The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. Today’s episode has one bit of swearing, so just a warning if you’re in the car with your kids.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 484 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show we’re going to look at the many ways screenwriters compress, twist, and otherwise manipulate time in their scripts and strategies for doing it effectively. Then we’ll discuss dialogue, both in terms of subtext and continuity. And in our bonus segment for Premium members we will discuss which moment in history or prehistory we’d most like to visit and why.
Craig: Exciting stuff.
John: It’s potentially a flashback episode.
John: We could even weave in a Stuart Special.
Craig: We’ve actually had a little bit of a pre-discussion about this time thing with our D&D group, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out in our bonus episode for everyone else.
John: Yes. Little bits of news. So this sort of snuck in under the wire. This was a December 31st announcement that the DGA sent a letter to WME telling it to get rid of its conflicts. Basically the head of the DGA sent this letter to the head of WME, Ari Greenberg, and said “we believe now is the right time to communicate our strong support for DGA’s efforts to remedy the affiliated production company issue.” So, Craig, I feel torn about this in ways that, I don’t know–
Craig: [laughs] I’m not.
John: We always reach for ways, you know, of German should have a word for it. But it’s not really German. I feel like the Swedish might have the right word for this feeling of like, yes, it’s the right thing, but it’s not kind of the way you want it to happen.
Craig: I’m going to quote this – I don’t know if you saw this amazing interview with this Capitol Hill police officer who had been attacked by the mob.
John: Oh, absolutely. And the last bit of it was amazing.
Craig: The last bit of it was amazing. And I will go ahead and I guess this will earn us a language warning. But he said some of the people in that mob, realizing that he was in danger of being killed, finally sort of surrounded him and tried to protect him from further harm. And to those people he said, “Thank you but also fuck you for being there.” [laughs] And that’s how I feel about this. I mean, what an enormous expenditure of political capital for the DGA to just show up in the final seconds of the war to announce that they’re in support of the losing side losing. I mean, this is pointless. I don’t quite even – the only thing I think they get out of this is maybe once again earning some sort of respect from the companies for restraint?
And when I say companies I mean the agencies at this point. I don’t know what the point of this is exactly.
John: Yeah. And I don’t know where this message actually came from, whether it was directors in the guild saying, hey, we also want this resolved, or where this came from. I want to be an optimist. And so in being an optimist I want to say that one of my great frustrations for two decades has been how little the three guilds have been willing to work together on issues of obvious multiple guild concern. And this was one of them. And the WGA did it all by itself. OK, fine.
But as we head forward into this next decade the role of the streamers and residuals and what that all looks like, we all care about that. It all has to be figured out as sort of one thing. So, maybe this is a small opening, a small glimmer of hope that we can actually coordinate some of our efforts in trying to address the challenges ahead here.
Craig: Over here in the pessimist’s corner I think that the DGA has always been more than happy to strategically allow the Writers Guild to be the crazy ones and the aggressive ones and the militant ones. And then pick up the spoils after the battle is over. That’s kind of how it works. They let us go into the coal mine. They don’t have to do stuff. They didn’t like some of this packaging stuff or affiliated production any more than we did, but they also didn’t have to spend anything. Not one of their members had to fire an agent. They just waited for us to take all the body blows, to go through two years or whatever long, a year and a half, or however long this was. Or continues to be. And now, you know, when it’s basically over now they can come in and try and earn some sort of, I don’t know, labor solidarity chit. That’s C-H-I-T.
I don’t see them abandoning that strategy any time soon. Honestly, you know, tip of the hat to them. It’s worked for them for decades. I don’t see them changing.
John: Yeah. So basically Craig Mazin maintains his WGA militancy as always. He’s always the one banging that gong, that WGA gong, over all sort of reason and order.
Craig: Well, I would say relative to the DGA I am militant. But, yeah, I’m doomed to be caught between the Writers Guild and the DGA. And then there’s SAG. By the way, I’m a member of all three of these unions, so I’m sure someone is going to be yelling at me soon.
Craig: But I don’t know, SAG doesn’t seem to – they just seem to be so inwardly focused. That’s no comment on actors in any way, shape, or form. [laughs] But it just seems so navel-gazey about things. And they have their own issues.
The Writers Guild and the Directors Guild should be allied. Just naturally they should be. The fact that they’re not is…[sighs]
John: Yeah. At some point we should probably schedule an episode where we really talk through that because it’s got to be so confusing to anybody who has not been immersed in this for two decades to understand why things are the way they are and how we got to this place.
Craig: Well, let’s schedule three episodes to explain why there’s a Writers Guild East and West.
John: That’s an easier one, but yes, that same episode or a different episode can talk about the East and the West and how luckily there’s not conflict there.
John: They’re doing different things.
John: All right. Some housekeeping, sort of follow up stuff. So many of you are members of the Premium program which is awesome. Thank you for being Premium subscribers. We just added a $49 price point, so you can either go monthly, but some people asked, hey, what if there was an annual price and it would be cheaper. So, sure. So you can get 12 months for the price of 10. If you go to Scripnotes.net you can sign up for that. But thank you for all the folks who do that.
Some people are also confused about the back episodes. So the back episodes are available through Scriptnotes.net. That’s through the new Premium service, so it’s not Libsyn where stuff used to be. It’s all this new thing. So we used to have Premium episodes through Libsyn. Now they’re all through this new service called Supporting Cast. We’ve been on it for a year. It’s gone really well. So thank you for everyone who has joined us over there.
But if you’re writing in with concerns about like, oh, I was looking for this thing on Libsyn, that’s why it’s not there anymore because it’s all moved over to this new service.
Craig: Thank god.
John: Yeah. And some follow up about bad IP, suggestions for – obviously we have the Rubik’s Cube Movie, the Slinky Movie. We’re always searching for a new thing. Dwayne from Edmonton, Canada wrote in to say, “Yes, I was listening in the shower, but the Showerhead Movie.” And then someone else had a suggestion for the Loofah Movie. I like Loofah Movie more than the Showerhead Movie because Showerhead actually has a function and a purpose. Loofah has some sense of like it’s tough but it’s soft. There’s a little texture to the Loofah.
Craig: I don’t love either one of them. Because they feel like–
John: I don’t love them either.
Craig: They have to live within the realm of possibility. That some thickheaded dingbat in the ancillary IP department of a large corporation might actually say, “You know what? We should make a movie out of this. It has to be something that is theoretically possible. Theoretically.
John: And really IP is intellectual property. And the thing about Lucky the Leprechaun is there is intellectual property there. There’s a copyright. There’s a protectable thing that no one else can make that movie. It’s a struggle we have, like you go in and talk to – I went in to talk to a studio a year ago and they’re like, “Oh, we really want to develop blank.” And it’s like, great, that is public IP. That’s not a protectable thing. So what is your plan for going in to do that?
Like Jack and the Beanstalk is public IP. And so anyone can make that, so would you make that? You don’t know.
Craig: Yeah. I think it has to be something that is possess-able and ownable and exploitable. That’s the crux of the whole awful affair is that something is being exploited in the most cynical manner. So there has to be an exploitable object.
John: Speaking of exploitable objects, Beau Willimon, who is head of the WGA East.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: This week signed on to do the Risk movie which is based on a Hasbro property.
Craig: There you go. Right.
John: And would classically be the kind of thing that we make fun of on the show, because Risk has no characters. It has kind of a general scenario of world domination and archaic names for countries and strategies which are obvious but also crucial to understand of, you know, as a child you might start with an Australia strategy, but any adult who has played the game knows that the South American strategy is better.
Craig: Of course, the Venezuelan gambit. Always. Just, yeah. It is strange how the Risk board does sort of undermine what we understand to be where military and strategic value actually is located. The thing about Risk, it’s similar I guess to what they were doing with Battleship, not that it will turn out the same way. They’re just taking a game that was already based on something real and kind of echoing back to the thing it was based on. So Risk was just a board game version of a large WWI style battle for global dominance.
So my guess is that’s what the movie will – I don’t know. Actually I have no idea what the movie will be.
John: We’ll talk to Beau about it at some point. There was a vague plan on Twitter for us to be playing an online game of Risk to talk through it. So, who knows? Maybe that will actually happen and we’ll find some good charitable cause to play Risk online so we can celebrate this exploitation of an IP and hopefully do some good in the world.
Craig: Exactly. Exactly.
John: Exactly. All right. Let’s get to our marquee topic. So explaining sort of how the sausage is made. We are looking at a shared outline document. I put stuff on as I’m sort of helping to organize this episode. Megana put stuff on and we sort of try to group it together and have it make some sense.
Generally the topic for the week comes out of something either I was working on during the week or something I saw this week. Or Craig will suggest a topic and we’ll sort of flesh it out. In this case it was something I was writing and something I was watching. One scene that I was working on this week it was just too long. And it was clear that it needed to be cut into two scenes. Basically I needed to cut the middle out of it. And cutting the middle out of it is really common craft work that screenwriters need to do. And we haven’t talked very much about that. But basically we need to do a time compression in the middle of it.
There was also a sequence I was working on that I had scenes that were back to back A-B-C, but there was going to be a really significant time jump. So, you know, I was sort of changing the rules of the movie part way through where it had been sort of like scenes were very naturally flowing, like were all within one day, and then suddenly we’re jumping forward weeks. And that’s a thing we haven’t talked about.
So that’s part of why I want to talk about this, but also the movies I watched this week all dealt with time in interesting ways. So Nomadland, which was great, people should see it, has a kind of weird cyclical time thing to it. It uses time really strangely. Tenet has this weird time version. The Lego Movie seemed to take place in this continuous present. It’s just like hyperactively present. The Crown has these giant jumps forward in time between episodes. And we also watched Edge of Tomorrow which is an even better movie than I remember it being.
Craig: I love that movie.
John: Which is all about sort of looping time. So, time is just a thing that screenwriters do and it’s probably the resource that screenwriters have to control kind of most carefully. So I thought we’d just spend our main topic here just talking about time as screenwriters use it.
Craig: We have this craft over here, just been thinking about this because I was talking with somebody who works in plays, so she’s a playwright, and all of her work is on stage. And on stage even though there may be cheats of how time functions, it is all unfolding kind of in real time in front of you because you are actually in the room with these people. You are present in their reality, so you’re all experiencing the tick-tick of time together.
But onscreen we don’t. And in fact the entire exercise of telling a story cinematically is one that involves the manipulation of time. The very notion going all the way back to simple concept of editorial montage. I look at this, and then the camera looks over here, and we understand that there may have been time that passed. It just happens in the blink of an eye like that.
So, it’s not even something that we can sometimes choose to do or dwell on. We are always doing it in every movie no matter what. And that’s separate and apart from the theme of time. Because obviously some movies are about time itself and how it functions. And you have Looper and Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow and things like that. But in any movie, in any movie, I mean, how many times have you sat there and gone, OK, they’re in a space and this scene has concluded, but they must still be in this space again to start a new movement of the scene, meaning time has gone by. But how and why? What do I do to show that there’s been this lapse of time?
John: Yeah. And you think like, oh, well here’s ten tricks for doing it. Like sure, maybe there are a list of like you zoom out and you start in a close up of this thing and as you pull back out some more time has passed. Or you’re focused on this thing. There’s tricks, but it’s all hard work.
And before we even get into the jumping forward in time, we should call there are movies that try to take away that grammar. And they stick out because they are so unusual. There’s things like 12 Angry Men which is based on a play which is basically a filmed play which has sort of continuous time because it’s a play. But things like – do you remember the movie Timecode, the Mike Figgis movie that it’s quadrants and they’re all in real time.
1917 has the illusion of real time buried. Clue. Phone Booth. Dog Day Afternoon. United 93. Russian Arc. Where you’re sort of generally moving continuously through a space, and the whole gimmick, the conceit is that you’re not cutting. But those are the exceptions. And most times in cinematic storytelling you are cutting, you are jumping forward in time. And just learn as an audience to accept that as a thing that’s going to happen.
Craig: Yeah. We know when we’re watching these things inherently that we’re going to get a compressed version of time because it’s dramatic. It’s exciting. If it weren’t we wouldn’t go. I mean, 12 Angry Men is a wonderful play and it’s a terrific film. And if it was actually presented in the way a jury deliberation would go it would be profoundly boring. Profoundly boring. With side discussions of irrelevance and people leaving to go to the bathroom and coming back. It just doesn’t work.
We are always twisting it and turning it. And so one of the things that you have to decide tonally is are you going to be naturalistic about it, meaning are you going to kind of hide the seams in between the time jumps, or are you going to have fun with it. Is it going to be something you wear on your sleeve? Like in Go, for instance, the way you move time around, you’re not hiding it, you’re making a virtue of it. But then that is a tone, right? So then the movie is sort of like an elevated heightened reality.
You have to make those decisions upfront about what you’re doing with this stuff. But what you can’t do is just ignore it. You need to be a craftswoman or man when it comes to presenting the disruptions of time to the audience.
John: Yeah. So what you’re saying is that you may not write down your plan for how time works in your movie. It’s very unlikely you are going to have a specific time plan. But you are establishing rules very early on in your script for how time works in your movie. Both how it works inside scenes and between scenes. And so let’s talk about some of those rules and assumptions that are going to be there and what you need to think through.
So, an obvious example is like is it continuous. Basically are we existing in real time or the illusion of real time? That you’re never jumping ahead. How big of jumps can you make? Can you jump to later that same day, or the next week? Or can you jump forward a few years. And that’s a very different kind of storytelling if you’re able to jump bigger jumps along the way.
How many clocks have you started ticking? And so I’m thinking back to your movie Identity Thief. And there is a timeline. You’re having characters say aloud that they need to get from here to there in a certain period of time. You’re setting expectations. Different kinds of movies are going to have different clocks ticking. But you’re generally going to set some kind of framework for what needs to happen by what point.
In Big Fish you don’t know when Edward Bloom is going to die, but you know he’s going to die. And so that is the ticking clock where you get the dramatic question of the movie answered before that alarm goes off.
Craig: Yeah. This is one of the reasons why I like outlining, to be honest with you. Because when you outline you are confronted by those disconnects of time. And you feel them and they literally help you outline. That’s how you suddenly go, OK, I think that this index card consists of these things that occur. And then it’s time for a new index card, or a new paragraph, or however you’re doing it. Because time is broken. There’s a snap. And I want to justify it. And I want to play around with it. And I also am aware that if I announce a certain kind of timeline that leads to a certain kind of pressure I need everything that follows to fall in line with it.
This is why Chernobyl is only five episodes and not six. Because as I was working on episode two it seemed that the timeline that the story had presented required a certain kind of speed. And even though the events that take place over the course of episode two went over the course of a week, into an hour, if they had gone into two hours of television it would have felt like two or three weeks, which would have felt wrong.
So you just have to have this weird internal fake chronometer that is aligned with what you think people’s experience of the time flow will be as they watch.
John: Yeah. Let’s drill into a little bit more on this, because we talked about Chernobyl in the sense of time to a limited degree. But each episode of Chernobyl changes its scale of time a little bit. So that first episode feels close to real time. You’re not slavishly real time. But it’s very, very present tense all the way through it.
The second episode, if everything took place in a matter of hours in the first episode, then you’re a matter of two days in the second episode, and then several weeks, and then months. It kaleidoscopes out. And that was a very deliberate choice really, I assume, from the conception?
Craig: Absolutely. And, you know, of note the first episode which does cover, I mean, the flow of events once you get out of the little prologue starts at 1:23 in the morning and it ends roughly at sunrise. That unfolds over about 50 minutes. It feels – so that’s the other thing – even though it feels like real time, it is absolutely not. And juggling some of that stuff and being really specific about it was important because I’m aware that there’s – it’s a funny thing. If you say to people, OK, this is happening at 1:30 in the morning, and then you show them something else happening at 4am, in their minds they’re like that’s really close together. It’s the middle of the night. Not a lot of stuff happening in the middle of the night, therefore it’s like those things are right after another.
If it’s in the middle of a day and it’s 10am and then it’s 2pm, that’s a different vibe. And suddenly you feel like a lot of time has passed. Things have happened. What went on in between those things? You just have to kind of have that weird sense of it.
John: Yeah. What you’re describing is time is relative. And not in any special relativity way, but in the sense of general relativity there’s an observer. And time flows according to what the observer sees, in this case what the audience sees. And it’s the audience that sees that two events that happened in the middle of the night are closer together than two events that happen in the middle of the day.
John: And often one of the things we encounter as screenwriters and as filmmakers is the big shift is like a day scene versus a night scene. A bunch happens between the two of those. And even if they’re back to back in the day scene and night scene that is a challenge.
A thing we often encounter with stories that are happening on multiple coasts is like it’s night in New York but it’s still maybe daytime in Los Angeles or in Australia. That’s confusing. That’s weird to see. And you try to avoid those situations because it just feels weird and wrong for the audience.
We know that they’re in different time zones, and yet if two characters are having a conversation they should both be in daylight or at nighttime they shouldn’t be split between the two of them.
Craig: Isn’t that funny? And there are times where people, it’s like spy movies and such where you have people in Washington, DC talking to an operative in Malaysia. Well, that’s about 12 hours apart. That’s like flip AM and PM. You will almost always see one of those people inside. Because you don’t want to see the light/dark thing. You don’t want to see somebody going night to – it is really confusing to us. Like the way our own circadian rhythms get biologically confused by jetlag. We just can’t handle it. It feels wrong and it takes us out of the moment, which is of course the thing we’re always trying to not do.
John: One of the other rules you’re establishing in whatever you’re creating is travel time. And so a show I loved deeply as I watched it is Alias. And as the series went along suddenly she could be kind of anywhere magically right away. They never showed her traveling someplace, so it’s like she’s in Los Angeles. She’s in Europe. She’s back. And somehow it’s still the same day. Travel time just sort of went away. And early seasons of Game of Thrones I felt like it just took forever to get from Winterfell down to King’s Landing. And then suddenly like, oh, you’re just there.
And, you know, in some ways that is just the collision of all the transitional scenes. Weeks could have been passing during that time. But it also just felt like they changed the rules in terms of how quickly you could move from place to place because they didn’t – it wasn’t serving them to show the travel time that would be involved.
Craig: Yeah. And I think that there is a boredom factor to repeating the kind of expanded time. So, it is interesting to watch a slow journey if it’s new to you. If it’s not, I’m all in favor of just like skip ahead, skip ahead. Fast forward. So I don’t have to watch the same boring journey again. No question, in the early seasons of Game of Thrones getting to The Wall took forever, which felt right. And traveling, it seemed impossible to get from Essos to Westeros. It was like a massive amount of land and ocean to cover. And as you got deeper in and closer to the end then things started going faster because you had experienced the journeys already.
And, yeah, was there some time things where you’re like on paper you have broken your own time travel rules? Yes. And you just kind of have to sometimes take those hits because when you are as deep into that world as those guys were after whatever it was, 80 episodes, it’s really hard to stay consistent and keep the story moving. It’s just hard to keep that timeline consistent.
John: Now so a lot of what we’ve been talking about so far has been scene-by-scene, or sequence-by-sequence, and sort of the stuff that you can look at in an outline form and figure out, OK, this is how we’re handling time. But let’s zoom in and talk about time within a scene. Because even as we’re talking to a playwright, a playwright is optimizing dialogue and moments within a scene so that things that would normally take place over four hours are happening in ten minutes. There’s an optimization that’s natural to any kind of dramatic writing where you’re sort of getting the tightest, best version of these things.
What I find to be so different as a screenwriter than other forms of writing is that we have this expectation of just how long a scene can be and how much has to be accomplished, and so often we have to be doing really delicate surgery to cut out half a page, to jump over some natural moments that might happens so we can get to that next thing. We’re always just trying to take out the stitches and see if we can just sew a little bit tighter. And that is part of it.
One of the things I’ve learned to do much better over the course of 20 years of doing this is recognizing when I can’t actually just make this – when I can’t tighten it and when I need to just actually get rid of this scene or approach it from a completely different way because there’s no short version of this scene that’s going to handle what I needed to do.
Craig: This is why the classes that aspiring screenwriters should be taking are not, in my opinion, screenwriting classes. Are we going to talk by the way about the crazy QAnon screen guy? Maybe next week. Because that was something else.
John: Oh yeah. When we have a little bit more about that we’ll do some of that.
Craig: We’ll get around to him next week. But I think the classes that screenwriters or aspiring screenwriters should be taking are editing classes. Because editing is where the time compression and expansion rubber meets the road. And you begin to see exactly how flexible or inflexible something is. There is a point where the material will snap. And it will not feel correct in terms of the manipulation of time. And that tensile strength, that flexibility, is different depending on tone and pace. But you’ll see it in there.
And the more you can get a rhythm of how that functions in an edit the more you will be able to anticipate that as you’re writing ahead of the edit. You will know that you can get away with certain things and you will also know you can’t get away with certain things.
I’ve spent so much time in editing rooms. So much time in editing rooms. If there’s one thing I can point to that has made me a better writer than I used to be over the years it’s the amount of time editing scenes of things I wrote.
John: Mm-hmm. And recognizing like, oh, I thought I needed that or basically you have to acknowledge that like it made sense why you did that on the page. And then when you actually see it with physical people in the blocking that they have, that moment just can’t last. We don’t have space for that in the movie we actually made. So therefore we need to come into that scene later or leave earlier.
So let’s talk about some of the classic techniques we do use for trimming time, which is also trimming pages. Because how we sort of measure our time is pages. Come in as late as you can. Leave as early as you can. So basically what is the latest moment you could start this scene. Can you start the scene with the person answering the question rather than the question being asked? Can you get out on a look rather than on that last line? What is the moment you can jump out of this thing? How can you not ask the question that a person would naturally ask? How can you get from A to B as cleanly as possible and still have an interesting scene?
Some of the challenges we face though is you can optimize a scene so much that it’s just not interesting. It’s quick. The story has made forward progress but there’s nothing interesting in that scene itself.
Craig: Yeah. And I think that, while the “get in as late as you can, leave as early as you can” advice is probably very good advice for early screenwriters who tend to overwrite, once you are getting better at things it’s dangerous. Because there are human moments in the beginnings and ends of things. Sometimes just the way somebody walks up to somebody else in and of itself is dramatic and sad or exciting. And it allows you to set a context for what comes next so that you don’t feel like you’re just kind of getting the choruses of the hit songs on the album, but that you’re getting something a little bit more rich.
Shoe leather is the term we use in production for people that are walking.
Craig: Traveling pointlessly from one spot to another is considered the cardinal sin. There’s a moment in Chernobyl that we looked at a billion times where Jared Harris has, they’ve taken a break in the trial and he sees Shcherbina is sitting a bit a ways away on a bench and he walks over to him. And the question was how much walking do we need. I think initially in Johan’s first cut he just sort of materialized next to him and I was like, well, no. We can’t do that.
But, on the other hand, do we actually want to show him doing the full freaking walk? No. So can we show some of the walk that feels meaningful and weighty and just trust that the kind of, I don’t know, human aspect of his little travel there will be enough to kind of cover the manipulation of time? And it seemed like it was.
But there is definitely a screenwriting class version of that scene that begins with those two guys just sitting next to each other already. Like they went out there. They’re sitting next to each other. There’s a pause. And then one of them starts talking. But, you know, I like a little windup. What can I say? I’m a windup kind of guy.
John: Yeah. But you have to really make that decision. Does seeing one character sit down next to the next character change the dynamics of the scene?
John: If it does, then yes, you should write it and you should aim to shoot it that way. If it doesn’t really matter then maybe you do just have him sitting there because you don’t think about sort of the editorial work that the reader is doing. But just that sentence of like “walks over and sits down next to the person,” we’re filming that in our minds and it’s changing our perception of what is the urgency, what’s actually happening. Getting to that moment more quickly may be the right choice.
Definitely I think you and I are both urging writers to write like it’s the edit. And write the version of the movie that you’re actually seeing in your head. And you may make different decisions working with a director. You may decide to make some different decisions. But as close as you can come to this best version you can make inside your head and get that on paper the more likely you’re going to have a successful version of that scene and hopefully you’re whole movie.
Craig: Yup. It is one of those places where you get to show off a little bit of creative freedom. A little bit of chaos. Even shows that you might think of as very well organized temporally like say Breaking Bad is full of time tricks. Full of them. There’s that one season where multiple show openings were of a pool and a teddy bear floating in it. And you didn’t know why. And none of it made sense until the end when it was revealed to be a function of something that hadn’t even yet occurred at the first episode of that season. Because they had no problem messing with time and being creatively chaotic with it.
But it’s got to pay off. It’s got to be worth it in the end.
John: Yeah. You have to have confidence and you have to – that confidence has to be built out of trust in your audience and your audience trusting you. We always talk about the social contract between the writer and the reader. It’s like give me your attention and I will make it worth your while. And time and use of time well is one of those aspects of trust.
John: All right. Let’s go to some listener questions because some of our questions actually do tie into this topic. Here is where we bring on our producer, Megana Rao, who asks the questions that our listeners write in with. Megana, what have you got for us this week?
Megana Rao: All right. So first up, Don writes, “I know you’ve talked about continuous dialogue before, but I wanted to take a crack at changing your minds.”
Craig: No. [laughs]
Megana: “Wouldn’t it just be easier for everyone to stop using continuous dialogue altogether? Does it really help that much? I can understand the argument that is useful at the start of a new page, but I can’t seem to find any usefulness outside of that. Even if the dialogue is broken up by action, I assume the average person doesn’t get totally lost without the use of CONT’D. Continued.”
Craig: I must admit, Don, I’m a little confused. Because you don’t have to change my mind at all. I don’t use CONT’D for dialogue, for continuous dialogue. I haven’t used it ten years.
John: Yeah. So CONT’D is a convention that I kind of feel is going away to a degree, but there’s two kinds of CONT’Ds to talk about. And it’s a thing that we encounter a lot with Highland because Highland does one kind and doesn’t do another kind. So let’s talk about what the difference is.
There’s CONT’D if a character is talking at the bottom of a page. Let’s say they have a long speech and it jumps to the next page. Software will automatically mark it CONT’D there to make it clear that it’s one block of dialogue that just got split between two different pages. That I have no problem with. I think Craig you don’t have a problem, too.
John: Because it’s referring to like it’s just the software doing a thing to make it clear that this really is all one block of dialogue.
Craig: If you didn’t put it there you would not know that the next bit of dialogue was meant to be part of a continuous speech.
John: Yeah. So that – no one really has big issues with that.
Craig: That’s all good.
John: What we’re talking about though is Craig starts talking and then there’s a scene description line and then Craig keeps talking after that. And Highland does not automatically put that CONT’D in there. Final Draft does want to put that CONT’D in there. That was just a philosophical point from my side, because software wise we could do that. It’s just so often I’ve had to manually delete those back when I was using Final Draft because it really wasn’t the same idea, it wasn’t the same thought. I didn’t mean for it to be one continuous thing.
So, if I meant it to be one continuous thing I could type the CONT’D there to show that it really was one thought. But sometimes three different things happen between those two, so it really is not the same line, the same thought. It shouldn’t be continuous.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, it doesn’t matter. Basically, Don, what I’m saying is you’re right. I don’t see the value in it. It feels very format-y to me. Something that just was sort of vaguely secretarial in the creation of the classic Warner Bros screenplay format or whatever, the [unintelligible] format was. To me it’s literally changing the character’s name. I hate it. Just let them talk. They’re saying something, then a thing happens, and then they say something. And it isn’t continuous. If it were continuous I would make the choice to not break the dialogue up. There is some sort of natural pause, break, or change that has occurred in between those two things.
So, I don’t use CONT’D myself. And so you don’t have to fight me on it.
John: Nope. I will say there have been times, because I don’t use it, there have times in table readings where I’ve noticed that an actor doesn’t get their next line because they’re expecting like, oh, if there’s another line of dialogue it wouldn’t be my line of dialogue. But they can get over that. Or they can highlight their own script. It’s fine. It’s not a big deal.
Craig: They can figure it out.
John: Megana, what do we have next?
Megana: Danielle asks, “I would love any feedback on how much to include in therapy scenes. My protagonist seeks professional through a three-month rehab program in the third act which greatly moves them forward in their healing journey. I have plenty of dialogue that navigates what healed them, but not sure how much to include and when is too much.”
John: So this is, again, a question of time. How are you using your limited resources of pages to show this three months? And you’re going to make elisions and choices about sort of what we’re seeing. Are sessions individualized? Is dialogue being stretched out over the course of multiple sessions? Is the dialogue extending over other scenes that show passages of time? There’s a lot going on here. Craig, what tips would you offer for Danielle as she’s thinking about how to do this?
Craig: Well, I think first of all I would need to know what the nature is of the relationship between the patient and the therapist, or the rehab specialist. Because if it’s a very important relationship then I want to see more of it. There are movies where that relationship is central like Ordinary People or Good Will Hunting. Then there are situations where those relationships aren’t as important, but they are kind of backgrounded and they are used as these sort of subtle markers of progress. In Honey Boy, for instance, there are some therapy scenes. They’re very, very truncated and they’re really meant to just show where a character is in a given moment in his journey.
So, it depends on what you want us to focus on and listen to. The thing about therapy scenes is they’re always, of course, there are great examples, even better than a jury deliberating, which is usually very, very boring and then we just show the good parts, same with therapy. Therapy is circular. It can be boring. It can go backwards. It can be frustrating. And when a movie show – they show this kind of glamorized highlight reel of it all that often concludes with someone saying the one thing that makes everybody go, “Oh my god, I get it now. I’m healed.” Which is not what therapy actually is.
But there could be some key moments or some big reveals or things. So, I guess my only advice would be tailor the length to the significance of the relationship between the patient and the therapist. And try and avoid over-glamorize pitfalls if you can.
John: Yeah. It’s not technically therapy, but I go back to Marriage Story and the scene with Scarlett Johansson and Laura Dern which is a long scene and plays in continuous time. But the choice to have that be one scene rather than a bunch of little small scenes that add up to that scene was so smart and so well done because it allowed for a continuous emotional progression within a scene. It made it its own moment and would not have worked so successfully had it been broken into smaller bits.
And so I’m going to throw two contrasting bits of suggestions here. One is to look at sort of like if you sort of shatter it apart and just take the pieces and thread them through a period that covers time, where we can see progress of the character, where you’re not sort of in one scene for a lot of it, that’s a possibility. Or to do this Marriage Story approach where you really anchor it around one central scene that is really doing the work of this thing and not try to break it into three scenes of equal length which I suspect is going to be the least effective way to handle it.
John: What’s next, Megana?
Megana: Great. So Ash from London asks, “My writing and directing partner and I are 99% in synch. But recently we have both noticed that we might read the same dialogue in a totally different way, inferring different subtext, tone, or intended performance in ways that are quite drastic and effect the interpretation of the scene. It’s a bit like the relationship between reading the lyrics to a song which seem mundane and flat on the page and then listening to the final piece of music. I feel like I’ve suddenly become aware of a massive limitation of the medium and I find myself panicking about people reading the dialogue I write in the worst possible way. What’s happening here? Am I OK? Am I having some kind of existential crisis? Or am I struggling with something that everyone struggles with?”
Craig: No, Ash, you’re not OK. This is all you. Of course, what are you discovering, you’re discovering that this is what we are. This is part of our humanity is that we will interpret things in different ways. And it’s actually good news. It means that this stuff is more extensible than you think it is. It’s more rich than you might have thought it was. Yes, it is possible and it happens all the time that people read a line and go, “Why would you – this is so dumb.” And you’re befuddled by that reaction and you say what do you mean. And they say, “Because of this.” And you go, oh, no, no, no, you don’t understand. My apologies. It means this. This is the intention. And then then go, “Oh, oh, oh, oh, OK.”
That will happen to you a thousand times. So, in a weird way kind of almost enjoy it when it happens. Like my whole thing is I let people just keep talking. I swear to god. I do. It’s mean, but I just let them keep going until they finally exhaust themselves with their complaining. And then I say, well, it actually meant this. You were just stressing the wrong word. I would stress this word. And then they go, “Oh, oh, OK. Oh god.” And then I can see that they’re embarrassed. And I like that. Because I’m bad.
John: Ash, one thing that will help you is at some point you will be in casting for a project and you will see 30 actors read the same scene. And you’ll recognize, oh wow, there are so many different ways to read those exact same lines of dialogue. And you can tell which ones match your expectations and which ones don’t match your expectations and which ones are even better and cooler than your expectations. That’s great. That’s actually performance.
The writing is a plan. It’s a guideline for things that actors are actually going to say. And their performance does really matter. And their intention really does matter. So, there’s nothing wrong with what’s happening. It is super common.
Craig: Yeah. It’s good. I like it. When somebody something and it’s better than what you imagined, that’s a wonderful surprise. And it also jogs the material out of the expected. Because if it can surprise you, imagine what it’s going to do to the audience.
John: So I will tell you, my first experience with this was with Go. And we were having a very hard time casting the role of Gaines, the drug dealer, Todd Gaines the drug dealer. To the point where I was sitting through all these auditions like did I just write a bad scene? Is this a bad character? Can this not work? And then Timothy Olyphant came in and read it. It was like, oh, that’s what it’s supposed to be. That is actually – it does actually make sense as a character because this person in front of me was able to do this role and it does actually track and make sense.
So, don’t worry too much about it. That said, you and your writing partner who are theoretically writing the same thing disagree on sort of what these lines are supposed to be, there may be something that’s not happening right in your communication with each other, in how you’re establishing the voices of these characters to begin with. Because as you’re reading through a script if a character has an established voice it should be pretty unambiguous how a given line is going to sound or what the intention of a given line should be. So, watch for that. Maybe you’re not establishing voices especially clearly.
And then I’d say one technique to look at, and this is a thing I see a lot in J.J. Abrams scripts, is in the parenthetical there will be quotes with a line for what the line is meant to say. So if the line was, “You’re stupid,” but in the parenthetical it says, “I love you so much.” Just basically giving kind of like a line reading in the parenthetical. It’s a thing you see more in TV than you do in features, but it’s available as an option if there’s a specific line that is really not what it seems like it is just texturally on the page.
John: Word. Let’s do one more question, Megana.
Megana: All right. Great. So, Lawant from the Netherlands writes, “What makes a story more suitable to live action versus animation? I know the way the screenplay gets written is often a little dissimilar to the way a live action screenplay does. I also know that there are often logistics and economics at play. So do you feel that there are certain stories that inherently lend themselves better to one medium or the other?”
John: Yeah. So the obvious thing is if most of the characters in your story are human beings, live action is a really natural good choice. If most of them are not human beings, they are animals, they are other kinds of creatures, animation is a better choice.
Obviously we can do things in sort of hybrid ways that are between the two that are new, and exciting, and different. We can redo The Lion King in “live action.” But we all know what we’re talking about. If it can be filmed with human actors, then it should probably be live action.
But that said, the nature of certain kinds of stories that we tend to do more often in animation than in live action. So, mythic stories, simple fairy tale kind of things. Things that feel like they should have Disney songs in them are generally better off to be thought of as animation. But just this past year there was a project that we took out which was going to be live action, it was going to be sort of Mandalorian-y kind of shot, and ultimately the decision was, you know what, this is probably going to be animation instead just for the logistics of it all. And it was the kind of story where you could kind of go either way and we decided to go into animation.
So, I don’t have hard and fast rules, but the characters and the world are what’s going to dictate whether it’s live action or animation to me.
Craig: Yeah. The only other consideration may, Lawant, is that if your story is what I would call pure story, meaning it is so connected to a really sharply engineered super high concept plot, then it might be better suited for animation. Because in animation you can do anything. You can show anywhere and do anything. So if you have this pure story that really requires very specific plotting and structure, you might want to think about it as an animated tale because you’ll just have more latitude.
John: There are Pixar movies that you could do live action, but they really kind of wouldn’t work the same way. There’s certain formulas and there’s certain heroic journey stuff that it just feels better in animation than it feels in live action. And so really just be honest with yourself about the character goals and sort of what the story wants to be and you probably will feel if it’s animation or if it’s live action.
John: Cool. Megana, thank you for these questions.
Megana: Great. Thank you guys so much.
Craig: Thanks Megana.
John: All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. Before I get to my One Cool Thing I have to do follow up on Craig’s One Cool Thing from last week which was There is No Game which is a terrific – it’s a game, spoiler, it’s a game. But really, really well done. I haven’t finished it yet, but do check that out because Craig was actually right this time.
John: I don’t play all of the games that he recommends, but this time I thought it really was terrific.
Craig: It’s a good one.
John: Two small things for me to recommend this week. First is Some Kind of Heaven, which is a new documentary that came out this past week. It’s about The Villages in Florida which is this retirement community. And it is a great documentary following several people who live at The Villages. Again, I don’t want to do spoilers. But we’ll put a link to the trailer. But if you went in cold I think it would honestly be the best exposure to it because it’s great. I want to have the filmmaker on at some point to talk through his use of characters and how you create detailed character moments and arcs when you only have these real people for limited periods of time. It’s just really well done. So, I’d urge you to check that out.
But my general One Cool Thing if you want to waste some time is Microsimulation of Traffic which is this German website. And it basically – it’s this animation where you have all these cars in this highway system and you can drag in little obstacles. You can sort of see how the traffic flow goes. I’ve always been really curious sort of how you optimize cars getting from point A to point B. And it’s just a really smartly done version of that. So it’s not Sim City. It’s very much more sort of mathematically-driven in terms of how you optimize traffic flow. And I wasted a good hour on it. And I think you will enjoy it.
Craig: There was an article years ago that someone did about traffic in Southern California and what causes traffic and what would alleviate traffic on the freeways. And one of the things that kind of blew my mind was he said one of the biggest impacts on traffic flow is sun.
Craig: So you’re kind of going down a hill or something and there’s sunlight in your eyes. You will slow down. And everybody that slows down a little bit causes this ripple effect in the back. The other one is how many cars can you see ahead of you. If you can see a lot of cars ahead of you a lot of times it seems like there’s more traffic, so you slow down. And if you can’t, it doesn’t, and you speed up. It was just like we suck is basically – it was just another one of those your brains are bad stories.
John: Yeah. I will say a thing I’ve always read about and never sort of seen until I tried this on the traffic simulator is ghost crashes. Basically there will be an accident or something and then there’s a bump in the rug and there’s this traffic jam that persists for hours after an accident has been cleared. And this simulator makes it really clear why that’s there and why running traffic breaks, which is where the police cars turn their lights and very slowly do these S shapes to sort of slow down all the traffic clears the break.
And so it was fun to see that like, oh, it is actually just jams are sometimes just the echoes of things that happened a long time before.
Craig: Exactly. I like that. Ghost crashes. A couple of One Cool Things this week. This one is sort of a cool thing. They’re related. The first one is definitely cool. We announced, The Hollywood Reporter announced, that The Last of Us has its pilot director. Originally we were going to be doing this with Johan Renck who I did Chernobyl with. Johan, like so many people who is working on things, had a movie that got delayed by Covid and so suddenly the schedules couldn’t line up. So some big shoes to fill in terms of where to go and who to talk to.
And there is a film, this is, by the way, again not to be like – I don’t want to sound like a butt-kisser here, but HBO is pretty cool. Like we’re making this big show. It costs a lot of money. And we come to them and say, “You know who we want? We want a guy named Kantemir Balagov who had made a small film called Beanpole in Russian, in Russia.” And they were like, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
It’s awesome. Beanpole is beautiful. I’m 99% certain that we are also going to be using the cinematographer that Kantemir partnered with. She is also remarkable. Her name is Kseniya Sereda. And it is stunning and heartbreaking and gorgeous. It showed up on a ton of Top 20 of 2020 lists. I’m not a huge list person as everybody knows, but the Top 20 of 2020 lists have been fascinating because so few movies came out that almost all of them are these really obscure and very cool little movies.
So, we’re very happy about that. Kantemir is a fantastic guy. Super talented guy. And he speaks English. But, he speaks Russian better than he speaks English. So, as we’ve been communicating I’ve been trying to find a translation solution, sort of an inline translation solution. I mean, ideally I would be writing an email and something would be mirroring in another window in Russian. That would be incredible. Not quite that simple. I mean, I can sort of go on Google and type it into that window and see what happens.
What I’m using now is something called Mate. M-A-T-E. Which is kind of like an integrated translation system. Its interface is a little funky at times. Sometimes the formatting goes away. And sometimes it comes back. So I’m just – it’s a pretty cool thing. It’s a pretty cool thing. But if somebody out there has an awesome translation solution, sort of a frictionless translation solution for me for English to Russian and Russian to English I’d love to hear about it.
John: Nice. Yeah. Send those suggestions in. And that’s our show for this week. So, as always, Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Timothy Vajda. We could use some more outros. And so a reminder of what an outro is, because I was looking through the folder and there’s a bunch of pieces of music that are good that really have nothing to do with Scriptnotes at all. So, the only requirement we give is that they be cool and they somehow go Bum-bum-bum-bum-bump, or the minor version of that. But there’s pieces in there that like that’s a cool piece of music but it has nothing to do with Scriptnotes. It does not have our theme. So the only requirement is it has to use the theme in some way. And I want you to keep pursuing excellence and giving us great outros because we really appreciate it.
You can send us links to those outros at email@example.com. That’s also the place where you send questions like the ones we answered today. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.
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Craig, thank you for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: OK, Craig, this is very much a dorm room stoner question.
Craig: Got it.
John: But if you could travel back to any point in history, or pre-history, and go there as a tourist, so we’ll start with the tourist rules where you go and you know you can come back to the present time. What are some places you’d like to visit in history and why?
Craig: Yeah. So we put this to our D&D, or you put it to our D&D group as well, and immediately because it’s a D&D group, which is just obsessed with the details and potential loop holes and possible ways to gain the system, there were certain questions in there, but they were reasonable. So let’s also presume that I’m not going to be suffering. There’s not going to be a bad case of bubonic plague or something like that. I’m not going to be immediately burned as a witch because of my clothing and so on and so forth.
So then the question is where do you go back in time. What are you most interested in seeing? And, you know, I don’t know how much of this reflects on who I am or what my interests are, but I suppose – and again let’s also presume you can understand every language.
Craig: Maybe because my dad was an American history teacher and that was the bulk of the history that I was taught, I think I would want to go back to those very hot days in July, late June and early July, where Americans were debating whether or not they should be declaring independency from Great Britain in Philadelphia. Because in that discussion there was not only the momentous occasion of our independence, but there was also the first real consequential debate over slavery. It had begun already. And it wasn’t going to get any better or any less complicated or any less morally repugnant. And would ultimately fester and explode into the Civil War and then into Jim Crow and then of course we still are struggling with its legacy today.
So all of that’s there plus Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. It’s pretty – I think I would like it. That’s where I would go.
John: Absolutely. So both around the Declaration of Independence, but also figuring out the Constitution are just, are just such seminal moments and we have many accounts of it, but we have no one who can sort of tell us what it’s like to be there and sort of look at it with modern eyes in ways that, you know, just to actually physically be there would be great.
And I guess we’re sort of playing – we’re not playing Terminator rules, so you can’t go back and change a thing. You can just sort of go back and witness it and really see what it was like.
Craig: Fly on the wall.
John: Fly on the wall. And so fly on the wall, two points in history and prehistory that I’m really curious to see. Everything happening around Jesus’s time. And sort of like what Jesus was like in his time. What the sense of this small little group was like and did it feel like it was the start of something bigger because I guess I just always wondered to what degree civilization was primed and ready to have this explosion of a religion that would take over everything, or it just was lucky.
And to what degree, who he was individually and how charismatic. And sort of what it felt like in that time would be fascinating. So, that’s one thing, but I would also really be curious to come to North American continent in a time before European settlers arrive and just see what it was like because I think I was definitely raised on this myth that North America was just sort of this empty continent, that there really wasn’t anybody here. And that clearly was not the case. It was actually a pretty busy and full place. And the myth of it being empty was sort of foisted upon us.
So while there weren’t permanently built cities in the way that we saw in Europe, there were actually a lot of people here. And I was just really curious what that was like. And we sort of lost all of that because there wasn’t written language just in that sense of what it felt like here before the Europeans came.
John: Yeah. Probably cleaner.
Craig: Much, much cleaner.
John: Yeah. We made a mess of things.
John: So, changing the rules a little bit, if you could go back to one moment in your life, so we’ve always gone back pre-us, but is there a moment in your life where you’d like to look at yourself?
Craig: Oh, oh god. I mean, no. I don’t want to see any of that.
John: I don’t know that I want to see any of that either. Because I think I would just – it would just be very wincey to sort of see the dumb choices you make. One of the reasons why I like the show Pen15 so much is that you have these really talented actors going back to play themselves at 15 years old and just how unbearably awkward you are those early ages. And so if I couldn’t change stuff, if I couldn’t encourage the younger version of me to do the things that are so obvious to do in retrospect, I guess I wouldn’t go back and want to watch any of it.
Craig: No. I’m embarrassed by all of it. Everything. Everything up to this moment. It’s a tragedy.
John: I will say having lost my mom last month there are definitely moments in my mom’s life and in my dad’s life that they’ve given me some reporting on, but I just don’t really have a very good sense of who they were at different moments. So the sort of Back to the Future fantasy of like getting to see your parents when they were teenagers or early 20-somethings would be neat. It’s not Jesus in his time neat. But it would be illuminating.
Craig: Yeah. I always feel like if you could get a good look at your parents when they were young it would be a little bit like getting a peek into the cockpit of a plane and seeing how drunk the pilot was. It would give you a bad feeling. Like there but for the grace of god. Like this person should not have been in charge of me at all. At all. Who put this guy behind the seat of an airplane or the wheel of an airplane or whatever you call it, the helm? Who put this guy behind the helm of an airplane? And who put this guy in charge of a child?
And if my kids could look back and see how absolutely clueless I was at so many points they would probably feel exactly the same.
John: So a thing I noticed this last year is that as I look back at photos of my daughter there’s continuities and there’s also discontinuities. And I don’t perceive sort of one continuous evolution of a kid from point A to where she is right now. There’s stages. And of course there were small shifts – there were shifts between those stages and there were transition points, but it’s almost like she’s a whole different species than who she was as a younger child.
John: And sometimes I feel lost for – I look over these photos and I feel lost for who that kid was. And obviously she’s still right in front of you, but she’s not really right in front of me. That younger toddler who was so neat in her own specific way is gone.
Craig: Yeah. That is the tragedy of watching your kids grow up. There is a progression that you can see. And you can follow it with a line. And to tie back into our topic in the main show about time and how time can sometimes just break, there is an end of childhood and there’s the beginning of this other thing and there’s a break. And that break is traumatic for everybody. But what happens on the other side of it is a different person entirely emerges. Just a different human being. And it is a struggle sometimes for everyone to wrap their minds around the fact that your kid is gone.
I mean, memory and time claim all children. All of them. And what is left in their place you have to come to accept. And if you can, then there’s this whole other potentially wonderful relationship with them for the rest of your life. But sometimes you have this kid and everything is great and there’s the jump and then they come out on the other side a person and some children and parents don’t like each other anymore after that point and they go their separate ways. It happens.
John: And a huge source of tension between parents and kids is the parent not willing to acknowledge that it’s not their small child anymore.
Craig: That’s right. There’s been a change.
John: It’s reality. And tying this back to sense of time and screenwriters as being masters of time, if you haven’t seen Boyhood, the Richard Linklater movie, this is a great opportunity to see Boyhood because that is an experiment in which you follow a kid through this difficult time and you see both the continuities and discontinuities of a kid aging. And a great example of approaching a project with a plan, with an intention, and then having to adjust based on the actual realities of what happens.
So, I loved Boyhood. I thought it was just terrific.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah.
John: Cool. Thanks Craig.
Craig: Thank you, John.
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