The original post for this episode can now be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. Just in case your kids are in earshot and you don’t want them to hear swearing, this is the warning.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 482 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show we’ll discuss America’s favorite crime fighter, but more importantly how we talk about him, and the bundle of IP surrounding Batman.
John: Then we’ll look at another unlikely but iconic hero, a Scandinavian king who is clever with words but also great with the sword. Bro, that’s Beowulf. And he was the Dark Knight way back when. Plus we’ll answer some listener questions and in our bonus segment for Premium members I will tell Craig about the Batman teaser trailer I wrote way back in 2001.
John: And we’ll discuss what other heroes we would tackle if given the chance.
Craig: Well this is going to be fun.
John: A good episode. And a good episode for the New Year. Happy New Year, Craig.
Craig: Oh. Happy New Year. I mean–
John: Happy New Year. I’m optimistic.
Craig: Yeah, look, I understand that the calendar is not actually a thing. That we’ve just arbitrarily said this is the beginning and this is the end, because the sun, you could pick any point in the earth’s rotation around the sun and call it day one. But, oh man, this year. Oof.
John: Yeah. I’m optimistic about the New Year. I’m more optimistic about the back half of 2021 maybe, but still. I’ll happily turn the calendar to a new page. And get started with new stuff.
Craig: And I think in 2021 we’re going to hit 500 episodes.
John: We’re going to hit 500 episodes. We’ll hit like 10 years or something. It’s a lot.
Craig: Jesus Maria.
John: Many milestones. Plus I know you have a very busy year coming up. I have a busy year coming up. So, we know that 2021 is going to be eventful just personally.
Craig: It’s going to be fun. We’ll still find a way to play Dungeons & Dragons.
John: We somehow will. Priorities will be set straight.
John: Some follow up. Follow up on follow up actually. We’ve discussed the Rent a Family story. Maria from Argentina but now living in Tokyo writes, “Werner Herzog actually already made that movie released earlier this year called Family Romance, LLC. It’s not a documentary, but the protagonist is the actual owner of the family rental company and many of the actors are real employees as well, so it creates an even stranger dialogue on the meta level on the con within the con” as I was describing.
So there already is a movie, not just How Would This Be a Movie, there already is a movie by Werner Herzog about the Japanese Rent a Family situation.
Craig: No one needs to write it especially since Werner Herzog has already done it. You don’t want to follow in those footsteps.
Craig: It’s Werner Herzog for god’s sakes.
John: It would be foolish. And Craig would be forced to break out his Werner Herzog accent which he’s well known for.
Craig: [as Herzog] It’s not very hard to do. Why are you making another Family Romance movie when I’ve already made one? Mine is better.
John: It feels like Werner Herzog should have been in a Batman movie, but he’s not been which his just crazy.
John: But let’s talk about Batman, because I have DC Comics on the brain, partly because of the Wonder Woman 1984 movie that came out this past week. But also the announcement that HBO Max/Warners is planning to build a whole stable of movies around their DC characters, sort of how Disney has done with Marvel.
Mike Schur, a friend, he tweeted, “Hoping they finally get into the Batman’s backstory. Like, yes, he’s a vigilante for justice and has this sort of brooding presence, but why? What happened? We fans deserve that explanation.”
Craig: [laughs] That’s funny. That’s funny.
John: That’s funny. You can’t talk about Batman, it’s always his origin story again and again and again. We’ve seen that damn alley outside a theater so many times. And the pearls dropping from the necklace. It’s just like it’s constantly an origin story. But Batman is actually a fascinating character. He’s a really weird iconic character because he’s just different from all the other characters.
So I want to talk about his history, how he fits into IP, what’s interesting about him as a character to write. And, Craig, have you ever written any scenes with Batman in your career?
John: No. I have written half of one, which you’ll see referenced in the bonus segment. But I have written in the DC universe before. So I wrote a Shazam movie which was not the Shazam movie that came out. I helped out on another big DC movie a while back. And while I’ve never written Batman himself, he’s sort of always kind of there. So many of the things I like – Harley Quinn earlier this year was a One Cool Thing. He’s always a background character in that. So he has this weird looming presence over a lot of stuff.
So I thought we’d start by talking about sort of history and then get into sort of what makes him weird and unique as a character.
Craig: Sure. I think up until, and I could be wrong, but I think up until the mid-‘80s when the Tim Burton Batman movie came out was just, you know, another superhero. It was a high level superhero that everybody knew. I don’t know about you, but in the ‘70s when we all dressed up for Halloween in those weird vinyl aprons with the mask with the little horizontal mouth hole–
John: I can still smell what those masks smell like.
Craig: You can smell it. Everyone would stick their tongues through the little mouth hole and cut their tongue. And Batman was definitely one of those. And just like Superman or Spider-Man, or Wonder Woman, or any of them, he was in the League of Justice, the cartoon. And he was fine.
And then the Burton Batman came out, I think it’s sort of alongside the Frank Miller re-imagination, and suddenly Batman just became an entirely different thing and it was fascinating to watch.
John: Yeah. So we should stress that we are not Batman historians and so you do not need to write in with any of your corrections to things we get wrong about this.
Craig: Do not write in.
John: [laughs] Yes. Megana is on this call and just for her sanity and safety please do not write in with your corrections. But let’s briefly sort of talk through the timelines here. Because it starts in 1939. Detective Comics, written by Bill Finger, illustrated by Bob Kane. We move forward to the 1960s. We have that campy Batman series with Adam West. In the ‘70s we start to see Batman as this darker version and obsessive compulsive. We get The Dark Knight Returns which is really probably the first graphic novel I actually remember reading.
John: It sort of anchored this idea of like an older Batman and a really dark Batman. And sort of Batman as a political force and sort of questioning his role in society.
But at the same time you referenced the Tim Burton Batman which was such a different feel and take. It was dark, but his Gotham was constructed so differently. And then it became this series of directors. So we had Tim Burton’s Batman. Joel Schumacher’s vision. Chris Nolan. Zack Snyder. We now have Matt Reeves making a version of Batman. It’s a character that’s been sort of continuously re-envisioned but not reinvented because his backstory has always stayed exactly the same.
Craig: Yes. Yes. His backstory is fixed. And also his powers are fixed. There’s really no flexibility in terms of what he is and what he does. He is a boy who is incredibly rich, because his parents are incredibly rich. They live in a city that is modeled after decrepit New York. Not fun New York. But crappy New York. So they live in a beautiful part of New York, but then there’s this bad part of town. There’s a guy who I think officially is named Joe Chill who holds up the mom and the dad. Tries to take the mom’s necklace. And ends up shooting the mom and dad, who had been out to the opera with their young child, Bruce.
Bruce Wayne suffers two terrible things that night. First, his parents are killed in front of him. Second, he had to watch opera as a baby, as a kid. That’s just miserable. That’s always the same. And you know what else is always the same? He doesn’t have super powers. And that never changes. And maybe that’s why he’s kind of fascinating to us.
John: Yeah. So there’s a relatability to him in that he’s just really good at doing the stuff he’s good at. So he’s really good at fighting. He’s really smart. He can figure stuff out. And so it has that sort of proficiency porn aspect of it. He’s just so good at doing the thing he does.
And so he seems like a self-made man, although he’s a self-made person who starts with a tremendous amount of wealth.
John: A quote that sort of tracks into this. This was DC Comics’ Jenette Kahn writing that “Batman is an ordinary mortal who made himself a superhero. Through discipline and determination and commitment he made himself into the best. I always thought that it meant that I could be anything that I wanted to be.” And so there’s a relatability to him that’s different than Superman or Wonder Woman or Aquaman who are born into their greatness. In this case he is just a normal mortal human being who is just really, really good at things.
Craig: Well he’s a bit of an Ayn Randian kind of hero in that he starts incredibly wealthy but because he’s so smart and so resourceful and so clever and careful he manages to preserve that wealth and grow that wealth. And he uses his wealth and persistence and hard work and determination and sweat and tears and his ability to withstand pain.
John: Yeah. Seems like a supernatural ability to withstand pain.
Craig: Right. And he uses all of that mustering American ideal independence, standalone masculine thing to become the ultimate cowboy. And he doesn’t need your unions. And he doesn’t need government. He definitely doesn’t need government. The one thing that’s also incredibly consistent throughout Batman stories is that government is bad. Because the police department is either corrupt or incompetent or both. The mental health industry is a total disaster as all they do is just churn out one damaged super villain after another. In short, the city can’t get it done. The people can’t get it done. Only this individual can get it done.
John: Yeah. And so in many ways it feels like a very American kind of story because we are the country of the frontier and the going out on your own. We have this sort of cowboy mentality. It’s like the cowboy mentality transferred back to an urban core.
John: And where you need to have some lone ranger of justice there to protect the innocent and beat up the bad guys. But we often talk about hero’s journey/hero’s quest kind of things. He doesn’t seem to have a lot of those, at least in the normal ways. It’s not like he’s born with some great flaw that he overcomes over this quest. He’s always in a state of anguish and pain and a determination to save his parents in ways he never could have saved them before.
He’s not a hero who has a concluding arc.
Craig: No. His basic job seems to be to defend and preserve the safety of the people, the good citizens of Gotham. In this regard he’s a very strange hero because presumably there are other cities which also have problems. And he doesn’t seem to give a sweet damn about any of the other ones. He’s a homer. He loves Gotham. That’s his hometown. He loves Gotham. And he is constantly serving as Gotham’s true father. Not their lame stepfather, the government. God forbid the mayor or the police or social services were at all relevant or competent. In Gotham, no. Only he is Gotham’s true father. The father who can come at night and punish the bad by inflicting fear upon them primarily. Fear.
John: Exactly. And so his relationship to the law is fascinating. Because he wants to be a force of law, the one who is cleaning up the corruption and the filth of the streets. But he doesn’t actually believe in the law enforcement officers. Or he has a special connection to the law enforcement officers. There’s like the good ones, you know, Chief Gordon as commissioner, but nothing else beyond that does he sort of seem to believe in.
And yet at times he does kill. At times he doesn’t kill. His decision to not use a gun or to use a gun has changed over the years. So the moral code he sets for himself is both specific but changes in a way that a lot of these things about his origin remain fixed.
Craig: Yeah. And in that regard he’s an extension of our American fantasy of power. He uses a vast expenditure of money and he harnesses an enormous wealth of technological advancement to shock and awe. All to protect the homeland of Gotham. And if it sounds like I’m down on Batman I’m not because he’s not real. [laughs] Just, you know, I think people lose sight of these things all the time. I should probably mention Batman is not real.
Mostly I’m interested in what our fascination with Batman says about us. I will say that I am a huge fan of the Arkham videogames, which I think are amazing. And as a Batman experience they’re incredibly both enjoyable and also they drive home another fascinating thing about Batman. Batman himself personality wise is boring. Batman does not have a family. Batman is constantly fighting the most amazing collection of villains. Period. The end.
Spider-Man has a lot of cool enemies, but nothing like Batman. No one comes close to the variety of lunatics and larger-than-life villains that Batman is constantly dealing with, all of whom are kitschy as hell and so much fun. And that is also part of the deliciousness of enjoying the Batman story.
John: He has a good ecosystem around him. I thought we would wrap up this segment by listening to the audience reaction to the very first teaser trailer for Batman. So this is 1988 at Mann’s Chinese Theater here in Los Angeles. And someone found video from this and so here’s the audio from a newscaster interviewing people and their reaction to the Batman teaser trailer. This is the Michael Keaton Batman directed by Tim Burton. Let’s take a listen.
Female Voice: Oh, I can’t wait. I love Michael Keaton. He’s one of my favorite funny people. And I love Jack Nicholson. And I love the trailer. I love the whole thing. I’m ready to go.
Male Voice: That’s going to be live man. It’s going to be live. I’m going to come to see it.
Female Voice: The trailer was better than the movie we just saw.
Male Voice: How do you think Michael Keaton is going to be as Batman?
Female Voice: Sexy. [laughs] Very sexy.
Female Voice: Oh, he’s just a gorgeous guy. He has great legs and everything. [laughs]
Female Voice: Michael Keaton is a great actor, so I’m really excited to see it.
Male Voice: What kind of Joker is Jack Nicholson going to be?
Male Voice: Nicholson, I can say he’s great all the time. He is a joker, so he’s probably just going to be play himself.
Male Voice: I mean, with Jack Nicholson in it, I mean how you can you go wrong? I mean, especially his makeup. That’s great man.
Female Voice: Jack Nicholson is casted as the perfect Joker. Michael Keaton is adorable. And my husband will just be counting the minutes to see Kim Basinger.
Female Voice: The only thing I could change about it was letting me play the babe.
Male Voice: Kim Basinger. Yeah, I can see either you or Kim Basinger.
Female Voice: What’s she got that I don’t have?
Male Voice: So intense with the eye. Come swooping in on all these scenes. And that car, man.
Male Voice: I like the Batmobile. Yeah.
Male Voice: Why?
Male Voice: I don’t know, it’s pretty cool.
Male Voice: Yeah?
Female Voice: I love the Batmobile. It looks so cool. I wish I could ride in it.
Male Voice: And what was your favorite part of the whole trailer?
Male Voice: When Michael Keaton comes in and says, “I’m Batman. I’m Batman.”
Craig: [laughs] Oh, we were so young and innocent. Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in that world again where no one had a goddamned idea of what was coming out. There weren’t 5,000 articles. There wasn’t a campaign just to unveil the tire of the new Batmobile. And people were like, “Oh yeah, Batmobile, it’s cool. That’s why I like it.” It’s so nice. Aw.
John: Aw. The time before there were Batman movies.
Craig: The time before there was Twitter and the sort of like cottage industry. And no hot takes. Did you notice?
John: Not a single hot take.
Craig: You do that now and someone is going to be like, “Um, you know, I don’t think that – it doesn’t, you know.” Ugh.
John: All right. So Batman is a character we’re all familiar with because we’ve seen him 1,000 different times. But I want to transition to talking about a character who is at least as foundational but sort of less well known. And that’s Beowulf. And to help us out with that let’s bring on Maria Dahvana Headley. She’s a New York Times bestselling author and playwright. She’s also an authority on Beowulf, having written The Mere Wife: A Modern Day Adaptation of Beowulf, and an acclaimed translation of the original this past year which was in fact my One Cool Thing a few weeks back. Welcome Maria.
Maria Dahvana Headley: Thank you. Thank you for having me on.
Craig: So much fun.
John: It’s very exciting to talk with you. So I absolutely adored your translation, because I tried to read an earlier version of it that was also acclaimed in its time and I found your version to be just so sparkling and present and fresh. And it felt like someone was just sitting across the bar/table from me telling me this story.
So, I strongly recommend it everybody. That’s why it was a One Cool Thing. But I’m wondering if you could give us a little backstory on what was it that I actually read. Because I think I have this vision that Beowulf is sort of like The Iliad and the Odyssey that it was an oral tradition story passed down for generations, but I don’t really know what it was I read. So what is Beowulf?
Maria: Well, you have a pretty accurate possible guess. We don’t know. We don’t really know what it is.
Craig: That’s the best answer ever. [laughs]
Maria: One manuscript is about 1,000-ish years old, written by two scribes. We don’t know who the scribes were. But they are correcting each other throughout. And it is probably, and in my opinion almost definitely, a transcription of an oral performance. Because it had throughout the poem it’s 3,182 lines of battles and lineage basically. And throughout the poem there will be stopping points where the narrator will be like, “Let me tell you what happened last night,” because he’s clearly, in my opinion, performing for a drunk audience that is shouting and he’s unamplified standing on a table. That’s just how I feel the poem is.
But not everyone has felt that way. Lots of people have felt like this is a normal poem about the sort of glorious traditions and that it should be done in a somewhat fusty language or in a “noble” language. J.R.R. Tolkien really felt this way about it. It’s the thing that inspired everything he did. All of Lord of the Rings was inspired by Beowulf. He was a big Beowulf nerd and he did his own translation which is done – it feels like reading Lord of the Rings. It just doesn’t feel as good.
Craig: Because J.R.R. Tolkien, was he a philologist? Is that the word?
Maria: Yeah. He was someone who really, really, really cared deeply about Beowulf. And what he cared about most deeply was the attempts to fall into the old traditions, rhyme and meter wise. And so he was driven bonkers by it. He was trying to translate a language, Old English, which does not translate directly to contemporary English. So what you’re reading in my translation and in anyone’s translation is a wild guess.
It’s like – and it’s definitely unlike some languages, this is a language that if you’re translating from Old English it’s so much about the translator, what the translator is choosing out of many different possibilities for most of the words.
John: So, anybody who is doing a translation of Beowulf is really doing an adaptation of Beowulf. Because it’s taking what is the sort of foundational story and trying to apply not just modern words to it but kind of modern concepts. And that’s why – it got me thinking about Batman. If you go back to the original issue of Detective Comics that introducing Batman as a character and took that as a foundational text, any new version of it is going to necessarily change some things to have it make sense with sort of modern audiences. And it’s hard to imagine a character who has been more transformed more times than Batman.
In your case, in telling this story of Beowulf, you’re looking at sort of how we approach this character, but also what is even the format of the story it takes place in. Because yours very much feels like an oral tradition. It’s some guy telling you a story like right across the table. But that’s a choice. It’s a way of presenting this sort of foundational text and introducing this character.
Maria: Yeah. I decided to do it like a long monologue essentially. Because I thought, OK, well then you can have the POV of the poet as well, which is really part of the original. But lots of people don’t put that in. They feel like it’s needlessly confusing. So they just sort of relate the Beowulf story like it’s history, like here’s the true thing that happened to my boy. Whereas I wanted a sense of POV.
Craig: I’m just curious, what do you think – when you do this kind of translation, do you run into a resistance that somehow by making it accessible you are cheapening it? Do people still equate accessible with less than?
Maria: Yes. [laughs]
Craig: What’s the story with – like why do people do that? And how do you respond to that?
Maria: Well, it’s an interesting state of affairs. Like in the case of this translation a lot of the press surrounding it has been that I used a lot of slang. I use bro as the opening word of the Beowulf.
Craig: That’s so cool.
Maria: Which is a transgressive thing to do, but also a pretty accurate translation idiomatically of what that word means and what [unintelligible] means. But it’s transgressive because people feel like that’s a low word. And they feel like slang is low. Which is ridiculous because the entire English language is slang. It’s slang after slang after slang and all kinds of things have contributed to the language.
So, it’s an interesting thing. I think the tradition of believing that something that’s written in vernacular is low is a tradition that’s based on all kinds of hierarchy and prejudice and lack of accessibility to sort of ivory tower structures that have meant that diverse translators have not been able to get into the tower to do the translating and to give perspective on a lot of these ancient texts.
Maria: So it’s been an interesting experience. Other women have translated Beowulf and there have been maybe 15 other women have translated Beowulf into English. And their translations are really interesting but rarely get a lot of play. And often what has happened is that the old guard comes in and says, “Well, this is a minor translation and it’s not a real translation and it’s for children.”
Most of the women in the early part of the 20th Century who translated it ended up writing children’s translations of Beowulf, even though those are also the things that were taught in Tolkien’s primary school that got him into Beowulf.
Craig: Right. So in their own way their translations are more experienced than the other. That’s the kind of strange weird feedback loop is that the more accessible you make it, the more people read it, the more people learn, and that becomes Beowulf.
Maria: Yeah. And that becomes the cultural understanding of Beowulf is built completely on accessible translations rather than translations in the sort of Old English meter, for example, that are untranslatable.
John: Now, Maria, I want to talk to you about your character of Beowulf, and he’s so proficient and slays creatures with such aplomb. In your mind as you’re translating this is he supernatural or is he just a really good fighter with a sword? Because he seems to have at times sort of Hercules kind of powers. Other times he’s just really a good fighter. Where do you come down on the nature of him as a hero?
Maria: I think I come down all over the place. I’ve thought about it so much because it’s – one of the things that I think is really interesting when you first read Beowulf you think, wait, OK, this guy can sort of slay 30 at one blow, which means he’s not human. And the only other person who can do that is the major monster, Grendel. Grendel also can slay 30 in a blow. And they’re both mentioned with the same number of men.
So, you read that and you think, well, OK, if one of these is a monster the other one is also probably a monster. And so I kind of come down on the no one is really a monster end of the spectrum. The poem itself has a big talk makes you big kind of situation. So, if you talk – I want to say bigly so much – if you talk–
Craig: Do it.
Maria: If you talk with enough Trumpian volume about yourself, and indeed this is part of how I translated Beowulf’s speeches. If you talk that way about yourself you can sometimes pull it off. You can make other believe it. And even if it doesn’t really work in reality, the story they tell about you will be a story about somebody who swings it really hard.
So, I think it is as much a story about storytelling as it is a story about anything else. And the Beowulf character is a character that’s built on his own story about what he’s capable of doing.
Craig: I remember reading The Song of Roland in college and I was struck by how iterative it was a battle that there was this kind of almost hypnotic rhythm once the fight began of just like he killed this guy and then he killed this guy, then he killed this guy. Was this sort of like the action sequence way back when? Let me describe how – or like Sampson killed a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. I mean, was this the action sequence of the old days when you didn’t have moving pictures so you just had to describe violence over and over?
Maria: It’s an interesting thing. I mean, some of those ancient texts are almost like a ship’s manifest. You get the [unintelligible] and their lineage. And along with so I guess they’re the spoils of war itemized. And that’s often something that’s part of the poem, like remembering the names which is interesting when we think about the many ways in which we fail to remember the names of the dead throughout the 20th Century and 21st Century.
Yeah, the blow, blow, blow, blow, blow stuff is very much part of the Old English tradition as well. And in this story, I mean, it’s three big battles basically. But you also hear about a lot of other battles in which whole armies of men die and everybody is scattered and flattened on the ground and Beowulf swims away from one battle with 30 suits of armor in his arms somehow.
Craig: That’s awesome.
Maria: You know, things like this are happening.
Craig: Cool guy.
Maria: And you really get a sense of the cost of the big ego. If you are the king you have to choose your time to fight. And sometimes your time to fight – or if you’re the hero, the right hand of the king, which is what Beowulf is for most of the story, sometimes there’s just a big cost. You just have piles of bodies.
Craig: Just like Batman.
John: Just like Batman. And also just like Batman we see Beowulf in sort of two forms. We see his young form where he kills Grendel and Grendel’s mother and he’s the hero who shows up at the foreign kingdom and is the giant hero. But we also see him much later in life sort of like in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns where he is the aging king going back for one last battle.
To me it feels like there were two volumes or two different comic books that sort of got joined together at some point historically because they feel – they’re related but they’re very different stories. And there’s some sense of all the things he didn’t do in his life. It seems like he never had kids, never had a family, sort of never got to have the normal human life. As you’re translating this did it feel like two stories that got joined together or does it feel like it was always intended to be the arc of this one hero’s journey?
Maria: Well, again, there’s lots of debate about that in the Beowulf realm. Some people really feel that the last section of Beowulf which is a battle with a dragon. He’s a king for 50 years and we don’t get any information about that. We get Grendel’s mother. Than he gets home. He gets rewards. He tells his story. And then 50 years pass in a line. And he’s an old man. And we get this thing where he goes up against a dragon by himself and he has to fight the dragon. He’s sure he’s the only guy who can fight the dragon. And he goes in and he kills the dragon, but the dragon kills him, too.
And some people feel like that last third of the poem is just a meanness that was grafted onto it by someone. That it was just stuck on and this like mean situation involving darkness. But I think what it is is youthful sins get payback later. I think that the center of the poem, and this is something I’ve always thought about, when Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother she is acting according to the law of the time. She goes in, her son is killed, she goes in for a revenge killing, which is allowed. She kills one guy. And goes home.
She takes that guy home. She does a little bit of graphic display of his beheading and whatever.
Craig: That’s reasonable.
Maria: She only kills the one dude, an important guy who is equivalent to her son. And in sort of feudal laws that’s allowed. And what Beowulf does is he breaks into her house under the water. He goes in, like a mercenary, because he is a mercenary. And he comes in and attacks her in her own realm. And she’s an old woman. She’s been queen for 50 years just like Hrothgar, the king he’s serving has been king for 50 years. So she’s probably in her 70s. And Beowulf is maybe 20.
So he goes in, kills an old woman who is so ferocious and hardcore that she almost kills him. And that’s just against the law. Like it’s against the moral code of the poem. So my feeling that the dragon in the end, the last third of the poem, is the wages of sin. It’s sort of like, OK, you can do it, you’re strong enough, you’re big enough, you’re bold enough, your balls are big enough. And you do the thing and then 50 years pass and the whole time you’re having a bad feeling about it.
And I think that Batman has some things like that, too. He always has this sort of morosity. And the morosity is about am I – because he’s declared himself the arbiter of morality in Gotham. And then this difficulty of what if he got it wrong at some point. What if it was a fuck up? And I think the Beowulf story is about – the center battle is a fuck up that he shouldn’t have done.
Craig: It is interesting that Batman is constantly struggling with that and yet not really struggling with it, because in the end the dictates of the story are feed us justice. So, he will “wrestle” with it, but the people who generally pay are the people around him. So he gets off the hook. There is no dragon that eats Batman in the end. But a couple of Robins have died, I think.
John: And Beowulf ends with a handoff to a Robin kind of character as well. There’s a sense of a generational passing down finally at the end there.
Craig: Batman doesn’t pass on. So I think Batgirl at some point canonically is paralyzed. So, people are constantly dying around him. Commissioner Gordon gets killed a few times. And [unintelligible], I think he definitely gets killed. And Batman keeps going. And his anger fuels him to further on. And I kind of love the idea that the wages of – maybe not wages of sin, but truly if you’re living by the sword. Yeah, at some point you can’t be the best forever. And if you beat a 70-year-old woman, albeit a Grendel mom, a mom Grendel, when you’re a 70-year-old guy someone is coming for you. I like that.
Maria: Yeah. I mean, there’s always the sort of arc of what is coming for you. And throughout the Beowulf poem that’s discussed, as it is – I mean, it’s interesting thinking about Batman because Batman never becomes the king. He’s the Dark Knight the whole time. And being the Dark Knight means you have to serve. You don’t necessarily get to – I mean, he’s serving a larger moral god. But he still has to serve. He doesn’t get to be the king who is making all of the decisions in terms of his own well-being and in terms of the well-being of others around him. He’s often – I feel like he’s often in a tournament. It’s like more out of the Arthurian myths.
John: Yeah, for sure.
John: Maria, it is absolutely a delight getting to talk through Beowulf and Batman with you. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Maria: Thank you for having me on. I could talk about this all year. I love it.
Craig: Thank you, Maria.
John: Thanks Maria.
John: All right, bye. So, Craig, that was actually delightful. We did not pre-interview at all with Maria. I just assumed she would be great talking about Batman and Beowulf and I was correct.
Craig: You were right. Yeah. Pre-interviews, why would we ever do that? We live on the edge?
John: We live by the sword and we die by the sword.
Craig: That’s right. We don’t give a sweet damn.
John: All right. Now it’s the time on the program where we welcome on our producer, Megana Rao, who asks the questions that our listeners have asked. Megana hi.
Megana Rao: Hi, Happy New Year.
Craig: Happy New Year.
John: Happy New Year to you. What have you got for us this week?
Megana: So, Patricia from Canada writes, “I recently started working in the nuclear industry and am easily Google-able. My question is whether producers or network executives like those from a very family-friendly network, which is my genre, might have an issue with my day job if I were to sell my script that has received a bunch of interest this year before I started in the nuclear industry. And if they do are there options for me like using a pen name?”
John: All right, so Patricia basically is a Homer Simpson somewhere in Canada.
Craig: Right. I’m sure she’s a competent nuclear technician.
John: I’m sorry. She’s a competent Homer Simpson who has written a script that is now getting attention. She worried that if someone figures out that, oh, she’s actually a nuclear person that they won’t want to work with her. I don’t think so.
Craig: No. That’s not – I think people have this sense that Hollywood is incredibly, I don’t know, discriminatory against things that violate their tender snowflake sensibilities. Far from it in fact. I think people would be surprised how compromised people are. It’s a business, right? So billionaires with their billionaire companies are trying to make billionaire stuff.
No, I don’t think your employment in the nuclear industry is at all a problem. If you were, I don’t know, employed as a hacker for the Russian government, yeah, sure. But, no, people working in a nuclear power plant are doing a perfectly fine job. So, no, I don’t think so.
And as far as pen names go, just as a general note for – Patricia I think is from Canada so you have the WGC, I don’t know how they do it there. But in the United States the WGA, which administers credits, we do have a clause that says we can use a pen name but only if we’re paid under a certain amount. I think it’s $250,000. And if we’re over that amount then the studio has to agree to let us use the pen name which is obviously an awkward conversation. It’s an awkward thing to do regardless.
John: That said though, if she is just starting her career she can pick whatever name she wants to use as her professional name.
Craig: That’s right.
John: So a pen name in that situation is like I don’t want my name on this movie that I wrote but I don’t want my name associated with it, that is a different case than sort of like starting with a new name. Because I started my career as John August even though that wasn’t my born name just because it was an easier, better name.
Craig: Right. Like Diablo Cody is Brook Maurio and she wanted to go by Diablo Cody. And then at some point like Brook if you’re like, you know, I think people get it I’m just going to use my regular name now and everybody goes, “Cool. That’s good. That works.”
John: What next, Megana?
Megana: Great. So Jake in Dallas asks, “I agree with the principle that characters will carry your story to a more successful and satisfying conclusion than the plot alone. However, I have a story that has some solid plot and shaky characters. My question is one of time management and expectations. Is it worth it to dig in and try to build up these weaker characters to match the cool framework that is my plot, or am I kidding myself with a task like that? Meaning the fact that I don’t have strong characters in the beginning of my writing process might be an indication that the story itself is a weak and therefore not worth the effort to populate it with compelling people.
“I feel really good about the structure I built but I’m not sure about the occupants I plan on inviting into the building. The décor and furniture will be rad, so it’s just the pesky people I’m sweating.”
John: Oh Jake. What you’re experiencing is common. And I think a lot of writers are probably nodding a bit there. Because sometimes you think of a cool idea for a story and like, oh, you could sort of imagine the set pieces and how it all fits together and the plot and the twists, and then you realize like, oh, but who is actually in this story. And then you actually have to sort of unwind some stuff to figure out like who is the most interesting person to be in this story that you have plotted out in your head.
It’s worth the time. It’s worth the time to stop and figure out who are these characters, what is it that they are uniquely bringing to this cool plot that you have figured out. Because otherwise you’re going to have a cool mechanical clock that no one cares about.
Craig: Yeah. That’s exactly it. The plot is not there for the audience. The plot is there for the character. It’s what the character is going through. So, if the character is weak it doesn’t really matter what the plot is. Then they might as well just be an observer or the plot is not designed to challenge the character and put the character in situations that are unique for him or her. So when you say maybe this is an indication that the story itself was weak, I would say that you probably want to take a moment to stop divorcing plot and character from each other the way you are and put them together. Because I don’t think when you think about how you’re day went today, Jake, that you’re going to think about yourself and then the things that happened separately. There’s the things that happened to you. And that’s what plot is. It’s something that is happening to a character, therefore one in the same.
John: Or because of the character ideally.
Craig: Exactly. Well, both, right? So something happens to you, you do a thing, now something new happens and then the da-da-da, and that’s how it works. So they’re actually part of the same thing. And you don’t want to get caught in this sort of scriptic Cartesian duality.
John: Yeah. I will say there are forms of writing that are less character-driven. Certainly spy novel books that are very sort of – they’re plot machines. And there are crime procedurals that are kind of plot machines. And if that’s the kind of thing you like writing that’s great, that’s awesome. And they can rely on sort of less characters doing things and just sort of the story doing things.
But it sounds like if you feel this tension right now the thing you’re working on probably should have a strong central character that’s driving it. So stop, think about who that character is, and rewrite it so that character can really be at the center of the story that you want to tell.
Megana: Mitch writes, “I work a manual labor job and I most often listen to you gentleman in headphones while my hands are preoccupied and I can’t pause and rewind to hear something clear. I’m pretty sure I heard you two quickly mention something about John earning his Arrow of Light in Boy Scouts, but I couldn’t find it when I tried to listen back. Is John August an Eagle Scout? If so, what was his Eagle project?”
John: All right, Mitch, I am in fact an Eagle Scout. I went all the way up through scouts and Arrow of Light refers to – although Arrow of Light could have actually been – is that the Webelos Bridge? I can’t remember which part Arrow of Light fits into, but I know I had it because I had all the patches. I had all of it.
Yes, I did scouts. Yes, I was in the Order of the Arrow which is problematic for Native American cultural appropriation. I didn’t get it at that point. I’m sure I would get it now.
My Eagle Scout project, so when you go up through the ranks in scouts one of the final things after you’ve earned all your merit badges is to do a project which involves 100 hours of planting and community service and getting people together to do stuff. I did an interpretive garden at my public library, so it was putting up signs for what the plants that were there so that people who visit the library could actually learn what plants were used in that garden. I also built a new sign in front of that library which was not good and was replaced about a year later.
But that was my Eagle Scout project. I actually have some ongoing shame about how not good that sign was and how I wish it were better.
Craig: That’s like your parents getting killed in the alley, you know, behind the opera.
John: That sign in front of the George Reynold’s Branch Public Library in Boulder, Colorado is my parents getting killed in the alley. You’re right. It’s foundational.
Craig: Yeah. You have these flashbacks about it. I like that they suffered through it for a year. That every day they came in and they all turned to Verna, who I assume was the senior librarian, and said, “Verna, come on.” And she’s like, “Uh, we can’t. He was an Eagle Scout.” “Oh, please Verna.” And then finally the big Christmas party they’re like, “Verna, it’s Christmas.” And she’s like, “You’re right. Let’s burn it.” [laughs]
John: I really think it probably was arson. I didn’t see it burn but I have a hunch that it just burned somehow magically and they replaced it with a much better sign.
Craig: I mean, if you put a couple of rum eggnogs in Verna she’s going to light something up. That’s how it goes.
John: She’s known for it. All right. Megana, thank you for these questions. They were fun.
Craig: Thanks Megana.
Megana: Thank you both.
John: All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a long article by Olivia Nuzzi writing The Fullest Possible Story on Four Seasons Total Landscaping situation.
Craig: Oh god.
John: So as you recall one of the weird, wacky things that happened in 2020 was there was a press conference held at the Four Seasons about potential election fraud in Philadelphia or in Pennsylvania overall. But of course it wasn’t Four Season the hotel. It was this tiny little place called Four Seasons Total Landscaping. It was weird and how it all happened is crazy. And so she digs into sort of what actually happened and how they ended up at this weird landscaping company and try to pretend it was their plan all along.
So, just as a last read in 2021 or first read in 2021 to remember what happened in that crazy year. It was a nice full accounting of a really surreal moment that feels like a Coen Brothers movie. Just a bunch of people making hasty decisions that turned out poorly.
Craig: Unbelievable. Unbelievable. My One Cool Thing, well, so we have a new puppy in our house.
John: I’m so excited. I did not know this. Tell us all about this puppy.
Craig: Her name is Bonnie and she’s fantastic. And you will meet her tonight, John. I will hold her up to the camera. She will be an NPC somehow in our D&D game.
Craig: And so I’m a big believer in crate training. If you are not a believer do not write in, because I don’t want to hear from you. But crate training I think is the key to why my older dog is such a wonderful dog. Obviously she doesn’t need the crate anymore. But she’s just an incredibly well-behaved, lovely dog. And that was a big part of it. And it also keeps, I think it keeps the new puppy parents sane as well.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: But, you know, dogs – traditionally puppies – do struggle a little bit with the crate initially because they can feel a little bit lonely in there. And so there’s this thing called the Snuggle Puppy. Have you heard of this?
John: No, but I can imagine what it would be and I think it’s probably – my guess is that it’s the 2020 version of the alarm clock and hot water bottle wrapped in a blanket?
Craig: Bingo. So, well, just with a little extra twist. So it is, of course, a plush little puppy animal and it’s got a little Velcro pouch. And you can stick one of these little, they have like these heat warmer packs, like the hand warmers you get on set when it’s freezing. You put that in its little belly and then it also has its little heart-shaped thing with a battery in it. And you turn that on and it makes a heartbeat little thump-thump. So the puppy can snuggle up against another dog that is warm with a heartbeat which is exactly what they’re used to.
And my goodness. I mean, we put her in there and we didn’t hear anything. You know, for like three hours. Just silence. It was pretty remarkable. And then when we came to take her out, you know, because it was time to come out of the crate and go potty and all that, she was like I don’t want to go. I want to stay in here. I’m tired. I want to stay with my warm friend.
So, huge thumbs up to the Snuggle Puppy people. That was great. Big fan. Not that expensive.
John: I’m a fan of crate training as well. Lambert, my current dog, was already well past that, but still like having a crate, a place he can declare as his own, where he can be responsible for defending that and not the rest of the house, game changer.
Craig: Yeah. And also really helps house train them as well.
John: Oh yeah. For sure. All right. And that is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli who also did our outro this week.
If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For shorter questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. Maria is @mariadahvana. We’ll have links to all those things in the show notes.
You can find those at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. And you can sign up for our weekly-ish newsletter called Inneresting which has lots of 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, including the one we’re about to record where I will go into the history of my Batman teaser trailer which was a different teaser trailer than the one we listened to earlier on.
Craig, thank you for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: Craig, I’m going to play a teaser trailer for you and you probably have seen this trailer, but you don’t remember that you saw this trailer. And then we’re going to talk about it.
Craig: All right.
John: So, we’ll put a link in the show notes to YouTube, but we can just listen to the audio for now.
Male Voice: Throughout the ages there has been one hero standing watch over us all. One hero protecting mankind wherever he is needed. He moves in shadows. Cloaked in mystery. And now in the summer of 2002 he will be called upon yet again to save the world. [Scooby-Doo sound]
Craig: Classic. So much classic marketing in that spot.
John: Thank you. So, let me tell you about the origin of this. And obviously if you’re listening to this just as the podcast version what you might not appreciate is we’re going through this mansion, this sort of spooky mansion, and we come upon the silhouette of Batman standing there. And we see his iconic sort of cowl. And he turns and it’s Scooby Doo. Because it always struck me that Scooby-Doo in outline actually looks a lot like Batman because he’s got the pointy ears that are sticking up there. And so he turns and you see that it’s Scooby-Doo.
So I always had this in my head as like at some point I really want to do a teaser trailer for Scooby-Doo when you reveal it’s Batman. And then I ended up being employed for a week, two weeks, to help out a little bit on the very first Scooby-Doo movie. And I said like, “I’m so excited to be writing these scenes, but more importantly I’ve always had this teaser trailer.” So I sent it through and they ended up making that and that became the teaser trailer for the first Scooby-Doo movie. A parody of Batman.
Craig: It holds all of the traditional elements. I mean, they don’t really do stuff like this now. I mean, it’s 20 years old. And I was doing similar things for Disney a little bit earlier, maybe like five or six years before 2001 when I wasn’t yet a screenwriter. Obviously you were a screenwriter at that point. But first of all it has that voice. For the kids, that’s a guy named Don LaFontaine. He is no longer with us. But he was essentially the voice of movie trailers and teasers. He did, I don’t know, 70% of them or something. It was insane.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: You would go to the theater and there would be seven trailers in front of the movie and four of them would have his voice or something. It was nuts. So it was Don LaFontaine. A misdirection in teaser trailers is incredibly common to the point where nobody was misdirected anymore. They were already onto it from the jump by the time you got to, I don’t know, whatever, 2009 or something. They were like, no, you can’t do it anymore.
And, of course, the ubiquitous needle scratch which became this fascinating sonic signifier that didn’t even mean anything to kids at that point, but yet they somehow understood it meant stop everything.
John: This trailer, I just wrote it up in normal sort of screenplay format with that dialogue and sent it through, and I was delighted how it turned out. What was also weird about these teaser trailers is they were completely disconnected from actual footage from the movie. Even now like when Chris McQuarrie has been on the show he talks about every day trying to shoot one thing that could make it into the trailer or the teaser trailer for the Mission: Impossible movies. But in this case it was just a whole special shoot which was just for doing this teaser trailer. And you don’t see that as much anymore where there’s no footage from the actual movie in it. It’s just a premise teaser trailer. Like this is a thing that is going to exist.
Craig: Yeah. So when I was working in marketing at Disney, this was like back in 1994 and 1995, this would come up quite a bit where you would do a special shoot. And in fact I was dispatched as a 23-year-old or a 24-year-old to the set of a movie called Mr. Wrong. Do you remember that movie, John?
John: Oh, I do. With Ellen DeGeneres.
Craig: Exactly. With Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Pullman. It was a comedy. It was ill-fated. It did not do particularly well at the box office. Although I remember reading the script. It was one of the early movie scripts that I read and I really liked it. And I was sent to talk to Ellen and Bill about making a special shoot, some sort of scene that we could shoot to help tease the movie.
And, you know, you rapidly learn as a 24-year-old that no one – they’ve got their hands full making a movie. They don’t want you there. So it was an uphill battle. But we would make those things. I remember The Ref, like I think the marketing campaign for The Ref was entirely a special shoot, which did not help The Ref which is one of my favorite movies. Yeah, they used to do this stuff all the time. Now we have our own trailer and teaser conventions that we cannot seem to break. So the modern version of the misdirect, Don LaFontaine, and needle scratch is a fairly well-known pop song that is played at a much slower speed by a different kind of voice so that it’s this really weird dreamy take on some pop song that we know and love.
And then some wahs and some booge and stuff like that. In 20 years from now people will look back and those, OK, yeah, that’s what they did then.
John: That’s what they did. Now, this was the closest I ever got to writing Batman and I don’t know that I’ll ever write Batman in anything, which is fine. But the announcement that Warners and HBO Max are going to be doing a whole big expansion of their thing and of course with all the new stuff that Disney has announced with the Marvel universe, it got me thinking what characters might you or I at some point want to tackle. And so I have a short list here. I’m curious what characters would be on your list.
Obviously we’re differently placed because we could theoretically do one of these things. I don’t think we will do any of these things. But here’s the list of things I would love to tackle at some point.
I really like ATOM as a character. After Ant-Man I’m not sure there’s a space for another guy who can become really small, but I always liked ATOM. I still love Wonder Woman. I get why people didn’t love this last one as much, but I dig her as a character. Thinking sort of mythologically, I’ve always really dug Perseus. I especially love Perseus’s backstory where as a baby he got shoved into a trunk and sent off to sea because his father worried that he was going to usurp him. I love that.
I love Hermes/Mercury as a god who again is just a cool trickster character. And then in terms of the non-superhero characters, I think Indiana Jones/Nathan Drake are great guys who like Batman are super good at the things that they’re good at, but also having a fun attitude. They’d be fun characters to write in ways that I think Batman would not be a fun character to write.
Any iconic characters for you, Craig? Any ones that you’d want to tackle?
Craig: I don’t think so. I like comic books. I was mostly a Marvel fan when I was a kid. But I think if someone said to me, “Here’s a blank check. Write any comic book superhero movie you want,” I might say to Kevin Feige I want to do a kind of mumblecore Galactus movie. [laughs] Where it’s like he eats planets but mostly he’s lonely and he has no one to talk to expect his heralds. His heralds start to resist him. I think Galactus’s sister was deaf or [unintelligible] or something like that. So he’s having weird chats with her.
Look, the dream adaptation is happening with other people and that’s Neil Gaiman’s Sandman which in a sense I’m glad that other people are doing it because I would be terrified, absolutely terrified, to tackle that material for fear that I would do it any harm. Because I hold it in such high esteem. So, yeah, I’m going to go with sort of bummed out emo Galactus.
John: Yeah. I think one of the good things we’ve gotten better at in the ‘10s and the ‘20s is taking characters who would be villains in normal situations and looking at what is their actual motivation and you put them as the protagonist in the story, the central character in the story. And Harley Quinn is a good example of that. Joker, whether you liked it or not, is an example of sort of looking at that character from his point of view and what it feels like to be in his shoes.
And so, sure. A planet-eating villain, go for it.
Craig: A mopey planet-eating Galactus, just bummed out. I eat planets because I’m depressed. I’m depressed because I eat planets.
- Werner Herzog’s Family Romance LLC
- Mike Schur’s Tweet
- 1988 Batman Teaser Reactions
- Why Does Batman Matter by Paul Zehr
- Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley
- The Fullest Possible Story on Four Seasons Total Landscaping by Olivia Nuzzi
- Snuggle Puppy
- Maria Dahvana Headley on Twitter
- Get a Scriptnotes T-shirt!
- Gift a Scriptnotes Subscription or treat yourself to a premium subscription!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.