The original post for this episode can now be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 466 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show it’s not just the US Postal Service that’s straining under the volume of mail. Craig and I have to tackle our overflowing mailbag and answer some long delayed listener questions on subtext, divorce, set decoration, and more. More, more.
And in our bonus segment for Premium members we will talk about head shots and our experience getting our photos taken.
Craig: Overflowing mailbag sounds dirty.
John: It does sound a little dirty.
Craig: I’m not saying that Sexy Craig is going to show up or anything, but he almost showed up. Just because, I don’t know.
John: Thank you for keeping him at bay.
Craig: No problem. I mean, listen, I’ve been taking meds.
John: I mean, we’re already in the middle of a pandemic. We don’t need Sexy Craig.
Craig: He is a super spreader if there ever was one.
John: I don’t think he respects social distance. I’m just saying. [laughs]
Craig: At all.
John: All right, before we get to our mailbag questions, there’s actually some news this week. So this week it came out that a bunch of high profile agents and former agents had banded together to form a new management company which frustratingly doesn’t seem to have an official name yet, but their slide deck says Moxie, so we’re going to call them Moxie for the rest of this episode.
John: There’s also a different management company that formed. So I want to talk about management companies. I want to talk about this company. I want to talk about what they’re trying to do and how it fits in and how writers should pay attention. We’re going to link to two articles about Borys Kit in the Hollywood Reporter. But to sort of summarize the agents who are part of this venture are from WME, CAA, UTA, so big agencies. Some are lit agents. Some are talent agents. But if you look at the client list of who they were representing there’s a lot of overlap. So like SNL writer-performers, or Danny McBride. There’s that kind of people.
The sort of ring leader behind this Moxie thing is Peter Micelli who went from CAA to E1, which was a studio of a type that is owned or co-owned by Hasbro which owns D&D, so of course Craig and I care a lot about this.
And complicating all of this is that one of the people behind this company is Steve Cohen who is a billionaire and hedge fund trader who is also a big Trump donor, so there’s also issues of sort of who you’re getting into business with. So, Craig, there’s just a bunch of stuff related to this news.
Craig: Yeah. So this is not surprising. For early on in the agency campaign there was this suspicion that a bunch of agents would say, “Well screw this. I don’t want to be stuck at an agency that can’t represent writers. And I don’t care about packaging. Let’s all peel off and form a new agency.” But I think the more likely scenario was always let’s just peel off and form a management company. Why? Because management is essentially an end run around the restrictions on agents. Just as packaging, by the way, was an end run around the restrictions on agents.
So the law says that agents can’t really own the stuff that their clients are in. Packaging was a nifty way to kind of skirt around it without getting into legal trouble. But why skirt around something when you can just kick right through it? And that’s what management is.
So, managers are representing artists. They can absolutely own everything, by the way, that the artists do. They can own it 100%. They can employ them completely if they want. They can produce. The one thing that they can’t do by law is essentially procure employment. But they can always use a lawyer as a fig leaf for that. Or, frankly, an agent.
So what’s happened here is through basically 80% just the way the business has been going and 20% nudged along by the WGA’s action the ground was remarkably fertile for something like this to happen. It’s not great.
Well, look, it is great for certain people I suppose. And these are very legitimate agents. I mean, these are big shots. This is not a little thing. This is a big deal. And for writers I’m not sure how relevant it’s going to be because it seems like their eye is on something much bigger than what writers do.
John: Absolutely. So let’s put a pin in sort of the writer of it all. But I would say the other thing as we’re looking at the changes in the agency landscape is that we have the WGA action. We have other structural things that were happening. But then we also have the pandemic. And so you have a situation where the town is completely shut down and so the normal source of income to these WME, to CAA has dried up, especially WME when you look at sort of how much they were reliant on their other businesses being live entertainment.
Craig: Well, and CAA too. I mean, sports got killed, you know.
John: Sports. These companies which had grown big by doing other things, suddenly the other sources of income were not there. We’ve talked on the show previously how they were not taking salaries and they were cutting staff and cutting support staff. So all that stuff was already happening.
So if you were a person, an ambitious young agent at one of these places, you’re looking around saying like, “Hey, do I want to stay here in this company that may not really rebound or become the same thing, or do I want to try something new?” And this really does look like a new thing. And as the slide deck came out, which the article was linking to today, it’s clear that they really are pitching this not like even a traditional management company. It really feels more like a startup venture capital, sort of like investing in a brand.
John: They’re not looking at Reese Witherspoon as an actress. They’re looking at Reese Witherspoon as a flagship marketer. Sort of a center focus of a whole new company.
Craig: Yes. And this is the bigger thing that I think they’re staring out. Very clever. Very smart of them. Every now and again someone comes along in that area and says, “Oh, everybody has become way too comfortable in the status quo and if you just kick over a whole bunch of things and start fresh with a clean slate and a different idea you can actually do very well.” And it has happened again, I think, and this is going to set the stage for a lot of this sort of thing.
We live in a time where very famous people have enormous value because of social media. They can impact things far beyond what they used to be able to impact. Even in the old days when actors – famous actors – could make a lot of money endorsing things, they had to be careful about what they endorsed. And even then they were just being paid by somebody else. Like I’m Nike, here’s some money, but I’m in charge.
Now you have actors who create their own brands and using their own influence. I mean, Kim Kardashian, who is not even an actor, is a billionaire specifically because of this. She created a brand and then there’s a billion things that go along with it. And these guys they want a third of it. As far as I can tell what they want to do is get a third of those things. And they’re going to I assume promise these people to grow them in such a way that they will have these large businesses based around them and this company will take a third of it. So, goodbye 10 percent. And that’s a third of ownership. That’s not commission. Ownership.
I’m looking around at the world. I see people like Jessica Alba starting her own company and it’s worth a billion dollars and she did it. And she didn’t need anyone’s help doing it. I mean, yes, she did, of course, but she didn’t need one of these companies. It’s hers.
John: Yeah. Look at Gwyneth Paltrow. You look at George Clooney.
Craig: Right. Right.
John: And so I want to stipulate that, yes, I’m sure there are agents and other people involved in their careers were helpful in getting some stuff going. But they are essentially entrepreneurs who are also actors. And they are unicorns. They are remarkably talented people at acting and remarkably talented at doing this thing which is to be a presence in social media and be able to make an end run around traditional gatekeepers in terms of buying ads. They’re sort of their own ad agencies. They are marketers fundamentally.
And this last week Ryan Reynolds sold his gin company for hundreds of millions of dollars. You know, Ryan has been on the show, he’s a friend. But you look at sort of what he’s done and he deserves some sort of Academy Award for just best presentation of a brand in a public sphere. I mean, he was so good at being able to market that company. He also did Mint Mobile. So, he’s really good at that. But it’s hard to say exactly how this new management company will find those people who are uniquely good at that and be able to provide value to them. Like, I don’t know what this company is actually going to be able to give them that will help them become these giant flagship brands.
Craig: Well, what they do is convince you otherwise. I’m not sure you’re wrong. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’re right. But the skill has always been to convince you that they are necessary. That’s their talent. That’s different than – and when I say their I mean when I’m talking about these people that come along and say we will go into business with you, I think really good agents and also really good managers – there are some – are about advancing individual artist’s careers and getting them the most money they can get.
I mean, there are still people that do it right. But then there’s a different kind of, look, we’re going to take you to the moon. And obviously at that point it’s just about, you know, ambition and greed. But it’s always been about ambition and greed. And it will work. I think it’s going to work. I have no doubt it’s going to work.
Now, this wrinkle of Steve Cohen is interesting. So, one of the agents that went over is Dave Bugliari. Dave Bugliari, big agent from CAA, very big agent from CAA, very well respected, that’s the one I think – well, and Jack Whigham both. I mean, they were the co-heads of Motion Picture Talent, which is what the agency is called, the actor wing. Those guys were columns holding up that business. And CAA will survive, but that’s a shot, right? That hurts.
And they’re not direct competitors, right? So the management company can coexist, so Dave Bugliari has a certain client as an agent, he can keep that client as a manager and that client can still stay at CAA with a different agent if they so choose.
But, these guys, Dave Bugliari for instance, is married to Alyssa Milano. Alyssa Milano is one of the most vocal anti-Trump people in Hollywood which is saying something, because so many of us are including you and me. Pretty much everybody. Well, OK, well he’s now working – he’s a partner I should say in a company that is partly funded by a Trump guy. Did they know that? I bet they didn’t. [laughs] Honestly, I bet they didn’t. And the reason I say that is because I think that sometimes these things are a bit sloppy. Like somebody comes along and says, “I got a bunch of money and it’s from a guy. He’s great.” And nobody stops and thinks, gee, I wonder if he is a Trump supporter.
John: Well, also, none of these people got together in a room to talk this over. This has all happened on Zoom and emails.
Craig: That’s kind of fun.
John: And kudos to them for keeping it quiet for as long as they kept it quiet. So, good on them for that. But, yes, I do think it’s problematic. Actually we’ll get to our first listener question. This came in from Florian. Here you see the CEO of an agency being a big Trump donor, but you can also imagine calling out Jeff Bezos or Amazon social practices or Disney’s blocking access to some 20th Century Fox movies for example. “As an actor-writer I’ve been told by some friends not to tweet about Amazon because I could lose a job over it. Should A-list talent leave an agency because it has ties to Trump? Or should up and coming talent refuse to sign with a big agency because of it? Where to draw the line?”
And so that’s the question you’re raising with this manager who is coming over there, but also with all the clients who might decide to sign there they have to decide to sign there they have to decide do I want to be in business with some of these types of people.
Craig: I’m glad that Florian asked this question, because the truth is there is no line. It is impossible to be pure. There are no clean hands, ever, because every corporation engages in practices that are questionable. Capitalism in general is going to engender some iffy things on the borders, if not outright awful things. And we live in a global market. The entertainment industry is particularly global. So, it’s impossible to not work with people that are also working with people that you might not respect.
So, the question is where do you draw the line? Well, if you’re an employee and writers are it’s a little different and difficult. You make your choices as you go. If something feels particularly bad you don’t do it. But you evaluate and you do the best you can, I think.
If you are talking about going into business and partnering with somebody that’s different. So, I was approached by somebody who had started a new business partnering with – oh, let’s just say a nation that is of ill repute when it comes to civil liberties and freedom.
John: Yeah, there’s a couple of those I can think of.
Craig: Yeah. There’s a few of those. And I just said, no, no, I’m not going to get into bed with that. I don’t want to. And because of this.
When you start a business, when you make some large partnership, I think that that has to be something that you evaluate and think about. But also to remember that these businesses which are enormous are divided up in so many ways and employ so many people and so it’s not always as simple as this or this.
I mean, look, I just got rid of my payroll company because they advertised on Tucker Carlson. Right? I mean, that’s not going to bring them down. They’re not going to come crashing down. By the way, my favorite thing on Twitter is like Trumpy people are like, “You’re lying. You don’t use a payroll company.” And I’m like you mean for $40 a month, yeah, I do. I do. [laughs] It’s not a boast.
But you do the things you can do. You try your best but you don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good. It is impossible to have clean hands. Just try and make them as clean as you can make them while moving through the world.
John: There’s a project which we are largely set up but we’re figuring out some of the financing. And so the producers called and said like, “Hey, I just want to make sure that you’re not going to have any problem with X company.” And I’m like, oh, I have a big problem with X company. That absolutely cannot happen. And they were so frustrated with me, but also I’m the creator/showrunner. I’m not going to do it. If you’re going to do that, I’m gone. And so they have to find other money. And there is other money to find.
And you’re right in that if you look deep enough in some of the money there are going to be problematic things. Like Amazon is a remarkable company but it is also problematic in a lot of ways.
John: A lot of international financing is so helpful, especially for independent film, but you look at really the sources of it it’s not great. And so you have to make those choices. And I think trying to distinguish between being what is a partnership versus what is I’m an employee is helpful to some degree, but at a certain point the difference between being a partner and being an employee becomes a little bit blurry, which I think is a good segue to how this impacts writers and showrunners.
Because I think something like a Moxie or whatever the final name of this is, while it’s focused largely on actors and sort of big name faces, some of the big name writers we’ve talked about on the show, sort of the writer pluses would be candidates for this. I could imagine like a Shonda Rhimes being the kind of person who is both a public face and is a brand in and of herself that is super appropriate for this kind of company.
Craig: Yes. There are some, fewer than there are in the world of acting, of course. There is nothing like having your face on TV or on screen to make you known. I mean, the difference between how many people know Shonda versus how many people know – pick an actor on SNL, you know, it’s shocking. It’s legitimately shocking. Because everybody should know who she is.
So, that is part of it. I mean, the big value for showrunners is always going to be the amount of money they earn, right, and getting some of it. And will that fit into this model? I don’t know. What I continue to be nervous about is the forced evolution of television where the people who are, we’ll call them the commission class, even though they often aren’t working on commission, but rather they’re just taking fees from the network or streamers themselves, that space will continue to move toward packaging around directors and actors, particularly actors, because that’s how this new company, Moxie, or whatever they end up being called, will make money.
Moxie is going to make – there was something buried in one of these things that was shocking to me. And it was in one of the articles the people that were talking about this new venture were saying basically one of the reasons we’re doing this is because the agencies they don’t have the time or energy to concentrate on their top earners. Their attention is too divided. And I’m like, wow.
John: Here’s the quote that I think you want. This is a quote from the slide deck. “The current representation system is broken. Lack of transparency has eroded trust. Big agencies do not spend most of their time on the largest earners. Agents are distracted by bloated client lists.”
Craig: Wow. Right?
John: So basically if you’re not focused on those tip top people, because you’re spending too much time on the riffraff, but we care about the riffraff and we want those riffraff to have good representation.
Craig: Well, not only that but we’re over here saying the problem with the agencies is that they’re on fire. And these guys are like the problem with that building is it’s not warm enough. Right? There has never, never been a problem at the agencies where they are not paying enough attention to the people who earn the most money. That has literally never been a problem, not for one second. It has always been the opposite. And of course it’s always been the opposite.
When you have a client that you’re making $40 million off of over the course of 12 years, or one that you’re making $80,000 off of, it’s not rocket science. Everybody knows how this functions. What these guys are saying is there are entire groups of people that we want to separate out from that. What we call a large earner are these people who can generate a billion dollars. At this point I will continue to be concerned that the television landscape is going to be warped by these people. They are going to come in and artificially twist things in favor of the people that make them the most money. And writers will lose creative influence and authority in the space and in doing so the end is threatened of what is the single best creative run of any medium ever in our business, which is television right now.
John: Very, very possible. I’ll be curious to follow up on this a year from now, five years from now, to see if this company, if Moxie and companies like this are really all that focused on creating narrative content, or if they are creating products, like things that people can directly buy. Because if they are more sort of the Aviation gin, Mint Mobile, you know, Jessica Alba’s lines, Jennifer Lopez’s cosmetics, if they are more that then it’s not a direct impact to sort of what we do as writers.
But if they are more sort of the Hello Sunshine let’s build out a brand that is making a lot of entertainment, then that’s going to have a huge impact on us.
Craig: It is. And what you will see, I suspect, from this company is that when writers touch them it’s going to be because they’re brought in to pitch as if talking to a studio. So let’s say they represent – I don’t think they do represent somebody like Brad Pitt, but let’s say they did. And Brad Pitt is a huge fan of something like let’s say Dungeons & Dragons, OK? Starting to sound great. Well, it’s Brad Pitt’s Dungeons & Dragons now. And now you come in and you are competing with 12 other people to part of this massive thing that is going to generate new sets from Wizards of the Coast, all branded with Brad Pitt’s new angle on Dungeons & Dragons. Again, this is all hypothetical, please don’t report this Deadline. It’s not true.
But the point is you’re a widget. You are no longer in charge of a goddamn thing. You are just an employee. And I know that people on the television side will say, “That’s never going to happen. That’s not how TV works.” And all I can just do is point to features and say I refute you thus. Because that’s exactly how features work. And the only difference is its culture. There’s nothing else stopping it.
It’s not like writers are less important in features. We’re frankly more important, I would think, because it’s all one shot. That’s it. You get one episode of a film. And yet still this is how film works. And this is what they’re going to do to television if we aren’t – well, if we and the networks and streamers aren’t careful. Because these guys are coming, you know, they’re coming.
John: Yeah. My last observation would be that the real risk about building companies around the brands of individuals is that that individual does something bad and you’ve completely destroyed that company. And so like Reese Witherspoon is not going to do something terrible, but some of these other people they could do something terrible. And suddenly all that value just goes away. And that is I think a real risk and a real danger. Everyone is sort of like one bad paparazzi shot away from these things evaporating. And so that is a real risk that I hope people who are investing in this company are keeping in mind.
Because we’ve seen that happen in features and TV all this–
Craig: But the guy investing in it backs Donald Trump. I just don’t think he cares. [laughs]
John: Yeah, no.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t think he cares. I mean, it’ll be interesting to see. I mean, I don’t mean to sound like just an endlessly negative nelly about a new thing, because there is a risk that you just sound like a reactionary who is afraid of anything new. And to repeat this is something that will ideally ride alongside agents. But the thing I’m interested about, John, just looking ahead to the future is what are the agencies going to do about this? Because there is this one lever that they haven’t ever really thrown against management companies because management companies have essentially agreed to a kind of truce. The big ones at least. And that is if you’re going to compete with us then we’re going to go to the state because there’s law involved. And you are essentially violating the law, because you are procuring employment.
It’s probably not going to work, because there’s so many ways around it. From the writer’s point of view I don’t necessarily think empowering management companies like this is remotely good for us, because it’s just taking what we just fought against and making it so much worse. So we were fighting against people that were throwing grenades at us, and so the grenade throwers went, OK, we’re out of the grenade business. We are now in the rocket-launching business. OK. Well, let’s see how it goes.
John: All right. We will follow up on this probably for the next five years.
Craig: Yeah, fun.
John: See how long this podcast goes.
John: But let’s get to some questions, because man this virtual mailbag is very, very full.
John: We’ll start with Andy from Brooklyn. Do you want to take Andy from Brooklyn?
Craig: Hey, Andy, what’s up, buddy? That used to be how people would talk from Brooklyn. I was born in Brooklyn.
John: Were you playing stickball?
Craig: My dad played stickball. The late Leonard Mazin played stickball. He was actually in Lower Manhattan. He was in the Lower East Side, which is no good. But, yeah, they came from that generation. People singing Doo-wop on the steps and all of that. Plus, don’t forget, deeply entrenched racism.
Andy from Brooklyn asks, “How do you decide what to write next? Obviously you write what someone is willing to pay you for, but you’re both at a place where you have a serious say in what you get to turn to after you put a finished project behind you. So setting aside financial pressures, once you clear the decks and the sky is the limit how do you choose the next project to dive into?”
John, how do you do it?
John: For me there’s always a bunch of things that are appealing. They’re shiny bobbles that like, oh, when I get the time I want to do that thing. And it’s generally those projects that have stuck around the longest in my brain that say like, oh OK, this is the time do that.
But, whenever the decks do get a little bit clearer, they’re never like fully clear, but they get a little bit clearer, I would say that it has to be something that is an area that I wanted to do for a while and I have a new way into it. So there has to be something new about the idea. Something like, oh, that’s really appealing about it. And it has to marry with something that I’ve been itching to do for a long time. So this is not a true thing at all, but let’s say I always wanted to do a western. And for years I always wanted to do a western. And if I had some new way into doing a western, like OK that’s what is appealing to me. That’s probably the thing I’m going to write next.
So it’s really a chance to marry something old and something new is what gets me over that hump. A thing I’ve said before on the podcast, actually the first time I said it was in Episode 100, is that as I’m sorting through which things I’m going to actually sit down and write, I will try to prioritize the thing that has the best ending. Because beginnings are really easy. It’s the good ending that will actually finish that project.
Craig: The ending is everything. It’s a good question. And I think if people ask this question every 100 episodes they’ll get slightly different answers from me. And possibly from you as well, because our careers do change. Part of this process is actually a kind of therapy. You need to examine your own sense of self-worth and you need to interrogate whether you’re being precious because you’re afraid, or whether you’re being selective because of just a general healthy self-regard. It’s tricky. Right?
And we do not decide things rationally. This we know. As human beings we are not rational. So I think about it a lot. I tend to torture myself a little bit over it. Some writers are more tortured about these things than others. But there is a general phrase that I have in my mind these days, and it’s something that Casey Bloys who is the Head of Programming at HBO and now HBO Max, and I suppose once HBO expands to HBO Galactic he will be in charge of that as well. When we were talking about, OK, well what am I going to do after Chernobyl I said, “Well what do you guys want?” Which is a very me thing to ask. I’m very people-pleasing. What do you guys want?
And he said, “What I want is for you to work on something that makes you levitate.” And I was like that’s such a great way of thinking about it. The thing that just thrills you. If you are lucky enough, you’ve gotten to a place in your career through hard work, talent, or just dumb luck – I don’t care – either way you’re there where you do have a chance to be selective and pick, pick the thing that just makes you levitate, that gets you excited, that you love. And that will carry you through.
And for me part of the trick is forcing myself to be patient because every time you say yes you are eliminating a thousand other yeses you could say for that amount of time. So, I was just forcing patience on myself and I’m happy I did, because then along came the possibility of doing The Last of Us which makes me levitate.
John: I’ve been meaning to ask you, with The Last of Us, it’s always hard to do this kind of introspection after the fact, but was The Last of Us a chance to say that’s a series I would love to watch, or was it back when you played the game you said like I really want to adapt this but I will never have the opportunity to.
Craig: The latter. In fact, I always describe myself like virtually in my mind as a kid outside of a candy store, or maybe the Little Matchstick Girl. Hans Christian Andersen, by the way, if you’re ever in the mood for something dark, flip through those stories. Little Matchstick Girl, all she wants is to be warm and eat food. And there’s a family inside eating food in a warm place and she’s freezing outside, slowly lighting her matches so that she doesn’t die immediately. But then she freezes to death. Thanks Hans Christian Andersen.
Well that was me in my head. You know, I played that game. I thought it was absolutely gorgeous. I was just enthralled by it. I knew it should be adapted. And I also knew that I would never be able to get within a hundred yards of Neil Druckmann without a restraining order. So, it just wasn’t where I was in my career. I knew that I could. I just didn’t have the evidence that I could. And I’m a realistic person enough to know that that matters.
So, many years later when it became something that could be, it just – well I suppose part of the levitation was that it had been many years in the dreaming. And so that was a nice thing.
John: Yeah. There’s a project I’m working on which is not announced but it is a similar situation where I watched this thing and said like, oh, someone is going to make that, I wish I could be that someone. But I have no idea how I would even start that conversation. And then 20 years later they called.
John: And so that is a fantasy when that happens. And recognizing that I’m probably a really good person to do that thing is always great when that can happen.
Craig: And I hope people hear the word “years” in there, because–
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: I mean, we’re talking 20 years. The amount of patience required is, mmm, it’s a lot.
John: I do want to get a little back to Andy’s framing of it, though, because we’re talking about like we have these remarkable opportunities which other people may not have. But you always have the choice of what you’re going to write. And in underlying our decisions about all this stuff is what Craig says about the thing that makes him levitate, to me it’s like what movie do I wish I could see that I can’t see. And that is always the framing behind the choices I make.
So, right when I was starting off as a writer I wrote something like Go because I really wanted to see Go and Go didn’t exist. And that is the kind of question you should be asking yourself as you’re thinking about the next thing to write.
Craig: Yeah. Just be patient but don’t be afraid. Think of that as you’re bowling in a bowling alley and you’ve got two gutters on either side. On the left side is I’m just rushing into things because I’m impatient. And the right gutter is I’m afraid of doing anything so I’m going to be pointlessly picky. You’ve got to figure out how to be somewhere in the middle to make that healthy decision. And if you have somebody that you can talk about it with who isn’t going to be endlessly bored by your obnoxious Hamlet-like dithering that can help, too.
So, you know, I’ve often Hamlet-like dithered to Scott Frank and vice versa. I find that he and I share a lot of the same just, oh you know, “Should I do it?” It’s like, oh, for the love of god. So we slap each other in the face and say, yes, or no. And it’s quite nice. [laughs]
John: I’ve gotten much better at saying no quickly, also. Someone will come to me with something and it’s like do I want to do that? And it’s like the answer is – I try to go for the hell yes or absolutely no.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah.
John: Let’s take a listener question that comes in audio form. We love when people attach their question in audio form. Here’s David from London.
David: Hey guys. I’ve got a question about writing the same material more than once. As I’m writing spec scripts and you hit that stage where you suddenly realize what stories you’re telling, I keep finding I’m writing the same story in different ways. They’re like different genres, different characters, different kinds of scenes, but the underlying heart of the piece turns out to be the same. So I discover I’m writing two stories about a child’s desire for respect from a parent. Or two explorations of toxic romance. It doesn’t repeat, so I’m not kind of endlessly writing the same story, but it’s kind of weird that it keeps happening without my meaning it to. And I just wondered if this was something that you recognized, something you’ve experienced, or if you fancy talking about it?
And just as a final comment, thanks so much for taking the time each week to do this. It’s so very much appreciated. Cheers guys.
John: Well, so first off, David from London, you are clearly the guy on Head Space, because that’s exactly the Head Space voice that you use there. So, thank you for talking me through my anxiety on a nightly basis.
I completely recognize what David is talking about. And I think what he’s describing is realizing that just like stories have themes, writers have themes that you come back to again, and again, and again. And if you look at any creative person’s work you’re going to find common things that sort of unite them no matter what genre they’re working in. There’s ideas that seem to be stuck in certain people’s heads. And for me almost every story I’ve told, every movie I’ve written, tends to be a character who is stuck between two worlds. And they have to find their way back to their original world or change that second world. But they’re all kind of exactly that. And you can chart them.
So it’s very natural. It’s also just sort of how a person’s brain works is that they’re going to gravitate towards certain grooves that are just there. And I say it’s good to be aware of it, but you don’t necessarily need to fight it.
Craig: Yeah. I actually think this is weirdly good news, David. Because this is an indication that there is an author. And John is right. There are themes that are going to emerge over and over. By the way, we forgive the artists that we appreciate on that are already working. We forgive this of them all the time. In fact, we kind of praise them for it. And then when we’re doing it ourselves we somehow start to doubt that this is a good thing. But it’s not. I mean, the important thing that you said is that the stories are not the same. They’re not repeating. It’s simply what they’re ultimately about that’s repeating.
So, many years ago, not before I was working on Chernobyl but before we ever shot Chernobyl, Marc Webb, the director who I was working with on another project, a script that I wrote for a feature, he said, “You know, it’s interesting when I look at the things you’re writing now they all turn on the difficulty that people have facing hard truths.” And I cannot explain how different this feature was from Chernobyl. I mean, on the surface 180 degrees different. But underneath, this kernel of the same thing.
And I feel it coming up over and over in everything I write. The way that you maybe feel this like caught between two worlds thing coming up over and over, I keep feeling this kind of difficulty we have dealing with hard truth. This is good. I think it’s good. So, the answer specifically, to answer your question, it is something I recognize. It is something I experience. And I don’t think it’s a problem. And, yes, if it changes over time that also is a sign that you are actually here as a human being and a simulation, although we all are simulations. I mean, to say you’re not a simulation within the simulation.
Craig: You are no more of a simulation than I am.
John: To tie this back into our previous question, I think it also speaks to the project you write next is going to probably be the one that actually fits those grooves, just fits your brain properly. And so sometimes you’ll have ideas and you’ll say like, yeah, that’s a movie, but it’s not one of my movies. It’s just not a thing that I feel right writing. It’s not going to actually work correctly underneath my fingers. But I would totally see that movie. But it’s not a movie that I would actually make myself.
And that’s a crucial part of the decision-making process.
Craig: 100 percent. Let’s hear from Minnie. Minnie asks, “I’m writing a character who is an aspiring artist. Consequently, she decorates her room in posters of some of her favorite artists, not all of whom are famous or immediately recognizable but share a thematic connection to our protagonist. There is a poster that hangs in a prominent position in her bedroom and although I named the artist and title I wonder what I should do should the reader not immediately know the reference. If you were in my position would you describe the painting, or rely on the reader to be curious enough to look it up before or after the read?”
This is an excellent – I love this question, John. What do you think Minnie should be doing here?
John: So, what I think Minnie should be doing here in 2020 is describing the image in a way that is helpful to the reader, also making it clear if possible sort of how that ties into your aspiring artist’s goals/ambitions. Why it’s meaningful for her to have it there on the wall. That’s my answer for 2020.
I would say my answer for 2021/2022 is that you will probably a link in that script that links out to an image of that poster so people can see it. You can do that now, but it would be a little bit unusual to have that just in your PDF. But it’s doable. And it probably isn’t going to throw people for it to be there. But I think it’s increasingly going to be more common to see those kind of references there for things that are actually story important. Craig, what do you think?
Craig: Yeah. I feel like we’re almost done with 2020. Please, can we be done with 2020? So I’m going to go ahead and just jump to 2021. I think you can put it in the script. I mean, yes, you can absolutely put a link in now if you wanted and hope that somebody would click on it, but you can also just take a page of your script – so you make your PDF from the text and then you grab an image of that painting and any normal PDF program, even Preview you can do this, you just slot it into that PDF in the spot it belongs. So as they’re reading the script they get to page 89, or sorry in your case I’m sure it would be page 9, and it describes this painting. And you can even say see next page on it if you like, or they just turn the page and there’s the painting with a little bit of text underneath that says what the painting is. I think that would be enormously helpful actually.
Because the painting is important.
Craig: It makes total sense to me. It’s the kind of thing that you should treat like very powerful spice. When a dish calls for it add it carefully. When it doesn’t, leave it out.
John: Yeah, for sure. I think it’s a thing right now you’re doing once, maybe twice in a script, and it really has to be for a very good reason. Rian Johnson does this in his script for Looper where there’s a very specific image that he needs you to be able to understand and see. Here’s the counter argument is that for the nearly 100 years of cinematic history somehow we’ve gotten by without sticking images in our scripts and it’s been OK. And somehow we’ve been able to make really good movies without doing it. So, it’s not essential, but if you feel like the ability for the reader to understand what’s happening there is super important that they see this image, I think we’re now at a place where we’re saying like just include the image.
Craig: Yeah. I think so. I think we’re there.
John: Cool. Another audio question. Let’s take a listen to Leigh.
Leigh: Hi Craig and John. My name is Leigh and I’m calling from Tallinn, Estonia, though I’m obviously British. First of all, thank you for the inspiring screenwriting education you’ve given me for free from Craig and for the small tiny payment for the Premium feed and t-shirts from John. You’ve started me on a journey that I hope to one day payback to other screenwriters.
My question may be difficult to answer, but that’s kind of why I’m asking you. I’m writing a feature set against a backdrop of real world historical events. It dramatizes the story of post-WWII resistance movement in the Baltics. I’m creating two fictional characters that will endure the real story from that time. So real events, fictional characters. Events are just insane and cinematic, but they just didn’t all happen to the same people, so I’m doing that bit.
My question is about how characters change in stories based within real events. So, Craig used a composite character in Chernobyl played by Emily Watson. Did you reverse engineer the events and then find the most appropriate character to endure them? How would you approach that for a leading character? I do know that in many stories, but not all, The King’s Speech being an outstanding example, but many real stories the characters don’t change much. And I think this is especially true of war movies. The world around them changes more than they do as they win or lose their battles.
So many thanks for any help you can offer in this and thanks for all you do.
Craig: Well that’s a very good question.
John: Craig, start us out, did you reverse engineer any stuff, especially this composite character based on the real events? How did you approach her since she wasn’t based on anybody real?
Craig: Well, she obviously, I created her to satisfy a narrative need, or else I wouldn’t have done it. What I understood from my research was that there were a lot of functions that various scientists were fulfilling. And all of them were important to represent. But it was not going to be narratively realistic to have them be so fragmented among eight, nine, 10 different people, some of whom come and then leave and never come back again. And I also wanted to be able to point out something about Soviet society that a lot of people aren’t familiar with which is that women actually did have a more progressive role in the science and medicine spaces in the Soviet Union than they did in the United States at the same time.
So, that created a need. And a solution became apparent. So I wasn’t reverse engineering anything because I wanted her to be there. She made sense to help me tell the story of things that happened. But her character, the way she is, that is my invention, obviously. And that exists that way because it serves a dramatic function vis-à-vis the character of Legasov that’s played by Jared Harris. She represents something to him. They have a relationship that is about conflict and then ultimately consensus and challenge and so forth. But she doesn’t change much. She’s not the protagonist. So, Leigh is asking a really interesting question about how – I mean, of course you can create fictional characters. Most historical drama uses fictional characters. Especially something like the story that he’s contemplating which is a terrific story but doesn’t necessarily feature – it’s not like you’re telling a story about London in WWII and you’re proposing that the Prime Minister is a guy named Cowell or something. We know it was Churchill, right? So that’s not like this.
They can change as much as you want them to, but your protagonist should change. That’s one of the aspects of drama. But they change in small ways. I mean, in The King’s Speech he does change. And he changes in part through friendship. And in his belief in what his role is. And so, you know, for you I would argue that you may be – I don’t want to say you’re overthinking things, but your main character has to change in some small way.
Yes, the world changes dramatically around them, but they are changed by it and also who they are in the beginning. There’s something that must be overcome. King’s Speech is actually a great example because the King was not supposed to be the King. His brother was supposed to be the King. But his brother abdicates the thrown and now the one with the stutter is King. And on some level he doesn’t think he should be. And then he does. And he triumphs and he does a great job in a moment where the nation needs a King. Very simple.
But that’s the kind of stuff that you need to at least consider when you’re looking at comparative dramas like The King’s Speech.
John: I want to say first off, Leigh, it’s so brave of you to say that you’re thinking about making this story against the backdrop of the WWII resistance movement in the Baltics because anyone listening to the show could steal your idea.
John: [laughs] And obviously rush off and make that. So, I mean, brave on that front. But as I was listening to your question all I could think about were counter examples. Because you talk about how in war films characters don’t change that much, and I think but they do. So you’re a Premium member, so I know you have access to the back catalog. Take a listen to the episode I did with Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns about 1917. There you have set against the backdrop of the First World War, but it’s very much a character protagonist story going through it. And it works like an adventure story, a thriller, but it’s set against this backdrop. And it is entirely doable.
So, if the story that you’re proposing to tell is really a broad spectrum, like let’s talk about the Baltics, then yeah maybe it’s harder to get your characters to be driving that story. But within that framework I just say pick the story that actually has characters who do fascinating things and let that be the world in which your story is happening rather than the story itself.
Craig: Yea. You’re going to do fine. The fact that you’re even asking the question is a good sign. People are asking good questions today. I like these questions. Wait, surely there will be a bad one. Let’s see if the next one is.
John: This one is great. I actually texted you about this. So, Anonymous writes, “I’m wondering if you two know anything about the rights to works written while married and how they are handled in divorce. I am an amateur writer and have not yet made any money off my work, but if the wife and I were to split could she make a community property claim since they were written during the marriage? I know you’re not lawyers and this is probably state specific, but I was just wondering if you had any experience or knowledge of this issue.”
And so Craig I texted you and you did not have any firsthand knowledge.
Craig: No. No. All I know is that this dude is getting divorced. [laughs]
John: There’s a reason he’s anonymous.
John: So, I asked a divorce lawyer and she wrote back and this is what she said. She said, “This is very common these days. The actual script is community property. The control though goes to the writer. Any potential proceeds could be a mix of community property and separated property depending on the labor, skill, and effort required to monetize the IP. He may need to rewrite or spend many hours selling this script. A script most times is worthless as is.” So basically saying it is community property to the degree to which you wrote it during the time you were married, but obviously there’s a lot of work that’s probably happening after that.
She goes on to say, “Many times we agree in the dissolution judgment to just reserve jurisdiction over how the IP asset is handled and determine that later. Most times nothing comes of it. It is preferable though to address and confirm the script is his separated property in the judgment to avoid later having to address this. The Amadeus movie is a perfect example. The wife came back later.”
And so had you heard about the Amadeus divorce and what that whole situation was?
Craig: I have not. Tell me about it. Dish.
John: So I didn’t either, so I had to follow up on it. So Saul Zaentz is the producer of Amadeus. He’s a big producer. Did a lot of other things. But he owned Amadeus during the marriage and then it got produced afterwards and the wife in the divorce came back later and said, “Oh, the value of that happened during our marriage so therefore I’m entitled to more money.” So post-divorce she was able to come back and claim that. And actually did get some money from that.
So, we’ll put a link in the show notes to the actual case findings of it which is interesting. But what I love most about the case was footnote number five in this finding said, “The Hollywood film industry is seemingly hesitant to make what is known as ‘costume dramas.’” And so this is back from like 1982 or whenever this was.
Craig: Well, it’s true.
John: It’s true.
Craig: No, it’s true. I also like this line, I’m just looking through it now. Under the heading “The Project Financing.” Because I mean part of it was that essentially she was saying, look, I think it was worth this. And he’s like it’s not worth that. “Project Financing. It is no hyperbole to describe the relevant financial history as a circuitous journey through a labyrinth of interlocking and interrelated corporate entities, family trusts, and closely owned holding companies.” That sure does sound like the entertainment business. Oh, god, what a swamp.
John: All right, so let’s get back to Anonymous and sort of our advice to Anonymous I think would be, yeah, you should anticipate that certainly based in California which is the lawyer I was talking to it will be considered community property. If you are going to get divorced it’s worth thinking about the stuff, but it’s not going to be unprecedented to sort of just push that aside.
In most cases it really won’t matter.
Craig: Yeah, sorry.
John: But it could.
Craig: Yeah, I mean–
John: I’m also sorry about your marriage.
Craig: Yeah, what she’s saying is she’s saying nothing is going to happen with that script. That’s what she’s literally saying. But it could. But it could. And so that makes sense. They’re like, yeah, OK, this is so speculative we’ll just boot it down the line. Good luck. We’re all counting on you.
John: Let’s do two more. These are actually good, quick answers. So let’s try this.
Craig: All right. Well we have formatting a misdirect. David writes, “I’m writing a boy meets girl two-hander. I have both characters on a bus talking with their sidekick friend. I want to set it up to feel like it’s the same bus but it’s not. Does each scene/bus need its own header? That would ruin the experience of mystery for the reader, but combining it into one scene feels like sloppy writing.” John, what do you think about this formatting question?
John: I think David is asking exactly the right question and what he’s anticipating is that you want the experience for the reader to be as close as possible to the experience of the viewer. And so my instinct for this would be don’t necessarily make it a whole separate scene header. But I would say Right Side of Bus, and then we have the conversation with these two friends. And then Left Side of Bus. So as a viewer we’re going to anticipate like, oh, they must be on the same bus because he’s saying right side/left side. And then when it is revealed that they’re on two separate buses that may be a situation where you do want to bold face or underline, make it clear that they really were on separate buses, because as a viewer we’ll understand that.
But you’re asking the right question. And the best solution is to do something that feels like what the movie is going to feel like and don’t worry about separate scene headers.
Craig: Yeah, just generally good advice. Formatting misdirect, misdirect. That’s what the advice is. Right? So you can do what John said. You can even just say that this one is talking to this one and then in a different seat this one is talking to this one. The important thing is that when you do reveal you say, oh, these are not – we thought these were the same buses but in fact they are not. Just say, da-da, magic trick. So that the reader who ideally is someone who understands how movies are made and is not just an audience member goes, OK, I see the trick you’re doing. We are all magicians. We understand you were palming that. Got it. Thank you.
So just, yeah, just misdirect. That’s it. Simple as that.
John: So, when it comes time for the line producer, first AD to do the schedule they’ll grumble a little bit because they’ll have to figure out how many pages to assign to each setup situation.
Craig: They’ll fix it. They’ll fix it.
John: They’ll figure it out.
Craig: What they’ll do is they’ll just go through and they’ll give those things, because at that point the misdirect doesn’t matter anymore. You win. You convinced people to make the movie. At that point they’ll put in new things and they’ll make scene numbers as they desire. That’s up to them.
John: Great. A question from Adam who writes, “I’m writing a story that is set in another galaxy, or a distant future. But what is the best way to describe the character? Do I want to keep the reader in the same story and try to be poetic? For example, Wood, 40, looks like the Samoans of old earth. Or should I simply write it for casting? Wood, 40, Samoan. Even though he’s from a made up planet that is nowhere near Samoa.”
So really he’s talking about the idea of race and identity based on current expectations when it doesn’t really make sense for the situation.
Craig: I’ll tell you what I did for the script I wrote for Borderlands. I had a little opening page after the title page, before the movie began, that basically said here’s what you need to know. People can be any race that we know of. It doesn’t matter, so I’m not going to tell you what they are. Just presume a wide variety. And in fact in this place race is not relevant.
You can also just say I’m going to refer to people in terms people might understand for casting purposes, even though of course no one in this movie has heard of Samoa or Earth or our galaxy at all. You can just sort of get it out of the way in the front if you want.
Because I actually agree that if you say Wood, 40, Samoan, it is going to kind of make me go, “Huh?” Is there a planet Samo in this movie? Or does he mean Samoa like Samoan here on Earth? So, yeah, I think make a statement. And then–
John: And then he’s good. There’s a project I’m working on where I have a very similar kind of statement. It’s a fantasy world. And I basically just say at the start people’s races don’t match up the way we expect and we deliberately we should not even try to make sure that brothers and sisters don’t need to match our expectation of race. And that we are distinguishing these cultures by clothing but not by perceived race.
Craig: In that thing I wrote just to try and make it entertaining in and of itself I just said, “In this galaxy people just don’t give a damn about your skin color at all. Except there is one planet where the people have this beautiful constantly changing iridescent skin and everybody thinks they’re the most amazing things in the world. And everybody just worships them, except for those privileged people. No one cares what your skin looks like.” And when they were talking about making the movie and they’re like budgeting they’re like, well, we’ve got to figure out how we’re doing those people from the planet. And I’m like they’re not in the movie. [laughs] Argh. That happens more often than you think.
John: Everything that’s on the page has to be there somewhere. They’re like theater people. They’re just taking it far too literally.
Craig: Yes. Yes.
John: It was kind of fun. We ran out of time for our subtext question, or did we? We’ll never know.
Craig: Oh, hmm.
John: Maybe the subtext was that we never needed to answer the question.
John: Quickly I want to go through two little bits of follow up. Zach wrote in to say, “After listening to Episode 463 on action and seeing how Near Dark was formatted it made me think about this spec script that CAA is currently taking out and was subbed to us at our production company. I believe Craig has talked about this before, but the formatting is original and being a buyer I actually enjoyed how they changed it up from the normal formatting, especially because it was clean and clear. It’s super kooky. It has pictures and drawings throughout. The action is written like Near Dark. And scene headings are done in green like a Dan Gilroy script.”
So, Craig, I threw it in the folder so you could take a look at it. It is goofy, but it has sort of like a kid’s book, like a picture book feel to it which is appropriate for sort of the genre. So if you’re doing that script maybe it’s fine. I guess it offers me some vision for sort of what the movie feels like. I don’t know that it makes me more likely to make the movie. But it does stick out.
Craig: If you try interesting, kooky things in a script that people like, they will like your kooky things. They will give you credit for being interesting and innovative. And if they don’t like the script you’re just breaking rules and you stink. It is literally just–
John: It’ll feel like a gimmick. Yeah.
Craig: Yeah. It’s just the quality of the story. And if it is a good story then things like pictures and drawings and stuff like that will enhance it. They will. Because people will want more, as in they will want the movie. And if it’s not and they’re bored then you’re just putting something that they didn’t want on food they don’t like. So, who wants that? Nobody.
John: Funny how that happens.
John: Benjamin, he wrote in to say that one of John’s One Cool Things was the new Mythic Odysseys of Theros source book for D&D. And he says Theros is actually the setting for the Match of the Gathering universe that was adapted to fit the rules of fifth edition D&D, which I kind of knew but kind of forgot to say when I was giving that as my One Cool Thing.
He goes on to say, “What’s even better is that Wizards put out a new series of articles called Plane Shift where you can bring your D&D game to a number of Magic the Gathering worlds.” So I’ll put links in the show notes to these. But, Craig, those are all clickable links. They’re so cool. And so there’s an Ancient Egypt one. There’s a sort of standard medieval fantasy. Gothic horror. This one looks great, so it’s 17th Century exploration. There’s these vampire conquistadores. There’s pirates. There’s mer folk. There’s dinosaurs.
So, anyway I love sort of the variety of worlds that they are trying to lay out for you and getting away from the very classic Tolkien-ish medieval fantasy stuff. Anyway, I just want to put those out there as examples of world-building for the sake of world-building.
Craig: You can tell that they are widening their palette as it were. And becoming aware, in a good way, of the breadth of the kinds of people that are starting to play D&D. And so why not? I mean, the more the merrier.
John: I love it. Our last bit of follow up today is a correction. Back in our episode on writing action we talked about Black Panther, but I forgot to include its co-writer J.R. Cole in the outline. That’s my mistake. I emailed Joe to apologize. We’ve also updated the PDF and the transcript. Now, onto our One Cool Things.
Craig, my One Cool Thing feels like it should be a you One Cool Thing because it’s the Batman teaser trailer which has–
Craig: I know.
John: –a puzzle in it which was quickly solved. And it feels so up your alley.
Craig: It is. So Mike Selinker is somebody that I’ve known for a bit through Twitter. He wrote a former One Cool Thing of mine called the Maze of Games. Do you remember Maze of Games?
John: I do. Yeah.
Craig: So that was Mike. He’s great. And he cracked this. And I believe that my retweet of it was what popularized it. I’m going to take credit for this because–
John: You absolutely should. Because you have a giant Twitter following now, which is great.
Craig: You know, listen. I’m a Selinker booster. He’s great. And it was a really good walkthrough of how you crack a simple–
John: Yeah, I really enjoyed his thread.
Craig: It’s a cryptogram. It’s pretty standard puzzle thing. And there are basically standard ways of doing it. And what I liked about what he did was he did it by hand. It’s incredibly easy to take that cipher, put it in a crypto quote breaker online and it just brute forces it. And it will give it to you within seconds. But he walked you through the logic behind it. And the logic was great. And it was also hats off to the Batman people. It was good, punny answer to the little riddle.
John: Yeah. We won’t spoil it, but I thought it was nicely done.
Craig: Yes. You can tell they’re working with puzzle people. You can tell. They’re working with puzzle people. So that was fun.
John: That felt like a you One Cool Thing. My other One Cool Thing is these swim goggles that I got that I actually really like a lot. So most swimming goggles they just don’t fit my face right. They leak or they put a big groove in my nose. But Mike got me these swim goggles that are actually really good and they’re cheap and they’re on Amazon. So, it’s a company called Zionor. I don’t know what that company actually is. The reviews were good on Amazon.
John: And they were inexpensive. And when you have good goggles you can just see so well under water. It’s amazing. So, if you’re looking for goggles that seem good and don’t scratch and are polarized so you can really see everything well, I’d recommend this brand of swim goggles.
Craig: Zionor sounds like the planet that you’re from.
John: It does sound like my home planet. Or perhaps it is the – are there Samoan people on Zionor? That’s really the question.
Craig: There are not. There are no people on it. There’s just inorganic life forms who are like, “Goggles help you see under water.” That’s how I know that you don’t really have eyes. I’m onto you man. I’m onto you.
My One Cool Thing is also D&D related. Dungeons & Dragons has announced another rules expansion book called Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.
John: I’m so excited.
Craig: Yes! So in D&D there are some spells that are named after famous wizards. They are probably no longer with us, although I suppose some of them maybe are wandering around on some demi plane above us, like Mordenkainen or Otiluke.
John: Or [unintelligible].
Craig: Or Big B. Yes. And then there’s Tasha. Tasha who is most famous for Tasha’s hideous laughter. And she has inspired some of the great spells of all time. And anyway Tasha apparently has a Cauldron of Everything, which is a great name, and in it – so D&D keeps sort of expanding subclasses, character options, new spells, new rules. It’s so much. And it’s a little daunting, especially if you’re a DM because it wasn’t like there was a fairly limited range of things that your players could do. So as a DM you kind of need to learn everybody’s character and everybody’s stuff. And you’re like, oh boy, here we go again.
But, you know, some of that stuff is great. I find that a lot of the new stuff that they’re putting out tends in my mind, tends to be a little bit overpowered, which is interesting. So we’ll see how it works with Tasha’s. But I’m going to get it. I’m going to read it.
John: Of course.
Craig: It’s got magical tattoos in it, man.
John: Come on. Who would not want a magical tattoo?
Craig: Come on. I want one.
John: Yeah. That is our show for this week. Stick around after the credits if you’re a Premium member because we will talk about headshots and getting our photos taken. But in general that is the show. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Rajesh Naroth. Welcome back Rajesh.
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. We have t-shirts and they’re great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau. We just put up a new t-shirt which was based on a quote of mine from Frankenweenie about science. So, we’ll put a link in the show notes to the new science shirt that we have up there.
You’ll find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. We try to get them up about four days after the episode airs.
You can sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments. And, Craig, thanks for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: Westworld. OK. Let’s talk about headshots. And this came to me as a topic because this last week it was announced that I’m writing this movie with Ryan Reynolds.
Craig: Congratulations, by the way.
John: Thank you. I’m excited to be doing that. And so we decided to actually place the story and put it in Deadline because we didn’t want it kind of coming out accidentally and we wanted to control it a little bit more about making sure that the log line wasn’t out or wasn’t billed as something that we didn’t want it to be. And so doing it this way I could actually say like which photo I wanted to use because in general whenever I show up in the trades I hate the photos that they pick. And there’s some decent photos of me out there, but there’s some really terrible ones. And the one that they default to is always this thing from when I got this DGA award. And I’m wearing this tux and my hands are really big. It feels super goofy. And so I wanted to control which photo they used.
Craig: Now I’m looking for that one right now.
John: Oh, you’ve got to look for that one.
Craig: Yeah. I want to see it. Let’s see. Images. Oh, yeah, there it is. You’re so happy in it.
John: Yeah, it’s natural to be happy.
Craig: Your hands don’t look enormous. They look proportionate.
John: Well, there’s a couple ones there. So there’s the ones where I’m sort of touching myself.
John: And there’s one where my hands are out.
Craig: Oh my.
John: I’m touching my chest.
Craig: Oh. Well I’m less interested. I have to turn my filter off I suppose to find that other one. [laughs]
John: [laughs] If you search “John August tuxedo.” But if you look for “John August headshot” let’s see which ones are there. Some decent ones here. So the fourth one across, the one I ended up picking, basically I liked that one, which is me in front of greenery. My friend Dustin Box took that. It’s actually my author photo for the Arlo Finch books and it feels fully appropriate for those situations.
Craig: You’re slightly smizing there. Right?
John: Yeah. Slightly smizing is the goal there.
Craig: Yeah. A slight smize.
John: Like I think many people I have a hard time, when you tell me to smile I will smile in a really strange way. And so then I default to a way of sort of deliberately not smiling and then I look way too serious.
Craig: Right. No, of course.
John: So, finding that balance is tough.
Craig: I mean, that is a direct challenge to whether or not you’re a human. I think that legitimately is like that’s the – what is it, the Voight-Kampff test from Blade Runner? Smile. [laughs]
John: Smile. You have to smile. I also love that if I google “John August headshot” the sixth photo across is actually John Logan.
Craig: Right. That’s kind of a slap in the face.
John: It is a slap in the face.
Craig: It’s like, you know what, you probably meant John Logan. John Logan, one of the best screenwriters working today for sure. And so, yeah, you don’t want John Logan popping up. It’s like, come on, they wanted me, for sure. For sure.
John: So, now I’m googling “Craig Mazin headshot” and let’s see what we get.
Craig: All right.
John: So I feel like this first shot is a new shot that you put out there. Is that correct? Because you have a beard.
Craig: That one was taken right around when I guess for the publicity, in advance of the publicity of Chernobyl.
John: Great. And the one next to it is the WGA awards one as well. Tuxedo. Looks good and handsome. The fourth one over is from many, many years ago. You’re younger but a much heavier person as well.
John: So that’s not one they should be using.
Craig: Well, I mean, they can if they want. It’s stupid. It’s like 12, 13 years old. 12 years old? I don’t know how long ago that was. But I admire my tent-like shirt, you know. That’s nice. [laughs]
John: It is a tent-like shirt. But the sixth photo across is from our 100th Anniversary and that was a fun night and it’s the happiest I’ve seen you in many of these photos.
Craig: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting. The one just to the left of it, which is also from the Writers Guild Award does seem like a very similar, it’s like the same face but with beard.
Craig: But I like – let’s see, the seventh picture if you search for my headshot is you.
Craig: But not John Logan.
John: There’s no one else sort of quite like that. So, let’s segue from talking about ourselves to maybe some practical advice on this. People ask like, oh, as a writer do I need to get a headshot? And here’s the argument for it. At some point hopefully you will sell something and there will be a good reason to actually use that headshot. If you were to go and spend the $200 to actually get a good-looking headshot it could serve you well. And it’s nice when a story is run about you to actually have a good-looking photo so you don’t just hate the story. So that’s an argument for it. That’s great.
Does it need to be a professional headshot? Not necessarily. But it also just shouldn’t be some random selfie that you took. There’s a certain way that headshots in the trades look and you want it to fit generally that. So either it’s a head-on shot that is professionally taken, or it’s something like these WGA shots where you’re at an event and it’s on the red carpet or it’s some official situation.
Craig: Yeah. And those shots are the ones that the trades will default to if you don’t have something that you’re publicity person is sending in. When they are writing articles about you, so your thing was a press release. So when they get a press release they get the photo and they get the copy. Obviously they do what they want with the copy. But they generally will take that photo and use it. But when they’re writing an article about you that you are not putting out there they’ll grab whatever photo they want, because they don’t own your photo. They can’t use it without your permission. So you will end up usually with something from a red carpet or something like that.
If you don’t have anything like that then you may end up with one of those just rando photos. It’s a nice thing to have. We live in a time now where everyone has a headshot. I mean, I feel almost – because when you and I started in the business it was like a thing. You hire a photographer. And now with the cameras we have built into our phones and filtering and all the rest, I mean, my daughter could – I think my daughter has self-made a hundred headshots with her $23 ring light and all the rest of it. Everybody has become a headshot expert. Except for me. I still have no idea how to do it. None Zero.
John: General advice I’ve just learned from red carpets. And while there are some terrible photos of me on red carpets there are some that are actually not so bad. And what I’ve learned is that you actually have to look into the camera. You have to look down the barrel of the lens. And so you would think that like, oh, looking generally in that direction. But, no, your actual eye placement matters a lot.
Imagine you’re looking at the censor inside the camera. That’s actually connection. And that’s a thing you should aim for. And try to be natural and thinking about where your face is in relation to the lens helps some. But there’s going to be some bad shots and hopefully there will be some better shots. There’s a couple shots that are on the wire image or Getty images that are actually pretty good and I’ve actually considered buying and taking because they’re like better shots of me than I have from any other purpose. Maybe I should just do that.
Craig: I don’t know. Just feels like I’m buying myself?
John: You know, actually, what kills me is the best shot I’ve gotten in the last five years has been for this special feature that Apple did on Weekend Read and Highland. And so they came to the house. They had a photographer who flew down from San Francisco. It was like an hour’s worth of shooting in the garage here. And the photos were fantastic, but I cannot find those photos anywhere online. They were basically only in the App Store for the thing. And I want to be able – I can’t even find a credit for that photographer. Because I want to be able to just buy those photos and have them be my headshot. But I can’t.
Craig: It’s odd that Apple would have some sort of control over what you see or don’t see on the Internet.
John: Funny how that all works. And so Craig next time you announce a major project what photo would you like them to use of you? Which is your favorite? The new one?
Craig: Yeah. We did it so that I would have a headshot.
John: The headshot that you’re using now, so this is a headshot where you’re looking straight at us. Green soft background. I think you probably are outside.
John: It’s not a fake backdrop.
Craig: That’s right.
John: And you look a little serious. You look a little Rob Reiner-ish if that’s not offensive. You look like a person who–
Craig: Chubby Jew? [laughs] I mean, you can just say Chubby Jew. You’re allowed to. I’ll let you say it.
John: But I would say this also looks like a writer, but it also looks like a person who can be cast as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. So, I think it does both of those things.
Craig: I mean, come on. I’m obviously the right choice. I’m obviously the right choice.
John: So I’m clicking it to make it bigger and I also say that you look like your age, but it also looks like a slightly optimized version of your age. It’s just slightly softened in ways that are flattering, which is appropriate.
Craig: I think that’s probably right. I mean, I don’t know exactly what they do. It doesn’t look particularly Photoshopped to me in the sense that I can still see some stubble and stuff and I have wrinkles, which I do in fact have. Somebody did a deep dive on this photo. Went into the eyeballs and like there are white things in your eyeballs. What is happening in there? And the answer is that that is the white bounce card that the photographer–
John: Yeah, it’s the bounce card. So it’s below and it’s pushing light up. And because the way your eyes work is, if I look at all these other photos, we can barely ever see your eyes because they’re set pretty deep in there and they’re little dark slits. So in order to see your eyes at all.
Craig: I’m pretty squinty. Yeah, I’m a squinty guy. When I smile – my daughter does this same exact thing. When I smile my eyes tend to just disappear. But there’s a couple photos of me where my eyes are wide open. That usually means I’m horrified. So just so you know if you see my eyes wide opened.
John: What has happened?
Craig: That means that I’m absolutely horrified by something.
John: Ah, good stuff.
John: All right, Craig. Thanks for talking through this.
Craig: Thanks, John.
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- Zionor Swim Goggles
- Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything
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- John August on Twitter
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- Outro by Rajesh Naroth (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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