The original post for this episode can now be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 494 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Movies are written in black and white but filmed in color, except for Mank which is about the writing of a screenplay for a black and white movie, so the general point still stands that screenwriters must think about color. And today on the show that is exactly what we’ll do.
We will also have a new round of the Three Page Challenge with a special focus on how opening scenes are setting up the reader for the movie that follows. And, of course, we’ll answer some listener questions. Then in our bonus segment for premium members Craig and I will discuss our Olympic ambitions.
Craig: Oh, we have those?
John: Or maybe you had those at one point.
Craig: Oh yes.
John: Like our sort of fantasy. If you could be good at one Olympic sport in winter and summer games which sport would it be and why?
Craig: Oh, OK. That’s fun.
John: We might also talk about sort of whether we should have the Olympics and sort of the international implications thereof.
Craig: I think that’s also a pretty good – that will get us in trouble. And I want trouble.
John: No troubles at all there. But Craig I don’t know if you heard. The WGA is on strike.
John: As we record this the WGA is on strike against the ABC quiz show called The Chase.
Craig: Oh god. No. No!
John: Not your episode of The Chase. So The Chase is this quiz show that opponents in it are big Jeopardy! winners. Like Ken Jennings and folks. And so it is a show that is going into its second season of filming in theory and the WGA has not been able to reach a contract with this show. And we talk about on our podcast how the WGA covers things made for big screens and for small screens, including game shows. The WGA covers shows like Jeopardy! and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and The Weakest Link. This is a show that should be covered by that same kind of deal.
So, the writers on that show are currently on strike.
Craig: Hmm. See, I’m looking at the information here. It seems like ITV America, which is the company that produces The Chase, does have an agreement with the Writers Guild of America East, which is kind of the necessary substrate for a strike. You can’t have a strike if you don’t actually have a relationship I think with the company, or if you voted for a contract, or whatever. Anyway, the point being they have a deal with the WGA-E, and they’re apparently just not abiding by it.
John: Well, it sounds like there are things that are in that deal that are not up to the level of what a deal needs to be. And so those writers need pension and health benefits. They need residuals. They need the basic protections and they don’t have those yet. So that’s sort of what is at issue right now.
This is being handled by the East because East handles more sort of this kind of show, even though the show actually films out here. So, we hope this is resolved by the time you are listening to this podcast, but just to know that there was a WGA strike that very few people are participating in.
Craig: Yeah. And a lot of people may not understand that game shows require writers, particularly these kinds of trivia shows.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: The questions are writing. And people have to do the research and write them and put them in a script and stick them on a teleprompter.
John: I remember a campaign at some point called Somebody Wrote That.
Craig: The worst campaign the guild ever did.
John: Billboard, “Somebody Wrote That.”
Craig: I’m so glad you brought that up. It was my least favorite – the best thing about that, like we’re driving around LA and there’s this huge billboard and it has a quote from a movie and then a picture of a screenwriter and then it says, “Somebody Wrote That.” And I guess the point was like, see, actors don’t come up with these lines on their own, but my point was like who is that? Can you put their name on the billboard you idiots?
So, that was the worst campaign we ever did.
John: Yeah. But anyway so we will see what happens with this WGA strike action.
Craig: Well good luck to them.
John: In happier, more local news, so listeners likely know that my company makes Highland which is the screenwriting app for the Mac, which I use to write everything that I write. It is a free download on the Mac App Store and will remain a free download on the Mac App Store. It’s $49 to upgrade to the full version.
But for the past 18 months we’ve also done a student version which is the full pro version but just for people who are in university writing and film programs. And so we partnered up with individual schools to do that to make sure it all works right for them. And now we’re opening it up to everybody. So, if you are a student in a college level writing or film program and would like to get the full version of Highland free for a year there’s a whole new way to do that.
So you apply, you send in a photo of your student ID, and we send you the code to unlock it free for a year. So, if you’re a listener who would like this and you are in a university writing program or film program you go to highland2.app and click on For Students and we will get you set up.
Craig: Oh, that’s lovely of you. Well done.
John: Yeah, we do try.
Finally, we’ve been talking a lot about scheduling of movies. And this week a whole bunch of movies came sort of smashing around like little broken up iceberg pieces in the summer season. So Black Widow and Cruella are both in theaters and on streaming. It feels like everyone is just trying to figure out how big the summer box office is going to be and when things get back to normal.
Craig: Yeah, this one is another whack at the piñata of the theatrical movie business. Specifically because Cruella and Black Widow, they’re big movies, right? So they’re on par with what Warner Bros recently did. And they’re also doing this premier access thing. So you pay for Disney+ and then if you want to see Cruella or Black Widow when they come out that’s another $30.
Craig: And is that $30 for the year and then you kind of get everything in that premier access? Or is $30–?
John: No, it’s just for that title.
Craig: Holy cajole.
John: I say that with such confidence. I cannot promise you with that confidence. But I really do believe that it’s for that title.
Craig: That’s my move. OK, well, I’m interested to know. But either way that is pretty huge. Because on the one hand you think, well, geez, $30 to see one thing streaming when you’re already paying for Disney+ is a lot, but I think a lot of parents remember that not too long ago, like two years ago, if you wanted to take your two kids and one of their friends to a movie it was going to be way more than $30 because of all the food and everything. So, it’s still kind of a deal.
This is one more shot at the sustainability of the theatrical business. I have no idea where this is going to go. This is nuts.
John: It is nuts. So two things. First off, one of the things we need to remember about parents with young kids is you are just desperate to get out of the house. So, going out of the house to see a movie with your kids is a totally viable way to burn some hours on a weekend, as opposed to watching at home. Makes sense.
But I also say like I’m not vaccinated yet but I feel like when I am vaccinated this summer I am excited to see Black Widow and Cruella on the big screen. So I’m increasingly saying what about my own possible movie-going experience in the future here.
Craig: Yeah. One of the things that is in play here is the secret, not so secret, but the silent economic killer of the theatrical business which has always been marketing costs.
Craig: And you and I both know that the marketing costs as they went up were also starting to, I’m going to use the word corrupt, I don’t care, corrupt the creative process of making films, because where it used to be that creative people would say here are the movies that we as a studio want to make, and then marketing people said, “OK, well, let’s figure out how to sell that.” Once you were spending more on marketing than on the movie naturally that flipped.
So the marketing people were telling the creative people what kinds of movies they should pay for. Now, with streaming you don’t have anywhere near the costs involved, because you’re not asking people to leave their house and go anywhere. In fact, every single show on Disney+ will serve as an advertisement for Black Widow or for Cruella.
Furthermore, social media has kind of taking over the job of advertising for you. People just talk about it with each other. So, if a movie like Cruella, I don’t know what Cruella cost, but it looks pretty expensive. A movie like Cruella before in the old days they probably would have spent $150 million marketing that thing.
Craig: Well, if they only spend $30 million marketing that is a massive difference in how the profitability line is on that kind of movie. It’s enormous. I cannot overstate how big of a deal that would be if the big marketing buy of theatrical movies went away. That more than anything will change everything. And I have to argue probably for the better. Probably for the better.
John: Yeah. I mean, the big marketing spends really anchor a movie in people’s heads. And so you don’t get sort of the giant change everything franchises unless you sort of have that marketing push behind them I would argue. But, yes, when Netflix makes a movie that costs $100 million it really kind of just costs $100 million because they’re not spending a fortune on marketing that movie because it’s just they’re pushing it through their own channels. They’re putting up some billboards in the city where the actor lives but that’s it. And they’re not sort of doing the big nationwide campaign for it otherwise. So it’s going to be interesting to see how this all shakes out.
I’m making a movie for Netflix now and it feels like the right thing to be making for that platform and that service, but it’s going to be weird not to see commercials for it and sort of a push for it.
Craig: I get that. I just think that if television has taught movies anything about the way streaming works it’s there is value in being unique and good. And that that is more important than kind of putting an advertisement for your movie on every carton of milk in the world because people will find it and talk about it with each other and watch it. And you do save a ton of money. And hopefully this leads to movies returning to a more adventurous mindset and not just a kind of franchise-obsessed, navel-gazing, big, big event movie for PG-13 audiences only.
John: Yeah. We’ll see what happens.
John: All right. Some follow up. Last week we talked about foreign levies and our own Stuart Friedel wrote in to say that foreign levies can be paid to your S-Corp but the WGA just needs a W-9 on file. So, if you are a loan-out corporation you can just register that with the WGA and they will pay it to your S-Corp rather than paying it to you as an individual person.
Craig: I did not know that.
John: Yeah, so things we learn ourselves. We have another foreign levies follow up here. Do you want to take that?
Craig: Sure. Bea asks, “Yesterday I got a WGA foreign levy for a project that was never made. It was a feature writer’s room, single day, major studio. Definitely hasn’t been made yet, if ever, but somehow the WGA is sending checks in its name. How’d that happen?”
John: So we won’t say what the name of this movie is, but Craig and I can both see it on the outline. I have absolutely no idea why you are getting this check for this movie that has not been made yet. Cash that check because the only reason the WGA got that check is because the studio wrote that check. And so it’s the studio’s fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not the WGA’s fault. Cash that check. I have no idea why you would be getting this check.
Craig: Yeah. I wonder if sometimes out of ease what happens is the countries will say like to Warner Bros, “Here’s a bunch of money that we have for your projects that are kind of…” Because remember they’re not collecting money off of the movies and shows that air. They’re collecting money off of the sale of blank tapes, disk drives, thumb drive, etc.
John: That’s true.
Craig: So it may be that the studio kind of aggregates all of its expenses and says here’s how we will distribute that money, or here is how it should be distributed. They send a big list of information to the country. The country goes, got it, got it, got it, got it, got it, let’s send out that money to the WGA for these things. That’s my guess.
John: That’s probably the best guess we can make for this. Basically they had a list of what writers did you employ during this year.
John: And Bea’s name was on that list and that’s what happened.
John: Well, cash that check. Whenever I got sort of like small checks for not a lot of money I always treated it as like Panda Express money. Ooh, I can get some eggrolls at Panda Express. That was a treat for me when I got those small checks.
Craig: Orange Chicken, man.
John: Oh, I love the Orange Chicken.
Craig: Everyone loves Orange Chicken. They figured something out. I remember when in the mall I noticed for the first time Panda Express had smartened up and did the double tray of the Orange Chicken. Because remember it used to be the same size tray as everything.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: And then they were like, OK, fine, we give in, you people. You love sugar and fat. Here we go. Fine.
John: So good.
Craig: Yup. It’s delicious.
John: Some follow up on Episode 491, the deal with deals. Danielle asks, “Following up on your conversation about writer deals, can you cover if-come deals? Specifically how they may or may not be hurting newer writers.”
Craig, have you ever had an if-come deal?
Craig: I was offered one many, many, many, many years ago and I said no. But I understood the general wisdom of it. I understood that.
John: So if-come deals are really common in TV. And so what will happen in TV is you are a writer with an idea for a series. And so you go and pitch to a studio or to a production company and they say this is fantastic, we really love that idea. We are going to make a deal with you that’s pending us getting a successful setup at a network. And so basically I’ve pitched to Sony and Sony says, yes, we love it, we’ll make you a deal. If it’s if-come on getting a network, so an ABC, or CBS, or somebody else to do it.
Super, super common in TV. And you can sort of get why they do it because that studio is going to be paying you but they’re only going to be paying you if they actually have a home for that project. And so it’s just sort of a given way of doing business in TV.
In features it’s weird and I don’t hear about it in features I think mostly because if you wrote a spec script and somebody wanted to buy it but not really buy it, or sort of have the option to buy it that’s just called an option purchase agreement where they’re paying you some money now and a promise for a lot more money down the road. That’s standard in features. What I’m guessing may be happening here in features would be let’s say, what did we decide it was, it was not the Slinky Movie, not the Uno Movie, what are we–?
Craig: Oh, what are we up to now? Oh, Mister Clean?
John: Mister Clean. So let’s say the Mister Clean Movie. So the Procter & Gamble or whoever owns Mister Clean says, OK, we love your take on the Mister Clean Movie and we want to be the producer of record on this, so we are going to make a deal for you, but it’s going to be if-come based on whether we can actually get a studio partner to actually release the thing.
I would not be excited about that deal.
John: Because they are basically locking you up for a lot of time and they’re not paying you everything. There’s just no guaranteed money.
Craig: Well, even worse, what they’re doing is they’re purchasing insurance against an auction. And this is why I said no. And also I should say if-come was more common during the network dominance era, because now many streaming channels are their own studio, of course. But what they’re saying is like, OK, that’s a really cool idea. We can go and sell that to any one of 12 different places. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to lock you into what we’re going to pay you now and we’re only going to pay it to you once it lands at a place. That means is if there’s a huge competitive situation where everybody wants it the studio will benefit because the rights are going to go through the roof, the licensing fees will be massive. You won’t.
So, much better for you to be like, Nah. If I’m willing to bet on myself here I’d rather just see if a couple places want it and then they can fight over me and then I will also benefit from the competitive situation.
Craig: So, you know, one of those.
John: It’s also important to understand that even if you have an if-come deal if they can’t find the buyer at the level that they were expecting, or the kind of situation they were expecting, they might come back to you and say like, OK, we couldn’t actually get that deal so we need to figure out a new deal that’s actually makeable for the thing we’re trying to do.
And so I’ve encountered that in my career where I got like a pretty sweet ass deal, on paper, but then we went out to the market. The one place that wanted it wasn’t going to pay the amount that would actually pay out the other places. So they were going to renegotiate your deal anyway. That also happens.
Having that quote, a good quote, could be helpful for future deals. So there’s some valid, some reason why you might want to do it. But I would say if you’re a newer writer being offered an if-come deal especially for a feature or for a TV project that feels like it already is kind of set up at one place, that just doesn’t make sense to me.
Like an if-come waiting for an actor to be attached, that makes me really nervous.
Craig: Yeah. You’ll also get if-comes a lot when you’re dealing with a producer that has an exclusivity issue. So you go to a particular company and they’re like well we have a deal with Netflix and we are exclusive to them. So we’re going to make you an if-come deal because there’s nowhere else to go. That’s it. We’re going to go there or we’re going nowhere. At that point maybe makes a little bit more sense.
John: Yeah. But it also may make more sense to actually just pitch to the one place that you can go and try to make a deal.
Craig: Well, correct. And so then you’re gambling, right? And the interesting things about those arrangements is they can be a little incestuous. So these people have a relationship already with the streamer and they can make a kind of deal where you get screwed and so do you want to lock something in earlier? It’s complicated. Your agent or lawyer will have the best advice. But Danielle that’s basically the long and short of it.
John: Yeah. Craig, what is your favorite color?
John: My favorite color is blue. How long has red been your favorite color?
Craig: Since the first time someone asked me what’s your favorite color. I don’t know why. I don’t know why it’s always been red. There’s never been a question. And it’s not like, oh, I’ve got to wear red or I’ve got to paint my house red. I don’t do that. That’s stupid. I just like it.
John: Yeah. I’m that way with blue. It was always the first answer and I just like blue. And when I say blue I have a very specific blue. It’s like a Crayola Blue. The basic blue crayon.
Craig: Standard blue.
John: Is the kind of blue that defines my favorite color. But of course like all things as you grow up you develop maturity and you horizons expand and you come to appreciate many other colors that are wonderful out there. And so you get past the sort of like very rainbow colors of your youth.
But I want to talk about color because I’m reading this book, The Secret Lives of Color, by Kassia St Clair. It’s a couple years old but I’m just now reading it. Which goes through the history of how humans sort of came to be able to make the colors that we see and use. Like how dyes and pigments and sort of all these things actually came to be. Because dyes were incredibly expensive, and so it was so hard to find the things that actually got you to that color. And worth more than gold, ounce for ounce, over the annals of history. And it’s only through modern science that we sort of have the ability to reproduce all the colors that are out there.
And I’m reading this book but I’m also thinking about the script I’m writing and I feel like partly because I’m reading this book I’m just very aware of the colors of the scenes that I’m writing and sort of what is what color in what space. And even though I’m not writing those colors necessarily into scenes they’re definitely informing my choices. So I thought we might talk first about sort of how color works on screen and some of the iconic moments that we sort of think about where you couldn’t pull color out them.
Craig: That’s interesting. All right.
John: So I think of movies with amazing color palettes. Amelie. The greens of Amelie. The pink in Grand Budapest Hotel. 2001 is mostly white. And then there’s some sequences that are all red. So in the movie Knives Out Chris Evans is wearing a sweater. Craig, what color is that sweater?
Craig: It was an off-white.
John: Yeah. It was on off-white.
Craig: It was a bone.
John: American Beauty has the red flowers and she’s in the red flowers. Midsommar has a really limited color palette and it’s just the explosive colors of the flower headdresses. So color is such a part of our movies and yet we don’t think about it that much on the page. So, let’s spend some moments thinking about it on the page.
Craig: Well it’s hard to do because it is purely visual. Sound I think occupies maybe – well, it depends on your mind. I think everybody’s brain functions differently. For me I find the ability to hear sound from a page much easier than to visualize color so much of what’s on page is dialogue. We’ve been trained since childhood to read books where people are talking to each other and so we are trained to hear words. And therefore we can hear sound effects. And sound effects are also very onomatopoeia-able.
So, well, I made a word. I can describe with words what a smash is. Describing colors turns basically into a simile fist. So it’s tricky to do. And it’s something that I think one of the first things that happens when a director reads a script is that can start to fill in more. The director who is going to be doing the first few episodes of The Last of Us, made this movie, Kantemir Balagov made this movie called Beanpole and color is an intense part of it and so much of our conversation already has been about color and specific color choices and what it means and why they pop up.
You’re actually putting your finger on something that I think is lacking probably in my toolbox. And I don’t think of enough. And maybe I should think of more.
John: Yeah. Something I’m trying to be more aware of as I’m writing, but you’re also right that a lot of times our color conversation becomes part of the conversation, becomes our discussion with the director and ultimately a production designer and an art director about how things are going to look beyond what’s just happening on the page.
And so when a filmmaker is thinking about how to shoot something there’s a discussion of color palette. And color palette not just like here’s all the colors, it’s like, no, no, we are being deliberate about what colors we’re using and what colors we’re not using. And really it’s that omission of colors that becomes even the stronger statement. So, in my movie The Nines it has three different segments. The first segment is really leaning towards reds and yellows. And so that informs the color of the light, but also just the wardrobe. We really go into yellows and reds. You will not see any blue or green anywhere in that section.
When we get to section three it’s all blues and greens. And we’re outdoors in the forest and it’s wet. And the light is whiter and bluer and colder. And you will not see any reds and yellows. That is a very common set of choices that filmmakers are going to make about how they’re going to shoot a thing just to make something feel deliberate and not random.
Craig: Correct. And I think you’re right that a lot of times it’s the subtractive aspect of it that strikes us. It’s a subconscious thing. We don’t really know that we’re not seeing something. Just like we don’t know we’re not hearing something. But it does create a subconscious, psychological impact which is something of course everybody wants. As opposed to just, oh wow, that’s a red movie.
So, removing things is a really interesting choice. The other aspect of color that I do think about when I’m writing, it’s not specifically a color choice, but overall is a question of saturation
Craig: So saturation is just how – I guess it’s how vivid the colors are. So when you think about, like for instance you did Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Very vivid, right. Candy colors, which is no surprise.
John: Once we’re inside the factory. But outside the factory it’s very desaturated.
Craig: Exactly. So you make these choices and generally speaking we think of very saturated color as heightened reality and desaturated, particularly very desaturated as verité. So, the opening sequence in almost all of Saving Private Ryan is really desaturated to the point where you’re like, wait, is this black and white? It’s that desaturated. And it makes us feel like we are in something that’s super grounded. And there’s no right or wrong, obviously. It’s a question of tone.
So, with the stuff that I’m writing now I tend to want to write towards desaturation.
John: Yeah. There’s a scene I was working on this past week where I wanted that desaturated feel and I was thinking about well how am I going to get that. What is the natural way to do that? And I decided it’s two sides of a FaceTime call. And so I decided on the side I wanted desaturated. Oh, it’s going to be raining on that side and it’s going to be a guy outdoors standing under extra covering, but it’s raining. And that is sort of naturally god’s desaturation. It’s like you’re pulling the color out of things.
Craig: God’s desaturation.
John: And let’s talk about how color is created, because you can’t talk about color without talking about light. So, what color is the light? Basically what time of year is it? What time of day is it? Sort of where are you at geographically and sort of emotionally at that time?
I just watched Another Round, which I really loved, and it’s set in Denmark. And most of it takes place in sort of summery months, and so it never really fully gets dark. And so the colors are really strange. And it’s sort of always at most like a twilight. And that really affects sort of how you feel about the things you’re seeing and the choice to set those scenes at those times of day versus bright sunlight really does impact how those scenes play out.
Craig: Yeah. The impact of light on things, it’s a little scary for me to write it because when you start to get into how the light changes, the color of something as something moves through it, you do risk that kind of purple dialogue that we want to shy away from.
Craig: A lot of new writers are talking about the golden hue as it turns–
John: The crimson sky.
Craig: And yada-yada-yada. And, of course, when cinematographers read that stuff they kind of roll their eyes and they’re like, OK kid, but this is not actually how light works. But there is a feeling, and I always feel that the goal is rather than to be technical – I like to just be honest, you know, the way the light hits you it makes you sad. Just say that. I think cinematographers vastly prefer that because they know how to achieve that. Just like actors are just like tell me I’m supposed to be sad. I know I can do that. So, I do think about light that way.
And then there are gags, which is our all-purpose moviemaking, television-making term for special things. So there’s a gag where a particular beam of light is coming down through a shaft and it’s combining with something else. Well that you can always call out and describe because that’s really specific.
John: Yeah. Well one thing you may choose to call out and describe is the colors that we’re seeing on screen, especially if they’re impacting characters. So characters are making choices about what clothes they put on, how they do their makeup, and that will have an impact. And so I’m definitely not arguing that you’re going to label the colors for every single thing a character is doing or wearing, but it’s important to highlight some things.
Like in the thing I’m working on right now it’s basically a two-hander and one of the characters has sort of a uniform that he wears every day. He just doesn’t want to think about the clothes he’s wearing. And so I’m able to describe what that is that he’s wearing. And the other character I describe as being unafraid of color and pattern. And that just tells you, like, it was a signal to the costume designer you can push this guy a little bit. This guy lives in a heightened space. And so I’m not really calling out color so much as sort of like the range of choices that should be open as we’re visualizing this character.
Craig: It’s such a good point. And it’s why I wish that movies would function more like television shows in the sense of how a writer interacts with key department heads, like costume. Because, you know, I’m writing a scene, or I wrote it, in an episode and there’s a crowd of people. Who they are is not important. I just want people to notice one particular woman because something is going to connect through to later. She’s not going to have a name. She doesn’t have dialogue or anything like that.
So, what I’ve done is given her a particular piece of clothing with a particular color. As I’m doing it I’m well aware that this feels very Schindler’s List. There’s the little girl in red where everyone else is in black and white. And so I don’t want to be that. But what I want to be able to say to the costume designer is this is what this means. This is what I’m just trying to achieve. Now tell me how you would go about doing it. Let’s take a look at some choices. I can always go back and revise that. But this was the intention. It is a relationship that should exist in movies and weirdly in features, for whatever reason, everyone feels the need to aggressively sequester the screenwriter from everyone else. And it just, I don’t know why other than directorial insecurity. I don’t know. It’s just bizarre.
John: I’m thinking back to go, my first movie, and Sarah Polley’s character, Ronna, where’s this iconic sort of red leather coat. And that’s not scripted in there, but the idea that she would have a sort of signature look, that makes total sense. What is scripted in as a color is that Adam and Zack are driving a yellow Miata. And a yellow Miata is actually just a very specific joke. And I knew it would also photograph well at night and so you could see it in these dark scenes. But them driving a yellow Miata actually does pay off. It’s a recognizable car. It also tells you something about them as characters.
John: And so that becomes important. Again, we’re always arguing for specificity, but as a writer you have to be very deliberate about what things you’re putting in and what things you’re putting out. So we’re not saying to make everything a color but to be thinking about color and thinking about whether color could be helping you tell the story, especially what’s happening in the scene.
Craig: 100%. And if you find yourself in a specific moment wondering what you can do to get the awesomeness of your mind’s image across think about color. Because there may be a point in your script where you may want to hammer it and help people see. I think about that moment in The Last Jedi where the one spaceship goes light-speeding through another one and splitting it apart. And it’s so white. But it’s also starlight white. And I don’t know if Rian made that clear on the page, because he’s also directing and he doesn’t have to necessarily communicate it on the page the way we might have to with a different director.
But it was a moment where you go, ah, sound stops, this incredibly bright light shines, and I can see where a signature moment could really use a full attention to color on the page. So, it’s a good choice to make when you’re looking for something special as well.
John: And I haven’t gone back through Scott Frank’s scripts for Queen’s Gambit, but that is a series that uses color quite aggressively to establish time period. Because different time periods have different colors that are predominate. And so calling out mustard yellow appliances, that’s not just painting the walls, that’s actually anchoring you into, oh, this is what this kind of kitchen feels like because mustard yellow is a very specific time period.
And so just be aware of that. I think if you’re doing anything period it’s worth looking at sort of what the colors were that were dominant at that time because it may be worth calling those out.
Craig: Time and place.
Craig: Because there are places that have colors. The colors of 1980’s Soviet Union, well they’re colors. I mean, you know what they are. We certainly did our research and there’s certain ones that keep popping up and they’re glorious. I mean, they’re not colors we used. I guess on one level you’d go that’s objectively an ugly color, but on another level you go it’s weirdly kind of beautiful and hypnotizing. So think about that in terms of place as well because no question that color is reflected by culture in huge ways. There’s just certain cultures just have a different point of view on color than others.
John: So my advice for screenwriters going forward here, listening to this conversation, as you’re watching movies and TV shows be aware of color and be aware of when you think those choices of color were deliberate and sort of how early in the process those choices of color might have been made. Because I suspect you can retroactively write the scenes and decide, oh, they really called out that color quite early on.
John: And then as you’re going through the outside world just try to be more aware of the colors that you’re seeing. Because imagine yourself in a scene in a space. What would be the predominant color? And so if you’re hiking in the Grand Canyon you’re just going to be overwhelmed by that red color. And so that is going to influence any scene that is being shot there. If you’re in certain forests it’s just going to be overwhelmingly green unless you’re doing something to desaturate it. It’s going to be just super, super green.
So just be thinking about what the impact of color will be if you were to watch this on a screen.
Craig: Great advice.
John: Cool. All right, let’s get to our Three Page Challenge. So, this time we’re doing things a little bit differently. So let’s establish first what’s normal about the Three Page Challenge is we invite our listeners to send in the first three pages of their movie or their script and we read through them and offer our honest feedback. We’ve been doing this since very early on in the show.
But based on our conversation last week we said like you know what’s interesting about the Three Page Challenge is we’re just reading these pages in a vacuum and we don’t have any sense of what’s happening in the rest of the story, so we don’t know whether these opening scenes are actually setting up the movie that we think they are.
So what we asked our listeners to do is to send in their three pages but also give us a log line or a description of what happens in the rest of the script so we can see whether we were right and whether we set these up right. So let’s welcome on our producer, Megana Rao, to get us set up for this.
Megana Rao: Hey guys.
John: Hey. So we sent out an email to our premium subscribers on Sunday afternoon saying like, hey, we’re going to try this thing. Send in your script and send in your log line, too. And how many responses did we get?
Megana: And we got 190 responses. I read all of those.
Craig: Oh wow. Oh man.
Megana: By Tuesday night my brain was absolute mush. So I had to ask Bo to help me narrow it down from like the top 10 to 15.
Craig: Thank you, Bo. Thanks for helping, Bo. But so you read nearly 600 pages.
Megana: Yes. But if I found two typos like pretty early on I was like I’m not going to keep reading this.
Craig: Ooh. I like it.
John: That was a new thing I asked Megana to put in as a check because I get frustrated when we do a Three Page Challenge and you and I spend time talking about stupid typos on the page. And so going forward if Megana sees typos they go away. We’re not going to consider them anymore. Because you just don’t send in your stuff with typos. Have someone else read this first.
Craig: Yeah. If you want us to care about, at the very least you have to care about it.
John: Yeah. And also so this episode will have an element of surprise and mystery because Megana has seen the writers’ log lines for these things, the synopses, but you and I haven’t. So we’re going to speculate what we think the script is about and then she will tell us what the writer thinks the script is about.
John: All right. Let’s get us started. Megana, can you talk us through Rinky Dink by Stephen Brower. And we’ll have a PDF in the show notes, but if you could give us a quick synopsis.
Megana: So Elias, 28, films a promo video for his aunt, Janet Witherbaum, a bronze-level figure skater in her 40s, at a skating rink in Minnesota. Janet is raising money for her trip to the National Championships of Adult Amateur Figure Skating. Elias tries to teach Janet a TikTok dance which she doesn’t get. Through talking head interviews we learn that Elias’s parents have died and that Janet taught him to skate but doesn’t allow him to skate at her gala events.
John: Craig Mazin, what was your first read and instinct on Rinky Dink?
Craig: Well, I was enjoying. The Minnesota kookiness, like wacky Minnesotans is a well-mined area, you know, from Fargo, and the Fargo show. But I’m a sucker for a good ice skating comedy and it definitely feels like a comedy. And I liked the way it started. Janet was an interesting character. I liked the say she was described and I liked the way she performed. I could see it. I could see the whole thing.
I ran into trouble on page two. So, I was cruising along. But on page two what happens is we go from this POV of an iPhone that is recording her and then there’s a wide shot of her nephew, Elias, shooting her through the iPhone. OK, cool, I get it. We went from an iPhone POV to that. And then it just says, “Elias Talking Head.” And he starts talking and I’m like where is he? I didn’t understand until quite a bit later that what’s happening is Stephen is putting Elias in one of those like Office-style testimonials somewhere else, but that needs to be spelled out really clearly. Because I was baffled for a bit about where the hell he was.
My other issue was I couldn’t quite get a read on Elias’s age. I mean, we are told that he’s 28. And we’re told that he’s kind of sweet and very easily steamrolled, which I liked. But he was interacting with her the way teenagers interact with old people. You know? Like “Come on let me show you the latest TikTok dance or let me say randos.” He didn’t seem like somebody on the edge of 30. So I was a little confused by the character there.
But I like the setup of things. It seemed like there was an interesting concept. Elias was still fun. And I thought there was a really good line when he says, “This year I worked up the courage to ask Janet if she would mind,” you know, to perform. “And she said, ‘yes,’ she would mind.” Which I liked.
This is cold open for presumably a series. It does not end with much of a punchline. I think we talked about last week how important punchlines are, whether they’re dramatic or comic. And this one just sort of ends. So that was an issue.
John: Craig, I literally wrote “not quite enough punchline.”
Craig: There you go.
John: So, this feels like Modern Family. This feels like Modern Family, sort of Best in Show kind of space in that – whether or not there’s a documentary conceit like the way there is in The Office, or it’s just like for whatever reason they can talk directly to camera in these confessionals, it has that feel. And I mean that in a really good way. Like if I were to read this whole script and the whole script was to this level I’d be like, oh, this is a person who can write a Modern Family kind of show and shows real finesse with it and the ability to tell a joke and sort of get things going.
I have the same concerns you do about Elias though because I had forgotten that he was 28 so I just kept aging him down and down as I flipped through the pages.
John: Weirdly I know a lot about his parents dying and stuff like that. I know a lot of backstory, but I don’t get the great sense of who he is individually and specifically. And I’m asking a lot for the first three pages, and so I don’t want to sort of push it too far, but I don’t have a great sense of who he was at the end of these three pages in the way that in a Modern Family or in The Office I felt like I would have in the first three minutes. And so that’s a thing which I think can be worked on.
But let’s talk about some of the things that work really well here.
John: Page one, “Right now and always she means business.” Great. That scene description on the page it’s working really nicely for me here. Elias says, “Sorry, are you sure though? That’s what it’s called.” “No, I know.” “National Championships for Adult Amateur Skaters.” The just repeating it again to get the extra underline on the joke works really well and has a good sense of it.
On page two, here’s an opportunity to just trim a line but also I think works better as a parenthetical. So, Elias has his talking head. And so the “’whole social media thing, so’… He crosses his fingers. “’Her idea.’” I wouldn’t have broken out to the action line for that. I would have just kept in parentheticals crossing his fingers. It saves you a line and also keeps that thought together because it really should be one thought.
Craig: Right. I totally agree with that. I thought that one thing Stephen did pull through these three pages in terms of Elias is that he has got one of those indomitably happy spirits. So even when someone is kind of being insulting to him, or mean, he just keeps on smiling. You know, he’s like okie-dokie. So, he has a little bit of that weeble-wobble, you can tip him over but you can’t knock him down. And so I liked that. I liked him.
And so that’s why I kind of have a suspicion about where this is going, but you know, look, I’m not in possession of a log line.
John: What you’re saying about indomitably happy, like if he’d called that out on page one or page two, sort of like shortly after meeting him, that’s a fair thing to note because that colors what we’re seeing of the rest of his lines.
Craig: Right. It could contextualize that stuff for people a little bit better. I agree. But I thought that what was working here was that Janet feels like an interesting potential villain and Elias feels like an interesting potential hero. I like that the hero doesn’t quite get that the villain is the villain. And I think mostly other than the kind of simple clerical business like letting me know that we’re dealing with kind of Office testimonial, including where are they when they do it, you just need to kind of give us a good ending there. Because it just sort of petered out.
John: So this is the part of this special episode where we speculate about what the rest of this pilot is. And so I’m guessing that while they are central characters to this that there’s actually a pretty – there’s a bigger ensemble at work here. Because it feels like that kind of show. And so we’re going to see more of that family. Meemaw may still be alive there. And I think since Elias is our point of view character it’s going to be sort of centered around him. And so he will be sort of the straight man in – the “straight man” – amid all these sort of crazy, kooky people around him.
And so this first episode will go up through her event to raise money for her going off to this championship. And that things will go awry in trying to do that.
Craig: Yeah. Certainly we’ll have lots more characters. I can’t shake the feeling that this is going to turn into Elias versus Janet. And Elias is going to get a chance to skate in the Adult Amateur Figure National Championships. And either Janet is going to become his coach, or Janet will – so Janet has to leave the dream behind and help her nephew achieve his dream. Or, that they actually aggressively compete against each other, which would be fascinating.
But it does seem like ultimately this is going to turn into Elias hopefully in some final showdown a la Strictly Ballroom or something.
John: Megana Rao, can you come back and tell us what does Stephen Brower say happens in the rest of this script.
Megana: All right, so this is the log line we got from Stephen for Rinky Dink. “A charmingly delusional 40-something figure skater must prove her work among apathetic has-beens, cutthroat mothers, and snotty little children.”
Craig: Oh, so Elias is just sort of along for the ride.
John: Yeah, so she’s the central character.
Craig: That’s interesting.
John: That can work, also.
John: I mean, we’ve definitely built shows around sort of a delusional central figure before.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, that makes total sense, right? So it’s maybe more of an ongoing thing. But, you know, this is the fun part. You kind of guess from these three pages. It’s no surprise that you might think that, OK, the thing that the three pages sort of highlights is what you would imagine everything to be about. But that’s interesting. I hope that Elias does get a chance to perform in that show. Because he’s sweet and he deserves it.
John: Nice. All right. Let’s look at Twilight Run by Andrew McDonald and Nick Sanford. Megana, start us off.
Megana: Twyla, 30s, wakes up in a 1980s Camaro next to a character titled Dipshit. Dipshit tells her she needs to take the edge off and offers Twyla a pack of cigarettes that she throws out the window. We cut to Twyla, Dipshit, some henchmen, and a French scientist in the pasture outside of the car. The French scientist claims that he has a world-changing technology and will only deal directly with Twist Jackson.
Twyla tells him he’s out of luck. Suddenly, a cowboy figure rides in on horseback. This is Twist Jackson. He exchanges briefcases with the French scientist who tries to warn Twist of the Twilight Run. Twist shrugs off the warning and later opens the box to reveal a swirling green gas.
Craig: You know. The usual.
John: The things that happen. This is a heightened world. And so one of the reasons why this made the finalist list is because we could talk about tone. We can sort of talk about what universe you’re setting up. And this is a clearly heightened universe. And I think the things that worked in this were about setting up what kind of heightened universe it is.
I don’t sort of really know what the rules of this universe are, but things are a little bit goofy in sort of a Buckaroo Banzai or a Rick and Morty kind of sense. And it’s good to see that by the end of page three. I got a sense that there’s some logic behind this even though I don’t quite understand what’s happening here.
My biggest issue was Twyla who is identified as our hero. I know nothing about her by the end of this. I really have no great insight into sort of who she is and why she’s special, or what her deal is. And instead Twist Jackson is the person who is sort of occupying things. So, by the end of these three pages I wanted a better sense of what makes Twyla interesting other than sort of being kind of grouchy and spacing out. I didn’t get a great sense of that.
John: What were you seeing Craig?
Craig: Definitely Buckaroo Banzai. I mean, this just seems like an ode or an homage to Buckaroo Banzai. We could be totally wrong but that’s surely what it feels like at least through these three pages.
Couple of things. Tonally, there is a little bit of a mismatch because the first page feels tonally rather grounded actually. It’s just a couple of people in a car. They’re talking to each other. I was a little bit confused about, again, where we were. When I see somebody in a car in my mind they are – she’s behind the wheel. And then she looks over at – is she looking over to the right, to the passenger seat? Or is she looking out the window to a car next to her?
John: And I would say that the first two-thirds, “a woman’s face through a rearview mirror,” like I just didn’t really quite know what was happening there. And so even the second reading through I didn’t quite know what I was seeing, or why I was seeing it.
Craig: Correct. And I think that this underscores a larger issue that I want to talk to Andrew and Nick about. But the one thing I do know for sure is that the French scientist’s dialogue, “This discovery will change the world. I could have sold it to nations the world over. I made a deal with Twist Jackson. I want to deal with Twist Jackson,” even if the tone is heightened that’s just annoying. You have to kind of establish that a character lives in a world of bad dialogue to have him successfully deliver the bad dialogue. But we just met him. It’s literally the second – the first thing he says is, “Where is he?” which is, I don’t know anything, and then the second thing he says is this incredibly arch, villainy plot exposition thing.
So, again, you can get away with it if you know that that’s the world that guy lives in, but until you do harder to get away with.
Here’s the bigger issue, the biggest issue, and it ties directly to into what John is saying about how we don’t know anything about Twyla. There is no sense of perspective in these three pages. None. The perspective is I think a camera.
John: I felt like I was in a wide shot for the whole time.
Craig: Yes. Exactly. Because nothing is centered on somebody observing. Everything just happens and we’re observing, which is kind of no good. Especially when we’ve established a hero. The reason that we’re so confused about what the hell is going on is because you guys have this visual reveal that you just sort of toss out there. Like they’re in a flat open pasture. Well that is not where we expect a 1981 Z28 Camaro to be, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. So make a reveal out of it. Acknowledge that we’re not quite sure where we are, whatever it is.
And then this conversation, give me a sense that Twyla is having reactions. When Twist Jackson does show up, essentially completely contradicting what Twyla said, what does she think? We know what the French scientist thinks, but what does she think? When he shows up and grabs this thing what is she doing? She’s gone. She literally is gone. But somebody’s perspective has to be the perspective.
And it’s one scene. And in one scene, or one connected scene basically once we reveal where we are, one character has the perspective. One. So who?
I don’t mean POV. I just mean who are we kind of anchoring to?
John: Yeah. Like who is our entry point character? We’re sort of standing in their shoes as the scene is happening. And we don’t have that here yet.
Craig: We don’t.
John: Let’s talk a little bit about the words on the page. “Asleep, her head resting on a plain white pillow.” Well, there’s a color, just white. White pillow. Dipshit has prelap. It’s not really a prelap because it’s not like he’s going into really future stuff.
Craig: I circled that also. I was like it’s not prelap.
John: Yeah, so that’s just off-screen, or voice over. You can do either one of them. Both of them are acceptable here. But that’s not really prelap.
But that whole first sequence I just didn’t get the point of it. I really had a hard time understanding what that was. So, if you need that, if this really becomes important for your story that you need that, great, but I feel like just that precious time and you need – we talk about sort of the first line of dialogue in a movie, the first image in a movie is so crucial, so precious. Just to be wasting it on something that we can’t understand or really see, it’s not good. So I think starting someplace else will help you.
Craig: Yeah. I also want lines to be motivated. We’re going to see this issue come up in our next three pages as well. So in the very beginning, “TWYLA, our hero. 30s, short hair, black bomber jacket. Don’t fuck with her, she won’t fuck with you. Lounging behind the wheel, she looks over at: SOME DIPSHIT…” This is what you’ve described. I’m looking at a woman. She is sitting there. And then she turns for no reason to a guy who then says something. Like he was waiting for her to look at him for him to say what he’s saying which makes no sense. Especially when he’s saying “you keep zoning out.” Why would he say that after she’s turning to look at him?
That’s not what zoning out means. If she’s zoned out and then she hears, “(OS) You keep zoning out,” and then she turns and looks. So you see what I’m saying? And again that helps drive perspective so we understand we’re with her. That’s kind of important.
John: Lastly, these three pages had more colons in it than I’ve sort of ever seen in a script. Basically Andrew and Nick have made a choice that colons are going to be there dashes. And it’s fine. I’m not complaining. It’s a way of doing things. And so in places where you or I might use dashes or some other piece of punctuation they’re using colons. It’s fine.
John: Go for it. There’s a whole range of styles of work and at least it’s consistent. There were no other real problems on these pages in terms of like formatting screenwriting stuff, so go for it. If that’s your style knock yourself out.
Craig: Exactly. So, you know, perspective guys. Big one.
John: All right. So Craig we’ve got to speculate. What happens in this script?
Craig: Oh boy. Well you’ve got this really weird thing going on in the very first shot that’s like some sort of dreamy thing. I think it’s Buckaroo Banzai and I think that Twist Jackson is maybe an idiot and I think maybe Twyla is going to have to save the world from Twist Jackson’s arrogance as he seeks to do something with the swirling green stuff that leads to the Twilight Run.
John: Yeah. I think the box with the swirling green gas is a MacGuffin and there are going to be a bunch of people after it. And what this deal was and sort of the bigger stakes of it all are going to be important. And that she will be forced to make a choice about which side she’s on. That’s my guess.
Craig: Now let’s find out how we did.
John: Megana, what’s the truth?
Megana: Wait, can I prolong the reveal and ask you guys a question?
Craig: Of course.
Megana: What do you think of the character description that’s “some dipshit who will get blown up by page nine?”
Craig: Great question. I personally have no problem with it. I think it’s a tone signifier.
Craig: So it’s the first indication that we might be dealing with a bit of a wacky heightened reality. I’m totally cool with that. That page unfortunately didn’t have anything that the movie viewer or TV viewer would detect that would indicate a heightened tone. It only had kind of a very mundane situation between two people. So it’s a little bit of a cheat. If the visuals matched that attitude I’d be totally cool.
John: Yeah. I agree. I mean, I should mention that I was never clear who the goons were working for. Sometimes it seemed like Twyla’s goons and sometimes it seemed like the French guy’s goons. So just be aware of that, too.
Craig: Yeah. I think there’s two sets of goons.
John: Too many goons.
Megana: So here is their log line. Five years after a deep undercover operation ended in failure a former ATF agent teams up with a smart but socially awkward tech specialist to infiltrate a deadly cult and stop an arms deal that if successful could alter the very fabric of reality itself.
Craig: That’s plot. We don’t quite get what the character stuff is there. It’s so funny, we only think about stuff with character. But again log lines are very plotty, aren’t they?
John: They are very plotty. Yeah, I guess I could buy her as a former ATF agent who then discovers this sort of heightened universe world. But I feel like Twist Jackson exists as a semi supernatural character, just sort of appears out of nowhere and rides a horse. So, yeah, it’s not quite what I would guess. But teaming up to stop a thing, sure, you’re setting that up right here on page three.
Craig: There’s no sense of tone in that log line which I think actually might be a mistake. I think it’s good to kind of indicate – the way that he’ll get blown up in nine pages. Indicate a little bit of a sense of that heightened-ness because otherwise people are going to read this and go like “What is this?”
Craig: Embrace the Buckaroo.
John: That could be Mission: Impossible.
Craig: Right. Exactly.
John: That could be a whole bunch of different set ups.
Craig: It could be a billion things. And it seems like what these guys are going for is Buckaroo Banzai. I mean, the dude is named Twist Jackson for god’s sakes.
John: Cool. All right, it’s time for our third and final Three Page Challenge.
Craig: By the way, we’re doing poorly. I just want to point out. O for 2.
Megana: Great. So South Carthay by Alex Rennie. In the middle of the desert 11-year-old Andy watches the 1988 film Hellraiser 2 with his brother Parker, 13, and their pit bull, Jules. Parker is blind and relies on Andy to narrate the movie to him. Their mother, Maggie, 35, speaks to her agent Karen on the phone in her home office. Karen tries to set up a meeting for Maggie’s new book in Santa Monica but between doctor’s appointments for her sons Maggie doesn’t have any availability. Karen urges Maggie to move from the desert to Los Angeles.
Craig: All right.
John: Craig, do you want to start us off.
Craig: This, I’m going to talk about a couple things. My first question and I still don’t have an answer for it is what year is this.
John: I don’t know.
Craig: Because they’re watching a movie from 1988, but I’m not sure if they’re just watching it as an old movie or if this is 1988. And it will become relevant in a little bit.
But there are two instances of a problem in here that I alluded to in the prior pages and that is – I don’t know what else to call it – the movie waiting. It’s like reality waits for something to happen. So here’s what happens at the very, very beginning. We get a description of a two-story house in the center of a barren desert. It’s very, very hot.
“The scene is suddenly interrupted by a demonic voice. Hellraiser, prelap,” once again not prelap, “you solved the puzzle box. You summoned us, we came.” And my question is how does that suddenly happen? The movie is on, right? Like it’s not like somebody suddenly starts up a remote for the movie.
What you can do, Alex, if you want to just not have rando dialogue and then that line have music that we go like what is this weird music. That’s weird music for this. And then the line would go, oh, that was score from a movie. But the point is the movie can’t wait. It can’t just suddenly come in.
Because we then go to a television screen and we realize that these two kids, Parker and Andy, have been watching it. Have been watching. Not just started, right?
I liked the reveal that Parker is blind. I thought that was really well done. Because first I was a little bit like I don’t understand why he’s asking these questions that he’s asking. And then I was like, oh, that’s why. And I love that feeling, right. There’s a joy as a moviegoer or television watcher to think that you got the writer and then you realize they got you. So I like that.
The problem of the world waiting for something to happen occurs again. These guys are watching TV and at the same time I assume their mom is on the phone with her agent. And that scene begins with the agent on the phone saying, “Mags, I sent them your book yesterday.” What were they talking about before? So the phone rings, I answer it, and then I just wait, wait, wait, oh the camera is here. “Mags, I sent them your book yesterday.” That is not how that works.
So you need to pick them up in mid-conversation, or have the phone ring and have her answer. Either way you can’t just suddenly have this line start in. Especially because it’s good news and it just makes no sense to have her waiting.
There’s a story problem here that you’re describing, or a character problem rather, that Maggie is being – she’s a book author and she’s being told she needs to have a meeting in Santa Monica at noon tomorrow and her problem is that Andy has a doctor’s appointment, so maybe they can do Sunday. This sort of like, ah-ha, single mom raising kids trouble. But the issue is this feels old because we’ve just spent a year not having to go to Santa Monica. Like you can Zoom. So that’s why I want to know what year is this.
John: Craig, I was also concerned about what year it was based on page two, “Maggie sits in front of a desktop word processor, a house phone pressed to her ear.” And I’m like, wait, what universe is this? First off, what is a desktop word processor?
Craig: I don’t know.
John: A desktop PC I guess? Her desktop word processor, are they talking about that post-typewriter but before it was a real computer thing?
John: And it’s a landline because that’s just what it is? Because that’s conceivable but that’s a very specific time period. And I don’t think that was really what Alex was going for here. So, again, one word choice of saying word processor rather than computer threw me and made me question what year this was happening in.
Craig: Or maybe it is happening in 1988 or 1989 and Alex just wants us to suss it out. And I guess what I would say is you need to give us a clearer indication than that. There just needs to be a clear sense, especially because they’re watching a scene from the 1988 horror feature. So they’re watching it on television. It’s either on video tape. The point is they’re not going to see it in theaters, so it’s not 1988. So when is it?
OK, so you’ve got to figure that out. And then finally I would say that the last bit here where Maggie is arguing with Karen about where she lives feels a little soft.
John: I didn’t buy it.
Craig: Yeah. I just don’t buy it. It just didn’t make any sense. Like it doesn’t matter that she got Road R as opposed to R Road. And she wouldn’t know that that’s where the airplane graveyard is. It doesn’t seem – and also this entire discussion feels very elementary. This is a real problem, but the way they’re discussing it and the way that Karen is responding just feels very elementary. Karen does not feel like a human. She feels like a plot machine.
John: So here’s where I liked about the characters, and the setup, and the world. And so I’m going to – and I guess this ties into where I think the story is actually going. I liked the brothers and one brother is blind. I liked the mom, the setup. I like them being out in the desert. I thought there was a promising space for a movie there. And I don’t think they’re actually going to stay out in the desert. I think they’re going to move to South Carthay, which is Los Angeles.
John: Just my guess about why it’s titled that. So I like that in the setup. And so I dug these pages even though I thought a fair number of things weren’t working.
One thing I want to point out is just right at the top, “EXT. DESERT – DAY 1 A two-story house sits in the center of a barren desert landscape, dotted with patches of scrub brush.” You’re not giving me enough there. First off, there’s not just a desert. What desert? A California desert? Where are we? Anchor us. Because if you say desert I guess I’m thinking of the Sahara until you give me more stuff. So anchor us a little bit more.
And tell us what it feels like. You don’t have to describe every little thing, but is it just barely above a trailer park? Is it a two-story trailer home? Did it have that kind of feel to it? But I just don’t get a sense from this of what kind of space we’re living in.
When we get into her office we do get some more details about what her office is like and I liked that. I got a sense of character making choices that influenced the environment that they were in.
Craig had already pointed out the Hellraiser problems or the voice over that’s happening that becomes the Hellraiser dialogue. My way of handling this in general would be scratch that line “The scene is suddenly interrupted by a demonic voice.” You just hear character name Demonic Voice, “You solved the puzzle box. You summoned us. We came.” New action line. “A man’s voice screams in terror. Cut to…” And then you’re in. And that’s great. So we’re wondering what are we hearing rather than spoiling it by saying Hellraiser right at the start.
Craig: Right. I think that’s a great idea.
And I want to point out that Alex does do a really good job of creating perspective because in this first scene it’s not there’s an indication in the action that we’re meant to identify with Parker and understand the scene from his perspective, but we do. It’s just written in that way. We understand we’re with him and his inquisitiveness and his confusion. And that’s good. I mean, there’s good stuff there. But I’m nervous about some of the elementary nature of the drama that’s being created.
John: A few other small things to look at. In American screenplays parentheticals get their own line underneath the character’s name. So on page one, that “unsure” right now is tucked into that dialogue line. We don’t do that in American screenplays. On page two, two action lines. “Andy thinks, picking at a set of stitches above his right eye.” That’s great. That can work. Later on, “Andy’s sandwich collapses as he struggles to keep it together.” Those are two completely separate actions that are just too close together. I feel like you’re just throwing too much business at this one character. And it’s distracting from the scene. So either he’s working on the stitches or he’s trying to eat this sandwich like he was falling apart.
Pick one. There’s just too much there.
Craig: Absolutely. And if you imagined him picking at the stitches with the hand that was holding the sandwich because they’re itching and then it collapses, that’s fine. But you’ve got to let us know. But absolutely. You don’t want to have him pick-pick, and then line, and then a line, and then he’s doing an entirely other thing that implies some sort of sandwich disaster occurred. So it’s just like time management issues here in terms of continuity of reality.
Guesses, I guess it’s time to guess, huh?
John: It’s time to guess. So I was speculating that this family is going to move to the Carthay Circle part of Los Angeles which is close to where I live and that it’s going to be about them adjusting to their new life there. But I don’t have any sense of what the actual plot is of this story. These three characters are centered to it all, and perhaps there’s maybe stretching, reaching that it could be kind of a Lost Boys situation where it’s like the boys have their own adventure and the mother is sort of a secondary character. That’s my best guess at this point.
Craig: Yeah. It does feel like, and I don’t like this necessarily, but it does feel like mom is being setup to just be mom from E.T., like problem to be avoided.
Craig: And who is having a generic single mom problem like divorce, or balancing job and children, without more flavor to it. It does feel like this is going to be about Parker and Andy and some kind of horror thing, I hope. Because that would be fun. And, yes, moving to LA. But, you know, I have no clue from this which is not, I mean, again, 0 for 2. So let’s see how we did.
Megana: OK, so Alex wrote in, “When the MacLaine family inherits their dream home they quickly discover that their new neighborhood hides a sinister secret and must work together to find the truth.”
Craig: There we go. Well I like working together.
John: I like working together. I think we were closer than I would have guessed.
Craig: Oh definitely.
John: Yeah. It also has like a Fright Night quality where you move to a new house in this neighborhood. I like that.
Craig: Well, I mean, Lost Boys, right? You literally, I mean, that’s exactly what happened. They moved to a house. It harbors a big secret. But I’m really happy to hear that it’s all of them together so that mom isn’t just mom, but mom. Good.
John: Yay. Well that was fun. So, as always, we want to thank everyone who submitted their pages, especially Alex, Andrew, Nick, and Stephen for sending in your stuff. Thank you to Megana and to Bo for reading through all of these. You’re remarkable.
Craig: Thank you so much guys.
John: And again this is not a competition. This is just an exhibition where we all get to take a look at some writing and figure out what’s working well and what could be working better.
If you want to send in your own pages you go to johnaugust.com/threepage. And there’s a form you fill out, including a new field for where you can put in your log line for your script. This is not a log line competition. We don’t really care about log lines. We are just curious what the thing is about. And so just for the reasons we used on the podcast today.
So, Megana, thank you very much for all your hard work and all your reading in making this happen.
Craig: Thank you, Megana. Great job.
Megana: Thank you.
John: All right. It’s time for One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is an article by Emily VanDerWerff from this past week that was looking at the way professional critics and fans get drawn into what she calls The Loop of defending positions on a movie or TV show or piece of culture. So talking about the show Girls she writes, “I had tied my own personal opinion of the show to myself and from there it was far too easy to grow more and more defensive with every criticism the series endured because it was like the criticism was criticism of me.” And it just felt so true to a phenomenon I’ve experienced more and more and more over the last decade where I love a thing, someone hates that thing, that person is attacking me. And this weird way that we sort of claim ownership over things and form our identities based on what we like.
And just a really great article detailing her perspective as someone who gets paid doing this as a living and still gets stuck into that loop.
Craig: Yeah. You know, I’ve gone off on critics a billion times on the show. I’m not going to bore everybody by doing it again. But I will say that I do personally like Emily. I did a nice interview with her for Chernobyl. It was one of the early interviews I did and I thought this was – I read this, too. And I thought it was very thoughtful. And I just wanted to say you think you grow defensive with criticism of a show you watch, imagine criticism of a show you’ve written.
And what it kind of comes down to is what I’ve always said. I do think that these feelings we have about movies or television shows are a function of the relationship we have with them. And that means it’s not just about the show or the movie. It’s about us, and the show and the movie. Some intersection of who we are and where we are and that. And therefore it makes no sense – it literally makes no sense to explain to people why it is good or bad for them.
You can talk about why it was good for you. And you could talk about why it was bad for you. I wish that critics would just be more subjective. Like literally just say here’s how this made me feel. I don’t know if you’re going to feel the same way. But this is my thing. Instead of just declaring that movies are good, bad, stupid, etc.
But I enjoyed – the introspection here I thought was very valuable.
John: And a thing I think has changed over the course of our lifetime in terms of criticism is that it’s one thing to be a critic looking at a movie because that movie is finished. And so while people will come to that movie with new perspectives over time that movie is done. But what Emily was doing with Girls and a lot of other TV series is you’re critiquing something that is still ongoing where it hasn’t been finished yet and your criticism will actually change the thing. And that just becomes an impossible feedback loop as well.
John: Just everyone to be mindful of the fact that the creative process is influenced by the criticism of it in not always healthy ways. And that if you are criticizing a piece of art to differentiate criticizing that piece of art from the person who made it. Because they really are not the same thing.
Craig: Yeah. And just the way that things are completely redeemed or vilified over time. I mean, blech.
I have a much easier One Cool Thing than that.
John: All right. Pitch it.
John: I like cake.
Craig: Everyone likes cake. So, we over at the Mazin house have been engaging in a kind of homemade food exchange with another family in our town as we’ve been navigating the pandemic. So occasionally they would make something and bring it over and leave it on our doorstep and then we would make something and bring it over and leave it on their doorstep.
And so we owed them one and I asked what they wanted and they have three girls. And all three girls said chocolate cake. That was what they wanted. Which seems like, oh, OK, well chocolate cake. Who can’t do that? There’s a billion chocolate cake recipes.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: And I’m kind of a recipe nerd. I love the science of it. And so I went through and read all sorts of them and I landed on one, just faith, and it’s a recipe by a woman named Robin Stone. And it’s called The Best Chocolate Cake Recipe Ever. It might be. It’s really, really good. It’s really, really good.
And you might be saying well what’s the big secret in it? I don’t think there is a big secret other than she does have you adding a cup of boiling water into the batter at the very end before you put it into the oven. It makes it much–
John: I’ve seen that in other recipes recently.
Craig: It’s really interesting.
John: It’s a chocolate thing.
Craig: Exactly. But overall whatever the balance of ingredients were it just came out beautifully. Same with the frosting. She also has a recipe for chocolate butter cream frosting that goes with it and it came out also beautifully. So if you’re looking to make a chocolate cake.
John: I’m looking to make a chocolate cake. Craig, my question for you is this gives a choice between milk, buttermilk, almond milk, coconut milk. What did you use?
Craig: In that circumstance – and one of the things that made me a little nervous is that Robin is like whatever. And I’m like, all right, I’m a little more finicky than that. I went with straight up whole milk.
John: Whole milk. So super rich.
Craig: Well, it’s one cup of it. It’s not exactly half and half or anything. But, yeah, just one cup of regular old whole milk as opposed to any of the other stuff. But if you were lactose intolerant does that still work after you bake something?
John: Yeah, it does.
Craig: Then you might want to try the almond or the coconut milk. There’s not that much in it so I can’t imagine it would make a massive difference.
John: You’ve got a cup of boiling hot water in it to dilute it anyway.
Craig: There you go.
John: All right. That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao.
Craig: Damn straight.
John: Edited by Matthew Chilelli.
John: Our outro this week is by Ella Grace. 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 shorter questions on Twitter I am @johnaugust.
We have t-shirts and they’re great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com which is also where you’ll find the PDFs of for our Three Page Challenges. You’ll find transcripts there and be able to 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 the bonus segments like the one we’re about to record on the Olympics. Craig and Megana, thank you both very, very much.
Megana: Thank you.
Craig: Thank you guys. Thank you. And I just want to say a quick hello to listener Miranda, because I know she’s a big fan.
John: Oh, nice.
John: Well great. And that outro felt very Winter Olympics to me. I could imagine that being under a Winter Olympics Montage. Which is a good segue to a question from a listener, Adam in Los Angeles, who writes, “If you were an Olympic level athlete what sport/event would you like to compete in?” And so we’ll look at winter and summer. Craig, of the Summer Olympic events if you could be a medal-worthy athlete is there one sport that you’d go for?
Craig: Well, I suppose that one way to think about this is a little bit like how fun it is to fly in a dream. Because you’re never going to fly. So one possibility is pick a thing that you would never be able to do. Like in theory I could wrestle some people. I wouldn’t be any good at it, but I could wrestle for a bit at my weight class or something. I could throw a pole.
But the thing that I cannot do, ever, in any circumstance and have never been able to do, even as a child, is run for a long distance. I was not built to run for a long distance. So I would want to be a marathon runner. I just think that would be like flying. That would be so cool.
John: So I can run for a long distance. I ran a half marathon. And I assumed I could never run, but now I can run. But I don’t think I would actually want to be a long distance runner for Olympic stuff. I think I would actually prefer to be like a sprinter because that to me feels like you’re The Flash where you’re just so incredibly powerful out of the gate.
But what you were saying about flying made me think like, oh, maybe I should pick pole vaulting because that’s a thing in real life I would never, ever do, but it just seems so cool.
Craig: Yeah. Like I don’t even understand how that happened. Why did – who figured that out? Why?
John: Yeah, we can pole vault. My guess is there’s a season of The Amazing Race where they were doing these – they were in these canal kind of places, flooded field canals, and you actually do use poles to get from one side to the other. So maybe that was sort of how pole vaulting became a thing. I don’t know. We could have looked it up by the time I–
Craig: Could have, but you know what? Nah. I’m tired of learning. I don’t want to learn anything else. I’m done. I’m done.
John: But I should clearly choose gymnast, because male gymnasts have the amazing skills, versatile skills. You feel like a real life Rogue. And great bodies.
Craig: Yeah, I was waiting. It’s about the body. The male gymnast body is stupid. It’s a stupid body. Yeah, like how? Oh my god. Could you imagine?
John: Now the Winter Olympics. Craig, what winter sports would you want to do?
Craig: Ooh, I do like the Winter Olympics. They’re fun. I mean, look, like the weirdo one like the biathlete where you ski and then shoot. That’s a silly one.
John: That was my top choice. Biathlete.
Craig: It’s a pretty silly one so I kind of like sneakily want that. But I think, so the guys who do the skeleton in the luge, and the women, are moving at insane speeds. And it’s terrifying. I think maybe if I could be one of those people. Just the idea of just firing down a shoot like a bullet for like a minute just seems like it would be pretty awesome.
John: I said that I was so excited to be a pole vaulter, but I don’t think I would be a ski jumper because that just–
Craig: Ooh, god.
John: No. That’s just too much terror for me. I’ve bungee jumped. Great. I’m not going to ski jump. That’s, no. That’s not good at all.
Craig: Yeah. The ski jump is kind of like you go down the ramp and you catch, just perfect, boom you launch off perfectly and you’re like I’m doing it. I’m going to go further than anybody. And then when you start to go down you’re like, oh, shit.
John: Well, Craig, you and I both grew up with ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Of course the agony of defeat. This big intro and then it goes “the agony of defeat” and they show this guy going off the edge of the ski jump and just falling. I still feel pain just thinking about that shot.
Craig: Why would anyone be an athlete after that? You’re just watching a human being tumbling down a mountain, breaking I assume everything. And, yeah.
John: In reference to our Three Page Challenges, I think figure skating is just remarkably great, and to be able to do that stuff. But I would just get such performance anxiety to actually have to masterfully do all these things, and be artistic, and hit all those jumps. That feels like too much.
Craig: Yeah. The artistic part – figure skating, I don’t love it. I’ve got to be honest with you. I don’t love it. Not on the level of ventriloquism which is a ridiculous waste of everyone’s time. Actually, it’s the fact that figure skating is a remarkably demanding athletic pursuit, but they also have to wear these outfits.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: I mean, they don’t have to. I think they want to in a sense. But it just gets sillier and sillier. It’s like Vegas kind of. It just becomes so odd. You know what I mean?
John: As a young gay child I just loved my figure skating.
Craig: I get it. I get it. I do. And maybe it’s also like the performance aspect of it is so outrageously fake. Do you know what I mean? The smiles and the…
But I can also see where, you know – look, my wife loves figure skating. I mean, loves. So I watch it when it’s on. All right.
John: I never looked at the contents of my mom’s DVR after she died, but I guarantee you there were at least 16 hours’ worth recorded of figure skating on that. Just to watch at any point, which is great.
Craig: I love it. Who was your favorite?
John: Growing up it was Torvill and Dean. They were an ice dancing pair.
Craig: Of course.
John: They were remarkable. They were the Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh of their time, but on ice. And they were just remarkably talented. But then like through the Brian Boitanos, through the Kristi Yamaguchis. Katarina Witt, who I saw at a post office here in Los Angeles. Just remarkable talents.
Craig: Torvill and Dean, were they married?
John: They were married but I think they ultimately split up, yeah, which was controversial and terrible.
Craig: Oh, it was controversial?
John: Yeah. If I remember correctly. Chris Schleicher who is a writer who I only know through Twitter, but was a competitive figure skater before he became a writer. And I always find that so fascinating as a second act, you know, get out of figure skating and then become a writer.
Craig: Yeah. Interesting.
John: So, Craig, should we go to the Olympics in China? So that’s the 2022 Winter Olympics are going to be in China. And China has not done some good things.
Craig: You’re asking should you and I personally go?
John: [laughs] Oh yes.
Craig: Or should America go?
John: Should America send a delegation to the Olympics in 2022?
Craig: I got to tell you, and this is one of those hot button things. It’s practically designed for people to argue. But I remember as a kid feeling like boycotting the Moscow Olympics wasn’t great. The point of the Olympics was let’s get closer together.
I don’t think the Olympics, going to the Olympics, is any kind of tacit approval of what a government is doing. The United States went to the Olympics in Germany when Hitler was in power and Jesse Owens got to beat everyone in front of him, which is awesome. There’s a little chance to stick it to people at the Olympics also. And the way we kind of did to the Soviets in 1980 in Lake Placid.
But it kind of bummed me out. And then of course the Russians boycotted after. I feel like once you start it’s hard to stop. Because everybody has a reason to boycott everybody. There’s no reason that – if there’s ever an Olympics in Mumbai for instance, well, should the Pakistanis just immediately boycott? Do you know what I mean? You know, over Kashmir.
Everybody has got a problem. So, let’s preserve this one place where we just come together and we do it outside of the bubble of the bad things that we are or are not doing. And hopefully it brings us together and maybe solves a problem. I don’t know.
John: Yeah. I wonder if we hadn’t had the situation where we boycotted one Olympics and they boycotted us, I wonder when we decided that Olympic athletes a chip that we would use in international trade. Because we’re not talking about like, OK, we’re going to boycott Chinese products or we’re not going to do business with China at all, because clearly we’re doing a ton of business with China.
So, it does feel weird on that level. And yet at the same time you’re dealing with a government that is doing some really bad things. So, I’m sympathetic to both sides and I’m happy to be the one who doesn’t have to make the decision.
Craig: Right. Turns out weirdly that they have asked me to make this decision.
John: Craig, as your profile grows then so does your responsibility.
Craig: Yeah. I don’t know how this ended up in my lap, so I’ve got to really think about this. [laughs] I’ve got to be honest with you. I’m in a whole boatload of trouble over here.
John: Yeah. Craig, thanks for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John.
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