The original post for this episode can now be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 483 of Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show we discuss character’s moral codes, philosophies, and beliefs, and how deep a writer really need to go fleshing those out. Then we’ll talk about virtual pitches, attaching element, eight-sequence story structure, and how to read a script.
Craig: Hmm. Eight-sequence story structure? I didn’t know that there was an eight-sequence–
John: There’s a thing. There’s a thing.
John: Yeah. We’ll talk through it.
John: And in our bonus segment for Premium members we will revisit our disagreement over when it’s OK to lie.
Craig: [laughs] I can’t remember what I said. But I’m sure I told the truth.
John: All right. So we’re recording this on January 8. It’s two days after what happened at the Capitol, so it feels weird not to talk about it, but it’s also going to have been a little bit in the past. Watching the events at the Capitol, it felt like the How Would This Be a Movie kind of flipped in reverse, in that you saw a bunch of people who were trying to act like they were in a movie and didn’t know what to do in the movie that they were in.
I had not watched that much cable news in decades. And it was just overwhelming.
Craig: Yup. As always these events sometimes are disturbing fodder for those of us who write because normally people are presenting themselves within a general range of behavior of social norms and so on and so forth. And in these instances they break out of it. And in breaking out of it you start to see certain bizarre aspects of human behavior that are counterintuitive. The example that immediately comes to mind is the fact that they were rioting and smashing their way into the Capitol building, but upon entry many of them chose to stay within the boundaries of the velvet ropes that would guide tour members through the halls of Congress.
It is so strange. And those details are fascinating. But, yeah, I think you kind of nailed it. They thought that they were in a movie and then they ran out of script.
John: Yeah. You think about if you had written any of these scenes into a movie, like the event didn’t happen but you were writing these things, the notes you would get back would say like, “Well that doesn’t make any sense. They wouldn’t just stay within the velvet ropes there. I can see them breaking into the offices, but wouldn’t they have a better plan? Wouldn’t there be an agenda?” And the fact that they had no actual idea of what to do once they got in there you saw the horrifying guy who had like the zip ties and clearly maybe did have more of a plan, but most of them had no plan. They were a bunch of older white people who needed help getting down the stairs afterwards. It was so unsettling to watch just because you didn’t know what was going to happen. And they didn’t know what was going to happen.
I remember watching 9-11 and going through that and that sinking feeling of like I just don’t understand what’s going on, how we got here. And in this case I did know how we got here, but I still didn’t have a sense of how it could resolve.
Craig: I think they were in part as surprised as everybody else was. That it got as far as it went. But they don’t know what to do. Their philosophy is incoherent. They are actually more chaotic than just about any other mob I’ve ever seen in the sense that mobs are always chaotic in their motion and their actions, but they have a goal. So from a writing point of view what do you want is the fundamental question we ask. I don’t know if they knew what they wanted exactly.
I mean, to have Donald Trump be president. But how?
John: They had slogans but less than an actual philosophy, or belief system, or a set of principles. And so that actually is relevant to what we’re going to get to today, because one of our sort of framing questions is how much work do you need to do to establish a character’s philosophy. How much do you need to think through that going into it? And this is a good example of people who cannot articulate their philosophy. They can articulate their affiliation, but it’s not actually based upon anything.
Craig: I think that’s spot on. I mean, it’s always a little uncomfortable to immediately relate these things to craft work and such, because people have died and our country is in chaos. But I guess in our defense I would simply say that this is how we’re going to be processing this stuff anyway. And the more you and I talk about how the news of the day is narrativized and how it could be narrativized, and how it should be narrativized, the more hopefully people can listen to the news and so forth and be a little more critical in the way they see how things are being presented to them.
John: And I’d also like to reflect because I think I’m the person on this show who often encourages people to think of themselves as the protagonist in the story of their life. And this might be a good counter example of that. Maybe don’t think of yourself as being the hero in Star Wars which some of these people do. And there’s a degree to which there’s like a fanboy thing happening there which is not healthy because it’s not based in reality. And so there’s a limit to how much you perceive yourself as being in a story because you are actually in real life and there are real life consequences in ways that there aren’t in fiction.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, weird intersection between neo-fascist rioting and cosplay.
Craig: That is disturbing as you see the not just a sense of reality breaking down, but even an interest in reality breaking down.
John: Yeah. It was as much Comic-Con as it was a political convention.
Craig: Yeah. The one guy wearing the fox furs and holding his wizard staff. Just, oh boy.
John: Oh boy.
Craig: Oh boy.
John: All right. So we will get back to that, but there’s a bit of follow up to get through because this is a new year. There’s new stuff to talk through. Really quickly a rundown. This whole last year we talked about the WGA campaign with the agencies. To remind everybody of what happened in previous episodes, all the agencies have signed, including CAA, except for WME. That was the last holdout.
When we last talked WME had gone to court asking for an injunction that would allow them to represent writers again.
John: While they were waiting for the decision from the judge they made a new proposal. WGA said that proposal was weak sauce and wasn’t going to cut it. And that they needed to basically sign the same agreement everybody else signed with some sort of side letter or something else to show how they were going to sell down to the limits that everyone else was facing.
On the 30th, right before the New Year, the judge came back and said no injunction. So WME lost in court. And that’s kind of where we’re at. So this is sort of non-update update, but basically there’s not a resolution to the WME of the agency campaign.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, there are pending cross lawsuits between WME against WGA and WGA against WME that are still floating out there waiting to be entertained. Is that correct?
John: That is correct. And so in the previous ruling the judge had strongly urged WME and WGA to meet and figure it out.
Craig: Figure it out I think he said. I mean, in this case it seemed like WME was just throwing up a Hail Mary, a 2020 Hail Mary, to see if they could do an end run around that. And that was not probably ever meant to succeed.
John: Yeah. So I have no other news to report but I wanted to at least acknowledge that there’s still one plot line from 2020 that hasn’t resolved here. So that’s one of them.
Craig: I mean, since I’m always happy to criticize the WGA when I feel like they are bungling or making missteps, more than happy to do that with the agencies when they do so. This is dumb. WME is engaging in a similar kind of behavior to the people who believe that Donald Trump will in fact still somehow be president on January 21. This is delusional. It’s over. It’s over. Kind of conventional wisdom about a situation like the one the WGA was in with these various agencies. The second to last agency to sign a deal is setting the final term. There is no possibility that WME is going to get, nor should get, a better term than CAA or any of the agencies that came before CAA. None. Zero. Not possible.
I don’t know what they’re doing. I truly don’t know what they’re doing. They should just give up or sign the thing, otherwise maybe they’re just kind of pinning their hopes on this lawsuit, but by that point I think they’re going to be losing a lot of their old clients. I don’t understand.
John: Not to take your analogy too far, but I remember another situation in 2020 where this guy threw up a bunch of lawsuits hoping to overturn the results and they didn’t come out well for him. So, maybe the lesson is how do you resolve things quickly so you can get back to work might be the best goal here. But, anyway, I’m not here to give them business advice. But that’s where we’re at with that.
Craig: I am. [laughs]
John: More importantly – well, actually this is somewhat related because Endeavor Content is related to this, this past week it was announced that the Rubik’s Cube Movie which is often one of the things we speculate about, like what would replace the Slinky Movie, the Rubik’s Cube Movie is in development. So this is big news. Hyde Park Entertainment Group and Endeavor Content, which is part of WME, are teaming up for a big feature take on the famed global-selling brand, Rubik’s Cube.
There’s also a game show which is a separate thing, because we don’t make game shows. But we talk about feature. And so in the pitch, “The Rubik’s Cube has sold over 450 million cubes worldwide. Since 2018 amateur professional speed cubers from all over the world have faced each other and battled for the chance to prove their skills in the Rubik’s Cube World Championship Finals in Boston,” which I will say I do want to point out there’s a great short documentary on Netflix.
Craig: So good.
John: Love it. So I don’t want to disparage that at all because I think that was a great, great thing.
John: But we need to make fun of the Rubik’s Cube Movie as a feature property.
Craig: Well, I’m starting to worry that they’re just listening to this show and waiting for us to come up with the next “stupid idea” and they’ll go well these guys are just pointing us towards gold. So I don’t know what our next thought is going to be. Mop and bucket, or whatever it’s going to be, the Mop and Bucket Movie.
This is not coming from a good place. I’m not going to undermine the people who take the job, especially these days.
John: Oh, no, not at all.
Craig: Yeah. You need a job, you need work, you do it. But the people who are – Hyde Park Entertainment Group and Endeavor – are engaging in an exercise that is even more cynical than the normal exercise that we all engage in in Hollywood to some extent. It just seems silly. It doesn’t matter. None of what they said matters. I doesn’t matter.
John: It doesn’t.
Craig: No. I mean, grass. You know what? People know grass more than Rubik’s Cube. Grass covers this much of the planet. 98% of people like grass. Who cares?
John: Yeah. So luckily we have the best listeners of any podcast in the world.
Craig: Yes, we do.
John: And our listeners are professional writers. So at least one but maybe two sets of writers sent in the pitch deck that was being sent to them. So basically when a big property like this is put out there they will contact the agencies and agencies will then go out to their clients and they’ll sort of give this is what they’re looking for.
Here was how the Rubik’s Cube Movie is being framed to writers when they are listening to them to pitch. “Our plan is to find a fresh and innovative way into the IP and develop a mythology that can speak to the scope of the puzzle’s influence. It can be anything from a world-building family adventure like Jumanji, a treasure hunt driven quest like National Treasure, to nostalgia-fueled sci-fi like Ready Player One and Beyond. Just imagine in the time it took to read this paragraph the world record holder could have solved the puzzle twice.”
John: There’s also, Craig click through, because there’s a slide show deck.
Craig: The slide show is amazing. It’s deeply depressing. I have no problem with corporate robots speaking to each other in corporate robot language. But when they talk to us, for the love of god, this is just not good. So, they say things like “Rubik’s is winning globally,” and then there’s just a bunch of things about brand awareness and retail sales.
Then they have, “Rubik’s DNA.” DNA is a term that non-artists love to through around in front of artists because they think it’ll mean something. So, for instance, here are some of the things that would be meant to entice a writer. “A combination of colors.” Colors, John. It’s colorful. “A striking shape.” It is a cube. “It has key brand values. The key brand values are things like twisting motion. And world famous shape.” I just want to point out that before the Rubik’s Cube was introduced to the world in 1980 there were other cubes. Ice. Not the man, but the actual substance. There were ice cubes.
John: Bricks. Bricks are not technically cubes but–
John: They have square edges.
Craig: They have squares. They had cubes in all sorts of manners.
John: There’s a typo on the slide that you’re looking at right now. “Intelligence buidling.”
Craig: Yeah. There’s “intelligence buidling,” which is a bad typo to make. That’s a rough one. And then it says, sorry I’m laughing at this, “Rubik’s, an inspiration to creatives.” That is like saying everyone knows that the election was rigged. You’re just saying it. It’s not true. It’s just not. It’s not.
John: It’s not. Again, whoever takes this job–
Craig: No, we love you.
John: Take this job. Make something great from it. You know what? I hope you make the Lego Movie. I hope you find something that’s so great even though it’s a piece of dumb IP. You can still potentially make a great movie out of it. I don’t hate the player, I hate the game. So that’s a look into–
Craig: Yes, support your family. Buy a house. Do something fun with whatever they give you for this. We absolve you completely. In fact, we urge you to take a job that you can take when you need one. But good lord.
John: But let’s talk about the process of getting this job. Because right now there are 20, 30 writers or writing teams who are preparing their own pitches for this. And that’s kind of the tragedy. How much wasted work and creative work is going to go into trying to land this dumb job? And that’s what’s a little bit heartbreaking here.
Craig: Maybe the best you can sort of think is this is a fascinating exercise for your mind. If you can figure out an interesting solution to this you’re making your story solving muscle a little bit stronger. So nothing is a complete waste of time. But certainly the people who have presented this to you have not helped you with a phrase like “our plan is to find a fresh and innovative way into the IP.” There’s never been a way into the “IP” of this.
So, always fresh and innovative – that’s the part that blows my mind. We’re making a movie about a Rubik’s Cube. That alone should be shocking. Shocking. That’s the movie by the way. That would be my pitch. Like I would be the guy working at the company trying desperately to stop this movie from happening. [laughs] Desperate. Desperate.
John: Yes. Desperate.
John: So, talking about IP, some of the same people who sent through the pitch deck for this talked about other stuff that they’re getting sent. So there is a Lucky Charms being developed. General Mills, the cereal company, is developing a movie around Lucky the Leprechaun. So at least Lucky the Leprechaun has a face.
Craig: Thank you.
John: And has a voice.
Craig: He’s a person.
John: That’s huge progress. So I would pitch for Lucky the Leprechaun over Rubik’s Cube just because there’s actually a character there.
John: A character who wants something. Who is loss-averse. Like people are stealing his Lucky Charms.
John: Why is he so loss-averse? Yeah.
Craig: I mean, when Chris Miller and Phil Lord approached the task of making the Lego Movie, I mean I’ve never asked them specifically this, but I will. If there were no Legos with faces would this have been doable at all? If it were just bricks what is there to do? But the fact is that a lot of Lego, plural of Lego, have faces, and so there are little mini characters. And therefore there are little mini stories.
John: Yeah. But the Lego I grew up with did not have faces. I grew up in a pre-face Lego world.
Craig: Ditto. And that’s how I knew that I was not meant to be an architect because I would just assemble the bricks into a larger mega brick. It was disturbing.
John: The building but you can’t actually enter it.
John: So the other thing we often talked about in terms of what piece of junk IP we can use for the placeholder, we went for the Mr. Clean Movie. Let’s all pitch a Mr. Clean Movie.
Craig: I don’t know.
John: And so it got me thinking, Procter & Gamble, if General Mills is going to develop a Lucky the Leprechaun Movie, Procter & Gamble, they already make soap operas. They have this character, Mr. Clean. He’s an identifiable brand. He’s got a jingle. It’s unclear to me, Craig, is Mr. Clean a genie or a sailor?
Craig: Oh, he’s not a genie. He’s definitely not a genie. He seems too modern. I mean, the ring is going to throw you a little bit I think. But I don’t think he’s a sailor either, to be honest. I think he’s just like a hot guy that loves cleaning.
John: He’s a daddy that loves cleaning.
Craig: Yeah. He’s a daddy that loves cleaning. By the way, at this point I’m getting turned on. And now I want to see the Mr. Clean Movie. The Rubik’s Cube Movie has destroyed the notion that the Mr. Clean Movie is the new bar. We have to go lower than Rubik’s Cube at this point. So now I’m thinking things like–
John: I think it’s going to be more on the grass frontier. Everyone in the world loves trees.
Craig: I think gravel. Gravel.
John: Sand. Sand is a foundation. Without sand you can’t get glass.
Craig: I know. Sand is almost too interesting.
John: Yeah. Actually the mathematics of sand is really complicated.
Craig: Because we know what they’re doing. They’re listening. So, if we seem, yeah, gravel is really boring. But, 99% brand awareness of gravel.
John: Everyone knows gravel.
John: You got skinned knees. You can use it to weigh stuff down. You can use it in place of a lawn if you’re trying to save.
John: Sorry. I’m giving all this stuff away for free.
Craig: That’s fresh and innovative what you’re saying. [laughs] You know, the Poochie episode of The Simpsons should have killed all of that language, permanently. Permanently. And it didn’t.
Craig: It just didn’t.
John: Such a good episode.
Craig: Edgy and in your face.
John: Yeah. All right. Let’s get into our discussion of philosophy for screenwriters. And this is all going to be coming out of a question that got sent in. So if our producer Megana Rao can join us, we have a lot of questions today and we need Megana to ask these questions so we can try to answer them on a philosophical level. Megana, can you help us out?
Megana Rao: Yeah, of course. OK, so Nisario wrote in and he asked, “On Episode 481 you and Craig discussed the ethics of lying as they pertain to blood donations. I couldn’t help but notice that John’s take was siding more toward a deontological approach which is rule-based. Simply, the refusal to lie, even if for the greater good, emphasizes what is right over what is beneficial for the collective. Your blood type is valuable, but the rules are such that you cannot donate, thus you must oblige to the rules of the system in place, not in favor of the rules but because you do not intend to perpetuate a flawed system. It’s a bit Kantian.
“Craig, on the other hand, argues that your lie will maximize the greatest amount of good. Therefore we ought to lie as this benefits the collective. This is consequentialism, utilitarianism, where maximizing the good is the end goal. Teleological ethics. My question is how much thought do you give to your character’s philosophy and beliefs?”
Craig: Good question.
John: Great. So in our bonus segment we’ll talk about specifically the lying and I’ll get more into that, but I think it’s a great question overall because I think it really depends on the project. There have been projects where I’ve hired on a philosophy professor to work with me to figure out character’s philosophical backgrounds, and other stuff I’ve written where like I couldn’t tell you what these characters believe in a general sense.
Craig, talk to me about your writing, how much does a character’s philosophy or belief system, how much do you know about that as you start to write?
Craig: Well, I took a good number of philosophy classes when I was in college and I deeply appreciate the distinction between the deontological and the teleological, and Nisario is absolutely correct. I tend towards the teleological in my thinking. I’m kind of a Nietzschean sort of dude when it comes to that. Not like full on bananas, but that’s kind of how I go.
But I think probably when I think about characters it never gets quite so specific and deep. It really stops right where I think most people go. Which is to say I tend to be a practical minded person. I tend to be an idealist. I tend to be somebody that is loyal to a set of beliefs and ethics. I tend to be somebody who shifts and moves depending on what it is I want.
We’re all familiar with people like that in our lives. So, philosophy will take a look at the way humans think and behave and attempt to organize that into analyzable and discussable systems. We don’t have to get that far. We can actually just stop with observing the behavior and then replicating it in characters as we choose. So I do engage in this to an extent, but not quite all the way into full on philosophy.
If I were writing something like The Good Place then I would absolutely need to because philosophy is literally a part of the character of Chidi. He is an ethicist and so that’s a huge part of how he thinks and what he says.
John: Yeah. When I said the philosopher I was talking about was Todd May who was the philosophy in residence, or one of the philosophers in residence on The Good Place. And so for the project I was writing it was really important to actually be able to explore some of those things.
Part of what you’re saying though, Craig, is you’re looking at what’s underpinning the motivations of characters. What’s driving them? And there is a balance between psychology and philosophy. And psychology is generally more present for us to explore as a writer because it’s driving people’s behaviors. It’s driving them sort of like moment to moment more clearly. Philosophy I tend to think of as being more deep, overall whether conscious or unconscious goals, a system by which people organize their choices and their life and their kind of moral structure. And most people I know in real life they may have affiliations, they may have belief systems that are because of their group identity, but they couldn’t articulate really their own belief system or their own philosophy in any meaningful way.
Craig: Yeah. There is a notion that philosophy is – if you think philosophy is teleological in and of itself and has a purpose, which many of the great philosophers agree with, then the purpose of philosophy is to help people live a better life. And thus we define what better means and we present them with a path to follow.
What I suspect often happens – and this is where the philosophers would probably be very upset with me – so we have the a posteriori and the a priori – that people already have an instinct of what they want because of who they are.
Craig: And then various philosophies are presented to them. They pick the one that will naturally satisfy their innate desires and they “follow it.” They’re not following it. The philosophy is following them where they were already going.
John: Yeah. And that really is the balance between psychology and philosophy as well. They want to do a thing and then afterwards they’re justifying why they did the thing. But that wasn’t really the cause of stuff.
John: I want to get back to the group affiliations and beliefs because a lot of times the characters in our stories are going to be a member of a group. A very classic pattern is they are born into a group and then they challenge the assumptions and the beliefs of that group and leave that group and have to discover their own new way of living.
So, their initial group affiliation might be with a religion, so like as a Catholic I believe that life begins at conception they might say. Or political affiliation, so as a progressive I believe all cops are bad. Or I believe in MAGA. I believe the election was stolen by deep state actors. They’re stating beliefs but it’s hard to say to what degree those beliefs are actually innate in that they came to that decision and realization through conscious effort versus they just took a whole bundle of beliefs that came with a group identity.
Craig: Yeah. This is the unseemly all too human underbelly of all these discussions. People who are hurt and wounded and may simply be truly to manage shame or fear or anxiety are going to naturally drift towards certain things. We know this. It’s not quite as simple as you read a bunch of books and then you go, ah, this one makes the most sense.
For instance, did you ever read Atlas Shrugged?
John: Oh my god I read Atlas Shrugged.
Craig: Sure you did. Sure you did.
John: No, actually, maybe I didn’t actually finish the Atlas Shrugged. I read the Fountainhead and was an asshole for at least four months after reading it.
John: And I really thank my college roommates who told me I was being an asshole and got me past it.
Craig: Everyone I think of a certain kind like you and me, you’re going to read that stuff. It’s going to hit something instinctive in you that you suspect might be true. And it’s going to reinforce it. And that reinforcement will make you feel good, because the message there is you’re special. Because you’re doing well, you deserve praise. You’re special. And it’s intoxicating.
And then, yeah, and then ideally you grow out of it as fast as you possibly can because it’s also just wrong. It’s wrong philosophically and it’s wrong factually. We just know that. But that’s what a lot of this stuff is doing. It’s just sort of pointing at things and saying does this make you feel good. Well what if I said this. Does this make you feel good? And I think philosophy is an intellectualization and distancing from that process.
What we do I think is far better thought of as just living on that very human level – what makes you feel good? What makes you feel scared? What is it that you want and why? And the characters that overly philosophical in film are usually villains because the villains, we understand our rationalizing and intellectualizing to cover up the all too human truth of why they’re doing what they do.
John: What I think Nisario may be reaching for is you want a story, you want a film obviously to ask a question. We talk about what is the central dramatic question. What is the theme of a piece? And that theme idea really is probably a better way of thinking about philosophy. Because you’re asking a philosophical question like, you know, we think of Star Trek, the needs of the many. That question is sort of an important part of that film and that film series. So you may be asking a philosophical question and your characters will be grappling with that philosophical question, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are. So in the conception of the idea there is a philosophy there. There’s something you’re grappling with. And your characters, your protagonists, and your antagonists would naturally be grappling with that as well. But that doesn’t mean that you are necessarily cataloging all of their beliefs and having every decision that character makes really very obviously tied into that philosophy because then you are Ayn Rand and you are writing The Fountainhead. And please don’t do that.
Craig: Correct. Exactly right. So what I call the central dramatic argument, people call a theme, it doesn’t matter what you call it, oftentimes is philosophical in nature because there is a very universal interest in these big questions of life. But the delivery system and the execution system is human and the people in the story, the characters you’re creating, are not philosophers. I mean, for instance, what Nisario is pointing out about our discussion about blood donations and your deontological approach and my teleological approach that is literally what is at the heart of The Last of Us, which is what I’m writing right now. That’s it. That’s the heart of it.
And nobody, nobody in this show, none of the characters in the game or the show are ever, ever going to speak philosophically about deontology or teleology because they’re not aware of that. That’s operating, it’s sort of like the history of whatever happens in this show 100 years later, if people are still alive a philosopher will write a history and then analyze it then. But not inside of the story.
John: Yeah. So let’s take a look at what are some philosophical aspects that are useful for a screenwriter to be asking about their characters.
John: And there’s going to be some natural overlap with psychology because that’s just how it works. But I would say idealism versus pragmatism. And I’m going to broadly talk about idealism. I have this notion of things must work this way and I’m going to stick to my guns on this thing regardless of sort of what the situation is. Versus utilitarianism or pragmatism – pragmatism is probably the better way to describe it – of just do what you can in the situation and make the best of it. Those are psychological approaches but they’re also philosophical approaches. Sort of what is the best use of the current situation that we’re in?
We might ask how concerned is this character about ethics overall. Ethics as a system, how do they deal with ethical questions that come up? Do they care about them? Do they not care about them? One thing I’ve constantly observed in films is that questions of ethics are always being asked of and by men. And you almost never see women grappling with questions of ethics for whatever reason. It’s just not a thing that we see portrayed in film very often.
Craig: Hmm. That’s an interesting observation.
John: You ask how willing is this character to lie? And how easily do they lie? How worried are they about lies? And where does it rank on their scale of sins or crimes to commit to lie to somebody?
Craig: I’m thinking about what you said about men and women and ethical presentations.
John: My counterexample which I think stuck out because I hadn’t seen this character before. Tilda Swinton’s character in Michael Clayton is deeply conflicted and flips out over decisions she’s having to make. And I cannot think of another female character in film who is grappling with things that same way. I guess to a degree Meryl Streep’s character in The Post, to a degree. But there aren’t a lot. And maybe that’s because we don’t see a lot of women in control in places where they can make these ethical systemic decisions in our films, but that’s just an observation.
Craig: It may also be that we in a tropey way think of men as more – I’ll just say – slightly more sociopathic in that they can be more emotionally detached and therefore intellectualize a situation and analyze it strictly in terms of bloodless value systems or ethics. Whereas the trope is that women are more feeling and connected and human and therefore have an innate morality that doesn’t need to be the product of analysis, but rather just emerges from a wellspring within. That’s an interesting thought.
There is another movie that’s coming to mind that does sort of run against that and it’s Tin Cup. When I think about idealism versus pragmatism, Kevin Costner’s character is such a good example of an idealist. He just has an ideal of what it means to play golf well, or rather correctly. And he sticks to it through the very end. And through his application and connection to that he both loses and wins. Rene Russo is his therapist and she is very much trying to pragmatically help him grow. And she is more concerned about ethics and questions of right and wrong and practicality and growing as a human being.
So, that’s an interesting possible counterpoint. But I think you’re touching on something really interesting that there is a space there for female philosophers I guess that we tend to leave to them out. And we should be bringing them in because there’s a lot of them.
John: Yeah. So the team owner in Ted Lasso. Your example of Tin Cup made me think of the team owner in Ted Lasso who starts off doing a very bad thing, an unethical thing, and sort of grapples with it. So there are other examples like that, but it just feels like on the big screen, in the 12 Angry Men kind of way of it, we don’t see that happening very often.
John: It’s an opportunity for writers who want to pursue it.
Craig: Yeah. I’m kind of curious. Can you think of an example of that scene that we’ve seen many times where a woman is slowly pacing back and forth in front of a captured hero explaining to him why her plan to destroy the world makes sense? Have you ever seen that?
John: I think in a Minions movie, yes. I feel like Sandra Bullock’s character in the Minions movie kind of does a little of that. But I’m really stretching to get there.
Craig: I’m going to exclude animation and I’m going to exclude superhero movies. So, you have a little bit of that in–
John: No, in a normal live action drama? No. I can’t.
Craig: I’m struggling to think of one. And now I want to write one because I feel like women absolutely have the right to be just as sociopathic and insane as men.
John: Yeah. We have sociopathic women. We have the Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction. But where she’s justifying her actions based on her perceived wrongs, we have the scorned woman archetype. But that’s not really what you’re describing.
Craig: Right. Not necessarily sociopaths. Yeah. Those are like personality disorders. But the kind of bloodless sociopath who wouldn’t even be bothered with sleeping with someone’s husband. Who cares? She has a bigger method.
John: I think some of the villains, it’s hard to even call them villains, some of the characters in Game of Thrones might have aspects of that as well. But I really want to go for what we’re seeing in movies, I certainly can’t pick one of those.
Craig: Yeah. All right. It’s a challenge.
John: But let’s talk about heroes where you can identify some philosophical, some sort of belief system that they articulate and will come back to. And sometimes that can be helpful. So Indiana Jones, “That belongs in a museum,” that’s how he distinguishes what he does from other folks who are doing kind of the same thing.
John: I think about Miranda Priestly from Devil Wears Prada. And she very clearly articulates a philosophy that beauty has a purpose. And that what she’s doing at this magazine and fashion has meaning, so she’s able to articulate that.
Willy Wonka’s obsession with chocolate. He has that craftsman’s fascination, that artist’s fascination with the meaning that he’s in and he can speak to that very fully. So, those are characters who articulate a philosophy and it’s useful in their films to be able to do that.
So, we’re not saying don’t do that work. We’re saying it can be helpful. But I wouldn’t want – I think what I worry about is writers who would try to write a full philosophical treatise for each of the characters in their films and then struggle to find ways to actually make that fit into the film, or to articulate that in the film when it may just not be natural.
Craig: It would be bad. And it also robs your hero, your protagonist, of growth. It’s fine to put characters on either side of them. So, in Chernobyl I put a total pragmatist on one side of Jared Harris’s character, and on the other side I put an absolute idealist. So he gets to be pulled back and forth between them and then finds some sort of synthesis because he can see the value of both sides. And that’s interesting. You’re watching somebody make choices. The problem with philosophers as characters is they’ve already made up their minds and that is remarkably boring to watch in drama.
John: It is indeed. Great. Well thank you for this quick talk through some philosophical choices that writers might need to make. Write in with more stuff. I feel like on some future episode we should talk about kind of D&D alignment, because I see people trying to do that a little bit too much.
Craig: Yeah. It’s not really–
John: Yeah. Not so good.
Craig: Yeah, don’t do it.
John: So many more questions. I want to sort of get into them. So, Megana, can you talk to us about Zoom?
Megana: Great. So this question was suggested by Benjamin Simon. And he asked, “My friend and I have been working on a TV show pitch and hope to ‘take it out’ soon. Checking in with a few friends about their experiences pitching during the pandemic, it seems they’ve had to make adjustments when it comes to pitching on Zoom. For example, using more visuals and slides. I’d love to hear your take.”
John: Great. I have done a lot of this during the pandemic, so I actually have some straightforward advice for this. So I’ve had two projects I’ve taken out. I pitched to all the streamers. I’ve also pitched to all the animation places. In a conventional pitch you would go into the room, you would sit down on the couches. You would have a couple minutes of bullshit conversation. And then you’d get into your pitch. And so you might have visuals. You might have boards presented. Or you might just be talking at them. You have to focus on who the most important person is in the room while occasionally doing the lawn sprinkler of sort of making eye contact with everybody else in the room.
On Zoom it’s sort of nice because you don’t have to – eye contact isn’t quite the same thing. Basically you’re looking at the camera and it’s like you’re looking at everybody at the same time. So that is good. I will often put a little sticky note near the camera lens on my computer just to remind me I need to look up there and not look at people’s faces down lower.
Some things I learned really early on. First off, it’s important to practice. So, set up a practice Zoom with your other collaborators, your other writer, or your director, your producers, and just practice through it just to make sure you get all the little things out and who is going to speak when. I found it to be really helpful to join the meeting both from my main computer and also from my laptop. And on the laptop, that’s the one I’ll be sharing slides off of. And that just makes it easier for me to be doing this, my left hand is moving slides around, while I’m still able to focus on the screen in front of me for everything else. So that’s been helpful for me.
If you have sound, like this animation thing had a little animatic that had sound that went with it, make yourself a note that you actually have to turn on sound when – you have to enable sound and screen sharing when you get to that part.
When I was pitching I would tend to have what I was going to say kind of written out in Highland and I would move that up to the top of the screen so that it was close to the camera lens so I wasn’t looking down, I was looking up as I was scrolling through it. And actually really liked pitching on Zoom because we could pitch three places in a day and not drive all over town. So, for that it was great.
The slides were really helpful though because it gave us something to look at while I was talking. It wasn’t just me. Craig, have you had to pitch anything during this time?
Craig: Not pitch per se, but I certainly had a number of conversations that had consequences. You know, implied consequences, like are we going to make your how, or should we hire this person. And so there was – I mean, I guess if you define the thing that makes a pitch a pitch is that you’re having a meeting that has a consequence, a potential consequence. So I’ve had those and I, like you, I enjoy them to the extent that I don’t have to drive around. And also there’s a consistency on my end.
So one of the things about the drive around over the course of two days and pitch stuff is you find yourself in different rooms that are too hot, too cold, too small, too dusty. You have a headache all of a sudden. It’s a whole thing. And here you don’t have that problem. You’re in your comfy chair. You’re in your comfy clothes. And you’re doing your best.
I find that one of the nice things about Zoom is that its consistent limitation is that it can’t really handle simultaneous audio very well. We all know that. So, it requires everybody to listen. And the most important advice I could give you, Benjamin, and your friend is don’t be afraid to make space for other people to talk and ask questions. And as you’re pitching build in moments to stop and say, “How are we doing? Any questions?” Because it’s good for people to have a chance, otherwise they feel they’re getting – in a room you can always interrupt. It’s really hard to do it on Zoom. And when they do interrupt it creates this awkward post-interrupt, “Wait. Did you? Sorry. Oh, I. OK.”
So give them moments.
John: Absolutely. Build in. That’s why it’s also important to practice is to figure out where are the natural places to stop and ask for feedback, ask for questions. You may have noticed this, too. In pitching to larger rooms I feel like the executives have asked their other people in the Zoom for their questions much more often on Zoom than in real life when I’ve been in a space with other folks. And so that’s been nice, too. I feel like I’ve had more and better conversations with the number two and the number threes in Zoom pitches than in real life. It may just be the projects, but it did feel like it was relevant.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, at some point you want to make sure that the people you’ve asked into the meeting as an employer feel like they’re there for a reason.
Craig: And so it is. It’s good. I like it. You know, you and I have a weird experience, a now decade-long experience, doing something that most people in Hollywood have no experience doing.
John: That’s true.
Craig: We talk and then we stop and we listen. By the way, most podcasts really struggle with this. It’s one of the reasons I don’t listen to podcasts. You know, I hate the banter. Like the overlapping banter.
Craig: See that? See what we just did that? It’s beautiful.
John: That big, giant silence? OK, so hopefully that helps out with pitching on Zoom. I see we have an audio question here. This is Lauren from Los Angeles. Let’s listen to what Lauren has to say.
Lauren: Hey John and Craig. My name is Lauren and I’m a freshly repped screenwriter from Los Angeles. Believe it or not I signed with my management company on March 13, 2020. Yes, the day of the lockdown. So, every single general meeting I’ve had since has been over Zoom and I’ve never met my agents in person. That’s completely not relevant to my question, but I felt like it was a funny thing you might enjoy.
OK, so my question is this. I’m currently working on two different projects. One is a feature pitch that’s a very commercial YA type rom-com. The other is an indie feature script that is a dark comedy revolving around a mother-daughter relationship. I’m fortunate to say that I have different producers attached on both projects. Despite them being different I have ultimately gotten the same note on both. The note is always, “Don’t leave the protagonist’s point of view.” I’m curious what your opinion is on this because oftentimes I find that I want to leave my protagonist to reveal something happening without them knowing. For example, I will leave my daughter character to show the mother doing something behind her back. Or, in my rom-com I leave my main female character to reveal the love interest setting up something to surprise her.
Many times I’ve found their POV helpful. Nine times out of ten I’ve learned that the moments do in fact hit harder when I reveal the information to the audience through the character’s perspective. So, I’m curious if there’s a time when it’s better to leave the protagonist’s point of view and what your opinions would be on this. Thanks again. I’m a big, big fan. Lauren from Los Angeles. Bye.
Craig: I’m a big, big fan of Lauren from Los Angeles’s question. That’s a good question. We’ve talked about perspective a lot, yeah, but I don’t think we’ve ever focused on like when do you leave that perspective.
John: Yeah. I think it’s a great question. And I like that she half answered her own question. She says that nine times out of ten the producer’s note is correct and she shouldn’t do it. And that would be my instinct as well.
I think you’re making a contract with your audience, with your reader, about POV pretty early on in your script. And if you break POV on page 60 for the first time they’re right to say like, “Wait, that’s not the movie we signed up for.” So it feels like you’re cheating. So either you do it consistently or you don’t do it at all.
Some of my favorite movies will suddenly break POV and it’s exciting and it’s so unexpected when it happens. But they’re unusual when it happens. And, again, they tend to be movies where you go in there expecting for some sort of twist or surprise. And it feels like both of the things you’re describing don’t necessarily merit that break in POV.
Craig: Yeah. So first let’s sort of define this. We’re not strictly talking about who your main character, what they can physically see at any given point. But the emphasis of the scene is on your main character and how they’re experiencing something. So what you’re asking the audience to do is identify with your protagonist in this scene or sequence. In television it’s necessary to shift POV as much as possible because you are serving typically multiple storylines. And then inside those storylines there are protagonists. And so that storyline is within that protagonist POV, so it’s essentially staying inside of the notion of staying with POV.
For movies, the villain gets their own POV. You don’t want to spend too much time with the villain.
Craig: It’s pretty rare to have a movie where you don’t have a scene where the antagonist gets to own it and express their feelings and desires and wants. But, yes, you’re right. It can happen. But very common that you can freely and you want to break POV to give the antagonist a moment. Or two.
There are also times in comedies where side characters later on can have fascinating little POV break points, as long as the scene is brilliant. I’m thinking for instance of one of my favorite movies, In and Out, by Paul Rudnick who, you know, we’re on record as adoring for the Addams Family movies, etc. So there’s a wonderful moment later in the film where Debbie Reynolds who plays Kevin Kline’s mother, and who has been haranguing him to get married the entire time, and who had no scenes inside of her own perspective, always from Kevin Kline’s perspective, suddenly after the whole wedding blows up and he comes out of the closet and everything is crazy there’s a scene where she’s just alone with her old lady friends in the hall where there was going to be a wedding and she’s just bemoaning it all. And it’s a really funny scene where each one of those women just comes out with this fascinating secret. Like they all come out of the closet – it’s not about their own sexuality, but about things in their life. Like they start to reveal things. And it’s brilliant.
And it was a wonderful breath of fresh air because it earned its weight. So, you pick your spots. But just know, Lauren, when you do drift away it’s got to be really good. Because we’re naturally going to be like, wait, why are we over here. What’s happening? Because we know that this isn’t really advancing the story per se. So that’s the key.
John: Yeah. So this last week we watched Bridesmaids, or I rewatched Bridesmaids. First time my daughter had seen it. And I was struck by just what a great movie it is. It’s so, so, so well done. So Kristen Wiig’s character, it is from her POV. She is driving really every scene. Another way you may talk about this in a meeting is who has storytelling power. Basically who can drive a scene by themselves where none of the other characters need to be there? But she really is driving basically every scene. But there are notable moments where she’s not in them and so there’s a plane sequence in which we see a lot of other side conversations between characters and we continue to flesh out some characters. I think the reason why it doesn’t feel like you’re breaking POV to have those moments is at any point Kristen Wiig’s character could come in and disrupt those existing conversations.
John: And so they’re in a space where she could still be there. And so sometimes in a script you may kind of walk in the door with another character, but as long as our central character can be there and be part of the scene soon you’re not breaking the rules. It’s not going to feel like you’ve shifted the playing field unfairly.
Craig: Yeah. There’s a question of substance to those moments. I mean, there’s this wonderful moment on the plane where Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone have this incredible interaction.
Craig: That’s off of Kristen Wiig’s POV. It doesn’t advance the story really. Well, it kind of eventually sort of does. But it’s not deeply substantive. If you had a scene in Bridesmaids where Melissa McCarthy’s character was talking to one of the other Bridesmaids, not Kristen Wiig, and they talked about how they wanted to first go to this place to have lunch, but Kristen Wiig apparently wants us to go to a different place, and then we’re going to go over here. We’d be like why is Kristen Wiig not in this conversation? This is the whole point of us being here is to experience this discomfort through her.
So, if there is a lot of substance then, yeah, you probably want to avoid that. If it’s a fun little moment, especially in our YA rom-com, you know, why not?
John: Yeah. Absolutely. So, our general take home advice is you should absolutely be aware of it. And if you’re getting the note about breaking POV it’s probably because something is not working right. So take a look at what’s not working and POV might be the problem, but it may also be something else that’s not working right and POV is just the thing that’s sticking out.
John: All right. Megana, do we have another question?
Megana: Awesome. So, Christina asks, “I’m taking a screenwriter class and the instructor is using the eight-sequence structure. I’ve never heard of it before. It seems to sort of map onto three-act structure, but the protagonist is supposed to have a unique want in each of the eight sequences, AKA every 10-15 pages. Is this eight-sequence structure widely used and should I be applying it to my screenwriting? Or could it possibly be derailing me from three-act structure?”
John: Craig, you had never heard of this, had you?
Craig: No. [laughs]
Craig: Not at all.
John: It’s not a thing. And I don’t mean to say that your screenwriting instructor is steering you in a dangerous place, but that person is probably doing as good a job as a screenwriting instructor can do. The idea that there are 10-15 page chunks that sort of feel a little bit different, sure. Great. Call them sequences. Call them whatever. I’m always going to push back against this dogmatic belief that there’s some magical clothesline or whatever metaphor for how the story has to hang together and that these shifts have to happen magically.
Craig: Christina, you know, you probably knew, somewhere in the back of your head or perhaps in the front of your head, that when you asked this question you were just going to make me insane. There is not eight-sequence structure. It’s not a thing. I mean, I’m sure it is a thing for some people, but it’s not a thing-thing.
By the way, three-act structure which is a thing-thing is also not really a thing in the sense that it’s only useful if it’s useful. But this notion that the protagonist is supposed to have a unique want in each of the eight sequences AKA every 10 to 15 pages is absurd. Your instructor is certainly making his or her way through teaching this class as they have given themselves a structure. And that’s fine. I disagree with it. I don’t think it is applicable or practical or artistically substantive or justified. And maybe if you’re not feeling it this isn’t the class for you. Because I have a feeling that 80% of screenwriting classes – and I’m being charitable – are not for anyone. That’s just my gut.
John: I found a link here which talks through what the eight sequences are. So, I’ll read the descriptions of the eight sequences. And it does – I’m curious what you think.
So sequence one is Status Quo and Inciting Incident. OK.
Sequence two is Predicament and Lock In. I get that. So the story gears are engaging.
Sequence three, First Obstacle and Raising the Stakes. That feels kind of generic to me.
John: Sequence four, First Combination/Midpoint.
Craig: Hmm? That’s my favorite. No, no, I’ve got to stop there. And this is something I talked about in my how to write a movie thing. This I really loathe. It’s a midpoint. Why? Why? It just says, “If the story is a tragedy and our hero dies, then the first culmination (or midpoint) should be a low point for our character.” Why?
John: I don’t know. I don’t know.
Craig: So the hell are you supposed to write it? It’s so dumb.
John: Well sequence five is where you get the Subplot and Rising Action.
Craig: Huh? Huh?
John: Sequence six is the Main Culmination and it’s the End of Act Two.
Craig: What does that mean?
John: I don’t know. Well, it explains what it means, but not great. Not in a way that’s meaningful. There’s New Tension and Twist in sequence seven. And then Resolution in sequence eight. So I was like, yeah, you know what it’s the things that are going to happen in a movie are going to happen just like they’re putting numbers on them.
Craig: You can feel the tap dancing.
John: I hope Christina really what you’re focusing on in this class is learning how to write scenes and scenes work. Because that’s going to be much more important. Because all this stuff about structure we’ve talked about a thousand times. Movies have a natural structure to them. There’s ways that stories want to unfold. But all the structure in the world isn’t going to help you if your scenes don’t work and if your characters are not engaging on the page. That should not be the focus of a class.
Craig: You know, everybody who does this stuff they come out of the gate strong on act one. Because act one is super easy to structure. Everybody knows what it means to start a story.
John: You got to meet your people.
Craig: You got to meet your people.
John: Figure out your world.
Craig: Something happens. They get stuck. They need to do a thing. They want something. And then in act two there’s just argle-bargle. For instance, this says, “The second act SAG,” that’s in all capitals, as if it’s a thing, “can set in at this point if we don’t have a STRONG,” in all capitals, “subplot to take the ball for a while.” What does that mean?
John: It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean anything.
Craig: Subplot? I don’t know what this means.
John: If you’re talking about classic one-hour dramas where there’s an A-story and a B-story and a C-story, but that’s not a feature. That’s not how these work.
Craig: No. I don’t know what any of this means. And I don’t know why.
John: And Christina doesn’t need to worry about it.
Craig: No, don’t worry about it. You know what? Write something fun. And by the way if your teacher who is devoted to the eight-sequence structure doesn’t like what you’ve written because it defies the eight-sequence structure, rest easy at night knowing that it doesn’t matter anymore than a 16-year-old 10th or 11th grade student defying the introductory paragraph, three example paragraph, conclusion paragraph structure of an essay, which is a terrible structure. The most boring possible way to write anything, but that’s what they teach.
So, you know, just listen to this show. We’re doing better than this guy.
John: All right, this last question may actually be useful and helpful for folks. So, Megana, if you’d get us for this.
Megana: OK, so Fulla asks, “What advice do you have for new writers about how to read screenplays as a learning exercise? That is reading screenplays of movies that have already been made. Is it good to just read them and take it all in by osmosis, or is there a particular process for breaking the script down that you would recommend?”
John: I have an opinion but Megana I’d actually like to ask your opinion first because you’re at a place now where you’re probably reading a lot of scripts and future screenplays, TV screenplays, when you read a script what do you do?
Megana: A part of the reason why I was so curious to hear your guys’ thought is I worry that I’m doing it wrong. But I just read it straight through.
Megana: And I’m always so impressed and floored and hear my agent friends who read like ten screenplays a day, like how they get through it that quickly. And I think now that I’ve been reading screenplays for a while it’s starting to make more sense to me how to break it down and to be able to flip through and find certain things faster. Or just like keep parts of the story and identify them faster. But I think I’m still sort of reading them from page one on.
John: Yeah. And as a person who is trying to learn how good screenplays work, especially if you’re reading screenplays of existing movies that are good screenplays that you want to learn from, that’s how you do it. You read the scripts. And sort of as you’re reading them figure out what impact are they having for you. What’s working for you on the page? What are lessons you can take from it?
The one thing I will say I have learned to do over time is in watching a movie or reading a script I will try to take some notes to myself afterwards about what I learned from it. What I actually took and what’s useful about it. If you can do that, that’s great. But really it comes down to your own taste. And your agents who are reading 10 scripts in an afternoon, they’re skimming. They’re not really reading. And they’re not reading to improve their own writing ability. They’re just reading to plow through stuff. So that’s not really I think a fair standard to try to hold yourself to.
Craig: Yeah. I think you’re doing it right, Megana. Fulla, if you are reading screenplays of movies that have been made, as you say, my advice would be to make sure you’ve seen the movie first. Watch the movie and feel, just like a regular person. Just go in there like a good old audience member. Experience the movie. Just make internal notes of what delighted you, what scared you, what interested you, what bored you. A line that made you lean in and a line that made you roll your eyes. Then read the script.
And as you read the script just start to note how the parts that you loved or hated related to the words on the page. And what you think went right and what you think went wrong. And the most valuable sections are probably the ones where there’s something that you love in the movie, you read it on the page, and you go, wow, OK, so the page, it’s there, and it works in the movie. What do I love about this so much? Why did this make me so happy? What surprised me about it? And just think about it.
The more you get into super-duper analysis breaking down, et cetera, the more you’re drifting out of the zone of somebody that makes things and more into the zone of somebody that analyzes things. The danger is you don’t want to sort of quietly train yourself to be a critic. You want to train yourself to be a creator.
So, always think about that as best you can while you’re doing this. But you’ll be fine.
John: I totally agree about not becoming a critic of things. And so if you are going to break stuff down, I would say break it down, like a scene, look at how that writer got into and out of that scene and sort of the choices that writer made about how they’re going to get that information out. That is so helpful to see the craftsman there. Imagine you’re looking at an amazing piece of furniture and you’re able to deconstruct it to see how the joinery works. That’s useful.
But don’t engage in film criticism. I think Craig’s exercise is great in terms of seeing the movie then reading the script. After you do that a few times I say flip it. And if there’s a movie that you haven’t seen but you can find the screenplay for read the screenplay and see what movie are you building in your head based on the screenplay. And then you can compare it to how it actually turned out. That’s a good counterexample. A realization of like how much of the movie you saw really was first reflected on that page.
So just read a lot. And I think Fulla, you versus Christina, if all the time Christina spends in that class learning about eight-sequence structure, she was instead reading a bunch of screenplays, she’s going to come out ahead.
Craig: No question. And pretty sure it’s a lot cheaper.
John: Yeah. It is cheaper. Especially now. I remember when I went to USC for film school, one of the big draws is they had a big script library so you could check out two scripts at a time and read these scripts. And it was so helpful and so useful. And now we have the Internet and just all those scripts that are there which were such a valuable resource, they are free for everybody and that’s better. That’s how it should be.
John: Indeed. All right, Megana, thank you so much for these questions.
Craig: Thanks Megana.
Megana: Thank you, guys.
John: All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing oddly is self-serving. I generally don’t do a One Cool Thing that’s actually something I wrote, but this year I wrote up my 2020 sort of year in review. Basically I wanted to take a look at sort of all the stuff I did in 2020, for my writing stuff, for the apps we build. Sort of personal stuff. You know, health and such. And actually just take an accounting of what happened in 2020. Because while the year was obviously bizarre, there were a lot of things that were still under my control and I wanted to be sort of accountable for the things I could control.
So I did sort of year-end review. It ended up being a super, super long blog post, which I hadn’t intended. But from it I was trying to really ask three questions. What went well? What didn’t go so well? And what did I learn? And it’s the what did I learn is probably the most important things, because that’s the stuff that helps inform the choices I make for 2021. So, take a look at it. If you’re inspired to, it’s not too late into January to be thinking about what you did in 2020 and really looking forward to what you want to do in 2021.
Craig: I assume a big chunk of that review is just about how you treated me poorly and how you’re going to get better?
John: How I could treat Craig better is really a part of it. I also want to credit Megana Rao, our producer, because she did a review of what happened in 2020 as well and it got me thinking like, oh wow, I tend to discount all the things that happened over the course of the year. And so when she did her listing of things like, oh yeah, that was a lot.
Craig: You know, that’s the thing. You forget. It’s true. You get a lot done. You get more done than you think. So always good to give yourself a little bit of a hug at the end of a hard year and man was this a hard one.
Here’s my One Cool Thing, and this is a wonderful hug you can give yourself. I every now and then will recommend a game on the iPad. Usually it’s because I found it to be a fun diversion. This one I truly love. I love this game. I love it on the level of loving The Room and stuff like that, although it’s very different. It’s called There is No Game. And it is an independent game that’s kind of done in the sort of ‘90s pixel style which generally I just don’t like, because I’m like we have lived through that. I don’t want to still do that again.
But it’s purposeful here. It’s very purposeful here. This is a fascinating exercise in meta-analysis of games while playing a game, and it’s also very beautiful, and then becomes rather touching. And it is also mostly narrated by its creator, Pascal Cammisotto, who is French and so you’re basically being led through this by a man with a very strong accent, which at first you’re like I’m struggling to understand a few of these words. And then by the time you’re well into it you are absolutely in love with him and his accent. And the fact that he’s making fun of his accent. And the game is making fun of his accent.
It’s brilliant. I think this game is absolutely brilliant. And I urge you to go and spend the whatever it is, the $3 or something that it is to play it. I just loved it. Really fun.
So, again, There is No Game. Technology the full title is There is No Game: Wrong Dimension. It’s wonderful.
John: And you’d recommend we play it on iPad if that’s possible?
Craig: Yes, absolutely. iPad. Well, you can play it I think via Steam. You can play it on Mac as well. But it was released for Android, which I don’t care about, and iOS just a couple of weeks ago on December 17.
John: Excellent. I look forward to checking that out.
John: That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It’s edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro is by Rajesh Naroth. Oh, Craig, you’re going to want to listen to this one. It’s a good Mandalorian riff.
Craig: Oh, I like that.
John: If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions like the ones we answered today. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.
We have t-shirts. They’re great. You can get them at Cotton Bureau.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you find the transcripts. Plus you can sign up for our weekly-ish newsletter called Inneresting which has a lot of links to things we talk about on the show.
You can sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net. That’s where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments like the one we’re about to record online. Craig, I would not be lying if I didn’t say that this was a good episode.
Craig: [laughs] I have to go through the layers of negatives.
John: I have no idea how that actually comes out.
Craig: I think you said that it was a good episode. I agree.
John: Good. Thanks so much.
Craig: Thank you.
John: All right. Our bonus topic is on lying. And so the question that we had earlier from Nisario was follow up really on our discussion we had in the random advice episode where a listener had written in saying like, “Hey John, how do you feel about gay people not being allowed to donate blood and would you lie about being gay so that you could donate blood?” And Craig you said that if I had that rare blood type, if I had O-negative you would recommend that I do lie.
Craig: Strongly. Yes. I think what I said was that I would not only recommend it but I would bother you about it almost daily.
John: Yeah. And so I found that actually genuinely fascinating. I didn’t want to hijack the whole episode, just have a long discussion about that, but it’s a bonus segment so we can do whatever we want in a bonus segment.
John: And so I found that really fascinating. And particularly coming from a guy who like the first episode of Chernobyl starts a line, “What is the cost of lies?”
John: And so I think there is a cost to it. And I sort of wanted to piece through this because I don’t come to it from a religious perspective. I don’t believe in a Saint Augustine kind of way I’m going to lose my immortal soul for that lie. But to me it really was important to not lie about that. And so I wanted to sort of pick through that a little bit more if we could.
Craig: Sure. So, the simplest way of looking at it is that lying does have a cost. One of the things that I said in the podcast we did for Chernobyl was that after thinking about this and working on that show and running over the various thought experiments in my mind, it seems to me that there is a certain amount of lying that is just built into how we exist. We actually cannot function neurologically without a certain amount of lying.
John: And let’s define lying. So is lying any deception? Or is it knowingly telling a falsehood? What is lying in that definition?
Craig: I would make it as broad as possible. I think we need a little bit of denial to be able to get through the day. Some of us need a lot of denial to get through the day, which is a kind of lying. It’s essentially a refutation of fact. Like for instance if our own mortality were on the forefront of our minds then I don’t know how we would get through it. We are engaged in a steady passive denial of our mortality all the time.
And also there is a general lying to get through the day just to be polite and kind, and to not hurt people’s feelings. When you see somebody and you don’t like what they’re wearing and they’re like, “Oh my god, what do you think?” Why? Truly it would be damaging to everyone if we just opened our brains up and spilled it all out. It’s one of the reasons why the Internet, particularly social media, has been so toxic. It’s not because social media makes people bad. It’s because social media stops them sometimes from lying. They feel free to just say exactly what they think or feel and then we begin to corrode.
So there is a certain baseline that is required. The lies that we talk about in the show are the malicious lies that are designed to give us comfort even when we must address the danger. If a doctor says to you, “You have,” like a doctor said to Steve Jobs, “Steve, you have pancreatic cancer.” And he engaged in a series of lies to himself about what that meant and about what kind of treatment would work. And he paid the price. And he found out what the cost of those lies were, which is death. And that’s the kind of stuff that worries me.
When we talk about the rules surrounding the donation of blood and gay people, that rule is based on a lie. And the lie is that the blood of gay men is dangerous. It is not. And also our ability to screen blood for things like HIV, which is why that rule came about in the first place, is very good. So it’s just based on a kind of lie. We don’t want to deal with the notion that somehow we should just proceed towards scientific truth there. Specifically scientific truth is the truth that is most concerning to me and the one that we really can’t afford to lie about.
So that’s why that’s my position on the blood donation. It’s just scientific truth that we cannot ignore or lie about. And it hurts people. That’s the cost.
John: Exactly. So you can frame that either way. What is the good you’re trying to do? You’re trying to save someone’s life by donating blood. And it is good to save someone’s life. Absolutely established that. And we’re talking about what is the cost of it. As I said at the start, I’m not worried about lying in the sense of like it’s going to cost me my mortal soul. I don’t believe that’s a thing.
But I do think there are other costs that you may not be accounting for. And I sort of want to talk through a little bit of that, because we’ve had other discussions even prior to Scriptnotes that involve some of this stuff. So I think that in telling a lie, in telling this specific lie saying that I am not – checking the box that I am not a gay man or have not had sex or whatever, I’m undermining trust in the blood system itself. Because if I’m willing to say, to lie on this checkbox, what does it mean that – what is to stop me from lying about the other checkboxes, or things that could be more important?
Why is the choice about what’s important to lie about and not lie about left to me, a person who is not a scientist, versus the science? You and I both agree that this ban should be taken down. The proper solution is to get rid of the ban.
John: But I think even the interim step of me lying on this checkbox is undermining trust in the system because if we’re saying it’s OK for gay men to lie on that checkbox well is it OK for people with other serious blood-borne diseases to be lying on that checkbox. I think it naturally undermines trust in the way that lies undermine trust.
That’s one of my objections.
Craig: Yeah. I think that that is reasonable. And there are certain systems where I think you’re right. If there is a sense that there is a mass jury negation going on then, yes, we are going to lose faith in the system. In the case of blood donations, it’s a little bit like the security question you get at the airport. Did you pack your bags yourself? Well, that’s actually of no value. It does not matter if people say yes or no. The system really can’t rely on the self-reporting of truth. It needs to independently screen. There is no reason that we should be asking anybody whether or not they engage in behaviors that might lead to their blood having a virus in it any more than they should be asking us when we walk through the airport if we’re carrying a weapon. They should just make us go through the freaking metal detector. And the same thing does – it should and also does – happen with blood, which is why the question itself is stupid.
It is putting an unfair moral burden on you that is both unnecessary and dangerous for the overall health of our society.
John: Absolutely. And so I think my second objection is that in telling the lie that you’re asking me to tell I’m actually perpetuating a broken system rather than fixing it. I’m allowing the system to keep going and I’m bearing the cost of the broken system rather than the system being fixed. And so I think that is – I raise that objection that it’s prolonging the system going on in its broken state.
Craig: 100 percent. That is a real objection, too. And I’ve got to say, if it were me, I think what I would do, if I were O-negative and gay, I think I would try and find somebody that would work with me to essentially get around the nonsense. The way that people for instance literally on a daily basis, on a minute-by-minute basis work around the euthanasia laws in our country to die peacefully and willfully. All the time. Because we should be able to. It’s ridiculous that we can’t, and so we do.
So I would try and figure out how to get around it while also fighting the system. But be able to fight the system and change it. That would be my moral compromise.
John: So two other points I want to make. So in telling a lie I feel like, and me having to tell this lie every time I donate blood I feel like I’m normalizing lying. That it basically – and we talk about deception and obviously some deception is naturally part of life, but if we’re saying that I should systematically check this check box that I know is untrue to do a thing it’s making lying more acceptable as a choice overall in society for function. And that that does not feel great.
The same way that cheating overall, once you see people start cheating people are more likely to cheat. I feel like lying is the same kind of thing. But I really want to focus back on myself though because you said if I were a gay man I would do these things, and I want to talk about sort of like – I don’t want to normalize lying for myself. In telling a lie I would be normalizing lying for myself.
John: So every time you choose to lie you’re telling yourself to be comfortable being a liar. It’s like a tax on your self-esteem I think. And you’re always worried about being caught. Because here’s the thing that could happen. Let’s say I say like, oh, sorry, I was late. I was donating blood. And someone would say like, “Wait, I thought you couldn’t donate blood because you’re gay.” And it’s like, oh, sorry. Guess I’m a liar. That sucks. And that experience is an experience I’ve had through so much of my life that you haven’t had because as a gay man I’ve been asked to sustain a lie and be in the closet for the first 23 years of my life. And that really is a tremendous burden to sort of carry along.
And so I think part of my reason for why I won’t check that box is because I know how much that sucks. And how bad that is.
Craig: Well, that’s a great point. You have carried the burden of being forced to lie unfairly for a long time and therefore whatever additional burden you might be able to make an ethical argument in favor of is going to hurt you way more than it would hurt me. And that’s real. I mean, I would still bother you all the time, because that’s me, because I’m an asshole. And just thinking about people that need blood. But that would be kind of like, OK, you would always have your ethic—
What we’re doing right now is engaging in a really interesting bioethical debate. The only reason that we have bioethics is because there is no answer to this. There is only a weighing. There is only a balance. And your personal experience is absolutely part of the balance. No question. Has to be.
John: So, anyway, there’s not going to be a clear resolution to this, but I feel like in more fully airing what happens being this I would say that the experience I’ve had in terms of donating blood there’s been other situations where I’ve been asked to sort of play along with sort of like this is how we do it, and I’m always questioning the just play along with it. Because I had such a negative experience with having to carry – having to live within a lie 24/7.
John: That you feel it differently. So it’s a case where a person’s personal experience does impact sort of the choices that they make.
Craig: That’s a great point. And even if you haven’t had the burden of living in the closet, which I haven’t had to have, it’s really important for anybody who has kind of had the privilege of blithely going through life saying, oh, this is who I am, to also still question and stress test every time you are contemplating lying. And asking yourself why. And forcing that ethical debate in your head to be true. And relying on your inner sense of guilt or concern.
It’s a bioethical debate. It’s a really interesting question of what you do when you’re living in an unfair system with an unfair law that is based on absolutely no valid science whatsoever. What do you do?
And this is an interesting one. I’m kind of fascinated to see what people think.
John: Yeah. Just so I don’t come across as the idealist who would never, ever tell a lie, I will say one of the things that annoys Mike so much about me is that I am very good at sort of the convenience sort of short-cutting lie where if I have to talk to a customer service person I will create the crafted shorter version of the thing that actually – I will describe a scenario that gets me sort of what I need to have happen rather than the actual thing that actually has happened. So I am kind of a fabulist in that way. I will pretend that a certain circumstance has passed so that I can get to the resolution I need to get to.
Craig: You’re an awful person. [laughs] What you’re saying is that in your house you’re actually the least ethical one.
John: Yeah. I’m actually probably the Edward Bloom of our house.
Craig: Wow. Oh my god. So Mike is really hard core.
Craig: Geez. Well I hope he’s not O-negative.
Craig: I’ve got to worry about that now.
John: Thanks Craig.
Craig: Thank you, John.
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