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 522 of Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show what do characters not see about themselves and the world around them? We’ll talk about blind spots and how frustrating but useful they can be. We’ll also discuss natural structure, the way some events in real life have an inherent order. And how that can be very helpful for your fictional events.
And in our bonus segment for premium members we’ll talk about work-life balance. Is such a thing real? As we record this bonus topic on a Sunday morning at 10am because both of us were too busy to do it during the actual week.
Craig: [laughs] Oh, irony. Oh cruel fate.
John: Cruel fate.
Craig: Cruel fate.
John: But maybe it’s a lucky accident of success and things going well is that you don’t have time to actually do the things you want to do like talk to Craig.
Craig: There you go. There. Let’s turn that frown upside down.
John: We love it. We cannot talk about anything else in this podcast until we talk about the big news of the week which was the shooting on the set of the indie film Rust.
Craig: Oh god. Yeah.
John: So an accidental shooting killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and wounded the film’s director. That has been sort of all the discussion the last few days in town. More details are still coming out, so we don’t want this to be forensic what actually happened. But we need to talk about overall safety on sets, firearms on sets. Craig, you and I were playing D&D when the news first came out and I didn’t want to interrupt our D&D session to talk about it, but it’s sort of all I could think about for the few days after.
Craig: Yeah. So they do have a general sense of what happened now it seems. But the details as they emerged were that Alec Baldwin is starring in this movie and he was doing a scene where he had to shoot a gun which obviously was meant to be a prop gun. Prop guns are real guns. Generally speaking if they have to fire they are real guns. But they are loaded with blanks. Blanks are cartridges that don’t have the slugs. So a lot of people misunderstand what a bullet is. They think the bullet is the whole long thing with the tip. The bullet is just the little tip. The long thing is the cartridge. That’s got the powder in it. And so the blanks have no actual projectile. They just have the long cartridge and a little bit of powder. We’ll say quarter load or half load or a full load if we want to make a really big bang.
And apparently he was handed a gun with an actual bullet in it. And he fired that gun and killed Halyna Hutchins. Very often the people operating the cameras are the ones who are in the most danger. And there are not just a rule or rules, but a litany of rules and procedures that you should follow. And from what I read they were not followed here at all. No surprise.
So I want to be clear for people at home. Hollywood, and this is apart from judgments about whether or not Hollywood should be constantly portraying gun fire, Hollywood has shot off four trillion rounds in the making of television and movies. There have been a few notable incidents. Branden Lee was a very sad one many, many years ago. And there’s this one. It is incredibly rare. It is incredibly rare because we follow very clear procedures. And from what I understand based on what I read those procedures were not followed here.
John: Yeah. So as details started coming out I was following Twitter threads from people who work on sets who are prop masters, armorers, people who would be responsible for guns on sets, and they’re saying like, wait, how could this have happened because there are so many checks and protocols for sort of whenever there’s a weapon on set, how stuff needs to be done.
So let’s take a step back and talk about what we mean by a prop, what we mean by a gun, because there are many sort of conflated and confusing terms. A lot of times if you see a gun that is never going to be fired, no one is going to be touching it, it could just be a plastic or rubber thing. That’s obviously the safest thing because nothing can actually happen with that. There are things that are simply there to be seen but not actually be touched or used in any way. Those can be fakes and that’s great and safer for everybody. There are real guns that are being used when you need to have the actor shoot the gun and you need to see the kickback and you want to see the flame. But increasingly a lot of time the actual fire at the end of the gun is done digitally, so that is another choice that can be made. So you don’t get the kickback but you get the flame and that can be fine for certain circumstances.
There are also electronic and other replica guns that have no actual, don’t fire anything but sort of look like a real gun when they’re being used. Those are all choices. But what I think the sort of bigger discussion is is that guns on set are a safety issue but there are so many safety issues on set and that’s why any time you’re trying to do anything that is a stunt, that is involving a snowball being thrown at a person, you have to have a real culture of safety around the set. And it looks like that culture of safety was not happening on the set which is probably not unrelated to the hours, to it being a non-union shoot, to it being done in a rushed way that did not prioritize people’s safety.
Craig: Yeah. So there apparently have been some complaints and even a crew walkout at one point regarding safety issues which is startling enough. If you have a crew walk out over anything it’s rather serious of course and needs to be examined. But of all the things you need to worry about gun safety on set is primary.
Here’s the basic procedure. The prop master works with an armorer. And armorer is part of the prop team. And they’re in charge of securing and accounting for all weapons and all ammunition at all times. That means you show up with six guns, you leave with the same six guns. Everything is very carefully logged and archived. Then you are very clear when you’re handing somebody a fake gun. It has to be announced. The first AD will announce it to the set. There is a fake gun.
The fake gun is examined by both the armorer, the prop master, the first assistant director, and then the actor to whom it is handed. Everybody agrees this is a fake gun. At that point it’s put in your holster, or you carry it around, and everyone can relax.
If there is a real gun then that has to be announced. And it has to be announced that it is unloaded, if it is unloaded. And if it’s unloaded then the prop master and armorer show it to the first AD by removing the clip and then also sliding the slide or popping open the cylinder so that we can see that there is no ammunition in the chamber. The same thing is then done for the actor who carefully examines it and then accepts it. This gun is now known to be unloaded and everybody can relax.
We go on a much more alert level when we’re dealing with any kind of loads. We don’t fire real bullets ever. I’ve never known a production to fire a real bullet. But when we are using blanks we need to know it is a quarter load, it is a half load, is it a full load. Hot gun on set. That thing gets called out across everybody. The entire crew knows when it’s going to happen.
And that gun is carefully checked. The loads are carefully checked. Everybody signs on. Everybody. Because the chain of command is responsible. Meaning if something should happen like for instance what happened on this movie, on Rust, people can and likely will be charged criminally for what happened. So everybody follows those rules to the letter. The other safety rules, and I’m putting Covid aside, have to do with all sorts of things like how we harness people when they are elevated, or how many people are allowed to be standing on a particular platform, what’s the weight load for it. How do we secure cranes? What do we do when people are walking underneath heavy things that might possibly fall?
All of this safety culture is essential because the last thing you want is for anyone to get hurt. It’s a terrible, terrible feeling. I’ve been involved in movies where people have gotten hurt and thank god in all of those cases it was – thank god, you know whenever I thank god for people being hurt – but at least they were accidents. People made their own bad mistakes, or there was just an accident. Impossible to avoid completely.
John: People can trip and fall. A trip and fall accident feels like a very different scale than a gun accident. And so I think one of the first instincts coming out of this was like, OK, well situations where there’s a live gun on set, we can replace those with other things so that we don’t have live guns on set as much. Sure, that’s great. But that’s not going to take care of all of the potential problems and safety issues. So I want to make sure we don’t solve this one problem and still have more accidents and injuries on set that could be avoided by really looking at putting crew safety first, looking at the hours you’re shooting, looking at how you’re setting up these productions to emphasize safety. Because this was a horrible accident that happened here but we’ve also been talking about related to the IATSE thing all of the car accidents that happen driving away from incredibly long shoots.
And I think we need to make sure that we’re not overemphasizing this one problem and forgetting about the other problems.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think that the answer here is to eliminate the use of active firearms for film and television production any more than it would be to eliminate the use of active vehicles. Far more people are injured by vehicles when we’re making movies and television than by guns because in general people are really, really careful about the guns. What kind of blows my mind here is how when you’re dealing with low budget movies and you are dealing perhaps with non-union workers this is what happens. I mean, according to the Los Angeles Times prior to this incident there were three accidental weapon discharges. That’s three more than I have ever heard of on any production I’ve ever been involved in. And that was before this accident happened.
If there is one accidental discharge of a weapon someone needs to be fired. And everything needs to be re-examined. Also, apparently they didn’t have safety meetings. So every morning, every single morning – and so when you’re shooting nights you show up at 6pm, that’s you’re morning. You say good morning. It’s a very strange thing. Every single morning on our show, every day, our first AD will hold a safety meeting. The crew gathers around and we talk about the safety issues that are potentially emerging throughout the day. It is made clear where fire exits are for inside. And people are told if anything looks unsafe or sounds unsafe or feels unsafe please report it to a member of the AD team.
They didn’t have those meetings. That’s crazy.
John: Yeah. On a shoot that has guns.
Craig: Guns. That’s insane. And in this case nobody looked at this gun. Basically an armorer handed to a prop guy who handed it to an AD who handed it to Alec Baldwin. And while they were doing it people just kept yelling, “Cold gun.” That means it’s been clear of bullets. But they didn’t check. It’s crazy. It’s so tragic. And I feel so awful for Ms. Hutchins family and friends. It just makes you sick because that is so unnecessary. That is just wildly – unnecessary death. It reminds me of when that PA was killed on the railroad bridge. Do you remember that one?
John: I do. Absolutely. That’s another case where I believe there were criminal charges filed.
Craig: Yes there were.
John: You were not prioritizing safety. You were looking at getting the shot.
Craig: I believe people went to prison for that.
John: All right. Quite related, last week on the show we were talking about the potential for an IATSE strike. So we recorded our three scenarios for like oh there was a deal reached, so we didn’t record the fourth scenario which was like there’s a deal reached but some people are not especially happy about this deal.
Craig: Oh. That was folded into the scenario of there is a deal reached because that’s always true.
John: That’s true. There’s always going to be people who are not especially happy. I think I was surprised by the amount of IATSE members I heard talking afterwards about sort of, ah, this deal is not what we want it to be. The belief that IATSE caved too soon on things. We’ll never know what the actual possible deal that could have been reached was. And the details are still kind of coming out even as we’re recording this. We haven’t gotten a full accounting and a full picture of what the important gains were in this.
I do want to say as a podcast that’s been talking a lot about assistant pay and really looking at script coordinators and writer’s assistants, there was real progress made on that front. So the actual minimums that they are getting for that work went up from $17 to $23.50, which is progress, and that is meaningful. A concern would be that if they are not guaranteed the 60 hours they’re normally guaranteed that’s not really increasing their take home pay. So that’s going to be a thing to keep watching for is making sure they’re still being able to bill the same number of hours. But that’s progress and that’s progress at the lowest rung there, so that’s potentially really good.
Craig: Yeah. It’s hard to say what the full picture of the reaction is. We won’t know until they take their vote. The people who are unhappy will always be rather vocal about it. And social media tends to distort these things.
Craig: So it’s hard to tell. We will know when the vote happens. I would imagine it will be a yes by 85% or something like this.
John: And Craig you’ve seen that it’s not a straight normal vote. Each local is voting and it’s all added up together. So it’s a whole crazy parliamentary procedure. Actually like Electoral College basically voting system.
Craig: Right. So just sort of apply my 85% to the byzantine method. That’s a general sense of things. I think generally people will vote yes. Certainly as an overall union my mind would be blown if it came back no. And a lot of what happened was just trying to get everybody together on the same line. I mean, a lot of people already have the 10-hour turnaround, but some people didn’t. Now they all have it.
There’s been a lot made of the raises in relation to inflation. So inflation has been rolling along at like 1 or 2% for a long time, so the raises that we’ve been getting have been outstripping inflation, or outpacing inflation I should say. But we’ve had a spike in inflation this year where it’s hovering around 5%. So there is some concern that that kind of wage increase isn’t going to be enough. And that may be true. We have to kind of see. It’s too early to tell if we’re on an inflationary trend or not. Although, given the amount of money that the government has been spending it’s quite possible that it has all finally caught up to us. It’s been going on for quite some time. And that’s not like our rate is going to go lower.
So, it will be interesting to see what happens there. Overall IATSE wanted some things and they got some things. The most important thing they got I think out of all of this is a credible strike threat.
John: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s one of those classic examples of like, you know, by using power you gain power. And they actually were able to show that they could hold together and get the massive strike authorization vote and they had a union that was willing to go on strike for an important thing.
John: Gives them leverage in the next negotiation and the next negotiation after that. So I think it’s an important gain on those fronts.
Speaking of numbers, we actually got an important change. So Craig, Netflix listened to you and they’ve decided to change how they measure title views.
Craig: [laughs] Clearly.
John: Because that was your concern that you thought that the two minute rule was silly.
Craig: Was stupid. Yeah.
John: And so they announced this past week they’re going to change and talking more about total hours viewed for a title and for a program.
Craig: It is a little weird. I was like I’d like to ask Ted Sarandos why he thinks this two minute standard isn’t an embarrassment for his company. And days later they change it. Now, obviously it has nothing to do with us. I just like it.
So share the total hours watched for any given title. Congratulations Netflix. You’ve come up with another misleading statistic to lay upon us all. Because hours viewed, certainly it’s better. So their letter to their shareholders it says, “We think engagement is measured by hours viewed is a slightly better indicator than two minutes.”
John: Yeah. [laughs] Well, Craig, let’s ask the question then. So what do you think is the actual – what should count as a view for you? In the Craig Mazin universe, when you get the big CEO company?
Craig: And they can track everything. If somebody has watched let’s say more than 75% of an episode of television or a movie they’ve watched it. That’s it. They watched it. And what they’re doing now is they’re larding it all with people who rewatch things.
John: For a subscription service rewatching is great because it means that you’re still staying engaged with that program. That you want to keep up that service because you love watching Friends again. And you’ll watch it again and again.
Craig: I guess that’s helpful internally for them to know that you’re the sort of person that rewatches Friends over and over. But if somebody watches the same movie 12 times I don’t know how much benefit that is to them, as opposed to new things. Now, people can argue about that. Regardless, they’re still avoiding, conspicuously avoiding, the way everybody else does stuff which is did they watch it or not. Yes or no. This is how many people watched this show. Not this is how many hours were spent watching a show.
So, I got to tell you I just feel like they just keep avoiding the obvious thing. We all know what it means to say, hey, have you seen Squid Game? Yes, I have seen it. Really, how many times have you seen it? That’s what I want to know.
John: OK, well that’s a fair question then. So how much of Squid Game do you have to have watched in order to say you’ve watched Squid Game? If you watched the first episode have you watched Squid Game? Or do you need to watch more than half the episodes? What’s the criteria?
Craig: The traditional way you do it is you say I’ve watched episode one and episode two. Or I have watched all of the episodes. So when a broadcaster or streamer puts numbers up they’re like this is how many people watched the first episode of such and such. This is how many total viewers we had for the run of the series. This is a very typical thing.
So what they won’t do is – Netflix won’t tell you how many people watched Squid Game, the series, or how many people watched Squid Game episode one. They won’t do it. They’ll tell you how many people watched either two minutes of it or they’ll tell you how many hours of watching occurred. It’s really weird.
John: Yeah. I get that. I get that it’s different. I guess I’m standing up for it in the belief that the traditional way we report like did someone watch that episode of Friends, it was important because we had advertisers who needed to know did somebody actually see my commercial. That’s actually less important now. And so while I get the sense of like you want to be able to compare apples to apples to things, I just don’t think we’re in an apple universe anymore. I think we’ve moved on. We’re in a whole different orchard. And the traditional measures are just not as useful as they used to be. And so I get why they’re not reporting that.
And I don’t think they’re actually just trying to be shady or hide anything from us. I think it’s actually just not a useful thing for them to be able to say is like this is how many people watched this episode of a thing.
Craig: I will agree to disagree.
John: Which is fine.
Craig: I do think that they are being slightly shady with this.
John: All right.
Craig: I do.
John: We’ll see.
Craig: But they are being vastly less shady than they were when they said if your eyeballs slid gently across your television screen as you walked from the kitchen to the bathroom you watched that show. This is vastly better than that.
John: We have a good follow up question from Matt. He writes, “What’s the difference between you too giving a script three pages and viewers and giving a show two minutes, asides approximately one minute? Just seems like short amount of time for both to come to a conclusion.”
Craig: Oh, that’s a – I would love to answer that question. Would you like to know Matt? The difference is we don’t charge you. That’s the difference. Matt, you’re not paying to hear us talk about the three pages. We’re not a paid service. So we do whatever the hell we want. We don’t have time to do all that stuff. That’s not our job.
John: I have a different answer. I think if I read three pages of a script I wouldn’t say I’d read the script. I would say I read three pages. But in reading those three pages I have made a decision whether I’m going to read more than three pages. And so it sort of is like in some ways tuning into that Netflix show and it’s like watching three minutes and deciding like, meh, I don’t want to watch it. And I think what we’re arguing is if I bail on that Netflix show after three minutes, Netflix you really shouldn’t count that as a view. You should count that as someone that is like, meh, this is not for me. Which is really the same experience of reading three pages of a script. Is this for me? Is this not for me? Do I get it? Do I want to read more?
So, it’s a sampler. And I don’t think it’s enough to call that a read or call that a view. Fair? Craig, why don’t you ask the next question?
Craig: Margaret tells us, oh, this is not a question. This is a statement. Margaret has stated, “There’s no such thing as bragging too much about kidney donation. I’m writing in because your discussion of the bad art friend kidney story missed a lot of the details that came out later that the New York Times story obscured probably to make both sides seem equally bad. Kidney donors are actively asked to promote their donations to encourage other donors. You can think that Dawn was needy and cringey, etc. but lambasting her for bragging too much about her kidney donation is actively harmful. From my sense of your values I don’t think you’d want to be part of discouraging non-directed donors that inspire kidney donor chains. Here’s an article. There’s no such thing as bragging too much about a kidney donation.” And then there’s a link to an article at Slate.
John, what is your response to this?
John: So my response is OK I get that. I get the point that you talk about your kidney donation to encourage other people to donate, to normalize it, and I think on the show you and I have done a lot of talking about bone marrow donation and bone marrow registry in part to sort of normalize it and get people thinking about it.
John: Yeah. So yes I get that. And we should not overlook that as a thing. It didn’t come up in the original article so thank you for bringing it to our donation. Can something be a societal good and be cringey and annoying individually? Yes. And that’s sort of a truism that is useful for writers to be thinking about. That someone could be doing the right things and still be cringey.
Craig: Margaret, there is such a thing as bragging too much about a kidney donation and it has nothing to do with inspiring kidney donation or uninspiring people. Anybody that is sitting around going I’m thinking about donating a kidney but mostly because I get to brag for the next year. I just don’t think those people exist except maybe Dawn. First of all, the way to brag excessively about a kidney donation is saying that you’ve donated your third kidney. That is one kidney too many.
I think that the issue wasn’t so much that she was bragging. She set up a page and said look what I did and that to me was promotional. And hopefully inspirational to people. The problem that we had I think was that she was sending follow up emails to people saying I noticed you haven’t thanked me or acknowledged me and my kidney donation, you haven’t praised me for my kidney donation. That’s just thirsty and it has nothing to do with kidney donations.
So I think that this is a little perhaps overstated Margaret. Of course we are fully in support of organ donation. I have been a registered organ donor with my driver’s license since 1988. And we do promote and I have promoted Bethematch.com a million times. Honestly I’m not sure how I feel about just voluntarily pulling a kidney out. That’s a whole bioethical discussion that we can have on a different podcast called What Do I Do About My Kidneys. But I think maybe when you say that what we did was actively harmful is abusing the words actively and potentially also the word harmful.
John: Craig, a question. You are more the medical expert on the show. Of the two of us, or even the three of us, you’re the medical expert, although Megana–
Craig: I’m an unregistered doctor.
John: Megana’s family is actually all doctors. But you’re on the show.
Craig: It’s just that they’re licensed, I’m not. That’s the only difference.
John: That’s the only difference.
John: My question is I know that the kidneys are involved in producing urine and doing all the good stuff to get the toxins out of your body. And I wonder if her thirstiness may come from having lost the kidney she’s actually thirstier now and that’s why she was thirsty for praise?
Craig: [laughs] That is potentially, possibly true. That’s really good. Yes. Everything you just said is correct. Yes, the kidneys are involved in the formation of urine. And they also send out a lot of hormones. They control and do all sorts of fascinating things. Filtering of blood of so on is mostly the liver, but yeah your kidneys are connected to your thirstiness. No question. And your blood pressure.
John: And also this past week it was announced that the first pig kidney transplant happened. And so that’s exciting, too. So another option for trans-genetic. Trans-species organ donation? You can’t really call it donation because the pig didn’t want to donate the kidney. But still promising. Love that.
Craig: I have so much anger towards the kosher rules of my religion, of my [unintelligible] religion, that I will perhaps voluntarily receive a pig kidney just to say I have it.
John: You don’t need a kidney. You just want an extra one inside you.
Craig: I want a third kidney.
John: Yeah. It’s just better.
Craig: It’s better.
John: And then you could donate one and it would work out well for everybody.
Craig: Not the pig one.
John: One of our marquee topics this week is on natural structures. And this idea came to us from Chris Csont. He writes the Inneresting newsletter. And his newsletter this past week was about there are so many real life events that happen that have a natural order and a structure to them that can be really helpful in terms of the stories that we’re writing. So when we had Aline Brosh McKenna many episodes ago – she’s been on so many episodes – but there’s one episode where we talked about the structure of weddings and how there’s just so many events that lead up to a wedding and all the discreet moments that happen in this specific order. That can be a really helpful framework for your movie.
But that’s not the only thing out there. So some of the other examples that we were talking through, every sporting event has an order to it. Not just the game itself, but prepping for the game, what happens after the game. Diseases tend to have a very natural order. We sort of know what the progress of diseases are. School years. Seasons. Anything that is a production we sort of know the framework of how we get from this place to that place. Camp has an order, a structure. Prom. Any bet, when you sort of make a bet you know there’s going to be a payoff to that bet. So I wanted to talk a little bit about sort of natural structures and ways to think about them and how they can be useful for our storytelling purposes.
Craig: Well that’s a great idea. It’s incredibly useful. You know when you’re building plots that don’t have we’ll call it a built-in plot like one of these you have a lot of stuff to figure out. When you have one of these things sometimes the hardest thing to figure out is how to just not do the obvious things that this thing is demanding you do, like a wedding. The wedding process is incredibly structured by culture. If we’re talking about American culture there is a proposal, and then there’s a bachelor party, and there’s a bridal shower, and then there’s the planning of the wedding, and then there’s the wedding itself and then there’s the night of the wedding, then there’s the honeymoon. It’s like blerg-blerg-blerg-blerg.
You have a wealth of things telling you here’s what you need to do and it has to happen roughly within the next five or six pages or so. And it can be incredibly relaxing, but also a touch confining.
John: Absolutely. It can be a straitjacket because you can’t sort of like go off and do this other thing because you know this next thing has to happen. Craig, 20 years into my writing career I’ve never written a wedding and the thing I’m working on right now has a wedding in it. I’m very excited for the natural structural things that happen with a wedding. And just the fact that the audience can anticipate what’s going to happen and I don’t have to tell them. It’s so nice.
Craig: Can I tell you, I’ve been doing this so long that I just asked myself the question have you ever written a wedding scene. And the answer is maybe? I literally can’t remember.
John: The Hangover movies you worked on, did either of them have a wedding in it?
Craig: Oh, yes, of course. Duh. There we go. OK, there’s your answer. So there was a wedding in The Hangover Part 2 and so there was a bachelor party, there was a reception dinner, there was a wedding at which Mike Tyson. Yeah, so I have worked on a wedding. You know, I wrote my first sex scene ever.
Craig: Yeah. I’ve never written one.
John: You liked it.
John: Not counting Charlie’s Angels, which sort of has a sex scene but not really a sex scene, have I written an actual sex scene? Maybe I haven’t. Weird.
Craig: This is how long we’ve been doing it. We can’t – there’s no way you can remember all. If you saw all of the stuff you’ve written that has been on the screen–
John: Oh, I remember a sex scene now I did. But it hasn’t filmed. That’s what it is. I wrote a sex scene that hasn’t filmed so it doesn’t count.
Craig: That’s just writing porn, John, for yourself.
John: That’s what it is. Absolutely. It was on my Wattpad.
Craig: Oh god. Is that still a thing? Is Wattpad still happening?
John: It still is a thing that is happening. It’s a lot of fan fiction and indie fiction is happening there.
Craig: All right. Anyway, back to this topic. So, all the ones you’ve listed are incredibly useful. The trick of them is to find a way to do them as I said that’s somewhat original. Now what you can sometimes do is if you’re dealing with plot, your story isn’t one of these things. You can borrow a kind of a structure and see if you maybe can make it analogous.
Craig: If you have a story where you have some adventure exploring a new planet can you ask yourself is there a way to lay over the feeling of the big game onto this. Or summer camp? And use that strangely as a guide. It might help.
John: Absolutely. So you look at Rogue One which is structured kind of like a heist film.
John: We sort of know what the structural beats are of a heist film. And so we don’t have to do all the work of setting it up. You can build your story into a framework that makes sense. Let’s take a step back and think about what we mean by structure. Structure is when things happen. It’s the sequence, the order of events of your story. It is sort of the how we’re getting from this place to that place.
And part of structure tends to be letting the audience know kind of what to expect and what the characters are trying to do, what they hope to achieve, when they hope things are going to happen. So when you have characters saying like I’ll see you next week we have an expectation as an audience like, oh, we’re going to file that. At some point there’s going to be a next week and they’re going to see these characters again. If we see a character going into an office, they’re going to the office every day, we have an expectation like, oh, we’re going to come back to this set again because this is the normal, this is sort of how our story is going to work. And same if you set a story at Christmas time. We have an expectation we will get to Christmas. It’s very likely that there will be a Christmas celebration at some point because you’ve established this is the kind of story in which Christmas will happen.
So, always remember that the audience is looking for a structure. And they’re going to try to find one. And if you can make it very easy for them your job is much simpler down the road.
Craig: Yeah. They’re also going to punish you if you don’t deliver certain things. If you are making a Christmas movie you have to have Christmas. You have to have Christmas morning. You have to have the gifts. There has to be some sense of connection to Christmas spirit. That means redemption, forgiveness, family togetherness, all the things that I hate the most in life. You can’t not deliver on that unless you right off the bat are like this is an anti-Christmas. Even if you were doing an ant-Christmas film it’s still going to end up there. That’s sort of the point of those things.
You know what? Megana, you were talking about Bollywood the other day. The big Bollywood musical, does it have a typical formula that would be easy to follow? If I watch 15 of the best Bollywood movies am I going to see certain elements repeating over and over? Or is it really just more like OK that’s a musical genre that any of these things could also be shoved into?
Megana Rao: Yeah, I would say the classic structure of a Bollywood film is that the two main characters meet in act one at a wedding and then there’s this big set piece of them seeing each other, meeting. And then the central conflict is that one of those characters is betrothed and already in the process of having an arranged marriage. So the sort of natural structure in Bollywood is usually that character’s upcoming wedding and whether they’ll go through with it or not. So, it’s just a lot of wedding in a Bollywood movie.
Craig: So Four Weddings and a Funeral in Bollywood is like 80 Weddings and 12 Funerals?
Craig: I would actually watch that.
John: Yeah. The math works. You can see how it all happens. And what you’re describing is classically how a Bollywood movie works. And we should take a moment to think about natural structure as it applies to a film which is a one-time journey for a character or for a group of characters, versus a TV series which is generally the same kind of cycle happens again and again and again. And so a Christmas episode of The Office is a particular moment in those characters’ relationships. But it’s not going to have to be transformative, versus in a movie it will need to be a transformative journey. So we start one place and we come out to a completely new place at the end.
And so it’s a matter of matching what the overall needs of that genre are. Is this Christmas story going to be a complete transformation of a character by the end? They start at one moment and they come out a completely different character. Or is it going to be just like a reason for these characters to do Christmas-y things in the classic framework of that TV show?
Craig: And traditionally it’s the latter. So you don’t want your characters changing too much on shows that are meant to propel themselves forward year after year, like typical sitcoms, like Parks and Rec and things like that. You will have these episodes that engage in these kind of structural tropes but a lot of times it’s about the people who aren’t directly engaged. If you make a movie about baseball you need to focus typically on the baseball players and the big game at the end and who wins and who loses and how do you define winning and losing and all that. And if you’re doing a television show and everybody goes to the office picnic to play the office softball game it’s more about the people who aren’t particularly good at it and who don’t want to be there. And really the outcome of the game is utterly irrelevant because we understand that as soon as the episode ends everybody resets and goes right back to the who they were before the episode started.
John: We’ll also put a link in the show notes to a GQ article by James Grebey about why aren’t there more Thanksgiving movies, which is a good question to ask because we have so many, so many, so many Christmas movies, and Thanksgiving does not seem to have very many of them. Yes, there are a few which are generally about the road trip to get back to Thanksgiving, or everyone coming back to this house. I think his argument is that while we know how Thanksgiving works there aren’t enough beats to Thanksgiving. And there aren’t enough characters around Thanksgiving. It’s just sort of it’s a moment in time. It’s a meal. But it’s not actually – there aren’t enough discreet events around it as opposed to there’s all the traditions of Christmas that you can sort of build into. Or New Year’s, there’s all the stuff that goes around New Year’s. There’s just not that for Thanksgiving.
Craig: Yeah. And also nothing really happens on Thanksgiving. You just eat. Even on Halloween you dress up and you go out and you trick or treat and there’s I hate to say it an entire Spooky Season now.
John: Yes, there is. A whole Spooky Season.
Craig: So angry. It’s my Angry Season. I walked into CVS the other day and I’m like, ugh, Megana. [laughs] It’s happening.
Megana: Well I’m furious because they’ve already started putting out Christmas stuff.
Craig: Because they’ve got to get ready for a real holiday. You know, when god was born. Oh boy. Anyway, it’s ridiculous. So, there is a day, a single day. The day before Thanksgiving is meaningless, so there’s no Thanksgiving Eve. The day after Thanksgiving is meaningless. That’s just I don’t feel so good day. And then Thanksgiving itself is just a lot of cooking and eating.
John: But there’s so many Thanksgiving episodes of TV shows for exactly that same reason because it’s just one moment.
John: And so it’s everyone coming together. It’s a good excuse for all of your characters to come together to have a disaster trying to make the turkey.
John: And then watch the football games.
Craig: That’s exactly right. And then everybody goes back to exactly who they were before that. The Thanksgiving story itself has I think at this point crossed into deep problematic-ville. Yeah, we’re celebrating a holiday where people helped us and then we leave off the part where then we murdered all of them. So, America.
John: I still very much like this idea of Thanksgiving. I like the idea of taking a day to sort of be thankful for everything we have. I think we just need to maybe divorce it from the mythology of pilgrims and Native Americans all coming together. Because even if a meal happened it was not indicative of the overall experience.
Craig: And also nobody is giving thanks for anything on Thanksgiving. Legitimately.
John: I’m giving thanks. My family.
Craig: Sure. You guys do the thing. But I’m saying 98% of American families are watching football, eating too much, and yelling at each other.
John: Megana makes an absolutely amazing mac and cheese and green beans for Thanksgiving. And that’s why I love it so much.
Craig: That’s it?
John: Oh, those are two highlights of a Thanksgiving meal for me are Megana’s dishes.
Craig: Maybe I’ll steal Megana. I’ll steal her.
Megana: I can make enough green bean casserole for everyone.
Craig: It’s not the casserole Megana. It’s you. If one year John is like, oh, it’s Thanksgiving and you’re like, oh, oh my god I can’t make it this year, I’m so sorry. And then the next week I’m like, ugh, what a Thanksgiving I had.
John: [laughs] Megana cheated on me with Craig.
Craig: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. All right, I’ll work it out offline.
John: All right. The other topic I wanted to get into this week, this is based on an email that Megana and I got this past week. It was a real life person because we can actually apply what we learned from this email to many fictional characters is blind spots. And the person who wrote this letter clearly had a giant blind spot about sort of her place and her career and sort of things that were going on around her which we can very clearly see because we had eyes. And yet blind spots while frustrating for real life people are so helpful for our characters. And we think about the characters we use especially in movies, but also in TV as well, they tend to have these giant blind spots and through the course of the movie is getting them to see their blind spots, or in the course of a TV show like Michael Scott is him never actually acknowledging or having the insight to see his blind spots.
So I want to talk a little bit about blind spots today. And metaphorically we can talk about blind spots while driving which is that part, that space that you can’t see over your shoulder. On a strictly physical level it’s that space in your eye that actually gets no signal and so therefore your brain fills in the details and you don’t realize what you’re not seeing.
Craig: And do you know why that space is there, John?
John: Because it’s where the nerve connects, right?
Craig: Yes. Yes! Yes!
John: You’re so excited so that I have some basic – I remember that from like seventh grade biology.
Craig: Yes. It’s important that we retain these things.
John: But I also knew the APA definition of blind spot which I thought was actually great and very useful for our characters. They define it as a lack of insight or awareness, often persistent, about a specific area of one’s behavior or personality. Typically because recognition of one’s true feelings and motives would be painful. This is regarded as a defense against recognition of repressed impulses or memories that would threaten the patient’s ego.
John: I like it.
Craig: I think typically because recognition of one’s true feelings and motives would be painful is the part people could argue with. There are a lot of people who can’t see a certain aspect of who they are because they can’t see a fake aspect of who they are. The brain has trouble examining itself the way a microscope has trouble microscoping itself. And so I think for some people they’re missing these things because they just don’t realize. They just don’t hear it the way other people hear it. Somebody mentioned to me, and we all have phrases and things that we say all the time, and we’re not aware of them ourselves.
So Neil Druckmann the other day said, “You know, I’ve started saying correct like you. It’s really annoying.” And I said what do you mean. And he said you say correct all the time. And I’ve now started – I hear myself now saying correct. And I’m like I say correct. Really?
John: You do.
Craig: Apparently I do all the time. And now I hear myself saying it. So, after that I would say correct, oh fudge. It’s happening. But until it was pointed out to me I was not repressing anything. It wasn’t painful. I just didn’t see it. I wasn’t aware of it.
John: Craig, how much do you know about EST and the movement of sort of like because it’s kind of anti-self-help? My recollection of sort of people talking about it was that you go into a group setting and people just point out all your flaws to you and that is a way of helping you get past them, but also just breaking you down. What’s your relationship with that philosophy?
Craig: I hate it. EST was started by a guy named Warner Erhard who was a car salesman and an asshole. And it became a cult. And it got reformulated and repackaged into something called the Landmark Forum.
John: That’s right.
Craig: And Landmark Forum – there were some people I knew that were pushing the Landmark Forum pretty hard on me in the early 2000s or late 1990s. And they were like you’ve got to go, you’ve got to do it, and it’s free the first time. And I’m like then what happens? And how much do you pay for it? And then they would tell me and I’m like I’m not doing that. And they’re like but it changes your life. And I’m like I don’t agree. I can just tell you that if it truly changed your life everybody would be doing this and there would be a large company doing it.
It’s the same thing when people come to you and they’re like did you hear colloidal silver will cure Covid.
John: Ha-ha. Yeah.
Craig: No it won’t. Because if it did Merck would be selling colloidal silver. There are companies much larger than people who chase the money. So anyway EST, no. I don’t believe in tearing people down. I don’t believe in that. I think that that’s harmful.
John: I think the reason why it is successful to get people through the door and get them coming back the second time is it’s doing that thing where it’s pointing out to people things that they don’t see about themselves. And the fact that any mirror you look into is not an accurate reflection of you are and it’s not showing you how other people see you. And that really I think is inherent to that idea of blind spots is that you have an overconfidence of who you are and how you’re presenting yourself out there in the world. And so often I think we think about character flaws as being insecurities, that people are afraid to do things, but honestly overconfidence can be a really useful trait in our characters to let them go off into the world, explore, and get knocked down and get back up again.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I think about how I wrote Melissa McCarthy’s character in Identity Thief was she was brutally over-secure.
Craig: She knew there was something wrong, was not going to look at it, and instead was going to paper over all of that with this other behavior. And she had a kind of moral certainty that if she wanted to do it then it was good to do. It was fine to do. And I find that characters with these very big, broad blind spots tend to be funny. They tend to work best in comedies. When characters cannot see things in dramas it’s very sad but you almost start to minimize their role in a drama because you can almost put that chess piece aside and say they are no longer capable of dealing with the drama we need to engage in because they’ve lost it.
John: So let’s talk about comedy and blind spots, because that’s a very natural fit. I’ve brought up The Office several times. Michael Scott thinks that everyone loves him and he needs them to love him and he doesn’t realize the degree to which his neediness is actually pushing people away and is the source of why people are so frustrated with him. That’s a great character with a great blind spot that he never actually gets over. He’s never going to actually achieve the insight that would let him move past that. He makes little nibbles at the edges, but he is never going to fundamentally get past that.
The characters on Succession. You can argue whether Succession is a comedy or a drama. They’re like fish swimming in the water and have no idea that there’s water around them. They just don’t understand sort of how toxic and dangerous they are to themselves and everybody else around them.
I Love Lucy. She always wants to be the center of the action. Every week she is getting herself into trouble because she just has this overconfidence that she’s going to be able to pull this thing off. And then every rom com, like Clueless which we talked about on the show, Cher cannot see that her actual real love interest is just in her blind spot. And that’s probably every rom com.
Craig: Is her much older step-brother. [laughs]
John: Yes. Her much older step-brother is the one she should be crushing on.
Craig: Oh boy. I think that when we present these things in comedies it’s very helpful for a lot of people, particularly people who are neuro-atypical, because it helps them see the other side of the conversation they never otherwise get to see. They get to see the way people talk about other people behind their backs. And this is very hard for a lot of people who are on the autism spectrum to process. Putting themselves in someone else’s shoes and seeing how things would look or feel from their perspective. So there’s a usefulness to this, to see how things might go wrong or bad, and perhaps then adjust – even if you’re adjusting somewhat synthetically and not naturally, there’s good training there.
I remember feeling like I was learning from watching shows where somebody would say something, like Three’s Company. So in Three’s Company Mr. Roper would walk in, played by Don Knotts, and he would say some ridiculous stuff, and basically all the stuff was like I’m sexy, I’m a crazy swinging bachelor. And then he would leave and then all the twenty-somethings were like blech. And I would think, ah-ha, I don’t want to be like that guy. I don’t want to be the person who leaves the room and everyone goes blech.
John: And when you leave the room no goes blech. They might talk about other things that they find frustrating and annoying, but no one is going blech. No one is thinking oh my god that Craig is a letch who keeps trying to be a swinging bachelor.
Craig: Yes. They don’t do that.
John: No one is saying that about you, Craig.
Craig: Good. I think they might say he’s an infuriating human being, but at that point as I’m walking away I’m thinking I’m an infuriating human being. I mean, I know what I’m doing, mostly.
John: Absolutely. Mostly.
John: We’re talking about Three’s Company and sort of the comedy blind-spotting, and Don Knott’s character in that is such a great example of like no self-awareness, but in drama it’s a little bit tougher. And so Megana and I were trying to think of examples. I was thinking about Queen Elizabeth in The Crown in that she actually seems to be aware that she cannot feel emotions or sort of project emotions that she should be able to do it. And the tragedy is that she kind of recognizes the things she should be able to do that she can’t do it and she’s frustrated. But her frustration is not actually getting her any closer to being able to do this thing that she feels she has to do, which is to feel the emotions of the nation.
Craig: You know, to me it feels like that might be more of the frustration of not having a blind spot, but not having ability. I know, I can see I need to do this. I just can’t.
John: Yeah. And that’s a very good point because I was trying to think about it for Big Fish as well, because both of the central characters in Big Fish, the father and the son, Edward and Will, both of them recognize that they kind of need to get over their frustrations with each other and we as the audience see they do, but they actually just don’t have the ability to do it. They literally don’t have the mechanisms to get past those things. So everyone around is like just get over it and they can’t.
Craig: Yeah. Like I said in drama watching somebody who is steeped in steady denial, who is incapable of accepting any other truth at some point they marginalize themselves from the story. They are no longer relevant because they’re not going to change, they’re not going to admit anything, and they become less and less integrated into the task at hand. It’s a sad thing. Usually it’s sad. We feel for that character. Whereas in comedy we laugh at them and make fun of them, in drama we accept them as just so hurt they can’t handle this.
John: I can also think of some villains in dramas that really if you were to dig down essentially they have a blind spot. They basically cannot see that in attempting to achieve one goal they are ruining everything else. And that is an example of a blind spot, too. They don’t recognize the consequences of their actions or that what they’re trying to do is going to have those negative impacts that we can clearly see.
Craig: But you know what they do recognize almost always?
John: Tell me.
Craig: Is that you and I are not so different after all.
John: Funny that way. That does happen quite a lot. And I’m trying to remember what the wording was in the most recent Bond movie, but it got really close to that at the end. It was a little bit…
Craig: You and I, we have so much in common. They’re now just avoiding saying you and I we’re not so different after all.
John: Lastly I want to bring up that it’s not just characters that can have blind spots. It can be whole organizations that have a blind spot. So Titanic, the blind spot is that it’s unsinkable. It’s just an unsinkable ship. It can’t possibly sink. And of course that’s going to happen. It’s a structural blind spot.
Chernobyl, that false confidence that like the system will figure it out. This cannot actually happen at one of these facilities. This meltdown would be impossible. It’s overconfidence.
Craig: Yes. And organizations who have that kind of overconfidence are usually represented by a kind of stonewalling attitude. It’s something that you establish and then get back to the people who are not overconfident and who are trying to fix it. Those people are just more interesting than the people who keep saying, nope, everything is fine.
John: Yeah. Megana, yes?
Megana: So would you agree that in a comedy the audience is ahead of the character’s blind spot? And in a drama the character is ahead of the audience?
Craig: That’s interesting.
John: That is really interesting. I absolutely agree with the first part. I think in a comedy we as the audience see the character’s blind spot pretty clearly pretty early on because that’s a source of a lot of the comedy. In the second example if it’s a character’s blind spot or even an organization’s blind spot maybe we do delay that and we discover it with our central character. That we expose the blind spot.
Megana: Or maybe it’s heartbreaking that they are aware of their blind spot but can’t overcome it.
John: I feel like if a character is aware of their blind spot in some ways they are – it’s not really a blind spot anymore. It’s a spot they recognize they’re not seeing properly and maybe they’re looking for an alternative way of dealing with it. What do you think, Craig?
Craig: I think that in general Megana your structure sounds right. Comedic characters, we laugh at them because we know way more than they do. We know how ridiculous they sound and look and act. And also we get access to people talking about them. In drama having somebody behave in a certain way and having us wonder why and then we discover why. And then we realize, oh, they have a terrible blind spot because of X, Y, or Z. That is pretty typical. So, yeah, I kind of like the way you phrased it.
John: And another thing I think this phrasing brings up is that it can be so tempting to have supporting characters have blind spots because that makes them funny. And I think you can run into that classic problem where the supporting characters are more interesting than you’re central character because your central character is too perfect. And so be looking for ways that your central character can have the blind spot and be the source of the comedy or the drama because of their lack of understand versus putting it all off on the supporting characters.
John: Cool. Thank you for that. I think it is time for our One Cool Things.
John: My One Cool Thing is about blind spots I think as well. It’s The Premise by BJ Novak.
Craig: Never heard of him.
John: He’s a guest on the show. We’ve done so many episodes of the show you wouldn’t remember that he’s ever been on the show.
Craig: What show was he on?
John: He was on one of our live shows I know for sure. I remember him being on stage with us.
Craig: No. No. No. [laughs] I love BJ. He’s the best.
John: He has a five-episode series. And what is five episodes? That’s a crazy number of episodes. It doesn’t make sense.
Craig: I disagree.
John: I guess Chernobyl did it. Maybe he’s trying to pull a Mazin and do five episodes.
John: They’re five short episodes though. They’re about half an hour long. It’s on FX on Hulu, so it’s basically Hulu in the US. I’ve watched two of the five. I really enjoyed both of them. The first episode I watched was about a sex tape and racial justice and it was very, very funny. The second episode I watched was the final of the five called Butt Plug and it was about sort of this long childhood bet. And the way it kept going back and forth I thought was just terrific.
I think what I like most about this series is that it’s kind of like nothing else. It just feels like short stories that are filmed. Completely an anthology. There’s no series connections behind anything at all. But I just really loved it. And there’s just nothing else like it on TV. So, check out The Premise by BJ Novak.
Craig: Awesome. My One Cool Thing this week is an article in the New York Times, an opinion piece, written by Peter Coy and it is entitled College Degrees Are Overrated.
John: I can’t believe you posted this for us.
Craig: If you designed it in a lab you would have a hard time coming out with a better headline that would attract me than College Degrees Are Overrated. What he specifically gets into is the impact that college degrees have in the workforce. And this is why people essentially are told to go to college. They’re told to go to college largely so that you can get a well-paying job of your choice I suppose.
And what they have kind of found is that the idea of college degrees as a screening criterion is damaging. Because when you open up your process to look for somebody to hire for a specific job the screening of must have a college degree immediately eliminates a lot of people that would probably be better than the people that you’re going to get. Not all the people will be better than the people you’re going to get, but you’re losing people that are good. And for no good reason at all. You’ve just hit the wrong filter because college degree doesn’t say much of anything.
He’s written another article called Demanding a Bachelor’s Degree for a Middle Skilled Job is Just Plain Dumb. Correct. In fact, a lot of companies would be better served by simply promoting from within regardless of that person’s level of formal education because those people know the system, know the company, know the products or the methods, and have learned a lot of things and have already proved they can work with everybody.
The notion that we attach status to a Bachelor’s Degree is corrosive to our society and it is corrosive to people who don’t go to colleges, or who couldn’t afford to go to colleges, and for everybody else it is ladening them with debt that doesn’t actually convert. He talks to one person who talks about how his father didn’t have a college degree but was hired by a company called Detroit Edison and as he says that’s where our family’s trajectory into the American middle class began. And so this he’s talking by Byron Auguste, not August, but Auguste – much better name. You should switch over. And Byron Auguste whose dad left a job on a shipping dock to study computer programming and got hired, even though he didn’t have a college degree, had a son and Byron, his son, got a Bachelor’s Degree from Yale and a Doctorate in Economics from the University of Oxford and then eventually worked for President Barack Obama as Deputy Assistant to the President for Economic Policy.
We don’t get there if originally Detroit Edison says, “Meh, no college degree, no. We don’t care if you’re good at computer programming. Even though we’re hiring you for computer programming.” So this is its own little mini bonus episode. I think I’ve done it before. I’ll keep doing it again. We have to just stop this nonsense. Companies need to look at the skills that they require for a job and then look at the skills the applicants have. That’s the way to go.
John: So Craig I put another piece of bait in the Workflowy there for you. This is a piece done by Flourish and basically they’ve looked at 30,000 people with Bachelor’s degrees and looked at the return on investment for those Bachelor degrees from different universities and for different degrees.
Craig: Oh wow. That’s a whole lot of negatives. Woo.
Craig: Oh my god.
John: So I’ve just ruined the rest of your day because you’re going to spend a lot of time probably digging through that and looking for – so you can search for your actual degree that you got from Princeton and see what the return on investment was for that.
Clearly there was a time where you could say like a person with a Bachelor’s degree earns this much more money. And that was probably true. All the other biases were sort of a part of that, too. It’s like the people who could afford Bachelor’s degrees were going to make more money anyway. It’s not so clear now. And I think people really need to be thinking about whether it makes sense for them to get this degree, but also especially when you’re hiring do you need to have a person with a degree in that job. Because there are people who work for me who do not have college degrees who are invaluable and just terrific. So I think we need to move past our conceptions about a college degree being required.
Craig: Yes. Let’s leave the certification Ponzi scheme behind.
John: All right. 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 Ryan. 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 Craig is @clmazin sometimes. And I am @johnaugust.
We have t-shirts and they’re great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you find the transcripts. And you can 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 bonus segments like the one we’re about to record on structuring your free time and work/life balance, which is not a thing we have.
Craig, Megana, thank you so much.
Megana: Thank you.
Craig: Thanks John.
John: All right, Megana, start us off. You have a question here to kick off our conversation.
Megana: Yes. So Ted asks, “How do you balance your work and personal lives? In addition to writing, Craig plays videogames and does his crosswords. John watches movies, TV, and reads books. You both play D&D. You both have families with kids, participate in speaking events, and give your time to charity. How on earth do you do all of that and still focus your mind to write and do it well? What advice can you give writers to better structure their days? I’m specifically interested in knowing what your day to day looks like.”
John: So as I said in the setup for this we are recording this on a Sunday because both of us were too busy to record on a normal weekday.
I don’t know that I have terrific work/life balance. I guess having a family forces me into a little bit more of a schedule, so I can’t work all the time. But Craig you are so busy right now. So do you feel like you have any work/life balance?
Craig: Well yeah, I have a balance. Is it a good balance?
John: Is it healthy?
Craig: You know, I find that it’s not so much the time. I mean, things like production are extraordinary and you’re not in production all the time if you’re a writer. If you’re a first AD, oh boy, you sure are. If you’re working on a crew you’re in production all the time. That is a question I’d like to ask those folks how they manage these things. But for us when we’re not in those crazy periods I think after all these years the answer is I don’t think about it.
What happens is at some point there’s something in me that says you’re in trouble. You have to write. I don’t know what you call that. Super ego? Whatever it is, my need to please or just my need to accomplish something, but at some point something happens and I say I cannot, absolutely cannot do this nonsense.
There are also times where I say I’m doing nonsense today because I want to. I earned it and I deserve it.
John: And by nonsense you mean like play a videogame and do your crosswords?
Craig: Fun. Exactly. I want fun. I’m being cutesy about nonsense. It’s just as important as everything else. But I want to have fun. I deserve to have fun. If I don’t then what’s the point? I’m not here to fulfill other human being’s demands of me. I’m here to fulfill myself. And I do derive quite a bit of fulfillment from writing. But in the way I derive fulfillment of it.
I will say the most toxic aspect of being a writer is how intrusive it is in your mind. And I find myself on a drive with my wife going somewhere and suddenly it just happens. Like my brain goes wandering into a scene and I figure something out. And then she’s like you’re not – did you hear anything I just said? And I didn’t.
John: And from my experience in television that is much more pervasive, because you’re constantly responsible for keeping that world going in your head 24/7 because you’re always writing new stuff, which is different than a feature which you’re going to be on, but then you’re going to be off and then you’re going to be on and then you’re going to be off. I remember when I was doing my first TV show I was just this giant filtering mechanism. Everything that would come to me like could that be in the show? That song, could that be in the show? I was always gathering for this. And as writers we are always gathering but I think it is especially attenuated when you are doing your job right now.
Craig: Yeah. A lot of what I do, the whole story is laid out, but a lot of what I find myself doing is when I’m not writing is just thinking in the back of my mind I don’t think I have the right opening moment. I don’t know why I don’t like it, but I don’t like it. And until I like it I’m going to be a bit miserable. Because it’s like a thorn in my side that I need to remove and replace.
So the dangerous part for me is less about the time that I spend doing one thing or another, and more about how attentive and present I am at any given point. It’s scary sometimes.
John: Now one of the things I think you and I both do is we prioritize some free time, non-work time. So an example would be D&D. So we’re playing D&D almost every week. That hasn’t always happened because of this, but that’s three to four hours where we are just doing that and 100% of our focus is on that because you’re DMing this and I’m playing and we’re not doing the other stuff. And it’s OK partly because there’s a social contract that we’re going to try to play every week it becomes a priority and we’re not going to sort of bail on it.
So I will even on my daily schedule I’ll try to make sure it’s not just all crap I have to do, but there’s things on that daily schedule of things I want to do. So looking at my list today, I need to watch What We Do in the Shadows. And it’s like do I have to watch it? No, but I really want to watch it. And I want to watch that last episode. So that’s going on the list of like a thing that’s on my daily to do list. And it’s not just work stuff. It’s stuff that is fun for me.
Craig: I think we can lose sight of what brings us joy because writing is a little bit like – it’s the way carbon monoxide can take over all your red blood cells, hijack them. Our red blood cells like carbon monoxide much more than they like oxygen. And that’s why it’ll kill you. And writing in your mind can be a little carbon monoxidic – I just made up a word – because it can just choke out every other interest. The dopamine hit you get from solving a writing problem is really intense. And we have to be careful to not let it just weed through the garden of our life. We have to put it aside at times. And I mean mentally. Because everyone is sitting there going it’s easy for me to not write. Yeah, but is it easy for you to not think about the thing you’re supposed to be writing? Is it easier for you to not think about the characters or the situations or why they aren’t working or what you’re supposed to do? To me that part is the tricky part.
John: Some other useful advice I would offer to Ted who asked the question is having some structure in your life that gets you away from work. And so that could be that you’re going to have dinner with your family every night, which I’m able to do. That you’re going to exercise a certain amount of times per week and that you’re going to prioritize that and you’re not going to bail on those things. Because those are things that keep you present in the actual moment where you’re having to be doing the thing right now and not be off in your head writing that thing or worrying about writing that thing can be super helpful.
And as we said on the show many times don’t expect that you’re going to do eight hours of writing a day. You and I know many writers and very few people are actually writing eight hours a day. That’s just too much for your brain. You’re going to write in blocks and then you’re going to do other stuff. And make sure that the time you’re giving yourself to do other stuff is actually free time where it’s not just that pause. It’s not just the coffee break before you have to go back to it. Let yourself have some joy in those moments as well.
We’re also doing a very solitary job sometimes. Like Craig is there with a crew, but most writers are working by themselves. Make sure you’re finding some time for social interaction with friends and going out to get a drink or do whatever you need to do to get out of your head.
Craig: Megana, you have a writing life and a work life. Let’s hear it.
Megana: Oh, that is true. But I have also spent the past couple of years observing you, both of you, because it feels like you’re bending physics to do all of the things that you guys accomplish in a day. I think something that is maybe your guy’s blind spot is you both have a really strong sense of yourself. You have a strong sense of what you care about, what you don’t care about, and John doesn’t have any mugs in his house that don’t look exactly the same and it kind of like simplifies things.
Craig: That’s terrifying.
Megana: But I wonder because you guys have such clarity about the things that you want to focus on by not just wasting energy on worrying about what clothes you’re going to wear or stuff like that you guys are able to channel more energy into – no offense.
Craig: None taken.
John: None taken.
Craig: I have zero worry about the clothes that I wear. Zero.
Megana: Yeah. Like every morning when I get dressed I’m like, ugh, how am I going to wear something that’s going to reflect my internal state of being? And you guys don’t necessarily have that.
Megana: But it’s nice. And you’re able to express yourselves more creatively through your writing.
Craig: That’s fascinating. Here’s what I have Megana. What I have is I’m looking at the Workflowy and I see that this segment is called Time Management. And while you’re talking I notice that your name is in it backwards. So that’s what happens to me. That’s where I waste my time and my energy on things like – and I didn’t ask for that. I didn’t for Megana to appear in the backwards in management. But there it is.
John: Oh yeah. Now I see it. That’s all your crosswording, sorry, all of your puzzling has gotten you to that.
Craig: Thank you. I’ve got a real problem. But I think that’s really interesting Megana that you have these other things – and by the way I would say to you that’s OK. I don’t think you should be beating yourself up for the fact that you put care and interest into what you wear because you derive joy from it one would imagine.
Megana: Well I mostly derive joy when John’s daughter compliments my outfits.
Craig: Well there you go.
John: Because I have no idea what she’s wearing. I could not tell you anything about her clothes.
Megana: Yeah. John recently asked me if I have gotten a haircut since I started working for him. And I just cut off eight inches of my hair—
John: No idea.
Megana: And he had no clue.
Craig: I did notice when – so Bo had her full Covid hair, it was like past her butt. And then she did cut it and I was like, OK, I did notice that. I noticed that like a foot or two of hair—
Megana: Yes, she has a very cute bob now.
Craig: OK, I wouldn’t have known how to describe it. I would have said shorter. Her hair is shorter. But I don’t notice what she wears. I don’t notice what anyone wears. I just don’t.
John: So I want to circle back to a point that Megana made about blind spots is that I think I do have a blind spot and someone on Twitter was pointing out that I can have a blind spot where I assume that everyone else can do the things that I can do. Things that are easy for me I assume are easy for everybody else. And I need to recognize that it’s not easy for everyone else. And sometimes my ability to get a lot of stuff done or to juggle 15 things at once is not normal for other people and I need to not expect that of other people. And so I think I can have too high of expectations because I just have really high expectations of myself. It sounds self-congratulatory, but like Megana what do you think about that?
Megana: Well I would also say something that I admire in both of you is that you have really good executive decision-making where you will make a decision and use the information that you have at the time and then you don’t beat yourself up about it or waste time spiraling about that decision. You kind of like move on. And I think that momentum helps keep you guys juggling all of these things.
Craig: That’s an interesting point.
Megana: I have decision remorse about every single decision I make. And you guys are just powering through.
Craig: I feel like therapy is in order.
Megana: [laughs] I think it’s probably a generational thing. No, I can’t blame everything on generational stuff.
John: I see a lot of folks in your generation describing that same thing. There’s a self-confidence in your generation but there’s also a sort of weird self-doubt or an after the fact self-doubt. Or it may just be not even your generation. Just at our age you just don’t kind of worry about that stuff especially.
Megana: And you guys both have very different writing schedules.
Megana: John, I am very familiar with your writing schedule, and Craig I’m sort of familiar with yours from Bo. Like when you’re not in production some days it’s just puzzles and some days it’s doing a lot of writing, whereas John is a little more every day has a little bit of both. And I think because you guys are a couple of years older than me you have–
Craig: Couple decades older than you. Go on.
Megana: You just know what your process is and then you can plan around that. And you do a good job of planning around that. Whereas I think for people starting out you kind of have to figure out what time of day your mind works best for certain things.
Craig: Yeah. And you do as you go on give yourself a break because you have had the experience of taking a day or two off and coming back and the world doesn’t fall apart. Megana, your generation does have this challenge that is somewhat new that I don’t think we had, John. And that is you’ve grown up in an era or an age of optimization. Where you can go on YouTube and find a “hack” for anything. And everybody is constantly sharing tips of how they do things better than everyone else to improve the way you peel an apple, take out the garbage. Everything is designed to be optimized.
So of course as you move through your day you’re constantly asking yourself was that the best decision, was that an optimal decision, could I have made a better decision? Should I have done it more like this? Should I have done it more like that? And I wish I could, and maybe this will work, free all of you from that. The answer is you can’t. You cannot optimize your life. You are inherently flawed. You are going to do the best you can which means you have to accept the failure aspect of who you are, which is really hard to do.
And you must embrace the following quote from the great Dennis Palumbo who is our friend from Episode 99. “There is no perfectible you.” And that is the opposite of what everyone in our culture tells you. There is no perfectible you. That means you make decisions, they might be wrong. Well that’s going to happen. Keep on moving.
Megana: Well also to your One Cool Thing, have you guys read this book The Kids Are All Right? Or The Kids Are Not All Right I think.
Craig: Oh, that’s a different book. That’s a very different book.
John: It was really a response to The Kids Are All Right. Basically it was the pro and the con. They had a heated argument on the page.
Megana: Basically the premise is that millennials and the generations younger than us have been primed to be these productivity machines so that they can go to the best college and optimize their resumes and then once they go to college they can get the best jobs.
Craig: Yes, I’ve read this. I read this and obviously you know how I feel about this. This is not new. It has accelerated and worsened, but when I was in high school there was still this intense pressure to take all these AP classes and to get a perfect 1600 on your SAT which was what it was back then. The standardized tests were incredibly important. There was really only one that anyone cared about, so you didn’t even have choices.
Your grades were incredibly important. And it was a miserable process and you were meant to feel like an absolute failure if you did not get into the school of your choice. It has only accelerated since because in part an industry grew up around this to optimize it. They optimized how you apply. They optimized what your essay is. They optimized which schools–
John: US News and World Report rankings. Now they’re doing it for public schools which is just crazy.
Craig: It’s disgusting. And I say this as somebody who went to a college that US News and World Report repeatedly lists as number one. And I’m saying no it’s not. And US New and World Report should stop it. It’s just corrosive and meaningless. What the hell does that even mean? All of it is designed to rank-ify. It is very Internet. It is very Silicon Valley. Rank everything. Status-ify everything. And then game-ify everything. And that will make you sick I do believe.
John: My last point on time management is that time management is impossible. You can’t manage time. Time will just keep going. So all you can manage is your choices. And so Ted’s question could be rephrased as like how do you make good choices with the very limited amount of time you have. And I think you’re picking how much of your life you’re going to spend doing the work and hopefully making meaningful work, and how much of your life you’re going to spend having fun, which is playing D&D and chatting with friends. And that’s the best you can hope to do.
Craig: I agree.
John: Craig, Megana, thank you so much.
Megana: Thank you.
Craig: Thank you [management spelled backwards].
Megana: I’m never going to be able to look at management again.
Craig: Good. I’ve done my job.
Megana: I do like that my name is backwards though, because it does showcase that I’m bad at management. [laughs]
- Rust Movie Set Shooting
- Netflix to Change How It Measures a Title’s Viewers Post-‘Squid Game’
- There Is No Such Thing as Bragging Too Much About a Kidney Donation
- Episode 480, The Wedding Episode
- The Premise by BJ Novak
- College Degrees are Overrated
- What is the Financial Value of my Degree?
- Kids These Days: The Making of Millennials by Malcolm Harris (not the Kids are Alright!)
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- Craig Mazin on Twitter
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- Outro by Andrew Ryan (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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