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 525 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show it’s another round of How Would This Be a Movie where we take a look at stories in the news and figure out how to transform them into quality filmed entertainment. This week we’re joined by a journalist who wrote one of our previous contenders to learn what it’s like having your work optioned by Hollywood.
Craig: I’m sure it’s great.
John: It’s the best experience in the world. It’s the dream.
Craig: It’s Hollywood.
John: We’ll also look at how you shape and tell true stories and answer some related listener questions. And in our bonus segment for premium members with studios owning publishers and the Writers Guild representing both screenwriters and journalists, what are the remaining distinctions between writing for Hollywood and writing for news media. We’ll dig into that.
Craig: I have thoughts.
John: Craig, most importantly, what are your thoughts on the brand new Scriptnotes hoodies? For the first time in 10 years we have Scriptnotes hoodies. Click that link. Take a look and tell us what you think of these hoodies.
Craig: Click that link. Smash that like button. I think it’s great. And I want one. And I’m just sort of like torn. I feel like I think I’m a large. You know what?
John: I got the large.
Craig: Yeah. Large feels right. Extra-large feels too roomy.
John: Yeah, the tent.
Craig: Yeah. Exactly. I don’t want to walk in tent. So, John, can I have a large?
John: You can have a large. We can actually order you a large. We’ll order that for you.
Craig: Give me a large. Now.
John: We’ll get you a large. But if you would like a large, if you’re a listener who would like a large or any size of these sweatshirts you have until November 18 at 5pm which is when they’re closing orders for this first – and you probably will not be able to get a hoodie by Christmas unless you order by November 18, 2021. So, get them now.
Craig: And this has passed the Stuart softness test?
John: It has. Absolutely. And so we’re looking for the right copy, and so Stuart’s sense of softness is how we always build the t-shirts. But Stuart Friedel has not been the producer of Scriptnotes for so long that newer listeners might not even know that Stuart had a prudential gift for figuring out the softest fabrics. And so instead we went to the Megana Rao test which is like could you wear this while cupping a giant mug of hot chocolate in your hands and would this be that comfy.
John: And we believe that these are that comfy.
Craig: So Baby Yoda would wear this while sipping soup?
John: It is a Baby Yoda-approved level of comfort.
Craig: Got it. Well, this is good, because Stuart I guess has just very sensitive skin. Because he was really into the softness thing. But he’s so right.
John: Our Scriptnotes t-shirts are remarkably soft. I don’t want to wear anything else.
Craig: They’re so good that I ordered a bunch of non-Scriptnotes, just blank t-shirts from – what is it called?
John: Cotton Bureau.
Craig: Cotton Bureau. Because it’s the tri-blend. Tri-blend. So this is the same thing, right? It’s made of Stuart’s shirt material?
John: This is the hoodie equivalent of the tri-blend. So I can’t promise that it’s the exact same thing because that would be too thin probably for this hoodie.
Craig: Of course. But that softness level I think is really important. Megana, your reputation is on the line. No pressure.
John: No pressure. All right. Let’s do some follow up. First off, last week we were talking about bringing in experts to be consultants on things. And we were talking specifically about military experts. Max wrote in to point out that there’s actually an organization called Veterans in Media and Entertainment which does exactly that. So, it’s a charitable organization that supports US military veterans. If you have a military subject they can find you an expert on it. So, we’ll put a link in the show notes to that. It’s vmeconnect.org.
Craig: Great. And they are a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. I love seeing it. Anytime we can promote one of these groups, please we will. And what do I mean by group. I mean any organization that is willing to share their expertise with writers gratis. We’re not looking for people who are accepting money. But if it’s a charitable organization of course like a 501(c)(3) then donations are always a possibility. But if there’s a group out there that is willing to just pick up the phone or answer an email to help screenwriters be accurate then we will spread the word.
John: We love it. Now some of the most anticipated follow up.
Craig: Drum roll.
John: Probably in the history of the show. We all remember who Oops was hopefully. So Oops was a writer who was working on a film and she had kind of fallen in love with, had a little crush on, a producer on the film and she wrote in asking for our advice on what do you do because you don’t want to mess up this situation. And you and I talked about it. Aline came on to talk about it. We now have follow up from Oops on what actually happened. Megana Rao, you are the voice of Oops on this podcast so if you can please give us the update from what Oops wrote in this week.
Megana Rao: All right. So Oops says, “I’m pleased to let you all know that I’m now Miss Oops Plus One. I have this weird millennial resistance to saying something like he’s my boyfriend, but yeah, it’s all kind of worked out. Yay for love. I’d love nothing more than to share expertly screen written blow by blows with the audience, but it’s funny how now I’m suddenly mentally concerned with his privacy. Anyway, I wanted to thank you guys and Aline and those who wrote in for such sage advice. I think back on those few weeks routinely and laugh. It was all rather silly and fun and I’m just so glad that I was cautious, thought about it a lot, and ultimately trusted my gut because she was right. Yours, Not Yet Planning the Scriptnotes Wedding but Never Ruling it Out, Oops.”
Craig: Oh, I am just beside myself with joy here. Because I don’t know if you remember I was definitely the guy pushing down pretty hard on the gas pedal. We are all aware that mixing romance and work these days is tricky. And I like the fact that Oops thought it through. She was really careful and it seems like her now boyfriend, because he is your boyfriend, I don’t care what you say Oops, her boyfriend was also careful. He was also thinking about it. And lo and behold we’re here to tell you that two responsible, rational, careful people can meet at work and fall in love. And become boyfriend/girlfriend. And I love it.
So, I’m happy. I think we needed a story like this. We needed to know that there was still room for healthy love in our business.
John: Congratulations to Oops. And congratulations to Oops’ boyfriend and her plus one.
Craig: Megana, are you happy?
Megana: I am very happy for Oops. I think they kept it a secret. I had to edit some of this out because of her concern for his privacy. But they kept it a secret for most of production and then right after production were official. But it seems like most of the crew knew the whole time.
Craig: Obviously. Everybody knows everything on a crew. Being with them now, I have been working with a crew now for months. And I think we all know like what we have for breakfast in the morning before we get to work. Everybody knows everything.
John: Yeah. To me the tell is always not that people are starting to talk to each other but they suddenly stop talking to each other. It’s like, ah, yeah, you’re trying not to let us all know what’s happened there.
Megana: That’s what she said, too. The night after they had that conversation they just stopped talking to each other completely at work.
Craig: Of course. And then everybody within 14 seconds was like, mmm, mm-hmm.
John: We all saw the chemistry. Now there’s not communication. Yeah.
Craig: OK, it happened. What else is going on out there, John? Anymore follow up?
John: Oh, Craig, the other big piece of follow up that you’re so looking forward to is MoviePass is back.
John: So excited. So we’ll put a link in the show notes to this article about MoviePass co-founder Stacy Spikes was granted ownership of the company and basically he was able to buy it out of bankruptcy. Maybe it was $250,000. Maybe it was less than that that he was able to buy it.
Craig: You can’t get a tear-down two bedroom in Los Angeles County for that amount of money. And this is what MoviePass was apparently worth.
John: Yeah. So I’m excited for this new chapter. It’s really a thing I thought was dead and gone.
Craig: It is.
John: But of course it’s not.
Craig: It’s dead and gone.
John: Something will rise from the ashes of it. I just feel like with our Scriptnotes hoodie money we could have bought MoviePass. And I’ll never forgive myself for—
Craig: Sorry. You could have bought it because I don’t get that money, John. Megana, I need you – Megana, listen to me. I need information. You’re going to have to start showing me the books. Something is going on here.
John: Mm. Yeah.
Craig: Look how quiet Megana got.
Megana: I’m just funneling all of that money to myself.
Craig: Of course you are.
Megana: That’s the truth of it.
John: Now, the other exciting bit of news I saw in this article is that Mark Wahlberg’s production company, Unrealistic Ideas, is currently developing a documentary on the rise and fall of MoviePass based on this reporting. So in many ways it is a How Would This Be a Movie situation which is the perfect segue to our main topic today which is How Would This Be a Movie. So, people who are familiar with this podcast is every couple of weeks we take a look through stories in the news, stories from history, and figure out how we can transform them into quality filmed entertainment. We saw How Would This Be a Movie but more likely a limited series. And we discuss what’s in that story, who the characters could be, what kind of movie or TV show it could be, the tone.
We just try to do what writers do, which is take stuff that’s thrown our way and figure out how to transform it. But this week we have a very special guest because Zeke Faux is on the show. Zeke, can you tell us who you are?
Zeke Faux: My name is Zeke Faux. I’m an investigative reporter for Bloomberg Business Week. And a few years ago I wrote a story that I called The Phantom Debt Vigilante that you so nicely highlighted on a previous version of this segment.
John: So this was back in Episode 339 we talked about it. And we loved the story that you wrote and we also thought like, oh, there’s good potential here for a movie. But can you talk us through the short version of like who the central character was in the story that you wrote and what it was about?
Zeke: So, the story opens with this salesman, Andrew Therrien, normal guy. He’s just sitting around at home when he gets a call from a debt collector. This surprises him because he doesn’t owe any money. And he sort of gets into it with the debt collector. And the debt collector threatens his wife. And this just sets Andrew off and he goes out on a mission to figure out who this debt collector was, why they called him, and he actually uncovers this massive nationwide conspiracy, tracks down the bad guy at the center of it. And in the end brings him to justice.
So he’s one of the favorite people I’ve ever met through work. It was so exciting when I heard this story. And I couldn’t believe it myself. And each time I would check something out and find out that it was actually true I was like, whoa. So, yeah, that’s the guy.
John: So, you heard about this story, you pursued it, you wrote up the story. And at what point did it start attracting attention of Hollywood people? Because we talked about it on the show but I think, correct me if I’m wrong, before we even mentioned it people had sort of scoped it out. Correct?
Zeke: Yeah. I think that it had been optioned by the time you talked about it. I’ve been through this a few times and basically if you write a story that’s exciting and has a character and a plot it’s not so unusual that you’ll start getting emails from producers or these sort of scout type people asking if the rights to the story are available.
In this case I got a lot of emails right away, like probably the day that it came out. And then more on the following weeks.
John: So talk to us about these emails. Because these are coming from producers or scouts or other folks. What are they specifically asking for? Are they saying like would you consider selling the rights to this? Can you tell us what else there is here? Is there a movie? What are those emails actually asking for?
Zeke: Well, this is some good info for any magazine writer colleagues. I realized that a lot of these emails are from almost like interns who are just wanting to confirm that the rights might be available before they tell their boss about this cool story that they read. So the first time I got one of these emails is from a different story and I was ready to pick up my tux for the Oscars. But then I realized that this was just some intern who hadn’t even like told his boss about it yet and just wanted to make sure that this was a story that one could buy the rights for.
So, yeah, they’re usually pretty vague and just asking if I’m the person to talk to, or if I have an agent or something like that.
John: Great. Was this your first story that actually got optioned?
Zeke: No, I’ve had a few before this one. And generally I hand people off to my agent pretty quickly because it’s hard for me to know who is for real. And then they will help narrow down who might actually be worth considering and talking to. And I’ve never had one that was some crazy bidding war that everyone in town wanted to buy, so it’s often just comes down to a couple people and then we pick based on who seems most credible or honestly who has an interesting take on the story.
Craig: If I may be so bold, what kind of money are we talking about here? You don’t have to give me an exact dollar figure, but range wise? What’s a typical sort of option fee for these things?
Zeke: It’s a good question. I mean, a lot of people will try to option things for as little as nothing, which is obviously not that appealing.
Craig: Nothing sucks.
Zeke: I’ve done some research on this since I’ve started getting involved in it and talking to other writers and so I think that at the low end would be around $5,000 and then the high end for articles, I mean, I’ve heard of ones that go into six figures but I think that’s really unusual.
Craig: So talking roughly between $5,000 and maybe $75,000? Something in that zone?
Zeke: Yes. And that’s for the option, which they have to pay upfront. And then the purchase price is higher.
John: So let’s talk about what they’re actually buying, because in this case you had a relationship with Andrew Therrien and had done all this reporting, but some of that stuff is just public fact. Someone could take the idea of a guy who sort of goes after a debt collector. They don’t need your article to do that. So what are they actually buying when they option the rights to that story?
Zeke: It’s actually a question that I’ve thought about myself. And a producer explained it to me once. And he said that back in the day he used to go to these meetings with almost like a sandwich board and he’d be pitching people on some idea that he had for this amazing true story that should be a movie and flipping through the pages. And he said that if he was going to buy an article it was basically just so that they would have something to talk about and some sort of source material that could sort of get the project going.
Craig: Yeah. It seems to me a lot of times like producers will buy these things to create some air of exclusivity or, I don’t know what you would call it, legitimacy. But as we’ve discussed here legally speaking if you write an article, and I’m sure this has happened to you, some jerk like me can read it and just use it. Anything that’s in the article is usable. It’s out there in the world. It’s the stuff behind it – if we wanted to write a story about the gentleman that you’ve investigated what we are buying I suppose from you that is of value beyond the story you wrote is all of your notes, all of the additional stuff that didn’t get into the story. Because that’s still yours.
But my understanding is if you publish it in Bloomberg Business Week and I read it I can pretty much use whatever you wrote there because it’s public record.
Zeke: Right. I mean, my stories are true so you’re not—
Zeke: These things really happened.
Craig: I like that you have to say that. My stories are true, by the way.
Zeke: So, this is another way I think about it. I mean, I don’t know how much would you get paid to write a screenplay, like probably quite a lot of money.
Zeke: So wouldn’t it be pretty cheap to not option the story?
Zeke: It’s so cheap you might as well just do it if you’re going to hire a good screenwriter to write the screenplay.
Craig: Yes. If you are a producer you’re absolutely right. And it may be that – everything is a competition. So you write a great article. And there are going to be four producers, hopefully, competing to get the rights to that article. And then that producer is going to make that article an object of competition for a bunch of writers. Or, the other way around is there’s a writer and five people are trying – I’ve had this experience and John I’m sure you have, too – where I’ve had more than one producer call me to ask me to write the blah-blah story and it’s the same story.
Craig: In one case, oh, you know what it was? It was Game Stop?
John: I got Game Stop.
Craig: I got Game Stop by two different producers who had each optioned or outright bought two different articles.
Zeke: I actually had someone ask me if I could write something about it so that they could option it.
Craig: Right. I mean, so I think what we’re getting at here is that you are doing real work out there and screenwriters are doing real work out here. And in between are producers that just–
John: Or studio execs who are just like Ah!
Craig: Making stuff up.
John: Now, Zeke, a question for you. In the case of the article we’re talking about it so focused on Andrew’s story. Were they also optioning his life rights or were they just taking your story?
Zeke: My policy on that is that if someone wants to do something with life rights that’s their business. I don’t want to be in business with the subject of my stories.
Craig: Right. You’re not brokering their life rights.
Zeke: Yes. So that’s something that everybody has to consider on their own.
Craig: Makes total sense.
John: Now let’s talk about your relationship with the screenwriter on this project, because you’re saying that the person you ended up going with was a producer and they had a screenwriter involved. Did you have any direct interactions with that screenwriter?
Zeke: This was pretty standard. Usually you have a call or two with the screenwriter at the beginning and it’s pretty fun. I like to tell them, you know, I always have a lot of outtakes to talk about. And we’ll give them any extra materials that they want. But then after that I usually don’t hear from them.
Zeke: But I understand that because you need time to develop your own take on the story and having somebody else who has a very specific take on it could be kind of distracting.
Craig: Well there’s probably not a lot of good news that could come out of subsequent conversations because when you’re adapting something of course you are altering it to some extent. And if you are calling the journalist who wrote the article odds are you’re not calling them to tell them how faithful you’ve been. And so this is normal and also I assume as a fully-fledged professional adult you’re aware that once you sign these things away all sorts of stuff might happen.
Zeke: Yeah. And I’ll just say I love writing magazine stories. I want the story to be perfect and so fun to read on the page. And I want it to inspire people who read it. And if it also inspires some screenwriter who wants to go do something that’s awesome. But I don’t really care what they do with it.
Craig: Because what you wrote still exists.
Craig: And always shall.
John: Yeah. We always talk about when an author sells the rights to a book to make into a movie that book still sits on the shelf. And no matter what I do in the adaptation that book will always be there. And so that was your vision of a thing and this is someone else’s vision of a thing. What is the current status of this project now? Is that going to be moving forward? Is the option still happening? What’s going on with this movie right now?
Zeke: That’s a great question and the answer sort of illustrates my place on the totem pole in the moviemaking process. I actually do not know what’s going on.
John: All right. So Zeke while we have you hear we’d love your input on this segment that we do called How Would This Be a Movie where we talk through stories in the news and figure out how they can be movies. And you will have an insight because you’ve been the journalist reporting these stories.
Zeke: So I accidentally happened on what I feel like is a weird trick to get producers in your magazine story.
John: I’m so excited by this.
Craig: I want to hear this weird trick.
Zeke: In an earlier story the subject of the story said something to me that became the first quote in the story. And he said, “Remember the movie American Hustle. It’s kind of like that with way more dirt and twists.” I just put that in because it was funny. It’s a funny thing to say. But then I was having these meetings with producers and they would say to me totally straight-faced, “You know, it really reminded me of American Hustle.” So I thought to myself if it’s at all relevant maybe mention the name of a movie in your story.
Craig: Oh my god.
Zeke: That will sort of set their movie alert. So for a couple of years if I found a good spot and it seemed relevant, I mean, I don’t want to compromise a story, but I would mention the name of a movie. So, I had another one about this sort of triple agent informant in the drug wars and I said that he was kind of Narcos Forrest Gump. And this guy called me up, for real, he’d won an Oscar. And he was like, “Narcos meets Forrest Gump. Narcos/Forrest Gump. I’m coming out to New York to take you out to lunch.” And I was like, great.
So we went out to lunch and he just kept saying Narcos Forrest Gump. And so much that I wasn’t even sure if he had read the whole article because that was near the top.
Craig: He hasn’t.
Zeke: The lunch sort of petered out because we were running out of ways to talk about Narcos Forrest Gump.
Craig: That’s amazing.
Zeke: Yeah. Just mention the name of a movie. That’s my tip for magazine writers.
Craig: I think what Zeke is really putting his finger on here is how stupid so many producers are. I mean, they don’t read. They have a staff of people that tell them things. They do hinge on something and they forget who told it to them so quickly that they think they thought it. And, Zeke, I will tell you that just because a producer has an Oscar doesn’t mean that they’re not stupid. Because if something wins Best Picture then the producer gets the Oscar, but a lot of producers really are just stupid.
I clearly don’t want to work in Hollywood anymore. By the way, that’s becoming super obvious.
John: Yeah. We’ve known that for a time.
Craig: But some producers are amazing. And if you produce something I did I’m sure I’m talking about you when I say amazing. But everybody else, stupid.
John: All right. Let’s get into these movies and figure out which producers will hang on one idea in this and forget what they actually read or saw.
John: There’s five of them and two of them have interactive elements too which I think is really fun, or they are like cartoons/animations. I love this.
Craig: I love these. Yes. Fun.
John: It’s not all reading. You can actually sort of look at things.
Craig: Thank god.
John: So we’ll start with this story by Andy Hoffman and Benedikt Kammel. This was from Bloomberg and is Bloomberg the same as Bloomberg Business Week? Zeke, help me out.
Zeke: Bloomberg is the parent company and this story was actually in Bloomberg Business Week’s annual heist issue which all you screenwriters should keep an eye out for because it’s full of cool stories.
John: And what’s great about this one is it is a comic. And so it’s telling the story of this Swiss trader is trying to buy copper for a Chinese buyer. He finds some in Turkey. So they load this copper into a shipping container and then overnight people break into the shipping containers, swap out that copper with painted rocks, seal it back up and ship it off to wherever it’s going, to China someplace. They did this seven more times and for a total of $36 million worth of painted rocks. And it looks like it’s probably an inside job. There’s 16 people charged at the time of this writing.
Craig, start us off. Is there a movie here?
Craig: No. No there is not. What there is is a great scene. This feels like one of those things that would open a great ‘70s heist movie where you’re introducing characters and you’re showing how scammy they are and how either clever or not clever they are or how clever but unlucky they are. It’s such an audacious move and it’s got a great reveal which is a bunch of guys are loading copper in and on the other side the crate arrives and like a magic trick even though you’ve been watching it the whole time when the thing opens it’s a bunch of rocks.
By the way, this is a real question. If you’re going to take copper out and shove a bunch of rocks in and then reseal the container why are you painting the rocks copper? Who is that going to fool? It didn’t fool anybody for even one second. So why even bother painting the rocks?
John: My guess is that when they first open, because it’s sort of slag copper, it’s not good copper, when you first open it and just do a quick visual inspection you might not realize that it’s not copper. And so give you an extra day’s time before they actually load it.
Obviously they need the weight because they need it to feel full.
Craig: I get the rock part. But, yeah, it seems more like a scene and a character introducer. There’s no way to make a series or even movie about this because it’s just one thing and I don’t find it particularly interesting. There’s no comment or reflection of the human condition. It’s just theft.
John: So, Zeke, help us out. Because I feel like there is more to the story here, because this was deliberately a very small slice of it. But it didn’t get into the characters. It didn’t get into what the actual organization was behind this. Can you anticipate if you were to do the reporting what kinds of people and schemes behind the scenes might you figure out?
Zeke: I mean, ideally the people behind this might be in jail and pleaded guilty and be willing to tell you the whole thing that happened. I mean, personally I don’t get that excited this as an inside job because I want it to be some sort of really sneaky operation. Maybe if these were low level workers and they were somehow getting revenge on their terrible boss then it could be fun.
John: I hear you there. Because I also get frustrated because at least with the information we have right now they’re obviously going to get caught. There’s sort of no way you could not get caught. And so it’s a trick you can play once and if you try to play it seven times they’re going to figure out where the switch happened.
If the heist had happened at sea where they’re actually switching the containers there there’s a more interesting way to get to it. But I agree with both of you that I think it’s a scene, it’s a moment, in a completely different story and doesn’t really help us out here.
All right, let’s get to the one that Craig was excited about last night as we were talking about. The Secret History of Sushi.
Craig: Love this.
John: This is New York Times story by Daniel Fromson with illustrations by Igor Bastidas. Craig, can you talk us through what this is about?
Craig: This is magic. This is – every now and then you read a story that kind of blows your mind because it’s about something that was in front of your face for most of your life and you had no idea what was really behind it. So, apparently the history of sushi, and we can sort of skip the part where it’s how sushi developed in Japan and get to the part that’s sort of mind-blowing. So there was a cult that John anybody our age is familiar with or older, I don’t know if the millennials are quite as familiar with it. But the Reverend Sun Myung Moon was a kind of a Korean Christian Messianic culty figure who came to the United States I believe in the ‘70s. And was infamous for these mass marriages that he would oversee.
John: The mass weddings. Yeah.
Craig: But early on when he was still kind of small time in New York many of his adherents were Japanese which in and of itself is a bit odd. And he had this idea that in order to help fund the church that they should start bringing sushi to the United States. And in order to bring sushi to the United States he tapped this group of five or six or seven of his adherents and scattered them across the United States. And all of them were working in service of this corporation called True World Seafood. And True World is a reference to some nonsense that Reverend Moon believes in, I don’t know, some crap about whatever the world becoming something else. Doesn’t matter.
Point being they did it. These guys created the largest fresh seafood distributor in the United States and in Canada I believe and in some other places. And they did in fact create the sushi movement. I mean, it surfed along with a kind of Japan-ophilia thing that happened in the ‘80s, but they still to this day are the largest supplier of seafood to sushi restaurants. When you go and you eat sushi in the US or Canada you are eating fish that was very likely purchased initially and distributed and resold by a company that is intertwined with Reverend Moon’s Unification Church. And that is crazy. And how these guys did it and then the ensuing fallout when Moon died and the inevitable infighting happened within his family and then the lawsuits and the corporations.
It’s insane. And I loved it.
John: I loved it, too. And I think there is a movie here or a series. But to me it’s the question of like where do you put the boundaries of it. When do you start and when do you stop? And I don’t think you get into the later end stuff. I don’t think you get to the modern stuff. I think you just get to this crazy, impossible dream of like, OK, you’re going to go to Alaska and you’re going to go to Denver and start selling sushi in Denver and just really random people assigned to places and they just made it work. And there’s a comedy to that that I think is actually fun and exciting. But also problematic because this church was not without its own faults.
I think there’s a thing to be made here. Zeke, as you look at this article what jumps out to you? What are the threads that are interesting to you? And what’s the movie hook that you put in there so that some producer buys it and talks to you about it at lunch?
Zeke: I loved the presentation. Like as a magazine person it just looked amazing. And it’s pretty unusual to see one – I haven’t seen something like this before.
I think they did a really good job of connecting it to sushi. Like that made me more interested as a reader. If you just said, hey, this strange religious leader has a big fish company, I mean, that would be an OK story but presenting it as the secret history of sushi I think is what sells it as a story and to someone like you.
John: Agreed. Now, Craig, how do you make this? Do you make this – is it a movie? Is it a series? Where are your edges on the story?
Craig: Definitely a series. So, it’s not even a question of narrative application anymore. It used to be solely a question of narrative application. But now you have to also ask the question is anybody going to actually put it in a theater. Or even just show it streaming as a movie. In our minds now we have becomes really limited about what we see when we talk about movies. And this story does not have the explosive elements required to confine it to 90 minutes or two hours. So you need something really big and none of that is here.
This is absolutely some kind of limited series, but I would say a short one. I don’t think this needs five episodes or ten episodes. It needs maybe three. Personally, if I were putting my money into this I would actually be going down the documentary root. I think that’s the way to do this. The fictionalization of it is not as interesting to me as the facts in and of themselves. So I would probably go with a short documentary series on this.
John: Yeah. The reason why I think I want to see this as a fictional series is that I could just picture the moments where in the time period where you’re trying to introduce sushi into these places and just sort of like the confused stares you’re getting out of like, oh, we want to sell you some raw fish, and just trying to get people to eat this fish and just the absurdity of like, OK, I don’t know anything about what I’m doing but the church says I’m supposed to be doing this so I’m going to figure this out. I think those moments are so good.
I agree with you that it’s a series because it doesn’t want to fit nicely into 90 minutes. And there’s just going to be so many characters and so many situations. And you’re going to probably cover a number of years which just all works better as a series.
So, Zeke, I’m still going to press on if this were your story what would be the hook you’d want to put in there to make sure that a producer says oh yeah I get what this is?
Zeke: I was joking about that before, because I feel like – I’d like to think I’m above that now. But even as a writer I might have considered trying to develop some of the individual characters more. Like zooming in on, like you said, one of these particular people who is off in some weird place trying to introduce raw fish. I think that would be an interesting thread for the story. And probably would be interesting for somebody like you, too.
John: And actually one of the maybe challenges of this presentation, because people should click through the link because it’s really beautifully done.
John: It’s all illustrated with animations that go through it. But because of that there aren’t the photos you might expect. And in addition to not really talking very much about the individual people without photos to sort of anchor like oh that is this guy, I could not tell you right now who most of the characters were in this piece. Because I was just focused on this is the sweep of the story. And it didn’t give me a lot of anchoring into who the people were who got sent off to these different places.
So a good counter example of this is our next story. This is a New Yorker story about migrant laborers who clean up after disasters. It’s Sarah Stillman writing this. And this is full of very detailed specific people whose faces we can see. These are folks who some of them are documented, some of them are undocumented. They’re mostly from Texas and Florida. But when there’s a disaster in the US there are these companies who subcontract with other companies who send workers in to sort of do the cleanup. So after huge storms, after natural disasters, these are the people who show up and do all that work. As Stillman’s story is documentary they obviously say like, oh, we’ll follow Covid-19 protocols. They’re not at all. Everyone is getting Covid. It’s terrible. Safety protocols aren’t there.
It also focuses on a man named Sacket Soni who is an organizer who is basically trying to protect these people and get them housed and fed and deal with wage theft. Craig, we’ll start with you. What did you see in terms of a potential story either for a movie or for a series out of this?
Craig: Doesn’t feel like one. There’s fascinating information here and there’s important here. It does feel like the kind of thing that if I were running a traditional news magazine format on television I would want to do this story for television in that format. A 60 Minutes kind of format. Because it’s important for people to know this and to see this.
However, there is not yet a kind of Cesar Chavez story that is completed. They are organizing and so we should see what happens with this. But overall what we’re seeing here is a pretty head on bit of journalism and I don’t think that this is the kind of story that adapts well to fictionalization in any format.
John: Zeke, as you’re looking at this do you agree? And if do agree are there things about this story that could be highlighter emphasized that would make it more of a Hollywood story?
Zeke: Interesting that you didn’t think it had potential for an adaptation, Craig, because I actually found it very cinematic when I was reading it. I just loved all of these amazing details like that she wore these gold hoop earrings that helped her feel elegant while she was doing this cleanup work. Or the sort of ironic signs she was always seeing.
That said, I agree that you don’t have the Erin Brockovich type plot yet. And then just to me it would seem odd to say based on a true story but then fictionalize some sort of more dramatic plot onto it. And then I was thinking if you don’t do that, if it doesn’t have a strong plot it might feel kind of similar to Nomadland.
John: I was thinking about Chloe Zhao the whole time through because I just felt like everything was happening sort of at sunsets and in beautiful disastrous places. And sort of the real life hardworking people who are actually doing the stuff and not getting paid properly for it felt like that sort of aesthetic.
Zeke: I’d be interested. It’s too bad we couldn’t ask the writer of this, because I am wondering how – I mean, obviously they’ve seen Nomadland and I’m sure they didn’t want it to seem too similar. It must have been actually challenging to try and write something that was really dramatic but then also in some ways similar to an Oscar-winning movie that came out recently.
Craig: Well, these stories sometimes give you – now I’ll speak like a purely exploitative fictionalist. When you read a story like this what you get is an interesting job for a character to have or characters to have in a movie that is about something else which is their life, their relationship with their children, or their spouse, or their significant other, or a romance. Some kind of life change.
So if in a movie we’re talking about a woman who has just gotten divorced and is restarting her life and this is the job she gets and this is where she meets somebody, that’s interesting. But the actual content of what’s happening here in terms of the way these people are being exploited and the economic ins and outs of this particular industry, that in and of itself is not a narrative that I think I would want to adapt the way for instance, you know, a narrative was created out of the whistleblower and the tobacco industry. It’s not quite that. It doesn’t have that circular narrative movement that we’re hoping for.
John: Now the other project I was thinking of was this Netflix series Maid which is Molly Smith Metzler writing about – taking a woman in a very specific situation and using that as the backdrop to tell a specific family story which I think Craig is what you were getting to. This is a huge canvas but you can decide to do the Erin Brockovich story about this issue or The Big Short. This is about this issue. Or you can have that be the arena in which you’re telling a much smaller story which might be the way to go through here.
And in that case I don’t know that you option this article because this article provides a big canvas but it doesn’t actually provide the distinct story points. Because you might choose to pick the woman who is featured here, Bellaliz Gonzalez, who is from Venezuela. As a central person you might choose to pick Sacket Soni who is this organizer. But you probably wouldn’t. You could just create your own character who is in that same situation and that’s your story.
Zeke: It just reminds me of another article to film adaptation, American Honey.
John: Oh yeah.
Zeke: Shia LaBeouf movie about the kids selling magazines. Which is actually based on this amazing New York Times article from 2007 that was more of like an expose about how young people are getting exploited on magazine crews. And then when the movie, which I do think they had optioned that story, when that came out it was just like sort of inspired by it but totally different.
John: I think for what we’re describing we’re not sure if we would ever want to option this article. But I guess you could option this article, as you said at the start of this, you might option this article as a producer just to clear the field and to declare this story space. But you’re not getting a specific story you can tell.
Here’s a very specific story. Next up we have an article by Sarah McDermott writing for BBC about Pauline Dakin’s childhood in Canada in the 1970s. It was full of secrets, disruption, and unpleasant surprising. She wasn’t allowed to talk about her family life with anyone. And it wasn’t until she was 23 that she was told why.
So basically at 23 she learns that her family is on the run from the mafia and that the mafia is after them and they have to always be constantly careful. And at a certain point all of us as readers say like or your family is not telling you the truth and they’re all operating under some sort of delusion which appears to be the case.
Again, this is a very specific story that you could choose to tell. So we could talk about optioning this story or this as a kind of story. Zeke, help us out here. Think through as a journalist how do you start to tell this story? If you were to write this article where would you begin and what are the hooks for you?
Zeke: So this article actually would be – not that I can pitch a news story about some random events of someone’s lives that don’t really have any newsworthiness. But it actually would be a good starting place for the kind of story that I like to write because it’s missing all of the specifics and you could really dig in and try and create – like I want to start with some sort of really dramatic scene which I would find by interviewing the person and talking through all of this and finding out what parts of the story really seemed like most exciting to me.
The version that I was reading was just sort of the barebones outline of what happened, which would be great as a starting place to really dig in and get all the details, interview other people and see their perspective. Because oftentimes the main character doesn’t really have a good sense of how they behaved themselves. You have to talk with other people who saw the events.
John: Craig, what is your take on this story?
Craig: I love it. It’s terrific. I don’t know if I need the story. Meaning I don’t know if I want – the value of this I don’t think is that it really happened. I think this is just a great to use as inspiration to write a story about a kid and their parents and this life they’re living and the fear that they’re all under and to present it as real and then for this person to slowly realize none of it is real. This is very Shyamalanic. And that in fact something far more weird is happening.
And then the question of who is telling the truth and who is lying and if they’re lying why becomes really florid. And all of the value is about the relationship between a child and a parent. And that stuff requires fictionalization and dramatization to the point that I think this is just a great springboard. I would not want to write a movie where there is a character named Pauline Dakin and her mother, Ruth, and her stepfather, Stan. I would want to just take the inspiration from this. Because it’s a fascinating notion. And I would want to do some research into this concept of delusional disorder.
So it’s very inspiring and a wonderful story that Sarah McDermott has uncovered here. And it will be, oh it will certainly be optioned. No question about that. But personally I think the value is just in the suggestion.
John: I think back to Gillian Flynn’s book Gone Girl which was telling the story of oh did this husband kill his wife. And there were true life things that she could ingest into that, but she was telling a fictional story. And she didn’t need to use any of the real life things to do it and she could tell a much better story by not being bound to what really happened. So unlike a true crime novel she’s able to use all the stuff and build her own thing out of it.
And I guess I agree with you here. But I also very much hear what Zeke is saying is that there probably are really compelling moments and scenes and bits here that you could flesh out. That you could create an article that was even more Hollywood compelling given this basic framework.
John: All right. Our last story here is about Silibill N’ Brains. If you’re not familiar with Silibill N’ Brains they were a ‘90s hip hop duo that burst onto the scene. Let’s take a listen to a clip.
All right. So these are two California rappers. Very much in an Eminem style obviously. Fun. Great. MTV is loving them. They’re sort of rising up in music videos. And then it comes out that they’re actually two Scottish guys who just put on California accents and were just basically trying to ape all of their favorite rappers. And it all fell apart and it sort of got exposed in a Milli Vanilli sort of way.
Craig, is there a movie here?
Craig: No. I mean, it’s interesting but it feels very familiar to me. The idea of people being illegitimate and inauthentic and hiding that to get some sort of fame. And then it all comes crashing down. This is just very tired. And this is two levels of inauthenticity because it was already questionable when white people in the ‘90s started jumping on the hip hop bandwagon and trying to do that Vanilla Ice style. And then these guys were from Scotland which is even further away. And they weren’t even faking being black. They were faking being white.
John: They were faking being white in California which I think is great.
Craig: Yeah. But the point is I just don’t care. They weren’t famous enough. Nobody died. There was no shootings, explosions. The stakes were low. I struggle to care about this story. Maybe if they had been more famous. I don’t know, maybe that would make it even worse. Look, if there hasn’t been a Milli Vanilli movie, has there been?
John: I don’t think there’s been one.
Craig: Yeah. If there hasn’t been one of those I don’t see why we would get to this one. I think the Milli Vanilli is the canary in the coal mine. If we don’t want to make a movie about that I don’t know why we would want to make a movie about Silibill N’ Brains.
John: Now, Zeke, there’s three articles here we’ll link to. So we’re linking to an article by Tom Seymour for Vice, by Sam for DDW, and there’s also a documentary called The Great Hip Hop Hoax by Jeanie Finley. So this is areas that have been explored. Do you see a movie or a series coming out of this?
Zeke: I really didn’t like this idea at all until I listened to the song. I mean, it’s just so horrible that it’s kind of amazing that this ever fooled anyone. So, maybe it would be best as a documentary. And I was trying to think of some way to make this kind of relevant. Basically I come down on no, but I think one thing that’s a little interesting is why was everyone so eager to believe. And I think it’s because they wanted white rappers. They wanted some next Eminem. And so I feel like there’s kind of a racist element to it that could make it kind of interesting to explore, but still not that interesting.
John: Yeah. I think there’s a Lonely Island movie here where you can just – you find the right two kids who have the right charisma and you can just play with all these themes and use their songs but write other great parody songs. So do you need this exact story? Maybe not. And I guess they already made Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping or whatever. So maybe it’s kind of already been done.
Craig: By geniuses.
John: They’re geniuses. And so I feel like the right people could approach this and make something great. But it’s not a slam dunk by any stretch. It’s very execution dependent.
All right, let’s do a recap of our stories here and figure out which of these might actually become movies. Zeke, if you had to pick between our five here which is the movie. Which gets optioned?
Zeke: You were very down on it but I actually think that the story about the migrant workers is the one that people would go for.
John: All right. Craig, of these five which is the movie?
John: Sushi. I am going to go with sushi as well. I think sushi is the one that – it’s not a movie, it’s probably a limited series, but I think that’s the one that most happens. But I’m excited for all of these. And I want to thank all of our listeners because I put out on Twitter a call for suggestions and most of these came from their suggestions.
Here’s the ones we didn’t cover just so you can—
Craig: And you’re telling us about them?
John: Yes. Ivy Getty’s Wedding was amazing. But, no, we don’t care.
Craig: We don’t care.
John: The 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée on Martinique. Great.
Craig: I’ve already done a thing blowing up. I can’t do it again.
John: The billionaire space race. We’re in the middle of it, so no.
John: The Havana Syndrome. We don’t know what’s really happening, so no. Chinese dancing grandmas.
John: Kind of interesting.
Craig: Hysterical. Not a movie. But I like that people are throwing bags of pee on them. It’s an amazing story.
John: Biker getting breast milk.
John: So it’s these biker gangs who formed a shuttle service to bring breast milk to mothers who need breast milk.
Craig: Such a great band name.
John: Yeah. The plot to dig up Lincoln’s body was actually a great story. It just came a little too late, so we’ll keep that for the next one.
Craig: Because he died a long time ago.
John: Yeah. So basically people are trying to dig up his body and hold it for ransom.
Craig: What? Oh boy.
John: You’ll love it. It’s terrific. The IVF mix-up leaves an LA couple giving birth to another family’s baby. Yeah. The bio of Ruth Fertel who created Ruth’s Chris Steak House. It’s fascinating. So she’s good. The great emu war which is about the plot to eradicate emu, sort of like cut back on emus in Australia. They’re already making a movie so it’s too late.
Craig: Too late.
John: And Stagecoach Mary who was a groundbreaking black postal carrier in the old days, olden days. She seems great. There’s a biopic maybe to be made there but it didn’t make it in time for this one. So, good suggestions everybody.
Craig: Thank you folks.
John: Now, Zeke as we transition out of this I want to talk to you about point of view in a magazine piece because in this article we first talked about that you wrote clearly we’re on the POV of this guy who is investigating these scams. But as a journalist when do you know who the person is that you’re going to be focused on and going to hang the story around? Does that come pretty early or only as you sit down to really start writing it?
Zeke: I always like to have a really exciting story with a point of view. So I might find a space that I find is interesting. Like in that case I’d been looking into debt collection for quite a long time. Maybe I’d even written some straight news stories. And then when I meet someone who is a great character I get really excited and I think about how can I use everything that I’ve learned about this shady debt collection industry to inform a story that would be more compelling to read because it centers on a character.
John: And do you ever feel guilty thinking about people as characters? Or is that just the nature of the work you’re doing?
Zeke: Absolutely. I mean, it’s incredibly important to me that the story is true. It’s a tricky thing because when you tell the truth about someone they might not even recognize it. So I can’t be overly concerned with how the subject will react to the story, but I also want it to read like if someone who knows the subject reads it I want it to read true. And I can’t take any liberties at all with the timing of events or the characters.
You have a lot of constraints as a writer of true stories that you wouldn’t if you were writing a screenplay. And in this case it was kind of interesting. The subject really took exception to the fact that I called him stocky which I did think was an insulting adjective.
Craig: I’m stocky. I think it’s very nice.
Zeke: Yeah, I mean he’s a big perfectly good-looking guy. I mean, not even that big. I don’t think stocky means that big. Anyway, of all the things that’s what he didn’t really like, but we still joke about it so I guess he got over it.
John: This last week I was talking on a Zoom call with two writers who were working with the Inevitable Foundation which is a foundation that helps disabled writers past middle career up into becoming showrunners. And one of them was working on a project that was centered around this civil rights figure. And someone who was kind of always behind the scenes but actually had a really compelling life story.
And she was running into a problem where she had all this research and all these facts about this character but didn’t feel like she sort of knew who the person was or what the person’s voice was. And I was trying to encourage her to really channel her inner Aaron Sorkin and just make a choice and just run with it. And it strikes me as such a different thing for what I’m telling a screenwriter to do versus what you as a journalist has to tell another journalist to do. You can’t put words in a person’s mouth whereas she has to put words in a person’s mouth and has to actually have the confidence to just create a voice for this person who no longer exists.
Zeke: Yeah. I mean, I would find that really hard. And the amazing thing about this story, a lot of my stories don’t even have much dialogue. In this story the guy had taped everything. And when I heard these tapes I honestly wanted to cry. The dialogue was so amazing. I just couldn’t believe that this guy actually – I mean, he actually said things that are as good as what you guys would make up. So that was a very unique situation, but ideally I can put myself in a place where I can observe someone actually doing stuff and hear how they actually relate to other people. That’s a little more authentic than just interviewing them and hearing what they say to me.
John: Yup. All right. Let’s get to our listener questions because we have two that are very much on topic here. Megana, do you want to start us off?
Megana: So Chase from London writes, “I’m currently developing a script based on a pretty famous historical trial. The story has been adapted a few times in different mediums, most famously with a golden era legal drama. But I believe a retelling would have a completely different weight and meaning if written for a modern audience. My question is whether I should watch and read every previous adaptation of this story in my research. Is it helpful or harmful to see how other writers dramatized certain events? Are there copyright complications to look out for when drawing upon the same courtroom transcripts for dialogue?”
John: I don’t think you should look at all the other adaptations because you will start judging what you’re doing based on what they were doing and it will become a trap and you shouldn’t do it. Craig, what’s your thought?
Craig: If it’s been adapted a lot I think you have to at least – you don’t want to study those things because I agree with John. But what you don’t want to do is just mistakenly replicate a bunch of stuff because then you’re going to hear about it when you send your script around. Everyone is going to say well yeah it’s not that you ripped them off, it just doesn’t seem different enough. We already have that movie. What do we need this movie for?
In terms of drawing on the same courtroom transcripts for dialogue, no, those are facts. Those are a published public record and anyone can use that freely. The problem is if someone else has used it freely you’re a little bit stuck. Just because you can doesn’t mean you’re not going to seem like somebody who is a Johnny Come Lately.
You’re in a tough spot here. And I guess the way I would turn it around to you, Chase, is to say why are you developing a script based on a pretty famous historical trial that has been adapted a few times in different mediums, most famously with a golden era legal drama? I know you say a retelling would have a completely different weight and meaning if written for a modern audience, but maybe that’s not enough? You just don’t want to seem like you’re delivering something that feels warmed over.
Writing for a modern audience, I’m not sure what that means exactly. If it’s just a question of language and such then I’m concerned. If you’re talking about retelling that story from a very different perspective then you might be onto something, in which case I don’t think you have to worry so much. But if you’re doing something straight on that’s been done a bunch it’s going to be an issue.
John: Zeke, if you’re writing something in an area or about a story topic do you read other writers writing on that topic? Or is that in bad form? Tell me about the research you’re doing and reading other writers.
Zeke: I feel like it’s my duty to read everything that I possibly can. But I understand why you might not want to. It’s hard to avoid feeling influenced if you’re – I mean, I would prefer not to write a story about something that somebody else has already written a great magazine story about because it is challenging to set aside their take and write your own original one.
John: All right. We’re running short on time so we’re going to cap it at one question here. And it’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is called Friendsgiving by Miry’s List. So Miry’s List is a great charity that works with immigrant families, refugee families that come to the states, mostly to Los Angeles, and helps them get set up in apartments with furniture and food and toys for their kids, and books and such.
I was first introduced to them by Rachel Bloom. They are fantastic. So I’ve been supporting them for the past couple years. Their Friendsgiving campaign is especially important this year because they have a bunch of new Afghan families that have come to Los Angeles and need some support. So, I’ll have a link in the show notes for that, but it’s Friendsgiving by Miry’s List.
Craig, what do you got for us this week?
Craig: So my One Cool Thing this week is Once Cool Person named Jasmila Žbani?. She is currently directing an episode of The Last of Us for our production and she’s terrific. She is a Bosnian filmmaker and I became aware of her through the last feature film she made which is called Quo Vadis, Aida? And that was nominated for Best Foreign Film in the last round of Oscars. It’s a wonderful movie, heartbreaking movie about the terrible events in Srebrenica. The terrible war that tore Sarajevo apart and just a brutal conflict between Serbs and Bosnians.
I just like drawing people’s attention to it because I think normally if somebody says, oh, there’s a Bosnian movie and it’s about war you might go, meh, I don’t. But what’s so brilliant about Quo Vadis, Aida is that it focuses on a woman who has a fascinating job. She is a translator who is the go-between between these Bosnian refugees seeking shelter in a UN compound and the Dutch soldiers who are in charge of the UN peacekeeping compound and of course everybody then uses English as the lingua franca. And so I guess it’s lingua anglica. And that woman’s story is an incredible way to work in and out of this brutal story.
Jasmila is just a terrific filmmaker and a wonderful person. I am having such a great time with her. So I thought I would spread the news about her and her movie as my One Cool Thing.
Oh, and I do have one other cool thing. It’s my new nickname for me and Megana. Because I was thinking about it. We had talked about Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas. And somebody pointed out obviously how did we miss BenAna.
Craig: BenAna is just like how did we miss it. It’s just right there. And then I was like what happens when Megana and I start dating. And obviously we’d be Craigana. So, I’m just super excited. Craigana is the new thing. #Craigana. And the story of our romance and how it begins in winter and ends when fall arrives, obviously. It’s just such a great story.
Megana: Because I just become unbearable during the fall? Yeah.
Craig: What happens is everything is going OK and then you message Spooky Season in August and that starts to get me really worried, and then it just gets worse and worse. And so by the time Thanksgiving arrives it’s over.
John: Zeke, save us. If you have a refugee related One Cool Thing then that would be fantastic and it would check all the boxes. But tell us, do you have a One Cool Thing for us this week?
Zeke: Mine is actually kind of nerdy. It’s productivity software. Or, I shouldn’t call it that but it’s called Roam Research.
John: I love Roam Research. We can geek out about Roam Research.
Craig: Oh. Oh good.
Zeke: It’s kind of intimidating. It looks like something that’s almost for like computer programmers, but once you learn to use it I feel like when I open it it’s like I’m opening my favorite paper notebook and I just feel really free to write down whatever. If you don’t know it, it just opens up to a page with a date at the top and you start writing stuff down. And you can tag it with whatever tags you want. You end up creating your own personal Wikipedia that’s really easily searchable. Because at any given time I’m researching so many different topics it’s really hard to keep them straight. And this makes it super easy.
I’m starting to work on my first book which is a really intimidating organizational challenge and there’s just so many different threads to keep in the air and so many different things to research. But I feel like I feel weird giving this free ad for this software but I feel like I can do it now by using this. And that I won’t lose track of all the 18 different things that I have to research.
John: I think it’s great as well. So I’ve been using that. And it’s like Workflowy but with much looser organization, sort of like a very freeform taxonomy. It’s really smart. People should give it a shot.
Craig: There’s this incredibly elegant version of what you guys are talking about called paper. You just write stuff down on it.
John: Yeah, but you can’t search paper.
Craig: Yeah, you can. With your eyeballs. [laughs]
John: That is our show. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Ryan Gerber. 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 sometimes @clmazin. I am always @johnaugust. Zeke, where can people find you?
Zeke: I’m @zekefaux.
John: We called you Zeke Faux the first time on the show.
Craig: Which is the coolest name.
John: But then we fixed it.
Craig: I’m bummed out that you’re not Zeke Fox.
Zeke: I’ll forgive you because you are so nice otherwise.
John: You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you find the transcripts and sign up for our weekly-ish newsletter called Inneresting which has lots of links to things about writing.
We have t-shirts and now hoodies. They’re great. You can get them at Cotton Bureau. Remember to order your hoodie right now or else they won’t get there in time for Christmas. 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 talking about magazine versus feature writing. And the differences between them.
Zeke Faux, thank you so much for coming on.
Craig: Thanks Zeke.
Zeke: Thanks John. Thanks Craig.
John: Thanks Craigana.
John: All right. So our bonus segment for this week we have studios that now own publishers. We have the WGA now represents both writers for film and TV but also for magazine and print journalism. Let’s talk about the remaining differences between what screenwriters do and what other journalists do. Craig, start us off.
Craig: Well, I mean, two different jobs. [laughs] It’s two completely jobs.
John: But weirdly related jobs. Like Zeke was just talking through as he’s crafting one of his pieces he is thinking about what are the hooks, what are the things. So maybe that’s distinguishing the business jobs, but it feels like how you put together a successful magazine piece is not that dissimilar to how you’re putting together a good screenplay because you’re looking for what is the reader going to take out of this, how are you building scenes, how are you building characters. All that stuff is similar, right?
Craig: Yeah. It is. I think the structure and mechanisms of writing a narrative piece whether it is a fictional narrative piece or a journalistically narrative piece are similar, of course. The big difference is intention. We are intending in the Hollywood business, and screenwriting, to entertain. And entertain is not a frivolous word. It means to interest, to engage. And I think the intention for journalism is perhaps to entertain and maybe that’s what the ad salesmen want more than anything, but it feels to me that if you’re going to be a journalist surely your ultimate intention is to inform. And that means you have an accountability to fact and truth whereas we do not.
We merely have an accountability to the audience and to entertainment. So those are two massively different intentions. And to me that is the shining bright line between these two jobs.
John: I’m going to confess something. Tell me about how you get a job writing a piece like the one we were discussing? Are you pitching that to your editor? Are you pitching it to multiple pieces? Are you getting assigned things? Talk to us about how something like the article we’ve been discussing came about.
Zeke: So I work fulltime for Bloomberg News which is the owner of Bloomberg Business Week. And I’ve spent ten years working there and sort of developed a specialty on the shady side of the financial industry. So, I generate ideas and then bring them to editors to see what they think of them, if they think it would be a good story, if they think there’s some worthwhile issue to expose.
And like you were saying of course we want people to read the stories, so they can’t be boring, but at the heart of it we need to think that there’s something – this is going to teach people something about the world that they really want to know. And in the case of the Andrew story this fake debt is a real problem that could be written about in a different way, but I think that by telling the story in this narrative way you can really get people’s attention and you can spur people to action.
Like even if our interest is in telling the truth and exposing wrongdoing and being informative we still need to be entertaining, otherwise no one is going to find out whatever it is you – no one is going to read to the end and find out whatever it is you want them to learn.
You had asked how you get the job and when I started at Bloomberg I wasn’t writing these long narrative pieces, but over the years of working with editors I started pitching longer and longer ideas and now often when I have an idea I think about how to do it in this way and I’ll pitch it to Business Week as a feature story.
John: And when you’re pitching that you’re saying it’s going to be about this many words? And how much information do you have about the story when you start? Because do you have kind of all the facts and it’s really a matter of writing it? Or is it I’m going to need to do three weeks of research and fly to these places to make this happen?
Zeke: It can really happen either way. You might be really at the beginning and just say there’s this area I want to explore, what do you think. Or you might have already learned much of the story and now you’re proposing is this going to be something that would be good for the magazine.
John: Great. So let’s talk about you going to talk with a possible subject of your story. So when you’re first sitting down with Andy how do you build trust with him about I’m the person who can actually tell the story well? What are those initial meetings like and how are you communicating because, yes, you’re trying to tell the truth and his story but you’re also trying to get him to tell you the truth and his story. So what are those conversations like?
Zeke: Yeah, it’s always really interesting. And so when I meet someone I might start talking with them off the record where I say like we can just talk but I’m not going to print this. Then I might say, hey, this is like a really compelling story that you’ve just told. It could really help a lot of people to learn this. Phantom debt is a real problem. I’d love to interview you and really do justice to this story and write it. But you’d have to agree to it and you’d have to sit down and talk with me on the record for many hours.
I’ll also say and you know if you agree to this this isn’t your story. I’m going to write the story based on what really happened, based on my research from all kinds of sources. Whatever I can dig up from court records, from interviewing other people, and what I end up saying might not be exactly the way that they see it. And I like to have that conversation before they agree to have the interview because I think it’s fair to the subject of the story because they can start to – I don’t want them to start to think that this is their story and that they are the ones who are going to control the end product.
John: So one last bit to wrap up on because a thing we all as writers have to deal with is actually getting stuff written. So, can you talk to us about the actual writing process? I’m going to achieve this minimum of words per day? What is the writing process like for you? And how do you sort of get stuff written?
Zeke: Well I see you on Twitter saying like it’s time to write, let’s get going.
Craig: You don’t have to do that.
Zeke: And I probably should adapt that procedure. But I mean there comes a time when I feel like I’ve turned over every rock I can think of, I’ve interviewed every single person. And I’m ready to sit down and try and write this story. Because I feel like I wouldn’t want to start writing it too early because I don’t want to become really set on my perspective before I know what happened. I have to create an outline so I can figure out all the interesting details that I heard that I really want to work into the story. Where do they fit? I can’t keep all these different true details in my head at once. I have them all written down in different places. It’s almost like an organizational task to figure out all the different things that happened. Where do they fit in the chronological order of what happened? What are the most interesting parts that I want to make sure that I get in there?
But it can be a real challenge to sort of transition from the researching to the writing because I really enjoy the researching part of it, too. It’s really fun to always be calling sources and trying to find out even more details about when Andrew called Joel to confront him or something like that. But at some point I have to kind of stop and just switch from researching to writing.
John: And that is an experience that everyone listening to this podcast has been through. Which is like planning is great, and at some point you actually have to get it done.
Thank you for getting it done on this article and for joining on this podcast. It was so much fun having you here to talk with about your stories and sort of the story behind these stories. So thank you.
Megana: Thank you.
Zeke: Thanks a lot.
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