactly Ryan’s qualms about it because I don’t know that I need to see a young George Washington story and try to fit it into a context that is at all meaningful in 2020. It doesn’t feel like, what you said, it doesn’t feel like the time to tell a young George Washington story.
Justin: Especially because don’t we all have – I mean, you can’t live your life as an American without being confronted with George Washington’s story.
Craig: Thank you. We know it.
Justin: The one story that I just learned about is that it wasn’t wooden teeth, it was slave teeth. Did you guys know that? That he had slave teeth towards the end of his life.
Justin: And it became wooden teeth over the course of the centuries of that story spreading, but it was actually the teeth of his slaves. It’s things like that that to me would be much more interesting to see a perspective or a movie about.
A movie I fucking love and I talk about this all the time that did not – I feel like this is another topic – but I feel like film criticism failed this movie. And it is Lemon by Janicza Bravo. And what I think is so brilliant about that movie is that essentially she’s telling a tried and true story that we accept all over the place about an actual sociopathic white man but nobody can see it because he’s a white man. And so the movie is very uncomfortable. And if you don’t quite know what she’s doing maybe you feel a little left out.
But what she’s doing is she’s telling the story that we always go to the movies to see, especially in independent cinema. It’s the thing that we always fall for, but she’s doing it without the white male gaze. She’s doing it from a Black female gaze. And that makes people very uncomfortable. But I was like that is so brilliant. That’s the movie about George Washington I could see right now.
Craig: It does seem, Ryan, like one of the things you’re hearing here is not only, OK, well done you’re considering this and timing matters, but also there have been a lot of books and movies and television shows that have examined very well-known characters from 18th Century American history. Do you know why they’re very well-known? Because they’re very well-known.
So if they’re very well-known, I don’t know, do we need another one?
John: Well, but Craig it is an opportunity to look at one of these people and fill out the context. So I guess the question is is it worth spending the time to take a look at one of these characters and paint out the context when you know that painting out that context is going to be really not just challenging but may not be the right time to be doing that.
Craig: Well, yeah. It just feels like – also, I feel we’re about to get – you know, I am always on the lookout for the trend. Because the trend is what, so people are behind things always. That’s what they want, the people that are paying for things. And the trend is going to be, well, let’s keep telling stories about famous white people but now let’s also focus on the Black people around them. Or, or, crazy idea, tell stories about not those white people. Because we’ve already had those stories. I actually don’t need another story about Thomas Jefferson as it relates to Sally Hemings or his slave-owning or the south. Because I’ve gotten my fill of Thomas Jefferson in Paris. I had 1776. I have John Adams. There’s a lot of Thomas – there’s Hamilton which we’ll be talking about. There’s a lot of Jefferson. Jefferson, Jefferson, Jefferson. I’m good. Let’s move on. Let’s find other people to talk about.
That’s my general feeling.
Justin: But I will bring this up, too. The dilemma that’s being described to me feels like – I always feel that way as a writer. And it’s not about racism. Like I always get to a point in the story where I’m like, oh, I don’t know if this works anymore. I don’t know if this fits. And so it might be a necessary machination of the process. Maybe this movie, you know, this is going to say woo-woo, but I do feel like stories kind of have their own souls sometimes. And they tell you when they’re not ready. They tell you when they need something else. They tell you when they’re not working.
And this might be your journey to making a more interesting project. You know, this pause that you’re being given by this moment might actually be an opportunity to explore a different area of this very same person or this very same moment in time or, you know, or something deeper, more challenging, more interesting perhaps.
Craig: I agree.
John: All right. It is time for our One Cool Things. Craig, kick us off.
Craig: Well, I didn’t have one myself so I turned to my intrepid assistant Bo. And I said, Bo, do you have a One Cool Thing? And that is why I’m going to talk about long hair, which I don’t have.
John: Nor do I.
Craig: I don’t really hair. I mean, I have a little bit. So, Bo does have very long, straight hair. And apparently when you have long straight hair, so I’ve been told, it does get very dry at the ends. And, you know, you hear about split ends.
John: Yeah. I kind of know that as a theory, but I don’t really know what it is.
Craig: Yeah. So I guess the ends of your hair just start to split because they’re dry. So she is recommending something called Olaplex. And we’ll put a link in the show notes. If you have long hair that is getting dry at the end do what Bo does. Check out Olaplex. I cannot vouch for it myself because I don’t really have much hair.
John: The amount of money I save on hair care products is staggering.
Craig: I use like this much shampoo. Boink.
John: No shampoo for me. My One Cool Thing is a website I’ve gone to for years, and years, and years. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken about it on the show. It’s called Electoral Vote. If you go to this website, it’s electoral-vote.com, it looks like it’s from 1995. It’s like a really basic website. But every day they just update it and it’s these two smart guys who sort of summarize the political news and sort of what’s happening in the world for you.
And if you just read this every morning you feel like, oh, I kind of get what’s happening.
Craig: This is an encouraging map I’m looking at.
John: Yeah. So it was originally set up about sort of literally the Electoral College and that. But it’s morphed over the years into just a general political discussion of what’s going on in the world. Good summaries. Really good Q&As over the weekends. So, I’d recommend you take a look at this.
What I had to do during the 2016 election was really deliberately limit myself to how much news I would take in, because my anxiety just went off the charts. And so this would be the kind of thing which I would allow myself to look at in the mornings and then look at nothing else for the rest of the day.
So, if you were to go on that kind of diet this might be the thing you would leave in so you can get some information.
Justin: What is it again?
Justin: Oh, OK, Cool. I missed the dash. Cool.
Craig: John, your description is perfect. This website does look like it was made back in the Angel Cities area.
Justin: Absolutely. Yeah.
Craig: But it’s a nice map to look at. I mean, I’m kind of grooving on the map. Because I don’t – I’m one of those people when everyone is like, well, we’ve put out a new poll. Biden leads Trump by this many points in the general election, I’m like, oh, you mean the national poll that I don’t care about at all?
Craig: Give me the states. Give me the states.
Justin: This is giving me so much agita.
Craig: It’s coming.
Justin: Louisiana, why? OK, go. Sorry.
Craig: I think you know why.
John: Know yourself. Know yourself. And if this is not the right thing you’ll know it and you’ll clip it away and you won’t put it in your bookmarks.
Craig: I like this.
John: Hey, Justin, do you have a One Cool Thing for us?
Justin: You know, this one made me feel so old. Have you guys heard of Animal Crossing? But I’m just going to say the thing that I think is fucking cool. I am so enjoying I May Destroy You. I know this is not a hot take. But Michaela Coel’s show on HBO or the BBC depending on where you are is just a cool – if you’re a writing nerd, you’re seeing the things that they’re doing on that show and the things that they’re getting away with in a TV show is so inspiring and liberating.
So, I don’t know if that’s cool enough or edgy enough.
John: Oh, it’s absolutely cool enough. We’ve been trying to get Michaela Coel on the show and Megana has been working really hard on it. So, people in Michaela Coel’s universe, if you are hearing this now we really are trying to get you on the show. So, we would love to have her.
Justin: I also just want to meet you and worship at your feet. So, if you can just reach out to Justin Simien. That would be great. If you just need some worship.
Craig: I feel like, yeah, she’s the new Phoebe, right? I mean, I’m not taking anything away from Phoebe. Phoebe remains Phoebe. But there’s this meteor that has arrived and everyone is like, oh my god, how do I get to talk to Michaela.
John: But you know what? We got to speak to Phoebe.
Craig: That’s right.
John: So hopefully we’ll be able to get to speak to Michaela as well.
Craig: And just to reiterate, Phoebe, still a meteor. Still a Phoebe-like meteor.
Justin: Well I want the Zoom code or the Skype code. I just want to listen in. Because, you know, I think she’s incredible.
Craig: Honestly, after your discussion of higher education, Justin, I’m considering having you be a permanent third host on this show.
Justin: [laughs] I’m down. I’m down.
Craig: When you meet a kindred spirit you’re like don’t leave me. Stay.
Justin: I love nerding out about this stuff.
Craig: So great.
Justin: It’s my pleasure.
Craig: Well, you know what, we’ll nerd out about Hamilton in our bonus segment.
Justin: All right.
John: Absolutely. So until then Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli who also did our outro. 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’m @johnaugust. Justin, what are you on Twitter?
Justin: Oh god, I’m barely on Twitter. But @jsim07. I may not @ you back just because it’s not on my phone right now.
John: Which is so smart. We have t-shirts. They’re great. You can get them at Cotton Bureau. There’s a link in the show notes.
You can find those show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com or on the podcast that you are playing this from. You can sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments like the one we’re just about to record on Hamilton.
Justin, thank you so much for joining us on the show today.
Craig: Thanks Justin.
Justin: My pleasure. Thanks guys.
Craig: That was great.
John: Craig, you are a big Hamilton fan. Did you see Hamilton on Disney+?
Craig: Yeah, of course I saw it on Disney+. Are you crazy?
John: Justin Simien, did you see it on Disney+?
Justin: I did.
John: And had you also seen it in the theater?
Justin: I had.
Craig: And I have twice.
John: I have twice. And I’ve seen it with this original cast in the theater.
Justin: Oh wow.
Craig: Yup. I saw it with the original cast and then I saw it out here at The Pantages with another spectacular cast with I think – Renee Elise Goldsberry was the one kind of carryover, but everybody else was knew I think.
Justin: You guys are hardcore fans.
John: We’re pretty hardcore fans. I loved the staged production. I will say I loved the film production as well. But I need to provide some context. I was staying at an Airbnb when this debuted and so we hooked up our AppleTV, watched it, and it was only after I watched it that I realized that motion smoothing had been turned on.
Craig: Oh no.
John: And you know what? It was good.
Craig: No. No.
John: My theory is, and I can’t of course reengineer it to know, but I think the weirdness of live theater and motion smoothing which makes things look too present, kind of worked for it.
Justin: I could see that.
John: It was weird. So I think it made the one case, other than professional sports, in which motion smoothing is not an absolute horrible–
Craig: I hate it on sports. I hate it.
John: But let us not talk about the motion smoothing. Let us talk about Hamilton on Disney+ and our reactions to it. Justin as the guest you get to start. What was your reaction to it on Disney+?
Justin: Oh god. This is very putting me on the spot.
Craig: Here we go.
Justin: I’m not, OK, I am probably not the biggest Hamilton fan in the world. I wasn’t before I saw it on Disney+ and I’m still not. But, I thought, you know, one, seeing theater on TV in this form is something that like deserved this quality of production for a really long time. Like when I went to performing arts high school like – every theater geek knows about that one tape of Into the Woods with Bernadette Peters in it, or Pippin with Ben Vereen.
Justin: And I love that stuff. So to see it normalized on TV is great without the gimmick of like doing it live in front of an audience that I think some Broadway shows are being adapted for TV in that way. So to see it just like in its native Broadway environment, well-filmed, with beautiful lighting, clear audio, I think was kind of a revelation for me that like, god, I wish I could see more shows like this.
John: Craig, what was your take?
Craig: The same. Look, I do love the show. And I appreciate the – it’s five years old now. And because we’re older five years seems like the blink of an eye to us. My daughter who is a huge Hamilton fan, she’s grown up, like she’s changed dramatically from a 10-year-old to a 15-year-old as Hamilton has aged one-third of her life with her.
So, it is interesting to see how the world changes and we do start to look back and reexamine. I still think that Hamilton is an incredibly important show. I think it has opened a ton of doors. I think it has changed Broadway permanently. I think Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius.
I think that if you now want to look at the show and start asking questions about – he does sort of wave his hand kind of these aren’t the droids you’re looking for in that kind of manner over slavery. He’s very smart about how he – there’s a line right up front, “While slaves were being carted away across the waves.” He is smart to mention it. And it comes in various points. Does the show address slavery the way I think he would if he were doing it right now? No. Is that kind of the curse and blessing of art? Yes.
The art stays the same. The world changes. We do go back and look at it, but it is so good that it is – you can still dig into it and chew on it. From a musical point of view and from a storytelling point of view it is mind-blowingly good to me. And I really appreciated the fact that I could just see the show.
There are a ton of shows where they just don’t do it. I think they don’t do it because they’re scared that you won’t show up to see the show maybe. Hamilton obviously does not have that concern. They have sold out every performance they’ve ever had. But I would love to see other shows done this way because it is wonderful to watch. And it is a very different experience than a film adaption, like say Chicago, or the live versions which are live versions and not the show.
I thought Tommy Kail did a really great job of somehow being there and inside of things, but not in a way that made me feel like I wasn’t watching the show. More than anything what I really appreciated was the one thing that I couldn’t get in a theater and that was the faces. To see faces like that. Leslie Odom, Jr. in particular, who is just like, yeah. So that’s the MVP of the show, right? All respect to Lin who is, again, a genius, and who created the whole thing, wrote every one of those insane words, and managed to wrestle the whole thing. For a performance point of view, Daveed Diggs is a scene-stealer. But Leslie Odom is a show-maker.
And being able to see his face and the way he moves his mouth is very specific was fascinating to me. I got more of his inner turmoil and the terror of a man that’s constantly pretending all came out in the close, which I loved.
So I thought it was wonderful and I will absolutely watch it again. I remain a huge Hamilton fan. A huge Lin-Manuel Miranda fan. And just as much – more of a Leslie Odom fan. More of a Daveed Diggs fan. All of them. Christopher Jackson. All of them. Just remarkable.
John: So, I had a Broadway show, Big Fish, that you do a filming of it. So, pretty much every show that’s on Broadway there is at least one performance that is sort of properly filmed. There are multiple cameras in the audience filming it. But it wasn’t anywhere near this level of sophistication where – and it’s not edited in a meaningful way. So there’s not that kind of sophisticated approach to when we’re going to be in a close-up, when we’re going to be over here, when we’re going to be actually on stage and following a character as they’re making their exit. We have none of that.
And so there’s not a filmed version of the show I can look at and say, oh, here is the show. This is the thing that I made. And some of that is what theater is supposed to be. You have to actually be there to see it live and in person. And Craig you were asking sort of why more of them aren’t done it’s because – large part of it – is because the union contracts that govern how the performances are made basically bar the filming or make it impossible to have that be out there any other place.
And you’re always worried about cannibalizing future sales of the show by people just watching the video of it, which makes sense.
Craig: I get that.
John: But watching Hamilton, I think the thing that was most surprising to me is when it was done I did not have any desire for a typical adaptation of Hamilton. I didn’t want to see the movie version of Hamilton.
Justin: I agree with that so much because I think that Hamilton works in a very theatrical way. And I actually – this is going to sound like shade but it’s not – it is sort of, you see it with the adaptation of Cats into a film, is that some things they aren’t – it’s not a direct translation. I think a fantastic movie could be made of Hamilton. Don’t get me wrong. But you can’t just film it in real life and have it just be what it is. It just wouldn’t work. Like it works because it’s a concert experience almost. You are overwhelmed by these amazing performances and you feel like you’re there and there’s an audience participating. And you need all of that, I think, for Hamilton as it is conceived right now to work.
I felt the same way about The Lion King actually. And that I really enjoyed because I think too few people really appreciate the power of theater and musical theater in particular to be both musical and whimsical but also profound. And Hamilton is both dramatic, profound, and a musical. And that’s something that like only a few people understand because only a few people will have access. For that I think it’s very meaningful to have it out.
And I could not agree more. This to me is the version of Hamilton to see.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, there are certain shows that are easier to adapt than others. I mean, I’m in the middle of adapting one right now and I consider it to be one of the easier ones in the sense that the show is trying to be cinematic and so you can now be totally cinematic as you do the film adaptation.
Whereas Hamilton is not trying to be cinematic. Hamilton is interpretive and it is stylized. For instance, it does remind me of Pippin in a little way.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: So when Pippin sings about war they’re dancing. It’s Fosse. It’s not war. And here when they’re fighting the Battle of Yorktown it’s dancing. And take the bullets out your gun, take the bullets out your gun. How the hell would you shoot that with real soldiers and bullets? It just would be ridiculous.
Justin: They would try. [laughs]
John: They would.
Justin: Which to me is so depressing.
Craig: They would, yeah.
Justin: In Broadway stuff in particular that gets translated to movies I’m just always – not always – but I’m mostly very disappointed because no one has taken the time to figure out how to adapt the theatricality of the show to cinema. They just sort of film it. And that’s not the same as adapting it. And some of these shows, and Hamilton is one of them, like I don’t think anyone should have a first blush idea as to how to do that. It should be recognized as an incredibly difficult problem to figure out how to adapt something like Hamilton to the screen.
Craig: Lin, I think, could. I suppose if there’s anyone who could do it Lin could. I still remain very impressed by the adaptation of Chicago. I think that was—
Justin: Oh, I think it’s great.
Craig: Incredibly successful. In part because Rob Marshall understood that he was making both a movie and also shooting the show. So he kind of runs in two lines. There’s reality, which feels cinematic, and feels real, and in the world with cars and outside. Because theater is inside. Movies are outside. But then also there are these moments where, you know, He Had it Coming is – it’s not the official name of the song, but–
Craig: It’s staged. It’s a dream. Even when Latifah is doing When You’re Good to Mama there’s two versions. There’s the real one where she’s just in her regular – and it’s a regular prison – and then there’s the one where she’s in a burlesque on stage. So, he manages to do the theater and the real at the same time, which is brilliant.
I think Chicago is an excellent sort of map.
Justin: I love Chicago. And I love that Chicago consolidates really for popular culture some things that Fosse was doing in his films that I don’t think quite made it to the mainstream yet. Like if you look at Cabaret you’re starting to understand – Cabaret to me really is one of the first American musicals that begins to sort of have a dialogue between the real world and sort of like stage reality. And then with All that Jazz when the character starts hallucinating on his deathbed and he starts seeing in his mind what it would be like if this were made as a musical number you’re starting to see the language for that form. But it really isn’t until Chicago that it’s sort of like put into a kind of thesis that I felt like my mom could understand, or a general movie-going public could understand. And I don’t know, I do not include Chicago in the list of Broadway adaptations that I’m disappointed at. I quite like Chicago.
Craig: And interesting that you point out Cabaret because now we’re talking – there’s something about Kander and Ebb, I’m just going to say. Those guys are – when I think of the shows that they’ve done and written they do seem somehow slightly more adaptable. I don’t know how. There’s just something about them where I can see it working. I think part of it also is just the nature of the songs. They feel like I want to watch them being sung on screen. Or do I need them to be in a theater or else they’re boring? You know?
Like Sondheim to me, you got to be there. I don’t know. I just believe that. You got to be there. It just doesn’t work the same way if you’re not there. That’s my feeling.
Justin: Well I’m going to say it. I would have made a great Into the Woods. [laughs]
Craig: I love it.
Justin: And by the way I think it is possible to make a great Hamilton film. It’s just a lot harder than I feel like–
Craig: People might think.
Justin: People might realize, yeah.
John: So let’s also acknowledge that the Hamilton that we saw on Disney+ was not the version – well, it was a version – but we weren’t supposed to see it on Disney+. We were supposed to see it on the big screen. This was going to be a theatrical release. And I think it would have been a giant theatrical release. I think it would have been a big event.
John: And that would have been a very different experience to see it on a big screen with a big audience to be able to cheer together. I can imagine people singing along in a theater.
Craig: That’s the part I hate. [laughs] I’m so angry at that part, in my head.
John: Maybe some screenings they would allow singing, some screenings they wouldn’t.
Craig: Shut up!
John: I remember seeing Evita at a singalong Evita and it was great that everyone could sing along to the songs. But, it’s important to remember that Broadway Theater is incredibly expensive so very few people get to see it. And so people have much better experience, or their experience of Hamilton is probably largely through the cast album rather than seeing the show because so few people could afford to see the show.
Craig: No question.
John: Movie tickets are much, much cheaper, so it’s how most people would have seen it. But now that it’s debuting on Disney+, which is an inexpensive subscription service, just the amount of people who saw Hamilton in one night when it debuted on Disney+ has got to exceed probably everyone who saw it, at least the original cast, in the theater.
Craig: Of course. Of course.
John: And so it’s important to remember sort of how transformative a cultural thing can be when everyone can see it is the thing, when it’s taken away.
Craig: This would have been – I mean, years ago if they had had to do this it would have been on ABC and they would have had commercial breaks. A lot of them. That’s how we watched stuff when we were kids, right? Commercial breaks. Oh my god, can you imagine? Oh my god.
John: Yeah. I may be working on one of those things with commercial breaks.
Craig: “Forgiveness.” And then, “We’ll be back after these messages.” Ah, yeah, commercial breaks.
John: All right. Thank you gentlemen very much for talking about Hamilton with me.
Craig: A joy.
Justin: My pleasure.
Craig: A joy. One more reason that I want to spend all my time with Justin.
- WGA AMPTP
- Dear White People
- Lemon Movie
- Electoral Vote
- I May Destroy You
- Hamilton on Disney+
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- Justin Simien on Twitter
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
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- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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