The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Oh, oh, right, my name is Craig Mazin.
John: This is Episode 568 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show, there are actors and there are writers, but deep down, what is the difference between writing and acting? How can writers use the techniques of acting to help build effective scenes? We’ll also discuss retirement, cutting characters, and how the central dramatic argument applies to TV. In our Bonus Segment for Premium Members, we’ll discuss the future and what we owe it.
John: Nothing. No, we owe the future something. It’s a question of how much and how much we should prioritize near-term solutions versus long-term solutions and other such things.
John: Great. We’ve got some follow-up here. First off, Writer Emergency Pack XL, which we launched last week, is now fully funded. Thank you for everyone who backed us on Kickstarter for that. You still have a couple, maybe 20 days left to back us if you’d like to. We funded it in the first couple hours, which is great.
Craig: Great. Congrats.
John: Thank you for everybody on that.
John: Hooray. Some more follow-up. Last week we were discussing burials for some reason and coffins and concrete vaults.
Craig: Just stupid.
John: We have some feedback on how to do that in a more environmentally sound way. Megana, help us out.
Megana Rao: Ben wrote in and said, “I just heard the September 19th episode, and your dislike of caskets/concrete burials reminded me of the Green Burial Council and other organizations/movements. In case you didn’t know, there’s folks trying to reduce the carbon footprint of laying people to rest. I’m definitely planning to be memorialized this way. Hope you check it out, and maybe I’ll be a One Cool Thing or Premium bit.”
John: Great. We’ll put a link in the show notes to Green Burial Council. There’s also an LA Times article about human composting as an alternative, where they put you in a muslin bag and stick you in the ground. I’m for it. Good for me.
Craig: Until we get the instant atomizer, which would be fun. I would love to be atomized.
John: Cremation takes a lot of energy. It’s not as much energy as making a casket and burying it. As energy becomes cheaper and cheaper, cremation will get cheaper and cheaper too.
Craig: I would like to be shot into the Sun.
John: That would be nice, but that’s experience. Isn’t that what Johnny Depp got in trouble for with Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes?
Craig: He tried to shoot them into the Sun?
John: He put them into space.
Craig: Oh, Johnny Depp.
John: Oh, Johnny Depp. That’s the most controversial thing he ever did.
Craig: Otherwise, spotless record.
John: Spotless record. Hey, let’s go right to our main topic, which is actors and writing. This is all based around this article we ran in Inneresting this last week, which is an old blog post of mine from 2010 where I was talking about my then young daughter was trying to practice how to seem sad, how to cry. It’s this thing where little kids, they’re like, “Oh I’m so sad, I’m crying,” and they’ll cover their eyes, but they’re not really tears. They’re trying to get you to see things. It got me realizing that she’s trying to act, she’s learning how to act.
I was thinking about how as writers we are acting all the time. We’re all experimenting with how do I portray these emotions that we’re putting on the page rather than on the stage. Craig as a writer and actor, I thought we might have a few minutes to talk about the experience and what you see as the similarities between the craft of pretending something is real for the purposes of writing a scene versus pretending something is real for the purposes of staging a scene.
Craig: Thank you for introducing me correctly as a world-famous actor. I think that actors probably have as much diversity in their approach to how they perform as writers do in their approach to how they write. Some writers are organizers and thinkers, and then they write. Some writers are just, “Wee!” and they write and see where it goes. Most people are combinations of the two.
I think that holds true for actors as well. There are actors that are very thoughtful and are perfectly aware that they’re acting. This would be the Laurence Olivier, “Have you tried acting, my boy?” school. Then other actors seemingly can’t do it unless they disappear inside their character and just go bananas. Everybody’s different. For me, I guess my approach is pretty similar to the way I write, which is to think about what I’m supposed to be feeling and thinking and then feel and think it.
John: That is a relatively modern incarnation of the actor’s, I don’t want to say method, because that breaks into a whole conundrum of other things that are involved in the actor’s method. The idea that a performer on stage is supposed to be believably in the moment that they are portraying isn’t actually all that old of an idea. If you look back to old plays, there was a more presentational quality to it. You were playing to the back seats there. Now, also I think partly because of the arrival of film cameras, we’re in close, and we’re hearing whispers, this sense of like, oh this is a real person in a real situation is much more crucial. That’s often what we’re trying to do on the page as well.
Craig: Over time, I think there has been a general movement towards realism, which was not always a thing, as you point out. For a long time, drama was never intended to be real. It was entirely representational, and it was intentionally so. It would’ve been strange for people to see things presented hyper-realistically. They would’ve been bored to tears or confused. As time has gone on, we seem to have found our way more and more towards a very naturalistic style, some more than others.
I think that holds true for writing as well. The vast quantity of television I think has done more to advance a naturalistic writing than anything else, because there’s so much of it. It all seems to be trending in that direction, not all of it, but some of it, and to varying levels of success. Naturalism and truth, trying to create something that seems real and believable, while yet being not at all real, and rather dramatic, that seems to be the name of the game.
John: It strikes me that so much of what we learn about how an actor prepares goes back to whatever their education was, whatever the techniques they learned along the way. This is how an actor approaches a role. They’re doing some work to figure out, okay, this is how this character stands, this is how this character sits, this is how this character relates to a space, this is the vocal affectations this character uses, this is how they approach these things. To some degree, we may do that as writers, but writers don’t tend to study the same way that actors study. I think there is some things we could probably take from that. Actors practice. They go through rehearsals playing many different characters. They have to swap roles. They have to make changes on their feet. They have to respond in ways that I think sometimes as writers we’re not being forced to do that.
So often as writers, we’re always being pushed on structural things or like, “Oh, this scene should move here.” We’re always looking at the bigger picture. We’re not necessarily doing that in-depth scene work, which I think is part of the reason why we keep coming back to these Three Page Challenges, is that we’re really looking at, moment by moment, how are these dots connecting on the page.
Craig: You can do similar exercises with acting when actors perform a scene and other people watch and then they critique. That’s what acting class generally is. It’s like endless Three Page Challenges or scenes. You’re getting at a fundamental difference. Acting is interpretive. Writing is purely creative, meaning unless you’re adapting, even in an adaptation, you are creating. There’s nothing there, and then there is something there. That is very different. So much of what acting is is about the choices you make of how to interpret the text that is there. That’s where it gets interesting.
You’re right, they do have to incorporate elements of themselves that we generally don’t, like their bodies. When we’re writing, our bodies probably do very similar things, form terrible postures. Not you, I guess. The rest of us. You apparently get even better posture when you write. Everybody else is just slouching and tightening up their neck muscles. It’s all mental. Acting is very physical.
One of the things that you do think about when you’re acting is what do I do with my arms. The answer is nothing. Unless you have something to do with them, just ignore them. Normally, during the day, when you’re talking to people, your arms are just there. You don’t think about them. Suddenly the camera goes on and everyone’s like, “My arms. What do I do with my arms?” They’re just fine. They’re fine. You’ll be okay. Just ignore them.
Figuring out all that stuff is about making choices based on something that has already been created, and you are bringing it to life. That is an aspect of things that we don’t quite do, or sometimes I think we also misunderstand how complicated that process is.
If you are a writer who is dealing directly with actors, the best advice I can give you is respect what they’re doing, even if you think it looks silly or sounds silly or sounds pretentious or confusing or pointless. Doesn’t matter. Respect what they’re doing, because it’s what they need to do to get where they need to go. You, when you were writing, didn’t need to do anything other than the stuff in your head, including get dressed, take a shower, or stand.
John: Let’s talk about the stuff that you were doing in your head as a writer, because I find that so often, I’ll be doing press on a movie, and they’ll say, “Oh, what was it like to have this person play this character?” or, “What was your relationship with the director? How do you talk to the director about the characters?” and stuff like that. I find myself saying, yeah, it’s a weird thing that I am all the characters in the movie, and then one by one, they get assigned away. It’s not like it goes through the directors. It was my character, and now suddenly, it’s their character. I have to watch what they’re doing with their choices of the choices that I made. There is this strange handoff.
I played Edward Bloom for many, many years. I played Will Bloom for many, many years. I knew internally how all those scenes worked and played and what the dynamics were that are driving them. Ultimately, I can do no more to affect that down the road than what I could put on the page and what I could help communicate to the actors if they ask me questions, but I can’t do that for them. Ultimately, it is entirely in their hands now.
Craig: You will find yourself landing in a strange middle world where if you are directing things you’ve written, you have to pay attention to the intentions and the imagined performance that went on in your head, because it does inform how things ought to be. You also then have to pay attention to the reality of the actors in front of you. Then you have to guide those actors towards what would be a better performance that gets more truly and cleanly and interestingly to the heart of what you’re trying to do but isn’t necessarily accountable to the imaginary performance in your head, but rather accountable to them. It’s a really interesting emotional and mental gymnastics routine you have to do inside your head.
On top of all of that, there are trust issues, because you need to make sure that actors trust you. Trust is everything. They’re not going to trust you if they feel like you have an ulterior motive. For instance, let’s say that I cast a movie with, we’ll go with Harrison Ford. I shot a week with Harrison Ford, and then he died. Sorry, Harrison. In this story, you die.
Craig: We have to replace Harrison Ford, so I get somebody else. Who would be a good replacement for Harrison Ford, by the way? Who should I go for here?
John: That’s a good question. Not too far off in range. Josh Brolin?
Craig: Great. I get Josh Brolin. We’re halfway through the day, and I keep saying things to Josh Brolin that make him think, “He just wants me to be Harrison Ford. I get it. He doesn’t want me. He didn’t want me. He wanted Harrison Ford. Harrison Ford died. I can tell he’s just pushing me to do a Harrison Ford impression, but that’s not what I do. It’s not even fair to me. I’m Josh Brolin. I’m my own person, my own actor. I need to get to this part naturally, or else it’s going to stink. It’ll just seem like I’m doing a bad impression of another guy. I’ll never be connected to it. No one will like it anyway.”
That’s kind of the same thing. If they feel like you keep steering them back towards whatever was going on in your head as you were writing this, then that is not the same as acting for them. That’s just chasing your phantom, because the phantom that you have in your head, they don’t have to be accountable to being in physical space, standing there, doing anything you don’t want them to do. They literally disappear into your blind spot when you don’t want to see them. You have to work with the people there. They have to trust that you are working with them and not someone else in your head.
John: A thing that strikes me that actors and writers are both responsible for doing, that’s a difficult skill, and they’re analogous skills, is they have to remember and forget at all moments. For example, actors have to forget that the camera is there. They have to forget that one of the walls is missing. They have to pretend that the space is real so that it feels natural, all the while also being aware of where the camera is, because that is important, also being aware of what the other people’s lines are, even though they need to be able to react as if they’ve never heard those matching lines before.
Writers have to be aware of what is the purpose of this scene, what is going to happen next, what’s going to happen 20 pages from now, why is this scene here, and at the same time, make it feel like this is just a natural moment that’s happening between these characters that is not there just to set up the next thing. That kind of remembering and forgetting at the same time is a skill.
Craig: Good actors, I think, know that they need to divide their attention in weird ways. They need to have an external understanding of what the whole point of the scene is. Good actors need to understand where they sit in the scene. Are they in the middle? Are they the person that’s being shot against the middle? They need to know why the other person’s saying the things they’re saying. Then they need to forget all that and just be them. They need to know those things before they can forget those things.
When you are writing, you are hearing music in your head, and you’re putting notes down. Then you show up with performers on stage. There they are with their instruments. Now if you’re directing, you’re a conductor. Your job is to make sure that they’re all moving in the same fashion, towards the same goal. There you have it.
John: I like it. Director’s conductor. Composer is writer. Actor is the first chair violin.
John: Good analogy. Reaching back to another Inneresting blog post from the past, this was on cutting a character and saving a scene. It actually feels related to what we’re talking about with actors. I found myself in a situation where I could not make this scene work. I realized there was just one more character in there than I could actually support. Once I cut that character out, the scene felt very natural.
Similarly, just this last week, I was working on a scene where because of changes, I actually had to add a character into the scene. It was important this character be in the scene. It was impossible to take the existing scene and just add that character in. It seems like it should be the simplest thing, like we’ll throw one line to this new character. It just never works that way. A development person’s note might be just to stick them in there. If you just stick an extra body into a scene, it tends to fall apart. We’ll put a link in the show notes to this great video of Patton Oswalt on King of Queens. He was a small part of King of Queens.
Craig: He was the best. He was the greatest.
John: There’s this one scene where Patton Oswalt is in this scene. He has to be there, but he has no lines for a long time. He chooses to stand just completely still the entire time.
Craig: It’s amazing.
John: No one notices.
Craig: No one notices. I could be wrong, but I feel like when he did it, he didn’t tell anyone either. It wasn’t like he said to everybody, “Hey, let me just do this. It’ll be funny.” I think no one knew. It’s wonderful. He’s the best.
John: He’s fantastic.
Craig: I think he’s such a great stand-up comedian. He’s got a new Netflix special.
John: Let’s plug his Netflix special.
Craig: He’s not even on the show. I’m plugging his stuff.
John: One day.
Craig: One day.
John: Let’s talk about that. Craig, you’ve had this experience throughout your entire career, I’m sure, is that so often the challenge is not just what is the scene about, it’s who’s in the scene and how do you support those people being in the scene. There are times where this would be so much easier if I could get rid of this character. You can find a way to get rid of them if you can. Other times, the simplest version is impossible because of who’s there.
Craig: Everything is a souffle. I say souffle all the time. When things are arranged correctly… It’s very hard to get things to be arranged correctly. It’s very hard to make a souffle. It’s hard to get the souffle to rise. Then someone comes along and says, “Oh, but just throw one more thing in,” or take one thing out or do this or do this or do that. It seems very small to them, and it’s not. It makes the souffle fall apart.
By the way, this goes right to acting again. There are things you can do where you might ask an actor to do something, and you can see them tense up. I think for a lot of people who don’t quite get what’s going on there, they may think it’s just a defensive actor being defensive, but sometimes it’s just, in fact most of the time I’d imagine, it’s just I’m going, “Oh, you’re going to mess up the souffle. It’s a little tiny thing, but you’re messing it up. Now I know it’s just not going to be as good.”
There’s no magic to removing a character and suddenly everything’s amazing. You probably put that character there for a reason. There’s nothing wrong with being right. Sometimes we’re right. We’re allowed to say, “I know, it seems like you could just move that one little piece, but as it turns out, it’s a load-bearing wall.” Just fill in whatever, souffle, structure, metaphor you’d like.
John: I can talk about the sets I’ve been on in my experience as directing, but I’m curious what yours has been. Do actors know when a scene is working, or do they sometimes not know when a scene is working? I’ve definitely seen cases where the actors are convinced this is great and golden, and what we’re seeing on the monitor is like, “Oh, that’s not the scene. We’re not there yet.”
Craig: It’s been my luck or good fortune to work with actors that tend to worry that it’s not working than rather just be thrilled with themselves. We’re all the same way. We’re all very nervous and trying to make sure it’s great. There are times where it’s easy enough when you’re behind the camera to go, “That’s it. Cut. I have it.” Then they’re like, “Do you? Do you? Do you? Do you?” “Yes, trust me. I have it. We have it.” There are also times where they may say, “We had it on take two, and now it’s take five.” There can be disagreements.
By and large, I think good actors question more than they presume that things are great. They are reasonably concerned that they’re going to look stupid, because no one’s going to see me. They’re not going to see me. They’re not going to see the screenplay pages. They’re going to see the actors. In movie theaters, they’re enormous. If they look stupid, everyone makes fun of them, especially now. Now you can’t even be stupid and be made fun of briefly. You’re made fun of forever. You live forever on the internet.
John: You become a meme.
Craig: You become a meme.
John: You’re this little slice out of there.
Craig: It’s not fair.
John: I would say that like you, more cases, the actors are not convinced it’s working when it actually is working, because they’re just not seeing what we’re seeing. They may feel and think about the space between this character and I, the lens is just seeing things differently. I’ll grant that.
There’s also times where an actor is making a choice that they believe is great and it’s working, and it just comes across differently. Those are just difficult conversations to have, because you as the director, you as the writer, you know how all the pieces also need to fit together.
So often, actors are only thinking about this one moment, this one scene, where am I at in this one scene. They don’t know emotionally where they need to get to, what came just before this. Those can be the challenging conversations to have, because it’s not even necessarily that they’re making a wild choice for this moment. It’s just that choice is not going to fit overall what needs to happen around the scene.
Craig: I do try and talk about the moment before and the moment after. I think the moment after is just as important. I just remember everybody what’s happening before and what’s happening after, because we don’t shoot things in order, especially when you’re shooting across lots of episodes, where it’s a lot of stuff. Yes, there are times where they think something is spot on, and maybe you disagree.
Other people are different, but my general philosophy is that directing actors is a little bit like being a parent and thinking I can guide my kid as I’m raising my kids. I’m not saying actors are children. Just go with me for this. I can teach them some things. I can give them some values. I can say I don’t like that or I do like this. Basically, they are who they are. I can gently nudge this way or that. What I don’t want to do is parent them in such a way that I’m saying you should not be who are you, because that’s not possible, and everything will go bad.
I think with actors, you can nudge, you can massage. If you know they have three different gears, and they’re in the wrong one, get them to the other one, but don’t ask them to be in a gear they don’t know. Don’t fight against their natural nature. Oh my god, I just said natural nature. Let’s leave it in. I think people need to know how bad I am at talking.
John: I’ve had a few mistakes this episode too, so I think we’re all good.
Craig: No. There are none in evidence. See, there are none in evidence. Mine will stay there forever.
John: Craig, what you’re really saying though is that casting is absolutely crucial, because casting is when you actually decide what is the fit between this actor or this role, and who is the person who can basically… They have the innate sense of how to play this character. Within that, you could make some changes. You could amp some stuff up and down. They have to be able to be that person on the camera.
If you have the wrong person, it’s just not going to work. That’s why sometimes you start shooting with somebody and recast them, because that’s just not going to work. It’s just not going to fit. There’s nothing you could do to change that person’s performance along the way. They were just the wrong person in that role.
Craig: There are times when somebody above may send a note. This didn’t happen to me, happily. There was a movie I worked on where this did happen, where the studio said, “Listen, we’ve been watching the dailies for two weeks, and we think the actor should be more like this.” I wasn’t directing the movie, but I remember thinking, “That’s not going to happen. You don’t even want it to happen.” In fact, the worst possible thing would be if that actor went, “Oh, okay, got it,” because then they wouldn’t be themselves. They would not be acting out of their own body and face and brain and heart. They would be just acting towards something artificial. You got to dance with the date you brought.
John: I had a situation early on in my career where there was an actor in a role, and the big studio note came like, “This is not the character we want. This is not the performance we want. This is not working.” I had to go and try to do as much as I could in what days were left shooting it, but also in ADR to bring that performance up to a more comedic place. We did get 10% of the way there, but ultimately we had to recast and re-shoot. That was the wrong person in the role. I hadn’t picked this person for the role. It had been forced upon me. The other alternative could’ve been, if we had to keep that actor in the role, was just rewriting what they were doing, because it just wasn’t going to work with this actor.
Craig: That’s okay. While it may be disappointing, I’m sure it would be disappointing for that actor, the only thing worse than being recast is being forced to be something that you can’t be, and every day, day after day, 12 hours a day being told you’re not doing it right, do something that you don’t understand how to do. That would be terribly frustrating.
John: Our friend Rachel Bloom is in a new show called Reboot on Hulu. It’s delightful. In the second episode, there is an actor who’s cast in a role onto this rebooted TV sitcom. She’s wildly miscast. Everyone has to scramble around to figure out, “What are we going to do with this character who cannot possibly play the scene? Do we rewrite the scene or do we somehow teach this person how to act in a completely different way?” To its credit, it goes through all the different permutations of what it could do, including have her act with her hands or not act with her hands. As Craig would teach you, don’t act with your hands.
Craig: Don’t act with your arms. You can absolutely act with your hands.
John: Hands, but no big arm movements.
Craig: Between shoulder and elbow, you really just want to isolate that.
John: You got to keep it small. I would recommend anybody who’s enjoying this conversation to check out this show called Reboot. Rachel Bloom is not the only great actor in it, but Rachel Bloom is a friend, and so you should see it for her.
Craig: You should always see Rachel Bloom.
John: Let’s go to some questions. This first one is a big one from JP.
Megana: JP asks, “Quick question. While listening to Episode 76, How Screenwriters Find Their Voice, I was shocked, simply shocked to hear Craig say that after turning 50 he was going to start seriously thinking about retirement. Does that plan still stand, or is it safe to say Craig’s shift from feature writer to TV writer/producer/emperor changed his view on things?”
John: Craig, did you renege on your promise to retire at 50 because Chernobyl did well? What happened?
Craig: No, I didn’t promise anything, first of all. I said I would seriously think about it. I think about retirement all the time. I think most of the time when I talk about thinking about retirement, what I’m really talking about thinking about is failure and everyone just going, “Oh my god, enough of this guy,” and then that’s that, so then I have to force retire.
I’m not currently thinking seriously about retirement. I’ve got a few more things to do. I just turned 50 not too long ago, year, year and a half ago. That’s not to say that five years from now I might be like… At some point, I have to decide, what do I like more, working or not working, which is a nice problem to have, because I do really enjoy what I do a lot. There are days, man.
John: There’s days you prefer to play D and D.
Craig: By the way, honestly, that’s what saves you. D and D saves you. If I didn’t have D and D, I’d probably be retired by now.
John: I don’t consider retirement at all. I think Mike would probably love me to take some time off and just be more freely available to do other stuff. I intend to be one of those people who I die with a script half written and 19 things. I want to die with things being messy and unfinished because there was stuff. I want to owe somebody a script when I die.
Craig: Wow. That’s just aggressive. That feels hostile. That feels like you’re punishing everybody, like, “You! You!”
John: Writers could write for a very long time. Directors can direct for a very long time. We see people in their 70s and 80s working hard. I want to be one of those people. I really enjoy what I do, so I can’t think of that. We also have friends who are involuntarily retired. Basically, the phone stops ringing. It becomes harder and harder to make a living. That also happens. I think we have to make sure that we are structurally planning for the work may not come forever and that we are setting aside our own money, but that we also have Guild money and other things that are keeping us potentially afloat in our later years.
Craig: You certainly plan for forced retirement, and then make your choice. If you’re not forced, then it’s a choice. I think right now I can’t imagine retiring, because I feel like I’m getting better. I think I’ll think about it much more if I feel like I’m getting worse. If I get worse, I’ll just stop.
John: If for whatever reason you are not allowed to write film and television anymore, is there a career switch you would make?
Craig: A career switch, I don’t know about that. I think I would do a lot of volunteer stuff. A bit like this podcast, I like that we don’t have ads, so it’s not a job. We don’t work for anybody. We don’t have to listen to their nonsense. We don’t take any guff. We can take guff from Megana.
John: I really liked teaching my daughter to read. I think I would probably do more volunteering in teaching elementary school kids to read, because I really dig that. Once a kid can read, they can do everything.
Craig: I’ll tell you what I wouldn’t do. What I wouldn’t do is go teach at USC or anything like that, not that they would have me. I wouldn’t do it, because it’s sick enough already. How much more can I talk about this stuff?
John: I would consider teaching one semester at a time at different universities around the country, because it would be fun to just live in different places.
Craig: It’s not about them.
John: It’s not about them. It’s about me.
Craig: Just the thought of having to stand there and have people ask me questions about the central dramatic argument and such, I can’t bear it. Anyway, what’s our next question?
Megana: Taylor wrote in. She says, “In Episode 403, Craig discusses how to write a screenplay beginning with the central dramatic argument. Forgive me if you’ve heard this one before, but I’d love to hear thoughts on how the central dramatic argument maps onto a television series. If the protagonist is undergoing change in each hour-long episode, does that mean there’s a unique dramatic argument for each episode and an overarching dramatic argument for the entire season, or is there simply one dramatic argument that you continuously work towards in each episode. Mad Men’s Don Draper is put through a new ringer in each episode, but every episode is also part of a unified whole, his season-long journey.”
John: Craig, let’s talk about this, because you just did a TV series. Is there a central dramatic argument? How does the central dramatic argument map onto either Chernobyl or Last of Us? What were you thinking along those lines as you were doing it?
Craig: I think you basically have it right, Taylor. There is a big one, and then there are little ones episodically. I’m not a big fan of the whole, “My television series is just a really long movie.” I hope not, because then how do I know why did an episode end in a particular way?
I think every episode does need to be its own short movie with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and there does need to be some sort of resolution. The characters that are undergoing those things change very typically from episode to episode. There is one character who’s probably the central protagonist. That central protagonist’s central dramatic question is the one that gets answered by the end. You have a circle made up of circles. You don’t need to be particularly pedantic about it. You don’t have to make drawings or sketches. You just need to know. Otherwise, it’s like, “What was the point of that episode, and what did I learn? What was the point of this whole season? What did I learn?”
There are shows where it’s different. Purely episodic television cannot have a central dramatic argument, can’t, because it needs to go on forever. Soap operas need to go on forever. Soap opera covers all sorts of genres. There is this new limited series-ish vibe that goes on where certain television shows are not meant to go on for 20 seasons, but maybe 3 or 4. Each one of those seasons has a point and an impact and a statement to make. All those questions need to be thought through and answered. I think if you’re doing a television series that has an ending, a circle made up of circles.
John: Craig, while you were off doing Last of Us, I’ve had a bunch of showrunners on, talking about their process. I think they would largely agree with what you’re saying. When you talk with them about how they were setting up their writers’ rooms and how they were thinking about the season, how they were thinking about each episode, they really would come down to, either call it theme or call it central dramatic argument, what is the unifying principle behind this episode’s story, and how is it progressing the character development and what we want to see these characters be doing over the course of this season, be that a 6-episode season or a 22-episode season. They are mapping out where they are going overall, what are their arcs that are happening.
These were shows that were long movies in the sense of characters would have big transformations and enter one place and exit another place. You look at Girl From Plainville or you look at Liz Meriwether’s show The Dropout, they were movie-like arcs, but they were very clearly set up to have each episode have a point of entry, a point of exit, and you could really feel like that was the conclusion of this episode, that was the conclusion of this part of the story. It was all fit together. That’s from the outlining stage. That’s when you’re on the whiteboard figuring out what are the important beats in this episode. You figure it out then.
Craig: That’s right. That’s how you get to interesting ends of episodes. That’s also how people get a sense that you’re being intentional and thoughtful, that it’s not haphazard. You’re not just going, “There, stop this one here. We’ll start it up again next week.” Everything’s crafted, should be ideally crafted, so that every single episode feels satisfying in its own way and yet drives you with interest to the next one. Then after all is said and done, when you look at all of them as a whole, you go, “Okay, everything that was being said here and here and here and here and here was all being reflected back here, here, here, here, here. This was all part of one big thing and not just a haphazard bucket of narrative bolts.”
John: It’s also much easier to apply this kind of framework to an 8-episode season versus a 22-episode classic broadcast show. You look at what Lost had to do or what Buffy the Vampire Slayer had to do. They could start a season with real intention, but they couldn’t really know where the end of their season was. They couldn’t quite know how things were going to progress, how quickly they would burn through storylines. Sometimes they do have to do a mid-season reset to get you to a new place. I think that’s incredibly difficult to do that level of quality for 22 or 24 episodes per season. I’m glad we’re not trying that hard to do those giant mega shows anymore.
Craig: I just don’t think it’s possible.
John: No, not with the expectations we have, both in terms of what has to happen narrative-wise but also what production value has to be. We just can’t do it.
John: Another question, Megana.
Megana: Citizen asks, “I’m a writer living and working outside the US. A pilot I wrote was optioned by a company based in Los Angeles with the intention of selling it to a bigger production company. After a couple years, things seem to be gaining momentum, because they recently approached me to discuss the fact that if they sell the series, then I would most likely be replaced as the writer. I’m realistic. I know most things don’t happen. I know my leverage as a new writer from another country is very little. In any case, I would like to know, what would be the best-case scenario for me or someone like me? Is it possible to even get hired as a writer? Can I get proper credit as a creator if I’m not WGA? Can I be WGA? I have no idea. I suppose it’s all up to whoever negotiates my contract, but any guidance on what’s possible or what to look out for would be immensely appreciated.”
John: Oh, Citizen. Let’s talk about the good news. Apparently, you wrote something that was so good that they feel like they can get this set up, and they were optimistic, and they’re trying to warm you up to the idea of being replaced, which is shitty, but also it means that there could be some interest in you going forward, this project going forward. What is your contract with these people? They’ve optioned this thing, but in what way did they option it? Is there anything in there about keeping you on as a writer? It feels like there should be. It’s not clear that there is. At the very least, if this project gets set up someplace and might have a different showrunner or something, you created the underlying material, and that is always going to be there. Your name is always going to be on it in some way. Craig, what’s your thinking for Citizen?
Craig: There’s a term in the feature side of the Writers Guild minimum basic agreement that says that if a writer sells literary material, meaning you’ve written it, you’re not employed to write it, but rather you’ve already written it, and then you sell that like a spec, and copyright then gets transferred over to sign, the purchasing company is obliged to hire you to do the next rewrite of that material. They can’t just buy it and then kick you off. They buy it, then they employ you, and you write the next draft. I don’t know if there’s a similar version of that for the television side of things. There should be. I wish there were, if there isn’t.
John: Citizen, you definitely can become a WGA member. There are people all over the world who are WGA members. The fact that you’re living outside of the US is not going to prohibit you from doing that. Ultimately, the work you’re doing for this company, if they’re [inaudible 00:39:43] this will be US work, so it will still count. You can become a WGA member.
Craig: Yes, if you are employed by a signatory, then yes, you will be a WGA member. If they’re saying you will most likely be replaced as a writer, the thing you need to be aware of is that the people that optioned your pilot may have optioned it because they love the idea, they like a character, but they may not love the writing. It seems a little odd that they’re immediately saying this now. It may be that they’re also thinking, “Oh, nobody’s going to want to develop the show with you, because what have you done?” to which I would say, “The thing that you optioned, and the thing that they would be buying.”
Hard to say without more details, other than yes, it is possible to get hired as a writer. In fact, it may be mandatory. I would have to take a look at the MBA on that. Getting proper credit as a creator if you’re not WGA, I’m not sure. Can you be WGA? Yes. You need a lawyer. You should probably have one already, since you’ve signed an option agreement.
John: It would be a great idea to have, either if you’re in the UK, a UK lawyer who’s used to working with Hollywood companies, if you’re not in the UK, I would say just see if you can find an LA-based lawyer who has some experience in this field, just because I just worry that a French lawyer coming into this is not going to have the expertise that would be useful for this situation. You can do it.
The general case for Citizen, let’s say you were an American writer, you wrote this thing, and you get the call like, “We would need to bring in another writer.” The idea like this is going to be a TV show, this is going to need a showrunner, so we’re going to bring in a showrunner, that’s really common for some writers, for a new showrunner to come on board. That can be a good experience. It’s also possible that that was the conversation they meant to have with you, that they weren’t going to just toss you aside. We’ll see.
Craig: Hard to say.
John: Hard to say. Craig, should we do our One Cool Things? I feel like jumping ahead to that.
Craig: I have no problem with that.
John: I have two One Cool Things. First off, this article by Dino Grandoni, which I’m sure you read, for the Washington Post, about how many ants there are in the world. Craig, do you know how many ants there are in the world?
Craig: You’re talking about the sisters of your mom?
John: The sisters of your mom, no. I’m actually talking about the small insects who ruin picnics.
Craig: Oh my god. It’s got to be like a trillion.
John: 20 quadrillion.
Craig: There we go.
John: It’s an unbelievably massive number.
Craig: That’s too many ants.
John: There’s more ants than there are all other birds and mammals on Earth combined.
John: The mass of it is immense. For every person on Earth, there are 2.5 million ants.
Craig: That’s awesome. That’s so great. I want mine. Where are mine?
John: All of my ants. Sometimes during these hot days, it does feel like I can feel all 2.5 million of them in my house, because Megana will testify we have ants certain times.
Craig: You have an ant problem.
John: We have some ant problems. The little bait things do work, but it takes two days for it to work. That kills off the colony.
Craig: I hear you. Ants.
John: How do you feel about ants?
Craig: I have no strong feelings about ants. I know this is probably shocking. It’s just not a thing I think about. I don’t think about ants, although I did enjoy that, I don’t know if it was one time they did it or multiple times, where they pumped an abandoned ant colony… They put a bunch of concrete in there, and they just kept pouring concrete in, and then they excavated it. It’s insane.
John: It’s like tree roots everywhere.
Craig: It’s huge. It’s huge. It’s quite beautiful.
John: I’m sure it is. Ants versus spiders, which do you prefer?
Craig: I like spiders.
John: You like spiders?
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: I think Megana must love spiders, because she’s now decorated her desk area with spiderwebs for spooky season.
Megana: No, I hate spiders. I decorated with that because it’s spooky and scary.
Craig: Spooky season is upon us.
Megana: It is upon us. Why do you like spiders?
Craig: They’re brilliant. They can weave webs. Look at the webs alone.
John: Webs are cool.
Craig: They’re incredible. They’re predators, which is cool. They wrap you up, and they drain your blood and such. They eat annoying bugs that no one likes.
John: Whenever I see spiders in the house, I always remind myself, “Oh, that’s right, they’re here to eat some other bugs that I’m glad don’t exist.”
Craig: When they are combined with other creatures, they become like the driders, the drow spider creatures.
John: Or they become Spider-Man.
Craig: Or they become Spider-Man, exactly. Now, there is an Ant-Man, but he’s just big. He’s big.
John: He’s just big. He really has nothing to do with ants. They try to retcon into some ant-
John: It’s not the same.
John: I have a second One Cool Thing, which is a question for you. In English, our question words start with W-H, generally, so when, which, where, why, what.
Craig: Who, whom.
John: Who. Why is that?
Craig: John, I don’t know.
John: It actually goes back to proto-Indo-European, the root of all our European and Indian languages. A thing I just learned this last week, [inaudible 00:45:17] a podcast, but I found a good article about it, is it’s actually the same system that gives us, in Spanish, quien, quando, all the Q words, and same in Italian and same in Latin, because it’s just how English drifted and changed. The W-H used to be a hard H-W. That hard H was more of a K. It would be quich, quen, quere. That was the thing.
John: With spelling reform, they switched the W and the H, but W-H is really the same thing as Q-U. Isn’t that cool?
John: Wow, quow.
John: I just like the fact that in every set of languages, it’s so tempting to look at the letters that are written down, but it’s generally the sounds are how you figure out how things are related, because spelling has just drifted so much over the years.
Craig: Here’s a person who’s drifted so much over the years. Bo Shim.
John: Tell me.
Craig: I don’t have a One Cool Thing this week, so I said, “Bo, can you help me out and give me a One Cool Thing?” What resulted was a cascade of restaurant recommendations, which if you know Bo-
John: Bo is a foodie. Am I correct to say she’s a foodie?
Craig: She’s both a gourmet and a gourmand. No one eats more than her. No one. She is the tiniest person. This isn’t like a, “Oh, you little thing, you ate a lot.” No, I mean I have seen her eat food that would make me barf in quantity terms. It’s amazing.
John: Give us some recommendations, because Mike will add them to our shared note of all the restaurants we want to go to.
Craig: These are all going to be for local folks who listen to us here in the Southern California area. Her favorite K-Town noodle spot is MDK Noodles.
John: I’ve been to MDK Noodles. I completely back that up.
Craig: Her favorite hole-in-the-wall spot is Western Doma Noodles. Western Doma. Her favorite fried chicken is KyoChon, honey wings she says. KyoChon honey wings. Zzamong for Jjajangmyeon. Jjajangmyeon is my favorite Korean food. Have you ever had Jjajangmyeon?
John: I don’t know what it is, no.
Craig: It’s Korean comfort food. It’s noodles in a fermented black bean sauce. It’s ramen-like but not soup. It’s more spaghetti-ish, but with this delicious, salty black bean sauce, and with little bits of tofu and flakes and things. It’s so good. It’s so good. It’s bad for you, but it’s really good. Now I have to go there [inaudible 00:47:55]. She said she recently went to Mandarin Noodle House in Monterey Park and it was three fire emojis. Finally, also incredibly beautiful, but also delicious, lava mooncakes that she got Mid-Autumn Festival a couple weeks ago from Aliya Lavaland in Monterey Parks. She showed some pictures, including a mooncake that is in the shape and design of an orange. It looks amazing.
John: I love it.
Craig: Lots of recommendations for people.
John: For our listeners outside of Los Angeles, some geography to help you understand where things are. What Bo’s describing, the Korean places are in Koreatown, which is the edge of where I live and where Craig is going to be living soon. Koreatown’s great. I love Korean food, but it’s hard for me to eat a lot of Korean places, because beef and pork tend to be in everything, and I don’t eat beef and pork. I have to find the vegetarian options there at those places. I love Korean food. Monterey Park has a big Chinese population and a lot of really amazing Chinese restaurants. Those are places you want to check out if you’re in Los Angeles and want that kind of cuisine.
John: Love it.
Craig: Thank you, Bo.
John: That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It’s edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Nico Mansy. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin, I’m @johnaugust. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts and sign up for our weekly-ish newsletter called Inneresting, which has lots of links to things about writing. You can sign up to become a Premium Member at scriptnotes.net, where you get all the back-episodes and Bonus Segments like the one we’re about to record on the future. Craig and Megana, thank you for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: Craig, the future.
John: The future and what we owe it. I guess this got put in my head because on the New York Times podcast, The Daily, they’ve been hyping this book called The Future and What We Owe It by some person. I should remember it as often as they’ve said it. I’ve also been reading articles about long-termism and this notion of thinking about how much we should be making policy choices or taking actions that affect the short-term versus the long-term and how we find the balance between what we want to do in the world right now versus what’s going to be important for people living a hundred years from now, 300 years from now, our children versus our grandchildren. What’s your general thinking about how much we should value a person’s life 50 years from now versus today?
Craig: It’s a fairly privileged question, because I think that people that are struggling can’t really afford to worry about the rest of us 50 years from now. They’re just trying to take care of themselves and their kids. This is a legacy question that I think is certainly something that people of means ought to be thinking about.
There are people who are very wealthy who just think about transferring the wealth generationally to their children and their children’s children, which is the way it’s generally always been, but perhaps not for the best, in fact almost certainly not for the best. Then there are other people who are very, very wealthy, and they do think about legacy. They create endowments. Endowments, from a financial point of view, are an interesting way to blindly but eternally give to the future. They grow. As they grow, they kick off funds. Those funds go out to support things and so on and so forth for eternity.
Then there are these other choices that we have to make that are based on guesses. We don’t have to guess that money would be helpful to people in the future. We do have to guess whether or not stopping A versus B will have a better impact on things for the future, because sometimes we guess wrong.
I think we collectively should be thinking about the future. We tend to define it entirely in terms of our children. If you listen to politicians, they’re always talking about a better world for your children. I think people who don’t have children are also interested in a better world for the people that are coming. Seems reasonable. The more we can disconnect it from our immediate children, probably the better. Let’s just try and help as many people as we can with the choices we make. We think about these things, and we work on these things, but it’s very difficult to disentangle them from our current situation if our current situation is lacking.
John: I find myself alternating between pessimism and optimism about the future and the future being 10 years from now, 50 years from now, 100 years from now. Compared to some of my friends, who believe that the world won’t exist in 100 years, I’m certainly much, much more optimistic. I think I always go back to, I’ve mentioned this on the show many, many times, The Big Book of Horrible Things, which lists the 100 greatest atrocities in history. You realize the world has been through some terrible shit many, many, many times. Stuff gets really, really bad, and then we come out of it. If you look at how bad things could get, they can get really bad. You look at how things could bet better, they could actually get a lot better. I totally understand why some people would say, “I don’t want to have kids.” Great. To say, “I don’t want to have kids because I think the world is going to be on fire and terrible,” I don’t vibe with that, because I don’t think that’s accurate.
Craig: No, it’s defeatist. I think it’s selfish, actually, in a weird way, selfish and indulgent to go, “Oh my god, everything’s so bad. We don’t have to do anything. What’s the point?”
John: Weirdly, sometimes the most pessimistic and the most optimistic make the same choices. You see some of these [inaudible 00:54:00] saying, “We have to think about where humanity’s going to be 1,000 years from now and plan for that.” They’re using that to skip over worrying about the people who actually need the help right now. That’s incredibly frustrating.
Craig: Yes. As always, even though everyone hates the middle, the mushy moderate, that’s where the truth generally is. You’re absolutely right that things have been horrible in the past and I think in many ways are improving. Obviously, there are areas where things are getting worse. Climate is the big one. I think that sticks out for everyone. Here we are. It is 2022. We are about 80 years separated from World War Two, which is not a long time. There are people obviously who were alive during World War Two who are still alive now. John, do you know how many people died during World War Two?
John: God, I knew that number at some point. Is it 40 million?
Craig: Depends. There’s a range. 40 million is the bottom estimate. Top estimate, about 85 million.
John: I know that people always under-count Russia. Russia took the huge brunt of losses there.
Craig: Soviet Union took an insane amount of losses, probably about 20 to 30 million people. Then there are these associated deaths that aren’t necessarily attributed to World War Two but were almost certainly exacerbated by World War Two. Bengal Famine comes to mind. Things were so horrible all the time, and that time still was somehow better than all the times before, when things were even worse. We don’t get how great it is. We don’t get it. We don’t get it. All the complaining and whining that we do, I think… We’re allowed to complain. Don’t get me wrong. I’m Jewish. It’s part of our religion. You can’t excuse then trying to figure things out.
I think it’s important to think ahead. I’ve always been a think-aheader and a planner. We think about the future. Like I said, endowments I think are wonderful things. I’m a big fan of the concept of the endowment.
John: I used to be a bigger fan of the endowment. Give me your pitch for why endowments versus just pay the money to the government and get rid of the generational wealth.
Craig: An endowment isn’t really about generational wealth. A trust is about generational wealth, where you’re saying, “I’m going to put this money into a trust. It is going to accrue, to the benefit of my children and their children,” and so on and so forth. An endowment is ideally a charity that supports some cause or segment of society that is not about your blood relations. It grows in time with the marketplace and continually puts money and funds out to that end, and in theory would do so in perpetuity, and is not subject to the whims of various governments.
The federal government is not a particularly brilliant manager of funds. We know that. Simply just take a walk down Defense Department budget road, and you will see some shocking things. Also, government has a lot to do.
Let’s say your passion was female reproductive health. Creating an endowment might be really valuable. It could kick out money. The endowments don’t have to just send money off to individuals. The endowments can also, as part of their charter, send money to other charitable organizations. An endowment can make an annual donation every year to Planned Parenthood.
We have an endowment that supports our public schools in La Cañada. Every year, that endowment makes a gift to exactly one organization, which is the annual charitable fund that supports the public schools in La Cañada. This is a good thing, I think.
John: I think people can [inaudible 00:58:18] better con case. To me, they can be a way of sheltering money that should be the public’s money, that ultimately was generated through the possibilities made possible by government and other things to specific causes. While it’s great to think here’s this endowment that is supporting this noble cause that we want to believe in, like education or reproductive health, endowments can also be used for less noble purposes and can have salaries to pay certain people to do certain things that are not maybe good for the function of society. Basically, it’s a way for wealthy people to maintain their power and control after their deaths. That’d be the case against endowments.
Craig: I think if there is a, and this is a big if, if there is a fair taxation system, then the money the people are earning is fairly taxed, and the taxes go to the government, and that’s the government’s share. Then what’s remaining behind is up to people to do with as the would. Whatever it is, we can choose to leave what remains just to our children. We can choose to light it on fire. We can choose to leave it to our cat.
John: The Patagonia CEO who created basically a charity that now owns the company.
Craig: That’s right.
John: Which I guess is really a form of trust or form of endowment.
Craig: Exactly. If you want to eliminate the concept of the endowment, you have to essentially presume that government will always be the better manager and distributor of funds. I have not seen strong evidence for that.
John: Megana, how far away do you think of as the future? Is your notion of the future 10 years from now or is it 50 years from now? What is the future to you?
Megana: That’s interesting. I guess it’s 10 years down the line.
Craig: You’re young.
Megana: Also, I don’t know, tomorrow feels like the future. I feel like as I’m getting older, I see more immediate consequences to the decisions I’m making, mostly in terms of candy I’m eating or how much I’m sleeping or drinking.
John: The present and the near future do muddle in a way. I feel like the near future comes quicker and quicker and quicker in terms of like, “Oh, this thing that seemed like it was going to be five years away, that happened just now.” That speed does seem to be increasing. There’s the distant, more murky future, where it could be one of a thousand possibilities. It’s harder to ascertain and unavoidably vague. We can have some broad prognostications about what is possible, but we don’t really know. Just for a little humility, you look back and look at what everyone thought 2020 would be like, and they were not correct.
Craig: No. We’re actually quite terrible at it. That’s probably not going to change. I think the best we can do is have a little care in our hearts for the people that are going to be here after we are. That’s about all we can do.
John: Just to leave it on a more hopeful not, the UN Secretary General was talking about extreme poverty in the world and how we need to continue the progress we’ve made. In that, the number of people in the world living in extreme poverty has dropped hugely since our childhood. That’s real, meaningful progress. It’s always confusing to look at things from our privileged Western perspective. When I went to visit Malawi, it was tough, and yet it was better than it had ever been before. Recognizing that you’re coming from a place and you want everyone to keep moving up that ladder, but at least in most parts of the world, there are ladders, which is progress.
Craig: I was thinking about what you were just saying about looking ahead to tomorrow and the candy you eat and drinking. I was thinking about how it’s spooky season. I thought I would just Google this, and it paid off.
Megana: Oh, no.
Craig: Would you like a recipe for candy corn-infused vodka?
Megana: Yeah, sure. Those are both things that I enjoy.
Craig: They might as well call this the Megana.
Megana: I really love candy corn. I can’t get enough of that sweet, sweet wax.
Craig: What is it? What is it? It’s corn starch, I assume.
Megana: I don’t know. It shouldn’t be edible, but it is.
Craig: It shouldn’t be. I’m with you. I like candy corn. I’ve always liked it.
John: I liked it as a kid. I can’t take something that sweet anymore. As a kid, I really loved candy corn.
Craig: What is the flavor of candy corn, actually? What is that flavor?
John: I don’t know. I associate it with a color, but that’s of course not what it actually is.
Megana: It’s white, orange, and yellow.
Craig: Somebody asked The Jelly Belly Company, because they’re obviously amazing with candy flavors. This is what they said. “Candy corn is meant to be a blend of creamy fondant, rich marshmallow, and warm vanilla notes.”
John: That feels right. Wikipedia has it as a waxy texture and a flavor based on honey, sugar, butter, and vanilla.
Craig: There you go.
John: Those are all there.
Craig: That’s about right. I think it’s delicious.
John: Megana’s future is going to involve some candy corn vodka.
Craig: They’re going to find her facedown on her carpet.
John: It’s going to be the new Nyquil chicken. That’s what killed her.
Craig: Candy corn vodka and Nyquil chicken, what a night.
Megana: This is what my future has in store for me.
John: Thank you both.
Megana: Thank you.
- Writer Emergency Pack XL is funded! Support here on Kickstarter!
- Green Burial Council and Is California ready for ‘human composting’ as an alternative to casket burial, cremation? by Anabel Sosa for the LA Times
- John’s Blogpost on Fake Tears
- Scriptnotes Episode 76: How screenwriters find their voice
- Scriptnotes Episode 403: How to Write A Movie
- Patton Oswalt on King of Queens
- Cut A Character Save A Scene on John’s Blog
- Ants Outnumber Everything by Dino Grandoni for the Washington Post
- Why Question Words Start with Wh on Reddit
- Bo Shim’s LA Food Guide: Western Doma Noodles hole-in-the-wall treasure, MDK Noodles in K-town, Zzamong for Jjjangmyun, KyoChon for fried chicken–especially the honey wings, Aliya Lavaland for (lava) mooncakes, Mandarin Noodle House in Monterey Park
- What We Owe the Future by William Macaskill
- Candy Corn Infused Vodka
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- Outro by Nico Mansy (send us yours!)
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