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 493 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show we’ll take a look at opening scenes, how they work, and what writers should consider when planning them out. Then we’ll dive into the weird world of foreign levies and why our friend Stuart is getting mysterious checks.
Craig: I don’t want to know.
John: Finally we’ll discuss the rise of the megaplex and with it the past and future of movie-going.
John: And in our bonus segment for premium members Craig and I will help a listener answer a question about clichés and conventions. This is a listener in Copenhagen, so it’s a Copenhagen question about clichés and conventions.
Craig: All right. We’ll get into it.
John: We will do it all. But, first, Craig you and I have not talked about this on mic or off mic, but if you are planning to have another kid my advice for you would be to wait until after May 2. If you can wait until after May 2 it will behoove you.
Craig: You would have chosen by now if you were to be having a kid after May 2. I’m definitely not having any more kids. You know what, I say definitely, you never know.
John: You never know.
Craig: You never know.
John: I would say that the shop is closed, but I see babies and man I like babies. If I could have a baby for like a year I would be just the happiest person in the world. It’s that toddler and sort of like – honestly it’s that awkward kid’s birthday party stage I don’t want to go through again.
Craig: I’m good with five to 10. That’s what I like. I like when kids are children and they’re running around and playing and they’re going to grade school and nothing really matters and they can laugh and have fun. But they also aren’t peeing and pooping in their pants. And they’re not teenagers.
John: Yes. I believe it’s important that writers make decisions about when they want to have kids.
John: And that could be a little bit easier for some writers in the WGA because starting May 2 the details have just been announced that on May 2 the paid parental leave will go into effect.
John: So this was something that was one at this most recent round of negotiations. And it’s pretty good. And so if you are a WGA member and you have a kid after May 2, or adopt a kid, or otherwise add to your family after May 2 you are eligible for the paid parental leave. And it could be a real boon for many writers in our guild.
Craig: Yeah. So basically the rule is you can’t work and also receive – you need to the leave part of the paid parental leave in order to get the benefit, but the benefit is pretty solid, especially if you are a staff writer on a show. They’re trying to kind of get in near whatever perhaps minimums might be. So, $2,000 a week for up to eight weeks and they don’t need to be taken consecutively. And it looks like it also covers both birth and adoption and fostering. And placement for adoption. That’s interesting.
John: So if you are also a married writing couple who both of you are WGA members and you are having a kid you are both eligible for it, which was something I wasn’t sure was going to happen. So, that’s also a boon. Anyway, just some good news. It’s the first ever of its kind in the nation. The first ever sort of union paid parental leave that goes with you wherever your job is. It applies to screenwriters, variety/comedy writers as well. So, check that out if you are thinking about having kids or if you are currently pregnant try to wait till May 2 to give birth.
I was actually talking with a writer who is in that situation. Who is like my due date is May 1 but we’re trying to make it May 2.
Craig: It’s OK because the benefit is available for a 12-month window from the date of birth, adoption, or placement. So, you might have a couple of weeks of unpaid parental leave but then it gets paid. So, there is that. And it doesn’t have to be taken consecutively. So, you can do four weeks on, four weeks off. So that’s a terrific thing and it’s wonderful that we did get that concession from the companies as part of our collective bargaining power.
John: Yeah. So for follow-up. Hannah asks a question about gray areas. This is from Episode 492. Do you want to take Hannah’s question?
Craig: Sure. Hannah says, her question is regarding screenplay credit before it has been arbitrated. She says, “I have seen several examples now of writers being listed as the, insert big movie name, writer when the movie has not in fact come out yet. But the writer is taking credit where credit may or may not be due. Where do you come down on screenwriters taking credit and using it for personal promotional gain pre-arbitration?”
And we have talked about this to some extent before. John, where do you come down on this?
John: So, before credit is determined obviously if there’s a Variety story if someone was hired on to work on a thing that’s part of what you’re currently working on, so it’s totally fair game to talk about you working on it. No one has any disputes about that. Where it gets more awkward, I was actually having a conversation with another screenwriter about that, is when you’re talking about a project where you have a really minimal credit but you still talk about it as if you’re the writer on the thing. Or it’s a thing where you kind of feel like you probably won’t get credit on it, but you’re being listed for it. It’s awkward. And it’s a known awkwardness in how stuff is discussed in this town.
Craig: Yeah. So Hannah there’s something that might help you a little bit with the gray area here is that part of our rules are that before the arbitration happens the company does have the right to make a good faith guess of what the credit should or would be and then publicize it. Meaning they’re allowed to put the name of the writer on a movie poster before the arbitration is done. And there have been cases where there are posters with credits that then don’t reflect the final credits, so the poster changes. The idea there was we didn’t want writers to be disappeared off of things just because the arbitration hasn’t happened.
And arbitration sometimes take a really long time to get to. And they take a long time to finish. So, my feeling is that it’s perfectly fine for a writer to say, yes, if Variety is saying they worked on this to say, yes, I did work on it. That’s the way I put it. I worked on it. What I don’t think we should say is, “I wrote it,” because other people might also have written it.
John: Yeah. So, I think we’re trying to distinguish between employment and writing credit. And writing credit is a WGA credit. And employment, like I am working on this thing, is a thing you would say in a meeting, that’s a different beast.
Another follow-up question. Anonymous wrote in about whisper networks, which we talked about last episode. “One thing I felt was missing from that segment is that the whisper network exists to be amplified by those in positions of relative power. Those disempowered cannot convince the empowered of injustice or mistreatment because they’ve already been disempowered. So if someone like Harvey Weinstein hears from a woman that women are not his personal sex vessels it means nothing because he’s already decided that women are not worthy of full agency. It takes a whole bunch of men, people he respects, condemning him to rectify that.
“It’s hard to use Harvey Weinstein as an example here because it doesn’t seem that he respects anyone, but I hope I’m getting my point across.”
So, Craig, let’s follow up on this whisper network thing because I feel like Anonymous has a different idea of whisper networks than what you and I were talking about. So, for my conception a whisper network is like a warning system to others in a group rather than something that’s trying to systematically take down the abuser.
Craig: That’s my understanding, too. That is in fact why it is whispered. The point is the whisper networks, I think, would benefit from being amplified by those in positions of relative power, but they come into existence because specifically there is not a free and respected space for those opinions or information to be expressed.
John: So the whispering part of this is important. It’s like you’re not publically saying it out loud. But I think the network part is really especially problematic here because you have to be in the network to get the warning. So you have to – you know, a whisper network is only useful if you are actually able to hear the whisper network, or you’re part of it. And that can be the problem is that people who can be taken advantage of or having bad things happen to them is because they’re not benefiting from this network that they’re being excluded from. And that is a real issue.
And when we talk about the gray areas and sort of like when someone like you or I should speak up it’s because there are people who are being excluded from this whisper network as well that can’t get the warnings that you and I have heard.
Craig: Well right. So, that’s the other thing that’s important to note is that because of the nature of those whisper networks and the fact that they are typically an in-group kind of network it’s quite often the case that people who are in positions of relative power don’t know about it, because it’s being whispered. So, I did not know about a whisper network about Harvey Weinstein. I was not part of the whisper network about Harvey Weinstein for good reason. Nobody is going to call me up and say, “By the way, you need to know that if you’re going to take a job over there that you don’t want to be alone with Harvey,” because I’m not the one that’s going to be suffering there.
And so they’re actually protective of each other I think in a good way because they’re concerned that exposure will have negative impacts. That’s at least my understanding of how it functions.
John: Yeah. I mean, Harvey Weinstein is sort of an extreme example. Let’s step back and say that for many, many years I heard people talk about how Ellen DeGeneres was mean. I think you probably had the same experience too. People would talk about Ellen and Ellen is mean and that she has a great public persona but she’s actually mean behind the scenes. And I don’t know that to be true, but I heard it a lot.
And could I have spoken up more about it? I don’t know that it would have benefited me or anyone, but also there’s a difference between what I was hearing was sort of like she’s kind of mean and I wasn’t hearing anything worse than that. And so I did nothing.
Craig: Well, that’s also part of the issue with the whisper networks is that they have a freedom that expressed and amplified points of view don’t have. Expressed and amplified points of view are often held accountable to fact and truth. And so that’s where you start to end up in situations where you’re saying, OK, I have heard and therefore I need everybody to know that yada-yada-yada, well we have defamation laws. And we have lawsuits and we have all the rest of it, and for good reason, because you don’t want people to just simply say – anybody can say anything about anyone, of course. So, what I find fascinating and encouraging about the whisper networks that have existed from what I can tell they have operated extraordinarily responsibly.
I know that there are some people who don’t think so. Usually they’re the people that are being knocked by some of the whisper networks. And then you have to sort of, OK, figure that part out. But, you know, one thing that has maybe not been observed enough about the era that we live in now, we’ll call it the #MeToo or post #MeToo era, I guess we’re still in the #MeToo era and we will be until that problem goes away, is that there is enormous amount of power available to somebody in a sense to take someone else down.
And it doesn’t seem to me like people are behaving poorly, or abusing that power, which is rather amazing. Because the whole thing is in response to abusive power. And so there’s a group of people that have been the victims of abusive power. They get a kind of power which is to name and shame and they don’t abuse it. They just use it responsibly and fairly and justly. That is pretty amazing. And gratifying. And encouraging.
John: And I will say that when you try to move from informal networks, like whisper networks, to official systematized processes for investigation and such there’s definite pros to that. There’s definitely accountability. You can actually take actions that you couldn’t take in an informal network.
John: But it also is really challenging to decide sort of what the rules are you’re going to make and what are the standards. It is really difficult and it is a thing we’ve seen out of #MeToo. It’s a thing we’ve seen in other efforts to hold people accountable for their actions. So just to acknowledge that it’s difficult.
Craig: Incredibly so. And terrifying. Because just knowing something to be true isn’t enough. And I think most reasonable people understand this. It’s not good. We don’t like it. But we know that just knowing something is true is not enough to save your abuser from re-abusing you, casting you in a different light, turning themselves into the victim, turning you into the problem. This is the playbook. In fact, we know from the Harvey Weinstein, was it Lisa Bloom? Was that his lawyer? Was essentially saying this is the playbook. This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to destroy these women by dragging their reputations through the mud.
If you know that that’s going to happen then it takes a remarkable amount of bravery to get out there and say what you say. And people are going to come at you. And they’re going to come at you for all sorts of reasons. I mean, when I look at the sort of things that have been said about Rose McGowan, there’s a mountain of stuff that just gets slung their way and it’s a hell of a thing to go out there and take all the shots, know that you’re going to take all the shots, and still stand up for what fact is, and what truth is.
John: Yeah. So, we will not be able to solve these problems in the industry.
John: Segue. But, what we can do is talk about really specific crafty things which I feel like you and I are much better in our element to discuss. And so this actually comes from a question that Martin in Sandringham, Australia wrote in to ask. “I’m curious about the process to decide on the beginning point of your screenplays. Have you noticed a pattern of thinking that you tend to follow when choosing that first line of a script to be in the story? Or is it purely driven by the unique nature of the story that you’re telling?”
So, Craig, it occurs to me that often we do a Three Page Challenge and we’re looking at the first three pages of a script. We’re really looking at these opening scenes and yet because we’re only looking at that scene we don’t really have a sense of what that scene is doing for the telling of the rest of the movie. We’re really just focused on what is the experience reading these scenes, what are the words on the page, but not what is that scene doing to establish the bigger picture of the movie.
So, I thought today we’d spend some time really looking at opening scenes and our process as we go into thinking about an opening scene for a movie, or writing one.
Craig: It’s a great question, Martin. And I think it has changed over time stylistically, which is no surprise. When we were kids and we saw movies from 30 years earlier, meaning the ‘50s, the opening scenes seemed a lot different than the opening scenes we were used to. I mean, we’re sitting at home watching a VHS tape of Raiders of the Lost Ark. We see how that opening goes. And then maybe dad shows us a movie from 1955 and it’s much slower, and more expository in a flat sort of way. Perhaps there’s jaunty music happening or sweeping violins.
These days as time has gone on it seems like opening scenes more and more are about a strange kind of disorientation, a giving to you of a puzzle that the implied contract is this will all make sense. But I think of maybe the most influential opening sequence or scene in recent television history was the opening sequence of Breaking Bad which was designed specifically to be what the hell is going on. What is that? Why are there pants there? Why is there an RV? What is happening? Why are there bullet holes? And then the puzzle gets solved.
John: So, I like that you’re bringing up the change from earlier movies to sort of present day movies in how openings work because I think you could make the same observation about how teasers and trailers for movies from a previous time worked versus how they work now. And you look at those old trailers and you’re like oh my god this is so boring. This is not selling me on the movie at all. And in many ways we now look for these opening scenes, opening sequences, to really be like a trailer for the movie you’re about to see. They’re really setting stuff up and getting you excited to watch this movie you’re about to watch and to sort of reward you for like thank you for sitting down in your seat and giving me your attention because this is what’s going to happen.
So let’s maybe start by talking about what are the story elements that need to happen in these opening scenes or opening sequences. They don’t have to happen, but tend to happen in these opening sequences. What are we trying to do story wise, plot wise, or character wise in these scenes?
Craig: Well you have choices. You don’t actually have to do anything. Sometimes the opening is just about meeting a person. And you are accentuating the lack of story. They’re happy. They’re carefree. Everything is fine. But I agree with you. More and more there is a kind of trailerification of the opening of a movie or a television show. And there is the indication of a thing. And it’s often a thing that the characters don’t even see. Or if they do see it they’re looking at it from a different time. This is later, or this is earlier, whatever it is, but there is an indication of something, there is a crack in reality that needs to be healed somehow.
John: Yeah. So from a story perspective you’re generally meeting characters. If you’re not meeting your central character you’re meeting another character who is important or a character who represents an important part of the story. So in that opening scene you might be meeting a character who ends up dying at the end of that scene or sequence but it’s setting up an important thing about what’s going to happen in the course of your story, the course of your movie.
You’re hopefully learning about the tone of this piece. And what it feels like to be watching this movie. The setting of this world. How the movie kind of works. And some of the rules of this world. Like if you’re in a fantasy universe is there magic? How does gravity work? What are the edges of what this kind of movie can be? Because in that opening scene you want to have a sense of like this is the general kind of movie that we’re watching so that you can benefit from all the expectations that an audience brings into that because of the genre, because of the type of movie that you’re setting up.
Craig: Yeah. I think about openings that have always stuck with me as being confusing. And challenging, which I’ve always loved. And I often look at, very curious opening to Blade Runner, which was not the original opening that they had planned. But it’s the opening they ended up with. And neither of the characters in that scene are main characters. There is an unknown investigator and there is a replicant who we don’t know is a replicant. But he’s not the important one. He’s not the head villain. He’s a henchman essentially.
And you have no idea what the hell is going on. There’s one man in a very strange device that might be futuristic, or antique, asking strange questions of this guy and seemingly zeroing in on something important. And then the man feeling somewhat trapped by the series of very abstract questions kills the investigator.
What happens there is a challenge to you to try and keep up and a promise that it will make sense later. But in addition I know that this world looks a certain way. I know people are going to dress a certain way. And I also know that it is going to expect some things of me. It’s good if the first scene gives the audience a difficulty level. It doesn’t have to be high difficulty, right? I mean, sometimes your first scene says this is going to be an easy play. But let people know what the difficulty is with that first scene.
John: So, as you’re talking about that I’m now recalling that scene and it works really well and it’s setting up that this is a mystery story. That there are going to be questions of identity and sort of existential issues here. Even though you don’t know that it’s necessarily a science-fiction world it’s a pretty grounded science-fiction if it is a science-fiction world, so all these things are really important.
Now, Craig, an experience I’ve had sometimes reading a friend’s script, or someone I’m working with’s script is that I will really enjoy the movie that they’ve written, but I’ll come back and say this is not your first scene. You have written a first scene that does not actually match your movie and does not actually help your movie. And it’s a weird way to run into, but I often find that some scripts I really like they just don’t start right. They start on the wrong beat.
Or, and sort of dig deeper, you find that the writer wrote that scene first but then they kind of wrote a different movie.
John: And they need to write a new first scene that actually helps set up the movie they actually really wrote. Is that a common experience you’ve had?
Craig: I’ve noticed this. I think sometimes, well, it’s hard to hit that mark because nothing else has been written yet. So, it’s your first swing. Sometimes the first scene suffers from a sense of, oh, you’ve been thinking about this as a short film for about seven years and you finally got the nerve worked up to finish it. But the problem is this thing feels like it’s a seven-year-long thoughtful short film, and then the rest of it is just a movie.
Craig: Sometimes it’s the opposite. Sometimes there’s a sense that the opening is fine, but it is not special. And the opening is our chance to be brave. I think that we have two moments in movies or in any particular episode of television where the audience will forgive us a lot. And it’s at the very beginning and it’s at the very end. In the middle you’ve got to stay in between the lines on the road. But in the beginning and the end you get to have fun.
John: Let’s talk about why you have that special relationship with the audience at the start, because they’ve deliberately sat down to watch the thing that you’ve created. And so if they were going into a movie theater to watch it there they’ve put forth a lot of effort. They bought a ticket. They’ve driven themselves to that theater. They’re going to probably watch your whole movie whether they love it or they don’t love it.
And so in those first minutes they really, really, really want to love what you’re giving them. Their guards are down. In TV they could flip away more easily, so there’s some issues there. But their expectations are very malleable at that start. So you really can kind of take them anywhere and you get a lot of things for free. You get some – they come in with a bit of trust. And if you can sort of honor that trust and honor that expectation and get them to keep trusting you they’re going to go on your story. If you don’t set that hook well they may just wander off and they may never really fully engage with the story that you’re trying to tell.
Craig: Yeah. They’re hungry at the beginning. They’re hungry. So don’t just immediately shove all the food down their throat. You can have some fun here. You know that they want to feel that anticipation. When you go to a concert and there’s the opening act, and then they’re done and they leave, and then the PA system is playing just songs and you’re waiting. And then the lights go down. And it’s not like the lights go down and then the band comes out, “Here we are, let’s go,” and then they immediately start a song. There’s usually some sort of like…you know, they get you ready. And it can go on for a while. Because everybody knows oh my god it’s happening. Right?
Craig: So let it be happening. Don’t have it just happen if that makes sense.
John: Yeah. Let’s talk about some of our own writing and our own opening scenes and sort of what our experience was with this. So, I’m thinking back to Chernobyl. Chernobyl if I recall correctly opens with an old woman and a cow.
Craig: That is how episode four or three opens.
John: That’s right. So it was later on. It’s not the very first image of it. What is the first image of the first episode?
Craig: The first image of the first episode is a couch with sort of an afghan type thing of a deer and we hear a man talking. We actually hear his voice before we ever see anything.
John: Yeah. And so we don’t realize at the time it’s going to be a Stuart Special. That we are setting up the past and that we’re going to be jumping back and forth.
I think the reason why I was remembering that cow scene is it’s an example of we don’t have context of who these characters are, sort of why what’s happening is happening. Are these characters going to be important? No, not really. You were just setting up sort of the question of that episode and that world and what kind of story this episode is going to be. And I thought it just worked really well.
Craig: Well thank you. So every episode needs its own beginning. And so I’m pretty sure it was the beginning of episode four. It’s sad that it’s all mushing together now.
But that was designed to be a bit confusing. Because we don’t know what exactly this guy is doing there. And we’re not sure what his orders are. And we definitely aren’t sure what her deal is. And we don’t know he’s just standing there. And so this goes on. And then at the end of it we know. We know a lot. And that is kind of a standalone intro, which we didn’t do much of. And generally I don’t. But sometimes it’s OK to make this opening its own thing that announces something about the world and then we catch up to the people that we know and care about.
And we think, oh, did they know that they’re in a world where that other thing is happening?
Craig: So certainly one way to go.
John: So, completely analogous situation is the opening of the Charlie’s Angels movie.
John: So, of course, again, you’re establishing a place, and a time, and a world, except that it’s in a very candy-colored, we’re in a plane and we see all these characters. We see LL Cool J is the first recognizable star that we see. And there’s clearly some sort of heist thing happening. And it’s only as the sequence plays on that we realize like, oh, the Angels were actually part of this the entire time and this is an elaborate sequence to get this terrorist off this plane before he does something dastardly.
That sequence was important to establish the tone and feeling of this movie. And sort of what the rules are of this movie. And the heightened kind of gravity-optional nature of this movie. And sort of what it’s going to feel like to watch this movie.
So nothing that actually happens in that becomes important for the plot. It’s just introducing you to who the Angels are in a very general sense. The fact that they could kind of go into slow motion at any point if it’s glamorous. And just kind of how it feels. And it was one of the only sequences that made it all the way through from very early, before I came onboard to the movie, through to the end because it just felt like a good, goofy, fun start to this franchise.
Craig: With a punchline. I always feel like your openings need punchlines. And it’s weird to say like, OK, the punchline of the opening of the first episode of Chernobyl is a man hangs himself, but that’s kind of the punchline in the sense of there’s a surprise end. Similarly the old woman and the cow you’re pretty sure that soldier is going to shoot her and he doesn’t shoot her. He shoots the cow. Punchline.
You need to land something surprising. If you can, then the additional benefit you get from your opening is you’re putting the audience on alert that you are one step ahead of them so far. So, this is a good thing now. They’re leaning in. They’re trying to see what comes next. But they are also aware that you’re not just going to feed them straight up stuff, which is good.
John: The most difficult opening sequence I ever did was Big Fish. And I’m trying to establish so many things. I’m establishing two different worlds. A real world and a story world. That there are two protagonists and that both of them have storytelling power. So getting through those first eight pages of Big Fish and sort of setting up the storytelling dynamic of Big Fish was really, really tough, yet crucial. That was the case where like if I didn’t have that opening sequence the movie just couldn’t have worked because you wouldn’t know what to follow and what to pay attention to.
Craig: This is kind of high anxiety time. I like that you care – I think sometimes when I read these scripts, and we’ve said I think the word “precious real estate” or phrase a thousand times. You need to nail it. You’ve got to make that opening fascinating so that the audience says I will keep watching. If it’s just kind of meh then, I mean, you could have done anything there. The moment you have an opening you have limited what can come next. There’s a narrow possibility for what comes next.
John: You build a funnel. Yeah.
Craig: You make a funnel. A logical funnel. But not in the beginning. In the beginning there’s no funnel. You can do anything. And if you don’t do anything interesting I don’t see why people would think, well, this will get better. It won’t.
John: No. And weirdly it is probably the scene or sequence that as writers we spend the most time looking at just because by nature we’re going to kind of end up rereading it and sort of tweaking it a zillion times. And I do wonder if sometimes, let’s talk process here, at what point do you figure out that opening scene versus figuring out everything else in your story?
Sometimes I think the best approach would be to figure out where your story overall wants to go before you write that opening scene. Because so often you can be sort of trapped in that opening scene and love that opening scene but it’s not actually doing the best job possible establishing the rest of the things you want to do in your story.
Craig: 100%. If you do know what your end is. It would be lovely if you had that in mind when you wrote your beginning. Certainly I did when I did Chernobyl because it works like Pink Floyd’s The Wall album. It begins with I think it’s maybe David Gilmore saying, “Where we came in,” and then the song starts and then that album happens. And then at the very end you hear him say, “Isn’t this where?” And so you go, ah, ah-ha, in a very Pink Floyd cool way. I see what you did there, Pink Floyd.
And I like that. I like the sense that you catch up. And you complete the circle. It doesn’t have to be temporal like that. It can just be commentary. It can be somebody’s face ending in a similar position to how it began.
Here’s an example. Social Network. Opening scene, fantastic. And down to nothing but dialogue and performance. Two people sitting and talking. That’s it. Excellently written and excellently performed and excellently shot. And at the very, very end of the movie he goes back to looking at that girl’s profile on Facebook. She is not mentioned. Or referred to at any other time. It’s just the beginning and then the end. And then you go, oh man, this guy.
And so that’s how you can kind of think about these things. The beginning is the end, the end is the beginning. Know them both. It will help you define that opening scene much, much more sharply.
John: Cool. And now as we look at Three Page Challenges going forward let’s also try to remember to ask that question in terms of like what movie do we think this opening scene is setting up. Because that’s really kind of a fundamental question. We’ve talked so much about how those first three pages, that first opening scene is so crucial to getting people to read more of your script. But let’s also be thinking about what movie we think is actually establishing because we have strong expectations off the start of that.
So just a note for ourselves. We will try to think about how those opening scenes are setting our expectation for the rest of the movie that we’re not reading.
Craig: I think that tees us up nicely for a Three Page Challenge next week.
John: Yeah. We’ll try to do it. All right, next up we got a question from Stuart Friedel, former Scriptnotes producer. Do you want to read Stuart’s question?
Craig: Stuart, aw, writes–
John: We love Stuart.
Craig: “I just got a check in the mail from the WGA for foreign royalties for two episodes of Vampirina that I wrote. It’s the first time I’ve ever gotten anything like this. It was made out to me, not my S-Corp,” his loan-out corporation, “through which I got paid for these episodes originally. And the show is Animation Guild, not WGA. Is this normal? What’s going on here?”
John, is this normal?
John: It is both normal and weird. So writers get these checks all the time. But it’s not normal WGA residuals. It’s a whole special thing that I actually had to look up again because I remember it and then I forget and then I remember it and then I forget it.
Craig: I think we’ve done a run-through on the show at some point. It was probably years ago.
John: Stuart has listened to every episode, so Stuart should have known.
Craig: All right.
John: But we’ll give a brief recap here. So foreign levies are the fees that some foreign countries, largely European countries, they collect and they’re mean to compensate the rights holders when films or TV are broadcast or copied in things.
I remember originally it was like blank VHS tapes and blank DVDs, there was like a tax put on those thing.
Craig: Oh yeah, still. In fact probably the largest chunk of the foreign levies we collect are feed levied on blank disc media, disc drives. So basically the theory, it’s a lot of South American countries, too. The theory is that people are going to use blank media to copy things and watch them again. The artist should be compensated for that, but we don’t know how many times they’re watching things. So we’ll just tax the things that let them do that.
It’s a fascinating sort of thing to do. And we are not the authors of stuff here. But we are there. And that’s where it gets fun.
John: Yeah. It’s where it gets complicated. So under US law we tend to write these things as work-for-hire. So, we sort of pretend that the studios are the authors of the properties. But many of the countries say like, no, no, that’s actually not true. It’s the writers and the directors who are the authors. And so it became this big fight. And so in the show notes we’ll link to the history of how foreign levies came to be and how the DGA and the WGA came to collect that money. It’s fascinating and complicated. And there was a lawsuit about how the money was being distributed out.
But, the answer for Stuart is that the foreign countries are sending in that money and it is the WGA’s responsibility and the DGA’s responsibility to figure out who those people are and get the checks out to them. And so that’s a thing they do.
Craig: It’s not based on union work. So, the rest of the world does not have work-for-hire and they have moral rights of authors. So, France collects this money and then they turn to us and say we would like to give this to the moral – the moral authors of this movie, which we consider to be the writer and the director. And over here the studios are like but there’s no moral author. We’re the author. And so France said, nah, we’re not going to give it to you then.
And so then we had to hammer out some deal. The split between us and the studios did adjust over time. It’s been a while. It should be 100% us. So, will continue to have to broker that somehow. But then this other issue happens where they say, well, OK the WGA steps up and says we will collect all this. The other countries say, “Uh, just one thing, we’re not breaking this out by who is in your union and who is not in your union because we don’t care. We’re just going to send it all to you and you distribute it.”
And so now the WGA has this interesting situation where they’re collecting money on behalf of people that aren’t members, like for instance in this case while Stuart Friedel is the member of the Writers Guild they’re collecting money for him that he earned through the Animation Guild. Here’s another fun fact. We collect a ton of foreign levies from porn.
Craig: So we have to find the porn directors and writers. And that is kind of how we did it. We just agreed that we would do this. And for that there is some fee, of course, some sort of administrative fee that the Writers Guild takes. This has been litigated. Members of the Writers Guild have sued over it. Other people have sued over it. It was sort of like incredibly hot potato in the 2000s and has since ceased to be that hot potato. It’s now just kind of this passive stream of money that shows up in a brown envelope, or on a brown check instead of a green check.
John: Yeah. So to date the WGA West has distributed $246 million in foreign levies, and including $37 million to non-members and beneficiaries.
Craig: Ah, yes, that’s the other thing. If someone is dead–
John: They still get it.
Craig: They have to give it to whoever controls the estate.
John: Yeah. So right now there’s a little bit over $9 million that can’t be matched to writers and directors. And so we’ll put a link in the show notes. There’s a way you can search for like, oh, am I owed foreign levies. And so they try to match up those funds. But it’s possible that some money will just never go to the place it’s actually supposed to go, or to the person it’s supposed to go to. So, based on the settlement at a certain point that money, if there’s any money left over, goes to the Actor’s Fund which we’ve talked about before is the charity that supports the industry.
Craig: Correct. And that number, $9 million, sounds high. It’s not. It used to be much higher. There was a point where it was like at $25 million. It was becoming a real liability. You can’t just sit on $25 million of other people’s money and not do something about it. So the guild has actually made really good progress on that front. My guess is that’s probably as low as it’s going to be, because there’s always going to be some stuff that comes – it’s really hard sometimes to understand these – you have governments sending you lists of taxation based on their information. Sometimes it’s not complete.
John: Yeah. It’s going to happen. All right. This last week I was listening to an episode of 99 Percent Invisible, and this one was one megaplexes. It was about sort of how everything changed when AMC opened up the Grand 24 in Dallas. And I realize we’ve talked about exhibition before on the show, but I think we’ve never talked about our experiences of going to the movies and sort of when movie theaters changed.
And for people who are younger than us they probably don’t remember clearly a time before megaplexes and before stadium seating and sort of what that life was like, but we saw both sides of it. So I thought we’d spend a few minutes talking about our experience with that. And also the podcast episode, which was trying to make the point that the physical changes of theaters actually had a big impact on sort of what movies were getting made and then as theaters started to collapse a bit also change what movies were getting made. So I thought we’d talk about both our experience as movie goers but also what we saw happening in the industry as the exhibition itself changed.
Craig: I used to go see movies at the Amboy Multiplex. The Amboy Multiplex, not a megaplex like the AMC Grand 24, the Amboy Multiplex I think had eight screens which was considered insane at the time.
John: That was pretty big at the time. Was that the first theater you remember going to?
Craig: The Amboy Multiplex might have been the first multiplex. It’s in New Jersey. Well, it was. It’s no longer there. And I believe they opened in maybe ’78 or ’79. I remember for instance seeing Star Wars in just a single screen movie theater. And that was kind of what you had. The multiplex was pretty great because if you were a family my dad and I could go see Raiders of the Lost Ark and my mom and my sister could go see, you know, Max Dugan Returns or something, I don’t know. I can’t remember what was going on.
But the point is families could split up and see different things.
John: That was such a great point. And I had not considered it, but yes, I mean, on a single screen theater everyone is going to see the same movie and you can’t do that thing where you divide up and see different stuff starting about the same time. And that’s a huge difference. Like you’ve sold more tickets because more people can go.
Craig: Correct. And they also because they had that many more screens running the concessions became a massive part of it. Because now you’re not feeding the amount of people that fit into one room. You’re feeding the amount of people that fit into eight rooms. It all becomes a much bigger money maker. And you could just feel like, OK, if I’m a single movie theater and I’m showing one freaking thing, first of all if there’s a – so the blockbuster emerges out of the ‘70s out of Jaws and Star Wars.
Now, you can say we have these blockbuster films like Raiders, we can show them on more than one screen. So you’re losing money when you’re turning people away from a theater. The multiplexes didn’t have to. They said we’ll just stick it on another screen. No problem.
John: Now growing up in Boulder, Colorado my first experience in a theater was probably either the Base-Mar, which had two giant screens, or there was the Village 4 which were one really big screen and three smaller screens. That’s probably where I watched Star Wars. It’s where I saw 9 to 5. Or I saw a lot of early movies. I saw The Muppet Movie there.
But eventually we had – Mann built a six-pack theater with six identical size theaters and I think at about six is where you start to see some of those economies of scale. Where they can just sell more concessions. They can put the same movie on two different screens at the same time. There really are reasons they can just make more money off of things by sort of sticking a bunch of screens together.
But that was a real innovation. So, you know, the history of movie theaters were those giant sort of movie palaces that sometimes would get carved into smaller screens. But it’s still a pretty bad experience and not very efficient.
Now, something like the six-pack that I saw most of my movies in high school at that was still pre-stadium seating. When was the first time you experienced stadium seating Craig?
Craig: That’s a great question. I think it was when we – I’m going to say it was back in the early 2000s I remember going to a test – we were doing a test screening and it was out in like Chatsworth or something. And there was this stadium seating and I thought well this is absolutely terrible for comedies. And it is. It’s the worst. Because you laugh outwards and you basically hear yourself and some of the people behind you and that’s it.
Whereas in the old days when you were in that flat room everybody heard everybody and laughs were just so much bigger. It was like being in a comedy show. And now it’s not. Obviously it’s terrific for viewing. I get that. But I was disturbed.
And now that’s it. It’s that and nothing else.
John: Yeah. So younger listeners don’t have a memory of going to see movies and having to make sure you weren’t sitting behind someone taller than you. And having to look behind you to make sure you weren’t blocking somebody.
John: And that whole experience. And what’s also surprising to folks who live in Los Angeles now is you said you went to a screening out in Chatsworth and that’s where you saw stadium seating, like LA when I moved here had the worst movie theaters.
Craig: Oh yeah. Bad.
John: We had Mann’s Chinese which was like a movie palace and just gorgeous, but it actually had terrible projection and sound.
John: And could only show one movie at a time. It was great to see a big movie there because it was huge, but was not a good theater. And all the rest of the theaters were just terrible. They were sticky floor monstrosities. And so now we have great ones, but we were kind of late to get our great theaters.
Craig: It’s true. We were. And there is now a generation of parents who don’t have the joy of saying, “I can’t see!” When you would go to a theater and you would say, “I can’t see,” would your parents say some version of, “Don’t worry, when it starts you won’t even notice.” Because my parents would always say, “Oh yeah, don’t worry about it. When the movie starts you won’t even notice that that guy is blocking half of the screen.”
And they were kind of right, in a sense.
John: They weren’t entirely wrong. I would say because I had an older brother, it was my older brother who was mostly responsible for taking me to movies. And so he and I might switch sometimes, but that was going to be about the extent of my accommodation for my shortness growing up and going to movie theaters.
Now, let’s talk about the impact of the change in movie theaters had on the movies that were getting made, because this is a point that this podcast was trying to make and I wanted to push back against it but then I thought, OK, you know what? They actually did have a point here.
So, I remember pre-multiplexes if you wanted to see a David Cronenberg film, if you wanted to see a David Lynch film, if you wanted to see an art film you had to go to an art house movie theater. But with the rise of these bigger and bigger multiplexes it became possible to have one screen that was showing a Being John Malkovich, showing something that was – a Miramax movie. Something that was outside the realm of just the big studio blockbusters. And I think more people saw some indie movies on a big screen in their home town than would have if we hadn’t built out these multiplexes.
Craig: Depending on your town, I think. Obviously it’s a little easier if you’re in a city. It’s a lot easier if you’re in a city. But that’s true. And there are still theaters now that kind of pride themselves on showing you a mix of both. So the ArcLight companies for instance, they take pride in their cinematic fidelity. And part of that is not only sound and picture, but that you can see a Spider-Man film and you can also see a Jim Jarmusch movie and that’s kind of their thing.
But over time I think the big megaplexes, the AMCs, and whatever the Regal Cinemas or whatever they’re called, they’ve really adapted to the way that studios have changed, because studios used to put out a movie every week or two. And now they put out a movie every month and a half. Maybe. And what that means is that movie is just steroided-out. It’s the equivalent of the Butterball Turkey. It can barely stand on its own legs because it has been steroided and fed for size.
And now everybody has been like, oh my god, we’ve got to go see The Avengers 7, and so Jesus put it on all 28 of your screens. And so then these movie theaters kind of become like The Avengers’ movie theater for four weeks.
John: Now even the ArcLight which can still hold some screens for the smaller movies, but Spider-Man is going to be on eight of the 14 screens. Which can be good for an audience because it means I can actually see something opening weekend. And I do definitely appreciate that. The frustration of not being able to see a thing that you want to see is a thing. And not be part of the cultural conversation about the thing. It is great to be able to see things opening weekend and I look forward to being able to see things opening weekend as theaters start to reopen.
But, I don’t know, the anticipation was part of the experience as well. And I remember before there was reserved seating having to line up and get there in time to sort of get your seat. Yes, it was a hassle, but it also was part of the experience of going to see the movies.
Craig: It was communal. But another shot has been fired. It was fired yesterday. Another shot across the bow of the way movies are released and seen. And that shot was Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
John: Yeah. Let’s talk about that.
Craig: So, Zack Snyder shot Justice League. He was in the middle of editing and working on it and then there was a family tragedy and he had to stop. So, the studio brought in Joss Whedon. I assume just to sort of finish and Joss Whedon was like, ah-ha, how about instead of finishing I just redo most of this.
And so he did. And it was a different movie. And people did not like it. And for many, many years there’s been this clamoring for the Zack Snyder cut. Now, I’m going to tell you something I’ve never mentioned before on this podcast.
John: Tell us.
Craig: I saw the Zack Snyder cut back when he was working on it. Because they were talking about maybe doing a week or reshoots or something like that. And so he invited two or three – I think there were three or four of us, writers, to watch the movie in the state it was in and then just have a conversation about some things that they might be able to do to tweak some things up over the course of a week of writing.
And I, you know me, I’m not like a huge superhero movie guy, but I really liked it. I liked it. I thought it was really good. I thought there were a couple things, like OK here’s some suggestions and things. And then Zack left the project. And so that was it. Literally, I think he left like the next week. And I never saw the Joss Whedon version.
But all this time while there was this fan movement for the Zack, there was like a mythologizing that the Zack Snyder cut was going to be amazing and it was going to save that movie. And a lot of people are like why would you think that? And I quietly was sort of like but it’s really good actually, like I hope that that does happen. But I didn’t want to say anything because I didn’t want to be in the news. Because people are obsessed with this stuff.
Well, I watched it last night and it’s fascinating. First of all, it is good. I really enjoyed it. It’s four hours.
John: Now, was the movie you watched previously four hours long?
Craig: It was probably three-ish. I think he went and shot some additional material. In fact, I know he shot additional material because there’s like an entire sequence at the end that wasn’t there when I saw the film. And there was a bunch of things that I think he went and reshot and did some work on.
But by and large, yeah, the movie was the movie I saw. Except like finished and good. And what I find fascinating – and people have received it very well. It has been reviewed very well and people are enjoying it. And I think this is a new kind of thing now. Everybody is going to stop and go wait a second, so now we can do these like really long experiences and people will watch them on streaming.
And that is a new challenge to what movies had become, which was we’re going to give you the 2.5 hour extravaganzas. And now people are like, “Or, give us four hours.”
John: Four hours at home.
Craig: At home. And this is interesting now.
John: So, I have a counterpoint for you. We can wrap up the sequence with the counterpoint example of another superhero epic, the last Avengers movie. We’ll put a link in the show notes to the fan reaction to the arrival of the other superheroes at the end of Avengers.
Craig: Yeah, it’s great.
John: And to hear, I mean, you’re not seeing the audience, you’re just hearing the audience and the audience’s reaction to what happens at the end there is a great reminder of sort of why the communal movie theater experience is so different and so vital.
You talk about test screenings with a comedy and how a comedy plays with a crowd, well this isn’t a comedy but the cheering you hear and the feeling you get off of people’s reaction to it is just so different and so dynamic and it’s a thing you’re never going to get in streaming obviously.
Craig: Correct. And I don’t think that we’re going to lose that big movie experience, meaning I think movies will return. But, I also think that there may be room now for this other thing, which is the mega-movie, gig-a-movie. You see like say Avengers, the final one, and then two years later you see this four hours version of it, where all this other stuff is happening. Some of which was cut out. And some of it is just new. Like you can keep making those movies.
John: Yeah. I would say basically the whole Marvel canon in a way does feel like it is already kind of there. It’s this epic movie that just sort of keeps going. It’s like a series that just keeps going and there’s always a new installment, a new chapter. And WandaVision feels like it’s a six to eight hour Marvel movie that’s in the middle of it. So, it’s exciting.
Craig: Yeah. We’ll see where it goes.
John: But let’s wrap this up and talk about the megaplex experience because theaters kept getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and nicer, and nicer, and nicer, and I’ll be curious to see what happens next with the theater experience. And assuming we get back to just butts in seats and people are watching things, you know, I think this may give an opportunity for closing off those less performing locations and focusing on building good new theaters.
Sometimes when there is a crisis people can sort of cull things off their sheets in ways that is useful. Like Alamo Drafthouse filed for bankruptcy but I don’t think Alamo Drafthouse I will go away. I think it will just reorganize.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, bankruptcy doesn’t mean you go out of business, it just means you’re taking a pause to pay your creditors back because you need time. And, yeah, I don’t romanticize small movie theaters with terrible projection and awful sound. I think the trend towards making a movie theater more like your living room will continue. So you’ll have the lazy chair style seating and reserved seating. Ticket prices will go up.
If movie studios purchase large theater chains, and I think they’re sitting back and waiting. If theater experience comes roaring back I think we’ll see that. And then at that point you’re going to get to variable pricing on tickets. All sorts of things are going to happen.
But the theater business was remarkably stable, as much as everybody kept screaming about it, ticket sales were insanely stable for decades. And now all bets are off. I have no idea what happens now.
John: But, whatever does happen, MoviePass is going to be part of it. Because MoviePass is coming back. And when there’s an update we’ll see what that is. But they announced that they’re coming back, so in some version there’s going to be a MoviePass out there.
Craig: [laughs] Man, I’ll tell you. I want to give us a pat on the back for that, but I can’t. It was so obviously ridiculous.
Craig: Oh lord.
John: You know I’m not joking? MoviePass has announced – MoviePass really is coming back in some version.
Craig: What? I’m sorry, no. What? Oh no.
John: Who knows what it’ll be. But the MoviePass account is suddenly active again. So something is happening.
Craig: So MoviePass is going to come back and they’re like, OK, new deal. You pay us $80 and we let you see one movie.
John: Craig, it will involve the block chain in some way.
Craig: Oh god.
John: Craig, it’s time for our One Cool Things. Before we get to your One Cool Thing, I’ve been asked by Megana for an update on your Upstep insoles. How are your insoles going?
Craig: Now, Megana, are you asking because you are also interested in some foot support?
Megana Rao: No. But as I was listening to the episode I was just like I wonder how that’s going.
Craig: I like that you’re just generally interested in my foot health.
Megana: The anticipation from all of that unboxing.
Craig: OK. It has worked great. They fit perfectly and they are very comfortable. They do this thing that all kind of orthotic inserts do which is they squeak. So when I walk it’s wah-wah-wah. I think over time that will probably stop.
John: Well WD40 should help.
Craig: Exactly. That’s what you want in your shoes. But, yeah, they work great. And they are experientially identical to the ones tht cost way more that you’d have to go to the doctor for. So, I give a big thumb’s up to the Upstep insoles.
John: And don’t forget to use the promo code “umbrage” at checkout to save 15%.
Craig: CraigsFootHealth49. Yeah, I just did an ad for Upstep and I’m not getting paid.
John: Weird. Weird that.
Craig: God, my streak of not getting paid on this show continues.
John: Yeah. What’s your real One Cool Thing?
Craig: You know what? Let’s make it that. It’s really good.
John: Craig wasn’t prepared.
John: My One Cool Thing, I was a guest on another podcast this last week which I think many of our listeners would really enjoy, like the podcast overall. My episode sure, but this is the Screenwriting Life Podcast. It’s by Meg LeFauve and Lorien McKenna. They do it weekly. They are up to episode 35 right now, so it’s going to stick around for a while. What I really dig about their podcast is it’s very much just about talking through the writing that you’re doing each week and what the highs and the lows were. And it’s very much the emotional process of it all. So, we had a good interview and I’m sure all their interviews are great. But I really enjoyed how the two of them just talked about the work they were doing on a regular basis.
Now, Craig, you and I have referred previously on the show to you and I sort of write in our little bubbles and we just do our own writing. We don’t sort of share and don’t talk about stuff. But we have friends, especially women friends, who are involved in each other’s writing a lot. And I’ve always been really envious of that and I really appreciate the way they can just focus on what the experience is of writing on a daily basis. And so especially for aspiring writers who are listening to this I think just check out them and their advice because I really think you’ll enjoy that show.
Craig: It’s got to be mentally healthier than what I do, which is just curl up in a ball and shiver with fear and self-loathing. Right? It’s got to be healthier than that?
John: And play some videogames.
Craig: Oh yean. And D&D.
John: And D&D.
That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro is by Peter Hoopes. 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, but for short questions on Twitter I’m @johnaugust. I might be able to answer your question.
We have t-shirts. They’re lovely. You can find them at Cotton Bureau.
You’ll 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 our 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 where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments. Craig, thank you for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: All right, Craig, we got a question from Julie in Copenhagen. Can you read Julie in Copenhagen’s question?
Craig: Indeed. She writes, “I’m currently writing my master thesis in film and media studies focusing on the meaning and use of clichés and genre conventions in Danish youth dramedy television series. I have interviewed Danish screenwriters, critics, and two focus groups of the target audience to hear how they define and feel about clichés.
“But there doesn’t seem to be a clear cut definition of what a cliché is and how it differs from genre conventions, or what the relationship is between conventions and clichés.”
Well, this is a question that is universal. It travels beyond the borders of Denmark.
John: Absolutely. Even places without Lego, they have clichés.
John: So, let’s talk about that, because as she raised the question I was trying to sort through what I felt is a cliché versus what is a genre convention.
And so I went to Wikipedia to look at their definition of cliché which is pretty good. They say, “A cliché is an element of an artistic work, saying, or idea that has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.” And I think that last clause is really important there because a cliché didn’t start as a cliché. A cliché probably started as something relatively clever or sort of clever or at least new. But just through overuse it’s not that anymore and it just feels terrible. It’s an idea that doesn’t know that it’s busted.
Craig: Right. Yeah. I think that is a valuable way to discriminate between the two. I would say, Julie, that clichés are specific things that put your teeth on edge because you’re like, uh, it’s mean to make me smile, laugh, or be shocked or something and it’s not because it’s just unoriginal. Conventions are things that just keep showing up. They’re not demanding a lot of attention. They’re just sort of baked into the structure or concept.
So, for instance a convention of a space opera is a dogfight between spaceships shooting lasers at each other. That’s just a convention.
John: Yeah, not a cliché. So clichéd moments can happen during it, but the idea of a space battle, fine.
Craig: Exactly. So, like a cliché is someone gets shots a laser into my X-Wing and I go, “I’m hit, I’m hit.” That’s a cliché. It’s like, oh, what an original moment. But the existence of the convention of the space dogfight could actually be good.
So, there was like some really cool stuff that Rian did in The Last Jedi. It’s a convention, but inside of that convention original and interesting things happen. Please don’t @ me, because I like that movie. I don’t care.
So, I would say that like in zombie movies the convention is that a lot of people are zombies and a group of people who are not zombies need to get away from them. But inside of that there could be a ton of clichés. A ton of little moments that you’ve seen a billion, billion times.
John: Yeah. So trying to save someone’s life in an extreme situation can be a genre convention. There’s military versions of trying to save a person’s life, like doing CPR on a person. That is a convention. That’s great. We get it. Saying, “Don’t die on me,” that is a cliché. There’s no version of “don’t die on me” that will not be a cliché. And it will ring the bells.
And the first time a character said that it was great. But then the fourth time a character said that it’s like, ugh, that’s not fresh. We know it’s not fresh. And that not fresh feeling is really what makes something a cliché.
Craig: That not so fresh feeling.
John: An example of good genre conventions, we have vampires, we have vampires drinking blood. There’s lots of things about vampires that are genre conventions that are good, sort of come for free. But the vampire flourishing his cape in front of his face that’s just a cliché. You feel like you’re in Count Chocula territory when you do that.
John: So you’ve got to be mindful of that.
Craig: Yes. So, a vampire speaking with a vaguely Romanian accent is sort of cliché. It’s not a convention, because vampires can be anywhere. And that’s sort of the deal. Conventions in and of themselves aren’t bad. You can absolutely do something and be unconventional in the way you do it. But you will find just as often that there are vampire conventions that are turned around because they are executed in a way that is not cliché.
So, I think we talked about Near Talk at some point.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: Kathryn Bigelow’s first film.
John: So good.
Craig: So good. A ton of vampire conventions in there. Sun burns you and you’ve got to drink blood. And there’s a lead vampire. But the execution, the setting, the tone, all that stuff, clearly she avoided cliché every step of the way and it’s one of the reasons that the film feels so exciting even though it’s full of vampire conventions.
John: So here’s a convention I want to throw your way. You’re in a western and there is a hooker a heart of gold. Is that a cliché or a convention?
Craig: I think it’s a cliché because the convention I always think of is connected to plot, setting, the inciting incident, the goal, that sort of thing. So a convention would be a bunch of unlikely allies in a western have to make it from one town to another while being pursued by bad buys. Well, if you are doing Stagecoach, well there’s the hooker with the heart of gold. That’s fine. It was 1930-whatever. But these days you wouldn’t do that. Because it is cliché.
You would want the individual characters to feel fresh even inside of the convention of it all. So in The Hateful Eight there’s a lot of western convention in there. But then these characters are just, whoa. Not clichéd characters.
John: So I would steer listeners to TV Tropes which is a great site which sort of goes through in any genre what are the clichés and conventions. And so you have to be careful to read through this to not assume that anything you see there is by default a thing you need to avoid. A lot of those things are just part of the genre. So you have to sort of understand what everyone sort of accepts as an audience and what things are hackneyed or stale.
And so you have to be a student of what’s happened in that genre before in order to avoid those clichés.
Craig: Yeah. So if you’re doing a romantic comedy you will want to fulfill certain conventions of the genre, most likely. But you’re going to want to avoid the cliché ways of getting them across. A girl meets a man. Girl meets a boy. Boy meets a girl. Boy meets a boy. Man meets a man. Whatever it is, then you don’t want them bumping into each other in the middle of the street and one person dropping all their stuff and the other person saying, “Oh let me help you pick that up,” and then they look in each other’s eyes and go, “Ah!” because that’s cliché.
But you’re going to want them to meet.
John: Yeah. They do have to meet at some point.
Craig: That’s the challenge. Do the convention. But be original.
John: And Tess Morris has been on the show to talk about rom-coms. And like, yes, again it’s always about understanding the conventions while avoiding the clichés.
We’ll put a link in the show notes to a video essay talking through the makeover sequence, the makeover montage. And that transformation of essentially the female character in one of these stories and how troubling it is and how we really need to look at that sequence and think about what it is we’re trying to say through those sequences.
Craig: We’re trying to say that if you’re pretty you’re valuable, and if you’re not you’re not.
John: There’s that.
Craig: That’s pretty much what those movies are telling everybody as far as I can tell. That until you are physically attractive by some normative definition you’re worthless and a loser. And I say that as somebody who has never been attractive in any normal sort of way. I’ve always been like but my face is weird. What about me?
John: Aw. Craig.
Craig: Oh, Craig.
Craig: Thank you, John.
- WGA Parental Leave begins May 2!
- Learn more about foreign levies
- 99 Percent Invisible Podcast Episode: The Megaplex
- We’ve Outgrown the Ugly Duckling Transformation by Mina Le on Youtube
- TV Tropes – Vampires
- Listener Guide Submissions send in your favorite episodes from 300-500!
- Check out the Screenwriting Life Podcast and this episode with John!
- Upstep – the review is positive!
- Get a Scriptnotes T-shirt!
- Gift a Scriptnotes Subscription or treat yourself to a premium subscription!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by Peter Hoopes (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.