The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. Today’s show has two bad words in it, so just a warning. It’s probably PG-13, but you know, just in case.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 505 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show we talk about why and how feature writers like Craig are turning their back on the big screen movies that made their careers and are instead making television programs for small screens in support of giant streamers.
Craig: So dramatic.
John: So we’re not placing the blame entirely on Craig, we’ll be interrogating two other villains. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi are the writing team behind such big screen movies as Crazy Beautiful, Ride Along, Ride Along 2, Clash of the Titans, The Invitation, and Destroyer. But now they’ve made The Mysterious Benedict Society for Disney+, which debuts on June 25. Welcome Matt and Phil.
Craig: Welcome guys.
Phil Hay: Hello, thank you.
Matt Manfredi: Hey guys.
Phil: Thank you for having us and casting us as villains.
Craig: Well, I mean, he’s just doing that so that I don’t have to bear the entire burden. It sounds like all three of us are going to be up against the wall here while John peppers us with his rhetoric bullets.
Phil: It does seem like this might get really dramatic.
Craig: Yeah. It’s going to get confrontational. This is going to be a hard hour.
John: It’s going to be a hard hour. But we’re going to make progress as we go through it. We’re going to really learn some lessons, some tears will be shed, and we will get through to the other side. I do want to talk about features versus television, but also you guys are writing partners and we have a bunch of questions saved up from our listeners about writing partner situations, so I hope that you can offer some good advice on that.
How long have you guys been writing together as a team?
Phil: We have been writing together for a seemingly endless amount of time.
Matt: It just keeps going.
Phil: And I hope it’s endless.
John: You’re the husband who has no idea how long he’s been married.
Phil: No, we’ve been writing professionally together for 26 years, Matt. Is that right?
Matt: Yeah. Is that titanium? The anniversary? What do I get you?
Craig: Oh my god. I think it’s gold. Or is 50 gold? 25 is meat. It’s meat.
John: You get some meat.
Craig: A nice roast beef.
Phil: I think 28 is the prelap anniversary.
Craig: Oh nice.
Matt: Wow. See what he did?
Craig: You know I’m coming up in 13 days from this recording will be my 25th wedding anniversary.
John: Nicely done. Really, congratulations Melissa.
Craig: Way to go, Melissa. Like what a remarkably patient person. You know what? She’s doing fine. Let’s not turn her into some sort of martyr. She’s doing fine.
Phil: Feels like John’s mission today is to create a lot of dichotomies and a lot of—
Craig: Tear people down.
John: Also to say for our bonus segment for premium members I want to talk about shooting during a pandemic, because you shot this show entirely during the pandemic, so I want to hear what you learned from that and what you will carry forward into future productions.
But first let’s talk about that land that you used to be in, features. I sent through this article by Daniel Victor about MoviePass which has been a frequent subject of scorn on this podcast. Craig, what’s your take on MoviePass and what are we now learning about MoviePass?
Craig: Well we learned is that sometimes the obvious is in fact the obvious. So early on in MoviePass’s lifetime you and I both expressed confusion, bordering on anger, on how this plan could possibly work. It just didn’t make sense on its face. So eventually they fell apart and we thought well there you go, we were right. You just can’t make money doing something where you spend more than you make. But it turns out that in fact MoviePass, once they realized that they were about to head into a freefall, instead of just giving up they decided to try and save themselves by sneakily limiting the amount of movies their most frequent users could see.
So it’s a bit like an all-you-can-eat buffet that suddenly starts like, whoops, our door doesn’t work, you can’t come in. It’s like that. So they had—
Matt: Before you get more bacon, you’re going to need to change your password.
Craig: Correct. So they would do things like if you were seeing too many movies they would force you into a password reset and then that password reset just wouldn’t work. They would say, oh, there’s fraud here, but there wasn’t. They just made it up. And then they wouldn’t respond to requests. And essentially so there’s a phrase in programming called Sending you to Coventry. It’s from the war. So in WWII, sending someone to Coventry, they would do it with a spy. If they figured out that somebody was sending messages to the Germans, rather than confront them, they thought it would be better to just have them continue to send messages but reroute them to nowhere. So that person kept going, so they could keep reading the intelligence they were sending.
And that’s kind of what MoviePass did. They just sent people to nowhere. And now in addition to being out of business, they are also under investigation by the federal government. Good.
John: Yeah. It’s so hard to fine a business that’s out of business, but I guess it’s sort of important to sort of take care of it for the next time through, to call this out. But this answers some of my questions about what they thought they were doing versus how they actually worked, because it reminded me of this strategy called Blitzscaling. So remember Amazon, like Amazon sort of shouldn’t have worked, but eventually they got so big that they sort of had to work. They actually achieved this kind of scale.
And I think MoviePass thought they would achieve a kind of scale that they could actually negotiate prices with these theaters and it would all work. It just didn’t work and so they were just left floundering trying not to burn through all their money.
Phil: Well it’s also like the concept of the loss leader, which we all learned a long time ago, but at some point it’s worth it to spend a lot of money to gain customers period. But at some point you have to convert that into something. And also it feels like a too good to be true situation.
Matt: Also, if you have a loss leader you need to have another product.
Craig: Right. Exactly.
John: That cheap rotisserie chicken in the front of the grocery store, that’s so you’ll buy other things in the store.
Craig: The hamburger is $0.99 so that you buy a soda, which is all profit, but I guess my question for you guys is why did any of these people who ran this thing think for any moment that it could work? What possible future contains success for this plan?
John: Well, think about Netflix. So remember Netflix when it was still a DVD business.
Craig: Let’s talk about that.
John: So they had problems where they had some people who would get those two DVDs and they would go through it so quickly that Netflix was losing money on some customers. But it wasn’t most of their customers. And I think that’s really the fatal flaw here is that they really misassumed how often people would use MoviePass. They thought people would use it and not really get the full value out of it, but instead millennials sort of saw this as a lifestyle subsidy and would use it up and they would just use it constantly.
Craig: So the very thing they were advertising they were hoping their ads wouldn’t work and that people wouldn’t do it. It’s so weird. Anyway, they were nuts and they’re out of business and under investigation. Yay.
Phil: And it worked too well, because I think what they were counting on makes sense, because they thought people were going to do what I do which is see something interesting that they want to subscribe to and then forget about it. And then harvest any number of months or maybe even years of a small fee that you forget about.
Phil: And people just liked using it too much, because it’s great to go to the movies for almost no money.
Craig: For free.
John: So, Matt, do you have any subscriptions to things that you are not using? Things you have just forgotten to cancel?
Matt: Oh yeah.
Matt: Yeah. And I get updates every month, but the problem is if someone else in my family has subscribed to that I have to figure out which computer I can get on to unsubscribe. Like my daughter is into swimming, but the pandemic kind of took that away for a bit. And so we have this swim times app for various meets. And I don’t know when she’s going to swim again. But we get a monthly update for that.
There’s all kinds of things. It’s very hard to unsubscribe.
John: Now if you want to subscribe to Scriptnotes, it’s Scriptnotes.net and it’s $4.99 a month.
Phil: Very transparent. That’s a very ethical and transparent process.
Craig: That was just sweaty.
Matt: God that was efficient.
Craig: That was thirsty.
John: All right, let’s try a less thirsty transition here. I want to start talking about television and I thought was set up I was watching an episode of a show this last week that made me think of it. And so in this episode it’s set in the ‘70s and one of the characters is an aspiring writer. And he has this revelation that he should probably stop writing books and should start writing for television because that’s where all the best storytelling is happening. So let’s take a listen to a clip.
Male Voice: I’ve seen it. I have glimpsed through the veil of time.
Craig: What the fuck are you talking about? I didn’t understand a goddamn – did you understand any of that? Either of you?
Male Voice: Your passion is admirable, but worlds coming to life on television? None of the good stuff is on TV.
Craig: TV is shit. It’s for morons.
Craig: That’s solid acting.
John: That’s an episode of Mythic Quest, an episode called Backstory written by Craig Mazin and starring Craig Mazin.
Craig: Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to say “starring.”
John: Costarring Craig Mazin. With all the best lines written for Craig Mazin.
Craig: The true star of that episode is Josh Brener.
Phil: Craig Mazin, OBE.
Craig: OBE. Josh Brener delivering those lines there as a young C.W. Longbottom, the character played by F. Murray Abraham. Boy, that Josh Brener, by the way, can I just say, wow. Brilliant. Just a great actor.
John: He’s great. I remember him as Big Head and really having almost no character to play.
Craig: Everybody knows him as Big Head and I’m just announcing to Hollywood like seriously pay attention. He’s just phenomenal.
John: All right. Don’t try to distract us from the real topic here. Craig, your character has a [unintelligible] about how stupid television really is.
Craig: Which in the early ‘70s was a fact. I mean, I remember in elementary school there was a push for us in arts and crafts class to create little posters with crayon and such tracking the hours of television we watched purposely to reduce it because television would “rot your brain.”
John: Yeah. And you were not a television writer at the start of this podcast. So 10 years ago you were not a television writer. And now you are mostly a television writer. So I want to track that change and sort of how your opinions have changed, but really involve our two guests here this week because you guys are not television writers and now you find yourselves running this TV show for a streamer.
So, what changed? What made you decide to go from making features to making this as a series? Phil?
Phil: Well, I think in this case it was just very specifically the book and the situation and feeling like this was a feel and a vibe and a tone that felt really important that we wanted to do. To be clear, speaking for myself, really always have considered myself a movie person. And I think in life I am a movie person. And I’m really committed to that form of art. And I think what’s interesting is you know making a television show that has eight episodes is, you know, there’s congruent things to making a movie to making that style of television show. I’ve never made a television show that had 24 episodes in a season or anything like that.
So along that spectrum there’s a lot of different approaches. And I think specifically this was just a book that we loved and a kind of thematic landscape that we wanted to do. And it was too big to be a movie. I think there was a way to think about it as a movie, but it was always framed to us as a potential television show. And so I think we inherently walked in assuming that.
John: So Matt, Phil says you walked in assuming that. So this was not a property that you came to them with. Basically they said we think this is a TV show and what is your guys’ first approach to this property as feature writers. Like how did you approach adapting The Mysterious Benedict Society which is a middle grade fiction book series into a series? What was your first way in?
Matt: It was brought to us by Karen Kehela Sherwood and Jamie Tarses as a television show. It had been set up already and they came to us to see if we wanted to do it. I think the way we approached it was not – we wrote the pilot first. We looked for, having read the book and seen that it kind of basically mapped out for a season of television, we didn’t break the entire season. We thought what’s a good end point for a pilot? What will kind of propel us forward and give the audience an understanding of what the rest of the series would be?
And so it’s somewhat clear in terms of the structure of the book where you might the first one or two episodes, because our series ends up kind of having two pilots based on where the location goes.
We wrote the pilot first and then they commissioned the second episode before they green lit the series. So then we got the writer’s room together. Hired showrunning partners, Darren Swimmer and Todd Slavkin and got the room together and broke the rest from there.
Phil: Yeah. And I think it was helpful for us to be able to do it in little bits, because to do the pilot like, OK, we can figure out what the pilot is from this book. And I have in my copy of the novel little yellow Post-Its sticking out still that are like 101 ends here, 102 ends here maybe, and 103 somewhere here. And then to be able to do the second episode, and then we only have six left. And then as Matt said we get our partners together and they’re just very talented and adept at structuring a season. And so then we could together look at it and be like, OK, here’s how we’re going to get to the end and break down the structure.
Because I think Matt and I generally when we write are really intuitive about structure. And so this required a little bit more kind of a grind at structure than we’re used to doing with the films that we write. Because I think especially with the independent films that we do we kind of our in our little zone where we just feel it and having those 26 years of experience helps you do that. But it was interesting to enter TV where it did feel like we needed to hammer that structure a little bit more tactile-y.
Matt: We ended up thinking about it a little bit in terms of three act structure. Like the overarching thing because the villain kind of has a master plot, and so the kind of last two episodes with the kind of initiation/foiling of this plot, you know, you quickly see well the first two we’re going to establish, the last two we’re going to get into the climax. And we have just a big second act.
So it was helpful on a macro level to step back and think about it that way. And then get into the fine structure over every episode.
Phil: We were confidently calling it a two-part finale the entire time before we had any idea why it had to be a two. We were like well then you have the two-part finale.
Craig: That’s not a thing. It’s just two episodes.
Phil: And they were like, uh-huh, OK.
Craig: It’s the two last episodes. That’s what it’s called.
Phil: Bedrock principles. We have written the first two episodes and then of course there’s there two-part finale.
Craig: The two-part finale.
John: Why did they come to you for this property rather than someone who had done TV before?
Phil: I think that there was something about, I mean, Karen and Jamie definitely felt very strongly – they had read and seen stuff we had done. And again it’s not, you know, as you guys know, we and you guys do all different types of things. So there isn’t a “oh that’s just what they do.” And the tone of this story couldn’t be more different than Destroyer or The Invitation which are the last two things that we have done.
But they had had just kind of a spark that said we just feel it’s you and we feel like there’s a sense of optimism that we share that the show shares. And there’s a sense of humor and you guys again would know this. The ability – the show is in many ways a comedy – and the ability to do comedy that’s not R-rated comedy is its own thing. You know, and it’s its own – absurdism is a great doorway into doing comedy that doesn’t have to be R-rated comedy.
And that’s what these books are sort of and there’s a sense of that. And so I think it was maybe almost more about the personal feeling than like looking at things in our past and saying oh it’s kind of like that so it would make sense.
John: But you’d also made things. You were producers as well as being feature writers. And so Craig it reminds me of our conversations we’ve had on this podcast for forever about sort of the writer-plus. And in features you started to see some writers who were not just writers, but were also the people who could get stuff made. And it feels like Phil and Matt, but also you are sort of finding that, but really finding it more in television. Is that fair?
Craig: More than fair. Because what happens in television is you finally get acknowledged for doing all that stuff. In features as a screenwriter you have to – if you’re that writer-plus you have to behave as a producer, as a filmmaker, you have to be involved in all levels of decision-making and no one can know. No one can know.
Craig: Because the director is made of the most fragile material and I guess would collapse to the mere suggestion that the person who wrote everything down might have some thoughts. So, not bitter. In features we work in the shadows when we’re doing this. And in television we are not in the shadows at all.
I pride myself on working with the directors that I make television with. Doesn’t matter about rank or title or credit or who is technically in charge of blah-blah-blah. I want to work in partnership with them. That means we should both be happy. When it’s time to move on we should both be happy with the costumes, the locations, the sets builds. Everything. So I work with directors the way I wish most of the directors I’ve worked with worked with me.
But instead in features they don’t even want you there. Because apparently they’re too delicate and it would hurt. And that it turns out is psychologically damaging. It’s not that working in television makes me feel great. It’s that the pain of hiding – I don’t know how many times I’ve said this. When I hear male feature screenwriters being like why are women complaining so much, I’m like how do you not get it? How do you not get what it means to be the smartest person in the room and you’re not allowed to show it and you have to make other people feel good about themselves in order for you to be heard? How do you not get it? That is what it is working as a feature writer.
Matt: And the goal is to be involved, as a feature writer. The goal is to be involved throughout the entire process because you know the stories better than anybody else. And it’s not like you’re sitting there defending it like a goalie or something, like an antagonistic presence. You’re there to kind of yes-and but also think about this in terms of the story. But I think you’re always very much aware that you’re serving at the pleasure of the king or queen.
Whereas in television you are expected to be there and everything kind of flows through you. But like you said, Craig, it doesn’t have to be a dictatorial style of–
Craig: I mean, especially for you guys since I don’t know if Karyn shot all of it, or some of it, but when Phil’s wife is working on it I would imagine that you would want to be as collaborative as possible, the way that you guys are in your features. I mean, tell me if I’m wrong, but I suspect the way that you would work with her on a show like that would be exactly the same.
Matt: It is, yeah, because our process is so interesting because even though technically when Karyn is shooting an episode of our show we’re the final word on the thing, whereas when we’re shooting one of our movies Karyn is the final word on everything. Because our process is so specific and healthy there’s no difference. Because when we’re making a movie with Karyn it’s going to be, it’s just very clear, she’s going to decide. But it’s a very healthy exchange so that we always feel entirely heard and the same way I think in this experience – you know, this is the only time we’ve done it this way, but there’s just a natural triad that just makes sense.
And I think kind of going back to what you were saying Craig, it’s true, the pain part of doing – because we’ve been lucky. And part of the reason we so aggressively wanted to do our independent movies together is that we could just be free to produce. To write the script and never worry about any other exigencies coming up with the script or other writers. Anything like that. It was just period going to be ours, no doubt.
And then to be free to actually produce the movie and learn how to produce. And that production knowledge then translates really well to television. But the pain of that studio thing, where we were in the same thing, Craig, sometimes. I used to joke it’s like being an Air Force colonel on an aircraft carrier. It’s like you kind of vaguely seem like you have authority, but you have no one in your department. You know what I mean? You’re kind of just an odd character. Always on the side. You know, that’s less fun than being able to just fully engage and not have to be kind of a ghost, which often.
And, again, we had so many times where we were extremely integral to the studio movies we were making, but it was a bit like, oh that’s right, you guys are kind of doing all this stuff.
John: I remember having to sort of invite myself into edit rooms. Just really getting in there to fix things because they weren’t used to me being around and didn’t sort of know what to do with me on a feature. And a project I’m working on right now which is somewhere between a made for a streamer and a feature, it’s weird trying to figure out sort of what everybody thinks my place is. And sort of to assume that I have the most authority in there as possible.
Craig: And you start to think, oh man, I’m the dog that caught the car here. Because I’m writing most of the episodes of this season by myself, and then Neil Druckmann, we co-wrote a couple. He’s writing another one. So there’s a lot of writing. Then there’s all this other creative stuff that I love, like I mentioned, costumes and production design. And then there’s like talking to agents, trying to get deals done with actors. Discussing publicity. And going through marketing plans. And all of that at times–
John: Do you like any of that?
Matt: I love the publicity and marketing.
Craig: Publicity and marketing, obviously, [unintelligible]. Like I had a meeting today that I actually kind of loved about clearances and what we can show and what we can’t show. But there are times where I think like oh my god there is – being in charge as it turns out is a whole lot of work. So I would say that one of things, if you’re going to make that transition from features to showrunning is you have to know yourself well enough to understand that you can or cannot multitask at a very high level. Because you’re going to need to.
Phil: And it’s also great, and in our case we’re so lucky that we found partners that could really willingly and with a great deal of kind of grace under pressure really help handle and manage all of that television production. And really allow us to lean into our strengths in terms of the creative vision of the show. That partnership with Todd and Darren was very critical, because it really liberated us in many ways.
John: Now two episodes ago we had Jac Schaeffer on talking about her experiences with WandaVision and she said one of her favorite moments bar none was getting together a writer’s room and actually having writers working on this show which was brand new for her because she was a feature writer. This was her first time working with a TV writing staff.
This is also new for you guys because you have overseen productions before but you never had a writing staff. How is that process for you? How did you go about finding writers and working with writers? What was it like to be a feature writer suddenly overseeing other writers?
Phil: It was really interesting because I’d had this very vague vision of what – you hear people talk about writer’s rooms all the time. I mean, knowing so many TV writers. And in many ways it was a lot like I imagined it, and in many ways it wasn’t.
We had a total of five writers besides ourselves, including Todd and Darren, and then three other really great writers. And it was really an interesting thing of just seeing how much the – like realizing that the goal there is to hopefully inspire other people. You know, same way with a screenplay. You’re hoping to inspire a director, then you’re hoping to inspire actors. You’re hoping to inspire financiers. So almost took that approach to the writer’s room. And this show is very, very specific, and very strange, and to kind of help mark the boundaries of what the show is and what the vibe was. And that we realized kind of part of our role was to try to just throw a lot of things out there that would help to inspire other people to slowly get more like, oh, I get it. This is what the show is and this is what the show isn’t.
It was really interesting and really actually a lot of fun, because it was, as you said, we’d never been in that situation before where we had all these people to help.
Matt: It was interesting though because things just start to move and it’s a different way of thinking about story and writing. Just the process of it was so different to me, because a lot of times I just need to go off and think for a second. I need to go walk from my office to the car and then the problem would be solved. And this time just like you’ve got this group of people throwing out ideas and it’s fun. And it’s kind of exhilarating and it was a new and kind of interesting thing I thought.
Phil: And people do it differently as we were informed. And we learned early like you can do it in so many different ways. In this case we were in there a lot. And I know a lot of other people maybe you come at the beginning of the day and the end of the day. And there’s all this other stuff to do. But we tended to want to be back in there as much as we could. So, I think it can evolve in terms of–
John: What were your documents along the way? So as it moved you guys had done a pilot and a backup script. But were there outlines for other documents? What would come out of the room and what were the states of episodes before they were full scripts?
Matt: We had a lot of time before production. It didn’t overlap. And so we kind of broke the whole season very roughly and then we kind of finely break 103 on and then at some point if we were doing 105 we’d assign 103 and that writer would do – we did story areas for two or three episodes and then we got those taken off the menu which was so nice.
John: How long is a story area document?
Matt: Story area document. We would start pitching those just orally to the studio rather than have a round of notes on another document.
Phil: I think those were like three pages when we.
Craig: For the folks listening at home, when we call episodes 102, 103, 104, the way we number television episodes is the first number is the season number and then the second number is the episode number. So, episode 315 if the 15th episode of the third season. Now you know.
Phil: There you go. Thank you, Craig.
Matt: I mean, the story area documents, I don’t find them particularly useful. You’re just kind of stating what the episode will be about in a page or three. As a tool to help you write the script I didn’t find those very helpful. Mainly outlines. So 12-page outline for each of the episodes. And we’d look at it for a while and send the writer back to do some revisions and then we’d obviously send to the studio and then they’d go off to write.
John: So all episodes were written before production started, correct?
Phil: Yeah. I think almost. We might have been writing a little bit of the finale, the second part of the two-part finale.
Craig: Two-part finale.
John: But did your room still exist by the time?
Matt: Part two of the two-part finale was written during production.
Phil: Now the room had broken actually right before the Covid shutdown of mid-March. And we had actually really finished. We were maybe going to be in the room another week for kind of odds and ends. But we had sort of perfectly timed to be able to finish. So the room was broken but there was still a lot of writing to do.
John: Let’s talk about what writing you guys needed to do on people’s scripts that were not – someone else had written the script but you needed to go through and do some work on that. How did you approach that and did you have conversations with the writers? Did you give writers notes first and then go through and touch it yourselves? It would feel weird to me to not actually be fixing the problems in front of me.
Phil: Yeah, it’s a strange but very customary thing that we hadn’t encountered because we hadn’t done TV. But I think in the end if you’re going to be the last word on the script, which was our job to be, then what you’re hoping and what we got, which was fantastic, is writers who get you really close to what is going to cohere and what is going to really sing as the very specific and voice of the show, which is its own thing.
So I think customarily, yeah, you’re really in this situation where you’re hoping to, like I said before, hoping to inspire people to kind of, A, both be able to kind of deliver something close to what you would have done, but, B, surprise you with something that you wouldn’t have considered and there’s plenty of examples of that in the show. You’re trying to manage, you know, I think it’s no news to anyone in television that that’s kind of the job of the people who are the final word on the script. You’re going to have to work on it and really pull it all together. But your hope is that, yes, the writer is going to get another bite at the apple. That’s also how things get better rolling forward.
That process of giving notes to people, having them work on it, talking it through, that’s all part of the grist for the mill.
Matt: It’s all with the understanding of like there’s no hard feelings. It’s not a judgment of what you’ve done. It comes to a point where you can’t read our minds in terms of like how we would phrase a certain thing. So there are certain things that we’re just going to do. It’s supposed to flow through us and eventually it does. But like Phil said the hope is that everyone has been prepped well enough through the room and through your notes on the various other documents that they go off and surprise you with something awesome. And that happened a ton.
Phil: Yeah. And the goal is that you have every writer feel very invested in their episode, because there is a linkage between whatever brings their special thing and whatever brings the show’s special thing. It’s in there that it can be found.
John: Now Megana we have an email from somebody who wrote in with sort of the opposite experience here, so I wonder if you could share that with us and we could talk through what’s happening on this show and what could be improved.
Megana Rao: Erased wrote in saying, “I’m working on a TV show from a big name creator. For the episode I wrote the showrunner did small tweaks right before the episode shot. They replaced my name on the title page and turned in the script with their name on it. I learned of this when the script coordinator distributed a draft. I decided not to confront them, but instead to point out the ‘oversight.’ Paperwork had to be reissued and the show creator seemed upset that I was now a credited writer. It seemed to ruin their branded vision of the second season being written by only them and the showrunner.
“The creator took over the writer’s room Twitter account and when we premiered went on a huge PR parade that pushed the narrative that the season was only written by two writers. In the end I got the credit I needed to get into the guild. And when the episode airs it will say my name. But I hate that this creator has gone to such extreme measures to push a narrative that excluded my contributions.”
Phil: That stinks. Straight up.
Matt: That’s not the way we do business at Hay-Manfredi.
Phil: Nor anybody that I think we know. I mean, I think, I don’t know, I think a couple things. If you wanted it to be written by only two people then the answer would be to only have two people writing it. That’s a denial of the reality of the show. But the other thing is not knowing what this is, just I think my general take on these things is similar to being a director in features. If you’re a creator or a showrunner in television, everyone is already going to assume you did everything. They already are going to give you all the credit that you can possibly handle. So the idea of trying to erase someone else can only come from ego, to me.
John: Ego and insecurity.
Phil: And insecurity. And also the fact that it has a very tangible financial impact on somebody who is by definition making less money than you are, to take away that credit. So, I don’t know, again, we kind of knew this instinctively and talked to many of our friends and again when we partnered with Todd and Darren they’re extremely ethical, very professional, moral guys. And it was just clear when you talk to other professionals that you just don’t do that. It’s tacky.
You know, and I know many people do, but in my opinion it just does not come from a positive place.
Matt: It’s like swinging a 3-0 with a big lead.
Craig: Yeah, the unwritten rules of baseball, and they’re the unwritten rules of television. And we all know who does it. I mean, people talk about it. And I can think of one guy in particular that people mention all the time who is a serial violator of this unwritten rule.
The instinct behind it I assume is, hey, I wrote on this and maybe the showrunner thinks that he or she did most of the rewriting. Because a lot of times rewriters in their own minds expand their contribution.
Phil: Anyone who has done an arbitration can definitely see that.
Craig: God knows if you’ve read enough arbitration statements you marvel at it all. But even so, even if you rewrite every word there is a contract and the contract – not legal, but ethically – that you just let it go, because you’re the executive producer, you’re the creator, in some cases you’re the director, and so really what is the fear? That one day that episode is going to win an Emmy and some other person will get up there to take that Emmy even though they didn’t write a lot of the stuff that’s in it? Who cares?
You know what? You’ve just got to be bigger than that. You have to be bigger. It’s part of being professional. And especially now – look, I don’t have a writer’s room, so this is easy for me to say, OK. I get that. I’m writing checks I don’t have to cash. But, now when people are trying to hire folks who generally weren’t hired frequently before, so basically everybody that’s not a white guy, it seems more and more important to keep making sure that you’re pulling them up and you’re keeping the integrity of the ladder in place so they can move up. And the integrity of the ladder comes down to credits. It is money for people who need it.
And you know who definitely doesn’t need the money? The showrunner. Every single time. So, this is déclassé, it shouldn’t be done. You’ve got to be bigger than that. And I’m extending an olive branch to the big name creator and saying I understand the impulse. I do. I get it. And I do believe that there are cases where you have to sit there, perhaps, in the Emmy audience and grit your teeth as somebody that you had to spend a weekend rewriting completely gets up there and thanks everybody for your work. I get that.
But hey, you know what, guess what? Welcome to being a writer in features again. It’s kind of that’s the way it goes.
Phil: It all comes back to that.
Matt: The way we did it was, and Todd and Darren, this was their method, which was you hire you room and you’re very clear about what’s going to happen. With us, the number of episodes worked out that we said, OK, each of you is going to get an episode. We don’t know which one it will be, but you know.
And if we had had one more writer it would be like each of you is going to get an episode and two of you are going to share an episode. We are not going to take credit on any of those episodes and your name will be on it. Your name will be on an episode. We’re going to get enough credit.
Matt: You know? Like our name appears last and at the beginning and the end of every episode and sometimes it appears like three times. People know what we did.
Phil: That’s enough.
Matt: And we’re comfortable with acknowledging the work of others.
Phil: And as you said, Craig, too, like I mean you also realize that one of the mysterious of screenwriting in television writing world is it’s not – unless it’s something like when we have done our movies where no one else has been part of that writing process period, if there’s multiple people there’s going to be multiple perspectives on what reality is and who did what and who remembers doing something that the other person actually did. And the only way out of those weeds is to just say everyone is responsible for their own perspective on what happened. But what I can do is be ethical and generous.
Phil: And positive.
Phil: That’s what I can do. And then everyone else’s stuff is up to them.
Craig: We talked about publicity and marketing and all the rest of it. When the publicity thing happens it is fascinating to watch how it all functions. So, in movies you just don’t exist when it comes time for publicity, and if you do it’s just so that someone can say that you did a poor job. And then regardless the director gets this possessive, you know, so-and-so’s movie. And you’re like, what the?
And then in television it’s the other way around. And it’s equally as unfair. I cannot tell you how many times I would read that I was the director of Chernobyl. I was not. I didn’t direct a frame of it. Johan Renck did. All of it. But in television they just gravitate towards the showrunner and assign the showrunner full responsibility for everything. Which means for the love of god if you have a writing room you can share a little bit. You’re not going to go hungry for attention. Good lord. The opposite.
John: Now, Megana, we have a bunch of questions saved up for people writing in about writing partner questions and issues. I’m wondering since we have Phil and Matt here if you can ask some questions about writing partner stuff.
Craig: I think we might – and maybe we should do a speed round, because we have a bunch of them and I kind of want to get all of these answered.
Matt: Let’s do it.
Phil: We need to definitively answer all of these questions right now.
Megana: So first up Tom from LA writes in, “I’m in a bit of a bind. Simply put, I want to break up with my writing partner. But I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. We’ve been writing together for a while now and over that time have become really good friends, with my wife and her especially growing close. With writing though I dread every time we sit down to write. At risk of sounding conceited, I feel like the gap between our abilities has grown throughout our relationship, to the point that I don’t trust her edits when she rewrites me anymore. Writing alone is hard enough, but this is exhausting.
“We recently turned in a project to financiers and are beginning to meet with production companies and actors about a script we finished in 2020. The conversation of what do we start next has come up and I honestly don’t know what to say. At heart I’m conflict-averse and can see myself unhappily staying in this relationship for a long time just so I don’t have to hurt anyone. What advice do you have for ending a writing partner relationship? How can I go about it in a way that won’t endanger the projects we’ve already written? Or our friendship?”
Craig: [laughs] This is where we reveal that Phil asked us to read this question so that he could say, “Well Matt it’s funny that they asked this because…”
Phil: Sometimes in the presence of friends it’s easier to get to the…
Craig: Witness me.
Matt: The answer has to be, you know, you’ve got to rip off the Band-Aid. And this isn’t meant to be condescending, but I was talking with one of my kids the other day and I was like don’t make yourself miserable just to avoid a difficult conversation. It will only get worse. And I think there’s a really graceful way, you know, I think creatively we’re heading in different directions. And that’s not a slight on what you’re doing, but I think we’ve kind of grown apart a little bit as writers and I think we should be free to explore other stuff.
Craig: I went through this. I had a writing partner. Fantastic guy named Greg. We wrote a couple of movies together that got produced. And we were a bona fide writing team with a writing team quote and we shared agents. And over time what happened was I started to realize that I was probably supposed to be writing alone. Sometimes the best way to put it, Tom, is it’s not that I don’t want to write with you anymore, it’s that I don’t want to write with anyone anymore. I just want to write with me. Because it is possible that you are a solo act, which is perfectly fine. It happens.
It isn’t a judgment. It isn’t a condemnation. Now, when you are concerned about hurting her feelings what I can tell you is you will hurt her feelings. Sorry, it’s going to happen. And what you don’t want to do as Matt says is just sacrifice your own emotional integrity and joy and pleasure in what is already as you say alone hard enough just because you don’t want to hurt her feelings. Her feelings are going to be hurt, but then she’ll get over it because you’re not being cruel. You’re not being selfish. You’re just being honest about who you are and how you’ve changed.
Matt: As my therapist once said about a difficult thing, it’s going to be bad, but it will be finite.
Craig: Yes. Tincture of time is what Dennis Palumbo would say to me all the time. Tincture of time. It is amazing how time really does heal everything. It’s insane.
John: All right, Megana, next question.
Megana: Frustrated and Furious asks, “A friend and I wrote a script together. We agreed it was good and that we needed to get it out there as widely as possible. But all of the reaching out was done by me, exploiting only my contacts and relationships and burning my favors, and none of it was being done by him. I reached out to over 75 friends and contacts. He reached out to two. I tried addressing it with him directly and let him know it was leading to frustration and resentment on my part because he said he would send the script to his contacts and then he wouldn’t.
“We had been knee-deep in planning our next project and I just stopped engaging because I felt as if I was being used for my contacts and my willingness to put myself out there. Now, it’s unlikely I will ever write a script on my own as good as the one we wrote together, so here’s my question. Should I put this issue aside to continue writing scripts with him since the scripts I write with him will be better than those I write on my own? Or should I torpedo our relationship because my cowriter is a weasel and someone who is using me and my contacts for his own personal gain without exposing himself to failure the way I am?”
Craig: Whoa. Whoa. Good golly.
Phil: Wow. Well I think we all recognize that the key sentence in that is “I don’t believe I will write a script better on my own.”
Craig: What else is there to know?
Phil: So the question then becomes can you reframe the relationship and what the demands business-wise are in a way that allows you to do your best work? Because there’s plenty of partners out there. Like Matt, there’s a lot of different ways to be partners. Matt and I are the sort of two of the same guy version, where we both are kind of good at the same things and we both try to improve at the same things and all that.
But there’s plenty of partners who one person is an absolutely cannot speak in a meeting. They are just terribly socially awkward and the other one is the face person. But that other person who can’t talk in a meeting or can’t pitch is a brilliant writer and they have an exchange that feels completely equitable and fair to them.
So, everyone doesn’t have to offer the same stuff, but if it’s creating resentment to the level of [weaselry] then you have to address that in one way or the other, but I guess I’m giving you the permission to say that unless this person is kind of doing it in a way that’s errors of commission versus omission, just like this person maybe is not good at reaching out to people, then if you can make an accommodation because the work is better and you like that part of the partnership then it’s possible.
Craig: I don’t understand this complaint. I’ve got to be honest with you. Frustrated and Furious, if this works, you send out a script to a whole bunch of people, if it works then you’ll get an agent and then your agent does this for the rest of your career and it’s no longer an issue. This is more of like if the two of you were starting an agency together I would get it, but you are putting this massive stress on how many friends and contacts you sent things out to and that those contacts are valuable. No they’re not. No they’re not. Your script is valuable. Period. The end.
Matt: I’m with Craig. If you have one contact, I’m a true believer in good work will out itself.
Matt: So screenwriting is not about contacts it’s about the writing. And if you’re producing good writing with this person, and like Phil said if you can put your frustration aside, do not worry about the contacts.
Matt: Because you’re going to write something and it’s going to take one contact and you’ll be on your way.
Craig: I’m frustrated and furious.
John: Yeah. I honestly felt like maybe we actually did get the other side of this writing partnership sending us an email as well saying like this guy only is trying to hustle, but he’s actually a terrible writer.
John: It’s all hustle.
Craig: Then we yell at that guy.
Phil: I mean, just to refine a tiny bit, it is a little bit about contacts. Let’s not be, you know what I mean?
Craig: A little bit. But it’s such a weird like you won’t email your mother whose daughter went to school with Tom Cruise’s friend. Like who cares?
Matt: Yes. And it’s about maintaining relationships and things like that. But I don’t value Phil for his contacts.
Craig: Oh well. Well there you and I have to differ. Because that’s the only thing about him I find interesting.
Phil: Craig is constantly having me make calls to minor league baseball players for him.
Craig: But only to Karyn. Like I’m constantly asking can you ask Karyn?
Phil: Exactly. And like you have her phone number. Just call her.
Craig: Because John won’t do it.
John: I will say in every relationship though there’s the one person who like calls the strangers. Like I’m the person who is going to call that stranger to get this thing to happen. That’s just how we sort of divide stuff up like that.
Craig: Oh, you mean like for you and me? Oh definitely. I’m useless.
Phil: There’s different roles that can be valuable.
Matt: But John is frustrated.
Craig: Of course. John carries me around like a dead Siamese twin. That’s a Tim O’Donnell line I stole. I’m just sort of hanging off of him, like I died years ago from sleep apnea but he can’t cut me loose because we share a liver and that’s the way it goes.
John: Let’s take a listen to a question from somebody who is at the start of a partnership. Megana what you got?
Megana: Margaret asks, “I’m considering pursuing a one-off partnership with a co-writer on a feature film script but I have questions relating to the other party’s representation. While I don’t have representation, the other party is represented by a manager in an unofficial manner. His deal, which is not in writing, is that he submits ideas and scripts to the manager who will then consider packaging it with the performers that he represents.”
Craig: Oh my god. He’ll consider it.
Megana: “Also, the talent would probably be considered C or D-list celebrities. Yes, I acknowledge that I’m no-list. No one with whom I want our new project tied. I think that this project that can potentially do better in terms of attracting talent. Overall the manager seems more like a booking agent then a rep for writers. My question is what are the legal complications of having one party in a partnership represented by a manager while the other party is not represented? Will the situation force the project to be handled through that manager? And could that manager act as a spoil sport that kills a deal that develops outside of his pipeline?
“In other words, just how messy could this get?”
Phil: I think that it could get very messy. But I think the answer is very clean and I’d be surprised if any of my friends disagreed, which is–
Craig: Margaret should do it. [laughs] She should jump in.
Matt: Go for it. Go for it.
Phil: It is that you’ve already correctly perceived the situation. You seem very clear-eyed about it. You know that this manager is not a good one and is not going to help. And will only in fact hurt. And I actually think the chances that this manager will not hurt are very slim. And so I think it’s in my – if this were me, I would either avoid the situation entirely, or I would make it very clear that this project cannot be represented by that person.
Now that person may still win their way into it, or create a static. And the last thing you need is static. And you really don’t need someone packaging a script with less than the very, very best. So, I guess my questions is if it is not something you absolutely have to pursue, which it kind of doesn’t sound like it from your framing, it’s best just to leave it be.
Matt: Unless the partner severs ties with the manager.
John: Yeah, that writer should not be with that manager.
John: So get rid of that manager. But if that writer is not willing to get rid of that manager you should not be writing a project with them because they have bad judgment.
Craig: Total consensus.
John: As a general case though I’m curious about your thoughts when – this is something I’ve encountered once or twice – when I have an agent but I’m working with somebody who has a different agent or not an agent at any point, it does get kind of weird when one of the partnership and the other side doesn’t. Because it just becomes weird. Like are they representing both of you? Are they representing your side most? It is strange.
John: You guys have the same agents I assume? You and Matt have the same agents?
Matt: Oh yeah.
Phil: We’ve always had the same agents. But it’s interesting. We have – Karyn, her agent is at a different agency. Now over the years they’ve all learned to work extremely closely with one another, so it’s sort of like they all represent the three of us. But that is tough. Especially if you’re in the more starting out and you may not have representation and the other person does. There’s a power imbalance. That sense, from either side.
Or if you’re a writer that’s partnering with someone who has a massive quote and your quote is not massive. Who gets paid what? That’s really complicated stuff to deal with. And I think as in the theme that I think as always is even though it’s painful the only answer is to communicate extremely openly about it from moment one. And to try to get those expectations understood, not in an unspoken way, but in a spoken way.
John: That is a great segue to our last question. Megana, do you want to ask Kevin’s question here?
Megana: Great. So Kevin says, “I write with a partner on some projects and I’m wondering if we need a simple contract for those projects showing that we are co-writers. Someone expressed a hypothetical to me. What if my partner and I started developing an idea but the relationship has a falling out? What if my partner takes that idea and writes a script? I could be left without a path for compensation. How have you guys handled co-written projects?”
John: I would point people to some sort of screenwriter agreement before you get started. Basically something that lays out – we’ll put a link in the show notes to an example of it. But something that lays out like this is the project we’re trying to do together. This is how we’re going to split things if stuff is to be split. This is how we’re going to be credited with our ampersand and whose name goes first. The more you can do that stuff ahead of time in those initial discussions the better you’re going to be down the road.
Matt: I totally agree.
John: It’s the prenuptial agreement.
Craig: Prenup. Prenup.
Phil: And I think that I guess the good news and bad news of this is that if you have something that is written together – I guess this is talking maybe in the early, early stages that veers, but if you have something you’ve written together and you split up both people are holding a kill switch.
Phil: Neither one of you can make it live on its own, but either one can kill it. Because nobody wants trouble. And the kind of trouble that is where someone in the partnership that wrote it is fighting the thing will guarantee nothing will happen.
Craig: Yeah, Kevin, when you’re dealing with the my partner and I are developing an idea, just write things down at the end of the meeting, or write them during the meeting. Take notes. Put them in outline form. Everything that’s written down in fixed form is copyrightable, assuming that it’s more than just what if babies had wings. But if you guys are going down, laying out a plot, and characters, just write it down. And now you’ve got something—
Phil: And email a summary of what you did that day to the person under the headline What We Did Today On This Project. That will do it.
Matt: I think those agreements are so helpful, especially when you’re starting out and you meet people and you don’t really know them that well and you get excited and you start to collaborate on something. Phil and I had like a very small project very early on that got held up by someone kind of trying to glom onto it. And the stakes ultimately were super low, but to us at the time they were super high.
Phil: Very wounding. The idea that this person could kind of kill a thing that we did because of conversations we’d had. You know, so.
Matt: And one of those agreements, even if it feels stupid to kind of over-codify something, I’m all for it.
John: Well you guys talked about putting the boundaries around what is the show, what is not the show. You’re putting boundaries around like, OK, this is the thing we’re working on together. So we can have discussions about other stuff, but this is the thing that our partnership is actually pursuing at this moment, and that feels so especially important right at the beginning of a relationship.
Phil: Definitely. Especially when you’re in a position in the business where you’re less established or you’re starting, or you’re kind of hustling and creating stuff. Like you feel much more vulnerable, for good reason, and thus all the more reason to hopefully take a couple of those worries off the table for yourself so you can focus.
John: Megana, thank you for these questions.
Craig: Thanks Megana.
Megana: Thank you. I love that this segment has just felt like general good dad advice.
Craig: Aw, well, you are dealing with four of them.
Phil: That’s our [unintelligible]. Thank you Megana.
Craig: That’s who we are. You know when you get four white men together you know what it’s called? A podcast. [laughs]
Megana: Thanks guys.
Craig: Thanks Megana.
Phil: Thank you.
John: It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is called 50 Years of Text Games. It’s a sub-stack by Aaron Reed. And it’s really great. Sort of week by week he’s going through and looking at the text games of the last 50 years obvious, from Zork, to Hunt the Wumpus, Super Star Trek, and also the play by mail games, like the ones that pre-dated even sort of computers or BBSs.
It’s really fascinating and some stuff I knew, some stuff I didn’t know. But it was just great. And it’s not just interactive fiction but also kind of all the other strategy games that came up along the way. So it’s a sub-stack. It’s easy to subscribe to it if you’re curious. There’s some free issues you can look at, too, to see whether it’s something you’d like to read. So 50 Years of Text Games by Aaron Reed.
Craig: God, I love those. All the Infocom Games. So frustrating. So wonderful. My One Cool Thing is Miso Black Cod. You guys have had Miso Black Cod at a restaurant before. So delicious.
Phil: Oh, c’mon, delicious.
Craig: Sort of made famous by Chef Nobu. And I made it this past weekend and it turns out it’s incredibly easy to do. And kind of fool-proof. It’s pretty remarkable. The key for you at home who are like, oh my god, I can’t do it. Yes you absolutely can. The most important thing is to know what fish to get. It’s not actually cod. I think this is where everybody goes wrong. Black cod is just a nickname for a different fish called Sable fish.
What you want is a sable fish filet. And then the coating is just white miso. There’s like a specific miso called [Saikyo] miso which you’re probably not going to find here in the US or here in Canada, as where I am. You can get close to it by taking white miso or otherwise known as sweet miso which is not sweet, and then add a little sugar and add some mirin which is a kind of rice wine which is a different kind of rice wine. You mix it all together, coat it on the sable fish, broil it for 10 minutes. And oh my god it works.
John: Does it flake just like at Nobu?
Matt: Delicious. So good.
Craig: It works. It is so easy, it’s crazy. So, especially if you have kids who are like oh my god fish, no, it’s delicious and doable.
John: Craig and Matt and Phil, do you like monkfish?
Matt: I like monkfish.
Craig: Yeah. It’s not my favorite, but I don’t kick it out of bed.
Phil: I don’t think I ever eat it except for the liver to be perfectly honest.
John: Oh really? Monkfish I find it to be delicious fish. Really strange, fleshy. And so this black cod is reminding me sort of how I like some monkfish.
Craig: Well monkfish has a name problem. It’s got “onk.”
John: It does.
Craig: Which you’re like, uh, is it from a monkey?
John: But also you can look at the actual fish, it looks like an eel.
Phil: You sense it trolling the bottom of whatever water.
Matt: Craig, it does come from a monkey.
Craig: From a monkey. It’s monkey fish.
John: Matt, what have you got for us for One Cool Thing?
Matt: My One Cool Thing, during this pandemic I didn’t think I was going to get into puzzles and sourdough, but I did. And my One Cool Thing is Liberty Puzzles. They’re these–
John: They’re so good.
Matt: Oh my god, they’re so good. They’re these wooden puzzles. They’re a little expensive, or they can be, but they have these shapes, like each puzzle has shapes kind of that make sense with the subject matter. So like you’re doing this ocean scene and there’s a fisherman and there’s a boat.
Craig: Oh these are jigsaw puzzles.
Matt: It’s a jigsaw puzzle.
John: I was going to say, Craig hates jigsaw puzzles.
Phil: He doesn’t recognize jigsaw puzzles.
Craig: Yeah. I call them broken pictures.
John: Matt, you and I are right here. Aline Brosh McKenna is listening to this and fully agrees.
Craig: I know, but in my mind you are. I just turned you off in my head.
Matt: What happens is—
Phil: Pack your things and go home.
Matt: They’re so beautifully cut that as soon as you put one of the shapes in like a man, he just melts into the puzzle and goes away. And it’s this beautiful visual metaphor for a lot of things. And it feels somewhat emotional to do these puzzles.
Craig: I wish you could see my face.
Matt: I don’t care. Go eat your cod. Go eat your cod.
Craig: Broken pictures.
John: Let’s also celebrate because these are laser cut you open the box and it smells like a campfire which is fantastic.
Matt: Oh, it’s great.
John: It’s fantastic. It’s great. And you’ll look at these pieces like this could not possibly connect to any other piece and then it does. And it’s just amazing.
Craig: Oh god.
John: They’re also made in Boulder, Colorado, my hometown.
Phil: The tactile element of a jigsaw puzzle is wonderful, Craig, and that’s what it’s about. It’s the small victory.
Craig: It’s just repair. It’s a repair job.
Matt: What if I slather some mirin and miso on it?
Craig: Well, I mean, if I can eat it then it’s food, it has value.
Matt: And will you perk up?
Craig: Well it’s not a puzzle. I mean, at least we can agree on that. It’s just food at that point. I can’t tell you, I was so excited, Matt, and then it all went to hell.
Phil: Matt, if you hope to go through life never disappointing Craig, I’ve got news for you.
Craig: So far so good.
Phil: So don’t worry about it.
Craig: So far so good. But if you say jigsaw puzzle I’m going to hit the roof.
Phil: I have a One Cool Thing and I struggled because I believe every time I’ve ever been lucky enough to be on this show my One Cool Thing has had something to do with baseball. So I challenged myself to not do something about baseball this time. But I can gladly offer bonus baseball content if you want to.
And in fact I will, I’ll sneak it in really quickly. A woman named Justine Seigal who is on Twitter who runs an organization called Baseball for All which is dedicated to fostering girls and women playing baseball and staying in baseball at a very high level. It’s incredible.
Craig: Excellent. I love that.
Phil: Look it up.
Matt: Does she make jigsaw puzzles?
Craig: Why would she? She sounds awesome. [laughs] She doesn’t have time for that.
Phil: So my One Cool Thing is something happened that’s really remarkable, it’s a podcast. And there’s a guy named Jim Penola who did a podcast about our movie The Invitation called An Invitation to the Invitation. And I feel so honored and shocked by the existence of this thing, because it is a tremendously accomplished and in-depth kind of breakdown. And I mention it specifically here because he talks about the script a lot. It’s mainly sort of about the script and how it translates to the screen. And it’s also about how the movie speaks to him personally in terms of his life.
So, it’s just a really beautiful work of art on its own. And really well made. The music is beautiful. So, if you have any remote interest in this movie that we made, Jim has taken the analysis of it to a – it’s like one of those BFI movie guides that I love so much. So that is a really cool thing to me personally.
Matt: I agree.
Phil: And hopefully to others.
Matt: I agree. It’s cool.
Craig: Can’t make fun of it. I’ve got to respect it.
Phil: Sorry Craig.
Matt: How would you like to come on a podcast and be relentlessly abused?
Craig: I don’t think relentless. I think the abuse has been sort of–
Matt: Just a focused.
Craig: I would say you’ve been intermittently abused, which is fair.
Phil: Now, the one true cool thing that I can imagine is to someday get Matt to play Dungeons & Dragons with us.
John: That would be amazing.
Phil: That would be the coolest of things.
John: Now, Matt, to be fair a lot of Craig’s mockery of you happened before we started recording. So it’s not really on the podcast.
Phil: That’s right.
John: Phil and Matt, thank you so much for being on the show with us this week.
Craig: Thanks guys.
Phil: Such a pleasure.
John: Your new series debuts?
Phil: June 25th.
John: June 25th on Disney+. All over the world.
Craig: Mysterious Benedict Society.
Phil: Mysterious Benedict Society based on the novel by Trenton Lee Stewart. And we’re really proud of it and hope you check it out.
John: Cool. That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro is by Ryan Riley and it is so cute.
Craig: It is.
John: If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions like the ones we answered today. For short questions on Twitter I’m @johnaugust. Phil Hay, are you on Twitter?
Phil: I am. @phillycarly.
John: And Matt Manfredi are you on Twitter?
Matt: I am. I’m @mattrm.
John: You may want to tweet at them to tell them how much you’re enjoying Mysterious Benedict Society or The Invitation.
We have t-shirts and they’re great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you find the 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’re about to record on shooting during a pandemic. Matt and Phil and Craig and Megana, thank you so much.
Matt: I’ve got to say one thing and Craig is going to make fun of me.
Matt: My twitter handle I got wrong because I don’t ever look at it. It’s @mattrmanfredi. I’m so sorry.
Craig: Oh my god. You missed more than half of it. Wow.
John: Also you should follow Matt on Instagram because he takes photos of interesting trees.
Phil: Yeah, that’s growing in popularity wildly.
Craig: That I feel like was the most damning thing anyone said about you today.
Matt: Well the trees actually are beautiful.
John: Sometimes they’re also fire hydrants. So.
John: All right. So you were all set to film the Mysterious Benedict Society. You were just weeks away from production and then a pandemic happened. So you ended up having to not shoot your show and then go back to start shooting it at the height of the pandemic. Talk to us about that decision.
Phil: Well, yeah, we were all ready to go. We were deep in preproduction. I think we were maybe 10 days from the start of shooting when that kind of week happened in mid-March where kind of Rudy Gobert had Covid and Hanks and everything started shutting down. And it was as everyone remembers such a chaotic time. And our first concern, we kind of knew, we saw the writing on the wall pretty quickly and our first concern was to get everybody home. We had a director from England. We had people from all over. The production was in Vancouver.
And then once that happened and we officially pushed we were like everybody else just waiting. And while we were waiting were kind of in all these conversations about developing protocols. What that would even look like, this unprecedented way of being and shooting. And our line producer, Grace Gilroy, who is sort of–
Craig: I love Grace.
Phil: You know Grace.
Craig: She’s the best.
Phil: If you meet Grace Gilroy, she’s the greatest.
Matt: She’s the reason we got this shot.
Craig: Just a little side note, Grace was the line producer on the Scary Movies that I did in Vancouver as well. And line producers will sometimes show up on set towards the end of the day if you’re going way over and they’re there to be like you’ve got to finish. And she would wear this very long coat. She’s a short woman. And she would wear this big, long winter coat that would go to the floor. And she walked very smoothly, so she floated. She would float into the stage and everybody was like oh boy we’re in trouble.
Phil: Exactly. We must wrap it up immediately.
Craig: She’s wonderful.
Phil: So she was kind of very instrumental in creating those protocols with the BC government. We knew one thing that we were going to have the most stringent protocols and if anyone could pull it off it would be our production. And so we started talking about during the summer sort of getting prepared to try to get people back up there and get going in September.
Remarkably, I mean, there were some very specific things that had to be different. Like normally of course we would have been up there for the pilot physically. Because of the 14 day quarantine coming into Canada, once you’re there you’re not flying back and forth. So we had to figure out what was going to be the best use of time. Our normal thing would be fly up there, fly back. It’s Vancouver. You can fly back three times a week if you need to. That wasn’t going to happen.
So, the biggest tangible for Matt and I was once production started we were on a monitor at our individual homes on Clearview Flex which is one of the several apps that allows you to do this, watching the feed from the monitors all day long. And we created some ideas of how to communicate with the directors. We would do a WhatsApp with the director, director’s assistant, script supervisor to do notes.
And in a strange way it allowed us to be on set for every take of every set up in this entire eight-episode run.
Matt: It worked really well. And for the first season of a show it was pretty invaluable to be present for kind of all of it.
Phil: Though we couldn’t be physically present, we were able to be mentally present for all of it.
Matt: Yeah. And what you don’t get in that is to kind of be with the actors, to be with them off set. Part of the job if everything is going well is just to let people know how well they’re doing. They don’t often get to hear it. And so to not be able to be there for both technical things and creative things, but also morale, it’s difficult. But this was kind of the best possible solution. And we did 95% of post remotely. Color. Sound. All of the editing.
Phil: And you kind of learn which parts of it kind of work pretty seamlessly and which parts of it are difficult. I mean, there was something amazing about being able to be watching the monitor between set ups, being in a production meeting for the next episode on Zoom, getting emails about costumes and locations and etc. and being able to handle all that at once in a way that, you know, when I’m physically on a set, which is a place I truly love to be, one of my favorite places in the world, I’m not one of those people that can pull out the laptop and work on something else, or do a little rewrite on the next script coming in. I just can’t. I just have to be and be there.
And so this let me kind of do all that. And as Matt said the intangibles are what we missed, too. And for the actors, shooting in a pandemic, I know for our show everyone was so committed to each other’s safety that the actors were not – they’re not out having fun on the weekends. It’s a very lonely thing to be an actor and be without your family, alone in another city period. But for Tony, Tony Hale who is the star of the show, he’s just living a monk-like existence. Working, coming back, working, coming back.
So we started figuring out, oh, we really need to schedule things with him. So we would have Zoom drinks regularly. We’d have a check-in to make sure right before shooting to go through the script page by page and walk through every single line with him and make sure everything was cool. So, those intangibles are what you miss and is a lot of the fun of making movies and television. But in the editing room, for example, I thought it was very—
Matt: I loved it.
Phil: Seamless and smooth to be on a Zoom editing session. Whereas Karyn for example is like, “Oh, the second I can get back physically in the editing room I want to be. I don’t like the virtual thing.” So everyone has a different vibe with it.
John: So what things will you try to take from this – was forced upon you the first season, would you try to take with you into a second season if there is a second season for your show?
Phil: Personally, I would say definitely we will spend time on the set for sure. Because I did miss that. I did miss the physically being there. But the lessons, number one I think a lesson a lot of people are taking is shorter days are good. We were kind of forced into shorter days because of the pandemic and also because we have a lot of kids in the cast. But I found it to be very clarifying. I’ve always believed that and Karyn on our movies is adamant about working humane days. It’s just a bedrock.
You can do it. And you can get it done. And I now see shows by necessity operating in this way and I think I’d like it to be a thing that the industry carries forward. That 10-hour days is not a bad thing. If you do it right and you approach it aggressively in what you get done in that time that that would be something I’d love to see carry forward.
Matt: It was kind of funny, before we got shut down and it was unsure, I was going to bed and I was like what about last looks. There’s no way we’re not shutting down. I mean, there’s certain practices that I think in terms of like masks and face shields that are just going to be carried forward, so it’s just not a given that everyone on set is going to get the flu.
But I would say some of the remote stuff for post, at least to my mind, saved us a lot of time and allowed us to multitask in a way that I found incredibly valuable. So if some of that stayed I wouldn’t be so sad.
Phil: Yeah. And you see the different ways. Like remote mixing to me wasn’t great. And when we were able for the last couple to go back and mix on a stage as we were supposed to—
Matt: How it sounds on headphones can be inaccurate.
John: So, Craig, you hearing this, does it give you any thoughts about what you want to do for your show? Because they were able to do their Canadian show without ever being there, and you’re there right now. What’s the mix for you?
Craig: Well I’m a little bit more like Karyn, I think. I’m very much – I like being in the space. I like being connected as best I can. For Chernobyl I did do quite a bit of remote editing only because for budget purposes all of our post was in London and there was only so much time I could spend there. It seemed like if I could edit remotely and stay with the family then that probably made sense.
But right now we are going through – we’re in late Covid, it’s not early Covid. So there are a ton of practices that are generally accepted and being used. We wear masks. I get tested three times a week. We all do. Every morning I have to go through the Kabuki of telling an app on my phone that I’m not sick and then they scan a code.
And this is what we do. And for good reason. However, while things were very, very bad here in Calgary just a month ago, they’ve improved dramatically since the vaccination rate up here is excellent. So, it is my great hope that as we proceed through production things are going to ease up and in fact because our production is so lengthy I suspect that at some point it will be almost like it used to be. That’s kind of where it’s going and that’s what I hope we are able to get to.
So, you know, we follow the rules. They are a little frustrating at times but they’re there for good reason. And the last thing we want to have is for someone – forget shutting down or any of that. I just don’t want anyone to get sick. I don’t want anybody to – and certainly I don’t want anybody to get dangerously ill – but I don’t even want anybody to get slightly ill. So, hopefully it goes smoothly.
Matt: And I think as we hopefully get back to normal I think the remote viewing is going to be a continued conversation with the DGA because it was something that had to be negotiated for the feed to leave set.
Phil: And the key is who that feed can go to, right? So in our case the feed could explicitly not go to the studio or network. So that actually is a bit freeing in some ways. Because if no one is on set–
John: Well, talk to me about that because you can always look at what the cameras are seeing you had a sense of what was being filmed at all times. So you didn’t have to watch dailies because you actually just watched it for real.
Matt: Right. And I think it’s so much more valuable than watching dailies, you know, because you can correct. If you have a location for one day and you watch the dailies the next day and you didn’t get it, the way it worked out especially with Covid, like we couldn’t go back.
Phil: And again not everyone is like this, but for me personally unless there’s some incredibly compelling reason I can’t, I am on set for every single take that is shot of that movie. Because to me – and I’m not doing other stuff.
John: You can’t split your time when you’re on set. It’s really hard to work on other stuff.
Phil: Totally. And it’s experiential. It’s not just watching and listening. It’s feeling it. And so I rarely have to watch dailies because I’ve already absorbed it in a very deep way. And so in a strange way so for a movie you can – for me at least you can always do that. The TV show, what’s so interesting is in a normal situation – I mean, every TV show is different – but a lot of times it would be like had the Covid never happened I would imagine Matt and I would have flown up to Vancouver. We would have been on set for the first two episodes. Then we would have flown back and then someone else, in television a lot of times the writer of the episode will go up there and be the voice of the writers for that episode. All those different customs.
John: A supervising director who sort of overseas how it works.
Phil: Totally. And for me it’s hard for me to envision that, because I want to see everything. It’s hard for me to be like I wonder what’s going on up there. So, if I can’t physically live there for five months then it is really helpful to have that feed and to be able to be like feeling the being there. Now there’s things that happened with our supervising director that can’t happen from the feed. But it’s interesting. In a weird way it’s a way to stay completely and immediately connected when the timeframe is too long for you to be able to just be there.
John: Craig, so good to talk with you. Matt, so good to talk with you. And Phil.
Phil: That was great.
Craig: See you guys. Thanks guys.
Matt: Thanks guys.
- MoviePass for the NYT by Daniel Victor
- Blitzcalling: Kevin Roose for NY Times on “The Millennial Lifestyle Subsidy”
- The Mysterious Benedict Society
- Mythic Quest, check out Backstory! Season 2, Episode 6 for a special guest star!
- Why Netflix Cancels Shows
- WGA Writer’s Collaboration Agreement
- 50 Years of Text Games
- Miso Black Cod
- Liberty Puzzles
- Justine Seigal and Baseball for All
- An Invitation to the Invitation
- Phil Hay on Twitter
- Matt Manfredi on Twitter
- Get a Scriptnotes T-shirt!
- Gift a Scriptnotes Subscription or treat yourself to a premium subscription!
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by Ryan Riley (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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