The original post for this episode can now be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Hey guys. My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 485 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show we make good on our promise to explain Hollywood’s guilds and unions. Then we’ll tackle the problem of good and evil, law and chaos, as it relates to character alignment and whether it’s helpful for writers to be thinking along these axes. And in our bonus segment for Premium members we will talk about the screenwriting guru/QAnon connection which is as obvious and obnoxious as you’d think.
Craig: [laughs] Oh, I can’t wait. Can’t wait.
John: Yeah. But before we get into any of this, Craig, I know you are a person who loves puzzles.
Craig: I do.
John: I suspect you also love mysteries.
Craig: I love mysteries.
John: I could see you in another life becoming a detective.
John: So, I have a mystery for you to help me solve. And there is an answer. I promise.
John: Since about Thanksgiving a thing I’ve noticed is when I wake up in the mornings my fingers smell sweet. Not like maple syrup, but kind of like an agave syrup. Just they smell genuinely sweet. And this was incredibly puzzling to me. I wondered what could be going on.
I found what the answer was. But I’m curious what your process might be towards figuring out what was going on.
Craig: OK. Well, I suppose the first thing I would do is to try and determine when the crime occurred. So, before I would go to bed I would very carefully smell and taste my own fingers to make sure that they weren’t already sweet.
John: And, yes, I smelled my fingers before going to bed and they did not smell sweet. It’s only when I woke up in the morning that they smelled sweet.
Craig: Interesting. So then the next thing I would do would be to figure out if there was something where maybe inside of my pillowcase or something that there was some sort of – maybe there was something in there that was rubbing off on my fingers. So I would check the bedding, for instance.
John: Yeah. And so I did check that. And I noticed nothing – like my pillowcases did not smell like it. My pillow didn’t smell like it. I couldn’t find that smell anywhere else. It was only on specifically my fingers.
Craig: Fingers. Next thing I would ask is are you wearing any sort of mouth appliance at night.
John: I am. I wear a mouth guard at night.
John: I could not imagine sleeping without a mouth guard.
Craig: OK. So now what I’m wondering is when you wake up in the morning and you’re smelling the sweetness on your fingers is it after you’ve removed your mouth guard or before?
John: It is both.
John: So before I’ve taken it off I do smell it and I still smell it after I take it out.
Craig: OK, so it’s not for instance perhaps you’ve done a good job scrubbing and cleaning your mouth guard and gotten some residual toothpaste on it or something like that.
John: Yeah. That would be a natural thought, but no.
Craig: Right. And it’s not for instance that you’ve left any sort of toothpaste residue around.
John: No. Nothing. And I would say it’s not minty. I don’t want to – it smells more like kind of like a syrup. I don’t want to go typically maple syrup, but it’s that kind of sweet. Or sort of like baked goods sweet.
Craig: Hmm. Mm. OK. All right. I’m now engaging my literal gray cells. My little gray cells.
John: How about this. Why don’t we keep talking about the mystery as we go through this episode, so we can actually get to some of the screenwriting stuff? But we’ll come back to this mystery, because there will be answer by the end, I promise.
Craig: Great. Like in between–
John: You won’t have to flip to the back of the book.
Craig: Right. Like in between our topics. OK, great.
John: All right. So some follow up. In a previous episode we talked about, or I sort of brought up that I never see female characters grappling with ethical concerns. And some people wrote in with some suggestions. But one of the best ones I thought was Joshua who writes, “In Contact the character of Dr. Ellie Arroway, played by Jodie Foster, is ultimately forced to reconcile her atheism with a transcendent experience she cannot prove, culminating in a memorable congressional hearing where we see her struggling mightily to make sense of what she’s gone through and what it means for how she sees the world and herself.” Let’s listen to a clip.
Male Voice: Then why don’t you simply withdraw your testimony and concede that this journey to the center of the galaxy in fact never took place?
Jodie Foster: Because I can’t. I had an experience I can’t prove, I can’t even explain it. But everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever, a vision of the universe, that tells us undeniably how tiny and insignificant and how rare and precious we all are. A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves. That we are not – that none of us are alone. I wish I could share that. I wish that everyone, if even for one moment, could feel that awe and humility and that hope…but…that continues to be my wish.
John: So that’s not quite what I’m talking about in terms of an ethical concern. It’s a revelation that I don’t often see female characters have, but it’s not the ethical concern that I’m thinking about in terms of like 12 Angry Men.
Craig: Right. I love that movie, but that’s the part of the movie that I don’t particularly love because it seemed kind of forced in there. There was a slight sense of an engineered ethical conflict when in fact because we were sort of on the journey with her we kind of got it. There actually really isn’t – she’s not struggling mightily to make sense of what she’s gone through because there’s a pretty clear explanation. Aliens did stuff. [laughs] You know? How they did it and why they did it that way they kind of explain. So, there’s not really a question of did I see a ghost or was it something else. So, I agree with you, not quite what we’re getting at.
John: Yeah. But what I do like about that example is that is a character who is encountering a moment and her being male or female is not relevant to this. And that we more often see a male character in that spot. So I do want to give it some partial credit for that reason.
Craig: Partial credit.
John: Let’s also give partial credit to the eight sequence structure. So we talked about this in Episode 483 and we were very dismissive of this idea of an eight sequence structure. A colleague and classmate, Scott Murphy, he went through USC at the same time I did, we were in different programs. He was in the graduate screenwriting program and I was in the Stark producing program. But he said that at USC they actually taught that. And that’s how they taught that. And so he felt it was a little unfair that we were dismissing it based on kind of the first Google result I got, which I guess that is kind of true. I hadn’t done any deep research.
And he says that the first thing that I brought up was the most extreme version of sort of a labeling of what all those sequences would be. And that really the point in teaching eight sequence structure is to get people thinking about sequences rather than 30-page acts. And to really be thinking about sequences having a beginning, a middle, and an end, which sounds more like the kinds of things that you and I would say. There’s a notion of scenes, there’s a notion of sequences, and they build out to become bigger things.
So I want to give some partial credit to this idea of sequences rather than capital-S Structure.
Craig: I still don’t quite know what the value is in terms of teaching people how to create something, because while it is true that you can break these things down into sequences, I mean, you could also break it into sub-sequences and have a 16 sequence structure. But the real question is well what do I write in the sequence. So there’s supposed to be a sequence here but what am I supposed to do? And what if it doesn’t fit inside of this? And what if it’s just a simple moment? It feels pedantic.
John: And pedantic also in the sense of like I can understand why it is maybe a useful teaching way to get people to think about smaller blocks of story rather than 30 pages, you know, thinking about something that’s achievable, and beginning, middle, and end. But it’s also really clear to me how a way of teaching something can quickly morph into becoming a prescribed formula for how things have to work. And it feels like maybe that’s the mistake I was making at looking at this one sheet, but also what I worry about sort of over-generalizing this eight sequence structure is that this may be a useful way to teach people how to build up blocks that sort of become a bigger thing and understand what sequences are. But it’s not the magical formula.
John: And I think when you mistake the formula for the actual reality of the script that’s the problem.
Craig: I could definitely see myself teaching a class, something that would arrive at an eight sequence structure. But I would kind of want to begin with one sequence structure. Meaning let’s just talk about what your story is from beginning to end in a very big sort of bird’s eye view. So that we understand the rough movement of it. That’s one sequence.
Now let’s divide that into two sequences. So, halves of that big thing. Let’s talk about what happens in this first half. Now, great, we’ve done that. Now let’s divide each one of those again. And lo and behold, just like that, you’ve got yourself–
John: You’re getting there.
Craig: You’re getting there. You get yourself four and you do it again. And off you go.
John: Yeah. And we’ve often talked about there’s a fractal quality to storytelling is that like there should be movement within a scene. There needs to be movement within a sequence. Movement within whatever you want to call an act to get to this whole story. And so every scene is like its own little movie. Every sequence is like its own little movie. So I can understand, again, why it is helpful to be thinking that way as you’re teaching. I just worry then coming back and trying to impose that as capital-S Structure. And any time somebody brings up structure my [unintelligible] just immediately come up because I feel like that’s, you know, you’re giving us a formula and that’s not going to work.
Craig: Yes. It’s not going to help me make a thing.
John: So, one revelation of this past week is Megana has gotten in a bunch of emails about IP stuff and we now have an umbrella term for it. We’re going to call this Mockable IP.
John: So the things like the Slinky Movie, mockable IP. Josh who is pitching sort of a packing peanuts or plywood thing, he said the criteria for a mockable IP is the product should be something real that a company sells. It should be something that makes zero sense as a movie but you can still see someone from the company pitching it to a studio executive’s office. And, third, that it will never, ever be a movie no matter what. Those feel like useful criteria for us to be thinking about with these kinds of IP.
Craig: Well, that’s where I disagree with Josh. It was number three.
John: You think some of these things will happen?
Craig: I think in fact they must be possibly a movie. For us to consider it, because otherwise again we can come down to things like gravel. For us to consider it it has to be something that you know what they might make this. If we talk about, like Slinky, we would do that all the time, and they did it. And we were scooped and they did it. And, yeah. So it has to be something that can be a movie.
John: Maybe this number three is like they could make it, but it would immediately be mocked. The mockability, I guess that is begging the question literally. But that’s a crucial part of this.
Craig: Right. And good use of begging the question. Thank you.
John: Really, I was so excited when I realized I could use that term properly for once. But I also want to, as we talk about this mockable IP, call out a clip that was on the Stephen Colbert show, the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, by a listener who directed it, Ballard C. Boyd. It’s a great – got to combine two things we love in Scriptnotes which is Queen’s Gambit, the Scott Frank show, and Rubik’s Cube. So this was The Queen’s Gambit Rubik’s Cube limited series they were pitching. Let’s take a listen to a clip.
Female Voice: I wasn’t just handed my seat. I had to overcome so much. Sexism. A sprained wrist. Temporary color-blindness.
Male Voice: You may be the greatest natural talent I’ve ever seen. But you must master the opening move known only to distinguished players. It’s called “turn the left bottom middle forward to the front-facing part. It’s not like chess.” We don’t get to have cool names for things.
Female Voice: It may be just a block covered in little stickers to you, but to me it’s the entire world. Oh, also drugs. I do tons of drugs. You don’t know me.
John: So we’ll put a link in the show notes to the full trailer for that, but I thought it was a delightful way to combine two things we love in Scriptnotes.
Craig: That’s one way to do it. We got some other suggestions in here I see.
John: Go for it.
Craig: Erica suggests Scrub Daddy. Now, I got to say, that’s possible because it has a face. It’s the goofy sponge that has eyes and a mouth. And I think there’s like a Scrub Mommy and a Scrub Baby. So, I could see a scrub family.
John: Yeah, little Scrubbing Bubbles. I love them.
Craig: Yeah. Chuck says Fidget Spinner. No.
John: No. Because one company doesn’t own it.
Craig: Yeah. It’s not a thing. It’s a thing, but it’s not.
John: I guess there was the Emoji Movie which no one actually owns, but still I don’t think fidget spinner is going to happen.
Craig: Yeah. But emojis are literally everywhere, all over. The fidget spinner was a fad that’s already gone. I don’t think it’s a thing.
Let’s see, Philip from LA suggests Pogs. No.
John: I barely remember Pogs. They were sort of – I was in a gap between Pogs. It was elementary school but I think I’d outgrown them by the time they became a thing.
Craig: Pogs came back in the ‘90s. And, no, no. Nope.
Danny from St. Louis suggests Preparation H. Now, Danny, now you’re just being silly. This is real. You have to take this seriously. [laughs]
I like Sophie’s though. Sophie I’m pretty sure is touching on something that has been in development. Chia Pet. Surely that’s been, like scripts have been written right?
John: Yeah. There must be scripts written about Chia Pet. Or at least parody scripts for Chia Pet.
Craig: Or at least parody scripts. And then finally Matt, we do get this suggestion a lot, Pet Rock. For sure. But Pet Rock–
John: Dwayne Johnson is in it. It has a meta quality.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, it would have to be a period piece because pet rocks did exist happily in the ‘70s and never after.
John: Yeah. I had a pet rock for like a day and a half maybe. And then I realized that it was just a rock with some googly eyes attached to it. And I stopped paying attention.
Craig: I didn’t understand the joke. Because I was too young. I got a pet rock. I was like seven. And everyone was like there you go. And I’m like, OK. But, wait, why? And they’re like, “Well, it’s kind of making fun of the whole idea of toys.” What?
John: Why would you make fun of toys?
Craig: Right. What do you mean the idea of toys? Let’s just back up to that for a second. So this is my introduction to irony. Pet Rock.
John: I think all the things we’re talking about, they have to have eyes. That’s really what it comes down to. If you have to add eyes to it that’s a problem. So, there was an animated Rubik’s Cube cartoon at some point, but it was like Rubik’s Cube and then they added eyes to it. Well that’s disturbing. Versus like Pac-Man, he already had eyes.
Craig: Well, the Slinky doesn’t have eyes, but of course Slinky isn’t a character. It’s about the people that made the Slinky. What do you think about – you know what, that movie, the Seth Rogan animated movie that was basically all just food.
John: Food. Yeah. And so they added food to it, but I think they got away with it because it was just so–
John: It was such an absurd concept. And it was really dirty.
Craig: It was dirty.
John: It was really, really raunchy.
Craig: Yeah. It was dirty.
John: Like Towelie is one of my favorite characters in South Park and that’s just a towel with eyes.
Craig: A towel with googly eyes.
John: Who is really stoned.
Craig: Love it.
John: Really red googly stoner eyes.
Craig: I remember the paper clip guy from Microsoft that everybody hates. It’s a paper clip with eyes.
John: Oh yeah. Clippy. Yeah.
Craig: And eyebrows weirdly.
John: Yeah. Well it’s important because you can’t get full expression without that.
Craig: Right. Yes.
John: So, Craig, interstitial here, do you have any more questions here about my sweet, sweet fingers?
Craig: Yes. This may be violating HIPAA. Do you have diabetes?
John: I do not have diabetes. Happy to report I do not have diabetes.
Craig: OK. I have another question for you.
Craig: Does this happen every single morning, or some mornings?
John: Every single morning.
Craig: Oh, that’s interesting. One possibility was that it was related to a food you were eating.
John: That was a thought I had as well. I thought perhaps around Thanksgiving I was baking yeasty things that maybe there was something about the baking or the foods I was eating that were specific to the season. But it continued.
Craig: OK. I have another question for you. Even though you like I are in the brotherhood of the bald, do you put any sort of product in your hair or any sort of skincare product that might have an odor to it?
John: The answer to your first question is no. I don’t use Rogaine or any sort of topical hair product. So it’s not that. But, I do want to say that you are getting close to the solution there. Yeah.
Craig: Interesting. Wait, what about Mike?
John: No, it’s not Mike. So it is my own situation here.
Craig: Got it.
John: The second part of your question was a skincare product. And, yes, I put on a moisturizer. The moisturizer does not smell like that though.
Craig: I see. I see. I see. OK. All right. Well we should probably take another break.
John: We’ll continue on and we’ll talk about unions and guilds.
John: So this was something we promised we were going to do I think last week. And there’s actually two kind of news hooks for it this week because – we’ll put a link of the Deadline article of Hollywood Unions Celebrate the Inauguration of President Joe Biden and VP Kamala Harris. The Most Pro-Union President and Partner in the White House. So all the unions and guilds were very excited and little tweets about that.
And also Biden fired the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board. And then the replacement person for that. So there’s going to be a new person there. And I will say that doing guild stuff that the people who have been running NLRB has been a challenge for the WGA. You don’t want to go to them for help because they might side with the other side. So, those were two things in the news just this week that are related to Hollywood guilds and unions.
Craig: It’s a big deal. And John is right. You can’t really overestimate the impact that these things have on unions and the way they not only just conduct their week to week business but also how they go into negotiations. Because ultimately when you’re negotiating with companies as a union or when you’re trying to figure out how far to push things with management in between contracts your leverage is that maybe they’re violating the law. Or maybe there is an issue of law that is undecided that could be decided in your favor. Or, maybe there’s an issue in the contract that’s undecided that could be decided by mediators or arbitrators or eventually be heard by the National Labor Relations Board.
And if that government body is skewed to be anti-union you are automatically and reasonably way more gun shy about all sorts of things. The meddling that the government can do to hurt unions is not limited just to how they decide disputes. Sometimes it comes down to just aggravating paperwork.
Craig: When I was on the board way, way back when in the mid-2000s the Bush administration changed the rules. So every union must every year file a financial report that is publicly available. And basically under the Bush administration they changed the rules so you just had to report way more information. It was more burdensome to the unions to put it all together. And also it just was like you had to just open your kimono completely. Everybody should be able to see everything. And it was, you know, designed ultimately to kind of put their thumb in the union’s eye.
Over the decades since the big unionization movements in the early part of the 20th century the government has steadily chipped away. Steadily chipped away at organized labor and their power. And this is a much needed course correction on that part.
John: Yeah. So in this conversation we’re talking about unions and guilds as they exist in Hollywood and really only in the US. And so that’s necessarily going to be very limited to this because while there are international Writers Guilds they are more like professional societies because they’re not true unions where they’re representing employees. And we’ll get into some of sort of why the unique way we do it in the US allows for writers’ unions that wouldn’t exist or make sense other places.
And I started to put together a lot of links to the history of organized labor in Hollywood and I realized we are not a history podcast. We are going to mess up way more than we’re going to illuminate, but we’ll have some links in the show notes to that. Important things to understand in terms of background, the film industry is about 100 years old. It’s centered in Los Angeles. Radio and television was originally based out of New York. Even though more production moved to LA, there was still a lot of late night TV and news largely stayed in New York. That still exists. You still see the shadows of that in sort of how the unions are set up.
Interestingly, the first of the Hollywood unions IATSE, created all of this because they were the teamsters who were part of Broadway, sort of vaudeville, Broadway stuff. So it goes even back before there was film there were unions that were involved in the film production.
And, Craig, I remember when you were on Karina’s podcast did you play Louis B. Mayer? I’m trying to remember who you played.
Craig: That’s right. I was Louis B. Mayer.
John: So, this is a thing I did not know and I’ll put a link in the show notes to this, too, but I hadn’t realized the degree to which Mayer and the birth of the Oscars was really a response and an anticipation of organized labor.
Craig: Yup. So Louis B. Mayer, sensing that the artists under this control were starting to organize and come together and talk, and thus threaten his hegemony – and he really was the king of the council of kings – he very brilliantly created the Oscars because his theory was if you are possibly in danger of having to compete for resources with artists hold up a shiny trophy and they’ll forget about you and just fight each other for it. And that’s exactly what happened. [laughs] And continues to happen to this day.
So, the entire awards industry is in and of itself a massive distraction that not only gets artists competing with each other, but gets them competing with each other in a way that allows the entertainment industry to also make money off of their competing with each other. It’s spectacular.
John: It really is a remarkable achievement.
Craig: Remarkable achievement.
John: So a thing that’s important to understand is that when you talk about unions they only make sense really when you talk about the fact that there are employers and there’s somebody that you’re negotiating with and against. And so you can negotiate with the studios individually, with the streamers individually, but you tend to negotiate with them as a group. And that group that you’re negotiating with is the AMPTP, the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which is the Academy, which I got that confused when I first got out here because it seems like they’re two big organizations that run movies and stuff. But AMPTP is the collective body that we negotiate with as unions and guilds for our contract.
And you look at the different kinds of unions and guilds that there are, there’s a wide range. So you have actors, you have writers, you have directors, all of whom are sort of doing kind of intellectual labor, artistic labor. And then you have much more sort of physical crafts and trades peoples. You have grips and electricians and teamsters who are driving trucks. And you have all the other sort of unions that are involved in actual physical production.
And they seem so disparate and yet there are some commonalities, so I wanted to talk through some of the commonalities before we get into sort of why the different unions and guilds are positioned so differently.
John: So what are some common threads, Craig?
Craig: Well, all of us are working gig work. So, typical union jobs you work at let’s say the Ford plant building trucks. That’s your job. Year in and year out, your job, welder on the line. That’s what you do. And you do it at one place for one employer. In Hollywood everyone is essentially freelancing for their entire careers.
So, you’re getting work from movie to movie, from script to script, from edit job to edit job. Everyone is constantly looking for the next thing because our businesses are organized around shows and movies, not around the steady production of a single product, like for instance a Rubik’s Cube.
Craig: So we’re not all together on the same floor, nor do we have longevity in a position or vis-à-vis each other or with one product. We’re constantly moving and swirling around.
John: Yeah. And we should say this idea of skilled labor, like welding is a skill and there’s training that goes into it. The same way that somebody who is working as an editor has a certain skillset. A welder has certain skillsets. But that welder is going to probably be working at the Ford plant for years and years and years and years and really has one employer. Versus this editor who is going to be hopping around from various jobs to various jobs. And it’s cobbling together enough money to make a living through many jobs rather than just one job.
There are exceptions, of course. There’s people who have been on TV shows for forever, but in general you’re hopping from place to place to place.
Craig: Yeah. Those are pretty rare. And similarly where somebody that is in a union as a nurse will have the potential ability to work at dozens of different hospitals, clinics, healthcare centers, etc., we’re more like professional athletes who can work for a single organization of teams. And our teams are Disney, Warner Bros., Sony, Universal, and Paramount, and their associated television networks and things like that.
John: Yeah. So there’s an oligopoly in the sense that there’s a very limited number of buyers. And so the big names, I don’t know if it’s 75% of employment, they represent a huge amount of the actual employment is to and for those people. So they have a lot of power because they are the buyers of note.
What is interesting about us as writers and which we should get into this is that we are doing work-for-hire. So intellectual property is commissioned from us. The people who are hiring us to do the thing, they ultimately own the copyright. And therefore as writers, as artists, we are an employee of the commissioner. So same with like an artist who is working at Disney animation, they’re drawing stuff but Disney owns everything that they’re drawing for Disney.
Craig: Yeah. And this works against us and it works for us. I mean, the only good part of this and we are unique in this regard here in the United States is that we can be a proper employer, therefore we can have a proper union. And as a result of our proper union we do have certain benefits that are better than some of the benefits that other similar artists receive elsewhere even as they retain copyright in their country. Because these large corporations here are exceptionally good at exploiting reuse. They’re really, really good at it.
Do we get enough of the share of that reuse? As sufficient amount as we should? No. Is the insufficient amount that we get typically more than what other people get in royalties elsewhere? Yeah, it is. So, it’s an interesting thing. We have a tiny piece of a very large pie which sometimes adds up to more than the entire piece of a very tiny, tiny pie. A little miniature molecular pie.
John: And so we talk about residuals and we talk about back-ends on things and that is an important part, especially for writers to maintain a career, but there’s other kind of fundamental union things which are also important. So things like worker safety and safety on a set. These are things that come about because of unions. Minimum hours/maximum hours. Just other sort of quality of life issues that are only possible because we have unions. So, it’s very easy to be myopic and only think about this in terms of how this works for a writer, but unions help everyone in all these different trades.
So let’s talk about the different unions.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, in Europe a lot of these other things that unions do like enforcing safety and things like that the government does.
Craig: Our government is less interested in mandating things and so you do find situations where in order to attract production and employment people will just sort of look the other way. I mean, very famously we have a massive problem in our industry with lack of sleep. We know that. There should be a statutory cap on how much you can work, how many hours in a row. And that’s it. No more. We don’t have it. I don’t know what the number is. I don’t know if there is a number.
I’ve worked 20 hour days. I’ve done it.
Craig: On set. It was terrible. Because you didn’t have a choice. So, that’s the kind of thing where our unions have to sort of step in where our government has failed.
John: Absolutely. So, things like – that kind of worker safety, but also it’s through unions that we have healthcare. In other countries the healthcare would be a national priority.
John: And we don’t have that here. Pensions are also through a union. So these are crucial things that were one sort of strike after strike over the course of time for the different unions.
So let’s talk about what the unions are. There’s SAG/AFTRA, which used to be two separate actor’s unions which then got combined together. They represent actors, but both in film and television and in radio. Other performers under AFTRA, I always get confused sort of what the boundaries were between this. I would say my general impression, and I think Craig alluded to this last episode, is that SAG/AFTRA is often fighting with itself more than it’s fighting the town.
Craig: Yeah. Well, SAG in particular has a long history of kind of the bitter internal feud between I guess you could call them the more militant folks and the more pragmatic folks. Pick your adjective. But they’ve been struggling with that for a long, long time. And that all came to a head when they merged with AFTRA which was something the pragmatists really wanted to do. AFTRA definitely covered things like voiceover work for radio. I could never quite tell exactly how the division worked. But they are combined now.
They are definitely a much larger union than the Writers Guild or the Directors Guild. That said, they don’t have the kind of employment requirements that we do. You don’t become a Writers Guild member for life. I mean, technically you do, but what happens is if you don’t work after a while you become post-current. So you’re still a member of the union but you don’t get any of the benefits. You’re not voting.
John: You’re not going to vote.
Craig: You’re not voting. That’s the big one. You don’t have a say on whether or not for instance a new contract gets approved. You need to have some employment skin in the game for that. Not so with SAG. I believe once you’re a member you’re a member.
John: And that really does change things a lot. SAG has not gone on strike, at least during the time that I’ve been working for here. If SAG were to go on strike it would shut down everything because we have not just actors in dramatic stuff, but all of our hosts in late night. Those are all going to be SAG people. And so it would be a big deal if it happened. It hasn’t happened. Could it happen? Sure. You never know.
Let’s talk about the DGA. So DGA represents directors the same way that the WGA represents writers, but the DGA also represents assistant directors, so the folks who are running – keeping the sets running properly. UPMs, that class of sort of folks who are making sets function is covered by the DGA, which is odd to me. It’s very different from what we’re used to in the WGA.
Craig: Yes. Well in particular because certainly the UPM job and the AD job are not primarily creative positions. They primarily are positions involved with the management of a production. Scheduling. Coordination. Budget. The employment of others. Management. This is going to come up again very quickly when we talk about the WGA and the reason we need to talk about it is because there’s a rule, it’s not a secret, it’s a rule – management is not allowed to be in a union. That’s just a rule. Which makes sense. You know, because if your boss could be in the union then you just get out-voted by a bunch of bosses and then what’s the point of the union?
So what is a manager roughly speaking the way the government defines it is somebody who is directly in charge of the hiring or firing of other employees, or the management of their time and how they do their job. That’s management. Well…
John: You definitely see that in the DGA. You see that in the WGA as we’re going to get to. But you also see it in this next, the biggest of the unions I think, we’re going to talk about which is IATSE. So IATSE is everything else you can imagine that is probably a Hollywood job follows under IATSE. And there are a tremendous number of smaller guilds within IATSE, locals, who specialize in one area of it. So there’s classically the Editors Guild, which is underneath IATSE, and over the last year has had real frustrations with sort of the lack of attention being paid to their specific specialty within there.
Within each of these places, though, you know, you’ll see that there are people who are responsible for hiring for other people. It’s just a thing that necessarily happens where you’re looking at, OK, I’m going to be in charge of this department so I need to fill my ranks. There’s a management function there. So it’s complicated.
Craig: Yeah. I think if you’re talking about sort of foreman type position, that’s acceptable. Some employees have a higher position of authority than others. So, I get that. You know, a pit boss that works for a casino is still an employee. And the dealer is an employee. And the pit boss is looking. But the pit boss is not hiring or firing the dealer.
And in IATSE there’s probably not a ton of situations where there’s specifically – I mean, technically it’s always the producer who is hiring or firing. Sometimes it’s the UPM in the DGA. IATSE is a great example of too much of a good thing. It is – you want a union to be sizable enough that you have collective strength. That’s the value of collective bargaining. If you have a union that represents six people at one Subway, it’s not that great. If you had a union that represents all Subway employees, I mean the sandwich, not the metro, then they can get something done.
IATSE, what they’ve done is conglomerate a lot of unions together because individually there may not be enough say onset painters to have collective strength. But then they create locals and they get bundled together. And then IATSE is the meta bundle of all the bundles. But the problem is that if you’re in one of these smaller locals, like for instance the Animation Guild. You’re just not going to be able to convince IATSE, all 100-and – I don’t know how many people are in it, 100,000? You’re not going to be able to convince all of them to go on strike so that your 30 members can get a slightly better deal. So you’re stuck. And that is not a great arrangement.
John: It is not a great arrangement. And something you’ve often brought up on the show, a somewhat analogous situation, is screenwriters, feature writers, within the WGA. And that folks who primarily write features in the WGA can feel like their issues are not getting as much attention as TV writers who are the bulk of the membership of the WGA. That’s changing now and there’s – obviously people do a lot more of both. You are now a TV writer. But it’s a genuine concern. And so you’re always having these conflicting instincts to broaden your base so that you can represent more kinds of people and sort of protect yourself. And to specialize so you can really focus on your core constituencies.
And there’s not going to be a great answer for that. You know, we often will talk about videogame writing is very much like screenwriting. There’s clear analogs between how those work. And maybe we should represent and protect videogame writing because that is clearly going to become something that is like animation. We want to make sure we don’t miss out on that.
But, are we going to do the best job representing those videogame writers? Is it pulling focus away? There’s a lot of writing that happens in reality shows. Not just where you aim the camera, but also all the narration. Shouldn’t all that writing be covered by the WGA? Sure. Maybe. But are we going to lose focus in trying to organize that work? So it’s always tough. It’s always going to be decisions and conflicts.
Craig: Yeah. And we’re hamstrung a bit by the law, again. For instance, we can’t necessarily compel union membership for people that are working in Canada. In fact, we can’t at all because they’re not here and jurisdiction sort of stops at the border. So, in videogames there are a lot of people, a lot of companies, that are foreign, international, and they’re not American. And there are a lot of writers that are working overseas. Also the entire videogame industry is vigilantly anti-union. So, one of the tricky things is to try and crack into those places is you’ve got a company where there are 400 people, all of whom would love to be in the union and they’ve all been told you can’t be. And they can’t. And then somebody else comes along and says, “We’re going to successfully unionize four of you.” That becomes hard to do.
Craig: And then there’s suddenly a ton of resentments and difficulties and problems. So, they just cracked down on all of it. They are brutally anti-union. And this, again, is why the more strength and pro-union impact you can have at the governmental level, and it has to be the federal level. They’re the only ones. This is all federal. If you get that federal level then some of these things start to tilt your way. If you don’t, running up hill in shoes made of ice.
John: The last sort of evergreen issue I want to make sure we talk about is that we usually think of unions representing the minimums. Basically trying to raise the minimums and protect the people at the bottom. Basically to set a floor on things. And that they’re not especially focused on what we’ll call above scale. So scale being the minimum you could pay somebody. Above scale being whatever beyond that. So much of the work that happens in the WGA is above scale. It’s beyond sort of scale payments. And Craig mentioned earlier in professional sports the player’s unions are sort of similar in position to us in that they are going to set minimums, but most of the members are working way above that and are going to have issues that are not the same as the lowest members. And there’s a natural conflict there. I mean, the degree to which you’re focusing on those bottom line issues for people making scale versus people above scale. And it’s challenging to balance those two demands.
Craig: It’s made more difficult by the fact that a number of the people in the Writers Guild who are making a lot of money are management. They just are. Showrunners who are hiring and firing other writers. They’re management. And so the Writers Guild is engaged in kind of an interesting dance. It comes more powerful vis-à-vis the companies by representing those powerful members of management, showrunners. And in theory that increased leverage helps them get more stuff for everyone. I don’t know if that’s true though. [laughs] So, it’s an interesting thing. And it does create kind of weird situations where you’ve got very wealthy people coming out there and saying things like, “Everybody needs to strike.” And you look at them and go, “That’s not a problem for you. You could strike for the rest of your life. You’re fine.”
There are tensions within our union because of the vast disparity of income which is even wider – well, I don’t know if it’s wider than the overall income disparity in our country, but it’s up there. I mean, we have writers that are scratching by and barely earning the right to have healthcare and making maybe $40,000 in a year gross. And then we have writers who are making $70 million in a year. So hard to hold that ship together perfectly, or even well.
John: Yeah. It’s an ongoing challenge. And it’s kind of always been this challenge. And it’s probably only accelerating. But let’s talk about the WGA because it’s also important to remind everybody that there’s actually two WGAs. So there’s the Writers Guild of America West and then there’s the Writers Guild of America East. They’re technically separate unions. They are sister unions. And luckily, thank god, we get along really, really well. We haven’t always gotten along really well.
I’ve been lucky to be on two negotiating committees within this last year and honestly Zoom makes it so much easier for everybody to be on the same conversation. Because traditionally what would happen is the WGA West handles all of the negotiations for the film and TV contracts. So we deal with the AMPTP and the WGA East basically takes that deal and their members vote yes on the deal.
Usually what would happen is that several representatives from the WGA East would come out and sit in on all these negotiation sessions and say, yes, great, and that would be it. Or raise their concerns about specific things that are of concerns to the East members. In these last negotiations we had a full contingent of East folks who were in all of those Zooms and were participating and that was great. So I think things are closer than they’ve ever been. But it’s important to understand they are different unions and they are kind of representing different priorities.
Theoretically any member of the West could also be a member of the East. But the East also represents. They’ve done a lot more organizing in online writing. So, organizing websites that have writers and they’re going through and representing those writers, which is great but also very different and I don’t know on the West side whether we’d want – it becomes an issue of how broad do you go. Would they be a good fit in the West? I don’t know.
Craig: I don’t understand this anymore. [laughs] It’s pointless. This exists literally because it exists. It’s just – it started–
John: It’s just because of history.
Craig: Yeah. Because of history. But it has long outlived its actual practical purpose. To the point where the Writers Guild West processes residuals for all Writers Guild West and East members, mails the checks to the Writers Guild East for them to just put in Writers Guild East envelopes and mail to their members. We are done to that amount of silliness. And the arcane nature of how the council and the board vote, it all is an unnecessary – what do you call it? Cruft? If that what it is in code? It’s organizational cruft. There shouldn’t be a West or an East. There should just be the WGA.
John: Yeah. So traditional arguments against it is that what I said in terms of East actually represents some kinds of writers that are not sort of classically West writers. And, yes, West represents some news folks too, but I don’t know that we do an especially good job of that. Traditionally it’s been like, well, how do you have national meetings? How do you actually have somebody – basically you can’t get everyone in a room together. In the age of Zoom it’s become much less important. And so the fact that none of these people have been in rooms for a long time, maybe it’s less important than it’s ever been before.
It’s hard to do that sort of on the ground work and have the meetings and do the stuff with membership when people are spread hither and yon. But it’s probably more possible – it is more possible now than it’s ever been before to conceive of some unification. But to me I would say having been on the board recently and been through this last bit of negotiations, it’s just not a giant priority for me. It’s I think a lower priority for me than it is for you.
Craig: It will remain a low priority until there’s a problem. And there have been problems and there will be problems again. And that’s when it will become – this has to be solved. We have writers all over the country. Basically if you’re west of the Mississippi you go to the West. If you’re east you go to the East. You’re right. You can switch. You can’t be in both at the same time. But you could switch. And it’s all just – we have two award ceremonies running simultaneously.
John: It’s goofy.
Craig: It’s just dumb. It’s dumb. And there’s duplication. We have two executive directors. Why? And sometimes it actually does cause problems when, for instance, in credit administration. If you are in a credit arbitration with a writer from the East there is a chance that the East may handle the arbitration instead of the West. Well what’s the difference? Well, there is I believe one lawyer on the staff of the Writers Guild East. There are about 12 lawyers just in the credits department of the Writers Guild West, all of whom are the ones that essentially take the lead on all of the negotiation, arbitration, and enforcement of credit rules with the companies. You want those guys running the arbitration because that’s what they do.
John: You want the cardiac surgeon who has done 100 of them rather than the first one.
Craig: And it just – let’s just fold it all together. You can have two. If you need an office over there, like people go to a physical office anymore. I mean, all that stuff is going away. So it would be ideal to solve this before it becomes a problem again. Because the actuality is when you look at the constitutions of the Writers Guild West and East, if the East wanted to cause a major problem it can. It has a way to do that. It hasn’t in a long time, happily. But it would be nice to get rid of it. Pointless.
John: Yeah. Last thing I probably should have stressed earlier in this conversation is that a frequent question I get is how do I join the Writers Guild. Or how do I join the Screen Actors Guild or anything.
Craig: Fill out this form.
John: It’s actually one of those amazing things where you don’t have to do anything.
Craig: They’ll find you.
John: They will find you. Once you’re hired to work on a project that is union-covered you will be required to join that union. A certain requirement has to be met. But you can’t join until you have to join and then you have to join and then you’re in. That’s really the simple explanation for it.
Craig: They will hunt you down. And one of the reasons they hunt you down is because when you become a member of the Writers Guild you are required to become a member of the Writers Guild. And therefore you’re required to send them quite a fat check for initiation. So, believe me, they get you. You’ll know. You’ll know. Congrats. Surprise.
John: Yup. All right. So that’s a quick overview. There’s obviously a lot more we could talk about with the guilds and the unions, but I want to make sure that we get some more time to resolve the mystery of the sticky fingers.
Craig: Mm, OK.
John: Not sticky, I should stress. Sweet, not sticky.
Craig: Sweet. Not sticky. Sweet. So, I was sort of getting close when I was talking about potentially some sort of hair product. So my theory is that you’re touching something that has that smell on it and it is transferring, but it’s happening while you’re sleeping. And I’ve already investigated the bedding, the begging material. It’s not that. It’s not your mouth guard. It’s not any sort of skincare product, as far as I can tell.
John: Going back, it is a skincare product. That’s the distinction. But none of the skincare products smell like that.
Craig: Oh, interesting. So perhaps there is a skincare product that when exposed to the air oxidizes and turns into a different smell.
John: That is essentially what has happened. That is the answer to the mystery. And so it is this facial moisturizer I put on. It’s like the last thing I put on at night. And it doesn’t have any smell at all. But somehow overnight it has like vitamin C in it or something. That changes – basically I don’t wash my hands afterwards because it’s just moisturizer. And the chemical reaction that happens is it smells sweet in the morning.
And so I was able to test this out by – that was my theory – and so what I tried is like, OK, I’m going to put this stuff on but I’m going to put it on with like a Q-Tip and not actually touch it. And so I tried that for two nights and then I went back to using my fingers. And that is exactly what is happening. It’s a chemical reaction to the moisturizer I’m putting on before bedtime.
Craig: Right. I have never done that.
John: It’s important to moisturize.
Craig: Everyone says that. Everyone says it. I’m not going to do it. You know I’m not going to do it.
John: You’re not going to do it. You’re just not going to do it.
Craig: I come from a long line of men that just stupidly don’t care about the largest organ in their body. It’s the skin.
John: Craig, can I ask you a question about sleeping? Because we played D&D till pretty late last night. And then I know you had to take your puppy out to pee. And yet when I look on Twitter like you were up hours before I was. So I worry are you sleeping enough?
Craig: Sometimes I am. And sometimes I’m not. And it’s really weird. So I didn’t have to wake up that early. I had my alarm set for a bit later. And I just happened to wake up that early. Sometimes when I wake up earlier than I should I don’t feel tired. And I’m fine. Right now I don’t feel particularly tired. I’ll probably sleep longer tonight.
There are sometimes where I get like eight hours and the alarm wakes me up at eight hours and I feel like I could sleep another 20 hours and I’m miserable. It’s really weird. I can’t quite explain it. But, yeah, I only slept I would say four hours last night.
John: Yeah. That would not be enough for me.
Craig: It’s just natural. Yeah, it’s weird. Normally I would be a zombie, but I don’t know. Coasting on adrenaline.
John: One of the tweets that I saw recently from you was about D&D alignments as pertaining to crossword puzzles. And so what I saw in your tweet from January 17 was you can imagine like a Tic-Tac-Toe grid and in it was different layouts of crossword puzzles and they’re identified as being lawful good, neutral good, chaotic good. And so it was a meme that you were sharing.
And I want to talk quickly about D&D alignment charts and that idea of the nine kinds of alignments and whether they have any relevance to the work that you and I do as writers.
Craig: Sure. So the classic breakdown in Dungeons & Dragons is there are three general axes of goodness. There’s good, there’s neutral, and there’s evil. So that’s kind of your moral approach. You are a person that is – you believe in some sort of moral positivity, you just don’t care, or you’re just actually evil. And then those are divided into kind of ordering mechanisms. There’s lawful, neutral, and chaotic. So, lawful, you tend to follow some sort of rigid code. Neutral, you sort of make decisions on the fly as you need to. And chaotic, you don’t follow any rhyme or reason. You’re all over the place. And you can apply those to any of those. So there’s lawful good, neutral good, chaotic good. Lawful neutral, true neutral, which is neutral-neutral, and chaotic neutral. And then lawful evil, neutral evil, and chaotic evil.
John: And so classically you see that arranged as a Tic-Tac-Toe grid where true neutral is the center square.
John: And so my first exposure to I think morality or sort of the concept of regimented morality was in fifth grade playing D&D for the first time and seeing this alignment chart, which I don’t know that it pre-dated Gary Gygax and the original D&D or not, but it was my introduction to this idea of systemic kind of morality and approaches to these things. And we’ll put links in the show notes to a bunch of different memes about Arrested Development or Marvel, Harry Potter, or Star Wars, looking at that grid with classic characters from those mythologies and how they would fit into that grid. And it’s useful to some degree I guess. But I wanted to talk about sort of what’s good about it and sort of the pros and the cons of it.
I guess for me it’s useful to distinguish between approaches to a problem as a hero, so lawful good versus chaotic good. I can see the differences there. And imagining a lawful evil, like a really organized orderly evil versus a pure chaotic evil can be helpful. And so I think as I’m approaching my own writing to some degree I’m aware of that as an approach. I’m never – in no character breakdown have I ever written like somebody is lawful good for a screenplay. But it is somewhat useful as a framing device if you’re thinking of a character’s approach. What would you say?
Craig: I probably get – the only use I get out of it other than entertainment when somebody breaks down a show that I love into these characters. It’s the Game of Thrones alignment chart. Who’s in what? But I do think that it’s good if you find yourself feeling like you’re stuck between two easy, obvious polls and you can go, oh, this is just like a good guy or a bad guy. Well, it’s good to think in these terms and think about what would happen if – what does it mean to be chaotic neutral? And what would happen to my character if I took away their sense of morality? I didn’t make them evil. I didn’t make them good. I just made them not care. What would happen if my bad guy didn’t really follow a code, but also wasn’t a lunatic. And these things are interesting.
Look, the classic boring ones are lawful good, which is just like–
John: Dudley Do-Right.
Craig: Yeah. Superman. Lawful good. And then chaotic evil is just a monster like a wolf-man running around and biting people. It’s chaotic evil. But then you have these really interesting ones like chaotic good. And lawful evil. And true neutral, which is very rare. So it’s fun to kind of challenge yourself a little bit if you feel like you’re stuck. But, I mean, it’s a pretty blunt tool. I wouldn’t go too far.
John: It’s a pretty blunt tool. We’ve talked before about the Myers-Briggs personality assessment. And this is really kind of a version of that. Because like the Myers-Briggs you’re looking at two polls and sort of putting people on a spectrum between these two polls. And grouping them together in ways that sort of feel like, OK, if someone were lawful but they’re also good this is what the characters would be like. But you can really do that for any qualities that have two polls. Anywhere there’s a spectra of how they could come out. So you could look at this in terms of like how much is this person a planner versus an improviser? Are they serious or are they funny? Are they warm versus cold? Introverted versus extroverted?
You can really take any two opposites there and look at where a character is on that scale and as you combine the other things you kind of feel what they’re like. But I do just worry, even going back to eight sequence structure, it can just become a lot of busywork, a lot of ticking of boxes that’s not actually doing the work about what is making that character interesting, distinctive, and specific to this story.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, in the end if you can neatly fit a character perfectly into one of those boxes then they’re not a person. They’re a box.
John: Yeah. Yeah. I would say the last thing that’s been helpful for me thinking about alignment or these opposites is that it’s useful – once you’ve figured out who your hero is, who your protagonist is, thinking about who the polar opposite of that character is can be really helpful in terms of thinking about your villain, your antagonist. What is it about that antagonist that is uniquely challenging to that protagonist? And that can be a useful starting place for thinking about who is the person to put opposite your hero.
All right. We have time for a few short questions. Let’s invite Megana Rao, our producer, on to ask some questions that our listeners have sent in. Megana, what have you got for us this week?
Megana Rao: OK. So Adrianne from LA asks, “These days every company has its own streaming service that exclusively exhibits its content. Disney has Disney+. Apple has AppleTV+. And now Netflix creates originals not shown anywhere else. How is this not a modern day violation of the Paramount decrees? And how does this all factor in with the termination of the Paramount decrees? Please help me understand. I’m so confused.”
John: Yeah. So it’s a separate piece of that. The Paramount consent decrees are about studios owning movie theaters. Basically said that the studios were not allowed to own movie theaters. That’s going to go away and studios are going to buy the movie theaters. That’s kind of inevitable.
What you’re describing, Adrianne, is a little closer to Fin-Syn which was the change in the ‘80s I’m guessing that allowed for networks–
Craig: I think so.
John: ‘90s? When was it?
Craig: I think it was the late ‘80s or possibly early ‘90s. Yeah.
John: Regardless, there was a time in which NBC could not own its own programming. They basically had to buy from somebody else. That changed. And that’s kind of more like what we’re talking about here. A form of vertical integration. I think it’s not great. But it’s where we’re at.
Craig: Yeah. So Fin-Syn or financial syndication laws were why networks licensed their shows. So the way network television used to work is a studio like say Paramount would produce a show like Star Trek. And Star Trek cost a whole lot of money to make. And the network that showed Star Trek would pay Paramount a license fee per episode of some amount to run that show in Primetime, or syndication, or whatever.
And, if you could make enough of those then you could rerun them and that’s where you make all your money, and so on and so forth. And then for the network their whole game was pay out less in licensing than they take in in advertising. That was how that business worked. It has not worked that way in decades. John is absolutely right. Fin-Syn is what you’re thinking of here.
Paramount decrees really just referred to the brick and mortar buildings where they show movies and obviously that’s also gone. So, hopefully that helps you understand. Basically imagine all the possible barriers there could be and then get rid of them all. There you go. That’s what we got.
John: Yup. Megana, what have you got for us next?
Megana: So Tara asks, “My script made the Black List, got me agents, and several generals, and we’re finally getting a little heat. I’ve been writing in my free time for 20 years, but the business end of this is all new to me at 46 years old. My team is brilliant, but here’s my question for you and Craig. We’re trying to build a package. We may be close to getting the perfect lead attached. And the perfect director is tentatively interested. Hopefully I’ve got meetings with them in the next few weeks. What should I ask them and what can I expect them to ask me?”
John: Great. First off, Tara, congratulations. That’s awesome that you’re getting this together.
Craig: Good job.
John: And I’m guessing this is a feature that you’re putting together. I mean, it could be a limited series. It could be a TV pilot. But when we say a package, don’t worry or mistake the idea of a packaging fee, the kind of thing we’ve been fighting against for in the WGA. A package is a grouping of great bits of talent together to make this thing attractive to buyers. So it’s awesome this is happening for you.
Those questions when you’re talking to a big actor or director is sort of what attracts them to the project. What are they excited about? What are the questions they have for you? What is it about their previous work that you have questions about? Talk about the thing you’re hoping to make. Talk about the sort of – just get a sense of whether this is a shared vision for things. That’s the most crucial thing is to feel like what is it going to be like working with this person.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I just want to point out that if I were on your team I would – this is a great sentence. My team is brilliant, and you can see them sort of sitting up straighter in their chairs. But here’s my question for you and Craig. And then they’d go, oh, dammit. You know, there is no special questions. There’s no secret handshake. I don’t know what they’re going to ask you. Because sometimes they ask great questions and sometimes they ask terrible questions.
I can’t tell if you’re talking about a feature or if you’re talking about a movie – it feels like you’re talking about a movie. So a lot of times with movies the directors barely want to even acknowledge that you are a human in the room, which is terrible, but true. And I hate that.
So, just have the conversation. And if you have the ability to decide in some way, to help decide who is getting this and who is doing it, then have the conversation and then just check your gut after. The only thing you need to make sure of is that the person that you’re going into business with, if you have any control over it, agrees with you about what this is, and what the tone is, and why it’s good. And if they don’t, then they’re not the perfect lead or director. That’s kind of what you’re about to find out.
John: Yeah. And that’s a longer conversation. Maybe we should put that on the list. What do you do when there’s a person who is circling your thing who you don’t really like? And I’ve been in Tara’s situation where there’s been a director and it’s like, ugh, how do you shake that person away without burning bridges? It can be challenging. So maybe we’ll ask Megana to put that on the list for follow up, because getting rid of somebody you don’t want is sometimes harder than attracting the person you do want.
Craig: True, true.
John: Megana, thank you for these questions. I see there’s a whole bunch more we have on the Workflowy, so thank you to all the listeners who sent in questions. Anything more you want to share, Megana?
Megana: No, I think that’s great. Thanks guys.
John: All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is type related. So, the New York Times has banner headlines occasionally for really big things. One of them was recently Trump Impeached and Trump Impeached Again. When you have letters that are next to each other you have to sometimes worry about how those letters are bumping into each other. In the case of impeached, when you have that uppercase, the E and the A next to each other looks kind of weird. There’s actually a lot of space. And so you’ll do some kerning to try to get those things a little bit closer. But then if they bump it feels weird.
So I’m going to link to an article that goes through the New York Times’ decision to build a special ligature, a special combination EA for headline situations where those capital letters are showing up next to each other so it forms one kind of letter glyph. And ligatures are pretty common in type overall. You’ll see them a lot with FL or FFL. There’s special combinations for those things because otherwise the letters would bump together in weird ways. I love ligatures and so I loved this little article explaining how and why they created a special EA for the word “impeached.”
Craig: Impeached. I also see they used it in Biden Beats Trump.
John: Yeah. Special.
Craig: Biden Beats Trump.
John: Feels nice.
Craig: I just like the sound of it. Thank you, John. My One Cool Thing this week is a website called Wordlisted from a gentleman named Adam Aaronson. There are a few resources on the Internet that allow you to – well, they give you a little bit of a helping hand if you are constructing a puzzle, and they can certainly give you a very big helping hand if you’re trying to solve a puzzle. And I probably cited some of them before like One Look for instance.
This one is quite the Swiss Army knife. First of all, it allows you to upload your own dictionary. And you’re like, what, I don’t have a dictionary. Well, a lot of puzzle folks create word lists. So, some terms that may have not made it into the dictionary or phrases, for instance, that they can sort of add on to the regular dictionary. And then you have all sorts of options doing simple pattern searches where question marks are missing letters and asterisks are missing strings of letters. There’s anagrams. Hidden anagrams where if you need to figure out, take the word MATE, how many words have an anagram of MATE inside of it. So, “steamed” for instance would be an example of that.
There’s letter banks where you put in eight letters and it tells you all the letters that come from just using those letters, with repeaters. There’s sandwich words. There’s replacements. Deletions. Prefixes. Suffixes. Consonancy. Consonancy is when two words have the same order of consonants but the vowels are different. Of course, there are palindromes.
And it’s all sortable by length or by alphabet. It’s a wonderful tool. And it’s free. So, thank you, Adam Aaronson. Yes, thank you, thank you, thank you. So you can find this. Wordlisted. We’ll throw a link in the show notes for you. But if you’re listening at home it’s Aaronson, that’s with two As. Aaronson.org/wordlisted.
John: Very nice. And right underneath that link we’ll also put a link to Rhyme Zone which is a thing I use as a writer all the time and I think it’s the best online rhyming dictionary. And so if you need to rhyme something, a very good tool for that.
As we wrap up, I need to give a special shout out to Megan McDonnell, our former Scriptnotes producer, who has her first produced credit this week. So episode three of Wandavision, the Marvel show that I think is just delightful, has a nice little credit that says Megan McDonnell, because she wrote it. So we’re very, very proud of Megan and–
Craig: Well, you know what? That’s your first credit. That’s a big deal.
John: Yeah. It’s awesome. First of many credits to come. So, congratulations to her.
Craig: No question.
John: Scriptnotes is currently produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week, and thank you so much for people sending in outros, this new one is by Malakai Bisel. It’s great. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.
We have t-shirts and they’re great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts and sign up for the weekly-ish newsletter called Inneresting which has lots of links to things about writing.
You can sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net. You get all the back episodes and bonus segments like the one we’re going to talk about right after this on QAnon.
Craig, thank you for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: And we’re back. So James in New Zealand wrote in to say, “It’s been reported that one of the top QAnon influencers is a ‘failed Hollywood screenwriter.’ That started me pondering two things. One, what is a failed screenwriter? Most of us, present company included, have failed in some aspect of screenwriting. Two, do you think most screenwriters would be good at creating conspiracy theories? At its core it’s about writing a compelling story. I’m wondering if there’s a Save the Cat template for conspiracy theories.”
So, Craig, the confluence of things in our lives. So, many, many years ago there was a guy named Script Shadow who was a thorn in our collective sides, well before the podcast even started I think. But the QAnon guy is not the guy who is this guy, but there’s relations. Basically Script Shadow had reviewed one of these guys’ scripts and they sort of knew each other, the QAnon guy. And another listener wrote in with a longer explanation of sort of the history behind all this stuff.
I am not at all surprised that some of the QAnon folks are aspiring screenwriters.
Craig: Me neither. And this guy apparently was kind of haunting Franklin Leonard for a while on social media because he didn’t do well on the Black List. It’s not like Franklin sits there just digging into screenplays one by one and adjusting the scores and giggling. He doesn’t do that.
So, this was a grouchy guy that wasn’t getting the pat on the head that he thought he deserved, which is something that entitled people have in common. And so question number one. What is a failed screenwriter? I don’t know. I think if you abandon screenwriting, if you wanted to try and be a screenwriter and it didn’t work out and you didn’t get paid, or you got paid once and never again, and you leave it, then your attempts to have a kind of ongoing career as a screenwriter have failed. And that’s most screenwriters. I mean, honestly most people out there are failed screenwriters if they’ve written a script. Because very few screenwriters are able to kind of keep that going. It’s unfortunate. That’s the way it is.
Do you think most screenwriters would be good at creating conspiracy theories? No. Here’s the thing. I’m not surprised that a guy that was struggling to be a successful screenwriter was not struggling to be a successful conspiracy theorist because conspiracy theories are by definition overly complicated, pointlessly involved, illogical explanation of simple things. They are the opposite of elegant.
We are always trying to create elegant plotting that is simple, and compelling, and there’s not a lot of like weird rules stacked on top of each other of why this thing actually doesn’t work this way, but really this way. And that’s all these conspiracy theories. They’re terrible screenplays.
When you look at the QAnon screenplay for what’s going on you go, “Wait, what? That’s terrible. That’s just bad writing. That’s not how humans are. It’s not how organizations work. It’s not how anybody behaves. This is ridiculous. Ridiculous.”
Every single one of these conspiracy theories fails the “yeah, but why” test. Like, oh, didn’t you get it. There’s 17 flags behind him and Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet. But why? What does that actually achieve? Nothing. Nothing! Oh my god.
John: So, Craig, you’re saying that a screenwriter wouldn’t be great at creating conspiracy theories, but a screenwriting guru, or a wannabe aspiring screenwriter guru, that does feel like the sweet spot. And that’s apparently who this person really was.
So this is a person who was not successful as a screenwriter but then ended up setting up a website about how to make it in Hollywood. Basically giving all his tips. And that feels like such a great connection there.
John: Because you’ve discerned a pattern for success and you’ve broken the code of Hollywood and now you’re going to expose the real secrets within it.
Craig: Grift. Utter grift.
John: And that feels exactly – yeah, but grift and self-delusion are all part and parcel with a conspiracy theory.
John: It’s an elaborate mythology that you’re building and that you have the actual secret for seeing past the illusion.
Craig: Well, the level of either self-delusion or just outright, just shamelessness required to, A, not succeed at something, and then, B, subsequently take people’s money to inform them how to succeed at the thing you could not succeed at is mind-blowing. Mind-blowing.
So I looked at a couple of the articles and I saw the nature of the way this guy would post things. And it was terrible. It was just a lot of “don’t you get it.” A lot of these aimless questions. Like, “You might have missed it. Don’t you get it? Think about this.” Just open-ended.
You know, like when people accuse a television series of not being accountable to its own stuff, like it starts to make up mysteries and rules and things and then it never actually pays them off. And that’s bad. That’s all this stuff is. It’s literally like you never got anywhere. I mean, there are people who have been, I hope, that a lot of the people who were caught up in this silly cult now understand, OK, that’s what it was. And I hope that they didn’t lose too much money. I hope that they didn’t lose too many people in their lives and family members. I hope that they didn’t hurt anybody. I hope that they can just gently return to sanity. They deserve the right to return to sanity.
But now that they’re hopefully able to see they can see that this was just a ridiculous game of Lucy pulling an imaginary football away from Charlie Brown day after day after day.
John: I think who I’m angriest at are the people who clearly didn’t believe any of it, but were using it to maximize – the Ted Cruzes. Who clearly doesn’t believe a single bit of it.
Craig: Of course not.
John: But is using it, the furor over it, to advance his own aims. That drives me crazy. I want to both be able to punish him and provide a ramp back to normal society for the folks who got caught up in it like it was Lost. And didn’t understand this is not actual reality. And I’m curious to figure out what are the best ways to get people re-involved in a normal functioning society and feeling like what they do matters because it actually does matter.
To me it feels like them volunteering at a soup kitchen a couple Sundays in a row might get them thinking about the world outside of them that’s beyond their screens. I don’t know.
Craig: Well, you know, people got stuck in their homes. And they were frustrated. And they were afraid. And they were being fed a fascinating story. Obviously they were inclined to want to believe it. I don’t think anybody who has been voting for the Democratic Party their whole lives was suddenly grabbed hold of by Q and went, “Oh, wait, hold on a second.” The willful manipulators, the crooked Bible-thumping fake preachers are always going to make us angrier, always, with their deceit and their nonsense which is so blatantly tuned to earn them money.
A lot of the leaders of this Q movement were selling Q merchandise. And their platforms were monetized on YouTube. And Facebook. And Google and Facebook should not only be ashamed, but they’re the ones who need to do the penance. They’re the ones who have screwed us.
But, yeah, this QAnon guy, that’s perfect, isn’t it? Freaking screen guru selling consultation fee sessions while he’s also just – he’s like, here, let me go ahead and grift you like this, and with my other hand I’m going to grift these people like this, because I’m bad.
Craig: Oh god.
John: Sorry. We can’t always be hopeful. But, yeah.
Craig: Ugh. Ugh.
John: Thank you, Craig.
Craig: Thanks, John.
- Ballard C Boyd for Stephen Colbert’s show Queen’s Gambit Rubik’s Cube
- Hollywood’s Unions Celebrate Inauguration Of President Joe Biden & VP Kamala Harris: “Most Pro-Union President” & “Partner In The White House” by David Robb
- Biden Gave Trump’s Union Busters a Taste of Their Own Medicine by Mark Joseph Stern
- Impeached Ligature EA
- Wordlisted by Adam Aaronson
- Rhyme Zone
- Wandavision check out episode 3, written by Megan McDonnell!
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- John August on Twitter
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- Outro by Malakai Bisel (send us yours!)
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