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 509 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show how do prime the audience for what’s going to happen later? That’s right, it’s foreshadowing, [unintelligible] popular twin. We will look at examples and techniques to make foreshadowing feel clever rather than clunky.
Craig: We’ll also answer listener questions about Hallmark movies, friends who are bad bosses, and what to do when your movie is terrible.
John: Boy, not a happy topic.
Craig: I wouldn’t know about that.
John: But in our bonus segment for premium members we will discuss whatever happened to DVD commentaries and my theory is that Craig is partially to blame.
Craig: I’m going to hopefully upgrade that to completely to blame, but let’s see how it goes.
John: All right. Craig, this is one of the rare podcasts we are both out of town. So only Megana is holding down the Los Angeles fort. You are up there enjoying the Calgary Stampede, correct?
Craig: It’s not my cup of tea. I’m not a Stampede – from what I’ve seen it’s sort of half a stampede because of Covid and things. You can’t really get tourists in because no one is allowed to fly in unless they have a reason to be here. So I think it’s more of a Canada Folks only stampede, which is fine. There are a lot of fireworks. I do like fireworks. Not like LA fireworks that just happen constantly and for no reason. But scheduled. And professional. I don’t care about rodeo. It’s not my thing. I grew up on Staten Island. No surprise, didn’t have a lot of rodeos, so it’s not my culture.
But, you know, hopefully it’s putting some money in some folks’ pockets up here.
John: Yeah. I am back in New York City for the first time since the pandemic. It’s very exciting to back. We’ve just done a week-long visit of colleges with my daughter. And it’s kind of great. I mean, there’s been so many movies about kids’ college tours and stuff like that, so I’m not going to write that movie. But you can see sort of where that movie comes from because it’s just a lot of adventure. It’s been a good road trip.
Craig: That’s fantastic. And when you say New York City you’re on Staten Island?
John: I’m not on or near Staten Island. I’m on the Island of Manhattan.
Craig: Oh, OK.
John: Yeah. Craig, an innovation that probably happened before the pandemic but I had not experienced it yet was that now you can use Apple Pay on the subway and on busses which is just such a game-changer. So you don’t have to load up the stupid yellow cards anymore that never worked properly. You just tap your watch and it’s magic.
Craig: Yellow cards were already magic. I’m back in the tokens day.
John: Oh, the tokens days.
Craig: Or we had bus passes as students. So you’d get a bus pass and then you would show the bus pass to the bus driver. Otherwise you would have to put your coins in the weird – it was like a gumball machine in the front of the bus kind of thing. It was all bad. And now it’s good.
John: Yeah. Now Craig you were gone last week. Two bits of news to share with our listeners. We have new t-shirts and I’m so excited about our new t-shirts. They are our 10th anniversary t-shirts. They sort of slipped out a little bit earlier than we anticipated, but this way you can also wear them to celebrate our 10th anniversary which will be coming up next month in August.
John: Craig, do you recognize the reference that these t-shirts make?
Craig: That would require me to look at the t-shirt, wouldn’t it? [laughs] Let me go do that. I mean, I saw it briefly. I didn’t study it. I like the color and everything. So I’m going to take a look. Now I’m going to really study it.
John: All right. And maybe describe as this is an audio show, describe what this looks like.
Craig: Well, OK, maybe it’s not what you were going for, but to me it looks like the classic Zoom font from PBS.
John: Oh, yeah, that’s so interesting. That’s not the actual reference, but Zoom is a high quality throwback reference.
Craig: Oh, it’s some sort of maze.
John: It does look like a maze. But it actually says Scriptnotes, you see.
John: So that actually is the words Scriptnotes.
Craig: Oh, it’s the perspective shifty one.
Craig: Oh, I like that.
John: Yeah. But the other reference, because you don’t watch television you wouldn’t know that it is a reference to a small Marvel television show called Loki and it is in the style of the art from the TV show Loki.
Craig: No, I’d never know that. There would be no chance. I thought it was Zoom from 1976.
John: But it has a ’76 quality. It does feel like it is of an era. That it’s not our modern era.
Craig: I can’t tell you how many times – I don’t know what it is. I turned 50 and suddenly I started saying things that Bo, who is Megana’s age, so Megana and Bo are roughly the same age, that Bo just looks at me like what? Who?
John: What are you talking about?
Craig: We actually went to an escape room and in the escape room was a rotary phone and she had never used one before. That was kind of amazing. Megana, have you ever used a rotary phone?
Megana Rao: No. I had a fake Minnie Mouse rotary phone. It didn’t actually–
Megana: Yeah. But it just looked like it should have when I was like five.
Craig: I can feel my own death. I can feel it. It’s coming. It’s chasing me down. The sort of weird crap that old people would say around me, now I say it.
John: Yeah. It feels like one of those, I think we’ve talked about Cook’s Illustrated and it will have a little sidebar column of like what is this gadget where they will show some gadget they found at a yard sale. What is this for? And it’s always a watermelon slicer or some kind of bizarre thing that you don’t really need but they sold at a certain point. Or a spoon for a very specific kind of dessert that no one eats anymore. It’s a hot custard spoon.
Craig: Oh, delicious. The whole world is like that for people in their 20s. There’s just a world of crap they just don’t know about.
John: Because who needs anything because you have your phone? Why do you need anything else?
Craig: What will be Megana’s thing? Like Megana when you’re 50, so how old are you now?
John: She doesn’t have to say that.
Craig: Oh, we’re not allowed to ask her how old she is.
Megana: I’m in my late 20s.
Craig: In your late 20s. Thank you. So throw in another 25 years. What are the things that you’re going to be remembering from your teenage years that kids will be like I’m sorry, what?
Megana: I mean, I guess I still had a flip phone when I was a teenager.
Craig: Oh my god. Flip phone. What?
Megana: Yeah. And I had like a Razr phone.
Craig: First of all, how about this? Phone? Because 25 years from now there’s not going to be one. It’s just going to be in your tooth, Megana. They’re just going to plant it in your tooth and then they’re going to go like phone?
John: I also feel like looking at my daughter’s age, and I’m sure your kids are the same, the idea of linear television is perplexing to them. The sense that all the channels are constantly broadcasting. Because she’s always just used to like I want to watch this show. I want to watch this show right now.
John: And so when there are some shows that are happening live it’s just strange for them. Like sports obviously, we understand they are happening live, but everything else is just really weird, or what networks are. That will seem really strange 25 years from now.
Craig: No one knows.
Megana: I guess I used to carry around a digital camera when I was a high schooler.
Craig: Oh yeah.
Megana: And I recently found it and it’s just like a bunch of pictures of Ohio teens in basements, hanging out and eating cheese puffs. I think that’s already something that your daughters don’t do.
Craig: No. They do not have digital cameras. They don’t do that. No.
John: Why would you have that?
Craig: That’s ridiculous.
John: Or an iPod that is not also a phone.
John: Speaking of things changing and times moving on, also this past week it was announced that we have hired new people to run the Stark Program. So this is the Peter Stark Program at USC. It is the program I graduated from. It’s a producing program that I went through, Stuart went through, Megan, Chad, Matt, Dana Fox, Rawson, lots of people who are related to the show. The really great head of the Peter Stark Program, Larry Turman, was retiring and we needed to find a new person to run the program. And so I’ve spent six months on a search committee to help find this new person. And I actually learned a tremendous amount. So I want to talk about that.
But I also want to talk about the people who they hired to take over the program are Ed Saxon who is a very famous producer with Jonathan Demme. Won an Academy Award for Silence of the Lambs. Did other amazing movies. And Nina Yang Bongiovi whose credits include Fruitvale Station and a lot of other sort of amazing movies. So these are the two people who are going to be running the program. I’m just so excited for these folks to be sort of shepherding in the next generation of producers and sort of like what producers are becoming versus what they used to be back in the old days when it was a producer making a movie and now producers make TV shows and make all sorts of other things. So it’s been exciting to think about how you set up a program for success for the next 20 years.
Craig: I wasn’t interviewed. I don’t know why. I think I would have made a great head of the Stark Program. First order of business, eliminate the Stark Program. Oh wait, this is why I wasn’t interviewed. Of course.
John: I think that’s probably why. This is who can lead this program for ten years. It’s just such a different way of thinking about things.
Craig: Yeah. The guild will I think have a choice like that pretty soon for its executive director. That’s the sort of thing they have to figure out. Who is going to last for a while and who is going to do a good job?
John: But related to your concerns, Craig, also this last week there was an article in the Wall Street Journal called Financially Hobbled for Life which was talking about just how much debt people are taking on getting these graduate film degrees, or other degrees. And how tough it’s making their lives and sort of the real question of like when are these degrees worth it and when are they not worth it. Should we encourage people to get $100,000 in debt for something that cannot or is unlikely to pay off?
Craig: The answer is no. That’s an actual answer. There’s a fact. There’s a fact answer to this. I don’t think we should. I don’t think there is anywhere near the kind of return on investment that you would expect for something like that. It’s not even remotely close. And that’s a shame because the idea of what schools like for instance USC or the kind of school within the school like the Stark Program can do in and of itself is a good idea. But the cost is outrageous. It is unconscionable when you consider what you’re actually receiving. It is unethical.
John: Well, OK, but to push back against it, like I’m listing myself and the other eight people I just mentioned are all Stark grads, all of whom I think if you were to talk to them would feel like they would not have had their careers if they hadn’t gone through Stark. So for them it was–
Craig: I disagree with them.
John: You disagree.
Craig: Yes. I would push back on the pushback. Of course they would, because they’re talented. And the reason I know that is because look at all the people who went through the Stark Program who didn’t go anywhere? Because the Stark Program is not the answer. The Stark Program may speed things up. You know, sometimes they say a pool doesn’t raise the price of your house. Just makes it sell faster. Maybe that’s the case. I didn’t go to the Stark Program, or any film school program whatsoever.
There are just too many people who have had brilliant, wonderful careers as producers, writers, executives, directors, and so forth that haven’t gone through the Stark Program. And there have been too many people who have gone through who haven’t had amazing careers. Also, I’ve said this a million times, I think a lot of these institutions just cheat. They choose people who are clearly destined for success and then they claim credit for the success.
John: Well, I think with my former assistants I’ve tried to sort of do the opposite. If I’m picking them from the Stark Program they were already kind of preselected. They were already going to be tremendously successful. So, the fact that Rawson and Dana and Megan have done so great shouldn’t be a surprise because I was picking from a very small, limited pool. But I get that, too.
Craig: And that’s what the Stark Program does. So it looks like at somebody like Megana and they’re like, OK, you went to Harvard and you’re really smart and you’re a great interview and you’re just basically going to do really well. We’re going to let you in and then we’re going to tell everybody, look, if you come here you can be like Megana. No, Megana was already Megana. We’re not going to talk about Megana like she’s not here the whole time. This is great.
Megana, all right, Megana you didn’t go to the Stark Program?
Megana: I did not.
Craig: Did you do any film school?
Megana: I didn’t go to film school.
Craig: Great. You know what, Megana, you’re going to be all right. [laughs] You’re going to be all right. I’m down with that. And, again, I don’t mean to imply that the Stark Program is a bad program, at all. I think it’s a terrific program. Just costs too much. Way too much. Because how much does it cost? Are you allowed to say?
John: I’m allowed to say, but I actually don’t know what the number is. You can look it up. It’s on the website.
Craig: Got it. OK.
John: So it’s expensive, but it’s a two-year program. And I do think there are graduate programs, especially graduate film programs, that are probably not worth the money in the sense that you are not going to be able to justify having paid that much money. The Stark Program I personally feel like can justify that for people who are attempting to enter into careers that are highly paid and will pay them back. And so if you’re coming out of the Stark Program and you’re going to become a film executive, you’re going to become an agent, you’re going to become a producer-producer, there’s a good chance that it’s going to pay off in ways that I think some of the other programs it’s harder to justify.
If you’re coming out of a graduate film program to become a cinematographer that’s going to be harder to pay off. It just is what it is.
Craig: Yeah. Looks like the Stark Program per year not including room and board, etc., is $53,000.
John: That’s a lot of money.
Craig: That’s a lot.
John: That’s a lot of money. And it raises real issues about who can afford to pay $53,000 and what does it mean for the industry if the people who are coming out with this training and the skill set have to be able to pay $53,000. So those are all valid questions.
Craig: Yeah. So, you know, if it costs $5,000 I think it would be amazing. You know, some of these universities – side note. I know we did our university rant last time about AP tests and all that. But I was just thinking – I don’t even think, some of them have so much money, like my alma mater, Princeton University, has such an enormous endowment I’m not even sure what they’re charging tuition for anymore anyway. I mean, they have billions, with a B.
Craig: Many, many dozens of billions. It’s too much. They have too much money.
John: They have beautiful campuses. We’re doing the college tour and I’ve got to tell you some beautiful campuses up there. We’ve not visited Princeton, but I hope if I do get to visit Princeton I get to see the dorm room that they set aside which has a plaque for you and Ted Cruz. Because I hear it’s great and they’ve not updated it since then.
Craig: It was in fact torn down. That building was legitimately torn down. That is awful.
John: They did an exorcism.
John: Now if we were to do the Ted Cruz biopic, or the Craig Mazin biopic, there would be a scene of the two of you in college and your relationship then might be foreshadowing for the movie that is about to come.
Craig: Segue Man.
John: Which is our segue to our main topic today which is foreshadowing. And this came up because Megana and I were looking at a woman named Gayle wrote in to ask for follow up about spoilers. And spoilers are really kind of a form of foreshadowing. So Gayle writes, “Two psychologists at the University of San Diego conducted an experiment to determine whether people like hearing spoilers. I’ll spoil it for you. We think we don’t like spoilers but we actually do. When the researchers asked people if they like spoilers they would invariably say no, but then the researchers had one test group read a story and another test group read the same story but with a spoiler first. Each group then filled out a short questionnaire to determine how much they like the story.
“Turns out the spoiler enhanced the story. The spoiler group got greater satisfaction out of their story-reading experience than the non-spoiler group. The same held true across genres.”
John: Yeah. So what a spoiler is is the most extreme version of foreshadowing. Basically foreshadowing is giving you a sense of – helping you expect what is going to happen in the movie, the kinds of things to look out for. Obviously it’s an ancient technique. But I want to talk about it in terms of movies and TV shows and sort of why we use foreshadowing, how we use foreshadowing, and how much emphasis or non-emphasis should be placed on foreshadowing for the things that we are writing.
Craig: It’s funny, I never think about it. I must admit. I never think about it. It’s not anything I plan. That’s probably a good method to not plan for it. But it is also one of these very slippery terms. I think if you asked 12 different people what foreshadowing is you’ll get 12 different answers.
John: Yeah. And we tried to pull up examples or Googled for examples of foreshadowing and some of the examples were like well that’s just wrong. That’s actually not even related to what I think of about foreshadowing. So, some examples of foreshadowing, or techniques you sort of see for foreshadowing, is the small version of a thing. So it’s that foreshock before there’s a giant earthquake. There’s a kitchen fire and then later on in the movie there’s going to be a huge bonfire. You see an argument or a moment of snippiness between two characters that becomes a huge fight later on in the movie. So give you a sense of like here’s the small version of the thing, but the big thing is coming.
You also see people ask a question early on and the answer to that question pays off much later on. So, it’s setting up a payoff. Chekhov’s Gun we talk about all the time. That sense of if you see a gun hanging on the wall in the first act it’s going to need to go off in the third act or the audience is going to be frustrated. You only put in the relevant details. If a detail is not relevant it should be removed. And the corollary, if some detail seems like it’s being placed there we’re going to notice it as an audience and therefore be looking for it. And that could be very helpful in terms of managing expectation.
Craig: Yeah. I was looking at some of those lists as well and it struck me that there’s a confusion out there between symbolism and foreshadowing I think. Sometimes people confuse the two. Symbolism, which like any film technique can be used to great advantage or just stink, it’s basically the connection between visual or auditory motifs and dramatic motifs. So every time you see – the famous one is in The Godfather the use of oranges, the fruit. You know, the oranges are there and then people die and then the oranges are there and people die. That’s not foreshadowing. That’s just symbolism.
John: No, it’s symbolism.
Craig: It’s just not the same thing. Oftentimes they are occurring simultaneously. Whereas foreshadowing to me in its kind of purest, best dramatic usage is some sort of image or something that someone says or something that somebody does, or even the way their hair, or their clothes, or something that is metaphorically connected to something that occurs later in a very explicit way. So, you are walking along and you step on a toy car and you break it. And then 50 minutes later you’re in a car accident. That to me, and it’s not good foreshadowing, but that to me is the kind of thing I think of when I think of foreshadowing.
John: Yeah. I think you’re saying the word metaphorical I think is important, because there’s some stuff which is just clearly setup. Like we’re just setting up a thing that is going to pay off later on. So in Die Hard it’s like, oh, take off your shoes and rub your feet in the car, but that’s not really foreshadowing. That is just kind of a set up.
Craig: That’s a set up. Yeah.
John: It’s purely a set up. And jokes have setups. And sometimes there will be – a version of foreshadowing where I’m setting up that I’m going to take this act into a completely different place. And so it’s not sort of the thing you’re expecting, but in general setups are not the same thing as foreshadowing.
The most probably extreme example is some Shakespeare plays start with a dumb show, which is basically a little silent morality play that is just like a heightened version of what the whole thing is that you’re going to see. That’s sort of foreshadowing that there’s going to be a death here, there’s going to be a betrayal. There’s going to be a thing that’s happening here. That’s foreshadowing. It’s really setting some boundaries around what the story is going to be like so you’re expecting the genre, the tone, what’s possible to happen in the world of your story.
Craig: Yeah. So let’s talk a little bit practically about we do this and how we can help writers if they want to add a little bit of this zhoosh to their scripts.
John: Obviously like anything you have to sort of know where you’re going. And so you’re not going to foreshadow something until you see where things are ultimately going. To me it’s a question of tone and sort of like how are you introducing your audience and your readers to this is the kind of thing that could happen in the story. And you can’t do that unless you know sort of where you ultimately want to end up. That’s why I probably don’t write those scenes that have heavy foreshadowing until I’ve actually written the scenes later on that sort of do the thing that’s going to need to get there, because otherwise you don’t want to sort of foreshadow a thing that’s actually not going to happen or at least not going to be meaningfully resonant for the audience.
Craig: I think that’s absolutely crucial. I think if you try to foreshadow before you get to the thing that you want to foreshadow you are in danger of, well, here’s another swipe at film school, being a film school student. You can create something that is a bit up its own tushy as we say. It’s just a little self-indulgent.
Whereas just as we often will go back and set things up, OK, well you know what I need him to not have shoes here. Why? OK, if I do something back logically I can set something up. So setting up and paying off is about addressing logic issues often. When you have a moment that you think is really meaningful and interesting you can always ask is there something that happens earlier that can foreshadow this in such a way that – and I think this is key – when people watch it, the foreshadow moment, they don’t go, “Huh, foreshadowing.” And this is where the notion of surface sense comes into play.
So in cryptic crosswords, that’s right, I’m tying it back to puzzles, in cryptic crosswords these definitions are a lot of word play. Part of the definition is a word that is defining the answer, and then the rest is word play that will get you to the answer. So a very typical cryptic crossword, I’ve pulled this one from Wikipedia I think, “Utter nothing when there’s wickedness about.” In that case the definition word is “utter” and then “nothing when there’s wickedness about,” the nothing equals O like zero, and wickedness is vice. So you put vice around O and you get voice. And that is the answer, because utter is the same as voice as in the verb.
What makes that work as a clue is the surface sense that even though it’s a weird sentence it is a sentence. And it has some sort of meaning. It’s not syntactically garbage. And so when you’re creating these foreshadow moments you want to give them, I think, you want to land in this really sweet spot where it is not nothing, meaning it’s not something where, oh, if you go back there’s this incredibly subtle thing that people can debate over on Reddit because somebody thinks maybe it means something. You want to be able to go back and go oh that is clearly foreshadowing now that I know what happened. But when I was watching it in the moment it was neither something that blew by that I didn’t notice, nor was it something that had no other purpose except retroactive purpose.
And the example that you pulled out I think is great is the one from Jurassic Park.
John: Absolutely. So we talk about Jurassic Park a lot on the show. And I think we talk about how well handled the exposition was. We have the little film strip that talks through – it is an information dump, but it’s such an enjoyable information dump and our characters are getting the information that we’re going to get and it all works so well. But another moment from Jurassic Park that is worth paying attention to is obviously one of the thematic ideas is that nature finds a way. Even though they’ve made all these dinosaurs be female there can be ways that they can steal be breeding and they could be having extra babies.
There’s a moment early on in the story when they’re just arriving at the park and because the park is new he’s trying to put on his seatbelt but he only has two female adapters. And so he can’t actually fasten the seatbelt. And so he ends up tying the seatbelt together and making it work. And that is a great metaphor for what is going to actually happen to the dinosaurs in the park. Even though they’re just two female ends they found a way to breed.
And so it makes surface sense because it’s like, oh, he’s improvising a way to fasten a seatbelt. He’s solving a problem at the moment. And you don’t realize it is actually creating a metaphor for what’s going to be happening later on in the story. And that is foreshadowing that there’s going to be ways for these two female parts to actually generate a whole bunch of new dinosaurs.
Craig: Right. And there’s even a sense that there’s a point to that moment. The point is you’ve been telling me how great this park is and how advanced the technology is, but you screwed up the seatbelts. So it seems like a sign that you guys are actually maybe a little shoddy. And that is what we think that moment is. And that’s why I love that moment. It’s not just a thing. Actually you think you know why that’s there when it’s done. And then later upon looking back you realize it was actually doing quite a bit more work at that time than you understood. And that is really clever. And that’s an example of terrific foreshadowing.
John: Now, I would argue that foreshadowing can be useful in our two-hour dramatic features, but foreshadowing in our series and our limited series can honestly be even much more useful. Because you are going to be able to set up anticipation of events that are going to happen quite a bit later on down the story. So at the point where like you’ve kind of even forgotten that that thing was put out there, and then when it pays off you’re like oh my god that’s right, I had forgotten that that was a thing that could exist in this world. And now look at it.
And so there are many examples of things being foreshadowed in Game of Thrones for example that paid off well. I think there’s things that were foreshadowed in terms of in your own series Chernobyl. Those payoffs don’t happen within that first episode. They ripple through later on.
Craig: You’re absolutely right. I think that the television medium is so much conducive to foreshadowing because you can foreshadow eight episodes later. There could be something that you go all the way back. A lot of it again starts to blend with the concept of setup versus foreshadowing. But Watchmen is just an utter feast of foreshadowing. And setups and payoffs. It’s wonderful in that regard.
Yeah. You can do so much more. You can do really weird, interesting things and you can certainly screw around with time which helps the idea of foreshadowing. And even back-shadowing. So back-shadowing is kind of interesting – there is a moment – I learned a lesson by the way. I can’t talk about The Last of Us at all because I thought I said a very mild thing to say. We’re doing ten episodes. I just thought that wasn’t really – and then it was news. So I’m not doing any news. I’m going to just say that there is a moment in an episode that kind of weirdly back-shadows to something. It is like an echo of a thing.
And it’s small. But you can do these things with television that is very freeing. And one of the reasons why I’m never writing a movie again.
John: Yeah. I should say that people don’t really use – I’ve never heard the term back-shadow be used in a development sense.
John: Back shadow or side shadow.
Craig: I think I may be the first person to ever say back-shadow. I just said it, yeah. Sorry.
John: So if you try to use back-shadow in a meeting with a development executive…
Craig: You’re fired.
John: They may walk out. Because they may recognize you heard that on Scriptnotes and it’s not a real thing. So we understand what it’s supposed to mean. There’s also a term which you can Google called side-shadowing. A literary critic, Gary Morson, created this thing. Which is setting up a detail that feels like it’s foreshadowing but deliberately is not foreshadowing something, which does feel true to life. There are things that seem, like ominous things that seem to come up and it’s like, oh, that must be setting up for some other thematic moment. And then it doesn’t because real life is full of things that seem like they have dramatic importance and ultimately don’t.
And so sometimes that can be a nice misdirection.
Craig: Yeah. Maybe shadow is what back-shadow is. Do we even need back on it?
John: Yeah, I don’t know.
Craig: Maybe fore was the thing that was changing the direction.
John: Yeah. There’s a light from behind shining forward onto the story you’re telling.
Craig: Shadows are things that come after something normally, like I’m here and then my shadow is behind me. And then…
John: I would say back-shadowing is a revelation happening in the present that recolors or recontextualizes what happened before. Does that feel like good back-shadowing?
Craig: Yeah. I think that that is absolutely – or sometimes I think the idea of back-shadowing is that somebody does something that is eerily familiar. Even though there would be no theoretical reason for them to do that. Or somebody says – I’m trying to think. There’s a movie where I feel like somebody says something at the end of the movie that a totally different character said in the beginning. And even though it’s a coincidence it’s very meaningful when you hear it. And you go, oh, that’s back-shadowing. I don’t know.
Maybe it’s just the end of foreshadowing. I don’t know.
John: Maybe it is. Maybe it’s just plot.
Craig: It’s the conclusion.
John: It’s the conclusion. I feel like perhaps setup and payoff are things we talk about in terms of plot and story versus foreshadowing is the kind of stuff that is just like theme and dramatic question. So it’s authorial intent. It is sort of why the story exists is that.
John: But it’s not the details or the mechanics of the story. And if you think about it that way that may be a reason why you don’t have to necessarily know all your foreshadowing as you sit down to write page one because those are things you’re going to discover over the course of writing your story.
Craig: Yeah. And I think practically speaking the two most important things to pull out of this discussion if you’re thinking about writing and using foreshadowing is that you definitely need less of this particular spice than you would think. It’s rather strong. And don’t force it in there. Wait for a moment to emerge later and then go back. Don’t start with foreshadowing. That’s bad.
John: That’s not going to work. All right. We have a bunch of listener questions saved up, so let’s ask Megana to read us some questions.
Megana: Great. Paul asks, “Do you have a home cinema set up or a cinema room? I was thinking about this as I had a home cinema set up for a long time but then ended up not having it for a while and I don’t miss it. Once the film or TV starts and I’m engrossed in the story having surround sound and all that stuff just doesn’t matter. I think the same thing applies to black and white films, too. For the first ten minutes you notice the lack of color, but after that it’s just the story that matters.”
John: Yeah. So we don’t have a home cinema set up. We have our library, which is our TV room, which is our only TV in the house. And it’s good. It’s fine. It sounds nice. But it’s not fancy by any stretch. It’s a couch and a TV. And I like great for that. And so I’ve never had the big home cinema set up. And kind of never wanted one.
At our old house we had this thing where we had a projector that would drop down and a screen that dropped down and we used it like three times. And we just vowed never, ever again to do that.
Craig: [laughs] I like that you guys vowed never, never again.
John: Never again. But Craig I’m curious. My perception is that your current house does not have really a home cinema, but I think your new house does.
Craig: Correct. Old house just has some TVs. There’s one room that has pretty good surround sound in it, so I guess that would roughly count. But, no, the new place has a proper little home cinema. And I personally suspect that I will not use it much. My wife loves it. And it’s a good social thing. So that’s probably why I won’t use it much.
John: For sure.
Craig: But people that like other people, they love it. They get to all sit together and watch stuff and have popcorn. And so I think it’s just a question of whether or not you like watching things with people or without. I’m perfectly fine, like Paul, I can watch something almost anywhere. What I need is good sound. That’s the most important thing to me.
John: Sound. And, of course, to turn off motion smoothing.
Craig: Oh god.
John: The only thing that I will try to do in any hotel room I ever enter is to turn off motion smoothing, because it is just a curse against humanity.
Craig: I told you I played the trailer for Chernobyl for my lawyer. I was at my lawyer’s place and he was like can I see it. I was like, yeah, I’ve got it on my computer. I’ll use your AppleTV and we can play it on your TV. And he had motion smoothing on and I almost died.
John: Oh no. It looks like just bad home video.
Craig: I wanted to actually call up HBO and be like, “Sorry, cancel it. Don’t put this out. Apparently we shot a soap opera. I was not aware.” Ugh, it’s terrible.
John: It’s just the worst.
Craig: The worst.
John: We’re not the first people to observe this.
John: Let’s move onto, oh, this is the big question.
Craig: Oh, big question.
John: Megana, oh my god, so Megana steel yourself, because there’s a lot to dig in here.
Craig: Oh my god. Look at the size of this question. Megana, get yourself some hydration. Some oxygen. Here we go.
Megana: All right. Andy writes, “I want to start by saying thank you, not only for making Scriptnotes but for all the work you’ve done to raise assistant’s pay and secure us better treatment, which unfortunately is not why I’m writing. I was really distressed the other day to hear you mention a ‘friend’ on the show. A friend who happens to be my boss.”
Megana: “I stopped listening immediately. Working for this person has been a nightmare and they oversee an extremely toxic work environment. I get paid next to nothing and it’s clear they don’t really see me as a human being. This job has taken me to an absolute low point. Illegality shouldn’t be the standard for calling someone out, but as far as I know nothing has been done that’s been illegal. Violations of company policy for sure, but nothing that rises quite to that level. It goes beyond just being a bad boss, but he’s also not Scott Rudin, which shouldn’t be the standard either, but it’s something I’ve been keeping in mind.
“My boss seems like a pretty popular dude and I thought I was going nuts until I reached out to the person who had my job before me who basically reassured me and said you’re not going crazy, you’re in a toxic work environment and it’s OK to want out. Yet in that same conversation I was told if you stick it out this could be a great opportunity. And it’s totally possible that both are true. Now, I do want to be very clear. None of the above is your fault.”
Craig: Hold on. Pause for a second. Was there ever a question that this was our fault? I’m shook. All right, continue on.
Megana: But he is being clear that none of it is your fault.
Craig: OK. Thank you. [laughs]
Megana: “And I’m sure you have no way of knowing how your friends treat their subordinates. I’m sure some of the world’s worst bosses are lovely over dinner. Friendly to their peers. Et cetera. But I do want to know how do you hold other screenwriters and showrunners accountable? And what would you recommend I do next?”
John: Yeah. So, Andy wrote in and I actually emailed him back and said this is a combination of two discussions we had. I don’t know if Andy is male or female. I don’t know who he is writing about specifically. And so we have many friends who work in various bits of the film and television industry. And we’ve mentioned a lot of people on the show. So I don’t know who Andy is talking about.
And it’s tough because we’ve talked so much about treating people better and being good human beings and to hear that somebody who we know is not being a good human being to his assistant is frustrating and maddening. So I just want a conversation about what do we do.
Craig: Well, I don’t know what we can do. I mean, well first of all Andy I don’t know who you’re talking about. And I don’t know if it’s somebody that we’re both friends with, or if it’s just somebody that I’m friends with, or somebody that John is just friends with. But I don’t know who it is. And I definitely don’t – I will say I don’t know anybody that I’m friends with who I am aware treats their employees poorly. So, if I encountered that I would absolutely talk to them and kind of figure out what’s going on, unless I felt that there would be no point in talking to them, that that was who they were. At which point I think I would just detach myself from them, because that’s not cool.
Yeah. The only way I would think to hold each other accountable is if you’re dealing with a rational person is just to have a frank heart-to-heart, without – this is the hard part – without seeming like you’re being their parents, you know. Because nobody wants somebody to suddenly scold-y dad them.
So it’s hard.
John: Yeah. Something I wrote to Andy is that obviously we don’t know who this person is they’re talking about, but also we don’t mention people on the show who we know to be assholes.
Craig: That is true.
John: And so there’s people who – someone could do a forensic analysis of the show and there’s a reason why certain people are not mentioned on the show because they’re assholes.
Craig: We have not mentioned so many people. Just because we haven’t mentioned you doesn’t mean you’re an asshole.
John: That’s true. That’s true. But there’s been situations where you and I have known that a person is terrible and we felt like we’ve had to sort of step around talking about them.
John: That’s the reality. But those people were not also being referred to as our friends. And so the folks who we’re bringing on as guests for example, like we believe them to be actually genuinely good people to work with. And if we found out information that was not that case we would have issues.
Craig: And we would always try to deal with that privately. This is not the kind of show – and I’m sure somebody is going to say you guys have an obligation to say who is and who is not an asshole. No we do not. It’s important to not punish people for helping. So we do a podcast to try and help people. We don’t charge any money. I mean, there’s the premium feed if you want to get the bonus episode, like today’s bonus episode, but you can listen to this show for free and that’s the way it’s been for so long. We don’t even have ads.
So we’re trying to help people. And I think sometimes there’s this deal where people go, well, since you’re out there helping people you should also – you have an obligation to do the following things that I demand you do. The last thing I would want to be is a show where we just start running down people and accusing them of being jerks, especially when we personally haven’t dealt with them.
What we do try and do is talk to each other behind the scenes. And I will say that most jerks are notorious. I don’t think I have any private information about a jerk that nobody else has, for instance.
So, in terms of Andy what you should do next. I think that everybody is a bit different. There is bad behavior that I think is the sort that everybody who works there will agree stinks. However, it affects people in different ways. And that doesn’t make one person strong and one person weak. It just means we’re different. We have different tolerances for different kinds of stresses.
Your friend said if you stick it out this could be a great opportunity. Mm-hmm. But probably not for you. Because it’s making your miserable. I don’t think if you’re feeling miserable you’re going to get to the place where suddenly a great opportunity emerges. I think it’s impossible to rise above that misery. It seems like you should be looking somewhere else.
John: I agree that Andy should be looking someplace else. It may be worth talking with other people in that office and just getting a sense of whether other people are aware of sort of what’s actually happening. Because they probably are, but maybe they’re not. If you are the only kind of assistant and everyone else is sort of at a different level they may not really be aware of that. So this is not to put out the big alert, but just say like, hey, I’m not happy here and I’m going to be moving on and looking for a different job, but I want to know whether you’re seeing what I’m seeing here, because this is not cool.
Because just like Craig and I feel like we have some responsibility to sort of like if there’s somebody who we know is behaving badly who we know about to sort of talk with them about that, you may feel some responsibility to sort of just let the others around know that this is what’s happening, because they may just not see it.
I think you exit. I don’t think you exit loudly. But I think you exit with making it clear that this is not working for you and this is the reason why it’s not working for you.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t know what the best way is to leave something. I just don’t know. I wish I did. I always worry about people. It’s hard out there. Also, sometimes I think we somewhat cavalierly say you should get out of there and do you have another job lined up? I mean, that’s the other issue is you’ve got to pay bills.
Craig: Andy, ultimately you have to listen to your own heart here. And figure out what your tolerances are and what will make you happy. But what I don’t think you should do is gamble your present on some possible future with this particular job. That is not – I did this way too many times myself. You get to the prize at the end of the road and you go that was not worth it at all. Because I think I could have got this thing I just got without going through all that misery.
So, at the very least start looking.
John: Yeah. You should. Cool.
Craig: All right, Megana, what’s next? Geez, that was heavy. Do we something lighter?
John: This is going to be so light.
Craig: Oh, I just heard an “oof.”
Megana: OK, so the Captain asks, “OK, I just had my first film come out in theaters. I should be ridiculously happy, right? Nope. I literally just saw it. The film is horrible. I’m embarrassed by the film. I shared credit with the director and I was given the sole story by credit as well. I sold my original screenplay to a major studio. The director rewrote it. I was not involved at all. I was banished. The entire film is completely different from what I wrote. I mean, it’s utterly unrecognizable other than the glimpses of what could have been.
“My question is this – does this hurt my career? And how badly? And what if it’s actually successful or what if it bombs? I do have another film coming out this year, so there is light at the end of the tunnel. That film is the one I can stand behind. I also just sold a pitch to Netflix. So I’ve got some things going on, but this one kills my soul because it’s my first.
“Please tell me my career is not dead before I even get started. And what do you advise moving forward?”
John: Oh, Captain, My Captain.
Craig: My Captain.
John: So it’s OK to be bummed and be sad and so frustrated because you had hopes and expectations of this movie because you wrote something that you felt was good and what came out is just not good. And we’ve all been there. I’ve had had those frustrations of like, oh, that was not the movie I hoped to make at all and I just don’t know how it’s going to fare in the world. But, man, you’re so lucky because you got a movie following up on that. You sold a pitch. You’re doing great. And actually having a produced credit, even if it’s not spectacular, will kind of help you is my belief. Craig, what do you think?
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I was in this position. This happened to me. So I don’t think your career is dead. I wouldn’t catastrophize, although it is certainly a painful thing. My then writing partner, Greg, and I, the first movie we ever wrote was produced and the director, you know, did not do what I would have hoped tonally, etc. And I wouldn’t say that the movie utterly unrecognizable, but it definitely – it was kind of an oh-what-could-have-been sort of thing. And it was a flop.
And does it hurt your career? Generally speaking in features no. And here’s why. Everybody kind of knows the drill. Everybody. I think they finished shooting Borderlands. So I wrote a script for Borderlands movie and Eli Roth came on to direct it and they have this amazing cast. They have Cate Blanchett. And they have Jack Black. And they have Jamie Lee Curtis. And Kevin Hart. And it’s a really great cast. But, you know, I’ve been over here doing my TV stuff and he’s been over there. I mean, I had a couple of emails with Eli, you know, but I’m pretty sure that he kind of did his own pass on the script. And then they were shooting and I wasn’t there.
So, I don’t know, you know, and that’s kind of how it is in features. We sort of just disappear and other people carry the ball. Like we come out on the field and we sort of design a play and then we leave the field and we drive home and then at the end of the game someone calls us and says here’s what happened. You know, you root for it. And you hope it turns out well. But there are times when it doesn’t and then you are embarrassed. And frustrated. But angry. And then, of course, you’re also blamed for it. So, like Twitter or whatever.
But that all fades away. What we generally get credit for in features is writing something that gets produced. The people hiring us are studios. The people who decided to produce that movie, studio. And what did they base that decision on? The script. So you did your job. If they blame it on you, they have to blame it on themselves. And they’re not going to do that. They’ll just blame it on the director. So you did your job.
Having a hit helps. Having a bomb does not kill you. Definitely you and your reps did the right thing because as you say you have another film coming out this year. That means you capitalized on some of the heat of getting that screenplay produced. And you just sold a pitch. The key is you’ve got things going on.
Craig: Yes, your first – just like in sex a lot of times the first time is really bad. That’s kind of how it goes. It’s disappointing, muddled, uncomfortable, and you kind of wonder is that really all this is about. And then it’s not.
John: Craig, my first movie was Go and it was actually really very successful and well liked.
Craig: Some people have great first sex.
John: So I’m just saying I knocked it out of the park that first one. It didn’t actually make that much money. Craig is right. I think, you know, for a screenwriter it does not honestly hurt you that much because you got the movie made and that’s fantastic. A bad movie will hurt a director and put a director in director jail. There’s not really writer jail the same way. You’re going to be fine.
And when you go in for those general meetings at places it’s fair to say like, oh, you wrote that movie. Yeah, you know what it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it turn out and it was a little bit frustrating, but I was excited that it got made. You can say that and that’s great to say. And you’re being honest and everyone knows that stuff like that happens.
And the fact that you share, you and the director have an “and” between your names it’s clear of what the director did. The director is going to take most of the blame for that rewriting. Don’t be worried about sort of you’ll read reviews. If this movie gets bad reviews maybe your name will be mentioned as writing a terrible script. That’s frustrating but that’s just the business, too.
Craig: It is. And basic rule of thumb is that directors get blamed for features and writers get blamed for television. And that makes somewhat sense because directors are in charge of the features and writers are in charge of the television shows. And they focus in on that sort of thing. Don’t read the reviews. Don’t look at any of it. And I know that you are going to regret your first time out the gate not being wonderful and miraculous and beautiful. That’s OK. It just means when something good happens it’s going to feel great. When you match up with the director and it’s hand in glove and the art that emerges is what you intended or even better, that’ll feel great.
Craig: You’ve just got to prevail, Captain.
John: Captain, I do wonder if there was a moment thinking back was this situation foreshadowed. Because I will say that when I’ve had these movies that have gone south I can always think back to like, oh yeah, there was that meeting and that person said that thing. That giant red flag should have been there and I should have recognized like, oh, this is not going to work well.
Craig: Yeah. A lot of times you know. But sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it’s a big, yeah, what’s going to happen? It’s a surprise.
John: It’s a surprise. Megana, let’s do Doug from LA as our last question.
Megana: Doug from LA writes, “I’m curious about the Hallmark/Lifetime Christmas movie genre. They make a million of them because people love them. As I read a bunch of these scripts I’m finding them lacking in stakes, characters, and actual comedy. Even though they’re kind of considered rom-coms, or are they? Anyway, my question is if someone is trying to write a Hallmark style script would you follow this path that seems to work for them or try to go deeper in all of these areas while risking the notes or rejections ‘that’s not very Hallmark?’
“Are there specific holiday TV movie guidelines? I’d love to hear your thoughts?”
John: So Doug is asking really about they’re kind of programmers. I mean, I think the way that they used to sort of make movies of the week that would follow a really set template, there’s a Hallmark or Lifetime Christmas movie kind of template. And you’re putting your finger on it which is they do have kind of weird stakes, like very low stakes. And they’re funny-ish, but they’re not hilarious. And they’re romantic in a sense, but they’re not sort of doing full rom-com stuff.
There’s a very good Simpsons episode from I think last season where they’re shooting a Christmas movie in Springfield and it’s just a really great exploration of those tropes. Listen, I think if you were try to write one of these movies and completely blow up the genre then it would speak to sort of a misunderstanding of like what people actually really love about them which is probably some predictability and something about the form. So I don’t think you should try to write one of these movies because you don’t seem to like them.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, there is a version where the point of the movie is that it is a subversion and weird turn on the genre on its ear version of a Hallmark movie. But obviously that wouldn’t be for the Hallmark Channel. I think John is absolutely right. What we know the Hallmark Channel has figured out is what their audience likes. And we can get a little stuck in the trap of feeling like we’re separated from our audience. If you don’t know the people who are watching the Hallmark Christmas movies and you look at the Hallmark Christmas movies and all sorts of criticisms you may think that it’s worth your time to go in and fix it. Or you may just be judgmental of the people that are writing them.
But spend some time with the people who watch them. If you are making something for your friends, you’re probably not making it in such a way that would go down easily with your grandmother. And you don’t want to hurt your grandmother. You don’t want to hurt her feelings. You don’t want to disgust her or horrify her.
If you were going to make something for your grandmother, if she’s turning 90 and she wants special from you, she asks you to make a five-minute little movie for her you will make something that is comforting and wonderful for her. And that takes its own talent and skill. By the way, to write a Hallmark movie after there have been I don’t know how many Christmas movies they’ve made, but it’s actually really hard now. You know? You’ve got to come up with something new. There’s got to be some new version.
John: But not too new. I mean, there’s a form to it. And also I think it’s important to understand with all of these movies sometimes how they’re made dictates what actually happens in the story. Because they’re shot with incredibly specific schedules. And basically you have to hit a crazy number of pages per day, which means very few locations. Very few scenes. Longer scenes. And very simple coverage. There’s reasons why they have to be a certain way.
I think it was a previous One Cool Thing. This last year there were two gay sort of Hallmark/Lifetime Christmas movies that both sort of did the things but were also sort of like, you know, the gay versions of those things. And they were lovely. They were also examples of the form.
Craig: Yeah. I have a friend who writes Hallmark movies. I think quite a few of the Christmas ones. And he is gay. And they have been kind of growing up over there a little bit, which is nice.
But, yeah, I would say Doug unless you have a desire to skewer the genre and be kind of weird and cool in that regard, if you’re trying to write a hallmark style script then do it. Yeah. You follow the path and do the conventions. Try and be interesting. Just try and be better, maybe. If you think like, OK, I can stay within the conventions but maybe I can sparkle up the jokes a little bit, or sparkle up the this or that, if you think you can do better, do better. But I’ve got to tell you. You might not be able to. Because they’ve perfected that over there.
John: We were talking through Set it Up. Set it Up is a much better version of some of the tropes of that kind of rom-com. I guess it’s truly a rom-com, it’s not a holiday movie. But there’s a version of Set it Up which was more like a Hallmark movie or a Lifetime movie and she was able to elevate it and sort of be the more sparkly version of that. So, try to write the sparkly version of it. If it’s the same amount of dialogue to shoot they can do it. It’s just sometimes that form is really what’s dictating why the stories work the way they do.
Craig: Yeah. I have a feeling that the Hallmark executives have received 4,000 handwritten letters regarding the movies they make and they know what their – they know what their folks like and they know what they don’t.
John: Absolutely. All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is actually a genuinely cool One Cool Thing.
Craig: I saw this. So good.
John: This is so good. So I’ll link to an article by Pam Belluck writing for the New York Times, but this is a man who suffered from a stroke and lost the ability to speak and other abilities as well, but still had thinking thoughts and speech inside of him. And so usually what he was doing was using a special pointer so he could tip his head to aim at a pointer with all these letters on it and sort of spell that way. It’s incredibly slow.
What they did is they implanted wires into his brain to figure out basically he still had the instinct of speech, and so the neurons are firing into sort of make the mouth shapes and stuff. They were able to read those and do sort of AI machine learning to figure out what things are firing to try to make what shapes and actually be able to form words. And so he was actually able to generate speech or sort of written speech just based on his brain function.
And so it’s not that he’s thinking a thought and they’re creating that. It’s the intention to speak is being able to translate into actual speech which I think is amazing and really speaks to some great potential for new technologies down the road. I’m so excited about this.
Craig: Yeah. This is the kind of thing when you look at it you go, oh, we see what the end game is for sure. Because right now they’re using this algorithm to interpret the brain waves into the words that they think the brain waves would have formed. And in the article it says about 50% of the time when it comes to single words the algorithm gets it right. When he was given sentences on a screen to essentially repeat in his mind the algorithm did even better. Well, if it’s at 50% now it’s going to be at 100% at some point definitely. Whether that’s five years from now, or ten, we don’t know. Or, by the way, it could be one year from now. These things move quickly.
John: And of course it doesn’t have to be perfect to be incredibly helpful and useful. I think about the technologies we’ve used to sort of enable input and so like everything from glasses to cochlear implants to other things to help people get the information in. To be able to get the information out in a different way just feels really smart.
The same article was talking about how you still have the instinct to move your hands in certain ways. And so they sometimes can use that to actually figure out like, OK, it’s as if you’re typing but you’re not actually typing and then people can sort of mentally type to do stuff.
I was watching some of the most recent spelling bee and you know how kids will write on their hands for stuff? I noticed a lot of them were typing in the air to figure out how stuff is. I feel like we all know – so many people know how to type. I think that’s going to be another way to sort of get those letters out of people’s brains and into screens.
Craig: Yeah. That kind of visualization, translating. It’s a really cool thing. And to kind of unlock the experience of people so that they’re not trapped and they’re alone and simply passively observing but can interact I think is going to extend their lives. And if it doesn’t actually extend their lives it will certainly make their lives so much more enjoyable. And that’s wonderful.
So hooray for science. Science did it again. Not freaking crystals. And I would like to also point out that in the thousands of years that people have been praying to god, prayer has never done what these scientists did. Interesting. Just thought I’d throw that in there. Just a quick mention.
John: [laughs] Small little grenade tossed there at the end.
Craig: Just a tiny little grenade. Right there. Roll it on at the end.
My One Cool Thing is far less controversial than what I just said. It is a new game that I think is available on Steam and iOS and maybe on Android. I don’t know. I don’t pay attention to Android. And it’s called Chicken Police. And I have a link here to a review in the Washington Post. It is a delight. Chicken Police is a film noir story with some sort of mini puzzles throughout. But really more of a kind of whodunit that you’re following along with. And everyone is a human except for like their hands and their heads, which are animals. Some of them are chickens. Some of them are hedgehogs. Some of them are dogs. Some of them are cats. One is a deer.
And it’s fascinating. And it’s funny. It’s very clever. It’s sort of unto itself. It’s not a genre. It’s not like people are sitting around and going people should do the thing where we used to do film noirs but using animals. We should do that again. No. No one has ever done that. But now it is being done. And it’s a great way to wind down at night I find. So, highly recommend – and by the way the artwork is terrific. The voice acting is really good. They put money into this.
Craig: So my One Cool Thing this week is Chicken Police.
John: And what platform are you playing it on? Because do you have your PS4 up there in Calgary?
Craig: Well I have the PS5 up here in Calgary.
John: Oh, nice.
John: I can’t even get one in LA. But you have one up there in Canada. It all makes sense.
Craig: I’m adapting a videogame.
John: That’s true. You are adapting a giant videogame.
Craig: I know a guy. [laughs]
John: You know a guy.
Craig: I know a guy at PlayStation. Yeah, you know. So that helped. Definitely the PlayStation connection was the key. I played a couple of cool games so far. Maybe I’ll save those for next One Cool Things.
John: Excellent. Well that is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced, as always, by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Michael Karman. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter I am @johnaugust. Craig is not really on Twitter. But he sometimes will post a funny gif to things.
We have t-shirts and they’re lovely. You can find them at Cotton Bureau, including the brand new Scriptnotes 10th anniversary t-shirt.
We have some plans for our 10th anniversary that Craig doesn’t even know about yet. So, I’m going to tell him off-mic, but stick around because cool things are coming.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you find the transcripts and sign up for our weekly-ish newsletter called Inneresting which has lots of links to things about writing.
You can sign up to become a premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments like the ones we’re about to record on DVD commentaries. Craig, Megana, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you guys.
Megana: Thank you guys.
John: So, Craig, do you remember DVD commentaries?
Craig: I sure do.
John: What DVD commentaries have you recorded? Where can we hear you do a DVD commentary?
Craig: I recorded DVD commentaries for Scary Movie 3 and for Scary Movie 4. I assume for Superhero. I don’t think I did any for Identity Thief. And I don’t think I did anything for like the movies before. So I’ve just done a few of them.
John: I’ve done a few as well. So I did the first Charlie’s Angels. I did the second Charlie’s Angels which is where I first met the Wibberleys who were the cowriters of that film. I did one for The Nines, which was my own movie, so that would make sense for me to record it. So I did one with Ryan Reynolds and I did one with Melissa McCarthy.
They were a thing. They were a thing that would be added onto the actual physical DVDs when physical DVDs were something that people bought and collected. And I just don’t hear about them anymore and I don’t think people are recording them the same way. Partly because DVDs just don’t sell the same way. And I don’t think there’s a pent up demand to have that extra thing on the disc to make the disc be more valuable than just the movie.
Craig: Yeah. And also they just kind of stank I found. I know that some people really enjoyed listening to them, but I don’t. I just want to watch the movie. I don’t want to hear somebody explain it while I’m watching it.
John: I don’t think I’ve ever actually watched a full DVD commentary. That’s actually part of the problem is that, you know, I don’t think it’s actually the right combination of form and function. If I want to hear a conversation about the movie I just want to hear the conversation and I don’t want it to be interspersed with the film underneath it.
Craig: Yeah. Nor do I want the person who is making the commentary forced to comment on what is onscreen. Because what ends up happening with DVD commentaries is like, OK, yeah, so this was an interesting day. Blah-blah. It’s like you’re constantly restarting a conversation. And you never really get anywhere. I don’t really know what the point is with those things.
John: Yeah. And they weren’t super expensive, but they were expensive enough that they really – it did count. And they had to decide like, OK, when are we going to get studio time to do this because most DVD commentaries were in the era before everyone had a microphone and we could just do this podcast. And I think honestly Craig you ruined them. I think you proved that we did not need them because it’s actually much more helpful than a year after the product came out to hear the commentary is to have commentary immediately after the episode aired, which is what you did with Chernobyl.
Craig: And to divorce that commentary from visuals. And just have a conversation with somebody so that the conversation could unfold naturally and allow – I think an inquisitor is really important. Having somebody ask questions as opposed to leaving somebody there alone to go, “Oh, yeah, OK, so this is blah-blah-blah.” You know? No. Let’s have a conversation. Much more interesting.
John: Yes. So you did the same with Damon Lindelof for Watchmen. And they became successful and highly listened to podcasts which makes a lot of sense. And I think because you’re splitting them from the linearity of the movie or the episode, like you’re not having to track this minute versus that minute, you could talk in an overall sense of like you’ve just watched the episode so now let’s have a discussion the same way that Talking Dead, that show that follows The Walking Dead, can have a discussion of like what happened in the episode rather than sort of minute-by-minute.
Craig: Yeah. And that was maybe the only thing that I actually did that was different was that it was me. It wasn’t people who were watching the show and then having a fan discussion after. There were a few such podcasts for Chernobyl, but I think it was the first one where the person who created the show sat there and kind of did this with an interviewer after each episode. And it was initially, the theory was just that there were things I wanted people to know that were not going to be in the show.
And the nice part about a podcast is, you know, so you didn’t pay for it. It’s not like you bought a DVD and then, oh, including exciting features. You’re like, well, that’s part of the reason I bought this was for the exciting feature. And then I listened to the feature and the podcast stank. It was free so if you didn’t like it you could just turn it off and not listen to it. And you could listen to it in your car. You didn’t have to be at home watching it on TV.
It was more fun doing the Watchmen one because I could be the inquisitor and I could be the fan and ask Damon all the questions that I really, really wanted to know. And put him on the seat. That was fun.
John: There’s also a different relationship to authority because anything that got put on that DVD would have to have sort of all the legal clearances and all that stuff. Versus anyone can record a podcast. And while I’m sure there were discussion with HBO about stuff on that podcast, there was more freedom than there would have been if you had recorded a commentary to go on the actual disc.
Craig: There was as far as I can tell total freedom. I don’t think we got any messages back. It was interesting. The first time I mentioned it to HBO, I don’t know if I’ve said this on the show before, they were interested, but they were tentative. Like it’s a large company and we don’t do new things quickly. We think about new things. We talk about new things. We have meetings about new things. And so they said we want to get on the phone to discuss this with you and there was a phone call with like 30 people on it from HBO.
And they were all kind of trying to wrap their heads around it. I was like guys let me just cut to the chase. It’s super easy. It costs almost nothing. And it’s going to be me and a guy talking for an hour on audio. And then you can listen to it. And if you hate it, just don’t put it out there. But if you like it, we will. That’s all you need to know. Don’t panic and don’t overthink it. It’s very simple.
And that is one of the beauties of the podcast format. Very simple.
John: Yeah. Now I think the other advantage to a podcast format is it’s not bound to time. It doesn’t have to come out the same time as the product came out. So Phil Hay, his One Cool Thing was An Invitation to The Invitation which was a podcast about The Invitation which he was not participating in but it was about the thing he had made. And could focus on that. Or listen to like Office Ladies which is two stars of The Office talking about going through given episodes of The Office ten years later. And it’s a way to sort of go back and celebrate ad thing that doesn’t have to be married to the physical disc or this new printing of The Office DVDs. It can just exist out there in the world by itself. And it can have folks who were involved in the original thing, like Office Ladies, or like Phil’s it doesn’t have to have the imprimatur of the actual artist there.
Craig: That’s right.
John: It’s actually a good use of film criticism degrees, to talk through what this thing meant when it came out and what the resonance is for it now.
Craig: And for the podcasts where you are dealing with the author of the show, one thing that’s nice is that it’s rather a throwback to the old days when you would have Dick Cavett sit with somebody and have a real discussion for an hour that was intelligent and thoughtful and was not bound by a need to titillate or amuse or excite, but really was just, look, we’re going to talk. And if you find this interesting you’ll listen.
But the object of the podcast – for instance for the Chernobyl podcast the real object was to be transparent about an adaptation of history. Not to sell tickets. Or to drive viewership. Because I presumed that nobody would find a podcast first and then an HBO television show second. It would be the other way around. So it really was motivated by a pro-social instinct to put something good out there that would be helpful. And that’s something that DVD commentaries, you just can tell that somebody was forced into a room by gunpoint to do this. [laughs] Nobody wants to be there.
That’s why my favorite ones are Ben Affleck talking about Armageddon, which is amazing. And Arnold Schwarzenegger talking about Conan the Barbarian which is also spectacular. Because one of them is drunk and cranky. And the other one is super into himself but in a childlike way. It’s really great. I love those two. The rest stink.
John: So I’m thinking about my two examples with the second Charlie’s Angels. So I recorded the DVD commentary with the Wibberleys about Charlie’s Angels 2 and we had actually sort of hashed out does that story point make any sense at all. Where did that come from? We just don’t even know. And we could have that conversation but we were also having to keep up with the movie itself a little bit. So we were always feeling like, oh, we can’t dig too deep into it because the movie keeps rolling forward.
Craig: Exactly. It keeps rolling.
John: And then a week or two ago I did an episode of this Spy Master’s podcast where we talked about the second Charlie’s Angels. I thought we were going to talk about the first Charlie’s Angels, which I love and the second Charlie’s Angels which I don’t love as much. But I also feel like I can be kind of honest on this because it’s like, you know, listen, there are some things that just don’t work about this and I have frustrations. And I could have those – I can have a conversation that would never make it onto the DVD copy because it doesn’t promote the movie. It doesn’t speak to the movie’s artistic success, but was just honest about sort of like this is what the intention was, this is what the reality was. And have those come out.
John: Craig, so even though you destroyed DVD commentaries, I think in some ways–
Craig: Feels good.
John: In the destruction you liberated the form for the next.
Craig: I am the breaker of chains.
John: You are the breaker of chains. Don’t stop breaking those chains. And enjoy the Calgary Stampede.
Craig: Thanks John. I’ll see you next week.
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