The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. Today’s episode originally aired in December 2018. In it Craig and I talk about the Worst of the Worst, which we define as that need to make things not just a little uncomfortable for your heroes, but downright awful. We talk about stakes, consequences, and transformation. Mostly, this feels like a feature idea rather than a TV idea, but with the rise of short series I think you’re going to see more and more of these decisions happening on the small screen as well.
Craig and I were not prescient. We’re just feature guys in an industry that was quickly moving towards streaming. So, enjoy this episode. If you’re a premium member stick around after the credits where I’ll be talking with producer Megana Rao about what she’s been learning listening through all the back archives and what she’s seeing out there in the real world as she’s trying to be a writer getting staffed.
John: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 378 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast we’re going to dash hopes, ruin friendships, and destroy things we love most.
Craig: Oh, thank god.
John: As we talk about why bad things need to happen to characters we love. Plus, we’ll be answering questions about WGA signatories and old TV scripts.
Craig: Well that sounds fun.
John: Yeah, Craig, it’s nice to have you back.
Craig: It’s good to be back. I’m so sorry I missed – since I’ve been working and traveling, you’re working and traveling, and then I had some needle shoved into my spine last week.
John: Oh, no, not good. Don’t do that.
Craig: It wasn’t an accident. It was on purpose. There was a medical professional doing it.
John: All the kids are doing it.
Craig: All the kids are doing it.
John: Yeah, just inject – first it was Juuls, and then they’re injecting things into their spines.
Craig: Exactly. So that was why. Initially it was supposed to happen first thing in the morning and our podcast interview with Phil and Matt was going to be in the afternoon, and then they had an adjustment. So when I got out of that thing I was about two hours away from doing the podcast and just feeling really weird and oogie. So, yeah, but I’m back. I’m back.
John: He’s back. He’s no longer oogie. He’s full of boogie. And you can see Craig in person on December 12th which is tomorrow as this episode comes out. We are doing our live show in Hollywood. Our guests are fantastic. Zoanne Clack of Grey’s Anatomy, Pamela Ribon of Ralph Breaks the Internet. Cherry Chevapravatdumrong of Family Guy and The Orville, plus Phil Lord and Chris Miller of Lego Movie and the new Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse. So we are hyping this show, but for all I know we’re sold out and it’s just–
Craig: We should be based on that list of people. By the way, Zoanne Clack I think is a medical doctor.
John: She’s a medical doctor. So if Craig has an emergency, she’s the person.
Craig: We’ll be talking about my spine on that show. But this is an amazing lineup of people. Totally – everybody from different places – well, we do have three representatives of animation come to think of it. All right. All right. Lord and Miller, I mean, boom, Pam Ribon has got this huge movie out. Everybody is famous. And you know what? Why would anyone not want to go to this show? Plus, me and you.
John: Well that’s us. I mean, that’s the other celebrities in this whole thing.
John: Sometimes we like try to land a big name and then it’s like, you know what, let us be the big names sometimes.
Craig: We’re the big name.
John: Zoanne Clack, yes, she’s a medical doctor, but what I really want to talk to her about on the show is how she’s transitioned from being a doctor to writing a show about doctors. Because we get so many questions from listeners about like “I am a police detective, but I want to write detective stories.” And that’s an interesting, fascinating transition. She has done it, so she will be able to tell us what that life is like.
Craig: Maybe she can also chat a little bit about our episode where we went through all the mistakes that, like the fake medicine on TV. I wonder if she’s ever – well, you know what, let’s save the Zoanne questions for when we’re with Zoanne.
John: Absolutely. We also have another live show to announce. I’m very excited to announce that we are doing a screening of Princess Bride and an episode afterwards in which we’ll be talking about the movie we just saw. So, William Goldman passed away this past month. We are going to be doing a series of screenings for the WGA. This is going to be at the WGA Theater on January 27th. So, Craig and I will watch the movie then discuss the movie afterwards with the audience. And so this is I think going to be open up to everyone. So once there are tickets there will be a link in the show notes for that. I’m very excited to do that.
Craig: Yeah. Me too. It’s one of my favorite movies and William Goldman was a giant. So it’ll be nice. It’ll be nice to do that in his memory.
John: Absolutely. And so this will be kind of a trial run also because I’d like to do more of these on the whole. So if this goes well there’s some movies down the road I want to do a deep dive on. We’ll screen them and then do a deep dive. So we’ll let this be a test run.
John: Brilliant. We have some follow up. First is from Partis about the Start Button. Craig, do you want to take this?
Craig: Sure. OK, so Pardis writes, “The problem with the system you outlined on the podcast where the WGA can be the bad guy if you ask them to, calling the studio on your behalf to enforce the terms of your writing agreement is that the studio knows the WGA is only calling because you, the writer, have asked them to. And since writers are more dispensable than directors, yes, you can get labeled as a diva or as a problem child or as more trouble than you’re worth and lose out on future writing assignments as a result. So, what’s the solution?”
Pardis says, “A system whereby the WGA is alerted to commencement on a feature automatically. And a system whereby the WGA checks on progress for all feature products automatically without asking the writer first. That way the studio can’t blame any specific writer for asking the guild to be the bad guy. There’s just automatic oversight across the board. But, how can we put this system into place if the guild isn’t already alerted to commencement automatically?
“Option number 1: Negotiate a meaningful financial penalty into the next contract for studios that fail to file their paperwork for new project with an X number of days of the agreement being signed. That money can go toward covering the guild’s increased oversight and enforcement costs.
“Option number 2: Create a small financial penalty for writers who fail to alert the WGA that they’ve started work on a new project. Option 2, because then the studio can’t get mad at writers for alerting the WGA about new projects because writers have no choice but to inform the WGA directly less the writers be penalized themselves.”
John: All right, so let’s take a look at Pardis’ suggestions here and sort of how Pardis is laying out the situation. So, I think what Pardis is suggesting overall have some merit to it. You want the WGA to be the bad guy. You want the WGA to step up and do this work on behalf of writers. And if it feels like the WGA is only calling the studio or only getting involved because the writer complained I can understand that hesitation.
That said, the goal is for this to feel like it is just automatic. It’s like changing the way we’re just doing this on a regular basis. And so that even without a financial penalty for failing to hit the Start Button and report a new project, that it will become a matter of course for writers to do this. And the WGA has increased already the number of enforcement people there are to do that work. And so they are going to be checking up on people anyway. And so regardless of hitting the Start Button or not hitting the Start Button, there’s a lot more outreach to say like, hey, what are you working on, how is this going, and are you being paid on time? Is anything going on? And that is one of the overall goals and functions of the WGA is to make sure that our members are being paid and are treated appropriately.
Craig: These ideas, all ideas really, have been discussed ad nauseam since I have been involved in WGA stuff, which is, you know, over 14 years ago or something. But I would say that Pardis you’re not the first person to suggest that we should maybe start penalizing writers. But good luck. It’s not a great idea, honestly, to essentially crack down on writers to solve the problem that is created by studios. We already have enough problems. You’re dealing with writers that are already being abused and now they have to send money to the guild because they’ve been abused? It’s not great.
Can you get a meaningful financial penalty for studios that fail to file their paperwork? No. Probably not. And again when things start is kind of fuzzy. So, the Start Button actually is the best idea I’ve seen to date. And I think it will bear fruit. So I would say, Pardis, patience.
John: Related aspect here is that when you are hitting a Start Button or even now if you’re not hitting the Start Button, you are supposed to upload your contracts. And so I have been uploading my contracts. Everyone is supposed to upload their contracts that show all the steps of your deal. When the WGA has this information they can be checking on it independently so they don’t need to necessarily wait for you to say that there’s a problem. They can say like, hey, according to what we have this is what’s happening on this project – is this accurate? And you need to answer that honestly. And so that is a way in which the WGA can become involved, even if you are not reaching out to them to say help me here.
Craig: Yeah. Hopefully this works the way we would want it to in an ideal situation where the guild is helping you without feeling like they’re bonking you on the head. And in getting in your work process. So, let’s see how it goes.
John: Second bit of follow up, a previous One Cool Thing was the show Please Like Me. And last night I was out and randomly bumped into Josh Thomas the creator and star of Please Like Me. And so I want to talk a little bit about sort of what to do when you meet somebody who you’ve only seen their work in person. Because it can be sometimes kind of awkward. So what I did is I said, “Oh hey, you don’t know me, but I thought your show was fantastic and you do great work.” I asked him if he moved to Los Angeles fulltime and is writing here and he is. And then I left him be and let him sort of go on and be about his night.
So maybe we’ll get him on the show at some point and he can talk about what he’s doing here. But as a person who gets approached like Josh Thomas gets approached in that situation I want to talk about sort of best practices when you’re going up to talk to someone whose work you admire, but it’s in a social situation. Because, Craig, you must encounter this, too.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, it’s not on a daily basis by any stretch of the imagination, but it does happen. And mostly people seem to do it well. You know, I haven’t had any weird encounters. Any actor that’s on television has astronomically more of these encounters than you or I. And my guess is just that numbers wise they’re going to run into some odd ducks, probably at least once a day.
John: Yeah. So I would just say I would encourage – if there’s a person who is doing great work and you want to say like, oh, I really like the thing you’re doing. It’s good to say that, because sometimes it’s just good to hear that you’re making stuff that the world appreciates. But I would say if you’re going to make that approach plan for an out that’s going to get you out of that conversation within 30 seconds to a minute, because they were going about their life before you interrupted them. And so you want to be able to say what you need to say and then like let them go off and do their thing. If they want to keep engaged, they can engage. But make sure you’re giving them the release to get out of the conversation.
Craig: And take a look at their face before you walk up to them, because listen, everybody is a person. Everybody is going through stuff. Sometimes we’re in a nice happy mood, sometimes we’re in a neutral state of mind. Sometimes we’re concerned, we’re running late, we’re sad, we’re nervous. And then we don’t want anyone talking to us. Anyone, by the way. Much less people that we don’t know. So, just take a look. I know it’s hard because – and again, this isn’t something that I think anyone has towards somebody like me – but when people see a movie star in their minds they think you know what it doesn’t matter how they’re feeling and it doesn’t matter what’s going on. This is my moment to shake Tom Cruise’s hand and I’m doing it. Because the rest of my life I shook Tom Cruise’s hand, right? I had that moment. And he’ll get over it and he will. He will. But, you know, it’s not that big – who cares? I guess that’s my whole thing is like who cares.
John: My ground zero for getting recognized, well of course Austin Film Festival I get recognized a lot there, which is – I sort of go there knowing that’s going to happen. The lobby of the ArcLight I get spotted a lot. And sometimes at the Grove. And there was one time I was walking through the lobby of the ArcLight and this guy goes, “Wait, you’re that writer guy. You’re good.” I’m like, OK. I guess I’m good. Thank you, random stranger. That’s nice.
Craig: You’re that writer guy. Well, that’s pretty much right. This is one of the nice things about living in La Cañada is that nobody cares. Nobody cares. They don’t care.
John: Let’s get to our marquee topic which is bad things and bad things happening to the characters that you love. This came up for me this morning because I was working through the third book of Arlo Finch and I was looking at my outline and just looking at how many bad things happen, which is just a tremendous number. I think partly because it is the third and final book, so if something could happen this is the last place where it could happen. But also the character has grown to a place where he can handle some things that he couldn’t otherwise handle. So, there’s a lot of serious stuff that happens in the third book.
But I want to talk about it because I think there’s this instinct to sort of protect our heroes, protect our characters, and it’s hard to sort of get us over the hump of like, no, no, no, you have to – not just allow bad things to happen but make bad things happen to your heroes in order to generate story. And this is really very much probably more a feature conversation than a television conversation because in ongoing series there will be conflict within an episode, but you won’t destroy everything in their life every week. But in features that’s a really important part.
Craig: It’s a huge part. And, yes, you’re right. In television you need to make sure that people come back the next week in roughly the same shape you found them. So there will be little mini ups and downs. But in movies we feel narratively like we have to see people torn apart. And this goes all the way back to the bible.
John: Oh, the bible.
Craig: The story of Job.
John: Tell me the story of Job.
Craig: I will. And I should mention I don’t believe in anything in the bible. However, the bible is evidence of something. And it is evidence I think of deep seeded instinctive narrative patterns in the human mind. They are expressions of these things that are in us. They are not always sensible or logical, but they are there. So, that’s how I’m going to take a look at the story of Job. It’s a very simple story. Job is a very pious guy. He believes in God. He’s just super godly. And God therefore rewards him with a fortune and health and, I don’t know, bountiful crops, or I don’t know, whatever God would give people. And God is hanging out one day with Satan, as he used to do, and Satan says, “You know, Job only loves you because you reward him.” And this is a general moral conundrum that has been dissected over time. You watch The Good Place, right?
John: Oh yeah. It’s fantastic.
Craig: Of course, so they refer to this as moral dessert. The idea that you behave well so that you get your reward from whatever metaphysical/supernatural deity you believe in. And God says, “No, no, no, no, no. Job loves me because he’s a good guy. And I’ll prove it. I will remove my protection from him and you go ahead and do whatever you want to him. And you’ll see. He’ll stand by me.” And so that’s what happens. God removes his protection and Satan begins to torment Job – torment him – torment his health, and ruin his crops, and scatter his children. It’s just awful. Like every bad thing you could do to somebody he does to Job. And Job just stands by God.
And in the end, you’re the winner Job, and God rerewards him and gives him even more crops and frankincense or whatever they had back then.
So, why am I bringing up the story of Job? Because there’s a moral inherent to it that I think is why we need, narratively, to torture our characters. And the idea is that our goodliness or our growth or whatever you want to call the evolution of our selves, the betterment of our selves, it doesn’t count to other people unless it is perceived to come at terrible cost.
Now, is that actually true? I don’t think so. I think it’s perfectly possible to become a better person without suffering. But when it comes to narrative it seems like we need it or we don’t believe the change.
John: Yeah. We didn’t see the work. We didn’t see the struggle. We didn’t see sort of the cost and it doesn’t feel like it was merited.
Craig: Exactly. So what we like to see is somebody that has experienced a trauma and they’re going to get over the trauma but only by facing it in the most hard and difficult way. They are going to repair a relationship with somebody by that person leaving them. They’re going to appreciate what they have because they lose it all. So, every character starts with this flaw and then we as the writers we torment them and force them to confront it through a series of increasingly difficult trials the way that Satan did to Job. And through that there is this falling apart. Break you down to lift you up. And we call this the low point.
The low point in a movie is the low point because the writer has tortured the hero to the point where they give up. They finally give up. That’s what you have to do is – you’ve lost your, whatever your ego is, and your hubris, and you give up and from that you will rise back. But those moments are so notable. And one of my favorite versions of that is the Team America puke scene which is just perfect. It’s perfect.
John: Let’s play a clip from the Team America puke scene.
So this scene classically is a character who has lost everything and then sort of loses more and in this case is literally vomiting up the last they have left. But let’s talk about some of those things that a character can lose and list off some of those classic things you’ll see characters losing here.
Some bad things might be to take away their home. So you might literally burn it down, or you might cast them out of society. You might take away their support system, so taking away their friends, their family, the institutions, the organizations that they’re a part of. You might have the rest of the world see them as the villain. And so you have a hero who is being perceived as the villain which is horrible. Incarcerate them. I have a note here sort of incarceration, also the weird case of Paul Manafort at this moment. So as we’re recording this, this is a guy who is going to probably be in jail for the rest of his life and he’s acting really strangely which leads me to believe that there’s something else he could lose, which is always fascinating to speculate on that. There’s something worse than being in prison for all this time and so he’s acting on behalf of that. So figuring out what that is.
You can kill a character. You can lop off a limb. You can force them to act against their own beliefs, so classically they have the daughter kidnapped and so therefore they have to do things that they can’t believe. You can sew tension and conflict between their allies. You can destroy the item they love most, so it’s like he finally gets that car he’s been hoping for his all his life and you destroy that thing.
So, those losses are bad things you’re doing to your character and they’re pretty crucial. If you don’t do some of those kinds of things over the course of your movie it’s probably not a movie.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, what you’re doing is burning away what needs to be burned away. And it’s unpleasant. And we need it to be unpleasant. We need to see this character suffer. What is it, hamartia I think is the Greek word for suffering. And then catharsis is essentially vomiting. Which is one of the reasons why I like that scene so much because they just did it.
Humiliation is something that we see all the time. The writer creates circumstances in which the hero is humiliated. Where they lose all sense of self-worth and pride. We can kill or harm the people they love the most. We can make them feel terribly guilty and confront them with the consequences of what they’ve done. It’s good because it’s tortuous.
There’s that scene, people of our age always remember this moment in the second Superman movie from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s where Superman willingly gives up his power so that he can marry Lois Lane. And he gets beaten up by some guy in a bar. And it’s crushing. It’s crushing because you see someone brought low. I remember seeing that scene in the theater and feeling terrible inside. And it was the same feeling I had when I watched the animated The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe when all the evil Snow Queen and her minions shave the mane off of Aslan.
Craig: Take his hair away and reduce him to just this pathetic wretch. And, yeah, it’s – you need it. You need it or else when they come back you don’t feel anything.
John: Yeah. So let’s talk about the timing of when these bad things happen, because there’s a couple different moments over the course of a movie where you see these things happening classically. So, the first is the inciting incident or whatever you want to call that moment early in the story that sort of kicks this story into gear. And so, you know, in the first 10 to 15 minutes of a story where a change has happened. This is the village is raided and the hero’s parents are killed. This is a big change has happened that is starting this story with this character.
Often the end of act one. So you’ve arrived at a new place. We’re not in Kansas anymore. The hero’s house has burnt down. We’re entering a new world. There’s a big change and the hero has lost something. They may be excited about what they’re headed towards, but there is a loss. They’ve crossed into a place where they can’t get back to where they were before.
There’s a lot of times, moments in the second act that are going to be losses, where allies turn on them, where new obstacles arise. There’s a plan that fails, seeing things that were important to the character that we were hoping for for the character don’t come true. And then classically the biggest of these losses, which is probably the vomit scene from Team America, is the end of act two, sort of the worst of the worst, which is you’ve gotten to this point and you’ve lost everything. It should generally be the character’s lowest point, or at least the lowest point in this character and how they’ve evolved over the course of the story. That thing that looked like it was potentially in their reach has been taken away from them. And that’s classically the end of the second act.
Craig: It’s the end because there’s nothing left to lose. You, the writer, have beaten it all out of them. They have no pride left. They have no resources. Or whatever it is. You’ve removed the stuff that they were relying on. Their crutches are all gone.
It’s important to note that when you visit these bad things on your character you must do so sadistically. It’s not enough to just have some bad things happen. You have to do them in a way that is deeply ironic and miserable. Especially miserable. Because then oddly the more exquisite the torture the more we feel positively when they overcome it.
So, the example I always think about is Marlin at the beginning of Finding Nemo. He’s a happy fish and he’s there with his wife and their hundreds of little babies. And they’ve found a place to live. And then his wife is eaten and all of the babies are eaten except for one. And that is very bad. But then Pixar understood it’s not bad enough. They have to make that little one disabled. They have to give him a bad fin so that he will need even more protection. And then that’s not enough. He is the one that goes missing. And so you have to go get him. And that’s not enough. In the end you have to let him go into more danger to save a friend. And then that’s not enough. You have to feel like he died there. And in that moment where Marlin thinks that Nemo is dead, he flashes back to holding him as a little egg and if you’re human you cry. Because the torture has been so exquisite. And therefore the relief and joy is beautiful and our appreciation for how far Marlin has come as a character is real.
They earned it. Did I ever tell the story of Jose Fernandez, the pitcher?
John: No. Tell me.
Craig: So this sort of goes to what I think of as the essential ingredient of character torture is irony. It’s not enough to just sort of make bad things happen. You have to do it in a way that feels ironic, as if the world had conspired against them.
So, it’s a guy named Jose Fernandez. Like a lot of baseball players he came from Cuba. So he had to escape from Cuba and he escaped on a small boat with – it was one of these crowded boats full of refugees and at some point on the voyage the boat gets tossed and turned and someone says, “Someone has gone overboard,” and without even thinking Jose Fernandez just jumps into the ocean to save whoever that person is. And he does. He grabs them. He brings them back on board. He pulls them up. They live. And it turns out that the person he saved was his own mother. He didn’t even know it.
He arrives in the United States and he becomes a baseball player. Not just a baseball player. He is an amazing pitcher. He plays for the Marlins. He is fantastic. He is going to earn many, many hundreds of millions of dollars. So, just the kind of dream come true for somebody that had to escape Cuba on a small boat and rescue his mother from drowning.
Unfortunately, two years ago he died. He died in an accident. And if I told you that he died in a car accident you would think that’s bad. But he didn’t die in a car accident. He died in a boating accident.
John: Oh my.
Craig: And that is ironic in a terrible way. It implies that the universe was doing something. It had its thumbs on the scale so to speak. It is tortuous to think of. And when we write our terrible tortures for our characters I think it’s important for us to think of that. Because – and it’s a sad thing of course – but the worse it is and the more ironic it is the better the ending feels.
John: Yeah. Well let’s talk about sort of how those bad things come into the story. Because I can think of three main ways you see those bad things happening. The first is an external event. So that’s the earthquake. That’s the world war. In Finding Nemo that is the – is it a shark who eats the fish originally?
Craig: No, he gets grabbed by some fishermen who are looking to capture fish to sell, like for aquariums.
John: No, but at the very start of the movie where–
Craig: Oh yeah, it’s like a barracuda or something like that.
John: So that’s really an external threat because that – so barracuda is not the primary villain of the story. I don’t remember Finding Nemo that well. That barracuda itself never comes back.
Craig: Correct. It was just nature.
John: It’s nature actually. So some external force that you cannot actually defeat comes back. But sometimes it is the villain itself who is the character who arrives who is the one who is causing the suffering. So, every James Bond movie. Many fairy tales. Die Hard is an example. So, there’s a personified threat. A villain who is doing the thing that is causing the suffering. That is beginning the suffering.
But in some of my favorite movies it is the hero themselves that is doing the action that is causing the problem. So if you look at Inside Out or Ralph Breaks the Internet or Toy Story, it is the hero who is causing the problem. The hero who is ultimately responsible for the suffering that the characters are going through. And that’s often great writing. Because it gets back to the idea of like what is the character’s flaw and something about that character’s flaw is causing the suffering. And we see them having to address that flaw in order to stop the suffering.
Craig: No question. It’s very common with Pixar movies. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of a Pixar movie where the bad stuff is majority villain driven other than Bug’s Life, where Kevin Spacey, a real life villain, portrayed a villainous grasshopper. But typically in Pixar films – and sort of I guess in The Incredibles, but yeah, mostly they bring it upon themselves because it is more interesting.
John: I mean, in The Incredibles movies there’s sort of an attenuated thing where it’s like it’s because of past actions, it’s a boomerang effect that sort of comes back in, but it’s not a thing we saw them do at the start of the movie. It’s not generally responsible for most of the suffering.
John: But movies are about consequences and if characters are allowed to freely make choices and then have to suffer the consequences of those choices, that is good and appropriate and compelling storytelling, especially for a feature which is something that is designed to happen just once.
So, a television show theoretically should be able to repeat itself ad nauseam. A feature is sort of a one-time journey for a character. And so that one-time journey is going to about big steps and big swings and big failures when they happen.
Craig: No question.
John: So some takeaway on this idea of bad things happening to your characters. I would say really as you’re breaking a story you have to be thinking about what are the biggest worst things that could happen. And when I say the biggest worst things that are in the universe of your story. So, obviously you can’t stick a tornado in space. But within the context of your movie what are those and what are the character effects for it?
I think so often when we get notes about like well the stakes feel light here, sometimes the proposed solution is to make it be – it’s the end of the world. Like if we don’t do this then everyone else around us dies. I think that sometimes that’s mistaking the bigger scale for more personal consequences for the things that the characters are going through. So, making sure that it feels like a punishment very specifically tailored to this character that you’ve created.
Craig: Exactly. And you don’t have to – you don’t have to substitute volume of badness for quality of badness. In the beginning of John Wick the bad guys basically kill his dog. Which in and of itself would be like OK that’s bad, except it was the last gift he received from his deceased wife. That’s all it takes. I’m good.
And, you know, it doesn’t have to be this massive visitation of problems. Sometimes it’s just the cruelty of it really. Little bits of cruelty.
John: The Wizard of Oz, she’s trying to take Toto away at the start. That horrible woman is trying to bicycle away with Toto. That’s horrible. And that’s absolutely the right scale of problem for that movie so before the tornado comes that is what we’re experiencing. We can see it from Dorothy’s eyes like this is one of the worst things she can imagine ever happening.
Craig: A lot of times I do think about The Wizard of Oz when people start harping on stakes in meetings. Because I’m like what are the stakes exactly? What are the stakes?
John: There aren’t stakes in a classic way. It’s not like the Lollipop Guild was being horribly oppressed. It’s not like there was – she ended up changing the world but kind of by accident.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I guess the stakes were that she would get killed or something. I don’t know. But yeah, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s really more about how closely we empathize with the character and the stakes are whatever is stakey to them. It’s about what makes them feel. And if you make me feel what they’re feeling, those are stakes. That counts.
John: Absolutely. In a previous discussion we talked about want and want versus need, which I think is a false dichotomy. But when characters express their wants they have a positive vision of the future. So they can imagine a future and in that future their life is better because they have this thing that they want. And that’s a positive vision. Fear is a negative vision of the future. And so they are afraid. They’ve seen the future and in the future their life is worse because this thing has happened or has been taken away from them.
That’s really what we’re talking about with these things we’re trying to – these horrors we’re trying to visit upon our characters is that those things that they feared or those things they didn’t even think they had to fear, those are happening to them now in this story and they have to figure out how to deal with it.
John: All right. Let’s get to some listener questions. First off is James in Napier, New Zealand. I assume it’s Napier, but maybe it’s pronounced a different way. It feels like one of those words where it could be Napier, or Napier.
Craig: I think it’s probably Napier.
John: Napier. James writes, “How in god’s name do you make sure a TV script is the right length? There’s a lot of flexibility in how feature film scripts can run. I know the one-minute per page rule is a rough guide when you’re writing. TV and radio are much more time-constrained so how do you make sure the script is exactly the right length to start with? And how do you keep it that way during production?”
Craig, you just went through TV.
Craig: Yeah. We’re doing this right now. Don’t panic over here, James. It’s no big deal. Generally speaking, you know, we’ve got this rough 30-page/60-page guideline for half an hour or an hour. But the truth of the matter is it’s all guess work. The pages don’t really conform clearly to one-minute per page. Things are going to get cut. Some things are going to be expanded.
The good news is that we don’t really live in the world where the vast majority of television is constrained by rigid time formats. Everything is far more loosey-goosey now which is nice. If you’re writing for network television, different story. But with that point I would say, again, don’t panic. You can edit. And you can speed things up or slow them down editorially. So just generally, you know, get roughly in that zone and that’s what it will be.
And, you know, my experience at least with Chernobyl so far is that the scripts – at least for the first four episodes – are around 59 to 63 pages and they’re all timing out to be about an hour.
John: It does work that way. I was talking with Rob Thomas, the creator of Veronica Mars and iZombie and other shows and Rob hates the one-page-per-minute rule because he feels that sometimes networks try to value it too much. And so the way he writes it doesn’t really match up that well. He believes that you could probably actually do a word count that would more accurately reflect how long something really will take to fill.
I don’t know if that’s true, but I think it’s an interesting experiment. The truth though is that once you start making a show, so iZombie or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or any of Derek’s Chicago shows, they know. Ultimately they get a sense of like, OK, our scripts need to be about this length because this is what the episodes cut out to be. And even then there will be episodes that are running long for a while and they have to find way to get two minutes out of it. And when we had the Game of Thrones creators on, Benioff and Weiss, they were talking about how in the first season their episodes were too short. They didn’t understand sort of how long stuff was going to play. And so they needed to add additional scenes to sort of fill them out because they just didn’t have a sense of how long an episode was going to be based on the script page.
Craig: Exactly. All right. Joe has a question. He writes, “I am a WGA member. I have an offer on the table from a reputable Middle Eastern production company looking to produce a more Western style show. The offer is about 15% less than WGA minimums. They won’t go any higher because they say lower budgets and the Arabic-speaking portion of the MENA territory,” Middle East, I don’t know, “simply doesn’t support it. I asked the WGA and they said flatly I cannot work for any company who is not a WGA signatory.
“I asked my reps and was told the WGA does not have jurisdiction here and becoming a signatory should not be what stands in the way of signing this deal. To be honest, the WGA response rubbed me the wrong way because it felt like they were using me to gain signatories when they didn’t have anything to lose and I did. A job.
“That said, I owe a lot to the WGA. I’m eking out a meager living as a writer and I recognize the WGA is part of that. But I don’t have so much work that I can just turn stuff down willy-nilly. So, does the WGA actually have jurisdiction here?”
John, what do you think?
John: I think there’s probably some situation in which you can be hired by a foreign company as a WGA member and they don’t have to pay you minimums. But this is probably not one of those situations. I know there’s international working rules, essentially one of the things the WGA needs to make sure never happens is that international companies sort of come in and sort of scoop up American writers to really write American things but try to pay them less than that. So I think that is why the WGA’s response is that.
But, Craig, you know more about the rules. Tell me.
Craig: Well, I have an understanding here, but it will be interesting. I would love to get the WGA’s official position on this. My understanding is that the WGA here is correct. The issue is that Joe is here and the WGA’s jurisdiction covers the United States. It is chartered by the Department of Labor. So, if you are a member of the WGA and you are writing something here in the United States it has to be for a WGA signatory. You cannot go lower than that. Period. The end. Assuming that there is an applicable collective bargaining agreement which obviously there is here.
So, no, you can’t do that. Listen, Sony, right, owns Columbia. We call them Sony now. Well obviously Sony is a Japanese company. So why wouldn’t Sony just start saying everybody who works for Columbia Pictures, we’re actually employing you under the Japanese branch of Sony, so you don’t have to do WGA. No. That doesn’t work that way. At all.
John: So I suspect that where we could get to with Joe is if this company was willing to fly you over to the Middle East and put you up there and you were doing your writing services there–
John: They could pay you less than that and that would not be a great situation for you. So not only are you giving up 15% of this money, which by the way 15% of scale is not a ton of money. I just feel like they could find that money for you. But, you are giving up your credit protections. You are giving up kind of all the stuff. Health and pension. You’re giving up much more than you sort of think to take that job. So that is why we have protections like this so that you cannot be undercut by a foreign thing.
So could this company form a WGA signatory? Yes they could. It would be great if they did.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t think the WGA, by the way, Joe is using you to get this company to sign up as a signatory. I don’t think they care about this company. I think they care about everybody else that’s in the WGA and the value of our minimums not being degraded. So, what I would say here is you can say to them, listen, this isn’t me asking you for anything. I’m not allowed to do this. And, by the way, company, if you come here to the United States you can’t get anybody in the WGA to do this. None of us will be able to do this. You’re going to have get a non-WGA writer.
So, you know, which generally speaking won’t probably be as good. So, that’s where they’re at, Joe.
John: All right. Kofi from Woodbridge, New Jersey writes, “My question pertains to the release of completed scripts after a television show has aired or a movie has been released to the public. Who decides whether or not the completed script will ever be released? I’d love to read the script for every episode of my favorite shows, but usually only the scripts for the pilot and episodes selected for awards are available. Movie scripts can be hit or miss, too. Why isn’t every script made available to be read for educational purposes?”
Craig: Well, there are certain circumstances where the writers actually have the publication rights over screenplays. If you have separated rights in feature films that means you have a Story By or Written By credit then I believe you have the right to publish your screenplay.
But, look, by and large they don’t do it because it takes time and it costs some amount of money and it takes some tiny bit of effort and they’re just not willing. It’s no one’s job. It’s a massive company and they can look around and who wants to be the person responsible for scanning and posting 4,000 screenplays. Nobody wants to do it. And there isn’t really a huge clamoring for it, which, you know, is a bit of a bummer. That said, there are plenty of kind of underground swap meets for these things online. I’ve seen them around.
So, yeah, it would be nice. But it comes down to sheer laziness and lack of interest, I think.
John: So, the situation is actually a lot different than it was 25 years ago when Craig and I were starting. I remember when I arrived at USC for film school they had a script library. You could go down and could check out two scripts from this library and they were literally printed bound scripts. Not even brads in them, but these special posts that sort of like are sturdier than brads. You could check them out and read them and take them back in. And it was a great experience for me to read all of these scripts from classic movies I loved but also things that had never been produced and it was a really good experience.
So, I think reading scripts is fantastic. But, now there’s the Internet and now there are PDFs of screenplays. And so while Kofi can’t find all the screenplays he wants to read, he can find a ton of them. I mean, even just in Weekend Read we have hundreds of scripts. Things that are going for awards, those are posted online and those things are easy to find. It’s harder to find the scripts for movies that are not sort of award contenders. But, you can kind of find them.
But Kofi’s more interesting point is he wants to read the episodic scripts. Those are harder to find. You tend to find pilots or just those marquee episodes of things. And it’s great to read the normal episodes. That’s one of those things where it actually is much easier to do if you are in this town. Because then you just have networks and assistants at places who can get you copies of scripts. They’re not really under lock and key. They don’t have a lot of value in and of themselves. You can’t do anything with the scripts and so no one is trying to sort of keep them from you. But what Craig said is like it’s no one’s job to publish them or post them. That’s why they don’t happen.
Craig: That’s why they don’t happen. Well, keep looking. And by the way, Kofi, spent a lot of time in the mall over there in Woodbridge myself, so just waving hi to you back there in the old country.
And we’ve got one more question here from Cory right here in LA who writes, “I’ve got an award-winning short film and I just hired a screenwriter to adapt it into a feature. Though I’ve come up with much of the story, he will be hitting the keys to bring the story and script together. I am a one-man production band with a small production company. I’d like to make sure that I am setting both he and I up for success.” That should be him and I. Setting both him and me. Yeah. Because, right. Anyway.
“I’d like to make sure that I’m setting both him and me up for success and possible WGA membership or eligible points toward. First, should or must I make my company a WGA signatory? Second, since I or rather my company is self-financing his writing of the screenplay do I need to adhere to WGA payment standards to allow him eligibility? Finally, if I’m the creator of the original work and I’ve come up and will be credited with Story By is there an opportunity for me to earn WGA points or is that just for the screenwriter?”
Oh, excellent list of membership questions there, John. What do you think?
John: Absolutely. So, I don’t have all the answers but I will tell you that you’re not the first person to encounter this and I think the WGA has done a much better job over the last ten years dealing with these kinds of situations. I think Howard Rodman deserves a lot of the credit for that.
John: What you’re describing is probably a low budget independent film. And if you go to the WGA website there are resources there to talk you through what happens with low budget independent films. Classically these were done outside of WGA jurisdiction. But recognizing that some of the best work was happening there and this was obviously writer’s first work they set up these low budget agreements so that you can do this kind of stuff. That you don’t have to pay people the full amounts for writing services and other things but still allows for things like credit protections. It allows for other parts of what you get with a WGA package for these productions.
So, I suspect you will click through on the site, we’ll put a link in the show notes, and see what you need to do and how you sort of put the script into a place where it’s eligible for these low budget agreements. And I don’t think you will have to become a full signatory. I think there’s just ways you can sort of use an associate membership to get you started here. So, it’s good you’re doing it. It’s good you’re thinking about this now. But just read the stuff and then make the thing.
Craig: Yeah. Definitely you want to take a look at that low budget independent film agreement. To become a full-fledged WGA signatory there are quite a few hoops to jump through. I mean, it’s not trial by fire or anything, but for instance you need to show that you have enough financial resources to be able to cover your residuals obligations. So in this case because it’s just you and this is just one independent film I think that’s the way to go. Take a look at it.
In terms of credit, the original work will be considered source material. It was written outside of the WGA so it will be based on a short film by blah-blah-blah. If you want proper WGA story credit, on the title page of the screenplay it would need to say Screenplay by Jim, Story by Jim and Corey. And that, of course, requires Jim to agree. The truth is the story in the original film is essentially akin to the story in a novel. The novelist doesn’t automatically get WGA credit for the movie of it. They have to actually do some work. So in this case what you would need to do to warrant Story by credit or Shared Story by credit is to work up a written story for the new movie that you’re talking about, either on your own or with the screenwriter that you’re hiring, and then that is now part of this chain of title of the work that’s leading up to this film that would be covered by the independent film low budget agreement.
Hopefully that makes sense.
John: I think it makes sense.
John: All right, it’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing feels like a Craig One Cool Thing, but it’s the story in the New York Times by Moises Velasquez-Manoff and it’s about how emergency rooms and other medical professionals are starting to examine ketamine as a suicide prevention or a suicide drug for dealing with people who show up suicidal and it seems like it is potentially a quick life-saving drug to be using for people with severe suicide ideation.
So, it’s a really nicely written up story about the potential of a drug which we only think of in sort of bad context possibly having some really good uses.
Craig: Yeah. It was a fascinating article. Totally my kind of thing. Ketamine is one of these drugs that’s been around for a long time and it’s kind of one of those – I think the World Health Organization has their list of essential medicines, like if you were building your doomsday locker of medicines you’d want ketamine in there. It is a sedative. It is kind of a tranquilizer sort of thing. It can be used anesthetically, you know.
And what they found, and I didn’t realize this, but in this article they are saying that very small doses of ketamine can almost stop suicidal ideation in its tracks. So you have somebody coming in who is in severe distress who was just taken by the cops off of the side of a bridge and brought to the emergency room and you give them this tiny injection of ketamine and suddenly they don’t have that anymore. They don’t want to jump.
And, now, that doesn’t last obviously, right? So then there’s work to be done after that. But what they’re pointing out is that suicidal ideation, kind of underlying depression, to reverse that pharmacologically with say serotonin reuptake inhibitors takes weeks. Maybe months. Same thing with talk therapy. But if you need to make sure that someone doesn’t hurt themselves over the two, three, four weeks, this may be a viable deal.
Now, part of the issue is that it can be used recreationally and if there’s a certain dosage you start to have hallucinations and, you know, psychoactive effects. So, that’s why I think in general people are a little, you know, but we have to kind of get over some of this stuff. You know?
Craig: Doctors in the emergency rooms are pretty good at figuring out who is there because they’re actually suicidal and who is pretending to be because they feel like getting a ketamine dose.
John: You look at sort of this work, you look at work on LSD, you look at work on ecstasy, these are clearly drugs that should be studied for what they can do in a clinical setting and sort of what good can come out of them. But instead they sort of become demonized because of dangerous uses of them recreationally.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, we wouldn’t use them recreationally if they didn’t work on some level. So, yeah, obviously how much we use and all the rest. So, anyway, that was really promising. So you did that and I went the other direction. I went all the way over into computer world. So I’ve been playing Red Dead Redemption 2, of course, and I want to call out the people that worked on the environment because it’s so good. It’s the best environment experience I’ve ever had playing a videogame.
There was a moment where – it’s not just the detail of the appearance of things, which is quite extraordinary. But it’s the way it interacts sort of synergistically. Just sort of trotting along on my horse and I’m going through sort of a path with some trees on either side and the wind kind of blows and leaves rustle off the trees and kind of swirl in the air around me and then fall to the ground. And I’m like, what? This is getting good.
The wind people talked to the tree people. And then the tree people decided, you know what, some leaves come off when wind blows but not a lot of them, not all of them, and how do they come off? And what happens when they go? And it’s perfect. It’s really amazing how well they did with those little things. And you and I know because we work in movies and television how much work goes into making something look effortless.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: God only knows how many hours were spent trying to make the wind make the leaves go just right. It’s really well done. So, tip of the hat. My One Cool Thing this week the people that did the environment in Red Dead 2.
John: Very nice. Those leaf physicists, they did God’s work there.
John: That is our show for this week. Our show is produced by Megan McDonnell, edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Michael O’Konis. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send questions like the ones we answered today.
But short questions are great on Twitter. Craig is @clmazin. I’m @johnaugust.
You can find the links in the show notes for the things we talked about, so that’s at johnaugust.com. Just follow through to the links there. Or if you’re listening to this on most of the players swipe and you will see a list of links there.
You can find us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. While you’re there, leave us a review. Those are lovely. We need to read some of those reviews aloud so we’ll try to remember to do that.
Transcripts go up within the week and so you can find transcripts for all the episodes back to the first episode. You can find the audio for all our episodes at Scriptnotes.net.
John: Craig, I will see you tomorrow for the live show.
Craig: See you tomorrow for the live show, John.
John: All right. And it is now time for our bonus segment. So bonus segments are just for you premium members who are paying us $4.99 a month. That $4.99 a month pays for a lot of things, including the salary of our producer Megana Rao who is now sitting across from me and smiling.
Megana Rao: Thank you, Premium members.
John: You picked this episode for our rebroadcast today. What made this stand out for you?
Megana: So this is a craft episode that I really like and I think it’s something that I personally struggle with is, you know, making things difficult for your characters because I think at the point that I am on a project that I’m working on it’s like, oh, I really like these characters and then making them go through conflict is something that I viscerally feel as I’m writing it. And so it’s something that I feel like I, like a lot of writers, need to push myself because that’s what makes good storytelling.
John: Yeah. So not only do you produce the show every week, but you actually go back and listen to earlier episodes. How much of the back catalog have you gotten through at this point?
Megana: I think I’ve gotten through a decent amount.
John: All right. A decent amount being 10%?
Megana: Oh, gosh, there’s a lot of episodes. No, I think over 30%.
John: OK, that’s really good. But of course there are premium members who have listened to every single episode and are like how could she possible produce without listening to every episode. We had Zoanne Clack on the show and she produces Grey’s Anatomy. And she was saying when they hire on a staff writer they expect them to have watched every episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
Megana: Well, I was really ambitious when I first started. And every time I’m like, yeah, I’m going to do it and I get through – like I’ve done the first 15 episodes of every season stack for sure.
John: So, what kinds of things are you learning from the show that are applying to what you’re doing now as an aspiring writer? And what stuff do you still feel like you’re still missing? What kind of advice have you not gotten on Scriptnotes that we need to make sure we start hitting?
Megana: So I think the craft stuff is – and as we’re working on the Scriptnotes book I’m just like, wow, what an incredible trove of information. And I should really listen to it more. But, I mean, I do read it and listen to it a lot. But I think something that I’ve been wondering and have been wanting to get your take on is when you are having a meeting in the industry what does success look like, because we work in the entertainment industry so people are very charming and great to talk to. And so it’s kind of confusing afterwards to measure how well it went or how I should be thinking about it.
John: Because right now you’re at a phase that I remember very distinctly when I was first starting, because you’re going to a lot of general meetings and a lot of sit-downs and hey-how-are-yous and you’re doing the water bottle tour of Los Angeles [unintelligible]. I guess actually you’re not going into people’s offices. You’re meeting for coffees? How are you doing these general meetings?
Megana: Some are for coffees, but I think because of the pandemic mostly Zooms.
John: Mostly Zooms. So a thing my first agent did which I think was a smart choice, he just sent me out on like – he just shotgunned me out into meetings. I took way too many meetings. And you just get better at taking meetings. And so it sounds like your meetings are going well, but you’re having a hard time figuring out what’s the next step, or how to go from like oh that was nice in the room but will I ever work with this person again.
Megana: Right. And the thing that I am sort of looking to decode is you know when you go on a date and you’re like waiting to hear what the last thing the person says, because it’s different if they’re saying, “Hey, it was really nice to meet you, or I had a really good time,” versus, “Can I get your number? I’d love to see you again.” And so what does that look like in the entertainment industry or after a general meeting?
John: So as you wrap up a general there will be that sense of like it was really nice to meet you, just a very classic thing, like we should look for things to do together. Great. That’s sort of the generic version. And it’s not a brush off. It’s just there’s not a specific next step they’re looking to take. If they really were intrigued by you and sort of like, “Oh, I really want to talk to you more about this specific thing,” they’ll bring up that specific thing.
John: Or if there’s something that you mentioned in the meeting and you were like, “Oh, we both really want to do something that’s based on Norse mythology.” And they’re like, “Oh, let me send you this stuff and we can keep up that conversation.” And so sometimes those will happen at the end of the general, or sort of a first meeting. Other times they won’t. You have to be comfortable with sometimes meetings are just meh.
Like when I went over to Verve. You were there for that. And I went out on a bunch of general meetings and a lot of them were just kind of, “So, we now know each other.” If something down the road comes up they actually feel like they could come out to me for a project. And a lot of what you’re doing now is sort of that.
Megana: So I guess also as a writer what responsibility do I have to follow up?
John: I think your responsibility to follow up with the good ones. The ones you actually think like oh I would like to work with this person, yeah, it’s good to reach out. And so that’s a case where it’s like, hey, can I have your email. Or you can get the email from the agents to say like, hey, I really enjoyed meeting with you about this. I wanted to talk to you about these specific things. Or this is a thing I’ve been working on that I’d love to talk with you more about.
To me, and people can disagree, I don’t think you owe a thank you note to a general meeting, or that kind of stuff. It’s just like if there was chemistry there was chemistry on both sides and it sort of is like dating. You don’t have to send a thank you for dinner at the end of it.
Megana: OK. That makes sense.
John: Now something you were talking about at lunch was when you have a meeting with somebody and they’ve read something of yours and they start giving you notes on it. And that’s a weird situation. Can you describe in a general sense what it was like?
Megana: I feel like in a lot of meetings there’s questions and constructive feedback or nice – I’m trying to avoid the word saying compliments – but, yeah, it’s nice that they’ll compliment my work. But then a couple of times they will have specific notes or want to do a follow up call with notes. And the notes are great, but I’m confused about whether I should act on them and what that means. Because we don’t have a clear plan forward.
John: And that sort of gets back into the dating. Are we actually trying to start a relationship here, or are you just sort of like giving me constructive feedback because you think it could actually think this thing and help me as a writer. And that’s a case where your reps, your agents, or your managers can sort of help suss out is this a person we really think could do this project, because if so then maybe it’s worth really investing the time with them and sort of working through that.
If not, then it’s just great to get their feedback. And if you’re getting consistent feedback about these things you could consider making those changes. But the stuff you have out there right now in the world is something that could get made but it’s really there as a writing sample for you to get hired for other jobs. So it should not be the primary focus is to be rewriting that stuff you’ve already been writing.
John: An experience I definitely had in those early meetings is they’ll pull out a box of like these are all the things I’m working on. And have they sort of presented that list of the things that they are working on?
Megana: Yeah. And I’m always like – I mean, people are just so good at pitching their projects. It’s like the most fun part of the meeting to just listen to all of these great stories.
John: Sometimes they’re saying, “OK, we’d like to consider you for this thing,” but other times you get a sense of the kinds of things they’re looking for. Really getting the sense of like what things are going to spark for you that are really priorities for them and how you can sort of like keep that conversation going about like oh this is a thing we want to see happen together.
You’ll also be in some meetings where you’re just like this is not a fit. And the meeting should just end. Just like a bad date.
Megana: Yeah. Yeah. Well, thankfully they’ve all been really good so far and the people that I’ve met have been lovely.
John: Cool. Thank you, Megana, for producing this show every week. And thank you to our premium members for supporting the podcast.
Megana: Thank you guys. Thanks John.
- The Team America: World Police puke scene, with some bad language
- The opening of Finding Nemo
- Aslan’s sacrifice in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
- Can We Stop Suicides? by Moises Velasquez-Manoff for the New York Times
- The environment in Red Dead Redemption 2
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