The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 489 of Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show we will make a valiant effort to plow through the backlog of listener emails, tackling topics ranging from cringe, to coaching, feedback, to focal length.
Craig: Oh my.
John: And in our bonus segment for Premium members we will discuss small towns versus big cities and our advice for where you should live.
Craig: Oh, geez, I don’t know if I’m qualified. I’ve been in both. I guess I am qualified.
John: You are qualified. I think we’re all qualified. It’s a bonus topic, too, so even if we’re wrong, it’s a bonus topic.
Craig: [laughs] What a great value for our Premium subscribers. It’s a bonus topic, so yeah, we can talk out of our asses. It doesn’t matter.
John: One of my criteria for bonus topics is like well you know what not everyone is hearing it so we can say something really controversial. People had to pay to get that controversial topic.
Craig: That’s where we really wing it.
Craig: Wing it.
John: So it is 2021. It is February. It is award season. So even though it was a weird year for movies, obviously, there were movies. And those movies had scripts and those scripts are now available to read. So in a little bit of news here, every year we gather up a bunch of the screenplays from those movies and put them in Weekend Read in a For Your Consideration category. So, Megana has done a yeoman’s job this last week going through a bunch of these PDFs, getting them ready for Weekend Read.
So, if you would like to read about 15 of these scripts so far, but there will be more coming, open up your Weekend Read and they are there to read for free on your iPhone or other iOS device.
Craig: Great. And out of curiosity do you have to get permission from everybody or?
John: One of the great things about sort of award season is that all the studios put them up for free. So, what we’re really, really doing is linking to the original things on their websites. And so then we just make sure they actually work properly. Megana had to go through all of them to make sure they worked properly, but the ones we have up do work.
John: Great. And that’s a thing that is so different from when you and I started because it was just hard to get scripts. And so you’d have to have these little sort of trading networks because they were all physically copied and it was a hassle.
Craig: Yeah. Or there were some stores in Hollywood that would just sell scripts. And there were just bins of piles of Xeroxed scripts.
John: Yeah. So the thing we say so often on the show is that the absolute best education you can get about screenwriting is reading a bunch of really good scripts. And so this is a thing you can do to start.
Craig: I think at this point we’ve overtaken reading scripts. I think this is it. We’re number one.
John: Yeah. Just listen to us and do exactly as we say.
John: Because we will always know best. But occasionally we don’t know everything which is why we have guests on the show sometimes. And you and I want to have a little public conversation about the guests we have on the show, because there’s been some misunderstanding or sort of – we’ve changed policies, but also we kind of have a policy. So let’s talk about what our policies are for guests on this show.
Craig: Sure. It does seem like there is a threshold where as a podcast if you hit a certain listenership then publicists start to stick you on a list of people they should be, you know, either mass-emailing or in a nice way specifically targeting when their clients are promoting work. We are not a talk show. We’re not a late night talk show. We’re not a chat show. We’re not an interview show. I am at my happiest when it’s this, like the show today, very typical for us. It’s us.
We never had guests early on. It was something we sort of added in a little bit. And my personal feeling is that we are a not-guest show with an occasional guest, as opposed to a guest show with an occasional not-guest.
John: I think that is a correct way to sort of position us. And let’s talk about when we do have guests on why we have guests on. For me there’s sort of two criteria. One, does this person have experience in an area of writing that we just don’t have experience in? Like I did an episode with Chad Gomez Creasey and Dailyn Rodriguez. We were talking about network TV procedurals. Like I’ve never written those, but a bunch of people do write those and they are so much better qualified to talk about that.
Late night and variety writing. We had Ashley Nicole Black coming on to talk about that. I don’t know anything about that. She does. It’s great to have her there talking about sketch. We had Alison Luhrs who talked to us about fantasy world-building at Wizards of the Coast. Again, things that our listeners want to know about but we don’t know anything about that, so that’s great.
Sometimes they also have expertise in an area, so like when we have the founders of PayUpHollywood on we can just ask them the things and they can fill in the information. Like we don’t know that stuff and they do know that stuff. So, that’s the kind of guest that we have on.
And occasionally we’ve done stuff around award season where we have on a guest who is just like really good at one area and we can talk specifically about a project that’s already out there, so like Greta Gerwig came on and Noah Baumbach came on to talk about their movies, but really their screenplays we could sort of go through on a granular level.
I want to keep doing that, but we are not the place for your publicists to reach out and try to book a spot on Scriptnotes. We’re not a couch for you to land on.
Craig: We’re not. We will at times do things that seem like we are, but we’re not doing them for that purpose. I mean, those shows exist in a symbiotic relationship with publicity machinery. So the publicists send their actor clients on to get free advertising for the movie or TV show and the late night talk show is getting the actor on because that’s now the content that draws people to watch their show and sell the ads.
We don’t have any of those concerns. Sometimes we seem like a chat show, like I’m thinking for instance when we had I thought a terrific and lengthy interview with Dave Mandel and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Craig: And that was kind of around the Emmy campaign for the final season of Veep, but the truth is for us I think the two of us were mostly fascinated by how that specific relationship functions behind the scenes when you have the star of a show working hand-in-hand with the head writer of the show with history together and kind of building something together as a team. That’s what we’re interested in. We’re always – I mean, we just care about what we care about. We’re not playing clips and all that.
So, yeah, you know, I just feel bad because now people are like “We have this wonderful…” and we’re like, but why don’t – my favorite guest is no guest.
John: Yeah. That’s always a good one. But I think underlying this whole conversation is the growing realization that we are two white American guys.
John: So when we do bring on guests we’re always going to prioritize finding people who are not white American guys.
John: And so that’s another crucial function of guests so that it’s not just two white guys talking the whole time.
Craig: Yeah. And we appreciate the difference in perspective that we get from all of our guests, whether it’s something like, OK, well Julia is an actor and she’s working with a writer. And we’re not actors. Well, I am. [laughs] I’m obviously a great actor.
John: But you are an actor.
Craig: I’m just not as frequent of an actor as Julia is. So, I like hearing that perspective. But there’s obviously this base perspective factor and as Hollywood grows up and starts to widen its opportunities and interest in people who aren’t the standard white American cis gender male heterosexual guy, having people come on who don’t fit into this category is valuable. It’s an interesting discussion. Otherwise you end up with the equivalent of the meme of Spider-Man pointing at himself.
I mean, at the very least we have some vague diversity between ourselves. It’s not a ton, but it’s a little bit.
John: It’s a little bit, yeah.
Craig: It’s a touch. But, man, we’re a lot alike.
John: Yeah. All right, so let’s dig into some follow up. Last week we talked about the agency campaign. Got an email in from Matt who wrote, “Lest anyone doubt what was at stake. Early on in this process I find myself at a party with a prominent agent from one of the big four. He seemed cool enough so I took the opportunity to pick his brain about the dispute. Suspicious, he asked if I was WGA. I said no, just aspiring. ‘Well don’t aspire to that,’ he said. ‘The WGA won’t even exist by the time we’re done with them.’
“He went on to characterize the WGA as a freakish stew of greedy, entitled, naïve folks who wouldn’t have a pot to piss in if not for the business savvy of him and his colleagues. He then called over his lawyer friend and they both confidently boasted that the law and common sense were on the agency side. The WGA’s total destruction was imminent.”
Craig: [laughs] This is pretty amusing. That may have been a prominent agent from one of the big four. But in the weeks leading up to kind of the terminus of our agreement with the agencies. I had a number of discussions with a number of agents and mostly what I was trying to get across to them was that they should take this seriously because it didn’t seem like they were.
Craig: I was just like do you guys understand what’s happening. I feel like you’re in a flood zone, there’s been an earthquake out there in the ocean, and you’re just like, “Nah, it’s going to be fine.” But once it happened there was nothing like this. They were very concerned and so I think this might have not been one of the people running one of those agencies.
What I find fascinating is how Glengarry Glen Ross macho these places are. And so the leadership projects this macho tough guy “we’re going to beat everyone to death and no one is going to have a pot to piss in blah-blah-blah” and all the people lower down on the ladder absorb this stuff culturally and start spitting it back out like it’s real. Well, a couple of problems with this kind of saying. A, it doesn’t matter if you aspire to the WGA or not. If you meet the conditions to join the WGA, welcome to the WGA. You’re in it whether you want to or not. So this agent apparently misunderstood a fundamental aspect of how this functions.
But also the WGA is a “freakish stew of greedy, entitled, naïve, oafs,” that’s literally all of their writer clients. That’s everybody. Everybody they represent is in the WGA. So that’s absurd. And that the WGA’s total destruction – the only entity as far as I can tell that can destroy the WGA other than the federal government would be the membership of the WGA voting to dissolve the WGA.
So, everything this person said was either hype or just raw stupidity. But I will say, Matt, this was not what I was hearing as we were heading towards the edge of disaster from real agents.
John: Yeah. I was hearing a little bit more of that sort of in the weeks leading up to it. And I think once the expiration date past, like once the 770 showrunners and high profile writers said they were supporting it, once it became more clear like oh-no-no we’re all taking it really seriously that did happen.
Looking back at it, what I understand a little better is that sometimes it’s hard to understand the other side’s framework, sort of how they’re seeing things. And I think there is a way in which – agencies are really top-down leadership. These are the people in charge and everyone is working for the people in charge. And I think they maybe thought that the WGA was more like that. That everyone was working for the leadership and didn’t understand that, no, no, no, the leadership is only there because of the people underneath it. And it’s not even like our federal “democracy” where there’s people in charge and voters for it. It’s like, no, no, they really are the same group and the same body. So that may have been one of the obstacles to get up to really understanding what the other side was talking about. They had a very different leadership structure and it was just hard for them to grasp where the energy for this was coming.
Craig: Yeah. They’re also as negotiation-oriented as they are on an individual basis when it comes to a kind of company level action, the only interactions they have on company levels competitively is with each other in either I’m buying you, or you’re trying to buy me, or I’m trying to destroy you and you’re trying to destroy me. They don’t have these institutional relationships like we have with the AMPTP where we are locked in a room and while we may punch each other we are also aware that at some point we have to hug. We have to.
Craig: Even if we pull knives out, at some point we have to agree.
John: We know we have to reach an agreement, because we have to get back to work for both sides.
Craig: Exactly. Because the WGA cannot buy the AMPTP. And the AMPTP cannot destroy or buy the WGA. So just culturally speaking that’s just bad dialogue. I don’t know how else to put it. That agent delivered bad dialogue. It was both not founded in fact or reality and it was on its face just absurd.
John: Speaking of the AMPTP, this last week I put up a blog post looking at the Aladdin residuals. So this is something we talked about before on the show and I’m going to try to be pretty transparent about the residuals coming in on Aladdin.
And so in this last post I took a look at new media SVOD which is a really complicated just sort of messy category. Essentially it looks like it should just be the money that’s coming in for SVOD, so like the streamers. In the case of Aladdin it’s on Disney+. But actually a couple things get combined into one check. So it’s that, but it’s also money that’s coming in for like iTunes rentals. And so rather than sort of you could buy this movie on iTunes, but you can also choose to rent it on iTunes. If you choose to rent it it’s the money that comes in there.
And interestingly when a movie debuts as a purchase for – I’m trying to think of an example – like Mulan, this last Mulan, you could buy it on Disney+. That is also counted under this category. So, it’s a really big category. It’s our biggest category now in residuals.
And so I wanted to break that out. I actually had to get some clarification from the guild exactly what is covered in that check and what’s not. It’s probably a mislabeled category.
Craig: Yeah. And if you could choose, if you could pick up a phone and call somebody who is contemplating purchasing Aladdin in one form or another, and tell them what would be best for us it would be for them to rent it.
Craig: Because our rental rate for Internet is our best residual rate. Period. The end.
John: It is. So if your kid wants to watch Aladdin five times–
Craig: Rent it five times.
John: Realistically, five times pays me a lot more money than if you’re buying it once. But you do you. But just if you want to pay me that.
Craig: Renting it once may pay as much as buying it once. It’s a lot more.
John: Yeah. It’s a lot.
So, it’s an interesting case right now where some of these movies like Mulan or Raya and the Last Dragon will be another situation like this where they were designed for theatrical but now they’re being released both online and theatrically and sort of this premium video on demand.
Normally we would get no money for that theatrical release. Like as a screenwriter we don’t get paid anything for that, but we will get money for – it’s animation, so it’s sort of a weird – don’t count Raya and the Last Dragon. But Mulan with is live action, we do get money for that. And so it’s a case where the screenwriter actually is coming out a little bit ahead because it’s debuting in both markets.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, the calculus that we – I don’t know how you even perform this.
John: It’s so tough.
Craig: The theatrical release is the best possibly advertisement for the ancillary market afterwards. If there is no theatrical release are as many people going to purchase or rent it as otherwise would? I have to think yes. I have to think that the combination of people who are generally interested and the combination of people who didn’t have an opportunity to see it otherwise in the theater all together would – should – hopefully equal or exceed the theoretical larger audience that would have been driven by a big theatrical experience.
John: Yeah. So the natural sort of final question here is because Aladdin is a Disney+ only feature, like you can only now see it on Disney+. You can buy it through iTunes but you can’t see it on Netflix or anywhere else, it’s Disney charging Disney+ a license fee for it. And so like how is that a fair negotiation? How do you know that they are actually going to be paying a fair amount considering it really is self-dealing? And that is just complicated.
And so the guilds will try to find comparable pictures and they’ll argue over where that money is, but that’s going to be a thing we need to watch year-after-year to figure out how we’re going to fairly calculate this price when it’s not available on the open market.
Craig: Yeah. And that is an area where we may be able to follow some high profile private legal actions. There were a spate of these in the ‘90s where people who had made television shows for say 20th Television, like Steven Bochco, then said well hold on a second. Fox is now running old episodes of whatever, Hill Street Blues or something, and they’re not paying the market price for syndication. They’re basically making a sweetheart deal with themselves and thus my income is being reduced because I get a percentage of that.
So there were some huge lawsuits and I believe the settlements were such that naturally, yes, they were sweetheart self-dealing. If that continues in this new world I can definitely see some pretty high profile people who are making money off of the streaming side from residuals going after these places and helping to define how a fair market price is defined. And then perhaps the guild can kind of draft behind that.
John: Absolutely. That would be the hope. And that’s the thing that would ultimately come into an AMPTP negotiation probably. Finding some system for how we’re going to do that. Because at a certain point there won’t be comps anymore. There won’t be comparable pictures to even look up and say oh that’s like this movie. When everything is made for a streamer there really are no comps. Or everything is made for Disney, then Disney+, it’s hard to figure out what the fair market value of that picture would be.
Craig: Yeah. We don’t even know how reliable the data is at this point. Every Netflix show is the most watched Netflix show ever. Have you noticed this? [laughs]
Craig: Literally every single one they can just stop and go this new show is the most watched Netflix show of all time. And I’m like but there was just one last week that was the most watched. They just make it up.
John: They do.
John: Back in Episode 487 we talked about assistant pay. A listener wrote in to say, “I want to point out that a couple of the agencies only raised or reinstated pay after they fired a large number of assistants early on in the pandemic.” And so it links to ICM and UTA who both raised salaries but had also done layoffs earlier on. So the listener says, “They claim to be paying more now, but likely their overall costs have remained the same for those support staff places.”
Yes, I think that’s actually probably true. And a thing that’s going to be not just even the film and television industry, but sort of like nationwide, it’s going to be interesting to see as we come out of this pandemic whether a lot of support staff positions just don’t exist after the pandemic.
Craig: I think this is actually possibly OK. First of all, there’s a big difference between firing and laying off. When you lay people off that means you’re eliminating the job itself. Firing is I don’t want you doing this job. I’m going to hire somebody else to do it. Laying off is I’m eliminating the job.
But let’s talk this out for a second, listener. What you don’t want is for them to say, “Look, the way we look at assistant pay is on the aggregate. So we’re going to spend more on assistants, but we’re going to hire a lot more – we’re going to create new assistant positions,” so that number gets watered down over lots and lots of people.
If there’s a contraction to justify the increase in wages, OK, like you’re saying. Maybe their overall costs are constant. They laid a bunch of people off. They raised the salary of the remaining people. I think this is probably good because in general the arc of these things is to grow. These companies are designed to grow, not contract. And every time you set that number higher the chances that it stays that way as it expands go way, way up.
So, while in the short term this may feel like a wash, I think heading into the future it bodes well that there is an established number. And that established number also informs how their competitors pay. Everybody theoretically starts to rise with the tide.
John: I agree with you there.
All right, we talked a couple times about the eight sequence structure. We made fun of it originally, then we had some clarification on it. Gregory wrote in this last week with some more context about what he learned from Frank Daniel who later on became dean of the USC film school. And so Gregory says that Frank used to talk about acts in move emerging from the viewer’s experience of watching the movie. And that’s actually why I put this in here, because I think this is kind of cool.
Daniel would talk about how at a certain point fairly early on in watching a movie you as the viewer come to understand what the whole movie is going to be about and what the main tension is going to be. For Frank that was at the end of act one. At a later point you finally realize how the movie is going to end, and what the climax will be. And for Frank that was the end of act two. So then you know you’re in act three when you had a feeling or sense that you were moving really to the ending or a climax.
So, what he’s describing is really kind of from the viewer’s perspective and it doesn’t sound as gross and formulaic as what we made fun of before. Gregory says that his recollection of the eight structure was that “Frank wasn’t teaching it as a formula, but more of an approach to screen storytelling that had emerged from the early days of 35mm filmmaking, which when you think about it,” we haven’t talked about this on the show I don’t think is that movies used to come in reels. And so there were blocks of about 15 to 20 minutes and that was a reel of film. And you’d have to splice them all together to form a print that you were actually sending out to places.
And so even when you and I were first starting in the business they still talked about reels. And they still talked in editing about reels. And it was just like a chunk of time. And probably that idea of an eight sequence structure really came from the mechanics of how movies used to physically kind of work. And that it sort of carried on through there. But Gregory is saying that even this guy who was teaching eight sequence structure was really teaching it more as like an historical artifact and a way of teaching rather than a way of this is how you should write a script.
Craig: Well, I read this and I don’t know – I didn’t go to USC, or any film school, and I don’t know who Frank Daniel is. I looked him up. I don’t think he himself was a professional writer, although I could be totally wrong about this. Like I said, I’m not aware of him. But this also does sound like an analysis aspect. It’s a point of view of the movie has been written, then shot, and then edited, and then presented. And now I am talking about how I’m experiencing it. And so it, too, feels vaguely like a critical point of view rather than a creative point of view.
But I started talking about this with my associate here at work, Bo Shim, and she started to say something that I thought because she went to NYU and she went through these programs and did experience this. And so she started saying something and I’m like, wait, stop, you’re coming on the show. So, Bo, welcome aboard.
Bo Shim: Hello.
Craig: Hi. OK, so you had a reaction when we were talking about, or we started to talk about this eight sequence structure. And correct me if I’m wrong, when you were at NYU this was something that was taught to you.
Bo: Not exactly like the eight sequence structure or whatever, but I think every film school probably teaches you a certain structure or formula or something to follow to that extent.
Craig: And what was your feeling about it?
Bo: I think looking back I feel like maybe it hindered my process a little bit just because at least for me it was sort of distracting me from thinking about characters and having characters actually behave like real people. And it was just so much focus on hitting certain points in the plot and I really felt like I had to ingrain this in my system because, well first of all you’re young and you’re impressionable and you’re at a place that’s supposed to teach you everything there is to know about screenwriting. And so you’re like, OK, well I have to really digest this and make this part of my writing process.
But I don’t know. My brain just never latched onto it. It was just like not getting it. And I would never have the right answers for when people were like when does this happen at exactly this point in the structure. And I thought I don’t know.
So, for me I don’t know that having this formula or trying to look at it from breaking it down in a scientific way or whatever didn’t quite work for me. The biggest relief was when someone just finally said it’s just a beginning, middle, and end. That’s really it.
John: And so, Bo, you went through film school much more recently than anyone else on this call. So, when you’re talking about eight sequence structure or structure in general was it at the beginning of your screenwriting class, or pretty late into your screenwriting class? Because I wonder if in some cases we’re trying to teach structure before we’ve even gotten to the mechanics of like how scenes work and how characters work and conflict. Where was it in the sequence for you?
Bo: Definitely I think early on, probably like Screenwriting 101, like the first year or two. That’s where they I think try to teach you the structure. And I get it because it’s partly like you have to know the rules to know how to break the rules and all those things. And you have to start somewhere, especially because it’s in an educational setting. So, it get it. But I feel like that thing never really left. That feeling of having to have the structure and conform to it.
And it’s also confusing because you learn about structure but then you go and watch an art house film and you’re like this doesn’t line up either. So, I don’t know. Yeah.
Craig: It’s understandable the way Gregory is putting it here that here’s the guy who is the dean of the USC film school and he’s saying, “Look, this is generally speaking how I think about movies when I watch them in terms of their structure after it has been created.” But it really is vaguely about beginning, middle, and end. And it’s not a hard and set formula and all that.
The problem is that you have students who are going to school. And they have been trained since five years old how to learn. Schools have trained them how to learn. And the way you learn is the teacher gives you rules and you follow the rules and you get an A. Even down to essay writing. Theme. Example. Example. Example. Conclusion.
John: Oh my god, when I have to read a five paragraph essay and it’s following a strict formula it’s just so painful to read.
Craig: It’s brutal. Because it is a dead thing. And so even if they are saying these things, the fact that they are teaching them they have to know on some level that the students are going to do what they think they’re being asked to do. Because there’s going to be a test. And if you’re testing them you’ve already failed as far as I’m concerned.
And there’s something, you know, as you’re talking about it Bo I think you’re touching on this interesting pedagogical aspect of all this which is they’re a school. They’ve got to teach you something. But secretly surely in some small smoke-filled backroom at all these places they must be admitting to each other that they have no idea what to teach because maybe this isn’t exactly teachable in a school setting, which would be very upsetting to all the people paying the insane tuition for it all.
Well thank you. That is a good perspective to have. I wasn’t thinking about it from that point of view.
John: Yeah. Thanks Bo.
Bo: Thank you.
John: I was just on a Zoom today talking through some stuff at USC Film School and sort of thinking about the future of sort of teaching film and teaching filmmaking. And one of the things I did really appreciate about what Gregory was describing here is that I do like that it’s focused on what the reader or viewer is going to get out of it. And it reminds me like when I went through journalism school we were taught news format and it’s just as painful as five-paragraph essays or classic screen structure where you’re hitting these beats and having do these things in a pyramid structure. But then when you go on to magazine writing it’s just like, no, it’s totally different. And it’s very much about what is the reader expecting and how do you build in the surprises and let the reader know sort of what’s going on.
It feels like that. It’s understanding that a person is going to be having an experience watching this thing, or reading this thing, and you want them to feel comfortable and then feel surprise and sort of know where it’s going and have a sense of where they are in the story. And that is another way of looking at structure.
We always talk about structure as sort of when things happen, and it’s when you want the reader or viewer to understand how this is going to resolve.
Craig: Yeah. Maybe why I think I probably get so grouchy about these things is that there are a lot of people who are teaching it and there are a lot of people who are learning it. All I know empirically is that I’ve written a whole lot of movies, and some television, and I’ve never once known about this, or thought about this. Nor was I taught it.
So I have empirical evidence that it is unnecessary. That’s probably at the root. Other than my genetic grumpiness, that’s at the root of my grumpiness.
John: But you know who else is grumpy?
Craig: Segue Man.
John: This is something, my friend Dustin sent me this link. This is Zak Jason who is writing for Wired.
Craig: I read this. This is great.
John: He’s writing about how in Emily in Paris “the camera lingers on a shot of her screen long enough to make clear there are no previous messages in her thread. It’s surely not creator Darren Star’s intention, but viewers are led to believe, sacre bleu, that ‘Hey, how is Paris?’ is the first text she’s ever received from her long-term boyfriend.”
And Dustin’s question for me was like well whose responsibility was it to get that text screen to look just right or to decide that there would be no other texts on it, and the answer is it’s kind of everyone and no one’s decision. It’s the director, but it’s also the editor. It’s when you decided to do this thing. And we’re still figuring out how are you even going to show text messages on screen reliably. Apparently Emily in Paris does it multiple ways.
So, I just thought it was an interesting observation and it’s something that has kind of driven me crazy, but I’ve never actually commented on it before.
Craig: Yeah. It is ridiculous. And I understand and Zak Jason points out he understands, too, why they do this, because they don’t want the viewer to be distracted by prior messages in a text thread. I understand that.
But this, first of all, I think it is the responsibility of either the art department or the VFX department to talk to the writer about filling that screen. And I really love Zak’s point that there is an opportunity in the prior texts to drop little hints or deliver things for the careful audience that loves to kind of screenshot and share and discuss on the Internet.
You can also kind of cheat a little bit by filling some of that with just a silly back and forth emoji thing, or a gif. You know, gifs are a little tricky because of clearance, but there could be just four emojis in a row where people are having a little emoji fight. Whatever it is. You don’t have to just blast it all with text.
But it’s not a bad idea to think through this because it is stupid. Nobody is receiving a text from the first time from anybody that matters ever in a show unless it’s literally someone you just gave your number to.
John: Yeah. And so it is not – when you are first writing the script you are not going to include everything else that’s on that screen. You’re just going to include the thing. But it’s in the context of everything else. Just like how in a script if you’re in a bedroom you’ll single out the bed if it’s important, but you’re not going to list everything that’s in the room because that’s just not a screenwriter’s job especially at that stage of the thing. You have to really choose what you’re going to focus on. But that stuff around it is important.
So I think back to you talk about the art director’s job. The production designer for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was Alex McDowell and he emailed me, god, I guess it was an email, but it felt even early for email days, to ask, “OK, I’m designing this wall that has all of the headlines and clippings about Willy Wonka. And here are some things that I’m thinking about doing. Rewrite anything you want and we’ll create everything.” And that was terrific and I actually could fill in some backstory there because I had that choice of like, OK, the camera is going to pan across this. We can see some stuff. We can actually gather some information.
And that really feels like that’s what this text screen should be.
Craig: Yeah, I mean, it’s an opportunity. We will get these requests all the time when we’re doing things. If there’s something, like there’s a report that Legasov is reading in Chernobyl. So what should be in that report? Well, you know, I wrote some stuff and then we translated it. Because if anyone is going to stop and read that in Russian I want it to be a thing. I don’t want it to not be a thing.
There’s a wonderful, I think it’s called Not a Crossword. I think it’s @notacrossword on Twitter. So basically – because we are the fussiest of all people, the crosswords people – there’s this rash, this epidemic of crosswords in movies and TV shows, including some TV shows about crosswords, and they are not crosswords. Crosswords follow very specific conventions. Like no unchecked squares. And rotational symmetry. And you’ll just find these things that are like what the hell is that. And also sometimes they’re half filled-in and some of the things aren’t even words. They’re just putting letters in because they think no one will notice.
It’s awful. And it’s not hard to do it right. Just do it right.
John: Yeah. And I know we’ve complained about this on the show before, but it’s 2021 and I just feel like we have to resolve this problem. If an actor is carrying a cup of coffee in a scene, like a Starbucks cup of coffee, there needs to be something in it. Because Meryl Street could not carry an empty cup and convincingly let me believe that there is actually hot liquid inside there.
The only thing worse than that is when they have a tray of coffee that they’re theoretically carrying and it’s almost impossible. Megana was pointing out on Zoom she thought she had some sort of motor deficiency because she can’t do this thing that she sees being done all the time on television.
Craig: Where you wave your hand around with these tray of four coffees in it as if they won’t all go flying out?
John: And it’s just not a possible thing.
Craig: No. I hate it.
John: There are solutions to this. I’ve read about prop designers who have these sealed liquid things that can go in there so it has the weight and the slushiness of coffee and won’t make noise. We can do this. We can do it. Just the same way that paper bags in movies are now made of cloth so you don’t hear the rattling. It looks like a paper bag but it’s not actually paper.
We can do this. We can solve this problem. Let’s just all decide as an industry that we’re no longer going to let empty paper cups be shown on screen.
Craig: I mean, as simple as just take something with weight and glue it to the bottom of the inside of the cup and then put the lid on it so that there is weight. That’s all. If you can’t demonstrate the shifting factor of the weight, at least put some weight in there. Because it’s so dumb.
And also we have to teach actors how to fake drink coffee. It’s just – they can’t do it. It’s so weird.
John: Yeah. You’re an actor, Craig. So maybe you can start some classes.
Craig: Well, here’s the thing. My acting is so focused. [laughs]
John: That’s true. Absolutely.
Craig: I don’t spread my gifts around, so I can really focus.
John: Uh-huh. All right. We already brought up her name, but now it’s time to welcome Megana Rao, our producer on, because we have a whole ton of questions and she’s the only one who can actually ask these questions properly.
Craig: Of course.
John: Megana, welcome to the show.
Megana Rao: Hi guys.
John: Hi. Do you have your coffee in hand? Because there’s a lot of questions to get through.
Craig: Empty cup?
Megana: Yes, exactly. This is why representation matters.
Craig: Right. You’re representing the people that drink coffee that actually is coffee.
John: Get us started. We have a bunch here.
Megana: All right, so Tao in Paris writes, “I would like to hear what you guys have to say about voluntary awkwardness, both in comedy like The Office, and in drama like Requiem for a Dream or Black Mirror. It can sometimes be funny in a way but more often than not it’s sad and filled with pathos and personally makes me feel terrible. My levels of empathy, I’m hyper-sensitive, make me feel like I’m actually in the room when Anne Hathaway gives her terrible speech in Rachel Getting Married.
“I have a feeling that this fear I have for those situations in fiction as well as in real life could hurt my writing if I unconsciously shy away from them. How do you guys feel about this and how would you use those scenes?”
Craig: That’s interesting.
John: Yeah, Tao, that’s a good question. And a couple different ways I can approach this. First off, you have that natural instinct of you want to protect the characters you’re writing because you love them, so you want to protect them. And you have to get past that need to protect them because your job as the cruel god who is the screenwriter is to put them in bad situations so they can struggle and then flourish and hopefully succeed.
But you’re also aware that there’s kind of a contract with the audience you’re making. There are some things that I have a hard time watching because I just cannot stand to feel this cringey feeling of watching this character flounder and fail and sometimes you just haven’t signed on for that kind of moment.
And yet some of the iconic moments that I just love so much are those kind of moments. I think of Jon Favreau leaving the voicemail messages in Swingers which is just the cringiest thing possible and it’s delightful. So, I get it. I understand your fear. But you’re going to need to push past that if you’re writing the kind of story where this moment can really sing.
Craig: And that’s the if, right? I mean, because there’s nothing wrong, Tao, which being the sort of person that just doesn’t want to write that stuff. The reason we cringe at those things are we are seeing something that is shameful. And we know what that feels like. In that regard it is similar to watching a horror movie where someone is being stabbed. It’s the same kind of thing. We’re experiencing pain with them or fear with them.
Well there are a lot of people that don’t want to watch scenes like that of people being in physical pain. So it’s not surprising that there are also people that don’t want to watch scenes of people being in emotional pain or social pain I guess I would call it.
And if you don’t like it, don’t write it. You are not required to write that at all. There’s tons of stuff that does not rely on that. And I personally am not, you know, I’ve done some cringey stuff, but it’s not like my focus.
John: Yeah. And I think back to when you were doing the spoof comedies, in a weird way it’s kind of not cringey because the characters aren’t even aware that they are–
Craig: They’re so stupid.
John: That it’s shameful.
Craig: Or if they acknowledge it, it is acknowledged briefly and then forgotten instantly, which is something that David and Jim and Jerry did beautifully in Airplane! They kind of invented this mode of somebody doing something outrageous, then looking to the side, shaking their head like you know what that didn’t happen, and then moving on and it’s forgotten.
Whereas in The Office the power of those moments is when the camera doesn’t look away.
Craig: So it just stays with somebody as they soak in their own shame. And in that regard it’s a little bit like – there was a movie in the ‘80s called Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and it’s a terrifying horror film based on real life serial killers. And there’s a scene where they go into a family’s house and they have one of those old, the old ‘80s style of shoulder cams, you know, the big cameras. And they put it down on a chair, so it’s sideways. And then they go about killing these people. And the camera you understand is no longer being held.
It’s stuck on a chair sideways. And so you know it’s not going to move. And you know it’s not going to change anything and it’s awful. Well that’s kind of the comedy version. To me it’s like comedy horror is cringe stuff. And if you don’t like it don’t do it.
John: Yeah. So, I was looking at some examples of cringey stuff. And so Borat is a great example of that in that Borat and his daughter in the case of this they are sort of like spoof characters. They don’t feel any shame at all. And everyone else around them they’re like oh my god I feel so bad for these people around them who are sort of caught up in this.
Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David is putting himself at the center of this cringe. He’s doing the horrible, embarrassing things and it’s just painful to watch because the camera is just lingering there. Same with Nathan for You. Although in Nathan for You Nathan Fielder seems to be oblivious to how cringey he’s making it for everybody else.
A show I really love and I think I’ve talked about on the podcast is Pen15 which manages to split the difference of having really relatable, likeable characters who although they do terrible, cringey things we still have deep empathy and love for them because it feels honest and real. And that’s a crucial distinction.
Craig: Yeah. I will always go back to the UK Office for just in my mind escalating cringe to a different level. And I love it. I loved it. I think it created a trend in its wake that maybe has gone a bit too far. But I’d never seen anything quite like it. And in that sense I was – it was like watching The Exorcist. I had never seen anything like The Exorcist. It completely screwed up my head. I’m traumatized. I will always be traumatized by The Exorcist.
But, of course, following The Exorcist were 4,000 very bad Exorcist rip-offs that had no impact on me whatsoever. So, yeah, you’re good Tao. You’re good.
John: Yeah. You’re good. Megana, help us out with another question.
Megana: OK, so Cade in Salt Lake City writes, “You talked about the difficulty of portraying the GameStop story because it mostly occurred online. As events occur less in person and more in the digital realm how will this change movies and television going forward? If you had to portray an online event, for example a Reddit board, how would you go about doing that?”
John: Great question. And we’ll soon see the results because I’m going to put a link in the show notes to Chris Lee has this piece for Vulture about the nine different GameStop projects in development.
Craig: Oh my god. [laughs]
John: So it just keeps escalating and there’s more and more and more.
Craig: Oh, this is why there should just be one week called GameStop Week where they all just come out. How about that?
John: And notably he talked to a bunch of people involved and everyone keeps going back to The Big Short as a reference for sort of how to do it. Great, that’s an approach.
So let’s talk about this bigger issue of how do you portray a story when these people are not in a room together. You have characters who are not interacting in a natural way. Craig, you went though some of this with Chernobyl because you had to in some cases invent a character who was a composite, or was able to be in rooms with people even though her role would have actually been diffused among many, many other people.
Craig: Yeah. But all those people were in those rooms. So everything was taking place in reality. It is tricky to capture the action of something like a Reddit board. The back and forth text-only response/reply, threading, up-voting, down-voting, all that stuff is very experiential and in the moment. It’s all based entirely in the text as it goes by. It doesn’t have much of an expiration date on it. It’s really about the moment. I have to say this is one area, Cade, where I feel like John and I – and I don’t want to speak for John on the podcast, I’ll speak for myself. I may be too old to see how it is going to work. That there are people right now growing up inside of it who are going to invent the way to narratively express this and therefore connect with the people who grew up with it as well.
Sometimes that’s what kind of has to happen. I don’t know if I would ever have a new or exciting way to do this. I would probably just do what most people my age would do which would be to ask these simple questions – who are the interesting characters involved? How can I see their real life away from the Reddit board? How can I understand how they got to where they are? Show me their spouse. Show me their kids. Tell me their history. Let me see the impact of the ups and downs in their real life. Real life. Real life. Real life. And just sort of ignore the Reddit board.
But I feel like maybe younger writers would know how to shoot that war. Because it’s kind of like a little war.
John: Yeah. So we have gotten better at being able to show things happening onscreen and how they impact real life. And be able to follow cinematic storytelling that’s happening only onscreen. So we have limited examples, but some good examples of just like, hey, you have to watch the whole screen to sort of see what’s happening. And we can do it. How you really convincingly get that to work on paper is still challenging. And how the screenwriter does some of that stuff is challenging. But I agree there’s probably a generation who is going to figure out that as both the cinematic grammar and the narrative grammar for how we’re doing that.
But the larger issue of like what is the story we’re telling is a little bit more classic. And we have to figure out are we telling the story from the beginning to the end. Or are we sort of breaking it into little pods and letting each separate storyline play out? Does it really want to be a two-hour experience that’s all watched in one sitting, or is it a kind of cumulative impact the way that a lot of our streaming series are where things build on itself and it can loop back. And there are connections being made between episodes that wouldn’t work the same way in a strict narrative feature.
All these things are possible and the reason why different versions of this story may be successful is because they’re figuring out the right way to make that happen. I go back to Argo. Argo has very separate storylines of the Hollywood people trying to figure out how to do this thing and the actual hostage situation. They ultimately crossover, but you are intercutting between these two things and sort of disconnected stories. And there may be a way to do that in this that feels appropriate. Just finding out what are the thematic handoffs between them that are going to make it feel like you’re really in the same narrative universe.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, maybe there’s a version of this where you just don’t bother being realistic about it. You just grab what is exciting or dramatic about the flow of a Reddit board, just create a space, a room, and put a whole bunch of people in it who we understand aren’t really there and have them just start yelling at each other.
Craig: Or agreeing with each other.
John: Like Mr. Robot does a really good job with onscreen stuff. And yet it mostly puts people in rooms talking.
Craig: There you go. What’s next, Megana? I can’t wait.
Megana: OK, great. Well, so Perry asks, “My question is about the difference between selling and optioning a script. I recently completed my first feature length spec and I’m fortunate to know several high profile writers and directors who have offered to help me traffic it into the right hands. I’m beginning to meet with top agencies about representation and I’m being told to expect it to sell fast. But my goal is not to sell my scripts but also to produce them and eventually to direct. I’m interested in participating in the filmmaking process beyond the script stage.
“A friend has told me that in that case it’s better to option the script so that I remain attached. Whereas with a sale you’re essentially reneging your stake in the outcome of the film? What’s the deal? How do you propose I move forward when I’m meeting with these agencies?”
John: OK, so I’m hearing two very different questions.
John: I’m hearing the difference between a sale and an option which we should just define because not everyone listening to this will know the difference between a sale and an option. And then we need to talk about Perry and his excitement about what’s happening, because I’m excited for Perry but I’m also wanting to – I don’t want to poke any balloons. I want to sort of–
Craig: I want to come him down a little bit. Or her. I don’t know if Perry is a boy or a girl, but yeah, Perry is getting a little excited here and I want to be the old wet blanket. I have no problem doing that.
John: Yeah. We both – I think we are getting the exact same sense. We’re like, oh, no, no, no.
Craig: Slow your roll.
John: Temper. But let’s talk about sale versus option because this is a crucial fundamental thing that people need to understand. So, Craig, can you talk us the difference between a literary sale of a spec script and an option?
Craig: Yeah. Sale basically says I’m going to take money from you and you now have the copyright to this work. It doesn’t matter that I wrote it. Now it’s yours. If it’s a book that they’re not directly turning to film but have to adapt then they are buying the film rights they’re saying. And typically those are expressed as this. I give you this money and then I have the right, the exclusive right, to make a film of this book for perpetuity throughout the known universe. It literally says dumb crap like that. Sometimes you can make a rights sale that is based on a cycle where it actually has an end date. And then the rights revert back to you.
An option is basically the right to represent literary material for sale exclusively. So, for instance, a producer says I’m optioning your novel. Or I’m optioning your screenplay. That means that I’m the only person who can broker a sale of this material to a buyer. I am attached to it. I am part of this project. We develop it. So typically if you’re developing something together then you want to say, look, you can’t just go off and marry somebody else. We are now engaged I guess is how I’d put it.
But you have not yet actually done the sale. And options are typically bounded by time periods. I have an option for a year. So I’m the producer of this for the next year, unless I can’t sell it, at which point you have the option to make another option, or go our separate ways.
John: Yeah. And so if you’re writing an original piece of material and someone is buying it, they could be buying it outright, which is an outright sale. Or very likely it is an option. And generally in that option price there’s also a bullet point that says we can at any time choose to buy out all the rights for this set amount of money.
John: Which is useful. So in the case of Big Fish, Sony optioned the underlying book. I wrote the script. And when it came time to make the movie they said, oh great, now we will pick up the option, which is basically buying out the rest of the rights that they needed to buy out. And they already had a predefined purchase price to do that. They could send over a check and they owned all the underlying rights to it.
Craig: It’s like a down payment almost.
John: Absolutely. Now, Perry, the person optioning versus buying outright your script, I don’t know that you generally have more leverage – and people can write in if they’ve had different experience with this – but I would say I don’t think you necessarily have more leverage to be attached to direct or not in an option agreement versus a sale agreement. I don’t think those are necessarily strongly correlated.
Here’s a way to think about it. The bigger the check they’re having to write to buy this thing, the less likely they are to say, “Oh, yes, we’re going to take a chance on you, potentially a first time director, to do this thing.” That’s not as likely to happen.
So, the amount of money involved may make them more apt to pushing you aside I guess. But there’s nothing inherent about an option versus a sale that makes you more likely to be attached to direct it.
Craig: I think your friend has got it backwards. My feeling is that you will never have more leverage than when you have a full screenplay that they want to purchase. At that point you can ask for all sorts of stuff. You may not get it. And they may also say, well, if you’re going to be the director we’re not going to pay you as much as we would if you would agree to not be the director.
But that will be more leverage because the script is done. If you’re working on the script, or you’re still continuing, the option just means that whoever just optioned it they have the right to purchase it when they so desire. And I don’t know how that gets you more leverage. I mean, maybe you have that with the producer. The producer when buying it is saying that you have to be the director. But then you’re right back in the same box as you would be when you have to sell the script to somebody else. Because the producer is not going to be financing the film. They’re going to be selling it, again. Right? They’re going to sell it because Warner Bros is going to need to own it. Not the producer who has optioned it.
John: In the case of an indie maybe that original producer is going to really be the person, but in most of the standards we’re talking about they’re going to sell it onto some other entity. And so they need their paperwork clear for that.
The only spec script I’ve ever sold actually is Go, my first thing that was produced. And in that case I said, no, I want to be attached as a producer, and they were like great. And so I didn’t well it for a lot of money, but I stayed on as a producer and they were true to their word and I learned a lot about it. And I think, Perry, that may honestly be what you should be looking for.
Let’s say the opportunity does come up for you to sell this script. It sounds like what you want to be doing is not trying to optimize for the most cash dollars sale, but for the buyer or optioner who is committing to keeping you as involved as possible because it sounds like that’s more important to you than the money.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, you have a script and lots of people want it, then they’re going to be willing to play ball with you. And if you want to be the producer don’t option it to somebody. Be the producer.
John: So, Craig, now it’s time for us to talk about why Perry is getting ahead of himself on some of his thinking.
Craig: A few red flags here. So, as we hear these questions, just because Perry we are old dogs. We’ve been around awhile. So there are a bunch of red flags that pop up.
Red flag number one. “I know several high profile writers and directors who have offered to help me traffic it into the right hands.” Or they just said that.
Two. “I’m beginning to meet with top agencies.” Don’t say top agencies. It’s weird. This is not a time to be kind of braggy and oversell-y. Just agencies. I got to be honest with you. A top agency, OK, CAA is a top agency. If you get assigned a junior agent at CAA who has just come off someone’s desk it’s not as good as having the partner agent at a smaller agency. It’s just not.
You’re not represented yet. You’re beginning to meet about representation. And then biggest red flag of all. “I’m being told to expect to sell it fast.” Yeah, that’s kind of what they say.
Craig: You know, the Hollywood cliché of everybody talking fast and making big promises and yada-yada- yeah-yeah-yeah. You want to be a pessimist. You don’t want to be a pointless pessimist. You don’t want to be a downer or a self-defeater, but you do want to be somebody who is at least skeptical. And who absorbs the reality of the odds. People lose these things the day before they’re supposed to happen. There are deal that fall apart seconds before you would have signed the deal.
Craig: You are not represented by anyone until you are. No one has sent the script to the right people until they have. And it has definitely not sold until it does. People would say to me when I was writing a script early in my career like, “Do you think it’s going to get made?” And I’m like, well, it’s green lit. But I’ll believe it when I’m at the premiere. This is literally what I would say. Because there’s a thousand ways for things to just not happen.
Take a couple hours, Perry, if you can, my advice, and watch a documentary called Overnight. Because it is the most vivid cautionary tale about exuberance in this business.
John: And it is an example of cringe.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: Like we talked about earlier on this episode. Because you watch this guy making these choices and everyone is telling him certain things and you just know it’s not going to go that way. And it becomes really uncomfortable when it doesn’t go that way.
So, absolutely worth watching. The other thing I want to stress is that there’s a range of success that’s not like, oh, you sold it for a ton of money, or it’s going to sell fast. It may not sell. But if you’ve written a script that people are excited about and people are reading and are passing around you will get meetings out of this and you will get other work. And that seems to be your overall goal. So, just – to sell this would be fantastic, but there’s a lot of success short of selling it where you’re getting into these rooms and getting the opportunity to pitch on projects and make relationships. That should really be your goal. So, make sure you’re keeping that range of success open there for yourself.
Craig: We did an episode a while back about professionalism, what it means to be professional. And I still believe that in the long run you are better served by being a bit more restrained about how things are going. Because there are a lot of people that talk in a big way and there are so few that deliver.
And if you deliver you don’t need to talk in a big way. And you will be respected that much more for not kind of telling people how well it’s going. And we don’t mean to pick on you. I’m sure you’re a great guy or a great lady. 100%. You’re just sort of maybe trying to let us know that this is real. And maybe sometimes that’s all you need to say.
Just be careful. We’re not scolding you because we think you’ve done something wrong. We’re actually more like parents who are scared about their kid who is playing a little too close to traffic. So, just be careful, because everyone is constantly telling you how wonderful everything is and how great it’s going to be until they stop. It’s really precarious out there.
John: Yeah. Now Megana I’m looking at the list and Kevin has a question here that I feel is right on topic here. So maybe let’s get to Kevin’s question and sort of wrap up this selling success kind of thing.
Megana: Great. Kevin wrote in and said, “I’m in a weird situation with my agents and could use some help. I recently sold my first spec pilot to a big streamer. The pilot has a highly respected producer and director attached. I couldn’t be more excited. I’ve simultaneously been developing another TV project at a very small production company. The company belongs to an actress and doesn’t have many big projects under its belt.
“The actress isn’t a superstar, but she’s not an unknown either. The company wants to pitch the project in a few months. Now that my spec has sold my agents at one of the big three want me to kill the second project. Their reasons are they don’t think it will sell and are scared I’ll lose momentum coming off the spec sale. They don’t believe the actress’s production company is a meaningful attachment. The project is different in tone than what I usually write. And they want me to develop other projects more in line with my spec sale.
“My question for you is are they right to tell me to kill the project? It’s relatively early in my relationship with these agents. And I started developing the pitch before I signed with them. Am I risking alienating them?”
John: And I’ve known people who have been in exactly Kevin’s situation. Where they have this heat here, but they still have these older projects that are lingering. My instinct is to listen to your agents, because they do have a sense of things, but to keep doing the project with the actress if you truly love and believe in the project.
If you’re sort of iffy on it, then this might be a good time to say goodbye to that project. Craig, what’s your instinct at what Kevin is describing?
Craig: Exactly in line with yours. I think that, well, you’ve got to ask yourself a really honest question Kevin. When you started working on this other project were you doing it in part because you were in kind of got to do anything and everything mode? And were you attracted to the notion of working with somebody who is at least a known quantity that would feel like maybe it was a thing. Because if those were the big drivers as opposed to the actual material itself your agents are absolutely right.
I’m not – look, they’re going to always try and get you to basically write spec sale part two, because they love certainty, and that’s not great advice. Develop other projects more in line with your spec sale is a pretty broad category. So, you know, I understand that. Different in tone, well, you know, these days I think if you can do – if you can pitch lefty and righty, or hit lefty and righty go for it.
But I think the big one is they don’t believe the actress’s production company is a meaningful attachment. That’s just probably a fact. There are a lot of actors and actresses who have very small production companies just because literally anyone who can afford a business card can be a production company. And a lot of times they are themselves hustling just as hard as you’re hustling and you don’t even realize it.
If you do have momentum coming off the spec sale and it’s the kind of thing that you should maybe be steering into and this is going to distract you, they’re right. I wouldn’t worry so much about their feelings.
John: No. Don’t worry about the agents’ feelings.
Craig: Yeah. They’re not your friends anyway. They’re your agents. It’s different. You know, maybe one day you get to friendship with your agent, but not right now. Right now it’s just maybe they’ve got their eye on the ball on this one.
John: So here’s a thing that gets buried in the second sentence of your question but I think it’s actually the most important part of this question. “I originally sold my first spec pilot to a big streamer. There’s a producer and a director attached.” You’re theoretically going to make that show. That should be a huge portion of your life going forward. And you shouldn’t be banking on that show is going to happen, but if it’s going to be your first thing you’re going to learn how to do this show.
And what’s important for you to understand is, yes, your agency wants that show to happen, but they also want to just keep you working because they want more money coming in the door. They don’t have a big vested interest in you gaining the experience to run a show and do that stuff. You’ve got to prioritize that for yourself because that’s going to put you ahead. But that’s not going to generate extra dollars for them. You doing a really great job running that job doesn’t help them so much. So, you have to prioritize that for yourself.
Craig: Agents are good at some things. I give them a lot of crap but I have agents for reasons. I don’t think agents are particularly good judges of quality of material. I don’t. I don’t think, by the way, almost anyone is. But if an agent says, “My perspective on this particular actor or actress’s desirability and factorness when it comes to making a deal is this,” I listen carefully. Because that is what they know. Because they’re in that marketplace all day long.
There are agents that represent that actress. So they know what she can and can’t do. They know where she’s considered. It is an upwardly and downwardly mobile business. Unfortunately it’s mostly downwardly mobile for everyone. But there is upward mobility. People can change and grow. But if your agents have a pretty strong feeling about this that’s the kind of thing I do think it’s worth heeding. It’s sort of what they know.
John: Yup. I agree with you. I also want to commend you for contrasting with sort of the situation we ran into with Perry here. You say, “I couldn’t be more excited.” That’s the exact way to approach it.
Craig: There you go.
John: You’re not bragging. You’re saying I feel so lucky. This is so great. And here’s my next part of this. You’re not stopping with sort of the boast that this thing happened.
Craig: Yes. This felt correct.
John: So, Craig and Megana, I think we made a good dent in this question log, but we just have not gotten through – god, we got through like half of these.
Craig: Let’s come back next week and just do it again.
John: We’ll do it again.
Craig: We’ll do it again.
John: We’ll keep knocking them out. Megana, thank you so much for this.
Craig: Thanks Megana.
Megana: Thank you guys.
John: All right. It’s come time for our One Cool Things.
Craig: One Cool Things.
John: Craig, do you want to start us off?
Craig: Sure. I read an article that I just adored. And I adored it not because it told me what I wanted to hear, although it did, but because it tied back into a topic we’ve discussed a number of times and because I thought its perspective was really interesting. It’s at a site called Nautilus, which is sort of an essay science writing website. And it’s an article written by a fellow named Angus Fletcher. And it’s called Why Computers Will Never Write Good Novels.
And what he’s doing is digging into the fundamental difference between the way our brains work and the way computers work and kind of boils it down to a question of causality. That our brains function in a causal fashion. That the firing of A leads to the firing of Z. A causes Z. We have causal reasoning he argues is at the neural root of what we do. And therefore is the basis of our understanding and our ability to create drama.
Whereas computers are ultimately based on equations. This is this. This is this. So, A equals Z is not the same as A causes Z. Now, he goes into a kind of interesting analysis. I have no doubt that there are a hundred artificial intelligence students that are angrily banging out rebuttals to this. I have no doubt.
John: I started working on one even as you were speaking.
Craig: Of course. Well, you yourself are an AI. And I know that there are if/thens. Certainly that is there. But there is something very seductive about what he’s positioning here. And I must say I kind of work backwards a little bit in that what we’re seeing coming out of AI is not what we do. It is a fascinating adjunct to what we do. The question is is that simply a function of where it is on its timeline of growth and development or is it just always going to be fundamentally different because of the specific physical nature, physical differences, of how our thinking functions and how computers function.
So, anyway, you can decide for yourself Why Computers Will Never Write Good Novels: The Power of Narrative Flows Only From the Human Brain by Angus Fletcher at Nautilus.
John: Yeah. And so I have not read this piece yet, but I think I will approach it with the question of to what degree are we talking about pattern recognition? Because I feel like so much of what we do in storytelling is recognizing patterns and creating patterns and finding connections between things that would not necessarily be there. And increasingly where progress is being made in AI is really that pattern recognition. It’s being able to find connections between things that we wouldn’t necessarily notice.
And so I’m wondering if he’s describing the situation as it is now versus where it’s headed. So I look forward to reading it.
Craig: We shall see what you – I mean, this is a pretty meta thing where an AI reads an article about AI and argues whether or not it’s AI.
John: My One Cool Thing is a video by Negaoryx and maybe I can’t even butcher it because it’s just a Twitter handle. But talking through, so she’s an online gamer and she’s streaming and this guy in the chat says, “What color thong are you wearing?” And she starts to systematically destroy him and he’s like, “No, no, I’m just joking.” And then she destroys him further in a way that is just so well done. And she doesn’t break playing off the game at all. But systematically just takes it all apart and brings in Mike Birbiglia and John Mulaney and sort of other examples of actual what comedy is and how what this person is doing is not comedy.
It’s just a remarkably good encapsulation. It’s like a minute long. And totally worth your time in terms of looking at this moment right now in terms of what it means to troll and this defense of like “I’m only joking” as a way out of it.
And this led to the other link I’ll put in here for Schrödinger’s Douchebag which is a great way of describing a guy who says offensive things and then decides whether he was joking based on the reaction of the people around him.
Craig: Yeah, of course. Of course.
John: And that’s a thing that is just so currently a problem. Where the attempt to hide behind “I was joking” as a get out of jail free card.
Craig: Yeah. I would run into this occasionally on Twitter where somebody would say something awful and I would respond and then they would say, “Why are you even paying attention to somebody with two followers?” Like they would define themselves as a loser not worthy of response or attention after they said something designed to get response or attention.
So they were like blaming me for even noticing they were alive which is so deeply complicated and upsetting. Because then the level of poor self-esteem and self-image is kind of torturous.
John: Or is it a performance of low self-esteem? That’s the whole thing. You can’t–
Craig: No, I think it is low self – I think they were literally like, “Oh my god, you even looked at me?” They see a blue check mark and they’re like a Greek sailor talking out to Poseidon somewhere. They don’t understand we’re also people like them in every sense of the word.
There was a wonderful shocking but ultimately, I don’t know, encouraging interaction between Sarah Silverman–
John: Oh yeah. We’ll put a link to that. It’s just so good.
Craig: That was something else. Where there was somebody who just came after her in a very ugly way and she just sort of – she applied I guess the truest kind of form of Christianity which is to love thy neighbor and turn the other cheek. And it worked.
John: Yeah. And that was actually the only inciting incident, because you can follow their ongoing conversation and sort of how he got out of his – depression was actually a part of that, too, and sort of his own cycle of negative thinking. And so he’s a much happier person now.
Craig: Yeah. We really have yet to properly grapple with the multitude of toxic problems surrounding how social media functions. And specifically how it can be misused like a medicine by people who are not well.
Craig: And in doing so creating more unwellness, which is why, again, at this point now I’ve got my Twitter – I don’t tweet anymore. I just occasionally will look at like Stella Zawistowski’s cryptic clue of the week. So it’s really nice. I’ve got to say, I’ve really gotten it down to the bare minimum.
John: Very nice. That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. Special thanks to Bo Shim. It was edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week was by Nora Beyer. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions like the ones we answered today.
For short questions, I’m on Twitter, @johnaugust. You can find me there.
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Craig and Megana, thank you for a fun show.
Craig: Thanks guys.
John: All right, Craig, so Evan in Greece wrote in to say, “Hey guys, I would personally love some advice on moving. Do you think staying in a small town where life quality is better but not a lot is going on can hold you back, both career wise and experience wise? Should you just move out to the nearest big city?”
Craig, first take, big city/small town, where do you land?
Craig: Yes. [laughs]
Craig: The answer is yes, Evan. Yes. They both have something really good going for them and they both have something that is detracting going for them. You knew this was coming, Evan. You knew it. Greece is the home of philosophy.
John: The polis.
Craig: The paradox. Paradox I believe is a Greek word.
John: Oh yeah, it feels Greek.
Craig: We are inside of one right now, the great paradox of where to be.
John: So, a couple things I want to tease out of her. Small town/big city, but also you’re really coming to like should you leave the place you started. And I think you should leave the place you started. I think I’m pretty firmly in the camp of I think it is good to venture out from where you began so you can see the world outside of your home town. Whether that means leaving the big city you started in and going to somewhere else, or leaving a small town and going to the big city, you are the protagonist in your story and it is good to leave your home town as the protagonist so you see more of the world.
Craig: Yeah. There’s this famous Internet clergy speech that they keep attributing falsely to one speaker or another, but one of the things is when you’re young you should live in New York before it makes you too hard. And you should get out of something before it makes you too soft. I can’t remember. But the point is you’re going to change as you grow. And the things that you need and the things you want are going to change as you grow.
So, after college I moved immediately to the big city. It wasn’t the nearest big city, but it was a big city. Came out to Los Angeles. Now, that was 1992. By 1997 my wife now, my girlfriend had become my wife, we were considering starting a family. We bought a home. But we stayed in Los Angeles until our son was just about one at which point we said, you know what, nah. We took a look at La Cañada which is smallish town north of the city and we just loved it because of the differences. The things that it could do that matched where we were in our life.
And so we moved there. Now, at this point right about now we’re talking now that we have one completely out of the house and one who is on the way we’re talking about moving back towards around where you live, John. Because it’s time. And you make changes. Yeah. There is no one correct answer there.
John: So I look back to my own story. So like you right after college I packed up my rusted Honda and drove out to Los Angeles and it was the big city. And it was overwhelming and difficult for all the reasons that I think are actually really helpful. I think it’s important to have some grit and adversity and challenge there because otherwise it’s just too easy to stay in your safe little comfort zone. And that’s good.
And I kept looking for the extra little bits of challenge along the way. So when I did Big Fish in New York for about three years I was off and on in New York and then for six months I was really living in New York. And it was rough. I mean, I had some money so it wasn’t as rough as sort of the classic four people in a studio apartment kind of situation, but it was challenging. You’re sort of never alone. You’re bumping up against people a lot. But that was good and I was glad to have those challenges.
When we moved to Paris for the year that was again about sort of finding a way to make life a little bit more difficult and to have some challenge ahead of you. So my husband are talking, even when my kid goes off to college we will probably move to some places that are going to be a little bit difficult for a time just so we can actually have some variation and some challenge there. It stimulates you. It helps you grow and sort of figure out stuff.
So, I do think it’s important to move some. Overall are big cities better than small town? Are small towns better than big cities? I agree with Craig that it’s sort of where you’re at in your life. But I think you should have some experience with both of them because it’s too easy to stereotype everyone in a big city is a certain way and everyone in a small town is a certain way. That doesn’t do anybody any favors.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, if there’s any vague kind of rule of thumb I suppose it would be that when you’re in a time of your life, when you’re looking for things to change and grow and expand and appear, cities are better. And when you’re looking for stability, peace, quiet, support, community, then small places are better. But you will always find the trade-outs. There’s just more crime in the city and there’s more indifference and more traffic. And in small towns there can be more intolerance and there could be more gossip and there could be more boredom. You’re just going to have to balance it. That’s the way it goes.
John: You’re going to find more live cultural events in a big city, just because there’s going to be opportunity. There’s a critical mass to do certain things, which is great and lovely. But, coming off of 2020 and us still being in this pandemic everyone is sort of in their own little small town. The benefits of living in a big city are kind of moot at this moment because it’s not like we’re getting to do all those live event situations. We are all in our tiny little towns of our homes. And it doesn’t kind of matter that much.
And it will be curious to see, you know, 2021 later and 2022 what LA feels like after this. And I don’t think that sense of – obviously a lot of businesses are already talking about like we may never go back to fulltime everybody in the office. And we may just start recruiting the best person for the job and not have them move to wherever our home base is, where our headquarters is. And that’s going to be a difference. But I don’t know that it’s going to necessarily change the advice for Evan in Greece because I think you should probably leave wherever you grew up so you see more of Greece and the rest of the world.
Craig: Side note, I think if things get back to the way they were, hopefully, through vaccination and so forth that it will go back to the way it was. That some people are going to be like, you know what, I don’t need to come into work. I can work from Zoom. And what’s going to happen is a bunch of people are going to be in the office and a few aren’t. And those people are going to start to feel iced out. They’re going to start showing up. It’s just inevitable. I feel like it’s just going to go back.
John: If it doesn’t happen it’s going to be because the companies actually made the decision that they didn’t want as much office space and they just wanted people there only two days a week. I think it would be a decision to sort of say like, no, you can only come in certain days. And just to sort of balance it out. Because I do think you’re right. I think if employee A is there five days a week and employee B is there one or two days a week, employee A is just going to have an advantage.
Craig: Yeah. That’s the way it goes.
John: Cool. Thanks Craig.
Craig: Thank you, John.
- TV Characters Don’t Have Text History. This Is Not OK by Zak Jason
- John’s post on feature residuals
- Chris Lee for Vulture, on the GameStop projects in development
- Overnight Documentary
- Why Computers Will Never Write Good Novels by Angus Fletcher
- Negaoryx Twitter Response to Trolls and for reference Schrödinger’s Douchebag
- Sarah Silverman Twitter Troll
- Special thanks to Bo Shim!
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- John August on Twitter
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- Outro by Nora Beyer (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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