The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 512 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show it’s a new round of the Three Page Challenge where we take a look at the first three pages of scripts submitted by you, our listeners, and give our honest feedback. We’ll also be looking at lecture scenes, mega deals for creators, and the ethics of writing conspiracy thrillers. And in our bonus segment for premium members I’ll be taking with comedian Sara Schaefer about her three simple steps for getting your TV show on the air.
Craig: Oh man.
John: Craig, you’ll want to listen to this.
Craig: Yeah. There are only three? I’ve been doing like six steps.
John: Yeah. Spoiler, there are many more than three. It’s sort of part of the joke is that it’s incredibly hard and frustrating at every step.
Craig: Yup. Yup. It is.
John: So that’s an extra from the Schaefer Shakedown podcast which you should also listen to, but really it’s a great little bonus segment if you are a premium member. Stick around and listen to that after the credits.
But first Craig it’s great to have you back. We’ve been sort of hit or miss the last couple of weeks because you’ve been working, I’ve been traveling. But now we are back recording the show.
Craig: Yup. So it’s going to be a little bit like this while we’re making The Last of Us just because it’s hard to produce a television show. It’s a fulltime job, and then some. So every now and then I will be amiss. But hopefully I can get into a good rhythm and stick with you guys regularly.
John: Very cool. Now over the past couple of weeks it’s been a very good time to be a creator of television shows, or at least a very successful creator of television shows. Because you are that kind of person you are going to be able to make a mega deal with one of the streamers. There were three of them just in the last two weeks which were pretty exciting.
John: Courtney Kemp, creator of Power over at Starz, made a new deal at Netflix listed as high eight figures, possibly rising to nine figures. I had to actually do the math to figure out like oh that’s a lot of zeroes.
Craig: It sure is.
John: That’s a lot of money.
Craig: Yeah. And that’s amazing news for Courtney who is a fantastic person. I got to know her a little bit a year or so ago. And this is – I guess we can call it the Netflix Effect. I mean, Netflix has definitely driven the price of the reliable showrunner up quite a bit. When we get these reports of high figures, possible rising to nine figures, it’s a little bit like dealing with these big sports contracts. You do have to look at how many years it covers. Typically it is about exclusivity. Sometimes inside of those deals there are incentives. They rely on the continuation of a show being produced, or such and such.
But generally speaking I think we can say that Courtney Kemp just made a massive mega truckload full of money and I am thrilled for her. I think it’s fantastic. As long as this lasts let’s just keep doing it.
Craig: It’s a good time to be a showrunner in television.
John: Indeed. People who have been doing this for quite a long time, Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame, reached a $935 million deal that will keep them at – what’s crazy it’s not actually for South Park. It’s for like things related to South Park. So they’ll be making 13 or 14 South Park movies for Paramount+ which is good.
Here’s the point where I think I’ve said this before on the podcast but back when I first starting out in Hollywood, so I was still in the Stark program. I was at a bar called Three of Clubs which still exists and a friend introduced me to this other guy who was also from Boulder, Colorado. I was talking to him. He seemed kind of down on his luck. I said what are you working on. He’s like oh I’m doing this Christmas card for this guy who works at MTV. I felt kind of bad for him because he seemed to really be sort of struggling. But that Christmas card was of course South Park and that was Trey Parker.
John: I said, “Troy, it was nice to meet you,” at the end of our conversation. That’s the last time I talked to Trey Parker. But you know what? Things are going great for those duos.
Craig: He’s doing OK. Yeah, so Trey and Matt have created an empire and what’s fascinating about what’s happened over the last few years is that something like South Park is – it’s the perfect storm for deal-making in the modern era. Friends we all know was this enormous drive for Netflix. And it was probably one of the reasons that HBO/Warner Bros suddenly said what are we doing. Why are we giving all of our stuff to Netflix? Let’s just make our own thing.
South Park, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, the things that they make, the world they’ve created has a library that’s enormous already and it will continue to grow. That is a perfect situation for a new streamer like HBO Max because it just creates tremendous value for everybody who is showing up and promises tremendous value to come.
We are starting to see what our work is worth. And that is exciting. Part of the deal that they made has to do with revenue sharing and ad sharing. It’s very complicated. Every time one of these things happens everybody else stops, looks at it, and goes well why don’t I have that. It will also continue to drive things up. It’s exciting.
I’m excited. I’m looking ahead to things. I am not worth a billion dollars. I can assure you of that. But those guys are.
Craig: So congratulations to Trey and Matt. It’s exciting. And they are brilliant. And the work they do is brilliant. And I have to believe – I’ve just heard that they’re good guys. I’ve never met them personally but I’ve heard they’re really solid guys. I have to hope and believe that the people that are important to the creation of their stuff are also being taken care of well.
John: Well I’ll tell you when I met Trey 25 years ago he seemed perfectly nice in the five minutes I had.
Craig: Oh, well, nothing changes, right? Yeah, hundreds of millions of dollars and success doesn’t change anyone.
John: Has never changed anybody.
John: Not a bit.
John: All the people we knew back when are exactly the same people they are now.
Craig: I have to say if there were a person to bet on not changing I feel like it’s those guys. Because you know so much of what they do is about taking the piss out of people and not being too serious and not being too self-important. So I hope.
John: So, you mentioned the Friends at Warners kind of situation, and the South Park situation is kind of weird and interesting because HBO and HBO Max/Warners had bought the library of rights to South Park and so they have it on HBO Max. But, this deal is with Paramount+. And so it’s a weird thing where they’re not getting the library back yet. So they can get all of the future sort of South Parky things.
John: So it’s honestly sort of more like when the cast of Friends renegotiated their deals for a million dollars apiece, to keep them there in the family.
Craig: That makes total sense. They seem incredibly reliable. I mean, year after year after year they just keep putting content out. And people like it. So, it’s a good blue chip story even as you say if the entirety of the library isn’t there, what’s coming is going to be there.
John: And plus they’re buying Casa Bonita in Denver which is very exciting for me as a Coloradoan.
Craig: That is so awesome. Awesome. Oh my god. Casa Bonita.
John: Finally we should talk about the $900 billion sale of Hello Sunshine which is the Reese Witherspoon production entity which has made a ton of really well regarded shows, some of which star Reese Witherspoon but some of which don’t. We have other friends who work for that company. Good on them.
Craig: Yeah, totally good on them. This one is a little confusing because they have made a lot of good shows but they don’t own those shows. So, this was an outside investment. This is private equity coming in and purchasing the company. And there must be a plan beyond just the show Hello Sunshine and I guess they also have a little bit of ownership in Little Fires Everywhere. But I have to believe that this is really about Reese Witherspoon expanding her brand the way that for instance Jessica Alba became a billionaire by expanding her brand. That has to be what’s going on here. That this is not just about television shows but about more.
John: Yeah. Because Reese Witherspoon is an influencer in the literary space as well, so her book club is successful. In many ways she’s kind of an Oprah for a new generation and that could be really sort of what this investment is for to enable more stuff along those lines to happen. So, this is a situation where it’s not about a writer-creator-showrunner but really a place that could make stuff for your entity.
Craig: In retrospect all will be kind of judged and evaluated when there are big gold rushes in Hollywood, and this is not the first time there’s been a big gold rush, there are winners and there are losers. There are good bets, there are bad bets. Sometimes the good ones turn out bad. Sometimes the ones that seem bad will turn out great. I don’t envy anybody that’s making billion dollar bets on things. I’m glad I don’t have to do that sort of thing. I just have to sit here and right.
John: Yeah. Back in our day when we were first starting out to make an overall deal at a place was kind of a big deal. We were very excited to do it. Actually I first got to know you because you and I made a deal for a bunch of writers over at Fox. We sort of pitched around town about doing this writers deal at various places and Fox was the one that took us up. And that was really exciting and important.
I think what’s changed so much is that with the rise of these streamers and they need so much content that outside of the feature space it does really make sense to lock down some creators to make sure they’re making stuff for you.
Craig: Yeah. And to take care of the ones you have. I hope HBO is listening. No, they’ve been very nice to me. When you and I were starting in the feature business I think you probably had at least a few moments like I did where you look over at the people in the television business and went, “What? You’re making how much?” It just seemed like these insane numbers. And oftentimes they wouldn’t have to do anything for those insane numbers. They were just like sitting in an office and, I don’t know, getting high and earning crazy amounts of money.
Well, it’s still that way except more. More money. The deals that were always good for television writers have become vastly better. The numbers are eye-popping. And this is going to continue while Hollywood is building a new kind of business. And that is excellent for creators. It’s important for us all as we go through this, and as I just mentioned with Matt and Trey, to continue to think about the people who are not creators, that are not showrunners, but who are doing creative labor in our business because it is fairly typical of Hollywood to start handing out crazy amounts of money to individuals and then sort of recoup some of that on the margin by cheaping out on everyone else.
So, hopefully that’s not what happens here and it’s important for showrunners to make sure that people are being compensated fairly.
John: What was different as we started is that a lot of producers would have deals at studios. And so you’d say like, oh, Mace Neufeld would have a deal over at Paramount and so you’d go there to make your movie there. There’s much less of that now. And so this is really taking the place of producers doing those things. The challenge is a lot of these writer-creator-showrunners they have limited capacity.
John: If they’re actually creating shows they can’t sort of also do a bunch of other stuff. And so as a person right now who is taking out a project or looking at places to go with this project I’m really mindful of like, oh, I really like that person as a writer but I don’t think they actually have the capacity to produce this thing. And that’s going to be – I think we’re going to see more challenges around that area coming up in the next couple of years where people have these great deals and they’re so talented but they cannot actually make stuff with other people.
Craig: I suspect that for most of these deals these companies are actually paying for shows. They are not paying for empires. There are a few people that can empire run. So our friend Greg Berlanti is just the king of empire running. I think there’s no amount of shows that he’s not capable of producing. Courtney is the power behind Power.
John: And all the spinoffs of Power.
Craig: Correct. That franchise is kind of I think really what they’re paying for there. Although of course they would be thrilled to get even more from her and I have no doubt that she has more coming. And we know kind of what they’re looking for from Trey and Matt. They’re looking for the sort of things that Trey and Matt do, whatever is that next show. This is kind of a good thing I think. There was a time when the best paid people in the business were people that were not writing or acting or directing, which is crazy.
I think when we all look back on it we’ll go, “What? Why? Why those people?” It’s good that the money is now flowing into the pockets of the people who are creating the shows, who are key elements of those shows, like Mike Schur for instance. He has his show, and then he has another show. And that’s how it’s going to function. That’s what they’re paying for.
John: But he can also help out on other people’s – he seems to have the capability to help out on other people’s stuff as well. And Mindy Kaling has other shows as well. There are some of those people who are talented creators themselves who can also help out, but it’s different than sort of the old days where you had just a producer who was sort of running a fiefdom.
Craig: Yeah. And one thing that I think is really positive about writers and writer-producers being the people that get paid the most is that writer-producers really do care mostly – I would say most of them really do care about the show they’re making, or the two shows they’re making. They care less about amassing insane amounts. Nobody gets into the writing business to become a billionaire. If you want to be a billionaire go into the hedge fund business. We care about things.
So, that’s positive. Whereas I think the non-writing, non-directing, non-acting producers, a few of them truly did care, truly do care. Lindsay Doran is my favorite example. A whole bunch of them just wanted more. They were just amassing money and clout. And I will not miss those. There are people that I think became very powerful and also really were – like Jerry Bruckheimer is in many ways a creator. He’s like a showrunner of the movies. I mean, that’s why there’s this continuity among Jerry Bruckheimer films. But you and I know a lot of producers where it’s like, “What? Really? You?”
John: They’re really good scrappy – they’re good at attaching themselves to things. They don’t actually add a lot of value.
Craig: No. Their genius is in convincing people that they’re necessary and worth a lot of money when they’re not. So, bye.
John: All right. Let’s take a little bit of follow up here. This is a listener question, a listener suggestion. So let’s take a listen to what Greg Beam wrote in.
Greg Beam: Hey John and Craig. This is Greg from El Paso. I thoroughly enjoyed the rebroadcast of The Worst of the Worst. As a relatively new listener I didn’t catch it the first time around and I was glad to hear your thoughts on why protagonists need to suffer so much. But I did want to suggest that – I think you could have taken your analysis one step further and to demonstrate how I’m afraid I’ll have to invoke the hero’s journey.
According to Joseph Campbell the outward transformation and corresponding triumph that heroes of myth experience is the external representation of a deeper inner transformation. The hero not only overcomes their personal shortcomings or the evils of their society but transcends all limitations of the human condition.
Doing so requires a stripping away, not just of all they have, but of all they are. The death of their individual identity. Their sense of self. Their ego. And only once the hero’s whole self has been hallowed out can they become a vessel to be filled with the light of god to recognize the oneness of all things. It’s a radical conversion of root and branch break with their previous mode of being and one that is only possible following a total loss of self.
Now this isn’t meant to critique or diminish narratives that don’t have overt spiritual content. They’re perfectly valid and valuable as they are. But being aware of the transcendental sources from which their patterns spring can in my mind and Campbell’s add some depth to our understanding of what these stories represent and how they work in our minds and hearts.
Anyway, no question here. Just a thought. Thanks guys.
Craig: Well, thank you Greg.
John: Yeah. So we were talking I think two episodes ago about you mentioned Song of Roland as that sort of first mythic quest in sort of a modern context idea. How do you respond – how do you feel about Greg’s suggestion that really the worst we should be thinking back to the archetypal, the demigod level of everything being not just destroyed externally but destroyed internally for that journey to begin?
Craig: Well interesting. The Chanson de Roland I don’t think he has any change whatsoever. He’s awesome. He continues to be awesome. And then he finishes awesome. There were some very simple things like that. But Greg is right. I mean, the old, very traditional, very basic narratives were far more broad in the character swings that occurred. You had to die to live. It’s kind of how it works. Jesus had to die to live. He didn’t have to get super sick. Whereas in Unforgiven William Money gets a fever. And he has fever dreams. And then he wakes up and he’s sort of a different guy.
The important thing is that the concept of being reborn – I think everybody is fairly familiar with the notion that that is a flexible and extendable concept. You can mush it around and drag it around and metaphorize it however you want. But killing something within you and having something being reborn in you, yeah, that’s basically underneath it.
I think the modern narrative tends to avoid full hallowing outs. But if Greg’s point is that you kind of need to know where it all comes from I don’t disagree. Look back at the old stories. You know, you don’t send a flood to kill a third of the people. You send a flood to kill everyone. And that’s how it used to be.
John: Yeah. It’s not hard for me to think of examples of non – well, they’re mythic movies but they’re contemporary movies, or contemporary-ish movies that do sort of destroy everything about the characters and rebuild them. So you look at Terminator and sort of what happens to Linda Hamilton’s character. She’s living a normal life and everything about her normal life has to be stripped away and destroyed and she has to become a completely new person because of what’s happened.
You look at The Matrix and Neo and everything he believed about his life can no longer exist. He cannot be the same person he was at the start of the movie.
John: So that transformation is complete. I agree that it’s good to understand that in the archetypal, epic versions of these characters it’s going to happen. I think we cannot have that be the litmus test for most heroes in most movies. Because I think the audience just won’t accept that in a rom-com or some other sort of contemporary movie that a character would really go through such a huge transformation where everything actually has to be destroyed in their lives, or they have to be completely divorced from where they are because in many ways in our modern films we do want the characters to change and to grow, but we want them to be able to go back to the place where they began, you know, as a person who has learned something but not necessarily with everything they knew before destroyed.
Craig: I think that’s perfectly said.
John: Cool. All right. Let’s go to a question from Sarah Folks. Megana, could you read this for us?
Megana Rao: Sarah writes in, “I have a question about writing the ‘professor gives a lecture’ scene in movies. I’ve seen a number of films in which a high school or college student sits in a classroom and listens to a lecture, participates in a class discussion. Sometimes it’s math and the student looks bored. Sometimes the professor is reading poetry and the student looks enraptured. I’ve also watched scenes in which the professor is giving a lecture on the subtext of the film. For example this is a film about colonialism so the professor is giving a lecture on colonialism.
“Sometimes this works as in I would argue Kenneth Lonergan’s fantastic scenes in Margaret and sometimes it really doesn’t. But what is it that doesn’t work and what is it that does? How can a seminar/classroom scene build character and mood even if the student is just listening and when is it just lazy writing?”
John: That’s actually a really great question. And I think it’s actually a specific case or the general case of whenever you have your hero listening rather than talking, so there could be situations where there’s a coach talking, a pastor, a commanding officer. And those are scenes that are common and I don’t think we’ve really spoken about them very much on the show. They can be good. They can be bad, as Sarah points out. But maybe Craig and I we can figure out what are the characteristics of that kind of scene that work well and what are the kinds of characteristics or like oh you need to really rewrite that or rethink why you’re doing this scene.
Craig: Well, it’s easy to write the scene where the student is bored. You just write the professor being boring. And that’s the point. And you also know just by definition that that scene is not going to go on that long. Otherwise the audience will be bored. You just need enough to know that our character, our hero, is bored.
When you’re writing the version where they are enraptured/inspired/moved it requires you to write well. You need to write something that actually inspires and moves the people in the audience. So if you want to put Robin Williams in front of a classroom and have him talk about poetry it’s got to be awesome. And Tom Schulman made it awesome.
And that’s how you get them. Isn’t that awful? You need to write well. It’s such a pain in the ass.
John: Well here’s I think what you’re describing though is that the hero, the established hero of the film who is sitting in that audience is a proxy for us as the audience. So we have to be with our hero in experiencing this. And so if it’s boring then we’re bored with him. But more likely we’re enraptured or compelled or feeling confrontational to the speaker. We’re there with him. We’re responding the same way that he’s responding to what is being said. And that’s just going to be writing.
In many cases it’s like responding to a monologue. So, it’s a situation where whoever is talking is going to be largely uninterrupted and is going to be presenting this information. Now if that information feels like an info dump, that it’s exposition, there’s a ticking clock for how much exposition we’re willing to take. But if it’s something that is actually meant to engage and transform our listener, great, we just have to be able to see it. And so I think you should always be thinking about those scenes, not just focused on the person who’s talking but how and when is the camera going to be aimed at our hero taking in this information and processing this information. What is the reaction that we are seeing on the hero’s face as this is happening?
Craig: Yeah. And that means that that person who is hearing this needed to hear it. There was something in them that was missing and this lecture is filling it. Or there was something in them that they were wobbling on and this lecture is challenging it. But there has to be context. It can’t just be well this is a great freaking speech. It has to turn on whatever the character needed so that we understand this is the moment that matters. Now the character is changing.
John: Another thing that distinguishes some of these scenes from other scenes is like is that person who is speaking, the lecturer, is that a recurring character? Is that a character who is going to show up later on in the story or is this the one shot they have? If it’s the one shot they have then who that person is is not so important down the road. But in many cases that teacher character will recur and so be thinking about what are the beats and how are we going to see them in this way in this context in this classroom scene versus later on in the film. And what is the relationship really between your hero and this lecturer? That matters a lot.
John: Let me play a clip from Frankenweenie because Frankenweenie has a teacher character I created called Mr. Rzykruski who challenges the classroom and I think it’s an example of the kinds of things we’re talking about. So this is early on Frankenweenie, the character will appear twice more, but this is his first scene.
Mr. Rzykruski: Lightening is simply electricity. The cloud is angry. Yes, we make it storm. All the electrons are saying I am leaving you. I go to the land of opportunity. The ground says yes we need the electrons trained in science just like you. Come! Come! Welcome! So both sides start to build a ladder. This man, he comes out to look at the storm. He does not see the invisible ladders. When the two ladders meet, BOOM! The circuit is complete and all of the electrons rush to the land of opportunity. This man is in the way. Yiii!
John: So in this scene what was important is that we’re introducing this scary new substitute science teacher and he’s going to be doing an info dump about what electricity is because electricity has been powering these monster creations. But it’s really about the kids’ reaction to him. And they are so excited to have this scary man as their science teacher and how inspiring it is to Victor who is going to be the kid character that we’re following. So it’s setting up that there’s a new character here, but also that they’re responding to him sort of the way that we would respond to him. The kids in the classroom are the same place that we are in terms of like oh my gosh this guy is crazy.
Craig: And you needed those kids to be scared. It was important.
Craig: So that kind of guides the way that person is going to do what they do. So, I suppose if we had some kind of sum up advice for Sarah it would be boring is boring, that’s easy. And inspiring means there must be a space in the character that needs inspiration, that needs to have some kind of impact. Fear. Excitement. Enrapture. Shame. Whatever it is. They needed to hear this and then you have to write it well on the other side.
John: Yeah. So with Frankenweenie that scene had to exist in the movie or else a lot of the other dominoes wouldn’t have fallen correctly. But it needed to be a good scene that actually would last in the movie. So that’s the crucial thing.
All right, speaking of crucial scenes that need to stay in their movies. Let’s take a look at the first three pages–
Craig: Segue Man.
John: Of some of our different scripts here. We have three entries here. So for people who are new to the Three Page Challenge if you go to johnaugust.com/threepage you can submit the first three pages of a script. It could be a TV script or a feature script. It goes into a big bucket and every once and a while Megana goes through all those scripts in that big bucket and picks several of them for us to discuss on the show. This is not a competition. This is just an exhibition. We are looking at pages that people submitted.
Sometimes they’re great. Sometimes they have real challenges. We tend to focus on the ones that have things that we can talk about, so either things that they’re doing really, really well on the page, or things that could be done better. So we have three of them to talk through. If you want to read along with us you can follow the link in the show notes to the PDFs you can download and go with us. But Megana if you could start us out with a summary of this first one. Trickster: Night of Kitsune by Hiroshi Mori.
Megana Rao: In 1920s Japan Tsuneko, a woman in her 20s, hides with her daughter, Etsuko, 13, in the backroom of a house as a mob of angry villagers accuse Tsuneko of being a fox devil. Her husband, Mongaku, relents to the crowd’s demands and the villagers drag her away. The villagers bury up to her neck in the middle of the town square. She’s then ripped apart by dogs. They tell Mongaku to behead her with a blessed spear, but when he approaches the body has already disappeared. We then cut to a Manga comic page.
John: Craig, what’s your response to Trickster: Night of the Kitsune?
Craig: I am a big fan of Japanese historical fiction. I just love the Samurai Era. I love the Meiji Restoration. I love all of it. So I was excited. I had many, many, many, many problems and all of them I think ultimately turned on Hiroshi Mori’s issue with action. And I don’t mean action as in the stuff that’s happening. I mean the things that aren’t dialogue. I had some dialogue issues, too. But this is a good example of a script that needs to be re-approached from the point of view of description and visuals. And it begins with the very first line, “SUPER: OVER IMAGES OF A RURAL JAPANESE VILLAGE. JAPAN, TAISHO ERA, 1920’S.”
First of all, if you’re going to put a super and there’s a date it must be a year at the minimum. It can’t be a decade. 1920s makes no sense. It’s 1921, it’s 1923. But be specific so that we understand that you cared enough to place it in a year. But most importantly “over images of a rural Japanese village.” That’s useless.
John: Yeah. I don’t know what that is.
Craig: It’s useless. You’ve got to paint the picture. You must fill my mind. And I know what – I happen to know what those villages look like, and they’re gorgeous, and they’re fascinating. And Japanese landscape is often beautiful because it’s an earthquake and volcano prone Pacific Rim nation. So is it kind of terraced? Is it on the shore? Is it among the mountains? Tell me. I need to know.
The house, “In the storage area of a wood farm house,” wood farm houses in 1920s Japan do not look like wood farm houses in 1970 the US. We need to know what. “TSUNEKO, late 20’s, with haunting, piercing eyes,” we don’t know if she’s male or female unless you are Japanese.
Craig: We don’t know if Tsuneko is a female or male name, so give us a sense of gender.
John: Yeah. Let’s talk about how you would do this, because I was looking for how is the easy way to do this, because you’re not going to say female. That feels clunky. So I think as quickly as you can in that next sentence find a way to flip stuff around so you can get a she or a her in there so we know a gender on this character who is so important.
Craig: Absolutely. So Tsuneko, late 20s, with haunting, piercing eyes. She crouches down next to…right.
John: That would do it.
Craig: That would do it. Tsuneko throughout is going to confuse me, emotionally. I don’t know why she isn’t more scared. She seems super calm. Then she’s screaming. Then she’s grumpy. And we go outside to a mob of ten villagers. Just so you know ten villagers isn’t a lot. Ten people on screen looks like three people. It’s kind of weird how that works.
And I want to know more about the mob. Because if you don’t tell me more about the mob then I’m just going to assume it’s like cliché mob.
John: Yeah. So let’s talk about villagers and mobs, because there’s happy villagers and there’s angry mob, but they’re so cliché. You do need to just be specific. So one guy is identified as being a shopkeeper or something. Great. But I just need a better sense of what this is because I don’t really quite have a sense of the period either. Because you can say 1920s but I’m not quite sure what that looks like in Japan. How rural is this? Are these farmers? Is this a city? I don’t really know where I am.
Craig: Correct. The villagers are going to sort of tell you too much now. Villager 1, and Villager 1 and Villager 2, we talked about before not our favorite thing to see in a script. Villager 1 delivers one of the more expository speeches a villager can deliver. He says, “She is a fox-devil. She is a shape shifter. You had no money until you found her in the forest. You brought her here, made her your wife, and used her fox-devil tricks to make you rich.” Unless this villagers job is literally the village summarizer this is not how people talk, particularly in a high pressure violent riotous scene.
John: And Craig I kept wanting this to be night and it’s day throughout.
John: It feels strange to me that it’s daytime. It’s OK that it’s day. It can totally work in daytime. But it feels like a night scene to me and I feel like maybe I just have the expectations of torches or something. It feels strange. What was the inciting incident that got us to this moment right where we are? And I think all these problems sort of come back to a point of view problem. It’s the point of view, who are we supposed to follow? The husband who is the one who is ultimately going to go out there with the spear to decapitate his wife? Is it the little daughter? Is it–?
John: Who are we actually supposed to be following here? Because if we knew that then this whole thing could probably be shorter, tighter, and better.
Craig: I agree. And one reason to set it in the day counter to the typical mob at the front door of a home, and it’s very hard to do that scene in a way that hasn’t been done four billion times before, is perhaps to have Tsuneko look through a slat of wood or something and see them outside. Right now everyone is so disconnected. And Mongaku – what Mongaku says here, it’s really important to think always, just a simple question, what would someone say?
So villager one outlines in quite startling detail why the mob is here. And villager two confirms that. Adds on she made us poor. She tricked us out of our money. Get her. And Mongaku says, “Please. This is a misunderstanding.” Does that seem like something that would work?
John: No. Not in this moment. Not when there’s actually a mob there. You know, early on as things just begin to escalate a little bit, sure, but not when the actual mob shows up there to take your wife and kill her.
Craig: Yes. You would beg. You would tell them you’re sorry. You would tell them it wasn’t her. You would accuse somebody else. What you wouldn’t do is talk to them like they were grouching at you because they think you took their latte order at Starbucks when it was really theirs. “Move or we’ll burn your house down.” Um, they want to kill his wife. And what they’re saying is don’t make us burn your house. But it’s like well the house is not the big issue right now. I could build another one of those. I think it’s move or we’ll kill you. Right? Or we’ll burn you and your daughter alive, right? Or we’ll kill your daughter. It can’t just be the house.
So what’s happening, Hiroshi, is there’s just a lot of lapses in what I would call logical human psychology. You have to just really ask yourself every step of the way what would work. What would make sense? What would actually be said here?
John: Yeah. I want to pitch, going through this sequence and taking out all the dialogue until we get to, “This forest demon isn’t human. She can’t replace your mom. Forget you ever saw her.” If we took out all the actual real dialogue there other than maybe some pleading just to get to that point. Because it looks like they’re just trying to capture this woman and then you find out they actually think she’s a demon. That’s really exciting.
And so if we saw this action and the first time we get that they don’t think she’s even human is there that’s kind of interesting to me.
Craig: I agree. In fact here’s my – I like this, here’s our pitch. Here’s my pitch. My pitch is this thing opens with a woman buried up to her neck and she is swollen and she is dying and she’s looking at this little girl. And this guy sits down next to her and he says, “I know this is upsetting but I want to explain why we did this. She’s a forest demon. She’s not human. You need to forget you ever saw her. This is all good for the village. Here’s what she did.” He just calmly explains the whole thing and then says, “And above all she definitely was not your mother.” And you go, oh, that was her mom.
There’s got to be something about relationship that matters to the girl. It all has to be contextualized in terms of relationship or else it’s just stuff happening and it’s not particularly surprising or interesting.
John: Yeah. And that same dialogue delivered by a woman could be more compelling than by a man.
John: There’s choices that could sort of make this feel more specific. And it all depends on sort of like what is it really tying into because at the bottom of page three we’re jumping forward and seeing there’s a Manga connection. So this may be a story within a story. Even so it needs to be–
Craig: It’s got to be a good story.
John: It needs to be super compelling. It’s got to be a good story because this is how you’re starting your movie.
Craig: 100%. It has to be awesome. Especially if the idea is that this is a story that somebody is actually drawing in a manga. Or it just happens that we jump ahead in time and that girl has been reincarnated as a young woman who draws manga. It doesn’t matter. Either way the opening here has to be incredibly compelling. That’s just how it goes.
John: Two little craft notes here. On page 2, “EXT. Village, Tsuneko’s dragged into a large two-story building.” So it’s apostrophe-S Tsuneko’s. I would say it’s a bad choice to do the apostrophe-S on things that aren’t a possession, especially in this case. Because you’re not saving anything and it’s just confusing. I can’t tell is it a thing that’s being dragged. It’s just confusing. Tsuneko is dragged. Or better yet, someone drags Tsuneko. Just show the active thing.
The next paragraph, “Tsuneko’s head bloodied and bruised sticks out of the ground.” Tsuneko’s bloodied and bruised head sticks out of the ground. Moving the head after the adjectives just makes the whole thing clearer.
Craig: Or making it a positive phrase and putting commas around bloodied and bruised.
John: Bloodied and bruised, yes.
Craig: But Tsuneko’s head, bloodied and bruised, shouldn’t run together. Also she opens her eyes and then she opens them again. There’s a continuity error even within the writing which is something you really want to avoid.
John: Yeah. And when you hear like “Tsuneko opens her swollen red eyes. Makes eye contact with Etsuko.” But what is the purpose? What is she trying to communicate?
John: This is a case where tell us why she’s doing it. Tell us what we’re supposed to feel because right now I don’t know. And that’s not helpful.
Craig: It’s not. And it also veers us away from this next bit which is pretty disgusting but I suppose where dogs eat her face. But if we understood that Etsuko was watching this happen then I would understand why I’m watching it. But if you take away the point of view of her daughter and just show her getting her face eaten which is a weird transition by the way from I’m looking at you to now my face is being eaten, then it just seems like you just want to show me her face being eaten.
Also, if someone’s face gets eaten by dogs they die.
John: Yeah. I don’t understand how she’s alive after that. Maybe because she’s a fox-demon.
Craig: But then if she’s a fox-demon then everybody should freaking the F out. Like apparently the fox-demon you can eat her face and she still lives. So, it just – yeah, there were multiple issues here and I think the most important thing to take away from this, Hiroshi, is fill the visual picture in. Ground all of the moments in relationships. Think about perspective always. And make sure that everyone says and does things that comport logically with normal human psychology in extraordinary, abnormal moments.
John: Yup. Agreed.
Craig: All right. What’s next?
John: All right. Let’s move on to Martha. If you could give us a summary, Miss Megana.
Megana: Great. So we meet plump 45-year-old Martha alone on Ladies’ Night at a Midtown Manhattan strip club. Martha is an enthusiastic and generous regular. She slips $100 bills into G-strings and everyone seems to know her by name. Martha asks Bobby who is “working tonight” and Bobby points him in the direction of the new go-go dancer, Derek. Derek’s friend tells him that Martha is a good time but she’s strong, so he should definitely have a safe word. Martha leads Derek out to her driver and car making several off-color jokes about how this might be the last time Derek sees his friends. In the back of the car Martha pours Derek scotch and condoms fall from the ceiling.
John: Great. So this is Martha by Caroline O’Riordan.
Craig: John, what did you think?
John: I liked that this was a big character. A big introduction on a big character. Martha is sort of brash and brassy and unapologetic and sort of seems very comfortable in her skin in a way that was interesting and compelling. I felt like the men in this story were not nearly as compelling and they didn’t need to be such bright spotlights. But I didn’t know really who Bobby was at all and this last stripper who got in the car. I wanted to have a sense of who he was just so I could sense what is the drama/comedy that’s going to be possible to happen next.
Craig: Yeah. I wonder just from the name Martha, I wonder if this is Caroline’s tricky way of saying Arthur. Because it reminds me so much of Arthur. A boozy bachelor who has a butler. And who goes around and lives the life of an utter reprobate. And then is going to meet somebody that kind of sets them straight. And so here we’re doing the distaff version of that. And I thought honestly what was working really well was I understood where I was. I could see the room. Geography made sense. Caroline was making sure that when somebody talked to somebody that they go there first.
The only thing I really would suggest she kind of look at is there’s a broadness in the rest of the world. I like how broad Martha is, but the rest of the world feels broad. So the guys, the issue with the male strippers is that they kind of feel like the waiters in Hello Dolly. Do you know what I mean?
John: I do. Yeah.
Craig: They’re like, ah, Martha. They don’t seem–
John: They’re not in reality. And they’re in sort of her heightened reality and they’re not real to us.
Craig: Particularly because they all behave equally the same. Like they all do the same thing in unison. I also think that her largesse should be larger. A wad of $100 – you know, when she got $100 bills from her bra. Generally it’s hard to see, you’ve got to really hit that number. When she throws money you’ve got to realize those are hundreds. That’s a big deal. She’s also been there for a while so it seems like she suddenly pulled that out and started throwing them around.
John: A line like, “Don’t worry, I’ve got a second one.” Basically she’s into her second bra roll.
Craig: Right. She finishes this wad of $20s and she’s like, “Sorry guys, that’s it. No more $20s.” And they’re like, “Aw,” and she goes, “And so I guess I’ll use these hundreds.”
John: Hundreds. Yeah.
Craig: Something to just really sell that this is like kind of a life-changing lady to be around when you’re a stripper because there’s a lot of money coming around. But keeping the rest of the world, like Bobby I think needs to be more grounded. The strippers need to be more grounded. Condoms should not fall from the ceiling.
John: I don’t understand where they came from the ceiling. I don’t get that.
Craig: Also how many condoms do you need?
John: You don’t need a lot.
Craig: Maybe like maximum three? You know, three seems a lot. Just, whoosh, condoms drop from the ceiling just seems a little broad. So, keep her broad, and keep the rest of the world super unbroad. Because what made Arthur wonderful, and I’m just again assuming that Caroline is kind of going in that direction, I could be totally wrong, is that he was pathetic. That ultimately he was sad. And you knew that because we were putting this life of the party guy in the middle of very regular New York. And that’s why it worked.
John: So a couple little small things on the page, just pickups, because I really didn’t mark this up very much because I thought it largely worked. First line, “It’s Sunday night at the “ultimate ladies night” in Midtown Manhattan. It’s not Friday, and this isn’t Vegas.”
Craig: I circled that myself.
John: I just thought I don’t know what that means. It’s not Friday, it’s not Vegas.
Craig: Also, you just told us it was Sunday in Manhattan. So why do we need the rest of this?
John: And the next line is great without it. So just drop that out. Third line, “Perched on a stool and cheering on the DANCERS like a blackout proud parent is MARTHA (45, white, big-eyed, plump).” I don’t get the blackout proud parent.
Craig: I don’t either.
John: So take out blackout. Proud parent, great. Because I get what you’re going for here is that she’s just really into it. She’s like a super fan here. 45, white, big-eyed, plump. Great. I got a visual for that. I would love to know a little bit more, I’m going to talk like Craig here, hair, makeup, and wardrobe. We can get a little bit more specific here. What is her purse?
John: How is she styled? If you want to go back and listen to my conversation with Lorene and Mitch about Hustlers, really sort of what these characters are wearing in these clubs is so important to tell us about who they are and why they’re there. I feel like you have the space here on page one to give us more about Martha because this is her movie.
Craig: That’s great advice. I also think Martha doesn’t really get a reveal. And with somebody like her you want one. She deserves one. To go back to Hello, Dolly, one of the great reveals in Broadway history when Dolly, even though we’ve seen her before, we haven’t seen her in her full glory. When she comes down the staircase at the restaurant. You want Martha’s reveal to be wow. To really be something. So I completely agree with those bumps there.
Here’s a moment where I think the first red flag on the kind of too broad rest of the world was when she tosses crumpled bills over her shoulder and stumbles away. “The boys lunge like bridesmaids vying for the bouquet.” Nah.
John: They can still have some pride, yeah.
Craig: And also because what you want is to see that behind her there is no party. The party is around her and what she sees through her eyes. And behind her is actually – they made an agreement to just divide it up. It’s cleaning for them. It’s sad.
John: Yeah. We’ve seen both Magic Mike movies and, yes, those guys are working hard for the money. But they’re not–
Craig: It’s work.
John: But it’s work. And they’re not just going to scrape or pounce on things.
Craig: Correct. Exactly. Bobby – I’d love to get a little bit more of a sense of his feeling about Martha. I don’t know what he thinks of her. “Martha,” she goes, “Bobby, great show. Your boys got me dripping as always,” which is pretty funny. “Martha, the reason I’m open on Sundays.” Well that just feels like a couplet designed to tell me that her name is Martha and his name is Bobby. You know? And Bobby has got to have – there’s no reason he should be matching his tone. He’s got to be like, “Mm, Martha.” You know, wow, I can’t throw you out. I wish I could, but I can’t.” It’s like you’re a huge pain in the ass and you’re just extra.
So we just need to see how the rest of the world is reacting to her. Even if he matches her energy, and then when she looks away he and the bartender look at each other like “oh my god, Martha.”
John: Yeah. The other woman in his club, like how are they responding to this high roller who is throwing all this stuff? And what is it like to be in her little bottle service area? There’s all sorts of fascinating things you could do here and you don’t have to do all of them, but I feel like it comes back to just making sure that the rest of the world feels realistic so that her bigness can really stand out.
Craig: Yeah. Last little thing I wanted to point out to you Caroline is that there’s no reason for Derek, the selected dancer, to not already know about Martha. Even if he’s new, he’s been watching her all night. So at some point earlier one of the guys would have said something. So, what could work is when they get into the car she’s like, “What did your friends tell you? What did the other guys tell you?” And he could be like, “Um, they said that you were a good time but that you’re stronger than you look and I should get a safe word.” Do you know what I mean? And then she sort of laughs and she’s like it’s so true. So that you don’t have to have this kind of feeling that Derek was just apparently checked out all night while this was going on.
John: Yeah. On page three he’s described as “half-naked, Derek shivering from the November air.” Be more specific about half-naked. Because is he still just in his G-string? Does he have his phone with him? Some of that information is kind of great because how vulnerable is he is a great thing to see.
Craig: Yeah, and again when Derek drinks the scotch, and you should point out by the way that he drinks, you don’t actually say that, he says, “Whoa, this stuff is intense.” That also feels like he’s from Iowa in 1920. He’s a male stripper. He’s drank before. Even if he doesn’t drink much or whatever, it just seems like he’s, again, he’s a waiter from Hello, Dolly. And you want him to be a guy who strips for a living in Manhattan. You know?
John: This is not Schmigadoon.
Craig: Correct. It’s not Schmigadoon. Bingo.
John: All right. Our final entry. The Many Lives of Newton Thomas by Sean Frost. Megana, can you give us the summary?
Megana: A mother and father carry a baby boy in a wicker basket out of a station wagon. They leave him in the basket at the entrance of a children’s home at night. They share a tearful goodbye with the father leaving several small trinkets for the boy before the parents drive away in the car. A voice over tells us that he’s imagined this night hundreds of different ways with the parents crying, held at gunpoint, or stopped before they can leave the baby.
We see the different iterations of the scene until the voice over tells us that he suspects that he’s afraid the truth is that his parents were sad but not distraught and decided to leave the baby of their own volition.
John: All right. Craig, what was your take on The Many Lives of Newton Thomas?
Craig: I really enjoyed this. I liked this, Sean. I thought that there was a really interesting concept here. There were a couple of little bumps in the road that I want to talk about that are somewhat technical. And I think the idea gets across faster and more effective than you might realize, because I think it was probably a bit too much of it.
I’ll start with the real simple things. “A tired looking MUTLI-STOREY BUILDING.” So we’ve got a type on the fourth word which makes us crazy. You also spell story “storey” which is in the British way.
John: So maybe he’s British.
Craig: Except that he says a parking lot and the British say a car park. So, you either have to be British or you have to be American. You can’t be both. What was interesting was I was confused at first and then when I got to Newton’s line, “I’ve imagined this night a hundred different ways,” I went ah-ha. And that’s fine, except for one bit of confusion and that is she’s holding a baby, wrapped in blankets, and she’s going to put that baby in a basket.
We understand that that baby is an infant. That’s what that is. But the baby says, “Vroom, vroom.” Babies don’t do that. They don’t talk and when they do talk it’s a lot of mama, baba, bebe, but it’s not vroom, vroom about a car. That’s more like a 1.5 or two-year-old, which is definitely not the sort of like I’m going to put you in a little blanket and put you in a little basket. You say baby boy. So I would change that bit.
But I thought it was interesting that the first part seemed kind of off and unrealistic. And then you found out why.
John: I took the vroom, vroom as being magical realism. It was impossible for the baby to say that, but it was sort of an imagined.
Craig: I would acknowledge that. That’s perfectly fine. But then I would acknowledge that somewhat improbably the baby says. But I thought there was a really interesting kind of iteration of things that happened. The one I would strongly suggest to get rid of is you say sometimes they cry, and so they’re sobbing as they put the baby down. Sometimes they don’t. And there’s a kind of the dad is stone faced and the mom is sad, but noticeably not crying. But the version that you propose is the one that’s probably real is the version where you say, “I do this cause I’m afraid what really happened was more like this.” And then you see that they are not crying and they are just sort of neutral.
And so I wouldn’t step on that. I would keep them happy or sad or scared or Iron Man comes in. And I would strongly recommend that in the bit where at the end, the reveal, Newton says – here’s what Newton says in voice over, “I do this cause I’m afraid what really happened was more like this. No tears. No guy running down the street – and definitely no Iron Man trying to stop a guy from shooting my Dad. Which is why I like to imagine it differently.” And I think maybe all you need is “I do this because I’m afraid what really happened was more like this.”
And then you just see them put the baby down, they don’t really care, and they drive away. And then you go back to the little baby. So the rest of it we’re seeing it. We get it.
John: Yeah. So as I was reading it the parents are so vaguely described, and it sort of makes sense that they be vaguely described, sort of generic versions, because he doesn’t necessarily know who they are.
Craig: He doesn’t know them.
John: But I went back and forth in terms of like should we see their faces or not see their faces. There’s a version of this where we don’t actually ever fully see their faces. But then we can’t really tell if they’re crying or not. So I guess you do have to cast people that you are seeing this. But maybe you just call out early in the scene description a somewhat generic like white man, white woman just so we get a sense of like they’re deliberately not specific. That he’s just sort of remembering them or imagining them as these people.
A bigger issue is I had is Craig how old is Newton our narrator?
Craig: Well, that’s a great question. I have no clue.
John: I have no clue. And it really does matter because if it’s being told by a ten-year-old versus a 30-year-old it’s a very different feel. And so I think we need to find a place on page one, either after Newton’s first line, or after his second line just to give us a sense of the age of the narrator because it really does change the read, sort of how we’re reading this. If it’s a kid narrating versus an adult narrating it.
Craig: That’s a fantastic point. I think in my mind I must have defaulted to young adult. But you’re absolutely right. We do need to know what we’re hearing there. And I don’t know if this is a movie or meant to be a show. It feels like a movie. And The Many Lives of Newton Thomas perhaps implies that here’s somebody who is imagining Walter Mitty style the different paths his life might have taken had it gone different ways. But it’s a really nice start.
John: Agreed. It’s a nice start.
Craig: It’s a nice start. Oh, one last thing, Sean. New Beginnings Children’s Home. Mm, we can see what you’re doing there. It’s too much. You don’t need that. You can back off the gas pedal on that one I think.
John: Yeah. Here’s the other thing. Beyond the name of it, every time we see a slug line with that, because it’s a really slug line and we’re going to be coming back to this a lot, even though we’re not going to really read it every time a shorter slug line I think will just get us through the page a little bit faster.
I would also cut on page two the masked figure says, “Do it or I’ll shoot.” The Mom reluctantly lays the Baby in the basket. The Masked Figure lowers their gun. The Dad sighs in relief. What? Just “do it or I’ll shoot.” Just get out of there on that line. You don’t need the rest of it.
Craig: I agree.
John: So both this script and our first script had draft dates on those. Don’t do those. Not necessary.
Craig: Don’t need them.
John: Have one date on your script. That’s great. But don’t tell us this is the second draft. We don’t care. It should be your best draft. This is the draft we’re reading. That’s all that matters is the draft we’re reading. So on the title page you don’t need to put what draft this is. Just put a date.
Craig: I agree. We don’t need to see your paperwork.
John: Nope. Not required.
John: So I want to thank our three entrants this week. Thank you for sending this out. And everybody else who sent in all of these Three Page Challenges, Megana went through a zillion of them. So thank you Megana for reading through all of these.
Craig: Thank you, Megana.
John: And if you have your own three pages you want to submit go to johnaugust.com/threepage. And we might talk about your pages on a future episode.
John: Craig, we’re running long but I want to get to one question. A question from Chris. If Megana you could ask that.
Megana: Chris asks, “In light of so many Americans believing that the COVID-19 vaccine injects sinister tracking technologies into the body or that the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting victims are all paid crisis actors I find myself wondering is it morally wrong to be writing conspiracy theory stories in this day and age? Have writers been inadvertently conditioning the public to think that massively coordinated government misdeeds are commonplace and that it’s good to always mistrust the government and the media because they’re all in on it? Could QAnon have happened without 11 seasons of the X-Files conditioning its viewers to be paranoid? And are we as writers making things worse every time we work a dark conspiracy into one of our stories?”
John: Oh, Chris asking a big question.
Craig: That’s an amazing question.
John: I think it’s a great question. I think we have some complicity in sort of narrativizing conspiracies and building a universe in which there’s always a twist and there’s always a secret bad guy organization behind stuff. So, yes, and here’s I guess the degree to which there’s any evidence to back this up is when you talk to prosecutors or defense attorneys for that matter when juries are in the courtroom and they’re seeing evidence they believe that CSI is real. They believe that all the stuff that they can do on CSI is the standards of how stuff should be working. And so they’re expecting evidence that is actually just impossible. And I think conspiracies are sort of a related thing to that in that people see things on TV and they start to believe oh maybe that’s how the world really works.
So I think I would be nervous writing a conspiracy thriller right now. But Craig I’m curious what you think.
Craig: Yeah. So I think we had talked in an earlier episode about the phenomenon of copaganda.
Craig: And presenting cops as kind of, I don’t know, just wildly differently than many of them are in the street and not paying any attention to the phenomenon of police brutality and cops as flawed or sometimes completely embedded with ultra-right wing philosophies.
The reason I love this question so much Chris is because I think it is at this point something that is – I’m not going to go all the way and say morally wrong. I’m going to say it ought to give strong, clear pause if you are thinking about writing a conspiracy theory story. Because we have absolutely fed into this. The insistence that the government is portrayed with The Shop. That’s my favorite phrase. The Shop. It’s even behind the CIA. It’s some secret thing behind the CIA and the NSA that basically can do whatever they want. They hear everything. They see everything. They’re completely all-knowing, all-seeing. They can do all this stuff.
Look at The Bourne Identity. The entire concept of The Bourne Identity is insane. It’s insane. And unaccomplishable. And we take that as commonplace. And the insistence that everything that happens in the world has occurred because humans wanted it to happen and that anybody that thinks otherwise is naïve and foolish that’s a problem. It has absolutely fed into this stuff.
I would at this point be so wary of writing a narrative that attempted to undermine what I think is the typical explanation and reason for things going wrong and that is stuff happening, stupidity as opposed to maliciousness. Confusion. Cowardice. Clumsiness. I mean, that’s why Chernobyl fascinated me. It was so human. There was no conspiracy. It was just human.
John: And to the degree that there was a conspiracy it was to try to cover up human mistakes.
Craig: It was just this mundane don’t blame me. You know? Which seems so true to all of this stuff. You know, I used to laugh at these people who insisted that George Bush did 9/11. And I’m like the same George Bush that couldn’t figure out how to plant one nuclear missile in the desert in Iraq? That guy? Really? No.
And the more we learn about government functions the more we realize that, you know, it’s not always well run. Sometimes it’s no better run than a bad job you had when you were 28. I’m really glad Chris asked this question. If people in Hollywood are writing these kinds of things right now I think they need to stop. And they need to really look at themselves and what they are encouraging.
There are conspiracies. We do know that Russia sends god knows how many bots to try to influence people. That’s a real story. Then investigate it like a real story. Do that. But don’t do the hyper-fictionalized government that knows all, sees all, and controls all.
John: Related I think we tend to create stories that are sort of one person against the system. And so the system is corrupt and only one person can bring it down.
Craig: Only I can fix this.
John: Yes. And I think that only I can fix this problem spills into real life because they start to believe like, oh, they don’t want you to believe this thing, they don’t want you to see this thing. You have to do your own research and really learn for yourself and basically don’t trust anybody. And I think what we’ve learned in this pandemic is that you do need to actually cooperate and work together to get stuff to happen and to get stuff resolved. And so beyond just the out-and-out conspiracy thriller thinking I think we need to just be aware of the degree to which we are feeding into this myth of one person alone makes a difference and that you cannot trust anybody else because the human condition is about trusting other people. That’s what makes us human.
Craig: And also just from a creative point of view robs you of relationships, partnerships, people coming together. We love that sort of thing for good reason. Because it mirrors our lives. Problems are not solved by one person. They are solved by people working together.
Craig: So I’d love to see this change. And I’ve got to believe it is. Like I can’t imagine somebody sitting in a studio right now going, “Ooh, you know what we should do is a conspiracy theory. What really happened to those two planes that crashed, the Boeings?” No, no, it was because Boeing screwed up and they put the thing on the thing.
Yeah, you know, so hopefully.
John: I agree with you. I do think there is an awareness of this and I think we should just be vigilant about it and maybe just ask ourselves and ask the folks who are making our entertainment to really think twice before going full conspiracy.
Craig: Please think twice.
John: All right. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing comes from listener Tara and she sent through a link to a great collection of TV scripts and not just pilots. And so I will put a link in the show notes to this site. But basically it’s gathering up all of the TV scripts that this person could find online. And it’s really easy to find movie scripts because they’re out for award season. TV scripts, can be pretty easy to find pilots but not easy to find like here’s a random episode from the third season.
So, so helpful if you want to be writing television to just read the scripts and really understand how these scripts work on the page, how shows are formatted. You’ll find that showrunners tend to have a very similar format from year to year, season to season. If you want to copy a style copy the style of the shows that are actually produced. And I think you could spend many hours of your life reading these scripts and be a better education than probably any screenwriting book you could possibly pick up.
Craig: That’s a terrific resource. Thank you, Tara. My One Cool Thing is another game. I’ve just been hunting around. Sometimes I go through these dry spells where there’s just nothing good on the app store and then I picked up a couple. You know, the algorithm occasionally coughs up something at me and I go, ooh that.
This game has been around for a little bit. It’s called Circulous. It’s by Chain Reaction Games. It’s for iOS. It might be for Android. I don’t know. I don’t care about Android. And it’s sort of a puzzle game. You play a woman who has just been hired by a company called Circulous. It’s kind of like a Google/Apple corporation. And there is some sort of hacker enemy that’s trying to do stuff and you have to solve a whole bunch of problems.
So it’s kind of escape roomy in that regard. The puzzles are quite fair. They’re difficult but fair. What I love about it is the interface. It does this thing that a lot of games have tried to do and failed. You have your own laptop in the game. And you can tap on a thing that gets you to your laptop and you get notifications and you get emails and there’s like a little mini-browser inside to look up websites. And normally those are just awful in games, it’s almost like they had never seen. And in Circulous they’re quite good. They’ve actually done a really good job of creating that space that we’re really familiar with and making it feel quite functional and good.
So, I’m almost through with it. I think I’m creeping up towards the end but it’s really well done. I play a little bit each night before I pass out. So I highly recommend Circulous. Circulous from Chain Reaction Games.
John: Very nice. I will step in. It’s available at least on the Mac and iOS. So it may be available on other platforms as well.
And that is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Andrew Hart and it is the first appearance by Megana in an outro.
John: Yeah, it’s a good one. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter I am @johnaugust. Craig also sometimes answers questions, but he’s not officially on Twitter anymore.
John: 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 Three Page Challenges we talked through so you can download PDFs and read along with us. You’ll find the transcripts and sign up for our weekly-ish newsletter also at johnaugust.com. Inneresting has bunch of links to things about writing. So that comes out every Friday.
You can sign up to become a premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments like the one you’re about to hear with me and Sara Schaefer talking about three tips to getting your TV show on the air and the heartbreak that will follow thereafter.
Craig, it is a pleasure chatting with you.
Craig: Thanks. Good to be back, John.
John: Sara Schaeffer is a writer-producer-comedian and standup comic who has worked on a gazillion comedy variety shows, a lot of them on Comedy Central. Nikki and Sara Live. I’m literally going through your IMDb and you have so many credits Sara.
Sara Schaefer: It’s actually ridiculous.
John: So you know we’ve had people on the show before who have worked on a late night show, on a late night show for years and years and years, but you’ve popped around so many different things and sort of special events where it sounds like you’re getting together to put on one special event. Do you enjoy that?
Sara: Yes and no. So, I’ve hopped around so much in part because I’ve always been trying to get my own projects going, which is the big prize. I’ve done it once with Nikki and Sara Live on MTV. And that was an incredible experience and I’m always trying to sell another project that’s my own idea all the way to fruition. And so in order to do that because it is such a long haul to do that I’ve always taken jobs that are a little more short term. Well, I mean, a lot of times it’s not my choice. I will get hired on a show and it just doesn’t get renewed. Like talk shows. New talk shows are really hard to get going now if you’re not one of the institutional shows, or if you didn’t come from an institution. So I’ll just point to John Oliver and Sam Bee. They have been probably one of the only couple long-running shows. Even Amber Ruffin were talent that were incubated on another institution, like The Daily Show, or Seth Meyers. So that’s part of it.
But also I will hop around because I’m also a touring standup comedian. I’ve just always got my hand in so many different things. And so I like can’t be tied down, man.
John: No. We had Jen Statsky on the show recently and she was talking about her time.
Sara: Oh yeah.
John: I think she was on Fallon as well.
Sara: Yeah. She started right before I left the show. And I had a little goodbye drinks after my last day and she was there. And she was like, “I feel like we were going to become friends.” And I was like I know. I mean, and we’re still friendly with each other but like we didn’t have that long term working together friendship thing take place. But yeah.
John: One new show that you’re working on right now that will not get canceled because it’s entirely your show is the Schaefer Shakedown, the podcast.
Sara: That’s right. Nobody can cancel it. Because I’m the only person that works on it. There’s no money on the line. And there’s literally nothing involved other than my own desire to do it, so that’s good.
John: So Episode 7 of your show you shared your secrets for getting a TV series to air in three easy steps. And I thought we might listen to a little clip.
Sara: Hi everyone. For today’s tutorial I’ll be showing you how to sell a TV show in just three simple steps. Step one, come up with an original idea or recycle an old idea that’s been done one million times, whatever your personal preference. Step 1A, tell your agent about the idea. Now if you’re curious how to get an agent I recommend checking out my other YouTube video entitled How To Get A Hollywood Agent in 600 Easy Steps.
So now that you’ve got your agent it’s time to tell them about your idea. Step 1B. Get feedback from your agent who will change the idea until it is good enough to pitch. To a network? No, not yet. You must first complete Step 1C. Finding a production. Now you will pitch your idea to various production companies. If one of them likes your idea you will work with them. Step 1D. Prepare the pitch with the production company. They will help you change the idea until it’s good enough for pitching. This can take several months to several years because they’ll also be insistent on finding a big name director or celebrity to attach. Sometimes big name directors and actors go on long vacations or are shooting a movie in New Zealand, so this can take time. While you’re waiting, I recommend taking up a hobby, like drinking.
Sara: That’s only the beginning.
John: Yes. So, I guess I’ll start with a question. Sara, how dare you? Because Craig and I have been doing this for 506 episodes and you just came out and just said it. You just laid the whole thing out. And what’s weird is that there are jokes in there. There’s funny writing within it but it’s also actually just honest about what the whole process is. And it’s just, ugh, I felt sick but seen as I listened to it.
Sara: You know, I always write, I fully write my podcast out. And then will riff as I go with it. But I was writing this episode and at first, I mean, I didn’t have this idea in my head. I always usually do on each episode I’ll do at least one little audio sketch like that one. And a lot of times I have the idea and then I’ll build the episode around it. But this time I was just writing my feelings about just being so frustrated with my career at this point. And so I decided to explain like you got to do this and this, because I was talking about how it’s hard for everyone in this business to make it, but if you have like just a little leg in, like if you’ve got fame, power, if you know somebody, if your dad is somebody important that it just greases the wheels a little bit.
Sara: And I was like if I could just get past the first step. And so I started to write that out. And then I was like oh this could be a funny YouTube tutorial. And I had to stop and rewrite that whole part and really think it through. So it really came from me just wanting to explain to people what you go through and it just worked very well in that format with the sort of monotone cheerfulness.
John: Step 1H part of it all. What I think is helpful is it’s a useful thing for young writers or people who are trying to make it in this business to send back to their parents to explain this is what I’m going through. Because there are so many steps where it’s like, yay, and I had a really good meeting, and they’re going to make an offer. Or you got a yes but there’s not an official offer. And you’re like what does that actually mean. And you explain it’s like, no, you’re waiting for the official offer even though you have the yes. It could be months and months and months before there’s anything like a deal. And that’s just to go to the next place which is to pitch to the next people.
Sara: Yeah. I think that is also why sometimes I feel defensive about that I’ve quit on my ideas sometimes. I go I didn’t quit. I got to a major obstacle that was so heartbreaking that I couldn’t move forward with it on my own anymore. It was too sad. Or I don’t even go out the gate with some ideas I have because I don’t have the energy to go through all those steps again and it’s so frustrating. And I think that I’ve had a lot of people, I had no idea that this video was going to go as far as it did. And I was like, oh, I really hit a nerve with people.
And I got a lot of people saying all those things you said like this is painful, I hate you, why are you trying to murder me. And then I got a lot of like I sent this to my family so they can understand. And everyone is talking about how far in the steps they’ve gone. I’m like I’ve gone all the way to the end once. And I’ve done every step between. And it’s just I think it’s the length of time it takes and how – and I say this at the end, at any moment it can just go away with no explanation. [laughs]
John: So in this pandemic, in this age of Zoom, I had a project which we were about to take out and then the pandemic hit, so it became all Zoom pitches. And there were so many times where we’d go out and we’d be pitching to a production entity or to a network or streamer and it would go through and it was like, yay, that was fantastic. And like, oh, they’re going to make a deal. And then, oh no, they changed the entire regime. It’s like twice we went to the same place and it’s like, oh no, the entire management structure has changed, which you referenced in this video. You could actually shoot your entire show and just like it never airs because the new people don’t want it on the air.
Sara: Yeah. That’s happened to multiple people I know where they went all the way, and it doesn’t make sense to me still, but even especially to someone who is not in this business. Why would a company spend so much money on something, it’s made, it’s in the can, and then to not put it on TV? It just is wild to me.
And I think you and I know reasons why. There is more money that has to be spent to take it all the way to that final step. And they maybe just want to cut their losses at that point. But it’s so demoralizing and just absurd.
John: Yeah. So in some ways it makes me nostalgic for Quibi and just the fact that anybody could get a show on Quibi. It was literally like “Are you alive? Here’s your show on Quibi.” But you actually talk to people who tried to do the Quibi shows and it was incredibly heartbreaking. And then to make one of those shows and like, oh, your network doesn’t exist anymore. Who knows when someone will ever see this thing again?
Sara: The tales of heartbreak that I’ve heard from putting this video out, and just from people – it was also, like you said, you feel seen and not alone. I felt seen back because so many people – major stars that I like love and I’m like what problem do you have in your life, Seth Rogan, like why – he retweeted it. And I’m like, oh, this spoke to him. And that just really made me go you know what it’s hard for everybody and it is easier for some people to get the wheels turning, but it’s crazy for everyone. And dreams die all the time. It is just a testament to how – you know, so many people were like oh I’m not even at Step 1C. And I’m like do you understand how hard it is to even get to Step 1A?
You have an agent. That’s why I said at the beginning I was like oh I know if I put this out people are going to go how do I get an agent. And I’m like that’s a whole other thing.
John: It is a very, very different thing. A thing I think I would add to a future incarnation, or if you ever make the book version of this is that same giant celebrity who you want to get on your project will make it so much easier to sell. That giant celebrity is a giant celebrity because he’s attached to every other project as well. And so trying to get that person’s sole attention, that’s a thing, too.
And so it’s not just the movie they’re shooting in New Zealand. It’s just will you be his or her first priority ever? And that’s really tough. And so, yeah, even this afternoon I was on a pitch to a production company. And I’m trying to get this production company onboard. And it’s just – you know, at every level you’re still just kind of hustling and you’re looking for that extra element that sort of makes it like, oh, it’s sort of impossible to say no to. And there never is an impossible to say no to.
Sara: Yeah. Got to be undeniable! There’s always a way to deny somebody the goods. I’ve learned to take every victory and every yes – to take every yes in this process as a huge victory, knowing that even if it doesn’t go all the way and no one ever sees it, you know, you did something. And it’s hard to do when you’re not getting – in those very first steps you’re not getting paid for a long time, so that’s tough.
And so it’s always a balance between finding a way to make – I always say this to people. You’ve got to have your money maker lane and your dream lane. Sometimes those lanes converge and sometimes they don’t. And, you know, that’s always been my way. It’s tough though because sometimes I have said no to jobs, money on the table, because it was just money and I had a dream that I wanted to work on. And sometimes that doesn’t pay off.
But, you know, I wrote a book. It came out a year ago. And a lot of people were like, oh, this sucks, I’m just going to just stick to books instead. And I’m like what?
John: Oh god. No.
Sara: It’s just as hard, if not harder.
John: Sara, I wrote a trilogy and just the pushing the boulder up the hill for a trilogy is like, oh, you think you’re done. It’s like, no, no, you’ve got two more of those to do. And support. And put it out there in the world. So, it’s tough.
Sara: When I went into writing a book I had no idea. And then I was like I wrote eight books in the course of this process. And when the book was done and it came out people were like are you going to make this into a TV show or movie? And I’m like, sure, I’d love to. But do you understand – and that has stalled that process.
But I had one really amazing actress who I loved who I had no idea that it had gotten into her hands. And she read it, loved it, and was like I want to star, produce, direct, I want it all. And I’m like, oh my god, here we go, but knowing this is probably never going to happen. But just the fact that she read it and liked it and I didn’t force it in her hands. Like somebody just gave it to her I think. I don’t know how it happened but I was just like this would be so amazing.
And I had a little celebration just for that moment knowing that it wasn’t probably going to go anywhere. And it hasn’t. [laughs] You know?
John: At least this went someplace. So, thank you again for this explanation of the steps of this which I think will live on for many, many years. It will keep getting passed around. So that is a thing we know will exist out there in the world. You’ve explained it once. It never needs to be explained again.
John: Sara Schaefer. Thank you so much. I would love to have you back on the show for a full episode.
John: Fantastic. Thanks Sara.
Sara: All right, thanks John.
- Courtney Kemp’s Deal at Netflix
- Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park Deal
- Hello Sunshine Sale
- Trickster: Night of the Kitsune by Hiroshi Mori
- Martha by Caroline O’Riordan
- The Many Lives of Newton Thomas by Sean Frost
- Collection of TV Scripts
- Circulous Game
- Sara Schaefer’s Twitter Clip
- Schaefer Shakedown
- Get a Scriptnotes T-shirt!
- Gift a Scriptnotes Subscription or treat yourself to a premium subscription!
- John August on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by Andrew Hart (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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