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John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 461 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast it’s another round of How Would This Be a Movie where we take real life events and consider their cinematic possibilities. Plus, we’ll be answering listener questions on when to start rewriting and board game IP. And in a bonus topic for Premium members we’re going to discuss how would 2020 be a movie.
Craig: [laughs] Oh man. Didn’t we already do it? Isn’t the Day After Tomorrow 2020?
John: Oh, there’s so many 2020 movies. There’s too many.
Craig: There’s too many.
John: But first, Craig, you won yet more BAFTA Awards. When will it all stop?
Craig: Well, I personally did not win a BAFTA award.
John: OK. Your show did? Your creation did.
Craig: Well, so the BAFTAs – the Emmys have what they call the Shmemmys, so it’s the below the line stuff like cinematography and editing and score they do on a different night than the big Emmys, although I found that the Shmemmys were vastly more fun for me because you get to root for your team. And in this case we were rooting for our team. We had ten nominees and seven of them won BAFTAs which is outstanding.
Craig: We have one more, well sorry, we have three more bites at the BAFTA apple. I guess by the time this airs it will be about a week later. Jared Harris is up for Best Actor. Stellan Skarsgård is up for Best Supporting Actor. And then Jane and Carolyn and I are up for Best Mini-Series. The good news was that in addition to all of our folks winning many, many BAFTI/BAFTY, in my category I was up against my beloved Jack Thorne, a former One Cool Thing, and dear friend and brilliant writer. And the good news is neither one of us won. So we didn’t have to beat each other. We both lost to the extraordinary Jesse Armstrong. No shame there. Jesse Armstrong is the showrunner and genius behind Succession.
So congratulations to Jesse.
John: That category was Best HBO Series, right?
Craig: It kind of was. Well, no, it wasn’t. The Virtues is Channel 4 I think over there in the UK. That’s Jack’s show with Shane Meadows. And it was a great, fun ride to see our folks winning. And I was particularly pleased that Odile Dicks-Mireaux won. She had been up for so many of these awards for costume and had not yet won one of the big ones. But if you are a British costume designer as she is I think the BAFTA is the finest award you could hope for and she won it and deservedly so.
John: Fantastic. So, I guess I’m just confused. I feel like the eligibility time for things, I just feel like Chernobyl was three years ago.
Craig: Kind of. The BAFTAs were I guess last week. And we haven’t been on the air for well over a year. So, the reason why is because the BAFTAs were originally supposed to be much earlier in the year. We were very early in the BAFTA cycle anyway. So we were always going to be quite a ways away from when our first air date. But because of COVID they had to scrap the live ceremony and show and push it back quite a ways. And ultimately settle on doing a virtual version.
You know, like on a downer, I would have loved to have gone.
Craig: I think it would have been fun to have been at the BAFTAs. So I’ll just have to try and write something else that gets a BAFTA nomination. But, yeah, it’s a little weird at this point. But this is the end. So the final big BAFTAs which I think are streaming like on July 31 or something like that will be the last of the Chernobyl awards stuff. And then finally it is over. And I think like four days later they start giving awards to Watchmen for the next cycle.
So, Damon and his Watchmen team should and I believe will win everything.
John: Yeah, they’re going to win a lot.
John: Nice. All right, to some more timely topics. Last week we talked about the new contract reached between the WGA and the studios. Now full details and contract language are out and members in both the East and the West should be voting on it. Craig, you’ve had a chance to look at the links and see the full language. Is there anything there that’s interesting or surprising or different to you?
Craig: I would say no, nothing surprising. Interesting – somewhat interesting. I mean, I think overall it’s pretty positive. I mean, we are basically the third to go. So, the DGA effectively goes first, then SAG/AFTRA is behind them, and then we pull up the rear. So we are ultimately going into a difficult kind of negotiation environment anyway. So much has been set in stone and can’t be undone.
But there are a lot of things that we can work on that are specific to our needs in our union. So just running through the basic summaries, we used to get 3% minimum increases each year. First year, second year, third year of the contract. Those are important because those do set the basics for how writers are paid for the writing specifically and also for residuals. That’s gotten knocked down over time. So one of the things that we can also do is defer a little bit of that increase into our pension as we need to. Our pension was struggling a bit. So it’s good that we took care of that.
The pension, overall, the pension contributions go up. And we get paid parental benefits which is fantastic. I think that’s great news.
John: So we actually had a listener who wrote in about that. Do you want to read what Dagney wrote? Because that clarifies some stuff there.
Craig: Absolutely. Sure. Dagney writes, “I’ve been waiting to have a second child because I’m still in shock of how much financial stress my first maternity leave caused. I decided it was best to not have another child until I was more established in the industry, which I estimated would come when I was 40 or slightly older. I was having to make this hard decision and weigh it against the health of my eggs and any potential fertility problems.
“This new agreement means I no longer have to make that hard decision and it takes a huge weight off my family planning. I wanted to correct a misunderstanding I think Craig had in the last podcast about the WGA maternity leave and why he didn’t think it would necessarily work for DGA and SAG/AFTRA members.
“A WGA writer does not need to be currently employed on a TV show or under a screenwriting deal at a studio in order to be eligible for benefits. That’s why this is so fantastic. Women can take maternity leave between jobs so long as they qualify. This benefit is being paid by a 0.5% contribution from all new employers and will generate approximately $9 million annually to fund maternity leave for new mothers. I think a deal like this is very much doable and needed for the other unions to ensure they can support female directors and actors while they are taking care of their tiny humans.”
Oof, well first of all, Dagney, congratulations on going ahead and planning that next kid. And this is obviously exactly why parental leave is so important. I mean, these are the issues people are wrestling with. I am thrilled to hear that you don’t need to be currently employed to get benefits. I mean, my only consideration about DGA and SAG was really about the actual physical leave. Because that’s going to be a little harder for them to work out if you are in the middle of directing a show. It’s going to be a little hard to work out stopping.
But that’s neither here nor there. It’s a great term. And I think it’s probably – correct me if I’m wrong, John – a basis, right. Like this is the beginning and theoretically it improves over time.
John: That is the hope. Essentially that the same way that we started a pension plan, the same way we started a health plan. This is a beginning step and you sort of see what it is. We see whether $9 million a year is enough to actually have a tangible benefit for new parents. And Dagney says maternity leave here. The reason why we say parental leave is it applies both to male and female members. Obviously I’m not a mother but I would be eligible for a parental leave as well and it would have been helpful for me as a screenwriter when I had my kid 15 years ago.
Craig: [laughs] Yeah.
John: So I think that that point about equity and sort of access is really crucial, too. You want to make sure that women aren’t penalized for having a kid. And I think men taking this parental leave as well, and paid parental leave as well will be important for balancing.
Craig: Yeah. I cannot predict the future. But, that’s not going to stop me from trying. It seems to me that as our society changes and reacts to the realities of the world around us that the sense of taking care of each other is going to improve. I do believe that even though right now it appears – it feels, and for good reason, that we’re living through a time of governmental cruelty that is not going to last. And that this is where things are going.
That we deserve the right to have a family. To have children and not risk our own lives and security. If people in a country are so on the economic edge that they cannot afford to leave for four weeks to have a child or five or six, then we have failed. And so this is a good thing. It’s a good beginning. I do hope that it travels to the other unions.
And there are also some other good things that we got here. We improved the – you know, we’ve been struggling with this whole exclusivity and span protections, a very complicated thing. But basically it goes to the way writers are paid and then kind of held captive. So if you’re paid a certain amount but that certain amount applies over a longer amount of time and you can’t go find another job while you’re not doing stuff–
John: That’s pernicious.
Craig: Yeah. That’s a problem. So we keep chipping away at that situation and improving it as best we can.
John: A term that you’ll hear used a lot is mini-rooms. And mini-rooms is problematic as a term for many, many reasons. But when you are employed on a show that is breaking episodes. Let’s say it’s an eight-week mini-room to sort of put together a small season, one of the things that this new contract is addressing is they cannot then immediately hold you for a long period of time after that. Because there were writers being trapped where they worked for eight weeks and then were unemployable for more than eight weeks.
John: And so that’s not cool. So, there’s new language and rules around that, essentially saying like if they’re going to hold you they have to start paying you right away at the end of those eight weeks.
Craig: Right. There are a few rollbacks in here.
John: There are.
Craig: And those were, again, this is the cost of being last. [laughs] You get what you get and you don’t get upset. So you want to talk us through some of that?
John: Yeah. So one of the biggest rollbacks is in syndication residuals. And so when Craig and I were entering the industry that’s what you kind of really thought about with residuals is that when your show reaches 100 episodes and it’s in syndication that’s just money coming in. And that market has decreased some, but also once SAG and DGA agreed to reduce residuals on those shows there was very little wiggle room to sort of argue about that. And really it comes down to a question of are you going to push to hold onto something that you used to have, or try to really focus on where residuals and where money is coming in in the future?
And so that was the choice. And so syndication residuals got rolled back, so we could hopefully make some gains in streaming and other things that were priorities going forward.
Craig: Correct. And there are other little things like we agreed that first class flights are not required for domestic and international flights of less than 1,000 airline miles. I think we had already given that up in domestic.
John: So from what I understand is that it matters with certain flights within Canada. There’s certain cases where that is a factor. Or, if you’re flying around within Europe that can also be a problem.
Craig: Right. Exactly. So, that is something, again, that I think had been given up by the other unions. Of course, just a reminder everybody is always encouraged to and are allowed to negotiate better terms–
John: For sure.
Craig: For themselves. These are always the basic minimums.
John: I also want to make sure that as we’re talking about rollbacks, things that we stepped back from, we’re also acknowledging the things we stepped back from from our original intentions. So going into this negotiation we had a big list of things that were priorities for us. We talked a little bit about this on the last show which is really looking at how streaming works, how we get paid in streaming, and how streaming residuals work. And there was small progress here, but it was not nearly the progress that we sort of went into this with.
We didn’t make the progress in writing teams and writing partners, which is such a uniquely WGA situation. We’re the only union in which you can hire two people for the cost of one and really exploit that in ways that feels kind of unfair. So we didn’t make progress there.
We didn’t make specific progress in screenwriting. We didn’t make specific progress in comedy and variety. So there was a lot of stuff that didn’t get done that doesn’t look like a rollback but it wasn’t achieved even though we set out to try to do it in this negotiation.
Craig: Yeah. Well there was one tiny thing that happened for feature writers. It’s super tiny, but I suppose it’s something. It’s better than nothing. So there used to be something called the DVD fee for feature writers. When the movie came out on DVD or home video and you were one of the credited screenwriters you got some sort of like DVD commentary payment, even if you didn’t do the commentary which frequently screenwriters weren’t asked to do, and eventually they just changed that to “script publication fee.” And that amount, sorry, was?
Craig: It started at $5,000 and then it’s just been moving up. And it moved up again. It increased by $2,500 so it’s now at $12,500. So, credited screenwriters get another $2,500.
John: Which is not a lot in the big scheme of things, but it could buy you a computer. It could buy you a laptop.
Craig: Sure. It could by you an Acer. You know, you got to factor in the taxes and stuff. But I will say that this is not sustainable. And it’s not sustainable in the face of the fact that there are still pressing matters involving television writers. We know that. And there will continue to be pressing matters involving television writers. There are more television writers in terms of just employment contracts than there are feature contract employment writers. So that’s not going to go away obviously. But we just can’t. We just can’t keep doing this.
So, either feature writers and their essential fundamental issues are going to be addressed soon or I just don’t know what’s going to happen. It can’t continue like this. It’s just – and it’s not that – I understand why it had to be this way this time. It always has to kind of be this way, except at some point you just have to put your foot down and say it can’t be this way anymore. So, I know that we have some feature writer champions in leadership, not the least of which is Michele Mulroney, and I hope that they start now. Essentially if you want to improve the lot of feature writers in our business through negotiations with the companies we have to kind of start now and make it a priority now. Or it just won’t be again. And at that point I think we’re just inviting an enormous amount of apathy and resentment.
John: Yeah. So I think our take home action for writers to do who are WGA members is they should vote yes on this contract.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: But they should also be strongly thinking about sort of what their priorities are for three years from now. And what gains they really want to see made. And you and I are both pushing for gains for screenwriters. As I’ve learned more about what’s happening with comedy/variety writers, recognizing they don’t even have minimums in certain markets. So, making sure that we really are taking a look at everyone who is employed as a writer in film and television, we’re focusing on the needs of the whole membership and not just the biggest chunk of it.
Craig: Correct. And I would ask our television writing friends that while you are struggling with the rapid changes in your business and the way that you’re getting paid and the notion that sometimes you have to write longer and more for less, that that has been – this thing that has emerged of these mini-rooms and exclusivity – that has been the nature of feature writers since you and I got in the business.
Craig: And has been getting worse ever since. So, this sort of emerging problem for television writers has been life for feature writers. So, it’s a little frustrating that it’s getting solved for television writers who are dealing with it suddenly as opposed to feature writers who have always dealt with it. And maybe that’s because feature writers just take it.
Look, our guild has essentially been run by television writers for a long time and we need to address this stuff for feature writers or we’re not really a union. We’re just a television writers union. And by the way if we want to be a television writers union that’s totally fine. But then you got to let the feature writers go and organize and be their own union because, you know, taxation without representation kind of sucks.
So, hopefully that changes. But absolutely this is an easy vote yes. There’s no confusion. We’re not getting a better deal than this one.
John: No, for sure.
Craig: So, yeah. I think you guys got the best you could get.
John: The voting deadline for this is 10am Pacific on Wednesday July 29, 2020. And basically the same on the East as well. So vote. Go vote.
Second bit of WGA news this week was that UTA became the first of the big four agencies to sign a franchise agreement with the DGA, ending the practice of packaging, limiting ownership in production entities, and requiring information sharing with the guild. Also as part of this UTA and WGA are dropping their lawsuits against each other, although CAA and WME are still pending with their lawsuits.
John: So I first got the official word of this, even though I’ve been on the negotiating committee for all of this, I got an email from UTA, my former agency, saying like, “Hey, we signed, it’s great. Fantastic. Welcome back to the UTA family.”
Craig: Oh, you’d already left.
John: I had already left. Yes. I signed my letter and sent that through. WGA sent out details in a second email, so you can read the red-lined agreement which talks you through everything.
On Twitter I was really pushing hard to actually read the red-lined agreement because it’s really simple. Like I think we’re so used to the MBA agreement which is just so massive and is hard to understand.
John: This is actually really short. And so many of the questions I was getting were answered in this contract, in this agreement. So, take a look at the actual agreement. If you’ve been following through you’ll see it’s basically the Paradigm agreement, but the changes to it are that ownership in a production entity is limited to 20%. It had been at 10%. And the opt-out mechanism for if you have a client at an agency who does not want their contracts sent through that opt-out mechanism is different, but there’s an opt out clause there.
Those are the biggest changes.
Craig: Yeah. So the big thing that kicked all this off was packaging. And packaging is bad. We have a pretty great, incredibly optimistic interview or discussion/conversation with Chris Keyser that took place just before this really became official in our divorce from the agencies. And it was about packaging and why packaging is just shitty.
Now, this has taken from where I’m standing way too long. And I can’t blame the guild or UTA, because I don’t know. I can probably say, “Well Jesus, if you were going to say yes to this, why didn’t you just say yes to this back then? It’s so stupid.” But they didn’t. But they’ve said yes to it now.
It’s going to be an interesting thing to see how this functions. So, the 20% ownership is I think probably a pretty good term for them. I think that they have a 20% ownership in – what is that thing that they own?
John: Is it Civic Center Media? I always get confused who owns what.
Craig: I think it’s that. I think they have a 20% ownership stake and I think they got that term so they wouldn’t have to sell any of it. But the big deal is the ending of packaging. So, here’s the interesting question, and this is what I think we’ve got to keep our eyes on now. This is where it gets fun in a not fun way. Ending packaging for writers is a great thing, but you can’t end packaging for just writers. They are ending packaging for all of their clients. They are not packaging stuff anymore.
Obviously everything gets grandfathered in, right?
John: Yeah. And again we have to sort of clarify the frustrating thing of like packaging in the sense of like here’s a writer, here’s a director, here’s an actor, you can still do that, you just can’t then sort of take a fee for that. So packaging fees are the problem. The actual introducing people and putting things together that’s still fine.
Craig: That’s just called being an agent. That’s just representation. But, yes, packaging fees – I believe they have a two-year, from signing of this agreement they have two years to keep packaging stuff, to keep getting packaging fees.
John: Yeah. From June 30, 2022.
Craig: On that day from that point forward they can’t. So what happens is everything that gets packaged from the beginning of time until two years from now works as it always has. After that it doesn’t. At that point the actors and the directors that UTA represents will have to start paying commission, because the benefit of packaging, if there is one, to clients is that they don’t pay 10%.
So, the agency is essentially bilking money out of the companies and saying you don’t have to pay us 10%, which seems like a good deal except it turns out it’s not. So, the question will be what happens to the big money actors and directors who are used to free agenting. It’s a little bit like, you know, I enjoy free Twitter. If Twitter decides to charge me $10 a month tomorrow I’m going to think long and hard because I’m in a love/hate relationship with Twitter anyway. And what if there are other places I can go to that are Twitter but don’t cost money, like CAA or WME?
So the question is how does this ripple forth. If actors and directors kind of want to stay put then I think at that point the writing is on the wall and CAA and WME are going to have to figure this out one way or another. In my mind there is one more agency to go. I know that there are actually three more agencies to go of the big ones – ICM, CAA, and WME. But really there’s one. Well, no, I’m not going to include ICM.
If ICM were to sign next then there would still be one more big agency to go. We need either CAA or William Morris Endeavor. If that happens.
John: So just to clarify one thing here. By the contract we only need one of those three. So, ICM would count. But you’re saying as a practical matter you think it’s more important to get CAA or WME?
Craig: Correct. As a practical matter, and here’s why. There are X amount of writers that are represented at these agencies and of that X amount there is what we’ll call an amount, a smaller but significant number that the agencies are interested in, because they make enough money for the agencies to be interested in.
There are too many of them to be absorbed by UTA. There are not too many of them to be absorbed by UTA and either CAA or William Morris Endeavor. Meaning that if one of those two large agencies signs this thing and ends packaging and welcomes clients back it’s over. The other big agency can either do it or not. It doesn’t matter. Because if they don’t then CAA and UTA will just absorb all of WME’s writer clients. Or, UTA and WME will absorb all of CAA’s writer clients. It’s just inevitable. So, at that point when the next big one falls into place I think it’s over. Then it doesn’t matter what the other ones do. Theoretically if they’re practical and reasonable they will sign. But that’s the big next thing. We’re one away.
We’re one away from ending this very, very long war. And I hope we end it before all this legal stuff goes through, because I don’t we’re doing particularly well in court. And also even if we were it’s enormously expensive. So, hey, CAA, WME, let’s end this. It’s enough already. Let’s just get back to business.
John: There really are no next steps for listeners to do. This is all sort of negotiation that happens with the negotiating committee, with lawyers, with red-lined agreements being passed back and forth. But we’ll, of course, keep an eye on sort of what happens next.
Craig: Yeah. But this was a great thing. I mean, we needed this. We needed something to happen. Look, eventually it was going to happen. Right? We knew that, eventually. I didn’t realize eventually it would be this eventual. But it eventually happened. My god, my new favorite eventually is – did you see the interview, we don’t talk about politics much in here, but did you see the interview with Donald Trump and Chris Wallace?
John: I’ve only seen little snippets. I can’t watch more than 30 seconds.
Craig: It’s spectacular. It’s spectacular. The relevant part here is that Chris Wallace was sort of saying, “You played down the Coronavirus. You said it would miraculously disappear and that has not happened at all.” And Trump said something like, “It will. Eventually it will.” Ooh, OK.
John: Eventually all things, in the fullness of time all things will…
Craig: Yes. The chance of Coronavirus disappearing over eternity is 100%. [laughs] Anyway, but this was a great thing that needed to happen. It finally did happen. So hopefully we get to a similar agreement with one of the two agencies that are going to change things quickly.
John: Cool. All right. Let’s get to our marquee topic. How Would This Be a Movie? So from time to time we ask our listeners to send in their suggestions for stories from the news, or history, so we can discuss How Would This Be a Movie or increasingly a limited series for streaming that Craig can win some BAFTA Awards for.
John: Once again our listeners stepped up, so thank you to everyone who emailed or tweeted suggestions. I’ve picked four of them, but there were many more we could have picked. The first one I want to talk through is something that Kate Williams sent. We’re going to link to a story by Sarah Kaplan writing for The Washington Post. Here is the lead. “Noela Rukundo sat in a car outside her home in Melbourne, Australia, watching as the last few mourners filed out. They were leaving a funeral – her funeral.”
Bum, bum, bum.
John: Dun-dun. It sounds so soap opera, but it happened in real life. So this is a woman whose husband had paid to have her killed while she was back visiting family in Burundi, Africa. And these men who kidnapped her and were supposed to kill her said that they wouldn’t do it. But told the husband that they had done it. She was able to fly home and confront her terrible husband at her funeral.
Craig: Oh, he’s not that bad. [laughs] All he did was pay to have her killed and then go to her funeral and pretend to be sad about it.
So, this is crazy and it feels like, I mean, this is obviously a very tragic thing and a scary thing, but in my mind idea-wise it’s sort of drifting towards comedy.
Craig: There was, it was called Double Jeopardy? Was that what it was called?
John: Ashley Judd?
Craig: Yeah. So she gets convicted for killing her husband and sent to jail/prison. And then it turns out that he had fakes his own death and he’s alive. She is released from prison and basically is allowed to kill him because you can’t try somebody for the same crime twice. Legally that’s not how it works.
Craig: But it reminded me a little bit of that. But it feels a little comedy possibly. Ish.
John: Yeah. So one thing I thought was really interesting about this is because this woman is living in Melbourne, Australia, but she’s from Burundi, Africa, The Washington Post thing had a little interview with her. And unfortunately it had terrible music underneath it, but I want to listen to a little snippet of it because her language is actually really interesting. So, let’s take a listen to her describing what it was like to be at her own funeral.
Noela Rukundo: And the one thing he [unintelligible] everyone crying like a small child. Crying. Oh my wife. I love my wife so much. I can’t believe she left me. Oh, the key to blah-blah-blah. So, [unintelligible] that was believed him because he’s the one who keeps talking to my brother [unintelligible] and my brother said they identified my body [unintelligible]. Yeah. And when he saw me it was, oh my goodness, he just – it’s like he sees a ghost. I don’t know. He was like – he needed some way to hide in himself. And see how he’s screaming and say, “Oh, I’m finished.” He talked to himself, “I’m finished.” And then he talked in his back home language, too. “I’m finished. Noela, you are alive.” I was, “Oh, you’re surprised I’m alive?”
He come, he touched me like two times. He jumped. To make sure I’m still alive with me.
Craig: She’s a very calm person.
John: Yeah, she is.
Craig: Super chill about the fact that her husband tried to have her killed. She just seems really calm about it.
John: Yeah, she does. And also in the story she has like five kids, so maybe like five kids will wear down your drama quotient.
Craig: She’s like, “Ugh.”
John: But I love her use of English. It’s not clear to me whether she learned English in Australia or if she uses English, she used English back in Burundi. But her dialogue is really specific. Her voice is really specific. And so if you’re going to take the story as the story I think finding her voice and being specific with it is going to be so interesting and so crucial to sort of – as a key into what makes this story unique from Double Jeopardy.
Craig: Yes. I don’t really know what to do with this. I mean, I’m thinking about it.
John: Well, here’s the problem. This is a moment.
John: This is a moment. This is a plot point. It’s not actually a plot. And so then you have to figure out well where does the story start. Is it with her meeting this man and sort of all the things? Is it a classic sort of the wrong man sort of situation? Do they mutually hate each other and they sort of both kind of want to kill each other in a War of the Roses way?
To what degree is Australia important? To what degree is Burundi important? There’s probably a way into this so that this becomes a moment in it, but by itself it is not nearly enough of a story because you could put this plot point kind of anywhere along the arc of your story. Like this could be a first act moment. This could be a middle of the second act. This could be a third act moment. There’s lots of things to do and just very few choices have been made for you already.
Craig: Yeah. It’s kind of the worst combination of a high concept in that it’s an overwhelming concept. No matter where you put it suddenly the movie becomes about that. But also it doesn’t give you enough meat then to kind of – it’s its own question and answer, right? Like you tried to kill me, it didn’t work, I’m still alive. The end. There’s nowhere to go from there. It’s just like obviously you go to prison and it’s not like we’re going to fall back in love. Nobody wants to see that.
So, I think it’s over right? It’s crazy but I don’t see the movie there.
John: I think somebody could find the movie there. I think there’s a movie to find there, but it’s really scoping out a whole story which this becomes one little moment in it and figuring out whether Noela and sort of – basically at what point are you starting the story with Noela and where does this fall in the beat of it. And honestly this can’t even be the biggest beat of it. There has to be a character journey that this is a moment in it. You know, Gone Girl which is structured around a woman’s murder by her husband has a really surprising twist so that it’s not just that. And your relationship with the protagonist and antagonist are really surprising.
I think you would need to approach this with that same kind of cleverness.
Craig: Yes. Yes. But uphill. Uphill.
John: Uphill. Uphill climb. This next one I think is the biggest – to me is the biggest candidate for How Would This Be a Movie and I sort of can’t believe I haven’t already seen this as a movie. Do you want to talk us through Project Azorian at all?
Craig: Yeah. Sure. Project Azorian. So back in the day a long, long time ago the Soviets lost a submarine. And this particular submarine had nuclear missiles on it. And the Russians couldn’t find it. Now, when you lose something like that it’s a huge problem because if another country grabs hold of it they suddenly have a ton of your secrets. They can now take apart your missiles and know exactly what the payload is and how far they can go. They can also find all of the – they can unlock the safes and find your launch codes and all sorts of secrets. It’s the last thing you want.
So, the Soviets couldn’t find it and we decided we would. Hence, the CIA hatches Project Azorian. The problem is you’ve got to figure out how to find this sub that is in the bottom of the deep, deep, deep ocean without the – because this is international waters – without the Soviets going, “Oh, we see what you’re doing and we’re going to stop you.”
John: This is the 1970s which is also crucial. So technologies are a little bit limited, but it’s also the height of the Cold War.
Craig: Correct. So, what the CIA does is they essentially come up with a plan to cover their submarine retrieval effort with a story that they’re actually trying to mine the ocean floor for minerals. But that’s not a thing. So, what do they do? They make it a thing. And they actually enlist Howard Hughes as somebody who is designing a ship, the Hughes Glomar Explorer, to mine the bottom of the ocean. They invent an industry, like a startup industry. A little bit like when fracking first started.
Craig: They’re basically saying we’ve figured out a new way to dig up important metals and rare earth. And we’ve built this enormous industrial ship. And in fact the ship contained this massive empty space inside of it called a Moon Pool where they could hide the Soviet sub if they actually got it.
And so begins this cat and mouse game with the Soviets who are like side-eyeing the Hughes Glomar Explorer. They’re like, “What?” And we were like, no, really. And it kind of worked.
John: It kind of worked.
Craig: It kind of worked.
John: So, Tony Robinson sent this in and so we’ll put a link to the BBC story that he sent through. The Wikipedia article on it is also pretty good. So essentially we did find the submarine and we had to have a cover for how we were going to try to get this thing back up. And that’s why we had to build the special ship. We invented this thing of mining for Manganese nodules on the bottom of the ocean floor.
And the cover story was so compelling that several universities started offering courses in undersea mining, which is not a thing. Which I think is just fantastic. And the BBC article goes into the fact that like eventually because of the sort of fake story people said like, “Hey, maybe you could mine stuff undersea.” And so now there sort of is a thing.
John: I think the Howard Hughes of it all is great. There’s definitely cinematic moments where we sort of get the submarine halfway up and then it breaks in half and then we only have part of it. And the Soviets are figuring out what we’re doing. I mean, the obvious recent movie that we can think about that does some of this is Argo.
John: In that you have a cover story for why you’re doing this thing and it’s comedic but there’s also thriller possibilities. Craig, do you see this as a movie?
Craig: It could be a movie. You would have to kind of ratchet up the suspense a little bit. I think the stakes are a bit low for a film. So, in Argo we’re trying to get American hostages out of the country, right?
Craig: In this we’re just looking for secrets. So it’s kind of low stakes. And so you would need to place it sort of in a larger – I think a larger context. It could be perhaps the inspiration for a dramatic, like a fictional movie where the stakes are a little bit higher. But it’s an expensive endeavor so I think it would need to somehow go beyond just a historical drama.
There is one thing that comes out of this story that I don’t think they mentioned in this BBC article. But because of this operation and the Glomar – what a great name. I assume that means like Global Marine or something. Glomar.
Craig: So Glomar actually lends its name to something called the Glomar Response. Do you know what that is, John?
John: I don’t know what that is.
Craig: So I know about this only because it just sort of like popped up a couple of years ago on Twitter. I was reading about the Glomar Response. So in 1975 the LA Times gets wind of this whole thing, Project Azorian and Glomar, and they’re going to write a story. And the CIA goes whoa-whoa-whoa, nope. So, the CIA attempts to clamp down on this. The journalists file a Freedom of Information Act request and it is rejected.
But here’s the interesting part. It is the first use of the following. When they ask for information about the Glomar, the USNS Hughes Glomar Explorer, the CIA replies, “We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the information requested. But hypothetically if such data were to exist the subject matter would be classified and could not be disclosed.” That is the invention of “we can neither confirm nor deny.” It is called the Glomar Response.
John: Wow. That’s amazing. That is kind of great.
Craig: It’s kind of like a good title for the movie, right? We Can Neither Confirm Nor Deny.
John: Project Azorian is also kind of great. Back to the issue of stakes. And I get your concern is that classically we think of sort of like, oh, it’s military, there has to be big stakes. And obviously Chernobyl has giant stakes. But I think we can step back and think about stakes that don’t have to be death and the end of the world in that I can imagine the scenario in which there’s significant tension between the US and the Soviet Union, which there is in the 1970s. And us trying to do this thing and not be caught doing this thing creates the stakes and the tension that you need.
The fact that there are potentially nuclear missiles. There are secrets that are down there. And you have all of the fun of a submarine thriller. And I do love me a submarine thriller.
Craig: Sure. Of course. [Unintelligible] Depth.
John: Yes. You have all of that fun technical challenge with this layer of absurdity and comedy with this fake operation. And you have Howard Hughes who is a great character. You get DiCaprio back in there to play Howard Hughes again. There’s really fun stuff to do here. And all the fun of the 1970s. So, I get your concern that it’s an expensive movie, that it can feel a little bit twee, but I think there’s a movie to be made here that doesn’t have to be quite so serious. That it can actually be like the way that Argo was able to do things of a thriller but also have fun with it.
John: I think there’s a movie here to make that way.
Craig: Well, I think tonally you’re right. You want to keep it kind of on the lighter side because it’s not, you know, we have to stop the missiles from hitting a city. It is more of this kind of bizarre – the thing that comes to my mind is many years ago there was an HBO miniseries, oh, I’m struggling to remember the name. But it was about the Pentagon’s creation and building of the Bradley Troop Carrier, which was an insane boondoggle. And it became this kind of Kafkaesque investigation and the madness of how the Pentagon actually paid for things and what they did to things and how stupid they were and wasteful they were.
It’s kind of awesome. And so in part it’s a little bit of an investigation of the way the government functions. So, because it’s bizarre. The people who think that the CIA is this kind of all-powerful shadowy organization that controls our lives through chem trails and so on and so forth, they’re really missing the more shocking truth which is that it’s just bureaucracy. People sometimes do bizarre things. But if it gave us nothing more than “we can neither confirm nor deny” it would be worth it.
John: Yeah. Let’s talk about characters. It’s not clear from this story who your central characters are. I think Howard Hughes is an ancillary character.
John: It feels like it’s an ensemble. It feels like you’re seeing a bunch of people trying to do their thing, which again works in this genre. We expect this in political thrillers. We expect this also in submarine thrillers. So we can have a bunch of characters who have their own arcs, but it’s not going to be sort of one hero’s journey through this. It doesn’t lend itself very well to that.
Craig: Right. Yes, agreed. I don’t know – you would have to probably invent somebody that was in charge of the whole thing. I don’t know if there is somebody specifically who was in charge of the whole thing. But, yeah, it’s kind of a fun sort of cat and mouse Cold War story. Almost in a way like everybody fails, right? The Soviets lose a nuclear submarine, which they are particularly good at unfortunately. And then we go to enormous lengths to get it and break it in half and lose the second part of it with all the stuff in it. It’s kind of like two superpowers in a drunken slap fight.
John: That’s what it is.
Craig: And, again, it seems like it’s tilting slightly towards comedy.
John: Agreed. All right, our next possible story is a Do it for State. So Dan sent this. It’s about an Instagram influencer who is sentenced for 14 years for a violent plot to steal a domain name. This guy’s name is Rossi Lorathio Adams II. He went by the name Polo. And he ran a series of accounts across Instagram and other platforms known as State Snaps. And this is all while he was attending college at Iowa State University. And so I went to school in Iowa so I know Iowa State.
Craig, this guy and his desire to get the domain name doitforstate.com and threats and violence and actual committing crimes to get this domain name, is there a movie in this?
Craig: No. [laughs] No.
John: I don’t think there is either. But let’s talk about why.
Craig: It’s an interesting concept. So it’s a – I suppose you would call it a modern twist on two people fighting over a thing, like a small thing. So it’s almost a revenge story. In this case there’s a guy named Ethan Deyo who owns the doitforstate.com domain and Adams wants to buy it and Deyo says, “Well, I’ll sell it to you for $20,000. And Adams thought it was too high, so instead he thought what he would is spend less money to hire his cousin, a convicted felon named Sherman Hopkins, Jr. And I feel like if you are named Sherman Hopkins, Jr. the odds of you becoming a convicted felon are about 100%.
So Sherman Hopkins, I mean doesn’t it sound – it’s a great villain name. Sherman Hopkins, Jr. Sherman Hopkins, Jr. breaks into Deyo’s home and threatens him at gunpoint to transfer the name. And it doesn’t work, because what happens is Deyo fights back and after Hopkins shoots him in the leg and then he shoots Hopkins a bunch of times in the chest. They both survive. And Hopkins ultimately gets sentenced to 20 years in prison. And Adams was convicted in a jury trial of conspiracy to interfere with commerce by force.
So, the whole thing centers around how weird it is that people are fighting over something that’s virtual.
John: Yeah. That’s the problem I think ultimately. There’s not a thing you can look at and hold. There’s no MacGuffin that is actually a thing.
Craig: Well, there is one way to think about this which is – the domain name part I think is the problem. It’s just a domain name and people are like, whatever. But there are virtual objects that cost a lot of money. We know that from Warcraft and things like that. There are these special items that people do sell for real money. And there is an interesting version of the old heist film where you’re heisting something that doesn’t actually exist, but yet has great value, as a kind of commentary on the, well, why did diamonds have great value? They’re actually common. They’re common carbon junk. But, you know, we’ve decided they have value.
So, there’s an interesting thought but I think sometimes we get fooled into thinking that modern equals new. It’s not new. It’s just modern. And it feels a little cynical really to – you know what I mean?
John: Yeah. So this past week we had the big Twitter hack where you and I and everybody else who has little blue check marks got locked out of Twitter because shenanigans happening inside Twitter and social engineering had led to Joe Biden’s account and other accounts tweeting out bitcoin things. And it was a stupid plan that just didn’t seem to actually work very well.
I don’t that’s a movie either because while the decisions leading up to it and the investigation around it have characters who are trying to do things and there’s objectives and there’s questions to be answered, there’s not ultimately a thing. You can’t point – there’s kind of nothing to aim a camera at in terms of what the objective is.
John: Even classic heist movies when you have Ocean’s 11, there’s a vault they’re trying to get into. There’s actually a thing that’s there. And there’s obviously misdirects and a lot of things going around, but there’s something you can point to. And there’s nothing you can point a camera at with either of these, other than the cinematic moment of like characters beating each other up and shooting each other in front of a computer.
Craig: Yeah, which we know sucks.
John: It does suck. Lastly, let’s take a look at Battle of Blair Mountain. So Robert Guthrie sent this through. This is an historic event that I was not aware of. So it was the largest labor uprising in the United States history and the largest armed uprising since the American Civil War. This all happens in West Virginia in 1921. It’s five days in 1921. It’s part of the Coal Wars, which were these labor disputes in Appalachia. About 100 people were killed. Many more arrested. There were bombs being dropped out of planes. There was a lot going on here.
And so some of the early parts of the Coal Wars are covered by the movie Matewan which I confess I’ve never seen. There’s not been a movie or miniseries that’s about this Battle at Blair Mountain.
Craig: I think it’s Mate-wan.
John: Is it Mate-wan?
Craig: I think it’s Mate-wan.
John: I’m thinking of Matewan, New Jersey.
Craig: There is a Matewan. I think that’s why I know it’s Mate-wan because I lived near Matewan in Jersey. So I thought it was Matewan and I think it’s Mate-wan. Yeah, I feel like it’s – I mean, that’s a great film. And I think it’s done. I think he did it. Do you know what I mean?
I’ve looked at this stuff. I’ve looked at a few of these things. People will send me things now of like “you should do this.” And I’ve looked at this and it is remarkable. This is somewhat reminiscent also of the whole thing that went down in it was Carnegie and the striking – it was iron workers I think. And the Pinkertons. So there actually were wars that would go on between these private militias and working men and women, in which people died.
You know, he did such a good job I thought, John Sayles, of making it beautiful and personal. I don’t know if there’s a straight-ahead kind of historical thing to watch here that would be better than documentary or more valuable than a documentary.
John: That’s a good point. The only reason why I wanted to put it on here to discuss is that I look back to Watchmen and what Damon’s show was able to do in terms of framing Tulsa and the massacre at Tulsa. And that was an event that I wasn’t aware of. And I think most Americans weren’t aware of. And realized like, oh, that actually happened?
I think sometimes you need the big fictional recreation of those things to realize like, oh wait, we actually bombed American workers and it doesn’t land unless you actually see it portrayed.
Craig: Right. To that extent this could be an interesting element of something, the way that Tulsa was an interesting element of Watchmen. They used Tulsa as the original sin that blossoms out into what it eventually becomes. And in doing so also educated people about something that was very real that happened that we don’t look at normally. And this is another one of those things.
It’s also the source of Mother Jones.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: So there’s Mother Jones Magazine. It’s a well-known liberal political publication. And Mother Jones was one of the leaders in this group. She was one of the people that was involved in this. And tried to stop the war from happening. And failed.
John: Yeah. So, Craig, if we can’t get this movie, can we at least get a Ragtime musical movie?
Craig: Oh, I would love that so much.
John: I would love that so much.
Craig: So much.
John: So much. That’s what I want.
Craig: Maybe the best opening song of any musical.
John: Oh my god. Incredible.
Craig: Just like–
John: All the pieces moving together.
Craig: Everything. It’s just like, boom, here we go. It’s so good. Yeah, there should be a Ragtime musical. Where’s that? Where is it?
John: I’ve had some conversations. I don’t know if it’s ever going to happen.
Craig: Well, you should. I mean, you should do it. It’s such a beautiful show and I think more relevant than ever.
John: Oh yeah. In terms of what is the American–
John: What are the goals of the American Project?
Craig: That’s right. Exactly. And taking a look at the American Project not just focusing on white people.
Craig: And the music is spectacular.
John: It’s really good. So, these were four things we picked, but I want to quickly recap things we didn’t pick because there are also interesting ideas there. Someone pitched a Roger Stone biopic. Someone wanted a spoofed Genghis Khan biopic. Genghis Khan is such a challenging figure to do. But I think a spoof may in fact be, I don’t know if that’s better or worse.
Craig: Funny-con. Sure.
John: Sure. Chinese American immigrants being forced to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. It does seem weird – maybe there is a movie about Chinese workers and the railroad, but it feels like it’s such a big part of our history. It’s weird that there’s not one that I can think of. How the Lone Ranger was based off the real life story of Bass Reeves, a freed slave who protected the Wild West. That’s, again, kind of in Watchmen.
Craig: Yes. And there are many Bass Reeves projects out there that have been brewing for a long time. I think I know like eight different people that are working on a Bass Reeves thing, so that’s going to happen eventually.
John: Megana’s pick for this segment was Is LA’s Trendiest Brunch Spot Serving Horrible Moldy Jam?
Craig: Ooh. Why didn’t we do that? I mean, that’s not a movie, but still.
John: It’s not a movie at all.
Craig: Oh my god. This is amazing. I mean, do they do it on purpose?
John: Not on purpose, but basically it’s a restaurant that’s known for its homemade jam. But the problem is like the people who actually work in the restaurant and they’re like there’s this mold growing over all the jam. They’re just scraping the mold off.
Craig: Well, yeah, because I mean homemade jam I suppose is basically like agar right?
John: It is.
Craig: The perfect growth.
John: It’s a petri dish for that.
Craig: But if you’re using preservatives and things, which I’m sure all the large companies do, then the mold doesn’t grow there. But they don’t, and so, yeah. This is one of those things where honestly sometimes all natural, it’s like, no, mold is all natural. So, enjoy your stomach ache.
John: Enjoy your mold. Several people sent through this really good Wired article about Marcus Hutchins, the hacker who saved the Internet. It’s a really good article. It’s just really, really long. There’s a thousand ways into it, so I just didn’t pick that.
The Real Story of What Happened When Six Boys Were Shipwrecked for 15 Months. So we are used to Lord of the Flies, but historically when there was a real life Lord of the Flies situation they didn’t turn on each other. There wasn’t all sort of what we expect about the worst of humanity. They got along great.
John: And they worked together.
Craig: No cannibalism.
John: And a Teenage Girl Gang that Seduced and Killed Nazis.
Craig: I feel like this comes up every week, right?
John: Yeah. Actually we have done this in a previous segment about sort of like these young women who would seduce and kill Nazis.
Craig: I mean, I salute them.
John: Absolutely. 100% endorse what they do. I think punching Nazis, great too.
John: Totally. Let’s answer some listener questions.
Craig: All right.
John: Spratzen wrote in to say, “A friend who is a working studio screenwriter was recently asked by an exec to come up with a pitch for a family film centered around the UNO card game. I said he shouldn’t do it, or he should write his own script based on Crazy 8s. Did we learn nothing from the Emoji Movie?”
Craig: Well, the Emoji Movie offered the writers vastly more than the UNO card game would. That’s just stupid. And this is why I sometimes despair. And I will say, I mean, look, that executive was asked by somebody else to do this. It wasn’t like that executive woke up that morning and went, oh my god, I’ve got it. UNO.
Somebody in a corporate room said, “Give me a list of our products that have a built-in awareness and therefore go make a movie out of it.” You know what? I’ll tell you this much. Lord and Miller could do it. Chris Miller and Phil Lord could absolutely figure out how to make a great UNO movie. Other than those two people, no. It’s not doable.
John: I have friends who have been working on the Monopoly Movie, which at some point got close to being made.
John: I was also talking with another young screenwriter who was going in to pitch on – I don’t want to spoil what it is, but it’s basically a childhood playground game. And the producers had asked her to pitch on that. And what I will say is that when you have something like that that is just so, god, there’s nothing here, it does force the kind of like, OK, how do I take this thing that does not have any natural story hooks and find a way into it.
John: So, I get that. Examples I’ve used on the blog for many, many years, I’ve always said the Slinky Movie, because the Slinky is the least story-driven thing you could imagine. Basically it just walks down stairs. That’s all it can do.
Craig: Right. It’s a coil.
John: It’s a coil. It’s a coil of metal or plastic.
Craig: Yeah. They are interesting from a kind of sheer puzzling point of view. And I have had experiences, a number of experiences, working in movies where somebody has given me a puzzle like that and I’ve said, OK, I accept your puzzle challenge. And I try and do it. And I think I do. I have found a solution to this puzzle. But that doesn’t mean anyone is going to actually want to sit in a theater and watch the solution to the puzzle. It just means you solved it.
John: That’s really what it comes down to is that basing your movie around the property of UNO, you’ve sold zero tickets. It gives you nothing.
Craig: I feel like there’s probably like one of those families with like the 20 kids where they are all going to – they’re like, “When is the UNO movie coming out?”
John: When my daughter was in grade school she had a friend who was obsessed with UNO and had all the different variants of UNO.
John: But he’s one kid.
Craig: Yeah. And even he might be like, “Ah, I don’t need to see the movie.”
John: “They’ve taken everything that was good about UNO and they’ve ruined it. They’ve ruined the source material.”
Craig: “Do they even play UNO? Do they get it?” Yeah, that’s just silly. Camilla writes, “I just listened to the collapsing scenes episode and something I always get conflicted in the process of writing is when should I start collapsing. For instance, some people say that the first draft is a vomit draft and we should write throughout the end and only afterwards we start fixing. But sometimes I can already see things that will probably need collapsing and compressing and I have this urge to start rethinking them right away. Starting the fixing this early feels counterproductive because I’ll have to rewrite after I finish anyway. But it also feels counterintuitive to not do the fixing because it keeps buzzing in my head that it could be better and I should fix it right now.
“What I’m wondering actually is in which phase should we focus on collapsing?” And now Camilla you will get two completely different answers.
John: [laughs] I think – I don’t know that our answers are really that different. If as you’re writing stuff you recognize this does not work, I have three scenes to do, one scene works, I think it is generally the right choice to stop and fix it then, because you’re not doing yourself a favor by plowing through to the end and going back to do work – you don’t want to finish a script that you just know inherently, OK, all these things don’t work. Try to get through a script where it represents your best intention at that moment of telling the story. And don’t put off those decisions too long.
And so I’d say collapse as needed. And a lot of times I will be collapsing in the middle of a day’s work because I realize like, OK, I have been trying to do this as three scenes. It doesn’t want to be three scenes. It needs to be one scene, so I’m just going to do that work now. Craig, I suspect you are a similar writer?
Craig: For sure. And I think part of it has to do with how you begin your process before the actual writing occurs. Are you a big outliner? Are you an index card person? Are you a treatment person? So the more you know going in the less I think of this draft as the first draft. I don’t really think of a first draft as a first draft. My goal is when I write “the end” and hand over something in script format in theory you should be able to shoot it and get something pretty good. That’s my goal for that. So, I do so much of the kind of pie in the sky thinking and blue sky thinking and all the other sky thinking analogies before I start doing the writing. When I’m writing, if I feel like things should be collapsed down or if I realize something is broken I stop. And I fix it.
Because I find that it is all – if everything is going to be unified and feel like it’s part of one whole beautiful thing that was always this way as opposed to being assembled, then the more you build on top of something you know is wrong the more wrong everything will be.
So, don’t be afraid of that. Look, Camilla, here’s the deal. If you find that you’re so obsessed with that stuff that you can’t move forward and you just keep treading water in the same spot, that’s not good obviously. Right? But if you are like, look, I need to spend three days fixing these ten pages. They’re not correct. Or these scenes. And then I can move forward. That’s writing. That’s great. It’s actually an excellent sign that you are thinking the way a writer thinks.
John: Yeah. Here’s an analogy I’ll try out. Let’s say you are a mason and your job is to build a chimney. And as you start to build the chimney you’re five feet up and you realize, oh crap, there is a problem two feet down lower. This one brick is in the wrong place and the whole thing is sloping a little bit. You could keep building the rest of the chimney, but it’s just going to get more and more out of alignment. So you’ve got to go back, take those bricks back, fix that brick and build it up straight.
As a screenwriter you’re going to go back and replace those bricks 100 times again, but fix those problems when you recognize them because it will only get things more out of whack down the road.
Craig: Yeah. You are right to say that you will be rewriting later, but there’s a difference between rewriting something that is pretty broken and rewriting something to take something that is good and making it better. That’s where you want to live, right? The “it’s broken/fix it” only gets you to I guess neutral, right? So, yeah, I think you’re thinking about it the right way. If you feel that desire, listen to that desire. You’re probably right.
John: Yeah. Alec asks, “Do you have any tips for writing stories that suggest the film will be low budget/high profit margins? Some answers come to mind, like fewer shot locations, collapsing scenes, fewer actors. But I would love to hear your thoughts on writing projects that are low budget but suggest a high profit margin.”
Craig: Well, you’ve got the big ones there. So the movie that comes to my mind is Saw. Saw is kind of the best version of this I can think of. You’re in essentially one room. There are a few other scenes. You’re essentially in one room. That means that you are able to shoot a ton in one spot. You don’t have to build multiple sets, nor do you have to find multiple locations and drive around to get there. There are two actors throughout almost everything. So your cast is limited down to two people.
And because they’re in a room they’re also mostly talking. There aren’t going to be a lot of visual effects. There’s not going to be a great need for tons of cameras either.
So, those are the big ones.
John: Yeah. But what I will say is you can come up with this concept and you can pitch this concept and maybe you get hired to write this concept. It doesn’t mean that the movie is actually going to make a ton of money. These movies that are super cheap to make, they are lower risk in general, although if they are actually going to be released all the costs of releasing that movie could be quite a lot higher than the actual budget of the thing itself.
John: So I would just stress that underlying advice behind everything is write the movie that you want to see. And if that movie you want to see is a Saw, is a Blumhouse kind of feature, fantastic. Those things are easier to get made than the big expensive things. But don’t write it just because you think that’s the easy thing to get made, because that’s not what you should be writing.
Craig: Yeah. You can really only control the budget. You can’t control the profit margin. The audience is going to control the profit margin. And remember that while making stuff for little money, hoping for large reward is a good strategy for a company that makes many, many movies, it’s a bad strategy for an artist because you’re only making one. Even if 99% of the time that works, if you roll a one on your D100, you lose. Right? There’s no ability to amortize.
So I think you should make low budget movies when you have a low budget. That’s what I think you should do.
John: Do you know another way to make a low budget movie is to not pay the writer very much. That’s another thing.
Craig: Oh god, don’t do that.
John: But realistically, there’s a reason why Craig and I aren’t hired to write low budget movies is that we are expensive as writers.
Craig: Yeah. And also I detest low budget. I actually prefer – yeah, no, I’m imagining that in those cases Alec is probably the writer and maybe director as well.
John: We’ll end here with Scott. Scott writes, “You all talk about Birth of the Nation and how awful it is, so what is the first good movie?”
Craig: I don’t know.
John: And I don’t have an answer for that. I don’t want to reveal my ignorance of film history.
Craig: The Great Train Robbery. [laughs]
John: Sure. Let’s throw this out to our listeners. So please write in with your suggestions. What is the first movie that was made that you can hold up and say like this is still a good movie? If you watch this movie it meets the modern requirements of what a good movie is. I’m curious what our listeners think the first good movie that was made is. And it doesn’t obviously have to an English movie either.
So, tell us what the first good movie is.
Craig: I would guess maybe like a Chaplin film.
Craig: Maybe a Chaplin film. I don’t know. I don’t know. You know what? I hate the whole best movie thing anyway. Birth of a Nation just sucks. But I never know how to rank things.
John: Well, it doesn’t have to be ranked though. I would say what is an early movie that you can watch and say, oh, that is still an actually genuinely good movie and it’s not just a good movie in the sense of like it’s important for film history–
Craig: But that you actually want to watch it. As a silent film. Because I would imagine we’re really saying what’s the first silent film that you think, wow, that actually really is still super watchable and great.
John: Cool. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is Swift UI and Swift Playgrounds. So for the Mac and for iOS, so my company builds Mac and iOS applications, the underlying programming language which you use for all Apple products is called Swift. Last year they introduced Swift UI which is a new way to create the user interface elements for your applications, so it’s all the buttons and the windows and sidebars and how all that stuff works so that it looks right and works well.
It was a really clever way that they do it. It’s a very simple programmatic way of describing what you see on the screen and what those interactions should be.
So this last year at the WDC they introduced a lot of new stuff to it and really made it quite a lot more powerful. But it’s also really simple in the way that Hyper Card was for me back in the day. You can actually play around with it and see like, oh, this is how I do these things. And it’s been really exciting to play with. So I’ve been able to mock up some applications that we may end up building down the road.
And if you don’t want to download all of X-Code which is the big application which is scary for building professional things, there’s a thing called Swift Playgrounds which works on your iPad or on your Mac that you can build these really sophisticated little things in sort of a playground environment and windows and buttons and things that do cool things and really feel like an application you’d be delighted to use on a daily basis.
So, if you’re interested in programming at all, if you’re a person who has done some web stuff but have been curious about building applications, I really think Swift UI would be a great way for you to explore building some applications. It’s very, very clever stuff that Apple has introduced.
Craig: That’s excellent. Apple, by the way, I guess no longer using Intel chips in anything. Is that the deal? Leaving all that behind, right?
John: They announced a transition for the Macintosh to move it to the same family of processors that they make for iOS, for iPhones and for iPads and such. And so our lead coder Nima now has one of the test kit computers that does not have an Intel chip in it at all. And so the good news is that Highland and all the apps we make they already work on the new hardware. So, that’s great.
Craig: I’m sure Final Draft, they’ll [unintelligible].
John: 100%. First day, you know.
Craig: Final Draft was built on a Babbage machine. Do you know what that is?
John: I do know. Those old things, basically like a loom. Good stuff.
Craig: That’s one of the best things I’ve ever said about Final Draft.
OK, so my One Cool Thing is a gif. Now, do you say Gif or Jif?
John: I say gif with a hard G.
Craig: Well, you’re right. You’re correct. And I know that the inventor of the Gif says it’s Jif, but it’s wrong. It doesn’t matter if he invented it. You know what he didn’t invent? Phonetics. Gif stands for Graphic Interchange Format. Graphic. Not Juraphic. But graphic. It’s Gif. Anyway.
John: If you put a T on it it’s Gift. That’s how–
Craig: Thank you. Exactly. If you put an A in there it’s Gaffe. Anyway, point is one of my favorite gifs, I’m sure you’ve seen this John, is Alonzo Mourning, well let me describe it for you since you don’t know who Alonzo Mourning is.
John: No. I don’t.
Craig: He’s a basketball player. And he is shaking his head sort of in just disappointment and then sort of goes, wait, you know what, but actually I get it. Have you seen this gif? Do you know what I’m talking about?
John: I don’t know that I have seen this gif, although it’s reminding me a lot of the young woman who is tasting Kombucha for the first time.
Craig: Oh no. That woman is the best. That’s a whole other level. But this one, let me just send it to you now so you can see what I’m talking about. Alonzo Mourning Gif.
John: Yeah. It’s fantastic.
Craig: Yeah. So Alonzo Mourning, this is why I love this one. I mean, first of all, a little bit of context. Alonzo Mourning played for the Heat. This was all the way back in 2006. This is quite old. 14 years.
The Miami Heat had won the championship the season before. So they were the returning champions, right? This is like welcome back to dominate yet again. And they’re playing the Chicago Bulls. And this is their first game and it’s the fourth quarter and they’re down by 30 points, which John is quite a bit in basketball.
John: That’s a lot. Even I know that.
Craig: They’re getting crushed. And he’s sitting there and he’s doing something that I think we don’t have a word for. Maybe the Germans do but we don’t. Which is just disbelief followed by acceptance. Like he’s going – this – I don’t understand, no, you know, actually I do understand how this happened. I guess, you know, we suck. Yeah, it happened.
It’s an amazing expression. And gifs are really good at kind of encapsulating expressions or feelings that we don’t have single words for. But this one, I just wanted to single out even though, you know, it’s not like it’s a new thing, but it is a cool thing because more maybe than any other gif it illustrates that we need a word for.
John: Mm-hmm. Here’s the other thing I think is useful to be thinking about with gifs is that so often in screenwriting we are trying to find words for things and really an actor’s face will do a lot of that work for us. And so we would have a hard time writing dialogue that would sort of get this feeling across. But seeing it in his face – it’s a little bit clipped at the end, but you see it in his face. You kind of get it.
Craig: You kind of get it. And it’s one of the reasons why I’ve become such a fan of writing dialogue in action. Because I know – if there’s a line where I know that I can get the vibe of this from your face. I don’t want you to say it, I just want you to be thinking it evidently. It really is helpful. In a way you’re prompting your actors to give you gifs.
Craig: Which is wonderful.
John: Act more like a gif.
Craig: Act more like a gif. Gif it up.
John: Cool. That is our show for this week, but reminder to stick around if you’re a Premium member because we will be talking about 2020: The Movie and where do we even begin with 2020: The Movie. But for this episode, Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro is by James Llonch and Jim Bond.
If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. We have t-shirts and they’re great. You should get them at Cotton Bureau. There’s a link in the show notes.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you find the transcripts.
You sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments. You even get a cool new welcome message if you join now that Craig and I recorded last week. So, something to look forward to.
And that’s our show. Craig, thanks.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: Craig, 2020: The Movie.
John: What is the trailer? What does it even feel like? There’s too many story options in 2020. So should we divide it into categories? I don’t even know where to begin with the kinds of things that are happening in 2020.
Craig: I think the 2020 trailer begins with a couple at a New Year’s Eve party. It’s 2019. Everyone says they’re counting down. Happy New Year. And they kiss. And then the guy or the girl or the guy and the guy, they look at each other and then one of them says, “I think it’s going to be a great year.”
John: I think it’s going to be a great year.
Craig: And then the camera just moves past them and you see on TV it says 2020. And that’s when Jordan Peele’s “I got five on it” comes on. And you realize that everyone is dying. Everyone is going to die.
John: Yeah. Everyone is going to die, but also systems are going to break down. But then hopeful systems are going to sort of rise up. The political scandals will be immense. Do you remember that we impeached the president? Do you remember that was a thing that actually also happened.
Craig: Huh. When was that? Which year of 2020 was that in?
John: Exactly. There’s far, far too much. So let’s talk about the different kinds of what’s happening in the world right now. What things down the road become movies? And so will there be a movie about aspects of the Coronavirus, aspects of this pandemic?
Craig: There will be movies that use the, one of my more hated phrases, “Take place set against the backdrop of…”
Craig: There will be a backdrop. A Coronavirus backdrop. We’re going to see that, it will be as prominent as that weird gray backdrop they use for commercials where people sit on a stool and talk about yogurt. We’re going to get a lot of Corona backdrop.
John: We’ve seen shows try to do special things during this pandemic. So, Parks and Rec was out early with an episode that took place during the Coronavirus. 30 Rock did a special episode which I genuinely loved, which was a promo for the Peacock launch. I really loved the special episode they did. And Tina Fey is just so, so smart. The whole cast is so talented. And it was weird to see how much progress had been happening in how we film stuff ourselves.
And so the whole cast was able to film themselves and put together a credible episode of 30 Rock even in the context of all this. It wasn’t just people staring at Zoom the entire time.
So that’s a TV show. That’s not a movie. The movie version of Coronavirus is not Pandemic, or Contagion or any of those things because it’s been just so slow and so mismanaged. And there’s moments of crisis but it’s more just like, I don’t know, it’s tough. Because you could make a black comedy version of it, but the whole world lived through it and knows that it wasn’t funny.
Craig: Correct. And this is what’s challenging about that. And the Band Played On is fascinating because most people in the United States were straight and unaffected by AIDS. And then somebody else came along and said we’re going to tell you this story that you haven’t been watching, that you haven’t been looking at, or you think you knew, or just were purposefully ignoring, and look at what happened. And there were quite a few movies that came out following the AIDS crisis that illustrated what it did to people. Early Frost I think was one.
So there were a ton of these things. But partly they were bundled also with a kind of emerging gay rights movement and a desire to be recognized and normalized as human beings. The Coronavirus, everybody knows what it is, and I don’t know what – you don’t need to draw their attention to it. People are being drowned in Coronavirus stories. And Facebook, which of course has ruined the world, firehoses a volume of nonsense into people’s faces every day about Coronavirus, some of which might mistakenly be accurate. But most of which is nonsense.
And so I don’t know if anybody would ever – I feel like if somebody said we’re doing a movie about the Coronavirus crisis that people would just riot.
John: I remember I got a call about doing a movie about legalization of gay marriage and it was all centered around the Supreme Court decision. And the producers were so excited. It’s like, oh, we should have a gay writer write this thing because it’s such an important thing. And, OK, as a person who was actually involved with the lawsuit from the very start, I can tell you that there’s not a movie to make about this. And it’s not that these plaintiffs were particularly the most heroic people in all this. They were the face of this thing, but there’s not a simple straightforward movie to make. The Supreme Court victory, while important, was not the cinematic moment here. And that feels like the problem with the Coronavirus movie as well. There’s not a thing to latch onto.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, sometimes with these movies the problem is that there’s just a right answer. So, what was interesting about And the Band Played On was that it wasn’t always just the right answer. I mean, you could see how for instance the gay community in San Francisco kind of screwed up early on. They were deadest against closing the bathhouses, because they didn’t know what was coming, right? I mean, nobody understood what HIV was. Nobody had ever seen that. And they had every reason to be paranoid about the government trying to shut them down.
So, there were these conflicts. There was also serious conflicts between doctors who were trying to figure out what was actually causing this. It was a mystery. Nobody knew.
Well, we know what Coronavirus is. And we also know what’s correct. There’s not really – I mean, there is this side of people that are nuts, but everybody knows they’re nuts, which makes them boring. If you think that a mask is somehow limiting your freedom you’re just an idiot and you’re boring. You’re not a good villain. It’s no fun to watch.
It’s like when I saw Loving. Did you see Loving?
John: I never saw Loving. This is Loving vs. Virginia. So it’s a recent biopic.
Craig: Right. So it’s about the couple that led to the decriminalization of interracial marriage. And so that would be fairly analogous to a gay marriage movie. You’re like, yeah, they’re right. And the other people are bad and wrong. So, I’m going to watch it and I salute them, but also they’re just wrong. The good people are good and the bad people are bad. That doesn’t make a great story.
John: So, going back to this notion of there’s one community knows about a whole thing that’s happening and the rest of the world doesn’t know about it, Black Lives Matter and sort of the protests over George Floyd feels like that kind of moment happened in 2020, where something that was incredibly obvious to the Black community for decades and generations was suddenly very visible to a white population that had never really wrestled with it.
So, what are the – as we’re looking at movies that come out of the events of 2020, I can imagine there are movies that are going to be about aspects of that. That are about sort of not necessarily the protests but the actual changes around it, the specific moments, the new leaders who emerge from it. I feel like there’s some story/movie to be made about that.
Craig: Possibly so. Seems like good fodder for metaphors. Literary artistic metaphors and analogies. I mean, if you were to–
John: Like how The Crucible is about McCarthyism?
Craig: Right. Exactly. Like if you were to do a story, kind of a horror movie story where there are ghosts. But only Black people see them. Right? Only Black people see these ghosts that are dangerous and harmful and can kill you. And they keep warning us and nobody listens to them. And one day we all see the ghosts.
See what I mean? There’s a way to analogize what is the perniciousness of racism and the inability of white people to see it. And then suddenly they see it. And then they act like, “Oh my god, did you know that there were ghosts?” [laughs] It’s like, “We Were Telling You!”
There’s ways to analogize these things so that you’re not just saying to people we’re going to tell you that racism is bad. Because what it comes down to is people that know that racism is bad already know it. And the people that don’t know it aren’t going to go see that movie because they’re racists. So what do you do?
So you have to fool them a little bit with art.
John: Yeah. The way that the Marvel movies have always been about sort of marginalized people coming together to reclaim their power.
Craig: Or the use of state power to combat terrorism and vis-à-vis civil liberties and all the rest.
John: Yeah. Finally, we can’t talk about 2020 without sort of the central character in this who is Donald Trump and how do we use him in movies about this time? I think one of the first movies we’ll see that has him as a character in it will be Billy Ray’s Comey movie.
John: But it’s hard to imagine there won’t be other stories about this time that need to have him in there as a character. And it’s going to be weird and tough. The same way that I feel like it’s hard to stick Hitler in a movie. It’s going to be weird to put Trump in some of these movies.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, Trump is boring. This is the problem with Trump. He has five phrases that he says over and over. He’s boring. He’s stupid. And everybody knows it. So what do you do with a guy like that? I mean, Hitler said all sorts of things. [laughs] You know, I mean, I’m not a Hitler fan as you might imagine, since he killed a lot of my relatives. But he was certainly smarter than Donald Trump.
So Donald Trump is actually rather boring. I wonder if maybe what we’ll start to see are the stories of people that could be good, who could have been noble and done the right thing and failed.
Craig: So you start seeing profiles in cowardice. And what does that look like. Lindsay Graham is a guy that somebody is going to write one hell of a movie about one day.
John: Yeah. Absolutely. When we know what was really happening. Because we can all see from the outside, OK, something is going on there. There’s some pressure being applied.
Craig: I think we have a general sense of what it might be.
John: I think we have a general sense. I do feel like at some point we’re going to know more about the Republican hacks the same way the Democratic hacks and what leverage was being put against people. Or even if it wasn’t actual leverage, the fear that something could be applied against them informed their decision making.
Craig: Yeah. We’re going to find out one day. It’ll all come out. It always does. That, I think, will be fascinating. Because Trump really is as interesting to me as snow. It’s sort of like, well, it’s snowing again. Oh, god, I’m going to have to clean off the car because the snow is happening. Or, Donald Trump is on TV saying that he knows more than anyone and we’ll have to see and people are saying and everyone knows.
John: What I think will be good about whatever those movies are is that there are so many thematic through lines to be able to pick. You can just choose what theme do I want to explore and you can explore in that. So the degree to which one small decision rolls into the next decision. Or you lose your morality bit by bit. I think you can find really interesting ways to look at human nature in terms of how they’re dealing with the crisis with him or the crisis of Black Lives Matter or the crisis of the pandemic.
Again, we’ll always need to focus on what is the human story we want to tell against these backdrops.
Craig: Yeah. I’m kind of interested in the story of someone who perhaps goes to work for Donald Trump, I’m saying a real person, actually I have one in mind, who goes to work for Donald Trump with the internal understanding that they have a chance to perhaps prevent terrible things from happening and maybe guide Donald Trump towards something better and be an adult and keep a governor on the whole process. And then slowly but surely loses them self. You know, they came to do one thing and then they just – suddenly they’re gulping Kool-Aid down because they get tired of being attacked and yelled at by everybody else.
You become embattled and embittered. And suddenly it’s an us-versus-them and you buy into the whole thing and now you are part of the problem. That’s an interesting development to witness.
John: Yeah. Something I suspect I read on Twitter is I’m really curious whether right now in Trump’s reelection campaign there are individuals who are actively trying to sabotage it. And if so, how would we even know? In that you have a person who is so chaotic and so – any decision you make could be justified based on well that’s what the president wants because the president has no ability to think strategically or think ahead. And related to all of this is when this is all over who is going to claim that they were a person on the inside trying to undermine him?
Craig: Well, first of all, screw all of them for that.
Craig: I think if there’s anybody trying to sabotage Donald Trump’s campaign from inside they have very difficult competition in Donald Trump himself who just every day I assume sends his campaign people to their beds swallowing Xanax and just waiting for it to all be over. Because he’s impossible. He’s impossible.
And, look, who knows. He might win again. Right?
John: He might. Yeah.
Craig: He won that other time.
John: He absolutely could.
Craig: He might win again. And in that case he sort of “proves them all wrong.” Except that they weren’t wrong. He’s bad for everybody. What they’re really trying to do is steer him towards being more like the president they wish he were. But he’s not. He’s not.
John: They won’t change him.
John: That’s the thematic thing we learned most about 2020 is the events of the world don’t change people.
Craig: Good lord. No. Well, you know what?
John: Black Lives Matter, I think they actually did change some people.
Craig: People are changing. And then there was this fascinating thing that occurred the other day where Chuck Woolery was confronted by reality. It is amazing to me to watch people finally get hit in the face by the cold fish of truth.
So he was one of these Trumpety dos who insisted that COVID was a hoax and not real and overblown and all the scientists are lying to us. And specifically he said it’s being exaggerated by the media to undermine Trump. And then his son got it. And suddenly he was saying this is very real and it’s very serious and I’m leaving Twitter forever. Goodbye.
Well that sounds like truth arrived. And it is remarkable to me how many people in this country are incapable of accepting truth until it personally impacts them. Personally. It’s like they don’t believe that, I don’t know, driving without a seatbelt is a problem until someone in their family goes through a windshield. It’s the weirdest thing. I can’t explain it. I don’t understand it. But it’s part of our culture.
John: It’s the crisis of empathy. The inability to picture someone else in your situation or you’re being in someone else’s situation.
Craig: Yeah. And I don’t know if it’s that they can’t empathize or if they are just – they dehumanize certain groups. Like they don’t really care if something happens to “liberals” or people in the blue states, or Black people.
John: Protestors in Portland.
Craig: Or protestors in Portland. Because those people are less than anyway. It’s when it happens to real people, like they always talk about real America which just basically means ME. They’re like, “I’m real. And it hasn’t happened to real people yet.”
Craig: [Sighs] This movie sucks.
John: Thanks Craig.
Craig: Thank you, John.
- WGA Studio Summary
- WGA Studio Agreement
- UTA WGA Deal
- Wife crashes own funeral to confront husband who paid to have her killed by Sarah Kaplan
- Project Azorian by David Shukman
- Instagram influencer sentenced to 14 years for violent plot to steal domain name by Nick Statt
- Battle of Blair Mountain
- Swift UI and Swift Playgrounds
- Disbelief Followed by Expression: Alonzo Mourning Gif
- Get a Scriptnotes T-shirt!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by James Llonch (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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