The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey this is John. Head’s up that today’s episode has just a little bit of swearing in it.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August and this is Episode 503 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Craig is traveling, so today I’m hosting solo. But I’m hardly alone. Later in the show I’ll be talking with WandaVision creator Jac Schaeffer about her amazing series, and writer-director Lance Oppenheim about his acclaimed documentary, Some Kind of Heaven. A question I asked them both is what do you do when you don’t control the characters you’re given. Jac and Lance had very smart ways of thinking about that challenge.
But to kick things off I want to welcome back the writer-producer behind such iconic films as The Wedding Date, How To Be Single, Couples Retreat, and Isn’t it Romantic. She’s also the co-writer of the new film, Cruella. Welcome back returning champion, Dana Fox.
Dana Fox: Woo-hoo. I need my playout music.
John: Yeah. You’ve got to – you walk down, you take your seat, you pick up your mic and you wave to the crowd.
Dana: Ah, big time waving.
John: Dana, I can’t believe I’ve not seen you in person for more than a year. This is not good.
Dana: I miss your face so, so much. Sometimes I just Google you just to see you, because I miss you.
John: During this whole crazy time you decamped to Virginia, right? You’ve been in Virginia for most of this pandemic.
Dana: That is correct. We were in LA for the beginning sort of horrible sudden three children on Zoom school scenario where we were all jammed in like sardines and it was pretty intense. And we decided to come to Virginia because more space, just grass, just outdoor space. And we just told our kids to go outside and never come back. You’re wild animals now. Goodbye. And they became like feral. They stopped showering. There’s zero hair-brushing happening here at this house, including for me.
But we all just needed a little bit more space from each other. We love each other so much, but we needed a little space. Three kids under eight was intense.
John: That’s a lot. So, you were still able to manage your career though. So an interesting thing about this year is that it has sort of shown that people can be in places that are not Hollywood and still get stuff done. You had a whole second season of your show Home Before Dark. That all happened during the pandemic and you did it all from Virginia, correct?
Dana: Yeah. I mean, Home Before Dark season two, which comes out June 11, was literally almost entirely completed from a creepy room in a house in Virginia with just me being sweaty, with a lot of monitors. A lot of Apple products. A lot of whiteboards. So much laundry. So many piles of laundry all around me at all times.
But what I learned was that I’m actually weirdly possibly more efficient this way. I know it’s going to be controversial to say, but the Evercast system which allowed me to sort of watch what was going on on-set I know can be a little bit of a tricky thing for some people, but I tried to make sure that I was calling in more like compliments and cheers than anything else. And the only time I ever really called in notes was just if I had a good idea about something. I was like, oh, that made me think of a different line. Try this, because I didn’t want to use it like a creepy big brother who called in to complain from 100,000 miles away.
But it was incredibly effective because I could watch set. I could write scripts on one monitor while I was keeping one eyeball on set. I could pop into a Zoom to talk to the editors. All of a sudden I’m looking at one episode in one Zoom room and then I’m hopping into another room, watching another cut in a different room with a different editor. And like weirdly I ended up being a ton more productive.
I was also really lucky because I had this incredible woman, Margie Love, who helps me with everything. And she was like – not CJ Craig, but who on the West Wing is the one who orders everybody around and tells them what to do? The chief of staff. She’s like my chief of staff.
John: The Allison Janney character?
Dana: I don’t know who it is. I’ve seen West Wing 75,000 times and I love it so much and god forbid you held a gun to my head and told me to say what everyone’s jobs were. But truly it was like amazing because she was just sort of a chief of staff. She would sort of order me around and be like you’re going in this room next, you’re going in that room next. You’ve got 45 minutes. You’ve got to look at this script. You’ve got to do your changes on this script. So that was sort of what kept the whole train on the track. And it was weirdly I think I got a lot more done which is terrible because it becomes very man behind the curtain-y.
Like I think we all realized a lot of the like getting in your car and driving for two hours to Santa Monica to do color timing is maybe never going to happen again for me. Because I was able to do it from home. They sent me a fancy iPad. I looked at the color timing live. I could say, hey, can you brighten up that window, or hey, I feel like she’s sort of like this, and can you treat that. And, boom, he’s tweaking it and I’m looking at it from my creepy room in Virginia.
John: So Dana what I’m taking from this description is that there’s no reason for Craig to be in Calgary for all these months coming up here. And that he basically just ran away to escape me and the Scriptnotes recording process?
Dana: Literally 100%. That actually is why I was called to do Scriptnotes today. This is so awkward. Craig wanted me to come to tell you that it’s because of you that he’s gone.
John: Yeah. So, with Craig gone, this is normally the part of the show that we would talk through the news. And so maybe you could fill in for Craig on this part. Because I’m sort of struggling here without him.
Dana: I can’t possibly do as well as Craig, but please, try me.
John: So I want to roll out a new segment, it’s really a beta test of a new segment called Did You See in Deadline Where…? So these are all actual Deadline headlines. And so we should make it clear that ten years ago this would have been Did You See in Variety Where, but really Deadline has supplanted that as the thing people talk about when they go into one of those meetings. Like did you see in Deadline where.
So these are all actual Deadline headlines. And I just want to get your feedback on this headline, which may be complete news to you because maybe you aren’t following the trades the way you were before.
Dana: Hit me.
John: Are you ready?
Dana: Yeah, big time.
John: Dana, did you see in Deadline where Timothée Chalamet is set to play Willy Wonka in a new origin tale from Warner Bros?
Dana: Yes, I did. And that was one of the moments where I just Googled your face to think about you because I remember you did that movie. And I love me a Timothée Chalamet. I think he’s actually kind of fantastic for this part. And I was like, all right, I see where you’re coming from. I wonder what they’re going to do with it. What were you thinking? That’s kind of intense. You must have had some emotions.
John: I did. I mean, the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory made like a billion dollars and it was an origin story, so I guess there’s still new territory to explore. But Dana as the writer of Cruella I want to say you’re no stranger to origin stories, but at least Cruella only killed dogs. I mean, here you’ve got Willy Wonka going after Augustus Gloop. You’ve got some Violet Beauregard. You have Veruca Salt. You’ve got the unambitiously named Mike TV. This is like The Joker with chocolate.
Dana: Do you think we’re going to meet those people, or do you think we’re going to be like hanging out with him when he’s in his house before he gets the chocolate factory?
John: I suspect it’s before all of those people exist because they would be too young if it’s Timothée Chalamet. But it’s a good question. It could be the origin story of the Oompa Loompas, which is potentially problematic so you’ve got to find a way through the Oompa Loompa and their sort of indentured servitude to Willy Wonka. Yeah, there’s a lot.
Dana: We were always thinking of ways to sort of tease these future things when we were talking about Cruella and sort of saying well how much do we want to do nods and winks to the sort of canon. So I feel like you can do the math on Timothée Chalamet’s age and I think maybe you could watch Augustus Gloop’s parents make love and know that Augustus Gloop is coming? No pun intended. He’s like coming into the world.
You can always do the math and say well what would be the cool precursor to the thing and the thing. And so I mean I feel like I’m in for that movie. I’m intrigued by it. Who is directing it? Do we know who is directing it?
John: It is I think the guy who did Paddington if I recall correctly, who is great.
Dana: People are like obsessed with Paddington 2. Is Paddington 2 guy the same as Paddington 1 guy?
John: I think it’s the same person. I’ve never seen Paddington 1. I’ve only seen Paddington 2 and it is indeed delightful.
Now, going back to Cruella though, you know, one of the things I found so frustrating about the discourse on Cruella is this question of who is this movie for.
Dana: Oh, god, my favorite.
John: Yeah. And with this movie I guess you can ask that question. Who is the audience? If you want to see a twink navigate a chocolate river you’re probably not going to the multiplex.
John: I mean, that’s niche content Dana. No judgments. But you’re going to want to VPN for that.
Dana: That’s amazing. I really, really didn’t think about it that way, but now I will never, ever be able to think of it any other way. That’s really special and important.
Yeah, I feel like the question of who is it for is the number one thing I have been asked in the last three years of my career. And I keep just being like, I don’t know, I just kind of like it. I think it’s pretty great.
John: I think it’s pretty great.
Dana: You know, that’s the kind of thing that people ask when they’re scared that they don’t know exactly how much money something is going to make. And I just kind of feel like it’s fun to try to straddle the different worlds and try to say I think young kids want things to reach up to. And I think adults want to feel like kids again. So, don’t ask me that question anymore people. I’m not interested.
John: Speaking of adults feeling like kids, another casting news, did you see in Deadline where Kevin Spacey Will Return To Film In Franco Nero’s The Man Who Drew God. Spacey will play a police officer investigating a man wrongly accused of sexually abusing children. Spacey said he’s been researching the role–
John: –for decades.
Dana: No. Are you kidding?
John: No, it’s a real movie.
Dana: That’s not what the part is about?
John: That’s what the part is about.
Dana: That’s not the part.
John: That is the part.
Dana: No, John.
John: Yes. He’s a police officer investigating a man wrongly accused of sexually abusing children. That’s the confusing part.
Dana: Oh my god, John.
John: I mean, Spacey, he’s so excited to be in a film that asks the question what if a guy didn’t do what I’m accused of doing.
Dana: I have to take a minute. I actually have to maybe potentially get down on the ground. I tend to sort of go low when I feel dizzy. Are you kidding? I literally thought you were 1,000% joking.
John: No, it’s not a joke. There’s a joke around it, but that’s the actual premise of the movie.
Dana: Oh my god. [Unintelligible]. I saw the headline and I intentionally didn’t click on it because I was like I’m not OK with it. I’m not ready. It’s too soon. Possibly it will always be too soon for me. I can’t do it. Unfortunately I can no longer watch Woody Allen movies. I love a Woody Allen movie. I used to have a secret thing where in the very beginning before I felt like it was like fully confirmed I was like I’ll only watch them on planes where nobody notices I’m watching. Like I’d like get on a plane and I’d immediately look for Annie Hall and then just sort of embarrassingly check both directions and then hit play, and then just watch it on planes where I feel like it was like, look, what happens at 40,000 feet stays at 40,000 feet.
And even that I can’t do anymore.
John: There was a time which I was a vegetarian, but I would eat chicken if it was the in-flight option.
Dana: Totally. Totally.
John: That’s you with Woody Allen.
Dana: And for me Kevin Spacey is chicken, which is that I no longer eat chicken even when it’s a secret, or when nobody is going to know about it. I just can’t do it. Can’t do it.
John: Dana, what are we going to do if this movie is good? That’s my biggest worry is Spacey is actually a good actor. And so this movie could be good and then what do we do?
Dana: I couldn’t agree with you more. But I think it’s like it doesn’t matter if it’s good. I think you just can’t see it. I think people just have to say we’re just not giving – to me it’s sort of like a serial killer writing a book and making money off of it. It’s like no. You don’t get to do that. Not my money. I’m not giving you my money.
And I think he’s a great actor, but you know, I was going to make a horrible joke that I’m not going to make about murderers being like painters. Like so and so is a good painter, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t care if the movie is good.
John: I know who the so-and-so was, and you know what, it’s right for you not to have made that.
Dana: Exactly. Thank you. Not funny. Never funny.
John: Speaking of restraint, did you see in Deadline where John Cena Apologizes — In Mandarin — To China Over Calling Taiwan A Country?
John: I get it. He’s got F9 to promote and China is a huge market, but still I have not seen a public figure so fully prostrate themselves to a foreign power since Craig apologized to Liverpool for misattributing You’ll Never Walk Alone.
Dana: Oh my god.
John: That’s a niche joke. That’s for the fans, I’m putting that in there.
Dana: That’s literally for my husband. I’m like you’re welcome, Quinn Emmett. Please enjoy.
I have to say I know I’m supposed to be talking about the headline, but I don’t know anything about it, so I am going to say I didn’t realize you were so amazing at segues. Have you always been this amazing at super natural segues in between stuff?
John: It’s a found skill, a found art. I’m one of those mutants in X-Men who like very late in life it manifests. Oh my gosh, he can do this really unimportant thing. But I became Segue Man only because of Scriptnotes.
Dana: You’re incredible at it. It’s sort of like how Craig discovered he’s an amazing actor. Did you guys both discover that because of Scriptnotes? It’s beautiful.
John: I don’t know. I think he did a lot more voice work sort of because of Scriptnotes, so who is to say. I don’t have a good segue for this next joke though. Dana did you see in Deadline where Amazon is buying MGM for $8.5 billion?
Dana: Oh my god. They have all the money.
John: Amazon vows to keep releasing movies theatrically with the new James Bond movie due out October 8, or October 7 if you check out in the next 30 minutes.
John: You can throw some batteries in the cart and push it over the limit.
Dana: It’s kind of amazing. But I have to say I know I’m supposed to be cynical, and I know I’m supposed be like ugh they’re destroying the world, but I just love sunscreen and I love being able to just order as much of it as I want anytime I want and five seconds later it’s at my house. So I was like psyched about the MGM thing. I like MGM’s catalog and I like sunscreen. So I was like it’s kind of a beautiful marriage for me.
John: Yeah, I mean, a lot of people are freaking out but I don’t think there’s really anything to worry about Amazon entering the movie business because look what they did for books.
Dana: Correct. Can you explain – I got the joke, but I’m moving on from it. Again, I like to order off of Amazon, I’m so sorry. But can you explain to me why people are freaking out about it? Because I didn’t totally understand why everyone was so up in arms. I was sort of like, yeah, there’s going to be a place where you can watch the movies that you couldn’t watch before this, now this other place. It’s all on your thing.
John: I think it’s just the problem of all of the consolidation in the industry. I think it’s people trying to take a do-over for Disney and Fox, which should probably never have happened. And so I think it’s just people recognizing like, oh my god, there’s going to be three buyers and you’re going to go to just the same three places the whole time.
Dana: Right. Right.
John: I think it’s just awareness of how much the industry is coalescing around these giant players.
Dana: I hear that. But I feel like if any of these places had been making these like profoundly amazing artistic films and then had been gobbled up by it I’d be like, oh trag. But, I mean, they’re kind of commercial movies. Here, go buy your batteries and watch your movie.
John: They got their Creeds. That’s sort of it.
Dana: I like that Creed. I’m not going to lie to you. That was a nice Creed. Love that Creed.
John: Finally, Dana, did you see in Deadline where in the new movie Army of the Dead Tig Notaro shot all of her scenes alone? So it was all reshoots and she’s in a bunch of scenes with actors but, nope, she was just in a green screen. It was just all Tig Notaro alone.
It reminds me that Craig was originally supposed to be in those scenes but he got too busy making his new show.
Dana: That’s amazing. That does not surprise me. And I’ll say it’s because I finished a TV show in complete Covid protocols and I was kind of amazed at – you know, in the beginning when we shut down in the middle of an episode I thought, oh, there’s going to be this fun bingo game, drinking game, that everyone is going to get to play after the end of the pandemic where you’re going to be watching your favorite TV show and then you have to drink when you see the character age by like a year in the middle of a scene.
And I thought it was going to be really complicated and everything was going to look crazy. And it’s like I watched the show and you absolutely can’t tell. We have huge crowd scenes that we just did totally safely with tiling and all sorts of stuff. We had to do a bunch of stuff like what you’re talking about. Just kind of shooting people alone so that they could be in scenes with people that they couldn’t breathe around. And so it kind of doesn’t surprise me.
And again I don’t think it’s something that we want to do in the future because I think that actors really feed off each other’s energy and I think it’s a little bit oddball to be up against a green screen for like an entire conversation. But like, OK, I’m buying it.
John: Yeah. The real question is Dana why isn’t Tig Notaro in your show? She could be in your show. What do you have against Tig Notaro that she’s not in your show?
Dana: Well now we know that there’s no reason Tig Notaro can’t be in every show. So it’s like, yeah, there’s going to be a real reckoning with that. I like Tig Notaro a lot. I think she’s great.
John: I think she’s that little bit of pepper you need to sort of spice things up. She’s great.
Dana: I think that’s right. And I think maybe–
John: She’s like deadpan pepper.
Dana: Maybe just send me the footage and I’ll see if I can work it in from the other thing.
John: Done. 100%.
Dana: Some of the green screen stuff. Let’s just stick it in my thing with a different background.
John: Dana Fox, thank you so much for helping me out with the headlines. I’m going to be back talking with you–
Dana: Oh, I love you.
John: –in our bonus segment about naps. And everyone check out the second season of your mystery-thriller series Home Before Dark. It appears June 11 on AppleTV+. Yay.
Dana: Yay. Oh, you’re the greatest John. Thank you.
John: Stick around because after the break I’ll be cheating with Jac Schaeffer about WandaVision and navigating the Marvel universe.
[WandaVision clip plays]
So Darcy may not know what’s happening, but luckily we have someone who does know. Jac Schaeffer is a writer-director whose credits include Time, The Hustle, and the story for the upcoming Marvel Studios’ Black Widow film. She also created and executive produced the hit series WandaVision. Welcome Jac.
Jac Schaeffer: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
John: Now, I emailed you probably after episode two to say how amazingly well-done I thought your show was and just how much I was enjoying it week-to-week. And I’d been curious about your show really early on because as listeners will know we lost our former producer, Megan McDonnell, to your show. She was hired away from Scriptnotes to work on your WandaVision show. And I was just so excited that it turned out so amazingly well.
Jac: Yes. I’m so delighted that I got to poach her directly from you. She is extraordinary. I love her madly. And that was her episode that you were just playing. One of two that she contributed to and many other things on the series.
Yeah, I could spend this whole segment just talking about Megan McDonnell if you wanted to do that. She is very smart.
John: Well maybe we can do that off-mic. But Megan is also an absolute steel trap because she told us nothing about your show or what was happening in it. And even as it was airing she was like I can’t say anything. She revealed nothing.
So now that the show is out and done I really want to talk about the process of putting together WandaVision and we’re not spoiling Marvel secrets. I’m just really curious how it all came to be. Because I don’t have a good sense of was Marvel pitching you? Were you pitching Marvel? What were those early conversations when it came time to think about doing WandaVision?
Jac: Sure. You know, it’s unusual at Marvel. It’s unlike anything else that I’ve experienced in the industry. They have their own system and it has been very successful for them.
They typically develop their concepts in house. And the only other actually place that it’s a little bit similar to is Disney Animation, where there is a lot of dedicated in-house development time. And so when you come in to pitch on something usually they have materials for you and they sort of know essentially what the gig is going to be. And then you’re meant to come in and bring your voice and perspective to the project.
So for WandaVision it was Kevin’s idea. He wanted to blend – to put Wanda and Vision’s characters together with the history of sitcoms and sort of use that to examine her very robust and tragic backstory of loss and grief. And they had a lot of sort of – they had some little ideas. They had this idea of like a milkman who was really scary. And so they had some granular stuff. And then they had big picture stuff of is it a dome, and is it the world, and who is helping, and what’s going on. And so I adjusted all of that material and then came back to them with a pitch that sort of gave shape to all of these pieces.
John: So it feels very much like a feature, you’re also a feature writer, so it feels like situations where there’s a book to adapt, and so obviously you have everything that’s in the book and then they may be bringing you in. And then you say like, OK, here’s how I’m going to do this. This thing you’re pitching towards me, here’s how I’m pitching it back to you. This is what I think it feels like. This is how I think it might work. Is that fair?
Jac: It’s sort of like that. I mean, I haven’t adapted a book, but I’ve sort of gone down the road. And I have felt that for me it’s a different approach. Because I find books are so immersive, especially when they’re very POV driven, if they’re very first person. And so you feel kind of surrounded by a world and a voice and a tone and a character. And this is different than that because it’s so sprawling. Because what you’re pitching on is like a kernel and a tone. Because they often assign genre to their – so the most reductive thing is like, OK, we’re doing a western, we’re doing a heist. So you’re sort of buying in on what, like you know Black Widow obviously is sort of spy genre, in the Bourne world.
John: As opposed to Ant Man which is like a heist comedy.
Jac: Yeah, heist comedy. Exactly. Exactly. With a novel I feel like there’s a little bit more containment. And yes you can depart from the book, but you’re always kind of housed in whatever that original container is. Whereas on this there’s like no container. It’s just an enormous table full of materials. And some of them – it’s sort of like I would imagine, I don’t know anything about cars, but cars before they were computers. If you took apart a car and there were all of these pieces spread out over a table. One is a huge engine and one is a tiny little whatever piece. I’m going to say wingnut, even though it’s probably not that. And this metaphor has gone off the rails.
But do you know what I mean? There’s so many parts to it that – on this one in particular I had to find the sort of spine and through line of it.
John: That’s what I really want to talk about is how did you find the spine and through line, which I guess quite early on you had to figure out sort of a tone and an approach. Because one of the things I loved so much about WandaVision is you watch that first episode and second episode and you’re like I’m not even quite sure what show this is. I’m not sure what the tone is. It’s just so wild and weird and unusual.
So what was the containment device for it? You say that it’s not a heist movie, it’s not a western. What did you feel this was? This surrealist existential drama? What limits did you put on yourself?
Jac: It’s funny. When I was thinking about having this conversation with you today and I was thinking about Craig actually and how amazed I am that he wrote The Hangover sequels and then also Chernobyl, and I always really admire people who can do it all, and can dance all the different – they can do all the different dances at the ballroom competition.
But for me, I just like them all in the same spot. That is really exciting to me. The challenge of can you do the kitchen sink with the one project.
You know, my first way in, I sort of had two points of entry on this. One was I mapped – I broke the episodes according to the stages of grief. It was a very reductive framing device that just helped guide me. And it ended up – we ended up straying from it a little bit, and then kind of returning to it. And now if you look at the show it’s very evident. She is in denial for the first three episodes.
And she’s angry and kicks Monica out. And then she’s bargaining outside, the sequence that we called the hex flex, when she steps out of the hex. You know, and the whole thing was meant to culminate with acceptance. That she has to accept the truth of her circumstance. So that was like one of the ways that I approached the pitch and kind of gave shape to it.
And then the other thing was that I knew that there was a huge risk that it would just feel like parody and just feel like a gimmick. And there was such a risk that we wouldn’t care about these characters. And I just knew instinctively that if we told the linear story of Wanda goes to get Vision’s body, is denied, and freaks out and creates a dome that there’s no tension in that.
Jac: So, it was my instinct and I think it was also kind of implied in their early documents of starting inside of the world and then trying to sort of unpack that mystery. But I think their instinct was to kind of parse it early, like in the first episode reveal. And I wanted to hang onto it. And I wanted to try and create an actual sitcom. So that was the driving force is like how long can we keep the cat in the bag and create maximum tension and intrigue and interest.
John: Well tension and intrigue and interest, you’re really talking about expectation. You’re talking about where the audience is at. What does the audience this is going to happen next? How can you reward that and how can you challenge that and sort of move past it? So those first two episodes, the first episode is so very classic black and white and really arch performances and so we’re expecting is this show, and then as we move to the second episode we see the time has jumped forward. It felt like you were from a very early stage anticipating what the discourse would be like week to week and where the audience was going to be at and what the audience was expecting to happen next. Is that fair?
Jac: It is fair. It is fair. We weren’t entirely certain that it would be week to week. When we were making it it was up in the air whether or not it would be a dump and be binge-able, or if it would be week to week. And it was always my hope it would be week to week. And I was so pleased that that’s how it landed.
But, yeah, I mean, it is bizarre writing in this world because you’re not writing alone. You’re writing with the legacy of everything that came before. People say lovely things about the show and I’m delighted that it has resonated, but I also – you know, I didn’t think it would play for people who didn’t understand the Marvel universe. I didn’t think it would play outside of the states. I was like if you’re not steeped in American sitcoms this is going to be Greek to you. And of course I completely under – and it’s actually even in the story she learns English. The character Wanda learns. So I don’t know why I was so sort of shortsighted about it.
But I mean so much of the eeriness and the uncanniness is about going into it knowing that these are superheroes. And that’s part of what’s so kind of delicious about it. So, yeah, I was absolutely playing to the expectations of Marvel fans. But then, you know, I wanted people who weren’t fans to be pulled in as well.
John: Now, one of the challenges of writing these characters though is that you don’t really fully control these characters. These characters existed before you. And they will exist after you. And so you have them for this period of time. It’s like you have them for college and you can do whatever they want to do in college, but they’re going to enter college and they’re going to leave college and you only have them for that time.
What were some of the challenges of taking Wanda and Vision and all the other supporting characters you brought in from the Marvel universe and using them to your best effect, but also knowing that they would have to go on and do other things? Like how early in the conversations with Marvel did that come up as an issue?
Jac: The continuing on you mean?
Jac: Well, you know, it’s really not as much of a burden as it sort of seems on the outside. First of all, it was a real surprise to me to discover how much I enjoyed picking up other people’s story threads, especially when they’re peripheral. There’s something about the characters with less screen time that really fascinate me, because you end up being able to make a meal out of these tiny moments. And actors are amazing and they make all these little choices that you sort of pass through but then upon inspection – you know, Randall Parks’ whole thing from what I understand that the moment in Ant Man between him and Paul Rudd where Jimmy makes the mistake that he thinks that Paul Rudd’s character is asking him to go to dinner. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this moment. But it’s this really charming and totally disarming moment of miscommunication between two men who aren’t friends, but it reveals that Jimmy’s character is actually seeking connection.
And it was like so pleasurable to run with that. And also his sort of little interest in magic in the Ant Man movie to then sort of take that. So all that textural stuff is very, very fun.
And then of course with Paul and Lizzie like they’re performers who really operate with an enormous amount of integrity. So they had so much to contribute and there was so much already there.
In terms of where they’re going, I mean it’s an ongoing conversation throughout making your thing, because while you’re making your thing they have an idea about what the next thing is, but it’s not rolling yet. And then once it starts rolling there are conversations. I never really felt – the only place where it sort of made me feel a little bit hemmed in is the tags. The tags are always really challenging because typically they’re iterated and iterated and iterated through the process and then really they’re decided upon so late in the game.
And that’s the handoff.
John: It’s not really wrapping up your story.
John: It’s setting up the next one which you had nothing to do with.
Jac: Correct. Yeah. And I love the tags. I always find them to be so fun. And I’ve written a bunch that I fell in love with that then were cut because it didn’t align with the next thing, or the actor was unavailable. So that’s sort of where you handoff the baton. That’s the only place where it gets a little bit sticky. But really I have felt very fortunate that in the larger scope of whatever project I’m on you’re allowed to do what you need to do to make it the best that it can be.
John: So let’s talk about the characters you’re using, like Randall Parks’ character. How early on did you know that he was going to be a force? Was that already part of the Marvel pitch to you? And same with Darcy or other people who sort of exist in the Marvel universe. Did you need them or did they say like, oh, here’s available people we’d love you to use?
Jac: Yes, so they had a list of possibilities. And it’s funny now. I can barely remember who else was on them. Usually it’s a long-ish list. Randall and Kat Dennings were on there. And high up. And I was like absolutely. That is just an immediate yes to those two performers and to those two characters. And same with Agatha Harkness was on there as a maybe, I don’t know, maybe she’s in the mix somewhere. So those were the ones that I pulled out.
You know, we went down a road with a couple other characters that didn’t end up working out very early, because it’s also like you’re gambling on actor availability, which in the MCU usually that’s not a huge problem because they’re interested in continuing their participation. But it is a little bit tricky. And then sometimes characters get pulled into another property and that on a very small scale happened with us. On Black Widow that was a little bit more blue sky on that.
I was the first writer in on that. In conjunction with my producer on that we sort of set the table on who those characters were going to be. So, the short answer to your question is they have some ideas. It’s sort of like it’s a menu and then you can select and run at it and then if it doesn’t work often it can be modular and you can slide somebody else in.
John: Well let’s talk back to the process for WandaVision. What were the first documents you ended up writing for this project? Do you do an outline for the whole series? Did you do a pilot? What were you writing first?
Jac: Let’s see. That’s a good question. I mean, Marvel has a very extensive pitch process. So I had really detailed pitch documents. Because you pitch multiple times. So I had my pitch document which broke the whole series. And then I got notes on that which just sort of shored it up. Gave it a little bit of shape.
So the next step was putting the writer’s room together. And so when we were hiring writers they would come in and I would pitch the series.
John: So at this point you had not written a script, but you were hiring writers based on the approval of this pitch document and saying like, OK, we’re going to try to make this thing.
Jac: Correct. And it was in broad strokes. I can’t remember. Monica being kicked out. That was always there. The first three episodes, obscuring the truth, and kind of having red herrings. That was all – so I think that that kind of basic shape was there and that was part of what I was pitching to the writers. You should ask Megan. It’s all gone.
And then one of the things that you have to do is like you have to pitch over and over again because you have to pitch to the actors and then when you’re hiring the directors you have to pitch to them. So we ended up having it all on a wall. We had this really fabulous writer’s room with an enormous amount of art which was one of the things I did before the writers came in is I put all the art on the wall because it’s such a visual story and because we were telling such a multi-layered story.
So we had the wall broken by episode and then we had the art, like the posters from those classic shows above each episode. So it was this kind of wall that was a pitch document.
And then once the writers came on that’s when we started producing documents for the studio to receive notes on. And those were kind of series overviews. And then eventually once their episodes were assigned they were writing outlines that were part of the series overview. So we went really, really, really deep before anybody started writing a script.
John: So there were no lines of dialogue written until everything had sort of been signed off on, right?
Jac: Well, I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s actually true. You know, the pilot opens with the like “my wife and her flying saucers,” like that kind of stuff was in – those type of cute moments and big moments like “he was killed by Ultron, wasn’t he,” that stuff was in the outline documents.
John: OK. So you had those little moments. And it sounds like the James Cameron scriptment kind of things.
Jac: Correct. Yeah.
John: You have dialogue where you absolutely need the dialogue to sort of show how stuff works, but the scene work is not in those. It’s really showing—
Jac: Yeah, the scene breakdowns. Yeah, I guess scriptment. I mean, the way that I did it, which I don’t know if it’s any kind of formal system, was slug lines and what we planned to do. It wasn’t in Final Draft. It was in a Word document. But we broke out the scenes for everything and what would happen. Yeah, bits of dialogue here and there.
John: Now, finally you feel like, OK, we have a shape for this whole thing. We are signing off scripts. Is this your first time running a room? This is your first time working with other writers? What was that process like for you?
Jac: It was. It was my first time running a room. And it was the very best experience of my career. And I loved hiring these phenomenal people and I loved working with them. And I will keep it in my heart until the day I die. It was so wonderful and so special.
And it was a tricky thing because I needed to hire talented, inspiring, somewhat seasoned people, because I hadn’t done it before. But I also needed to hire people who weren’t going to have a problem with that. And weren’t – I didn’t have time for anyone to have a problem with my authority. I’ve heard on your podcast before that you and Craig talk about kids and having kids and the impact of family on your career. My children were two and four when I got this job. And I live on the west side and Marvel is in Burbank. So I had an hour plus commute every day.
So I was working on an extremely tight schedule. So I needed people who were just going to be in and be excited and optimistic and up for the whole thing. And so that’s who I hired. And I wanted people that I would learn from. And I wanted people who would keep the engine going if I ran out of gas. And that’s what I got. I mean, this team never quit.
And they had so much love for it. And I also chose them based on the kind of people that they are, but also because of their influences. I hired this group that just like they know film and TV in all the ways that you need them to, but the love that they have for it, and the deep cuts that were brought to the table in the room when we were breaking the show, and because it’s such a bananas show I needed those people with those super bizarro frames of reference.
John: I actually was writing down your quote, “I didn’t have time for anyone to question my authority,” because that is just such a great encapsulation of the real challenge of trying to do this job. My first experience running a TV show was this disaster called DC. It was me and Dick Wolf. And my authority was constantly being questioned at all moments. It became impossible for me to do this show because not just the question of authority for the network or the studio or Dick Wolf, but also you’re too young to be doing this. You shouldn’t be doing this.
So to hear you say that is such a smart way to approach how you’re making the decisions.
I want to know how you actually picked those writers. Were you looking for recommendations first and then reading them to make sure they were really good? Were you looking at the words first and then meeting with writers? How did you pick who would be the people in the room?
Jac: So my producer, who is my Marvel executive, Mary Livanos, who is wonderful – Marvel is really great because these executives are always doing the next move way before it’s time for the next move. Because of the way they operate, you know, they plant a flag. This is when this thing is coming out. So they just run at it and it’s kind of amazing whether or not it’s ready to go.
So I think she was reading scripts before I was hired. And also I met with some people who had been up for my job as well, because there were great people in that pool. So she was passing me scripts, things that were her favorite. I told her what my priorities were in the read which were I wanted people with original voices. It was less important to me that the specs stick the landing of whatever the show was trying to do. I just wanted ideas to leap off the page. Or I wanted comedy to leap off the page.
I just wanted it to be memorable. Because those were the brains that I needed in the room. I needed people who were going to constantly be questioning the tradition of storytelling. Megan’s spec was so good. It was such a fully realized mythology. And it was so achingly melancholy. And it had such an original voice to it.
Cam Squires’ spec was such a swing. And I remember when he came in to meet my first question was where does this series go. What even is your plan for this story? Because I can’t see it and that’s not a ding. That’s not a fault. It’s just you bit off so much in the pilot. Tell me what your plans are. And of course he had a plan and it was fascinating to hear what that was.
And I knew I needed people who could do mythology and world-building and genre and procedural. And I knew I needed people who could do sitcoms and comedy. I ended up leaning away from a lot of the straight sitcom writers, because our show was so ambitious. So I did hire sitcom writers. So Mackenzie Dohr wrote on the Mindy Project but she also wrote on Lock and Key. So she’s no stranger to fantasy and genre.
So that’s what I was looking for on the page. That was truthfully 30%. Maybe 30% of what was important to me. It was really so much more about the personality. Coming up in the industry I’ve had my share of bad experiences and being in rooms where I felt small. Whether or not I allowed myself to feel small, or I was actively made to feel small. But I was adamant that the room culture be positive and respectful and joyful. And that everyone would feel heard and valued.
So I hired people who that’s how they operate at. I hired Chuck Hayward because I invited him over to my house. I was like, OK, crack the code. Tell me how I run a room. And he painted a picture of what his dream room would look like and I was like, OK, great, because you’re hired because I need you to bring that energy into the room. I actually hadn’t even read his script. [laughs] And luckily it was great and he’s wonderful and very talented. But it was so much about a friend of mine, Micah Fitzerman-Blue who is wonderful and so talented himself, he was like you know you can write. So what you need is the people to help you break this. And you need people who will inspire you.
And my friend Chris Addison who is an incredible – he directed The Hustle and he won Emmys for Veep and is fantastic, he was like look at your room like a toolbox. You don’t need – every chair isn’t supposed to be a writer who is better than you. Every chair needs to bring something different to the table. So that was very much part of my approach.
I’ve been talking forever John because I love talking about building a room. It’s so fun. And I, yeah–
John: Well it sounds like you’re going to have a chance to do this again because just this last week it was announced you made a deal with Marvel and 20th Television to create some new shows. This is very exciting. Congratulations.
Jac: Yes. Thank you. Thank you. I’m very excited about it and I feel incredibly grateful and honored.
John: So what do you see as priorities? Would you want to do traditional broadcast? Do you want to do more streaming? What do you think is really interesting in television for the next couple years?
Jac: I mean, for me I love this limited series space. I mean, that’s not to say that things can’t have another iteration, but I was so surprised at how much freedom I felt in making WandaVision. That every episode was a chance to redefine the actual show itself. In the years leading up to getting WandaVision, you know, it wasn’t my intention to go into television. That wasn’t the trajectory. But I had been watching these shows that were just blowing my mind with – especially with bottle episodes. The bottle episode of Girls, the Panic in Central Park, I was so dazzled by that episode. And it was the first time that I really sort of looked squarely at the bottle episode and what it could be.
Because prior to that in network television it had always seemed like filler or I remember my parents watching an episode – there was an episode of The Cosby Show. I think it was John Ritter who was on and his wife Amy Yazbek, is that right?
John: That sounds right.
Jac: I don’t know if I’m remembering this correctly at all, but they were having a baby and the enormous amount of show real estate was dedicated to their storyline. And I remember my dad saying, “Oh, they’re lining up a spinoff,” which didn’t turn out to be the thing. But I remember feeling like departures from the norm in network television was like filler or a detour or con. And now, you know, another one that I just couldn’t believe was Escape at Dannemora, the penultimate episode, that was very much an inspiration for the penultimate episode of WandaVision in that it’s a rewind. And you don’t know where you are when you start the episode.
That feeling of disorientation, rather than it being filler, rather than it being just like, oh, watch this instead, that you have to lean forward. I mean, that is what I am clawing after at every turn.
John: That’s how you know you’ve engaged your audience is they are desperate to figure out what’s going on. And they’re with you to solve the mystery. That’s it.
Jac: That’s totally it. That’s the juice.
John: Jac Schaeffer, congratulations again. I’m so excited to see what you’re going to make next. Do you know what that is? Is there anything you can announce yet that you’re going to be making next?
Jac: There are no announcements.
John: Nothing will be announced today on Scriptnotes. But thank you very much for coming on the show. And thank you for hiring Megan McDonnell and giving her that platform, even though we were sad to lose her. Thank you for taking a chance on her because she is a superstar.
Jac: She is. I mean, I’m the one who benefited from that. Let’s be honest. She’s the best. Thank you. Thanks so much.
John: Thank you, Jac.
Stick around because after the break I’ll be chatting with Lance Oppenheim about the writing that goes into documentaries.
[Clip plays from Some Kind of Heaven]
In that clip we hear from Dennis, one of the people in the documentary Some Kind of Heaven. The film follows four seniors living in The Villages retirement community and explores how they cope with later adult life. The film premiered at Sundance in 2020 and is now available on Hulu. And we have with us Lance Oppenheim, the film’s writer and director. Welcome Lance.
Lance Oppenheim: Hello. Thank you for having me, John. Big fan. It’s funny. The writer – I don’t consider myself the writer of a documentary, but I guess all documentaries are written somehow.
John: I want to talk about that. Because sometimes you see writing credits on documentaries and sometimes you don’t. But there’s clearly a lot of character work, a lot of story work that’s happening here. So I want to talk about how you do that in a documentary sense.
But I also want to make sure that people who are listening to this understand that your movie is actually really funny and visual and surprising. And it’s sad at moments, but also that clip might make it seem like it’s all dark and grim, and it has this really kind of weird spirit to it. So I want to make sure people don’t get the wrong idea about your movie.
How early on in the process of coming up with this movie did you know what it was going to feel like?
Lance: Oh man. I think it took a long time to know what the movie was going to be about and how it was going to do that. But I think the feeling of it actually came pretty early to me. And that came from spending a lot of time in the world. The Villages, as most people know of it from how much of a political spectacle it became this past year during the election cycle. It’s a very conservative stronghold of America.
But I think that the thing that appealed to me, I’m a Floridian. I grew up knowing about the place was that it really was kind of like The Truman Show in real life. It’s designed to simulate the 1950s, the 1960s. Kind of like an America that never really existed, but an America that I grew up with in movies, like in Blue Velvet or in Safe or in Edward Scissorhands. And Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life. The suburbia of those movies is the same suburbia of Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America and it’s the same suburbia that is literally brought to life in the Villages.
So I knew that I couldn’t just make a standard cinema verité style documentary that the aesthetics of it were handheld. I wanted to find a way to bring the audience into the world and make it as immersive and make it feel as [transportive] as if you were really there, as if you had stepped afoot in the community.
John: So those choices were about the kinds of shots you’re doing. Just literally the production design, sort of what you’re showing on screen. But you also need to show characters on screen and that’s really what I wanted to dig into. Because that boundary between what is writing and what is directing and what is being a documentary filmmaker and what is sort of shaping narrative.
How did you find these people? Because I keep wanting to call them characters and they’re not characters. They actually are people. But they felt very carefully selected and edited. And over the course of your times meeting with them you are putting them in situations that can help tell your story.
So, let’s start at the beginning. How did you find these people and when did you know these were the people you wanted to follow for your film?
Lance: Well, I think over the process of making the film, it was about four trips over almost 18 months of time spent on and off in the community and filming with a lot of different folks. It only really became apparent I think at the end of our second strip who our ensemble really was. We were following a lot of people. But I think going back to the root of the question of just documentary, fiction, how we watch documentaries, how we watch fiction films. I mean, I think it’s interesting.
A lot of people in documentary – the documentary orthodoxy likes to talk about this word “manipulation” and I think it’s a word that should exist. But I think, you know, I may be stating the obvious but everything in documentaries is manipulated. The moment you put a camera and train it on anybody. And anybody that is living a life and breathing and existing, something happens. Depending on how much time you spend in a place, how comfortable, and how much that bedrock of trust exists between you, the filmmaker, and the subject that’s on camera, there may be some kind of alchemy that gets you closer to real life. But it’s a tremendous hurdle.
And even the way most documentaries no matter how observational they may seem are put together in the edit. It’s a lot of times following the tenets of a thing we call story, which is inherently I think the tenets, the touchstones of how we think about story go back to the things that you talk about so well on the podcast which is narrativizing and the way we even narrativize our lives goes back to that same thing.
So I think a lot of movies, even the film that we made, contain these manipulations. And I think for me the world, the setting of the Villages, felt perfect to drop a camera and to kind of experiment with a more heightened, more stylized way of telling real stories. I guess my process kind of involves a lot of me getting to know people, spending a lot of time with them, and then essentially riffing off of reality. Putting them in situations, as you’re saying. It’s not even a matter of me putting them in situations they wouldn’t normally be in. It’s bringing those situations to life and shooting them in a way that may feel and evoke how a narrative film looks and breathes.
John: Let’s talk about one of the characters in this. So in the initial clip here we meet Dennis. And so the first shot that we’re seeing of him is he’s in his van and he’s going through his daily life and he’s talking to us about the kind of woman he wants to meet. And it’s a character who he can seem like a grifter, he can seem like a hustler. And yet he is kind of a classic protagonist, like a shaggy dog protagonist of a story.
So, when you first meet this person as a filmmaker are you thinking through sort of like where you want to see his arc going? Or are you just observing? Because that’s really the question. So often as a writer we kind of know what track we need that character to go, and so we’re tailoring that character from the start because we need that character to achieve these things.
You as a documentary filmmaker have limited means of actually deciding how this character ends up. So when you’re first meeting Dennis do you have a plan for him?
Lance: I’d say no. I think what compels me to the process of making docs, and also the process of making a doc in this way which is maybe a little bit more unorthodox to how docs are normally made, you know, the process in the beginning is similar. It’s observing someone. I’m meeting them. They’re meeting me. We’re getting to know each other really well. We have a few drinks. We have dinner. We have more drinks. We do that process, that cycle kind of repeats several times over, as many times as possible until we feel comfortable and we are friends with each other.
And once we got to the place where we were in this movie, you know, the film is shot entirely on a tripod, right. A lot of the intention was to make our frames as composed, feel as composed, as manicured as the Villages, as the setting dictates, as the landscaping is. It’s this very meticulously crafted suburban bliss that’s there. And I wanted the camera to feel that.
But in doing that and shooting the movie entirely on tripod it really did not allow for us to be flies on the wall. For one I’m much younger than every subject in the film, including Dennis. The process of shooting it on tripod in a way immediately established this distance and the challenge with the movie was to eliminate that distance and get as close as we possibly could. In a weird way something happened where midway through our shooting, you know, there were times where this process did not feel like it was working and it felt like it was corrupting too much of reality and it felt too artificial, even though we were putting things on screen that normally do happen in their lives.
And there were a lot of times where we were just observing and kind of putting the camera in a place where we would just let it run for a long time until something would happen in the frame. But what happened over time was that in kind of embracing the artifice we got to something more real. You know, the process of shooting on a tripod made me be a lot more honest about what I was shooting, why I was shooting it, and how I was going to shoot it for the subjects of the film. So in a way our process, our relationship, didn’t just evolve – it wasn’t like a mosquito biting someone and sucking up their blood and then painting a portrait with their blood in the edit or something.
This was something far more collaborative. I’m using such a violent example for how I imagine documentaries are normally made. But I think it’s like somewhat true. You get closer, the material you end up making out of somebody’s life, and it’s a very [vampiristic] relationship. So I wanted to do something different. This whole process of shooting on tripod kind of allowed and enabled this sort of collaboration and trust and honesty. I had to be very honest about the places and situations I wanted to shoot. And I had to be just as honest about how I thought it was going to work in the edit.
So in a way these were real people but they were playing a version of themselves that was entirely real and all the things that are happening in the movie are real. The way we’re shooting them, the framework we’re shooting them in, and sometimes even the way a situation is blocked, that is very much planned. And I think that’s the kind of joy of it all is that you’re riffing off of reality. It’s like jazz and you’re trying to shoot actively unfolding things in as stylized and interesting of a framework as possible.
So to answer your question I prefer not to know where a person’s journey goes. I have hopes, I have dreams, I have wishes for where they move, and how they move through a world, but I’m never telling them what to do or how to do something. It’s really more they make a choice to do something and for me the reason I chose these folks was, one, I was interested in some ways of making a movie about relationships, so there was that subtext to each of their stories. But, two, they were actively having things happening to them when I met them.
Barbara, the widow in the film, was trying to get back out in the world again. That was something very active. There’s conflict there. Dennis is someone who is trying to find a woman to move in with. And he needs to find a home essentially. His journey is about companionship and comfort and freedom. And these things that he talks about very articulately and beautifully. And the last subjects of the film are Reggie and Anne, a married couple, who are very different from one another and are about to just experience how different they really are and how there’s so much distance in that relationship. And how she has to deal with the fact that her husband may not just be recreationally dabbling in psychedelic drugs. He actually may be losing his mind.
And to me each of those stories, it took a lot of time to find each of them and befriend them and then get to a place where they were comfortable with me putting their lives onscreen. I’m not interested in taking it I guess to that degree. What’s more interesting and more challenging to me is taking real life and creatively lensing and creatively treating it. And that’s what I think my favorite documentaries do that. And it’s a shame that not all documentaries do.
John: Well, let’s talk about trying to frame it and you’re literally framing it with your camera, but you’re also deciding what parts of their lives are going to be useful for your film to be showing. So you said that initially there were other people you were following and they did not make it into the edit, or you stopped filming them because they were not helping you tell your story. So you said there were a total of four visits, between those visits what was the process for you in terms of like this is what the movie wants to be, this is the story that it looks like we can tell here? And was there writing involved in that? Were there conversations?
Or was it just looking at what you’d already shot in the edit bay? How did you figure out what the movie wanted to be? Because that’s a question that screenwriters are facing all the time. They have all these scenes, they have this stuff, but they may not necessarily know what the movie is from the moments that they’ve found.
Lance: You know, the process of making this – for so long I had no clue what it was. And I knew that we visually found a way to lens the place in a way that felt very expressive and not just representational and that I think was exciting to me and exciting to my cinematographer who I really consider a coauthor of the film. But it was only until I brought on an editor named Daniel Garber who I consider – screenwriting in documentaries, what that really is is the editors of the films.
Daniel is someone who is really well versed in both documentary and narrative films. He edited a film called Cam a few years ago. And I owe a great deal to him. We edited the film together, but he was the person who was making sense out of the lasagna, the cold noodles of footage that was just sitting on a hard drive or sitting in a refrigerator basically forever. And I had no idea how to make sense of any of it, or how all these people, places, and things added up. And he was the person that showed me what the film needed to be.
I think the thing that was guiding him in making those choices and guiding me, after seeing material structured in a particular kind of way it guided the rest of the way we were filming. Daniel came on I think at the end of our second trip and was struggling to figure out what it was.
There was one story that we actually released as a separate short documentary that the New York Times put out. I think it was about two months ago. About one of the stories that I thought the movie was about. I thought the movie was about this little girl who was living actually outside of the Villages and the development was trying to buy her land and turn this home that has been in her family for generations into prefab cookie cutter retirement home essentially, a house in this retirement community.
And there was another thread that I really liked about the ecological devastation this place causes. Sinkholes that were forming in the bottom of the ground. I mean, just like totally unbelievable things that we just kept shooting because that place is just unbelievably insane.
I’m trying to remember how we decided it didn’t work, but I think one of the things for sure that I think I was interested in and existentially so felt when I first got there. I had just gotten out of a long relationship. I felt pretty upset about that. And I was wandering around trying to figure out how these people who are navigating their seventh or eighth decade on this planet are still together. And what romance looks like there. And do we repeat the same things – if you’re returning to a place that reminds you of your youth do you make the same mistakes that you made as a young person?
John: So what you’re describing sort of sound like central dramatic questions. And so it sounds like you didn’t know going into it – you knew what the movie might kind of feel like. You knew what was interesting about it. But you didn’t have a central dramatic question until you really winnowed it down to like these are the people we’re going to follow and these are the questions the movie is going to try to answer, which is kind of what happens – it’s not about the place. It’s about what happens when you’re at this point in your later adulthood.
Lance: Right. Precisely. I think for a long time I was interested in making something that I thought at first was going to be about the place. And I realized over time that this movie, that stories aren’t settings. That this movie didn’t want to be about the setting. It wanted to be about people going through real problems against the backdrop of this unreal place. That seemed more interesting to me and that also – when I first started making the film, before I even rolled a frame on anything, before my crew came, I lived in the community for about a month and a half. These two retired rodeo clowns I found off of Airbnb, I rented a room in their house.
And I think a lot of those central dramatic questions came from seeing how they lived their lives and who their friends were and what they were doing. One of them had leukemia and the reason they were putting their Airbnb room up was to pay for the medical bills. So immediately I was like this is so fucking dark, but also they are still clowning. There was something – the tension between those two things, something that is more tragic through the funniness of it, and more funny through its tragedy. That was really nice and interesting to me and I knew I wanted to bottle that up somehow.
John: Well let’s get a sense of who you are in this picture. Because how old were you when you started this movie?
Lance: I was 22 when I first got there.
John: So you were literally just out of film school when this is happening. You’re straight out of undergrad and you’re trying to do this thing which has got to be both inspiring and also annoying to many of our listeners who are like how can this young kid do all these things. And my guess just from interactions we’ve had is you are not shy about approaching and asking people for this. You hustle. And it’s a thing I admire just in my interactions with you so far is you seem to recognize what you need and how to very graciously approach people about getting that thing that you need. And that feels like that’s Hollywood you get your subjects for your movie. But also how you sort of get the movie out there in the world.
Lance: Yeah. I’m an annoying person. You know, I think even the process of getting this film made, it was not – as I’m sure you would imagine it was not easy. It was I think throughout the process a lot of people were constantly, even in trying just to get the money to keep going back, you know, people could see through what I was doing. They could see through that I didn’t have it figured out yet. That I didn’t have a narrative that seemed like it would satisfy all of their funding needs, especially in documentaries which is a world – financing in documentaries I think goes back to a lot of other questions about issues and advocacy and stuff like that that is important but not – that was not this film.
So, it took time and it took a lot of bullshitting I think to really figure that out. I mean, the film that I thought we were making, the film that is this short film called The Paradise Next Door, that was essentially my pitch was that here’s a movie, you have a younger person, and you have these older folks, and it’s a movie about these two people and when those worlds collide, which was complete bullshit because it never collided. So, you know, after we were able to successfully bamboozle some people, graciously this company called the Los Angeles Media Fund, they were still down for the ride even as I started realizing that that narrative wasn’t the thing that we needed to be shooting.
What we needed to be shooting was something much more intimate and interior and subjective about these people and about this existential feeling of being in a place where you’re supposed to be having the best time of your life and time is running out and tht stress of not feeling that and also when this thing you’ve invested in, this dream – what happens when it becomes a nightmare? And that’s something that I think anybody can relate to, especially anybody who grows old, which is everybody on the planet I guess.
John: Now what I hear you describing though, it sounds like you weren’t asking for permission, and you weren’t waiting to figure out all the things, you just kind of started doing it and you sort of built the road underneath you as you were going. And that applies for a documentary feature, but also applies to a lot of writing. I do feel a frustration that sometimes the questions we get in on the podcast are about like am I allowed to do this thing, is this possible, is this a good idea, and the advice I want to shout so often just like well just try the thing and see if it’s a good idea. And if it’s not a good idea you haven’t lost that much.
And it sounds like as you started to make this movie you didn’t have – you kind of weren’t risking a ton. I mean, you might be wasting your time, but it wasn’t expensive to do the initial things you were trying to do. You could just go off and do it and eventually you had some footage you could show and you could bring in another person and another person. You got to Darren Aronofsky. You could sort of keep the ball rolling by just bringing in new people who could see what you’d already done. Is that fair?
Lance: Yeah. I think that is. I mean, you know, the movie – I started working on the film like kind of [co-curricularly]. It started off as my thesis film in school and that was how I initially was able to go down there. But even when we got the financing, the process didn’t change much. In terms of shooting it still was just me, my cinematographer, and I’ve been working with him since I was like 17. My sister who has a fulltime job, not in movies, but I convinced her to come and help us figure it out. And one of my college friends who coproduced the film. And then I had the sound guys.
So it was like a crew of five basically across the journey. And then obviously on the post side and everything else things started to get a little bigger and just a lot more people to answer to. And wanted to make sure that even though it wasn’t a ton of money to make, they wanted to make sure their money wasn’t being wasted. That’s fair. I feel like all first time feature filmmakers have to go through that process of just getting people to trust you in that way.
But it’s a process of trying things and taking risks and swinging big. And when you are there, when you’re up at the plate you’ve got to swing as big as you can possibly can and be as ambitious as you can. And I think going back to the thing you just said before, like don’t worry about being annoying. No one is going to find you on the Internet and pluck your script or you movie or your short out of obscurity. The only way they’re going to find it is if you sort of get it in their face.
And I remember reading this story about like Gus Van Sant. I think he called, I don’t know if it was William S. Burroughs, so forgive me if I’m screwing up the story, but I remember he found someone he admired very deeply, his name in the phonebook, and he just gave him a call. And they became friends and then he ended up adapting his story into a movie. So I’ve always just been inspired by that and took that to heart.
John: We just spoke with Jac Schaeffer who ran WandaVision and her Scriptnotes connection was that she ended up hiring former Scriptnotes producer Megan McDonnell as a staff writer there. You also have a Scriptnotes connection. Do you want to tell us what that is?
Lance: I would love to. I grew up with Stuart Friedel. His father was and has been my dentist for my entire life. Stuart was the first dude that I ever knew that was working in movies. He worked for Alexander Payne and exposed me to his films. And exposed me to your films, John. Told me what the podcast was. I didn’t know what the podcast was at all at that point in time, but I had seen so many of your movies. I’d seen The Nines. I’d seen Corpse Bride. I’d seen Big Fish. So I was like oh shit I should listen to that.
And I am devoted listener. Especially as someone who is trying to make stuff that is documentary and nonfiction based but also as I’ve tried to learn and remediate myself on how to write a screenplay which is an art, a dark art that is not easy. So I’m very grateful – I feel like your podcast keeps me going, and I’m sure keeps a lot of people going when they’re trying to figure out how the fuck to do it.
John: You also have Stuart’s vocal cadences, which I find so fascinating, because I wouldn’t guess that there was a South Florida accent, but you and Stuart sound so much alike. It’s jarring.
Lance: Oh, that’s funny. Huh. We’re just two Jewish South Floridian guys I guess.
John: Maybe it’s all that Friedel dentistry on your mouth that has shaped it into a specific way. So, you made this movie, but you’re still very, very young. So, what are you doing next and are you trying to stay in the documentary lane? Are you trying to do narrative features? What’s next for you?
Lance: I don’t know. I don’t feel very young. I feel, if anything I feel weird in a way. This was the thing that I basically went as far in as I possibly could on. And there was a kind of tremendous period of just like, wow, what do I do next. And this feeling of sadness of finishing something I cared so deeply about. And the people in the film, the subjects in the film, I speak with them still once a week. We’re still very close. And I’m always like, god, I wish I could go back and keep making something there.
But I’m working on a bunch of stuff. I am interested in continuing to make docs, but I also am very interested in narrative films and seeing if I can find ways to bridge that gap. So I’m working on another film right now that’s a small narrative film that’s based on a short story that I really liked. And then I’m adapting one of the short documentaries I made a few years ago and I’m writing that right now. And Darren Aronofsky is producing that. So we’ll see. I just want to make movies and I find it so interesting how I think especially in the narrative world it’s like so much time – hurry up and wait. You work and work and work and then if you get to that place where you can set something up it just takes a million years to get it made.
So I feel like I’ll probably just keep making documentaries because at least I have more agency and ownership of the process of just going and shooting stuff. Even if it’s the wrong stuff to shoot, it still feels good to be shooting something rather than talking about it I guess.
John: We’re always big advocates on this podcast of just making the thing. And so I believe you will continue to just make the thing and you will have the frustrations of development hell and all of that stuff, but as long as you can always make some things for yourself you’ll be set.
Lance Oppenheim we can check out your movie on Hulu right now. So everyone on Hulu can see it. I’m sure internationally you can find it through all the other streaming and download places. Congratulations on your movie. And it’s great talking with you.
Lance: Thank you so much, John.
John: Stick around because after the break we’ll be talking about writing while at your day job.
OK, this is the part of the show where we normally answer some listener questions. Megana, do you have a good question for us?
Megana Rao: I do. Cautious from San Gabriel Valley would like to know “Can a company gain partial ownership of something I wrote while at work? I got a day job where I basically babysit a building and my supervisor doesn’t care if I write for the majority of my shift. I was worried when I found out through an episode of Silicon Valley that a company can sue you for ownership of your project if you worked on it on company equipment, i.e. a computer. I thought I was fine because I’m a third party contract worker and continue to write at work, but recently due to my coworker’s constant cellphone and YouTube use my company sent out a scary memo regarding computer usage.
“Though the memo may not hold up in court, I’m uncertain how to proceed working on projects at work. I don’t care if I’m fired or transferred to a different post. I just don’t someone else to already have a bite out of my apple. I’m leaning towards continuing to use company computers to write scripts and only saving in the cloud because if I do sell a script I’d have a whole production company backing in the unlikely event of a lawsuit. As for other writing projects that I might self-publish I’m just writing in a notebook and tediously typing it up at home. What do you guys think? Is the time saved worth the hypothetical risk?”
John: All right, so this gives me a big flashback to my days when I was writing my first script. I was an intern at Universal. And so the first script I ever wrote was this romantic tragedy called Here and Now. And I wrote it basically while I was at work, when I was sort of at work in my job. Mostly I had a really mindless day job sort of like Cautious has where I was just filing stuff all day and really not using my brain at all. And I would go home and I would handwrite pages and then type them up over my lunch break at work.
And I was using my own laptop, but I think the same kind of idea applies is that you’re kind of doing it on company time and the question of could they control or own that work. I think you’re possibly asking for trouble using the company computer. That’s the only thing that gives me sort of pause. I think the fact that you’re still doing your job but you’re also writing at the same time, if your supervisors don’t care it’s going to be fine.
The fact that you’re using their stuff could be the problem. Even just using a browser or saving it online might be a problem. So my instinct would be to either get yourself a cheap laptop you can work on while you’re there. Write on it using your iPhone, your iPad. Write by hand and then type it up when you get home. But I think you could be asking for some trouble just because anything that’s edited in that computer kind of feels like it is their stuff.
Megana, you used to work at Google. What was the policies when you were at Google? If you were using the company’s computer to do stuff did they own it?
Megana: Yeah. I remember this came up during orientation. So my first day they have this policy that whatever you work on Google technically owns if it’s at the office or on company computer. And I remember being so confused. And I was like, well, what if I wrote a poem. Because if I wrote like an application, sure, that makes sense to me. But why would you guys want to own a poem that I wrote?
And the person who was leading our orientation, I think they brought someone from legal counsel was like technically we would own anything like that, and so I never wrote at the office or on my company computer there because I also saw that episode of Silicon Valley and was scared.
John: Yeah. It’s probably not going to be a problem, but this last paragraph you asked I’d only write scripts there because the production company would back you up. That’s not a guarantee. Like you hope the production is going to back you up. And, again, it’s probably not going to be a problem, but it’s like getting vaccinated before going on a trip or something. It’s probably not going to happen to you, but it’s better to ease your mind and not run into those problems. So if you can find a way to not write on their stuff that’s going to be a better choice.
Megana: And something, I don’t know if this is tricky advice, but I would just research a lot while I was at work, or I would do a lot of reading. Because they couldn’t possibly own that, right?
John: No, they can’t own your research. That’s another great point. If you are researching stuff for your project that’s great. And realistically what Cautious is describing, where maybe you’re typing into Google Docs documents, it’s completely on the cloud and no one is ever going to see it. It’s unlikely to be a problem, but still why take the chance.
John: Cool. Well that’s a good question. We’re a pretty full episode so we’ll save the rest of these questions for next week when Craig is back. But thank you for helping us out with that. Maybe you can help us out with One Cool Things. So this is the part of the show where we recommend something. I’m going to recommend a really great episode of Slate’s Working podcast where they talked to this dialect coach named Samara Bay. Really smart and great.
So she’s the dialect coach who works with actors before they’re starting a role. So they are about to go in to shoot something, a British actor who has to play American, or an American actor who has to play an Irish accent. And she’s really smart about talking through the process and really thinking about there’s not just one accent you’re going for. You’re trying to get into the space where you can inhabit that character and then while you’re in that character have all the vocal ranges and expressions that you need for it.
She compares it a lot to how a costume designer works. You are trying to really suit the voice/costume of that character and make sure it really works for that actor and works for that piece and that period. So, she was just so smart and such a great way of looking at something that’s so challenging.
Because we think about dialogue being just the words we write and sort of these are the words in the right order. But it depends so much on how they’re delivered and how much that voice fits nicely. So, if you’re someone who writes dialogue, which is probably most of the people listening to this podcast, I would definitely check out this episode of the Slate Working podcast with Samara Bay.
John: Now what do you have for us?
Megana: Well, I feel bad because I also was going to recommend a podcast episode.
John: You can do that.
Megana: I can? OK. I also feel like I’m cheating on Scriptnotes. I feel guilty.
John: But Craig is not here and also Craig rarely has one, or fills it in at the last minute.
Megana: So I have this podcast that I really love, in addition to this one. It’s called You’re Wrong About. And it’s a podcast hosted by these two journalists and each week they examine a historical event or a person in pop culture who was misunderstood or miscast in the popular imagination. And then they recontextualize the story with research and information that we have decades later.
And because they’re journalists they’re really good at parsing out what was the media narrative and why was it that way. And then following how the information gets weaponized. So I feel like for our listeners who like the How Would This Be a Movie segment, this is the perfect sort of supplemental listening.
And it’s also really fun. The female host, I picture her as the adult Daria. She’s very sardonic and her voice sounds just like Daria. And my personal favorite episode of this is they have one on the Exxon Valdez oil spill which does not sound sexy or fun, but it is so fascinating. And that’s one I’ll link to in the show notes.
John: So my recollection of the Exxon Valdez is that we did cast a villain. The captain of the Exxon Valdez was sort of penalized for his role in it, but my guess is that’s probably not actually accurate. Correct?
Megana: Correct. And like he actually had alerted Exxon to – like he might have made some errors, but like the way that the system and the company was treating regulations had already degraded so much to that point. And he had already alerted the company to say hey the way we’re running these ships is really unsafe. And there’s like a lot of twists that have happened in the past 10 years that I think, you know, nobody is going to keep paying attention – or most people do not pay attention to a news story 10 years later. And I think that’s how a lot of corporate malfeasance happens is that they can make really huge gestures and amends immediately and then 10 years later repeal all of that work that they’ve done.
John: Yeah. I remember that happening recently. A lot of stories came out about Y2K and it’s like, oh, Y2K was overhyped and it was a disaster that didn’t happen. And just recently I’ve seen a lot of recontextualizations saying like oh yeah it wasn’t a disaster because people spent five years working their asses off to actually make it not be a problem. So it’s those things, the nonevents that were nonevents because we actually did the thing.
John: Don’t make it into the news.
Megana: And they have a great episode on the Y2K bug.
John: Great. I will check that out. I will add it to my podcast app. And that is our podcast for today. Scriptnotes is produced, as ever, by Megana Rao. Thank you, Megana.
Megana: Thank you.
John: It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro is also by Matthew Chilelli. 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. For short questions on Twitter I am @johnaugust.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also the place 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 the back episodes and the bonus segments like the one we recorded earlier this afternoon with Dana Fox which is epic and we talk about, god, we talk about everything. We talk about sleeps, and naps–
John: And teeth. And all sorts of things. So you’ll find out about all the secrets behind how Dana Fox kicks so much ass. So sign up for Scriptnotes.net.
Megana: it is a life-changing segment.
John: Megana Rao has already emailed to get links to all the things Dana talked about, because it could change her life and yours as well. So Scriptnotes Premium, it’s good stuff. Megana, thank you for a fun show.
Megana: Thank you.
John: And we’re back and we’re back here with our initial guest, Dana Fox. And I asked you here because I want to talk about naps. So my daughter takes naps, my husband takes naps, I don’t take naps. But you know who takes really god naps? Dana Fox. Dana Fox, can you talk to me and Megana about naps?
Dana: Thank you so much for knowing that this is really one of my best skills. And thank you for having me on the show to talk about the fact that when you asked me to be on the show to talk about naps, I’m not joking I was literally napping. And I woke up and I saw your email saying can you come and talk about naps. And I was like, yup. And I am refreshed as hell and I can’t wait to do it because I just woke up from a nap.
Yes. So napping controversial. I have a lot of things to say about it. I think one of the things that has sort of unlocked, not to be like all what color is your parachute about it, but one of the things that has kind of unlocked my max productivity in recent years is not trying to be someone I’m not anymore. Just being super exactly who I am. And I’m a napper, John. I think you know this because I worked for you. I was your assistant and I slept basically every day, middle of the day. I would so much rather shovel food in my mouth at my desk while working and then use my lunch break to sleep, which is what I did and you were so nice to me.
You would like walk in and I’d be fast asleep on some couch and you would just quietly walk out and you were just the best boss in the entire world.
But for me it almost makes me have two full days instead of just one day where at four o’clock I’m non-functional. I’ve done a lot of research into sleep, because I’m obsessed with it, and I need a lot of it. I think part of it is burn really sort of brightly and spastically when I am awake. So, just being alive is sort of exhausting for me.
And the research I did on sleep is that you need so much less of it in a nap to feel refreshed than you actually think you do. And I think half the reason that most people don’t nap is because they’re like, oh, I’m going to get groggy, or I’m going to lie down and I’m going to feel all this pressure if I don’t sleep, then what’s going to happen, and then I’m going to lie there freaking out about not sleeping for 45 minutes and that seems like a waste.
So the way that I have sort of combatted that is that I have this app that – I can’t think of the name of it – but I have this app that I call Fat Bastard because he’s like a meditation guy who talks in like a very thick Scottish accent and sounds like Fat Bastard from Austin Powers. And I started listening to it when I was pregger-tits because I was working on a TV show. I was a showrunner and I was super pregger-tits. And I was exhausted all the time. And I was like oh my god I have to sleep during the day or I’m literally going to die.
So I started listening to this sleep app that puts you to sleep for whatever number of minutes you have to sleep you sort of program into it. And it puts you to sleep and then it wakes you—
John: Like a digital tranquilizer dart. It just shoots you in the neck.
Dana: Digital tranquilizer dart. Full on Maui blow dart in the butt cheek. And you can do it pretty much any time of day. And you can have it put you to sleep like good night-night and it never wakes you up, or you can have it wake you up. And the key is for the naps is the wakeup. Because as I’ve discovered through my excessive research it’s about waking up not in a REM cycle.
If you’re in a REM cycle and you try to wake up it’s like coming out of wet concrete. If the app wakes you slowly out of the REM cycle and then wakes you up it’s as if – like so much energy. I wake up and I’m like bam. I bound out of bed. It’s incredible. And for me it’s a total game-changer. Unfortunately because I got addicted to the one where the guy was talking to me about being pregnant every time I take a nap he’s like, “Feel your baby in your belly.” And I’m like, mm, all right.
But by that point I’m already asleep so it doesn’t matter. It’s like the Scriptnotes thing. It goes ding, ding, ding and I hear that and I’m asleep.
John: That’s amazing.
Dana: I’ve listened to it so many times. It’s become totally Pavlovian.
John: Yeah, Pavlovian. So, you nap every day, is that correct?
Dana: I try to. But I would say I nap three weekday and both weekend days.
John: And what time do you go to bed? How much sleep do you get overnight?
Dana: Oh my god, John, this is where it’s going to get super weird where all of your wonderful listeners are going to be like she has a medical problem. She should go to the hospital immediately.
I get in bed at no later than 9:30 every night. And I read my book. Right now I’m reading about Ada Lovelace. It’s fascinating. I read on Kindle, which is a whole other conversation that will lead back to an aggressive John August compliment if you will allow me to.
John: All right.
Dana: Which is that I discovered on Kindle that I am dyslexic. I did not know I was dyslexic until I was reading my Kindle one night and I was like why do books make me so tired, why is reading so hard for me? How come reading has always been hard for me? And I was on Kindle and I pressed this button for the font that says Open Dyslexic and I was like I’ll just check out what this looks like. And it was literally like a superhero movie. I was like pow. And there was a light flash and everything was crazy.
And I looked at the book and I was like oh my god I just read 42 books. So I went from being a person who reads like maybe three books a year to I read a book a week now. I’m just a voracious reader and it’s all because of this font. And my sweet, sweet John August who has his incredible app, which is called Weekend Read, sent me an email saying that he put Open Dyslexic onto it so that I could have it. Because you’re nice to me and you like when I have nice things.
John: I do like when you have nice new things. So, the new Weekend Read has Open Dyslexic on it as a font choice.
Dana: Which was amazing. So anyway, back to the sleep thing. I go to bed at 9:30 but I read for about a half an hour to an hour maybe, ish. Sometimes I read for like seven seconds and then fall asleep, but mostly I’m asleep by 10:30 and I wake up at 7.
John: Wow. So you get a lot of sleep.
Dana: I like a lot of sleep. Yeah, it’s weird how much sleep I get.
John: Ricky Gervais apparently also needs 12 hours of sleep. Some people just need it.
Dana: Who does that?
John: And you get a lot done during the day. Ricky Gervais.
Dana: Oh, wonderful. I love that story. And I get a lot done all day. I mean, I don’t want to call it like mania, but I would say when I’m working I am an assassin. What’s next, OK. We’re doing this. I stand at a standing desk. I never sit down. I do yoga for 45 minutes every day Monday through Friday now which has like saved me during the pandemic so I didn’t murder my whole family.
And then when my whole family turns up dead you’re going to have to call the police because you’re going to have this on the thing. I’m totally not murdering my family. I love my family. They’re the greatest. But the pandemic was very stressful for all families, I’m sure. And I started doing yoga which completely saved me. But because it’s so hard it’s also another reason why I have to nap.
Oh, and John, can I tell you the other really embarrassing thing?
John: I want to hear it.
Dana: The first time I was on Scriptnotes I talked about breast pumps, so this is definitely not as embarrassing as that, which I’m so glad you made not embarrassing, because it shouldn’t be.
John: But we also tried to normalize breastfeeding. You know, screenwriters who breastfeed on the podcast. So Rachel Bloom breastfed while she was on the podcast. It’s fine.
Dana: It’s so sweet. I love it so much. It’s the best. These attitude-changing things actually super-duper matter, so I thank you for that.
But, no, this is sort of an embarrassing admission which is because of the yoga my back was hurting one day, so I started sleeping with a heating pad for my back. And now I don’t think I can give up the heating pad. It’s amazing.
John: I want to talk about all the things I now use to sleep and they’re all great, but I do worry if I were ever to be in an emergency situation and didn’t have all my things to sleep I just could never sleep again.
So, here is the things I need to sleep.
Dana: Tell me your stuff.
John: First off, I need the pillow between my knees.
John: Because if my knees are touching each other, not doable. I need the white noise machine which has been a previously One Cool Thing.
Dana: Of course.
John: I’ve got to have the white noise machine.
Dana: Do you do the Rohm? May I ask are in the ‘70s style Rohm? Because that’s the best one I think.
John: Yeah. So the one I like so much is the one from the Wirecutter and it looks like a black little octagon or hexagon.
Dana: Oh, no, I don’t have that one.
John: Oh, I think the one you’re talking about, the one that’s sort of like a dimpled bell. Is that the one you’re thinking about?
Dana: You spin it and you can create hallow-ness based on how much air is coming out of it. It’s pretty dope. You would like it.
John: I know what you’re talking about. Yes. No, this one is digital, but it’s not looping, so it’s generating those noises. That’s important.
Dana: Oh nice.
John: But I started to need a Breathe Right strip, a nose strip, to keep my nose open.
John: And at Scriptnotes producer Megana Rao’s suggestion I tried this mouth taping thing, where you tape your lips together so you can’t breathe through your mouth.
Dana: Oh my gosh. My father-in-law talks a lot about that. Does it work?
John: It works so well. Megana, are you still doing that?
Megana: I’m still doing it. And it really helps with my allergies because I think during allergy season I get stuffed up, so I breathe through my mouth so much more. And this kind of helps me I think regulate that. I don’t know exactly how the science works. But I wake up feeling better.
John: I wake up feeling so much better. So that plus my eye shade. So I need all of these things. And my melatonin. So I need all of this stuff and I sleep so well. But I need all of this stuff.
Dana: First of all, I support you and love you. And I know you enough to know that you’re not packing for anywhere without all that stuff. So I’m not worried you’re going to not have it. I can’t even imagine a scenario where you end up without it.
John: A mouth guard. Oh my god.
Dana: I was literally just going to say mouth guard. So I got a mouth guard and let me tell you guys, first of all, super sexy. My husband is like, yeah, this is great. But second of all I have a mouth guard that completely changed my life. Because I don’t know if any of your wonderful listeners have jaw clenching, but I was clenching my jaw because of stress. And I got this mouth guard that is different from all other mouth guards. It’s like the Passover, why is this different from every other night of mouth guards. And basically what it does that’s different. OK, this is what I learned. This is crazy.
Number one, the guy was like – I went to a specific dentist for grinding of your jaw. And he’s like do you drink sparkling water. I was like I’m a writer in Hollywood. I exclusively drink sparkling water. There is no other kind of liquid that goes in my body that isn’t a different flavor of La Croix. Like of course I drink, or La Croix, or however you’re supposed to say it. I call it the French La Croix because I’m fancy.
Dana: So he was like, oh, you have to immediately cut that out because apparently sparkling water decreases something about your calcium and is like the enemy of jaw clenching. I was like that’s crazy. So I cut it out immediately and it was definitely helpful.
Then he was like I’m going to build you this mouth guard because 90% – he goes you know how everybody is probably telling you you’re too stressed out and you need to exercise more and you need this, and diet, and blah-blah-blah. And I said yes everybody is telling me that. And he said, well, it’s 10% of jaw grinding is that. 90% is tooth misalignment. And he’s like back in the day when you didn’t have dentists and you were like cavemen if something bad happened to your teeth your teeth would fix themselves. So you would lose a tooth and the other teeth would kind of like slide in to take care of it.
So really when your teeth get misaligned and don’t touch when you close your mouth your nighttime self is trying to fix your teeth for you. So all night long it’s going like let me fix it, let me fix it, let me fix it. So you’re grinding to try to fix the alignment of your teeth.
So the mouth guard I got, all it does is create a fake little tooth connection in the three places where my teeth aren’t touching. Boom. Literally night one the grinding stopped. I was about to have surgery for my jaw grinding because it was so crazy. It was so bad and like night one it was over, fixed.
Megana: I’m sorry. I am going through the same thing and I just had a dentist tell me that I’m going to need adult braces to fix it. And so this is…
Dana: But let’s talk later and I can tell you my guy. Because you’ve got to drive to Calabasas. Thoughts and prayers. But still he was amazing and he solved me because he said most people will tell you to get adult braces. And he said you can do that, but if you can solve it with a $400 mouth guard wouldn’t you rather do that? And I was like, yes, I would rather do that. And so, boom, solved.
Oh my god, we’ve got to sidebar after this.
Megana: Yeah. Well something else amazing I learned is that if you are jaw clenching it’s harder for you to get to REM sleep because–
Megana: Your body is still moving and whatever muscles.
Dana: And do you know why? Thank you. Oh my god. By the way, thank you. I’ve never felt more understood by somebody. Do you know why?
Megana: No, please tell me.
Dana: Thank you so much for asking. The only time your jaw doesn’t do that kind of thing from when it’s trying to fix your teeth is in REM sleep. So it is literally trying to prevent you from going into this state that will make it so it can’t fix your teeth for you.
John: I mean, Dana Fox.
Dana: I mean, I’m not saying I’m an actual doctor.
John: Usually you come on this podcast to solve screenwriting issues, but here you are changing people’s lives, like people who have no interest in writing at all, but have teeth. People who sleep.
Dana: I have some other good advice, too. Some other things that have been really changing my life include color. Have I talked to you about color, John?
John: I love color. We did a whole episode on colors. But what are you doing with color these days?
Dana: Thank you so much. Well I have two different versions of it. Number one, when I’m writing a script I will put obviously like the storyline between this lady and that guy will be one color. Or the character will be one color. So I love to see color in a script because it ignites these different serotonin explosions in my brain. That makes me super happy.
Recently I had to pitch out an entire season of something and I was doing it over Zoom, which is sort of a different thing than being in the room, and I was trying to figure out like, OK, what’s my move. I’m like a good pitcher, but how am I going to do this differently on Zoom.
And what I did was I created this huge document which was very long, because it was obviously a whole season. And I was like how am I going to do this without seeming like I’m reading this document. So what I did is I went through and I took each idea and I did it in the consecutive rainbow colors. So red was the first idea. Orange was the next idea. A darker yellow so I could actually read it was the third. And then the fourth idea was a green. And the next idea was in blue.
And then every time I started a new episode I went back to red. So, I could like glance over with one eyeball and be like I know exactly where I am in this pitch, because I’m on the third thing I was going to say about this episode and now I’m like, OK, now there’s the next one and the next one. And I’m like, oh right, now I’m on the next episode because there’s red again.
John: I love it.
Dana: A delight.
John: Color. Color is good.
John: Dana Fox, thank you so much for solving all of our pitching problems, our sleep problems, our jaw problems. You are just the best. I cannot wait to have you back in Los Angeles.
Dana: Is it weird if I want 23 hours of my day to be on Scriptnotes and one hour of my day to be just my regular life? Is that weird?
John: That’s fine. That’s fine. That’s most people. Maybe get the premium episodes, get the premium feed. Get all those back episodes.
Dana: Just binge it. Just crack out on it.
John: I think your husband already has the premium feed, so he can share his URL.
Dana: Oh my god. I don’t believe that. I’d pay for it twice. I support artists. What are you talking about?
John: Thank you.
- Watch Cruella on Disney+
- Home Before Dark Season 2 on Apple TV June 11th
- WandaVision on Disney+
- Some Kind of Heaven on Hulu
- Didja see in Deadline about Timothée Chalamet To Play Willy Wonka In New Origin Tale, Kevin Spacey Will Return To Film In Franco Nero’s ‘The Man Who Drew God’, ‘F9’ Star John Cena Apologizes — In Mandarin — To China Over Calling Taiwan A Country, Amazon Confirms It’s Buying MGM For $8.45 Billion, Army of the Dead, Tig Notaro shot all her scenes alone.
- Dana Fox on Twitter
- Jac Schaeffer
- Lance Oppenheim on the web
- Slate’s Working podcast dialect coach Samara Bay
- You’re Wrong About Podcast – Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
- Dana’s nap app Positive Pregnancy with Andrew Johnson
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- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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