The original post for the episode is available here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 495 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show we’re talking titles. A rose by any other name might spell a sweet, but a script with a bad title is at a significant disadvantage. Then we’ll answer listener questions on character names, budgets, and residuals.
John: And Craig tell us what we’re doing with the bonus segment.
Craig: In our bonus segment for premium members only we’re going to be discussing this simple topic: how to behave properly in a restaurant for adults.
John: I’ve completely forgotten. I’ve not been in a restaurant for a year.
Craig: Well, we’re heading there, so we better spiff up, shape up, and get ready.
John: But the way we may get back into those restaurants is by getting vaccinated. And so, Craig, some exciting news. You and I both have some Moderna in us.
Craig: Yeah. We’ve got a little bit of the Moderna in there. And, John, have you looked to see how the Moderna and Pfizer MRNA vaccines work?
John: I know it only in a very vague sense. I think they take these little protein things and they wrap them in little fat molecules. And they shove them into your body.
Craig: That’s right. Once they get them in there, this is why it’s so simple, it’s so brilliant. You know how the coronavirus has those little nubbies on it?
Craig: And the nubbies are what make it so dangerous. The nubbies or the corona are what they use to get into our cells, so the coronavirus uses the nubs to get into a cell. Then it barfs up all of its DNA. Turns the cell into a coronavirus factory. And that’s how you get sick.
So, what the MRNA is, it’s basically just instructions to make the nubs. So we get infected with this stuff. This stuff gets into our cells. It tells ourselves to make nubs. Now the nubs don’t make you sick. So now there are nubs floating around and our body goes what are these nubs. Everybody attack the nubs. Let’s learn about the nubs. Let’s remember the nubs. And if we see these nubs again let’s kill them.
So when coronavirus shows up the body goes, “Nubs!” It doesn’t even know that there’s coronavirus. It just kills anything with nubs on it now. And I like saying the word nubs.
Anyway, boy what a relief. And thank you to all of the brilliant scientists and technicians and production folks who worked so hard to come up with this technology. It’s amazing. And in fact here’s a question for you John. Let’s say you’re a nervous kind of person.
John: All right.
Craig: You get the Moderna vaccine and you know that four weeks later you’re supposed to come back and get a second shot. What if you’re the kind of person that worries what if they mix it up and they give me a Pfizer shot instead of a second Moderna shot? What do you think happens?
John: Well, first off, on your little vaccination card it will show you what one you’re supposed to have. On the other hand it really doesn’t matter that much. I think the CDC guideline is you should try to get the same shot, the same medication, but the second one will also work. And they’re doing studies about like what if you mix and match the vaccines and they may discover that it’s even better to mix and match them. So, you shouldn’t worry about it.
Craig: It’s very possible. Yeah. From what I’ve read, even though of course everybody is going to follow the rules and give you the second shot of the same brand, they are identical except for the delivery methods. So, in theory shouldn’t be a huge problem.
But anyway hooray for Moderna. Woof. People, they’re opening it up all over the place. Get yourself a shot immediately.
John: I was able to get my shot in Utah when I was traveling there to visit some family. And I was eligible to go into a grocery store there and get a shot at eight in the morning. I wanted to feel that tremendous relief that people describe. Like oh my god, after a year I finally have this shot in me. I did not feel that emotion because I only had like three hours of sleep, so I was sort of a zombie with the needle stuck in me. I have maybe the worst vaccination selfie ever taken, so I will not be posting that.
But I still feel very good for having had it. I had a sore arm for a day and a half. Well worth it.
Craig: Yeah. The sore arm does fade. Everybody reacts it seems slightly differently. Some people get sick. Some people don’t. Some people get a sore arm. Some people don’t. None of the side effects are remotely comparable to what happens when you actually get Covid. So, vaccines, vaccines, vaccines, as fast as you can, as quickly as you can. Get them, get them, get them.
John: And more vaccinations across America might mean the return to the box office. This last week Godzilla vs. Kong opened at $16.3 million in its first two days, which would be a very low number in any normal situation, but is a very big number, the biggest number in 12 months, for a movie. So, it feels like there is some pent up demand to go see movies on a big screen.
John: I am seeing my first movie on a big screen next week. I’m seeing an early screening of a cut. And it’s all with sort of Covid protocols. But it will just be exciting to sit in a dark room and see something on a big screen for the first time in so many months.
Craig: Yeah. You’re absolutely right. The $16.3 million would normally be an “oh no.”
John: Oh no! Catastrophe!
Craig: But what’s so fascinating is the way all this stuff sort of weirdly lined up. That there was the rise of these massive streaming services and then suddenly this plague came along that brutalized the theatrical experience. And so there was this streaming experience that kind of went, well, you know what, if we can put – because Godzilla vs. Kong, is that simultaneously running on streaming?
Craig: There you go. So, somehow they ran the numbers. The one thing I know about Hollywood, if they put this thing out like that then they did the math. They’re going to make money.
John: They’re making some money. It’s doing well overseas and especially in markets where they don’t have the Covid. It’s lovely.
Craig: The Covid.
John: Some more follow up, this time on screen deals. A listener wrote in. “In the WGA Screen Deal Guide the report briefly notes some consideration of the project’s budget. For example, the median first draft was $50,000 higher for contracts at major studios. When controlling for the experience level in these deals do you think there’s a material correlation to budget? Or what other factors play the biggest roles in increasing compensation?”
Craig: Yeah. We do have some budgeting tiers there for our minimums.
John: Absolutely. So I think when I saw the early version of that report they were making a bigger deal between major studio deals and all deals. And I think you have to keep in mind studio deals tend to include things for like bigger features and franchises and stuff where they’re hiring experienced writers to work on very big movies at higher budget levels. And those are kind of almost by definition going to be paying those writers some more. Because those are probably bigger name writers going in on those things.
When you look at the whole, like all deals made for writers, that includes a lot of scale deals made for indie features and other things that aren’t major studio pictures.
Craig: Yeah. We don’t divide the payment, the minimums, up between studio and non-studio. It’s just high budget/low budget is what they call it. Not that the high budget line is particularly high.
The reason that’s there is because this is one of those Catch 22s for unions. They’ve got to figure out how to allow people who don’t have a lot of money as employers to – they want to encourage them to become union signatories and hire union people, but they don’t necessarily want to hit them with the full payment of union fees, because they won’t have the money for it. So they come up with this other version. It’s a little similar to the independent film contract that Howard Rodman worked so hard on with the WGA to create.
By and large almost all of the budgets are going to fall under what they call high budget. By and large. Very tiny indies won’t.
John: I think it’s also important to stress and going back to when we had this first discussion about the Screen Deal Guide is that traditionally you think of the union as enforcing the minimums. Like this is the minimum they can pay you to do things. To make sure, to sort of set a floor on things. And this is an effort by the WGA to make sure that we’re really looking at writer compensation sort of at all levels. And by providing you with information about people in your cohort what are they making, what is the median salary they’re making for writing that script.
And so looking at just the studio writers that is a different cohort than sort of all writers. And it helps to know sort of where you’re falling in that order.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, the specific question about when controlling for experience level across deals, what’s the biggest impact on compensation. There is an implication and a question that maybe it’s connected to the size of the budget and in certain cases it can be. But probably how much they want it. So controlling for experience levels across those deals the question is are you writing a movie where there’s a big star and they really like you and they like your script and so therefore you have leverage. Are they hiring you because you’re rewriting somebody else and this thing starts shooting in three weeks?
Craig: Comes down to these individual leverage factors. Hard to define.
John: They’re looking at these individual contracts, but they don’t have the context for sort of why this writer was able to get this deal on this contract. So it’s just numbers that they’re looking at right here.
John: Do you want to take this follow up on gray areas?
Craig: Yeah, Audrey asks, “For the unnamed problematic showrunner,” that’s pretty great. I like the UPSR. The Unnamed Problematic Showrunner. UPSR. “For the UPSR does the guild help by looking at concerns regarding bad behavior? Do they have anonymous or ‘identity-protected’ way to submit these maybe gray area concerns? It seems like there is a conflict there in that the WGA should protect the up and coming writers but the showrunners are the most powerful members.”
Craig: Yeah. “As fellow writers hearing things,” I don’t know about you John. I hear way less than people think I hear. But…
John: Ah, true.
Craig: “As fellow writers hearing things do you ever use this option even just to help document a pattern?” John, what do you think here?
John: Oh, Audrey has hit on a lot here. Yes. All right, so in the wake of #MeToo, and I was on the board when #MeToo was happening, a lot of discussion about building an industry-wide whistle-blower hotline. So actors and writers and directors and everyone involved, grips and gaffers, everyone involved in the film and television industry could have a way to report sexual harassment and sexual harassment and also just sort of bad behavior in general.
This idea of an anonymous whistle-blower hotline seems to make a lot of sense, and then it becomes a question of like so what are you actually doing with that. Who is responsible for following up on those things? It becomes really problematic to figure out sort of how you’re going to do it. And to my knowledge really nothing has been built. And so people are left with just going to HR for whatever the employer is. And sort of is the employer’s responsibility.
And if we look at the documented cases over the last couple years of harassment, bad behavior, where showrunners were being a nightmare, it really has generally come through studio HR, network HR, where those things sort of come out to light. And through publicity those people have been losing their jobs.
Unfortunately, you know, studio HRs is not going to be the solution to the problem, the kind of things Craig and I were talking about, which wasn’t a showrunner who was abusive, it was a showrunner who was doing things we considered kind of just shitty and unethical. And that’s going to be resolved by a studio HR department.
Craig: Right. So, Audrey, you definitely hit on a ton of really interesting areas and some strange spots where the WGA is a bit handcuffed.
So, first things first. The guild isn’t an employer of the writers in question. So, the first thing I want to point out is that it’s really incumbent upon the employers to be policing their employees when it comes to bad behavior. That said, Audrey is right. It would be great if the WGA could be involved here.
The WGA, however, is controlled by certain fundamental laws, federal laws. And one of them is the duty of fair representation. Which means that the union has to represent all of its members equally. It has to advocate for them all equally. It can’t advocate for some more than others. What that means is if someone comes to the guild and says, “I would like you to lodge this complaint. The showrunner I’m working for is mean.” So we’re going to put this in less of a criminal area. More of a just like John said shitty behavior. He’s mean. He’s verbally abusive. It’s not against the law but people should know that this person is toxic.
The Writers Guild unfortunately, or fortunately depending on the veracity of the person that just made that report, has a duty of fair representation to the showrunner as well. So what they can’t do is just publish a list saying hey everybody avoid one of these, of our own members. Because that’s a lawsuit that will happen instantaneously and it will probably succeed. So the WGA has to be careful to not expose itself to liability. And this is why it’s so important that the studios and networks do better, because they’re the ones who are hiring people. It’s their job to figure this stuff out.
But we do what we can as best we can within the bounds of the law. That’s my sort of defense of the WGA.
John: Absolutely. And there have been situations where people have come to the WGA saying like this showrunner is doing a thing and the guild can help represent that writer to the employer, be there as the person who is giving testimony about sort of this is what’s been happening, which is great, but we can’t sort of like throw that member out. We can’t sort of one-sided decide this is the facts here. All we can do is sort of advocate on behalf of our member. And there could be situations in which we have to advocate on sort of both sides just to make sure that both sides are heard.
Craig: Which bothers people.
John: It’s a tough thing.
Craig: And I understand that. Nobody wants to hear – I mean, both sides thing is literally a slur at this point. But the WGA is not equipped nor entitled to judge and jury its members based on workplace behavior like that unless there is evidence of the sort that would, I guess, come to them from an independent third party like a studio.
If a studio says, “We’re firing this Unnamed Problematic Showrunner for their toxic behavior,” the WGA should start looking at their abilities to discipline their own members. We almost never do it. In fact, I think we never do it. But, there is an entire section of the constitution and if somebody is clearly underlined in a provable way to have done this stuff then I think it’s fair that they be disciplined by their own union. Why should we not?
John: Yeah. So, we talk about this in the context of the WGA, but similar situations happen of course with the DGA where you have directors who are overseeing other members. You have actors and sort of conflicts between actors. So, WGA is only somewhat special. These things are going to always happen. I just don’t think – the WGA is not going to be the solution to all these problems.
So let’s talk about what some of the better solutions are. We talk about the whisper networks which is ways you get this information out. The challenge of the network is you have to be in the network in order to get that information. And so then it comes down to really vetting. And just really taking the initiative to ask the questions of people who might know information about sort of what’s really going on here. And I do find as we said on the initial episode phone calls are better than emails for this situation because there are a lot of times where people are willing to tell you a thing but they’re not willing to write a thing.
Craig: Right. You know it might be good for us to reach out to the WGA and have one of their folks come on this show to walk us through what the limitations are and what is the kind of, oh let’s call it the most presumptively effective way to protect your own interests and the interests of your fellow writers who may be subject to problematic behavior.
So, because I’d love to know specifically how it’s best formed and delivered and what the proper order is. So there’s probably somebody there that’s kind of leading up this.
John: Oh, I have a really good candidate in my head for someone who would be great to come on.
Craig: Perfect. Great.
John: So we’ll try to do that.
John: Some more follow up. We talked about female character arcs and moral choices. Ted wrote in to say, “I was thinking about films with women who make moral choices and it struck me that a good candidate might be The Bridges of Madison County. Meryl Streep has to put her sense of obligation, duty familial love against her longing to throw it all away and follow the soulmate she never knew she had, the man who makes her heart sing, etc.
“I really love that movie and I do think the movement of the plot rests squarely on Francesca and her choices. I do however admit that it would be a stretch to call it a redemption story because it isn’t. It’s a reawakening story maybe. I would contrast that with Sophie’s Choice to me the choice Sophie has to make is like saying to somebody I’m going to cut off one of your legs, but you get to choose right or left. The moral choice was made by the perpetrator when they chose to put someone in the impossible situation. Sophie’s Choice is about a woman who had no choice.”
Which is an interesting way of framing it, because we talked before about how Sophie’s Choice was like, oh, there’s a woman having to make a choice, but you’re just choosing between two bad options.
Craig: Yeah. I think Ted’s point is correct that it’s an ironic title because if you say to somebody I am forcing you to choose between this and thing that choice is not what we think of as a free choice at all. Obviously Sophie did not have a free choice in Sophie’s Choice.
I think the arc of Bridges of Madison County isn’t quite what we were talking about. That’s more just a general character arc. I think we’re trying to distinguish between just changing in general as opposed to struggling with a moral quandary kind of thing, which we would love to see more of with female characters.
So, yeah, I mean, I think reasonable observations Ted. I don’t think I’m there with you on The Bridges of Madison County.
John: It did get me thinking though that when we talk about choices if it’s just a choice that only really impacts you, or 90% impacts you that’s not quite what we’re describing. Because that’s just a character growing. That’s just a character having an arc. What I’m struggling to find more examples of are women who have to make moral or ethical choices which will have consequences well beyond their own immediate purview.
John: And I’m not seeing so many examples of that. So, I would love to see more and people can write in with examples of more. But I think they probably also need to write more examples of female characters making these kind of choices.
Craig: Or just play The Last of Us Part 2.
John: Yes. Craig, our main topic today is titles. And so I got thinking about this because there’s been two projects I’ve been involved with recently that have really good stories. These are things that came to me. They have really good stories and really promising elements to them and I don’t love their titles. And I’m having a little bit of a hard time grappling with them because I kind of want to change their titles. In both cases it’s not clear whether they are already too successful for us to change their title. But it just brought home how important a title is for me to be able to really think about a project.
How early in writing Chernobyl for example did you know this was going to be called Chernobyl and not some other title?
Craig: Well, I’m not a great title person. I’m always the first to sort of raise my hand there. And maybe that is incredibly obvious because I did a show about Chernobyl and called it Chernobyl. Didn’t go much further than that. But it seemed that I lucked out on that one. That was an easy one. Because the word itself has an enormous amount of stuff built into it. It would have been unnecessary to have done something else oblique.
John: The Cost of Lies.
Craig: Yeah. That would have just felt generic and off the point and so just thinking about something that cuts through the clutter I think that’s, you know. But I’m not great on titles. And sometimes I think that there’s the quality – there’s a quality to titles, like certain movies, where the initial impact of the title is negative and it hurts the film’s debut. But over the run of it it becomes kind of a beloved, quirky appellation that we like.
John: Yeah. I don’t think Star Wars is a great title just by itself.
Craig: No. It’s terrible.
John: At all.
Craig: Star Wars.
John: Star Wars. Wait, what is this? Because it’s not really about stars and there’s battles.
Craig: And there’s one war. It’s not even wars.
John: But then just through repetition well that becomes an iconic title. And Star Trek is not a great title. Just through repetitions some bad titles can become just beloved.
But let’s start by talking about some movies that have I think kind of genuinely bad titles or challenging titles and they may have suffered for it. The Pursuit of Happyness and its word misspelling. I think The Shawshank Redemption is not a great title. Do you like that as a title?
Craig: It’s a terrible title. It’s one of the worst titles for a good film ever, maybe the worst title for a good film ever. Because if you don’t know anything about The Shawshank Redemption and you are told that there’s a movie in theaters called The Shawshank Redemption you’re not going. It means nothing. It means truly nothing. It just sounds – Shawshank is a silly word. And Redemption as a known disconnected from a human being is a concept, so who cares?
John: Yeah. Cujo is a good title.
Craig: Cujo is a great title. Yeah, what’s that? Ooh, Cujo.
John: Jaws. Not a good title, Quantum of Solace.
Craig: No, that’s just silly.
John: So here’s a thing. I think it was this last year that I really stopped to think like what is Quantum – what does it actually mean? Quantum, so the minimal sort of bit of something. And Solace, oh, some relief, some respite. Oh, that’s really what he’s searching for is some bit of relief from this grief of over losing his wife.
John: But man is it a terrible title.
Craig: I feel like it must have come from a poem or something, right?
John: Some Quantum of Solace for the grieving man or something.
Craig: Exactly. Quantum of Solace. I’m just looking it up right now because I never actually thought about like why, yeah. If I come up with an answer I’ll let you know.
John: You know what’s a good title? A View to a Kill.
Craig: A View to a Kill is wonderful. I love that.
John: The Spy Who Loved Me. Love it.
Craig: Ooh, I mean, how do you do better than that?
John: Not a great title, The Nice Guys.
Craig: Yeah. Well, it’s OK. I mean, it does the job of that comedy, I think.
Craig: You know, but yeah, it’s a little soft. I agree.
John: And then sort of legendarily Edge of Tomorrow was originally called All You Need is Kill.
John: All You Need is Kill didn’t test well, so Edge of Tomorrow they took. But Edge of Tomorrow did not work either.
John: So later on they sort of referred to it as Live, Die, Repeat. A really terrific movie. I watched it this last year again. Just really delightfully made and it deserved a better title.
Craig: It is really good. I think All You Need is Kill is a cool title, actually. I mean, sometimes testing is stupid. In fact, a lot of times testing is stupid. All You Need is Kill is interesting. And if people don’t like it in the moment that doesn’t mean they won’t like it an hour later. Nor does it mean that they won’t remember it which is the whole point. Edge of Tomorrow just sounds like a bad soap opera. That is the most generic nothing title in history. So, I think that was a mistake, especially because as you point out the movie is really good. So, it did suffer from that. And Live, Die, Repeat just sounds like a bad shampoo instruction. That’s just goofy as hell.
Yeah, so I like All You Need is Kill for that.
John: So Hollywood often gets it right though as well. So, the famous examples of like movies that changed titles and they’re iconic because they changed title. I read Pretty Woman back when it was called $3,000. $3,000 is not a good title for that.
John: Scream was originally titled The Scary Movie.
John: When I saw Moana in France it was Vaiana. And Moana and Vaiana are both good titles, it’s just they couldn’t clear Moana as a title in parts of Europe, so they had to retitle the entire movie.
Craig: You know why, right? I mean, they could clear it. They didn’t want to.
John: Well, because there was a porn company. But there’s also a brand–
Craig: Porn star.
John: Porn star. But it was also like a Spanish trademark. A Spanish brand trademark. So there were multiple reasons.
Craig: Multiple reasons.
John: Hancock was originally Tonight He Comes, which is a great joke.
Craig: [laughs] I think Tonight He Comes would have been awesome actually. Personally.
John: So it went from Tonight He Comes to John Hancock to finally just Hancock. But I didn’t know that Atomic Blonde was originally called Coldest City.
Craig: Oh, well, Atomic Blonde is a way better title than The Coldest City.
John: Absolutely. Sometimes you see the posters, like well that can’t be called The Coldest City. It has to refer to her hair color.
John: There was a Black List script called Move That Body, which ultimately became Rough Night. A better title.
Craig: That’s a better title.
John: Story of Your Life became Arrival.
John: Arms and the Dudes. I can’t believe they went into production with that title. But War Dogs.
Craig: Well, because the article that that story was based on was called Arms and the Dudes. So, I think that was never actually meant to be the title-title. It was just the article title.
John: And of course most famously Teenage Sex Comedy That Can Be Made for Under $10 Million That Your Reader Will Love, But the Executive Will Hate is…?
Craig: American Pie.
John: American Pie. And I remember talking to somebody at a party when they were shooting this movie and they didn’t – it was before they actually had the title American Pie. And so they had some short version of that long title that they were referring to. And then it became American Pie.
Craig: And that does point out that when we’re writing spec scripts the title that we’re putting there we are not actually accountable to. Everybody understands that ultimately the studio can change the title if they so desire which means you can treat that title in an interesting way. The most important thing is to not put a boring title. That’s the key.
John: Yeah. So let’s talk about titles from a screenwriter’s point of view, because while ultimately these movies could change title down the road, like the second Charlie’s Angels went through a gazillion titles, and Full Throttle was just something they pulled off a shelf someplace. Having a title on your script is important because it helps frame the reader’s expectation the same way that the title on the movie will help frame a viewer’s expectation. So you want a title that just does something for your script and it certainly doesn’t work against your script.
And when I say frames expectation, hopefully it’s setting expectation about the genre, like what kind of movie this is, and ideally sort of who your central character is. And so Indiana Jones feels like there’s some character in it named Indiana Jones. Hancock feels like it’s going to be about a character named Hancock. That can be useful. Cujo is a dog. Jaws is a shark. It gives you some sense of what this thing is that you’re about to read so you turn to page one with some set up in your head for what it is you think you’re going to experience.
Craig: And sometimes that is a mood. Maybe all the title does is imply a certain kind of whimsy or thoughtfulness or sorrow. You want the title to simply offer some nub – let’s go back to the vaccine concept. Your title needs nubs because you want somebody to catch on the nub. And it may have–
John: Like Velcro.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. And it may not be the thing that you think it is, but it has to be something. The problem with a title like Edge of Tomorrow is it is nubless. It is smooth. Like a Ken doll downstairs. It has nothing to cling onto. You just glide right over it.
So, that’s what we’re trying to avoid. So you have an interesting example here in our notes. The Talented Mr. Ripley. That could be anything. If you don’t know what it is it could be a musical. It could be a story about an inventor. It could be a Willy Wonka rip-off. Or it could be this strange story of sociopathy in 1950s Italy.
And that doesn’t matter. What matters is there are nubs on it.
John: Yeah. So you know that there’s going to be a character named Mr. Ripley and The Talented Mr. Ripley, there’s something interesting about that.
John: So I’m turning the page to see who this Ripley character is. And I’ll be the judge of whether he’s talented or not.
Craig: And what do you mean by talented, sir? So that’s a nub. It’s prompting a question, which is good.
John: So, Craig, as you are approaching a project, so Chernobyl we talked through, and The Last of Us obviously has its title. That sort of already comes with it. But sometimes as you’re reading a friend’s script, or as you’re approaching something, like how do you have that conversation about this is not the right title? And what do you do?
Craig: Well, you say, listen, the title is – this is how it struck me. I’m only me. So, I can only give you this anecdotal datum. And that is that it made me feel bored, or confused, or just put off.
Craig: And the context it put me in was thinking that this script was going to be lame, or homework, or a horror movie, which I don’t want to see, but it turns out it’s not a horror movie at all. So I just basically share with the person my response and then they can go, all right, well Mazin was the one weirdo that didn’t get it. Or, OK, three people have sort of said the same thing to me. It’s probably true.
John: Yeah. The last two weeks we’ve been talking about opening scenes and in many ways the title is the scene before the opening scene. It’s that first bit of information that you’re giving the reader about what kind of story this is. And if you can’t find the right combination of words to sort of unlock that thing you’re going to be running uphill a lot. Or worse, looking in the wrong direction and you have to pull them back with those opening scenes to make it clear what it is you’re actually trying to do in the script. And sort of who the central characters are.
So, examples from my own life. So my first movie, Go, when I wrote the short film version of it was just called X. And it was just the first segment of that movie where Ronna is trying to make the drug del. It’s called X. And it makes sense because the ecstasy that she’s trying to sell is just called X in the movie, so that made sense.
In wouldn’t have made sense for the whole movie, because if I had just called the whole movie X it’s either a biography of Malcolm X or it is X-rated. It doesn’t actually track for the whole movie. So, for a while my working title was 24/7, sort of like what you do every day, and that you’re just sort of going through the loop of a day. It’s fine. It’s not great.
Go, which I think serves it really well, was a title for a completely different pitch that I did over at Imagine, which was a vastly different comedy. But I just really liked that title. And so I took Go and it became the title of this script. And it’s really hard for me to envision Go under any other title.
Craig: Well, and that’s the sign of a – well, I think a good title plus time.
Craig: And so some of these, like for instance The Shawshank Redemption without time, terrible title. Plus time, well people did catch the movie eventually. It was an absolute bomb in the theaters in part I think because it was entitled The Shawshank Redemption. But once people caught up with it on video it became a beloved classic. And at that point everybody knows the phrase The Shawshank Redemption. So, the movie had to drag the title along.
Craig: But ideally you have a title that doesn’t put people off, but in fact invites them in. And then the movie is well and widely seen and that title and the movie, the experience together, becomes a feeling. And that feeling is what you’re aiming for.
John: Yeah. We have no ability to time travel back and do an alternate universe experiment to see what would have happened if we had changed the title, but Big Fish might have been titled Edward Bloom. Because it’s the story of a man and the vision of a man’s life. And a thing we discovered as we did sort of more focus grouping on it is that people thought Big Fish was going to be about fish. That it was going to be a fishing movie.
Craig: I mean, that makes sense.
John: Yeah. And it was a real thing we ran into. And I think we kind of only discovered that when we were doing the Big Fish musical and as we were coming out of our Chicago tryouts we actually had a good discussion about when we transfer to Broadway do we change the title from Big Fish to Edward Bloom. And we could have. But then we lose any momentum we have in connection to the original movie. And we realized that while people loved the original movie it wasn’t a giant hit like a Pretty Woman kind of hit movie, so there was a real discussion about whether we should change it to Edward Bloom, or Big Fish: The Story of Edward Bloom. Just somehow better frame what the actual experience was of the musical people were going to be hopefully spending $100 on a ticket for.
Craig: And that’s a very common thing. When you are moving from one genre to another sometimes you do want to just change the title.
Craig: And that makes total sense. Big Fish is a tricky one. Right? It’s got the word fish in it which is a dominating word. Fish. I am now thinking about fish. And if I don’t know anything about Big Fish it could be about a restaurant, but probably if somebody said guess what Big Fish is about I’d be like it’s a competition about fishing. Because that absolutely makes sense.
John: And because second to your thought is like, oh a big fish in a small pond, but it takes you a while to get to that level, that metaphorical level. You’re thinking more literally at the start.
Craig: Always. Always. And, yeah, so that’s a tricky one. And I think, yeah, I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall of that discussion about whether or not to change its name. That’s interesting.
John: So, some practical advice for screenwriters. I would say if a title hits you, and you like the title, write it down. Put it in your notes document on your phone. Because titles are really important and if that title gets you excited about writing that idea and you can write an idea that fits that title really well that’s great. It’s great when you have that synergy of this feels like the right name for this thing that I’m describing.
But, don’t stop yourself from writing the thing you really want to write because you can’t think of a title for it. Because I see too many people who will burn weeks trying to think of a title for a thing when they should actually just be sitting their butt in the chair and writing the script. A title will not sell. A script will sell.
Craig: Yes. Of course, we sit there thinking about the title because it beats writing.
Hey, John, have you ever seen the Fellini film Nights of Cabiria?
John: I’ve never seen Nights of Cabiria.
Craig: It’s great. Do you know there’s a musical based on Nights of Cabiria?
John: I don’t. It has a different title. What is the title?
Craig: It sure does. Sweet Charity.
John: Ah! Yeah. And so let’s think about why Sweet Charity is a phenomenal title.
John: You’re going to meet a character named Charity.
John: And Sweet Charity feels like it has a sassy, sexual quality to it. It feels a little old timey, but not too old timey. It feels right to me.
Craig: Yes. It’s very welcoming. It’s warm. Nights of Cabiria doesn’t mean anything to an American audience. Some of them are going to hear Nights of Cabiria and think it’s Knights.
John: That’s what I thought you were saying.
Craig: So Neil Simon did the book and then Bob Fosse directed it and, of course, no surprise starred Gwen Verdon. And I think they together, combined, I don’t know if it was Neil Simon who was kind of title genius, or not, but kudos on that name change. That was huge. Well done.
John: Yeah. And so, again, if you were the writer who like Craig you’re hearing from three different people saying I don’t think that’s the right title for your thing, take that seriously. And do some work and it may be worth swapping stuff out because you don’t want to let your name for a thing keep it from finding the audience it needs to find.
Craig: Right. Exactly.
John: Cool. All right. Let’s go to some listener questions because we have related things about character names. Hey Megana Rao, would you join us here and ask some questions our listeners have sent in to you?
Megana Rao: Great. So Esteban from Puerto Rico wrote in and he asked, “I’m having a hard time choosing names in my script because I get caught up trying to find names that add some sort of mystique or flavor to the character. Shaun from Shaun of the Dead must have been chosen for the play on Dawn of the Dead. Maximus literally means greatest. And Hannibal rhymes with cannibal.
“Is it pretentious of me to try to choose names like this? Should I just pick any name and think about naming later in the writing process?”
Craig: There’s another, well, beats writing, doesn’t it? I’ll sit here and whack off to theories about names.
I mean, so yes, Esteban, no question that this is a trap. 100% there are some really interesting names out there. Some of them movies only get away with because they were in books prior. Like Hannibal Lector, if that didn’t exist in the book before I question strongly whether that would have happened. And Shaun of the Dead is obviously just because it rhymes.
You can get wrapped up in that mystique or flavor of the character. Just know that ultimately no one cares. God’s honest truth, no one cares. If you’re chasing somebody writing an article and pointing out how brilliant your name choice is because did anybody realize that Darth Vader meant Dark Father. Eh, who cares? It doesn’t matter. You know, think about it for a bit and if nothing is compelling you immediately just pick a name and start writing and you can always go back and change it, no problem.
Names matter. I want my names to matter for that character’s truth. Who are they? Where do they live? Who brought them up? Are they upper class, lower class? What is their background? That’s the sort of thing that I’m looking for from a name. Like, you know, in real life instead of meeting somebody and hearing that their name is Louis Cypher. Oh, Lucifer, I get it.
John: I get it now. So, yes, and it’s not a waste of time to be thinking about your main characters’ names. Your protagonist should have a distinct, interesting name that really suits the character that you are excited to write every time it’s underneath your fingers. It feels like the right person.
And so a project I’m working on with somebody else we spent like a good half hour batting back and forth these two character’s names and trying to make sure that they felt right together but they also felt distinct. Just that they had the right quality to them. And it’s just – it’s got to feel right. And so if you pick a name that feels right, great.
General rules for sort of screenwriters is try to avoid using the same first letter in character’s names because that just becomes confusing on the page. You don’t want your reader to have to do any extra work to sort of keep people separated. I also try to avoid having too many names that clump together in sort of one category. And so if I have a Bob I don’t also want a Tom, a George, a Phil, a Ron. Things that sort of all sound like white guy names all in a bunch and have about the same number of letters. You want to try to space those things out. So just make it easier for your reader to keep these characters separated.
But, yes, it can be a trap to be spending too long thinking about a character’s name and also trying to be too clever and too metaphorical with what that character’s name really represents.
Craig: I think your 30 minutes certainly perfectly acceptable. You start heading into hour two, move on.
John: Yeah. You should start writing and then find and replace later on if you come up with a better idea.
Craig: All right. Megana, what else do we have?
Megana: Cool. So Raychel asks, “I’m a BIPOC writer and it’s important to me to write characters that reflect the world around me in terms of ethnicity. Some of my white friends say I should specify ethnicities either through characters’ first names or through the description in the action lines. I want to avoid using ethnic names because I think it just feeds into the stereotype that all minorities have different names. 80% of my minority friends have middle class middle-American names, mine included, because that’s what we are.
“Another reason I got this note is because my script is heavily based in nerd culture. There’s the assumption made that most nerd culture is held by white people so I should specify ethnicities because it would make my script more interesting and add context on the characters’ perspectives. I’m open to my characters being any ethnicity, so I hesitate to specify. When I read the script I see it as a multi-ethnic cast, but I know that we tend to see things through the lens of our world and if a white exec is reading this script the likelihood of them reading it as an all-white cast is probably pretty high.
“I’m curious to know your perspective on this as two white men. Is there a way to encourage a view of multi-ethnic characters without actually specifying writing specific things that point to it? Or is this a burden of specificity I must take on?”
Craig: Well, that’s an interesting run there. I have some things to say to Raychel’s white friends. I will say it to them in white. Ladies in gentleman, what are you doing? I think that certainly there is no need to specify ethnicities through names because I agree with Raychel that people have all sorts of names, whether they are ethnic minorities or not, whether they’re BIPOC or white. There’s probably an Emily of every kind of possible ethnicity. And so there’s no need to use names as some sort of signifier.
And similarly if you don’t want to specifically signify that certain characters are a particular kind of ethnicity then there is no reason to do that either. However, you do have a desire to make sure that this cast does reflect the world around you and that it is multi-ethnic. So what I would recommend, Raychel, is that you insert a page before the script begins. I have done this.
And in it you simply write in as concise and clean and short as you can a paragraph that says this cast should look like the world around it. It is a multi-ethnic cast. I have not specified individual characters’ ethnicity, but presume that it is a mix of white, BIPOC…whatever/however you want to describe it. And just sort of lay that out there as a very short purpose statement. And then you’re good.
John: I think Raychel has more opportunities here and I think she’s maybe scared of some of her opportunities, so I want to really focus in on things she can do. And not that she needs to do it, but things that she can do. So, this is a mild defense of some of what her friends are saying.
I think when they’re bringing up the idea that by choosing names for characters that point us toward specific ethnicity you’re anchoring something in the reader’s head. That’s a valid way to do things. We’ve talked about this on the show before that it is a way of signifying that, hey, don’t default white this character. And that’s really what I think Raychel is asking in that last paragraph is as she knows that the person reading this script might have a default-white bias. And Craig’s dedication page might be helpful, but Raychel as a writer can also do specific things on the page to break that bias and sort of challenge that bias. And so picking names for characters, first names, last names, whatever, can do it.
Maybe what her friends are trying to encourage her to see is if there is some interesting dynamic between a person who is in nerd culture who is of a specific ethnic or racial background that could be explored, that could be interesting to explore. She doesn’t have to do it, but that’s the process of getting notes and having a conversation with people about your work is that hopefully it is sparking some new ideas. And so maybe there is something that she’s not exploring yet that she could explore. She may not want to explore it, but there’s an opportunity here.
So, again, none of this is stuff that she needs to do, but these are things that she could be doing and it’s worth asking if I do this will I succeed in making these characters more specific and less of a type that we’ve seen before.
Craig: Yeah. That’s all true. I’m kind of looking at this last thing she said which is a “burden of specificity I must take on” and I respect the thought there which is what white people get to do is write scripts that aren’t about race. And so I think it’s fair and reasonable and just that BIPOC writers should also be allowed to write scripts that aren’t about race.
Craig: And similarly there’s no reason why including a well sampled representation of ethnicities necessitates a discussion about race or a movie about race. So, I think that you’re right there are absolutely opportunities. And I think she’s got a pretty good grasp on the ways in. But also I think we have to let writers of color off the hook in terms of having to advocate for a representative cast only if yoked to content. You know what I mean?
Craig: So I would say, Raychel, you know what you want and hopefully we’ve given you a couple of ideas of how to get to what you want. But the most important thing is you are in absolute control here and you are able to get the end goal of what you want without having to do other things. You don’t have to like John said. But you can.
John: The other thing that Raychel says is that all of her friends have sort of Middle America middleclass names, which is great, but even in that there is specificity. So Raychel herself, her name is spelled Raychel. Great. There’s a little texture there that’s not the way that 90% of Rachels are spelled. Those little things also matter. And so we’re always looking for what is it that’s going to help me – what is the thing about that name that is going to help me remember that character in the script. And that’s a small thing, but it does still matter.
Craig: That’s a good point. Every name is spelled 400 different ways. And so when we were hearing from Esteban about this name concentration, one thing that he can consider in his toolbox is just screwing with the spelling. My sister is, you ready for this? Do you know what my sister’s name is?
John: No, tell me.
Craig: Karen. Ha. But, she spells is Caryn. So she’s always been that poor kid that had to like correct everybody’s spelling. I mean, she didn’t spell it. My parents did it for her obviously. She was a baby. But I always like that. I like that she had that kind of kooky spelling and I think it’s gotten her a little bit off of the Karen hook with her own kids, but not by much. [laughs] They still call her a Karen all the time, which is pretty funny.
John: Well, a thing about interesting spellings of names in a script that does not help the movie at all. It doesn’t help the movie because as an audience we’re never going to hear the interesting spelling of that name. But it helps for the reader because we don’t get a face to put to that name, but if you have a slightly interesting spelling of that name that is useful. And I get some little bit of information about a Karen spelling a normal way with a K versus how your sister spells it just because it’s different. I get a sense of where she grew up or choices her parents are making. What generation she’s in. It does matter some.
Craig: It evokes things.
John: Yes! That’s what it is.
Craig: And it will be helpful for the actors, too. I think it’s the kind of little – it’s a nub. It’s another nub.
John: It’s all about nubs this week.
Craig: You got to add the nubs.
John: Megana, what else do we have?
Megana: Great. Danielle asks, “I was hoping you could go over budgets in relation to being a writer. I would love to know a few of the elements that sneakily add dollar signs to a film or TV show’s budget so I can keep that in mind while writing. For example, I’ve got to assume that my limited location, small cast script is low budget, but because it’s 90% at night, has a scene in a pool, and involves monsters it’s actually not as low as I thought.”
John: Yeah. Let’s talk about some budget stuff. And this is going to be a very quick general overview and we can do a more in-depth episode at some point. But the most important thing you need to remember about in terms of budget is that time is money. And the more time it takes to film a thing that’s generally the higher budget you’re going to be going into.
And time is in some ways reflected by the number of pages you’re trying to shoot in a day. So, feature film might shoot half a page a day, or two pages a day. A TV show might have to shoot eight pages a day, because their schedules are shorter, their budgets are tighter. Time is money in ways that sort of can’t be overstated.
But the other things you’re pointing out here, Danielle, are factors as well. So, how many locations you’re going to. Because each location you’re going to have to pay for that location and move from one location to another location. That’s expensive. There’s a reason why so many of the Blumhouse movies take place in a single location. It tends to be cheaper.
The more actors you have. That’s an expense. You’re paying those individual actors and the hair and makeup and wardrobe and all the things for those actors.
Visual effects, both practical effects and digital effects, they cost money. You have to really budget those carefully and not just assume what things are going to be expensive because it could be wrong. Like a little bit of rain, not expensive. A big downpour in a big wide open shot? That can be expensive. So, how you’re doing it matters a lot.
And so when you’re putting together a budget for a show the first AD and production manager they’re going to be asking a lot of very specific questions about what do you actually need to see on screen, because that’s going to impact the budget.
Craig: Yeah. All of that is absolutely true. I’m thinking about some of the sneaky things. Elaborate costuming.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: Will have to be created specifically and tailored specifically. And that will add money, especially because they can never make just one. They have to make multiples. Any kind of stunt adds money. Stunt actors/stunt people/stunt performers cost more, obviously, than say just regular background people. So if you have a scene where someone gets thrown through a plate glass window and lands in a diner next to another table they’re not able to put just regular old extras in there. There’s glass breaking. You need stunt people in there.
So, that costs money for sure. Background in general. Amounts of extras. Extras in quantity, which is how we often think of them, cost money. You aren’t necessarily going to take on a lot of extra expense by shooting mostly at night. Sometimes it actually saves you because there are certain locations that you can get that are cheaper that you can only do at night because during the day it involves other things.
So sometimes you actually get a break. And technically I don’t believe there’s a night penalty. You work 12 hours, whether it’s at night or during the day, the payment is the same for everybody.
Scenes in pools, the reason why pools, food fights, any kind of dirt or gunk is expensive is because of resetting. So people get thrown into a pool. OK, they’re in the pool. They’re wet. Get them out of the pool. We have to do another take. Get them out of the clothes. Put the new clothes on. Dry their hair. We do their hair. We do their makeup. Get back. Well, 45 minutes just went by. And like John said, time is money.
So if you start thinking about things like that you will be able to ward off some of the easier pitfalls to avoid, if you want to, Danielle.
Craig: If you want to.
John: That’s really the question. What are you trying to optimize for? Are you trying to optimize for this production that you’re trying to make yourself? Then you’re going to make certain choices. Like The Nines was a movie I was going to make myself and so I was deliberate in sort of how I was constructing things so that it would be possible for me to shoot it. Like a lot of it was set here at my house at a location I could control. And then we could spend a lot of money on certain things that would add a lot of production value. But I could really contain it in a way.
But if you’re writing a script that you’re hoping to sell, the expense of it should not be even on your top ten list in terms of your priorities.
Craig: Yes. And it is also important, Danielle, to safeguard the things that you love and care about. What I try and do, I mean, we did it on every movie I’ve ever done, and on Chernobyl, and again we’ll do it on The Last of Us, where you go through with the producer and you kind of go what’s costing us more money than you would hope. And sometimes you hear things and you’re like, oh that? Oh geez, no, I can just change it to this. I don’t care about that.
And then there are other things and you’re like, well, we’ll be spending the money on that because it matters. And you have to occasionally say it’s actually important that they go into the pool and so that’s going to be a longer day and we just have to bake it in. And if we can trim somewhere else or revise a little bit to save some money somewhere else, you know, so be it.
So just be smart, be practical, but also protect your creative desires.
John: Great. Megana, can you give us one last question?
Craig: Yeah, one more.
Megana: Of course. So, Mary asks, “Quick question. I received a check from the WGA and I am Canadian and not in any unions. They had asked for my info which I gave months ago. The two scripts I wrote were made into TV movies. Does my agent get 10% of my residuals? The amount is around $3,000. Or, is that all mine?”
John: Yeah, so the simple question is does your agent get commission on residuals. And there’s an answer that I can point you to, I can give you a link to. The answer is no. So in general agents don’t get commissions on residuals unless they were able to negotiate a specific residual for you that was higher than what the WGA standard residuals would be. And so your agent did not do that. You’re just getting the standard WGA residuals for having written these two TV movies. Congratulations. Those residuals are yours. Your agent did not get you those residuals. The guild got you those residuals.
Craig: I’m still going to say I think this is a foreign levy just because of the amount and because she’s not in the union and the things that she wrote were not union signatory. So that wouldn’t generate residuals. It would potentially generate foreign levies which would come from the WGA. But regardless, both of them work the same. The WGA has negotiated the residual rates for its members. And the WGA, DGA, and MPAA have negotiated how the foreign levies come from other countries and are then distributed. Your agent didn’t negotiate any of it. Your agent gets 10% of what they negotiate and zero percent of what they do not.
John: Yeah. I just want to underline what Craig said there again. Your agent gets a commission on the things that they got you. The things that they negotiated for you. And they did not get you those things, whether these really are foreign levies, or they are residuals. They didn’t do it. So they don’t get the commission on that.
Craig: I had an argument with an agent about this once years ago. He’s not an agent anymore, he’s a producer. And I said, you know, it’s pretty rare that I have an argument about something and I have zero percent concern that I’m wrong. I’ve never been in this situation. Even at my most strident there’s still room for one percent of like, oh geez, I hope I’m not wrong about this. But in this one? Zero percent.
You didn’t negotiate it. You get none of it. Period. The end.
John: Megana, thank you for these questions.
Megana: Thank you guys.
Craig: Thanks Megana.
John: All right, it’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a performance by Sarah Smallwood Parsons. I think it was from UCB.
Craig: I know this one.
John: It’s just so good. And so it’s a song that she sings called The Song in Every Musical that No One Likes. I just love when someone identifies a trope, points it out, and performs the trope so brilliantly and she does that here.
And so it’s talking about in most stage musicals there’s like an older man who sings this song that is just kind of filler and it’s while it’s going on you’re like it’s fine, but then you go on to the next thing. She very hilariously talks through why this song exists and it’s just so great. So, let me play you a clip.
[Clip plays – Sarah Smallwood Parsons]
Also I want to commend the YouTube algorithm for pointing me towards this thing because I was not looking for it at all. It showed up in the little sidebar and I’m like, well, that was good. And it was delightful.
Craig: You know what I love is that in the lyrics she cites two kind of prototypical the song in every musical that no one likes roles, Sentimental Man from Wicked, and Mr. Cellophane from Chicago. And both of those performed by Joel Grey. So poor Joel Grey.
John: Poor Joel Grey.
Craig: He finally gets trotted out to do these songs where he’s like I can only do this. And this is how it goes. I mean, he’s an amazing performer. It’s just that those two songs – in Cabaret you could hardly accuse him of being that character. But it’s pretty funny that those are the two.
John: I really like Mr. Cellophane.
Craig: I love Mr. Cellophane.
John: I totally get what Mr. Cellophane does, but honestly you could skip that track and your life would actually be fine.
Craig: I also love Sentimental Man. I do. It’s one of my favorite songs from that show. But, you know what? I’m a weirdo.
Here are my One Cool Things of the week that I’m using in conjunction. I realized after staring at my Apple Watch for the 4,000th day in a row that I’m like why is it one watch face? I feel like I’m not using this thing right. So I went to look for a different watch face and I found there’s a site called Facer. There’s a subscription version of it where you get a billion watch faces, but I think the free one seemed to chuck up enough for me.
And so I pulled an interesting Apple Watch face off of Facer and I also subscribed to a weather service called Carrot which has various amusing options, but is very full-featured. And what I love now is I can look at my watch and I can see on my watch in a very easy way what the daily low and what the daily high is going to be. And the humidity. And then I can see also what’s coming up on my schedule and blah-blah and all the little watch complication stupid thingies.
But it was nice. I spiffed up my watch. The whole point is you can have a new watch every day if you want and I hadn’t changed it in forever. So Facer and Carrot together. Yeah.
John: Yeah, you’ve inspired me Craig. So I’ve been using, it’s called Modular Face, for most of this time. And it’s great. I really have no complaints about it. But it’s not super exciting.
John: I may switch it up a bit.
Craig: Take a look at Facer.
John: Cool. That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced, as always, by Megana Rao.
Craig: Damn straight.
John: And edited by Matthew Chilelli.
Craig: You know it.
John: Our outro this week is by Chester Howe. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions.
For show questions on Twitter I am @johnaugust.
We have t-shirts and they are great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you 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 of the back episodes and bonus segments like the one we’re about to record on restaurant behavior. Craig, thank you for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you John and Megana.
John: Craig, what do I do when I go back to a restaurant? Please talk me through it because I just have no idea what a person should do in a restaurant.
Craig: First of all, pants. Incredibly important.
John: Oh my god, pants. Yes.
Craig: Shoes. Shirt. We are on the cusp of returning to indoor dining, depending on where you live it’s probably already happening to some extent. And I have been going to restaurants in Los Angeles for nearly 30 years and I have seen some pretty bad behavior.
John: So pre-pandemic bad behavior. So, maybe it’s a chance for a reset. A fresh start and we’re going to start behaving better in restaurants. What are some things you would like to see from your fellow restaurant patrons?
Craig: So the easiest one, just as a blanket rule, be incredibly kind to your server. They are not cooking the food. They are also not responsible for you not getting the food on time. They are literally doing nothing except asking you what you want and making recommendations, telling the kitchen, and then bringing it to you when it’s ready. That’s what they’re doing. And so there’s no reason to make them the brunt of your ire.
There are times where you get hangry. And there are times where things go terribly wrong. And, yes, of course there are times when a server may be rude or just bad at their job. It’s possible. I like to remind myself that they have been on their feet for hours, days, weeks, months, years. They’re doing the best they can at a job that doesn’t even pay minimum wage. It’s a tipped job.
Which leads me to my next thing. Tips.
John: So, you should tip these people who are bringing you your food, and cooking your food, and making it so you can enjoy your food prepared.
Craig: I mean, our system requires tips. Because they’re not paid what they should be paid. They will not make it if they don’t get tips. So, everybody has different tipping philosophies and different tipping percentages. And what I like to say is make your tip roughly aligned with the amount of money you have. If you go out to dinner and it’s some crazy dinner and it’s a $400 bill, some super fancy restaurant, well percentage wise, percentage makes that worth their time, which is great. And I think if that was kind of a once-a-year splurge for you because you are on a budget I don’t think there’s a problem tipping 15%. I think that’s a good baseline. 15% feels like the baseline to me. I wouldn’t go below it.
20% I think if you can. And you know what? If you’re flush, 25%. Because you are their employer, whether you know it or not. You’re the ones that are actually paying them their salaries. So try as best you can to be generous when you can when it’s warranted.
John: So, my husband and I are known for just befriending waiters. And so we will go to a breakfast place regularly and just become friends with waiters. And we have a list of friends who are waiters now. And so everything you’re saying about treating folks who are bringing you your food like human beings who are doing a job is absolutely valid.
My second sort of question though is how should people behave with other people dining in that restaurant at the same time?
Craig: Great question.
John: It’s not a simple relationship in like it’s me and my server. It’s also everyone around you. And I think when I have frustrations at restaurants it’s generally not with the people who work at the restaurant, it’s with the people who have chosen to come into this restaurant.
Craig: Right. So, the easiest one that I think everyone can agree on is get off your goddamn phone. I don’t mean to say stop staring at your phone. If you’re staring at your phone quietly because you and your spouse are in a chilly moment at dinner, so be it. But if you get a phone call and you need to talk to somebody, get up and walk out.
John: Step outside.
Craig: Go outside. And you may think, why? I’m not talking any louder than I would to the person across from me. And you know what? I don’t know why. I don’t know why it’s so much more annoying, but it is.
John: It’s so, so much more annoying.
Craig: It’s so much more annoying.
John: You use a different kind of voice when you’re talking on the phone. It’s the worst.
Craig: Get up and get out. No one wants to hear your crap. So, that’s the easy one right off the bat. Second one. This is a real weird one. And it’s not going to be an issue for a while because the restaurants are mostly spacing everybody out. But when you are back in the normal time and you’re in some, usually it’s in a city, so there’s not a lot of space, so the tables are really close together. Please be aware of your own ass as you are getting up and moving between tables.
Because if you’re not, and you’re just not paying attention, you can be rubbing your butt on someone else’s table. They don’t want that. I don’t want that.
Craig: If you are of a size where it’s inevitable, just as you stand up just say excuse me I need to make way through so that you’re acknowledging to somebody I’m coming through now, so I don’t want to put my butt on you. I am paying attention. And then they can help sort of move out of the way and then you can go. But don’t just casually rub your butt on people’s tables. It drives me crazy.
John: Yeah, so New York restaurants are notoriously very tightly packed. LA restaurants are not quite as packed in terms of how many tables they’re trying to stick together. But certainly much more so than the Midwest. And I think sometimes you come from the Midwest where there’s 10-feet between tables and giant booths and all these things. And you come here and you’re like oh my god these two-top tables are so tight and so close to each other.
Yeah, they are. That’s just how it is. You have to sort of get used to it. And you have to find your own little zone of privacy even though you are six inches from the next person.
Craig: Yeah. I think also if you can say thank you.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: And say please. You don’t have to, right, you’re buying it. But there’s something that rubs me wrong about somebody who comes up, hey folks how are you doing, what can I help you with? Yeah, give me this. Oh, OK. I will gimme it to you. And then you bring it to them and you put it down and they’re like, eh. OK, well enjoy. Mm-hmm. Or people that don’t acknowledge the waiter. Like literally just won’t acknowledge them.
So just try to remember these are people. Be polite. Say please. Say thank you. And if you need to get their attention try if you can to do it silently. Just the yelling across the restaurant for Miss or Sir is also kind of disruptive.
John: You have to make eye contact, do the little hand gesture that indicates hey there’s a thing when you get a chance to come over to the table and there’s a thing.
And it’s a skill you have to learn how to do that, but you can do it. It’s like getting a drink at a bar. You have to be present but not obnoxious to get them to come over.
Craig: That’s a great way of putting it.
John: Let’s talk about children in restaurants.
John: Because I think most of my experience really has been breakfast – we go out to breakfast much more than we go out to dinner. And so I see a wide range of sort of how children are present at restaurants. And I want to sort of both defend parents and also put some edges on what’s acceptable behavior both for a kid in a restaurant and for other people being annoyed by kids in restaurants.
I think kids exist and kids need to be able to go out to restaurants as well. And if you’re going to a restaurant where there are going to be kids, you’re going to a restaurant where there are going to be kids and you cannot just be annoyed by their existence.
Craig: I like to stand up in the middle of a Chuck-E-Cheese and demand silence!
John: Silence! I cannot hear the band! [laughs]
Craig: [laughs] Please would you sit down! I am enjoying a pizza.
John: So, if you’re going to a restaurant with your kids you’re going to figure out hopefully strategies for keeping your kid entertained during the time in which you sit down, they have food in them, and they’re getting out. So you bring stuff for them to do at that table.
But all kids are different and they’re going to be going around a little bit. And stop treating other people’s children like they are a burden upon you, because they are not. It’s just the future of humanity.
Craig: They are the future of humanity. Of course, there is the other perspective which I think is reasonable. And that is if you are there with your kid and there’s two of you, whether it’s partners or friends, whatever it is, and a kid has a meltdown which they can sometimes have.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: Pick them up. Walk them outside. Because that’s a very simple thing you can do to make everyone’s life around you easier and also I think make your life easier.
John: And it’s better – also it’s better for the kid as well. To make it clear that there’s a range of what you can do inside a restaurant and if you can’t do those things we’re going to go outside until you can–
Craig: Until you calm down. Exactly. The parents that infuriate me are the ones that don’t seem to notice that their child is on the floor screaming and crawling toward me. And this is not Chuck-E-Cheese. At that point I want to say like do you not care about – I mean, I get that your choice is, eh, screw it, let Braden scream and crawl. I don’t care. I’m having lunch. But we’re also here, too.
John: Yeah. So that parent was probably making the right choice for when Braden has a meltdown at home.
John: There’s a whole valid approach to sort of just let them have their meltdown and they get through it.
Craig: Right. Ignore it.
John: Ignore it. Great. No, not when you’re in a restaurant and you’re putting that burden on everybody else around you.
Craig: Correct. Every single one of these things that we’re saying comes down to simply being considerate. Being considerate.
John: What are you looking forward to most eating in a restaurant when you can eat in a restaurant? Have you and Melissa already talked about where you want to go first?
Craig: Well we’ve been to some outside restaurant experiences which were very nice, but not quite the same as the old ways. I think, you know, having a good old fashioned noisy loud restaurant, you know one of those two-hour dinners with friends in some sort of packed place will be fun. I like the energy. I like the bustle.
John: Yeah. I’m looking forward to something a little bit more like that. Because, yeah, you can do that outdoors but it’s challenging. It’s not quite the same experience. And I’m looking forward to getting back to breakfast. That was always the thing that we used to do on Saturday morning is to get up and let the kid sleep and go to breakfast. And so I want to do that again.
Craig: I think it’s right around the corner. That actually reminds me of one other thing I would suggest to people is be aware of time. Because the restaurant needs to keep moving you in and out. Some restaurants are fancy and when you sit down you realize you’ve bought a chunk of time there. And they are really reluctant to kick you out. But just be aware of how much time you’re chit-chatting before you’ve ordered.
Everybody has that moment. At some moment somebody at the table has to go, hold on, hold on, everybody stop talking. Let’s figure it out. And then we can get back to our conversation. And also at the end of the meal you’ve had your dinner, maybe you’ve had dessert, and now you’re just yacking away which is fun, because you’re catching up with people, but still be aware that there may be other people waiting for a table. There may be a reservation that you’re cutting into. And by holding that off you may also be reducing the amount of tip money that your server can get. So just be aware of it.
John: Yeah. Definitely. May be time to move that conversation from this restaurant to the bar next door.
Craig: Yeah. And definitely if you look around and you’re like oh lord we’re the last one – don’t be the last ones there.
Craig: Just don’t.
Craig: Don’t. Don’t do it.
John: Craig, thanks. I’m looking forward to a meal at some point.
Craig: Thanks John.
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