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 502 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show we keep saying it’s important that characters make choices that effect the story, but of course they really don’t. We’ll tackle the problem of free will as it applies to both fictional heroes and real life screenwriters. We’ll also answer listener questions about unready scripts and what happens after an option expires.
And in our bonus segment for premium members let’s discuss AP classes. Are they worth it? And what did we actually learn?
Craig: Oh, you just put a big old pitch right there. Right down the middle for me. Oh, I’ve been sitting on that fast ball. Here it comes.
John: All right. As always what actually is being discussed in an episode is a complete surprise to Craig. He’s not allowed to look at the outline ahead of time.
Craig: I mean, I’m allowed to. [laughs]
John: So this is all going to be Off-the-Cuff Mazin.
Craig: Basically the way it works is I’m like a hostage that gets – somebody puts a bag over my head and takes me somewhere. I don’t know where I am and then the bag comes off and they’re like, “Talk!” That’s how I am on these shows. And you know what? It works.
John: Yeah. It’s like improv theater but he’s the only person who has to improv.
Craig: Yeah. It’s like I’m an improv artist but I’m working with people that have read a script. It’s very weird. No one else is improving. Just me. I’ve got to figure out how to make it work. And you know what? It does work.
John: Yeah. That was probably Robin Williams on many of his films.
Craig: Yeah. I’m the Robin Williams of Scriptnotes.
John: You are the Robin Williams of the podcast.
John: Last week on the show we talked about the Breaker Upperers. And Fred wrote back in who said, “I just heard the episode and I realize I wrote Australia rather than New Zealand.”
John: “A perhaps even greater mistake than Craig swapping of Liverpool and Manchester. If possible please relay my sincere apologies to all the New Zealand listeners. In my haste to promote a great, under-seen movie I committed a grave error.”
Craig: You know, Fred, it’s OK. And I’ve got to tell you it’s not a greater mistake than the one I made. So, football fans in Liverpool and Manchester are not known for their own calm demeanor and forgiving natures. But everyone I’ve met from New Zealand has been the loveliest person ever. Everyone. It’s not that I’ve met a ton of people from New Zealand, but if you ever go to French Polynesia, for instance, you will run into quite a few Kiwis because it’s pretty close and they can hop over there. And they’re all lovely.
Melanie Lynskey, one of the best actors on the planet, from New Zealand. Maybe the nicest person who has ever been born. That’s right. And I’m including Jesus in that.
John: Yeah. Former Scriptnotes guest, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh.
Craig: There you go.
John: There’s a whole bunch of talented people there. So, and including Taika Waititi who has never been a guest. I should have noticed when I read Fred’s statement on the air that like, wait, it’s Taika Waititi, that’s probably New Zealand and not Australia, but I didn’t question it at that moment.
John: So I regret my part in–
Craig: Everyone, it’s going to be OK. Because no one from New Zealand is going to yell at you. That’s what I’m saying. They’re forgiving, wonderful people.
John: A second bit of follow up, we talked in the game show segment, so this is a premium segment, so a follow up on a premium segment which I think is fair. I think it’s fair.
Craig: We can do that.
John: We can do that. One of the questions asked of us like what did we say was the death of screenwriters. And the answer was apparently we said many times on the show that children are the death of screenwriters. I was just reading an article this last week and Seth Rogan pointed out, oh, the reason why I get so much done is I have no kids. And it’s the first time I’d seen a person in the last ten years actually say that out loud. But I want to link to the article about that.
Craig: Other than us.
John: Other than us. And so sometimes we look at people’s output of work and it’s like, oh, did they have kids/did they not have kids? And in the case of Seth Rogan who is like I don’t have kids, I don’t want kids, and that’s why I get so much done.
Craig: I’m glad we’re all talking about it. And this is not anti-kid actually.
John: No. I’m pro-kid.
Craig: Yeah. We love our children. And anybody that has children, look, so at some point they’re going to make you insane. That’s just a fact. Pete Holmes, the standup comedian Pete Holmes, has this great bit about how when his wife gave birth to their first child they’re in the hospital and all the nurses keep coming by and saying, “By the way, don’t shake the baby,” and there are all these signs like don’t shake a baby. Never shake a baby. And they’re like who shakes a baby? And he goes what they don’t tell you is you’re going to want to shake that baby. And it’s true. It’s really, really true.
But it’s something that’s so impactful in your life that it is beyond the concept of regret. It is sort of life-changing and wonderful. But it definitely – it will reduce your output. That’s OK. I think it’s a perfect tradeoff.
Craig: Output and productivity are not the judge of a great life.
John: Yeah. So I just wanted to sort of point this out to acknowledge that like if you are going to have kids you’re going to take a hit in your productivity and that’s just actually fine and normal. And I think if we don’t talk about that then people might say like, oh, I used to be so much better, what happened. And it’s like what happened is you had kids. And so it’s something that every writer goes through when they have a new life in their house.
Craig: Yeah. We should acknowledge it impacts women more than men.
Craig: Yet it doesn’t not impact men.
John: It’s true. Also in the news this week, everybody is merging. So, Warners and Discovery. They’re going to be combined together. So Discovery is HGTV and Discovery Network and Food Network. A bunch of other what we used to think of as cable channels but are of course just slices of reality programming. They’re going to be merging together. And it looks like Amazon and MGM are also going to combine. So, really Amazon is going to swallow up MGM.
Craig: That one is really something else. I got an email earlier this week from Casey Bloys who runs HBO and it basically said, “Hey, just so you know, nothing is going to change in terms of what we’re doing together and everything is cool. Just business as usual. Don’t worry about it.” And I was like, great. What’s he talking about? [laughs] I had no idea what he was talking about.
And so I looked online and then I tried to understand what happened. And I must admit the concept of a corporate spinoff is not necessarily something I have a great grasp on. But what I could get was that AT&T sold Warner Bros, the whole Warner Bros conglomeration to Discovery but also still owns most of it. I don’t understand. They own like 70% but Discovery is in charge of it? Maybe that’s what it means?
John: Well I think it’s just like if they both extended pseudo pods towards each other and the pseudo pods merged together to form a bigger blob of a company.
Craig: I see.
John: That is better positioned to take on Disney.
Craig: I don’t see at all. [laughs] I don’t understand.
John: I think it’s also interesting because the guy who is running Discovery will probably end up running this whole new thing. And even as you said, oh, that’s right you’re making a show for HBO, which is Warners. And I’m making a movie for Warners. And so it’s weird that the Discovery guy is going to ultimately have an impact on sort of both of our lives, which is just weird. And the way that everything is streaming now, it doesn’t matter that I’m making a theatrical movie and you’re making a TV series. It’s kind of all the same.
Craig: Well, this seems like a great time to point out how wonderful the guy who runs Discovery is and how much I admire him, or her, and think they’re just beautiful, and handsome, and kind. And don’t take any money out of our budget please. That’s all I’m really asking here.
John: Not a bit.
Craig: Leave our budget alone.
John: What if it turns out that the guy who runs Discovery actually just hates videogames and hates anything post-apocalyptic?
Craig: He’s in a weird business. I mean, the Discovery Channel definitely loves everything.
Craig: I don’t know what impact – I suspect that I have always been shielded, like a child, from all of the corporate shenanigans that go on. And so I will never sense what they are in this case either. But the Amazon/MGM thing is startling. Because Discovery has been in business on television for many, many years. Amazon is purely an Internet company and now they own the oldest, I guess, even if it’s not technically old, it feels like the oldest film company in our business. This historic Hollywood studio that lately – and when I say lately I mean in the last 20 years – was really more of just a distribution channel for James Bond movies and not much else.
John: And Creed. But yeah. Rocky.
Craig: And Rocky. It had things it did, but mostly it was kind of living off of the library. And it is kind of startling that the lion going roar is now owned by Amazon.
John: Yeah. So in my time in Hollywood it’s always been a thing with MGM is like who owns the MGM library. The asset was really the MGM library which would keep getting shuttled around from place, to place, to place. I have no idea what MGM actually owns of their library at this point. Amazon gets the Bond movie. They get other things and potential things they can remake. And again it’s always about streaming. So they get more stuff for Amazon Prime Video which is how they make their money in the entertainment industry.
Craig: And how – so MGM released Wizard of Oz.
Craig: But Wizard of Oz is controlled by Warner Bros because of some strange real estate transaction that occurred in the ‘80s I believe.
John: Yeah. I’m not sure how that all happened. But it has done very well by me, so I’m happy it happened.
Craig: Yeah. I feel like Warner Bros owned some sort of bit of real estate that Columbia – remember the whole thing when Sony bought Columbia and then they put those two guys in charge and it was a train wreck? And one of the things they did was try and get back some real estate from Warner Bros and trade it at MGM. Something crazy happened. I don’t understand it.
This episode should be called Craig Doesn’t Know How Business Works.
John: But at some point we should talk about LA real estate and the entertainment industry because it is so fascinating how much LA has been shaped by where those studios were placed originally and how the failure of Cleopatra is why we have Century City.
Craig: That’s right. And furthermore a studio that no longer exists like Fox, because Fox was purchased by Disney and is controlled by Disney mostly, that – my guess is that the real estate–
John: Oh my god. Worth so much.
Craig: Is worth more than Fox. That’s really the big prize there is the land. Because you can put at this point now soundstages – people just stick them out wherever. Like Santa Clarita, which is about an hour north of where you live, they got a whole bunch of soundstages up there because land is cheap. But Paramount and Fox and Sony, that land is invaluable.
John: Yeah. So at some point we’ll bring somebody on who can tell us about the actual history of the land in Los Angeles and how the studios shaped it. It feels a little bit more like some other person’s podcast, but we can do it.
Craig: You know what? It probably is. Maybe we’ll go on their show.
John: Yeah, that’s what we’ll do.
Craig: I’ll be just as unprepared.
John: All right. I want to talk about free will. And so the reason that this came up in my brain–
Craig: Do you want to talk about free will or do you have to talk about free will?
John: That’s really the question. Was it always predestined that we were going to talk about free will in this episode and that you’d be 15 minutes late because you confronted by production concerns? What got me thinking about it was this article I read by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian and it’s really looking at this issue that philosophers have been grappling from the very start and now increasingly because of modern science they realized like, oh, you know what, free will probably is not quite what we think it is. And by free will let’s talk about sort of defining our terms. Free will being the ability for a person to make their own choices. To have agency. To decide what they’re going to do. That they’re not being forced to do a thing.
The problem comes from our understanding of physics and science these days is that things don’t just happen kind of spontaneously. There’s always a past event that sort of anticipated what’s happening next. And there’s just the billiard balls banging through the universe, except on a very small quantum level you can kind of always predict what’s going to happen.
Craig: Right. This is one of those great college chats. I sometimes think that it’s a bit of a pointless discussion because in the end we don’t know and we can’t know. But I side generally with the people who say we do not have free will as we understand free will. Because I literally don’t understand how free will could possibly exist.
John: Yeah. Where you are an independent agent who at this moment can make any choice you want to make because there’s nothing behind that.
Craig: Well, right, because I don’t understand how choices can be made without precursors. And we are nothing – I mean, when we try and analyze what consciousness is we really stumble around in the dark because we’re asking a microscope to stare at itself. So, just observer error is baked in. And we want to believe we have free will because we’re experiencing it, but that doesn’t mean it’s correct.
The fact that there are optical illusions should tell us everything we need to know about the accuracy of our brains.
John: Yeah. So there’s different levels of sort of how much people believe in free will on a philosophical level. And there’s people who truly think that we can do anything at any point. They’re kind of falling out of favor because that’s clearly not the case.
John: There are strict determinists who say, no, literally you are on rails this entire time. You are not making any choices. And then there’s some compatibilism which is basically yes but it’s also – you can say that free will is an illusion, but it’s a common illusion to a lot of our other experiences. And like consciousness is an illusion. We recognize that what we experience from the outside world is not really the outside world. And that we are constantly living in this – it’s not even a simulation, it’s just like we are trying to synthetize a bunch of outside forces and it’s not really what’s happening outside of us.
Craig: Correct. The world that we see is not the world at all.
John: So that’s the struggle for us in the real world, but let’s talk about it in terms of people who really have no choice which are the characters in the stories we write, which is really what I want to focus on today. Because one of the struggles we have as screenwriters is we want to create characters who feel like they are making valid choices. That they are in a real world and that their choices have impact. But of course as creators we know they really don’t because we are limiting the choices they could make. We are basically making the choices for them and trying to make it seem like they’re making their own choices themselves. It’s like a very talented sleight of hand magician who says like pick a card, any card, but of course they are forcing you to take a specific card.
Craig: That’s exactly what we’re doing. It is that principle of magic. We are forcing cards. So, the trick to a lot of magic is convincing people that they are really choosing from a bunch of things. And that is what we do with our characters. We need the audience to believe, and we have to give the audience evidence that our characters have real choices to make.
And that means we have to bait those traps. We have to make them tempting. We have to make them reasonable. We have to allow the audience to experience a kinship with the character so they imagine themselves in that position and can feel what it’s like to be torn between two options. Even as the audience understands which of those will be chosen. And that’s the fascinating part to me.
We know what they’re going to do. We know what they’re going to choose in certain genres. But we still feel like maybe they won’t.
John: All right. Let’s zoom back and take a look at creating a story when we’re at sort of the whiteboard stage of the index card stage. And we need to make it feel like our protagonists are actually making choices that impact the world. And what are some of the things we’re going to do to set that character up for success and make it feel like they are making choices that are valid.
We talk a lot about where is this character coming from, what is the origin, what do they want. Really we’re kind of trying to decide what is a want to give that character that will help drive the story.
Craig: Yeah. And so the want generates a single sort of choice that you would imagine, right? I want that guy. So I just want to choose a guy. But then what do we have to do as screenwriters, we have to fire all of these other choices at that person to muddle their minds. We have to distract them. We have to pull them off the path.
There is of many, many Thief of Baghdad remakes there was one – I talk about this all the time. I just, maybe I’m wrong, maybe it wasn’t the Thief of Baghdad, but it was definitely a movie where there was a treasure cave and they had to go get something at the end of the treasure cave, it was the best treasure of them all. And the trick was you have to stay on the path to that treasure. But the cave would show you illusions on either side of the path and if you fell into that temptation and stepped off the path you would turn to stone. And so the place was full of treasure and statues.
John: Yeah. Aladdin has a similar kind of thing in the Cave of Wonders.
Craig: There you go. And so this is our job is if the choice is simple, I want that guy, then my job as a screenwriter is to show you different guys. My job is also to have somebody lie to you about the guy you want so that you don’t want that guy. This is what we do. We confuse and muddle and therefore create frustration in the audience. That frustration will ultimately be released. We want to see, just like when we go to a magic show we want to see the magician succeed. Also we want to see them fail. So it’s like they have to give us the sense that they are really struggling. That’s part of the showmanship. So that when they finally do pull it out you’re like, “Yes!”
John: Now, what you’re describing in terms of throwing other choices at that character and other options is valid, but if we just did that then it would seem like – you’d feel the heavy hand of the writer.
John: Because you’d feel like, oh, all this stuff is being thrown at them and they’re not actually proactively making choices. And so you’re also doing this thing where you’re looking at it from their point of view and it’s like, OK, what are reasonable things that that character could do in this moment? If they have their overall goal of getting that guy, what are their next strategies? What are their next tactics for what are they going to do next?
And so you’re trying to balance this like what is their overall thing, what would they actually realistically do next. And how do you set up those next choices in a way that moves your story forward but also feels valid for the characters, so it doesn’t feel like that character is just on rails.
Craig: And in this sense we are creating a maze. And there are lots of different ways to get to the end of the maze. It’s a very good thing as a screenwriter to lead your character into a place where you’re not quite sure how they’re going to get back towards where they’re going.
You allow three different doors and you imply that only one door is accurate or good, and the other two are doomed. But you know of course they’re not. As a DM when I’m DMing and you guys are playing you’re not on rails. You can do anything. And I know that I have to get you from A to B. Everything that happens in between A and B can be as squiggly and as backwards moving as we want. Moving away from things. Being inefficient in your path. These are all ways that we create the illusion of free will.
Especially when a character is choosing something that clearly is not going to move them toward their goal.
John: Absolutely. So D&D is essentially a conversation. Yes, you may have a map that you’re looking at, but it’s essentially a conversation about what choices are our player characters going to make. But I’m thinking back to fantasy videogames and so often you recognize that it feels like you can go anywhere. And really you can at any moment. I could go over there, go in this direction. But if you actually look at level design those levels are designed in very clever ways that like, OK, there really is one path through this. And it looks like you could go anywhere, but ultimately you’re going to go one way through. So how things are sloped, where you can walk, where you can’t walk, what doors are open, what doors are not open.
There is generally a linear path through that and careful level design makes it feel like you don’t sort of see the path, but it’s just there. And that really is what we’re talking about in terms of the whiteboard stage of a movie is that you’re doing level design. So there’s really one path the character is going to take through the story, and yet they’re not aware of it, and the audience is not aware that they were locked to that path.
Craig: And we can mess with the path. We can create gates. And in stories if it seems like there’s too direct of a path towards what the character will want through their will then you put a gate up. And the gate swings on a test. So, if you need to get – if you want that job and we say like if you work hard you get the job, well just work hard. Work hard for five minutes and you’ll get the job. In the movie it doesn’t work that way. The problem is there is a gate and that’s the person who already has the job.
Now, what do we do to move that person out of the job? And in D&D there may be a real simple, boring path that would cheat you guys of the story. And usually there’s a gate. There’s something that’s blocking you. And sometimes there isn’t. And sometimes you actually can just sort of go really fast and usually if you get through something really fast you should feel a sinking sense that perhaps you should not have wished for this. That there is something even worse – there is a punishment for essentially not having to work for what you want.
It’s punishing you for not exercising enough free will or enough illusion of free will.
John: Yeah. So let’s talk about those gates or really decision points, decision tree points, and it’s making sure that when a character hits one of those moments it really does feel like a choice. That the choice was not so predestined that like, well, of course they’re going to take this way. That there actually are pros and cons to both things. And there’s a cost to taking either version. And that’s something you do hopefully think about on the whiteboard version, but really as you get into scenes that’s where you have to be clever about how you’re communicating what the choice really is. And so that we actually see that character making the choice.
It may not be dialogue. It may literally be they can pursue her or not pursue her, or decide what they’re going to do. But we need to believe they actually could decide not to do that thing. And most times we’re going to want them to take an action versus not take an action, because we want to see characters actively engaging in their environment. But, we have to believe they could just sit there.
Craig: Yes. And we can also emphasize the character’s inherent misperception of reality. It makes us feel like they have free will when they make a choice and within a scene they realize that they had misunderstood even what the choices were and therefore they reverse course and make a different choice. Or they stop in their path and question whether or not they should continue. Those kinds of things, those confusions, begin to mimic the way we move through real life. We may think we have free will because when we start the day we literally don’t know what’s going to happen next. We have some theories. And our characters have theories.
It’s important to give a character a theory.
Craig: When they go into a scene they should have a theory of how it should go. An expectation. And then our job as screenwriters is to either reinforce that expectation so much that the character becomes paranoid that people are messing with them, or subvert the expectation in some way so the character has to figure out what to do next. Otherwise, you just end up with a boring day at the office.
John: Absolutely. So we want characters to have some sort of agenda. Basically you say expectation. Agenda would be a more proactive way of like this is how they see these things going. And we get to mess with them and interrupt their agenda. But just as important that we believe the protagonists are capable of making their own choices. We want to believe that the people surrounding the protagonists also have free will. That they actually could do things and they’re not just there to service that protagonist.
And when I see bad writing I often encounter characters, I don’t believe that they’re real because I don’t think they would do that thing that is just there to help our story. That it’s just there to provide an obstacle or provide support to our protagonist. You want to write these characters in a way that makes it feel like they could have not done that. They could have gone somewhere else. They didn’t have to say that thing.
And that’s one of the trickiest things to do in scene work sometimes is that you’re trying to make the scene efficient and also feel real and reality is not efficient.
Craig: Correct. Reality is a big old mess. And it’s confusing. If we think about The Matrix which is about free will as much as it is about anything, one way of looking at that movie is to think of the Oracle character as the Wachowskis. The Oracle is the screenwriter. If I put myself in a movie, me, Craig, as the writer in a movie that I’m writing and I’m sitting there and a character walks in I know everything. I know what’s happened. And I know what’s going to happen.
Also, I have total confidence that if that character says, “Am I the one?” And I say, “Uh, you’re not, sorry.” That they’re going to believe me and that that’s what they needed to hear. But I also know that that’s going to lead to them being free to do certain things because they no longer have the burden of feeling like they’re the one, so they’re going to start to do things, and thus they will be the one which they must be because I’ve written it.
And that’s the fun of that investigation. That you say to somebody, “You see this world you’re living in? You don’t have free will in this world. You’re actually part of a massive computer simulation,” which we all are anyway. “We’re going to show you the real world.” Except when you’re in the real world you’re also in a simulation. You’re in a freaking movie. And that’s the fun of it is that once you envelope people in the quirkiness and the backwards motion and the confusion they forget that it’s entirely determined.
The people with the least free will are the people we write. We literally chose everything for them. But it seems like they’re doing it. Isn’t that fun?
John: It is fun. And so we are creating these characters. We’re doing these things that we’re telling them to do. And it’s being played by actors who are reciting the lines that we wrote for them and having the whole scene being controlled by a director who is following our script but also following their own instincts. So, there’s so many levels of unreality being forced upon this.
And the fact that we can watch these stories and sort of believe and sort of accept them as being real is a testament to craft and our brains and sort of how art works. Basically even recognize that you’re seeing a simulation, you enjoy the simulation and it feels real to you because you can imagine yourself being in that situation.
Craig: Yeah. And when you’re writing these things, if you can try and surprise yourself then the odds are that the illusion of free choice/free will will be stronger. And of course we can’t really surprise ourselves because, again, it’s all determined. But if it feels like in your mind things are sort of unfolding in a fairly obvious, pat way, just try and throw something at it. See if you can – just surprise yourself. What would this person do that would be entirely unexpected?
Particularly if it feels like the scene you’re writing is something you’ve seen, or felt a lot. What do you do to make it different? And that will help also.
Because if you’re watching something and you think, oh, I’ve seen this scene quite a few times, the free will of it all kind of gets exploded. You just – it’s gone. Because those people are just copies.
John: Yeah. You’re watching a magic trick that you already know how the magic trick works because you’ve seen it a zillion times and it’s just not interesting anymore. There’s no surprise. Even if it’s really efficiently done, I can only see that magic trick a certain number of times to say like I don’t quite know how that magic trick works, but I know it’s a thing, and it’s just not interesting to me anymore.
John: All right. So, in no part of our conversation about free will have we talked about three-act-structure and hitting plot points and how movies are supposed to work. And how official guidelines for sort of how things should be structured. And that’s sort of by design because I feel like structure as you often read in screenwriting books feels like it’s just – like here’s how you build the rails to sort of bring a character through a movie. This is how movies work. Put them on this track. And we’re arguing against that.
Yes, there probably is going to be a track and you’re going to build that track. But if you just are using somebody else’s track it’s not going to work. It’s not going to feel real.
Craig: Yeah. Those things are, as I’ve said, I think I said in my How to Write a Movie episode, those things are post-mortems. They are not guides for creating new life. They are simply excellent – sometimes – excellent analyses of dead bodies. They are things that already happened. They’re taking them apart and showing you, look, this connects to this and this connects to this. Has no relation to creation as far as I’m concerned. None.
And if you follow those things you will have something that looks kind of like a person, or it seems kind of like a movie, but really it’s just a boring kind of copy of stuff.
John: Yeah. Now, you may have started your interest in screenwriting by reading one of those books and at this point you may be questioning like, wow, do I even want to be a screenwriter, because what John and Craig are saying feels kind of unapproachable and sort of just how am I supposed to do all of these things at once. And I want to segue our conversation from looking at free will for characters to free will for screenwriters. Because a thing I think we don’t talk about enough on the show is it’s OK to not be a screenwriter.
John: And I’m reading this book by Adam Grant called Think Again. And one of the points he makes in the book is that so often people pick a career, pick an interest, and sort of like double down on that interest without ever giving themselves permission to sort of question whether like, wow, is this even a thing I really like?
John: And I think we need to give people more permission to say like you can enjoy us talking about screenwriting. It’s absolutely fine if you don’t want to be a screenwriter yourself at all. Or never write a scene. That’s OK.
Craig: 100%. And similarly it’s OK if you are a screenwriter and want to stop.
Craig: Dennis Palumbo who was with us on Episode 99 – feels like we’re due to have him back, right?
John: We should.
Craig: Oscar-nominated screenwriter. And now therapist. And he’s been a therapist for many, many years. And one of the areas of his practice is aside from helping writers navigate through their lives, he also specializes in mid-life career changes, which can be traumatic for people because it violates this concept we have vocation. Vocation as in a calling. You are called by some higher power to do something. And then at some point you realize, wait, I don’t like it that much. Or, I don’t know if I’m actually that good at this. Or, I’m good at it, and I like it, but I want to try something new.
All of these things can be very disruptive and it’s OK to go through that process of disrupting these things. If you are pursuing the path of being a screenwriter and it’s not going anywhere you are bombarded with these messages of “don’t quit.” Don’t be a quitter. And persistence. That’s the key is persistence.
John: That’s what it is. Yeah.
Craig: I don’t know if persistence is the key. I’ve got to be honest. I don’t know if it is.
John: Yeah. There’s a concept that’s in Adam Grant’s book, I don’t know if he created it or if he pulled it from someplace else called Identity Foreclosure. And that’s when you fixate on one vision of yourself, or who you’ll become to the exclusion of all other ones.
Craig: That’s great.
John: And it’s a thing that I see happening a lot in my daughter. Our kids are 15/16 and they get really – they go through phases where it’s like I’m going to be a rocket scientist. I’m going to be this. I’m going to be – and it’s so completely natural, but so unhelpful because it’s not asking the right question. It’s not asking the question like what are you really interested in. It’s thinking like, oh, I will do this job because then I’ll be this and I’ll make this much money and then I will be happy. And ultimately they’re getting to like they want to feel satisfied and happy and secure but they’re focusing on the job rather than what they actually would want to be doing on a daily basis.
Craig: And this is not new.
Craig: When you and I were children they called it an Identity Crisis and I was always told teenagers go through identity crises where they are like who am I and what am I supposed to be. And I always felt like what a strange question who am I. I’m me. What other options are there?
But there is this desire to define yourself because if you do it’s like I’m finished. I’m completed. I no longer have to feel like I’m free falling or failing at things or grasping for who I am. It’s so much simpler to just say I am blank. This identity foreclosure has extended beyond just the notion of career. It’s also extending to notions of who we are in terms of our gender and in terms of our sexuality. I see my child’s generation grasping to immediately foreclose their identity because they can, whereas it used to be you couldn’t. And now you can. So this is a new area where they’re sort of like clamping down and at 15 saying I am this, or I am that.
And, of course, humans are, A, more fluid than that, and B, you’re still pretty young. So I think for a lot of people things are super clear because they are, and they’re factual. And for other people they’re still figuring it out. But the notion of foreclosing the possibilities is fascinating. I think that’s exactly right. And it’s a great thing to urge people to, as we would say to our son all the time, you have to sit in the discomfort of uncertainty. And that is very hard for people. It’s hard for a lot of people, especially if they’re neuro-atypical. But it’s hard for all of us to sit with the discomfort of uncertainty.
John: One of the things that can be helpful is to really plan for an audit. Basically twice a year to sit down and say, OK, what am I doing? Do I like what I’m doing? Is there something else I might enjoy more? And doing that might actually help you think rather than giving up something, like oh, I’m going to give up trying to be a screenwriter or give up trying to be a basketball player. Really think about affirmatively choosing something else you want to try. And not to think about it as a thing you’re going to be, but a thing you want to do. Because you can’t change – on many levels you can’t change who you are, but you can change what you’re actually doing on a daily basis, overall sort of what your activities are. And really think about it that way.
And so if you were to decide I’m not enjoying screenwriting, or I don’t think screenwriting is the thing for me, great. But if you can phrase that in terms of like I want to spend the time I used to be thinking about screenwriting in this other thing that I am more interested in, that’s great. To affirmatively choose something else rather than giving something up can be a useful way of making those tough choices.
Craig: And I think also it’s helpful, although scary, to admit that you are not in control. That the choices you make about yourself, the theories of what you think you want are not always accurate because, again, no free will. And that the world will collide with you in ways you cannot imagine and you cannot predict. And when that happens things change. And they change dramatically. When you look back at your own life, which you and I can now do and actually see five decades, man–
John: A lot happened.
Craig: Yeah. It certainly wasn’t planned. And you have to be ready for those things. I think the saddest thing that could happens is if you are so rigid in your identity foreclosure out of fear of uncertainty that when a collision occurs you do not allow it to change you, or you do not allow yourself to adapt and consider reforming your relationship with the world and reality because of what just occurred. That’s sad.
John: This is advice that’s been given a zillion times on this podcast, but it can be helpful to think of yourself as the protagonist in the story of your life. And so if you think about sort of you as that central character and the choices you get to make, maybe it’s time to pull out the whiteboard a little bit and say like, OK, where am I going? What is the story I’d like to be on? And that story you’re on may not be sort of where you’re at and think about sort of how might want to get to the story of the heroic journey that you’d prefer to be on. It feels like a time to be doing that.
Craig: Yeah. And just like we, screenwriters, when we throw things at characters we do it so they react.
Craig: I mean, if you throw a bunch of stuff at a character and they never react and they just keep turning away for 90 minutes, boo.
John: Not good.
Craig: Don’t be that boring character.
John: All right. It’s time for our listener questions. But before we get to our listener questions I’m curious, Megana Rao, our producer, does any of this spark for you? Because you’re a person who changed careers. You started at Google and then you came over to work for us here. Does this resonate for you at all?
Megana Rao: Yeah. Something that I was also thinking about as you guys were talking is that no matter how much you research or job shadow it’s really hard to know what the reality of a certain experience is going to be like before you try it. Maybe you love film. You love screenwriting. And you love the craft of it all. But the weight that comes along with the industry of Hollywood is unappealing to the point that it outweighs your passion.
I mean, you just couldn’t have known that until you put yourself in that position. And I think about all the identities that I foreclosed on before I could pursue this dream and looking back I can thread together the aspects and how I got here. You know, I thought I was going to be a doctor, and then I thought I would work in tech for the rest of my life. And those were really difficult paths to turn away from because all of these external signals were validating my choices. But ultimately it wasn’t right for me and I don’t know how I could have come to those conclusions until I explored them as options. So, I would just say that trying – the act of pursuing something and putting yourself out there is really hard and if you realize it’s not quite right, congratulations for trying, and have some grace for yourself as you figure out what you want to do next.
Craig: That is really interesting. Particularly the doctor part, because you and I are basically the same person. And I was in the same spot. And I’m wondering, Megana, if you had the same feeling I did. Because I didn’t – I liked medicine. I liked the notion of it. And a lot of it still fascinates me to this day. But did you have a moment where you suddenly just thought “I’m not like those people and I don’t know why?” What was the moment where you realized, ooh, I think I should be doing something else?
Megana: That’s interesting. I feel like in the question of free will I never felt like I had free will because everyone I knew was basically a doctor.
John: Having read your script, you’re also the child of immigrant doctors.
Megana: Exactly. Exactly.
John: So no free will for you.
Craig: No. No free will for all the little Indian and Jewish children. That’s just how it is.
Megana: But the thing that I was interested in being a doctor was just people’s stories and talking to them. And when I think about how my dad is as a doctor I was like, oh OK, that is a very different approach to what this field actually is like. And the science aspect of it, like I like science and I think it’s cool, but it was never like oh that is what gets me going in the morning.
Craig: Right. So you were on a path and one day you realized I don’t have to be on this path.
Megana: Yeah. And I think I also realized I think in some ways I’m too sensitive to be a doctor. Because you have to be able to detach a little bit. And I’m not very good at that.
John: Yeah. Because all it takes is one “yup” from me and you’re questioning all your choices. [laughs]
Craig: This is why I think Megana you would have been a brilliant pathologist because they’re already dead.
John: Let’s see if we can help some of our listeners out with questions they have. Megana, can you start us off?
Megana: All right. So Jamie in Maryland asks, “I’ve had a situation come up a few times that I’ve never really gotten clarity on. I’ve had scripts optioned and been hired to rewrite. The complication arises when that script falls out of the option period but it’s been rewritten, and in most cases by me. Going forward, now that the material is back in my hands what do I own? And I don’t own the rewrite work how can I possibly forget improvements I may have made? Or what if I get similar notes from a producer who options the script in the future?
“I can’t really say, no, the old company owns that. What are the rules for dealing with this?”
John: This is a really good question. And Craig and I, we don’t write a lot of specs, and so we’ve not had this happen where we’ve optioned stuff out. So I ended up asking a lawyer friend about who deals with this a lot. And it’s actually more complicated than I would have guessed.
Let’s first start by talking about what an option is. Craig, can you remind us what an option is?
Craig: Well, an option is a payment to you, the writer, that says that producer who pays you the option has the exclusive right to arrange for the sale of that script to a studio and there’s a baked in price usually for what the price will be. And it lasts for about a year or so. And they give you some money for it. It could a dollar. It could be a lot. It’s not like a WGA thing because we haven’t been employed.
And then when that time is over the option ends.
John: And so in a vacuum you would get that script and it’s exactly the same script that you optioned to them, and so you still control copyright and it’s just entirely yours. Now the complication is generally they’ll option that script but then they will hire you, probably under a WGA contact, as a work-for-hire to do some rewriting work on that script. And that’s where it gets complicated.
So let’s say you make some changes to the script and improve it. And the option lapses. You get your original script back, but you don’t automatically get all the rewrites that you did back. And so if there’s things you changed that are not part of that, that is still owned by them, because they own that copyright on those rewrites because of work-for-hire.
So, it does happen some and here’s the advice I got from my lawyer friend on this situation. In your initial contract for the rewriting you could have had a clause in there saying that you get the rewrites back or for a certain fee at the end of this. That’s a thing that could happen.
More likely what’s going to happen is as the option lapses, and if you do want that stuff, you talk to them. And they may ask for all that money that they gave you for the rewrite back. They may ask for some percentage of that. More often what happens is that when you go to set something up someplace else, like you’re going to sell this script to someplace else, you then negotiate to sort of get that stuff back in. Or you put it as part of a – if you’re selling it to someplace else in that contract to sell it to this second company at the start of production there’s a payment made to the first place to get all that stuff back.
Here’s why you do that. Is because you can say like, oh, well yes, you had that idea to make those changes, but I also had that idea to make the changes and I did it slightly differently. It’s still copyright law and it’s still very clear that you had access to all the material. So, you could be in a lawsuit situation. Rarely. But it could happen.
Craig: Yeah. So, Jamie, the inflection point here is when you say hired to rewrite. You get hired. It’s a work-for-hire. So the person that’s hired you to rewrite, the person that optioned the script now owns that rewrite. They own it. They’re the writer. They are the legal author of that.
So, you can’t really undo that. Writing screenplays and developing screenplays is like cooking. So you should them a dish and they’re like, great, now I’m going to pay you money to take that and turn it into a stew. And you do. How do you un-stew a stew? It’s really not possible. You can go somewhere else and say I’ve made something new. It’s not the first thing I showed them, it’s something in between this and a stew. And then the people who own the stew are like, uh, you got stew elements in that.
So, my advice if at all possible is to not get paid to rewrite an optioned script. That sounds a little crazy, but hear me out. Your script is optioned. That means you own the copyright. They just have the exclusive right to shop it. Hold on. And if they want a rewrite, if they’re giving you advice on how to make it better and you agree, just say great, I’m going to do that on my own. And you can option that. But don’t give me money and employ me to do it. Because the most important thing you can have when a studio is interested in your script is ownership of it. And I can’t imagine the amount of money that they’re giving you to rewrite is as significant as the amount of money a studio will pay if they really want that script.
So if you can try and keep copyright all the way through until a real studio wants it. And then you give it away.
John: So, the con to that is that there may be reasons why, A, you need that money, or that money may actually get you into the WGA, or sort of keep you active in the WGA.
Craig: Yes. Yes.
John: So, there may be reasons to take that deal.
John: But I agree with Craig in that if it’s sort of a shopping agreement, if you keep control over everything that’s kind of ideal. Ultimately what we’re talking about is how did the option lapse. What is the end of that relationship like? And if the end of that relationship is good, and they want to still keep working with you on other stuff you’re going to have a better negotiating what you’re going to do with the rewrite stuff you did for them before. And really the best case scenario might be just a lien against that script for – if it goes into production they’ll pay you whatever money that was owed.
John: That’s fine and that’s reasonable. But it’s a good question to ask and I agree with Craig that if you’ve written this material and you can control this material it’s generally worth it to keep control for as long as you can.
John: Cool. Megana, what you got next for us?
Megana: All right. Maya asks, “I’m an up and coming writer that just got out of grad school. My program sent out loglines to industry folks and a manager who is now interested in reading my script. Problem is, it’s not ready. How much time do I have? Is it a bad look if I send in my script after a month of them asking for it? I just want to make the best first impression possible and I know that if I send my script right now that first impression is going down the drain.
“Should I let them know I need more time and expect my script in a month? Or should I just not reply until my script is ready? What I’m trying to ask, is there any leniency in this process or am I basically screwed?”
John: I like that Maya’s default position is everything is terrible. Maya, you’re not screwed.
John: My instinct is to send an email and say like, oh my god, I’m so excited you want to read this script. I’m in the middle of a rewrite on it now and I can’t wait to show you the next version.
Craig: This is one of those areas where if you could only imagine how little other people are thinking about you it would blow your mind.
Craig: You know, like someone is like, huh, that’s an interesting logline. I’m interested in reading that. That’s literally all it is. Then they forget. They move on. Now the next thing they’re worried about is lunch. And what they’re not doing every day is waking up going, “Where the hell is Maya’s script? Where is it? I said I wanted it. Where is it?”
And similarly if you send kind of along Hamlet-like email, like I’m so sorry, I do, but I don’t, but I don’t know. They’re going to be like, “What? What are you talking about man? Also, who is this?” It doesn’t matter.
Here’s what matters. You’re going to send a script and they’re going to read it and they’re going to either like it or they don’t. A logline means nothing. I think we’ve said that a billion times on this show. You’ve certainly intrigued them with the idea. What they’re really saying is if that script is good that would be good. As opposed to if that script is good I still wouldn’t care because I don’t want anything about that topic.
So, there is no reason for you to rush something out that you don’t think is ready. Nor is there any reason for you to fret or sweat or freak out every day that you’re taking too long because they’re sitting there tapping their fingers on the table going, “It’s Maya o’clock. Where’s my script?” Just relax your body, you know, waggle your head around. Take some deep breaths. Don’t tell them you need more time or anything like that. Just send the script. And when you do say, “You might remember that you were interested in this logline. Here’s the script.” And then they’ll go like, oh yeah. Oh yeah.
That’s it. Simple as that.
John: So my argument for sending the email now is, again, to be very, very short but saying like, hey, I’m so excited for you to read this. I’m doing a rewrite. I’m going to send it to you. It might remind them that like, oh, that’s right, I did read that thing. So that when they get it a month from now they’ll remember sort of what it was.
Craig: Sure. That seems reasonable.
John: But it should be nothing more than that. And you should not fret about it. But also I think sending that email will light a little fire under you to actually really get that work done. Because nothing helps a writer more than having promised it to somebody.
Craig: I think that’s true. You have a certain accountability. Yes, you can send a little short email that’s just like, great, thanks so much. I will send you the script as soon as it’s finished.
John: Yeah. One more question, Megana. What do you got for us?
Megana: OK, Bill from Dallas asks, “I have a question about child screenwriting prodigies, specifically where the heck are they? We’ve got pre-teen violinists who can play with professional skill, young mathematicians who can solve problems at graduate college levels. And of course plenty of chess prodigies. So where are the screenwriters? Where is that 10-year-old kid topping the Black List and clinking glasses with the finalists of Nicholls? Are we just not finding them? Or are there really zero out there? If the latter is true, why?”
John: So I’m going to find this Ben Stiller sketch from The Ben Stiller Show a zillion years ago where they had this young child prodigy director. And the line I remember from it is, “My movie is called Horses are Pretty because horses are pretty.” And it’s great.
I don’t know why there are not more teenage filmmaker prodigies except that maybe there are prodigies and they’re making TikToks and YouTube videos that are stunning but they’re just not writing screenplays.
Craig: There aren’t really novelists prodigies either.
Craig: I think it may be because writing fiction is harder than all the rest of this stuff. Now, I can already hear people going, “What?” Because, you know, that’s pretty braggy. Like a bunch of guys writing movies about cars smashing into each other and people over there with Fields medals in math are like, “Are you serious? I’m unraveling the fabric of the universe and you think what you’re doing is harder?” It’s not harder, it’s rarer. How about that?
There are actually fewer working, consistently working, impactful screenwriters than there are mathematicians like that. It’s crazy. I don’t know why. It’s weird. It’s not harder. It can’t be harder. It’s not harder than chess. I’m so bad at chess. John, do you understand how bad I am at chess?
John: I believe that you’re bad at chess because I’m bad at chess, too. And I’m smart enough person. I understand how it all works. But I’m just not good at it. My daughter beats me regularly.
Craig: Anyone could beat me. I think my dog could beat me. Yeah. But, I don’t know, it’s rare. It just is. And it may be that the neurological components required for writing well, whatever that means, just take way more time. And require way more integration. So, all of the parts of your brain need to be working. And working at a certain level. As opposed to one part that’s just skyrocketing early.
John: I think to Amanda Gorman who wrote the amazing poem that was read at the inauguration. And she’s young. She’s not necessarily that young. She’s not a teen prodigy necessarily, but she’s really, really good. But poetry is also a shorter form. And one of the challenges of a screenplay is it’s 100 plus pages and that’s just a lot to manage. There’s a lot to sort of do.
So it’s certainly not impossible for a teenager to understand that and do that. People can write in with examples of like, oh, this is a teenager who did this thing. But even like Lena Dunham who was super young as she started, she wasn’t that young.
Craig: No. Poetry is very flexible. You can define it essentially how you’d like. In that regard it’s a little bit like lyrics.
Craig: And my daughter is an up and coming budding songwriter. And she writes really interesting stuff that is getting legitimate attention out there. And she’s lyrically very advanced. But it is a different deal. Because there’s a freedom to it. And that’s the misery of screenwriting and it sort of ties into our main topic is that there isn’t so much freedom to it. You are required to make things function in an interesting way in a fairly rigid format.
And I don’t mean on the page format. I mean just the structure and the reality of what it means to write a two-hour-movie, or a one-hour-episode of television. Or a 30-minute-episode of television. So, my final answer is very rare skill, requires high functioning across all aspects of the brain, including visual imagination, language skills, empathy, IQ, EQ, all of it humming, all at once. As opposed to one area that is like through the roof but could Einstein tell a joke? Eh, I don’t know.
John: Einstein’s episode of Friends, his spec Friends, was really disappointing.
John: Just atrocious. Now, I’m sure we have teen listeners. So if you’re a teen listener who has other insights for us please do write in, because we’re curious what you think.
Craig: I know what they’re going to be like. “Shut up old guys.”
John: Megana, thank you for these questions.
Craig: Thank you, Megana.
Megana: Thanks guys.
John: All right. It is time for our One Cool Things. I have two One Cool Things. Two TV shows to recommend. The first is Hacks on HBO or HBO Max. I don’t even know what the difference is between HBO and HBO Max at this point.
Craig: Oh, I can tell you.
John: Tell me what the difference is.
Craig: I’m so glad you asked. HBO Max is the service that delivers both HBO and other programming. Now, does that sound confusing? It does sound confusing. I’ve been described like HBO, the branded HBO stuff, is on a tab. So, you know, for–
John: So Chernobyl is on that tab and The Last of Us will be on that tab.
Craig: Chernobyl is on that tab. The Last of Us is on that tab. HBO Max covers a whole other world of programming that is a little bit, like for instance I guess a lot of the – like the DC shows probably are on HBO Max. It’s a very strange thing.
John: It’s very strange.
Craig: It’s so weird.
John: Having watched the pilot episode for Hacks I cannot tell you whether there was the static-y HBO thing before it started, so I can’t tell you if it’s technically an HBO show or it’s just a show that I watched on HBO Max. Regardless, everyone would watch it because it’s really, really well done. This is the show that stars Jean Smart as a Las Vegas comedian who is kind of forced into hiring on a young joke writer and it’s their relationship. And it’s so well done.
It was written by Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky. Here’s the reason why I think it’s an HBO show. It looks so expensive. It looks like Succession in terms of like, wow, they spent some real money on that. And I just love that. I mean, I respect people who do a lot with a little, but I also respect when people do just a lot with a lot. And it looks just great. And everything about it is just flawlessly done, so please – I’ve only seen the pilot, but it’s just really good and I can’t wait to watch more episodes of Hacks.
Another show I watched the whole season of this last week was Girls 5eva, which is on Peacock. Do you know the premise of Girls 5eva?
Craig: No, this is the greatest. Is it like a girl band kind of thing?
John: Exactly. And so it is a 2000s girl band that had sort of one big hit and then broke up, or sort of they never had a second hit. And so it’s following them up 20 years later as they are trying to form the group back again. It stars Sara Bareilles, Renee Elise Goldsberry from Hamilton.
Craig: Oh my god.
John: Busy Philipps. Paula Pell. The fifth member of Girls 5eva died in a tragic infinity pool accident. And it’s written by Meredith Scardino. Created by her. But it’s under the Tina Fey sort of umbrella. And so it has the 30 Rock-y/Kimmy Schmidt kind of feel and music. Real joke density. Just delightful. So if you enjoy 30 Rock or those kind of shows you really will love Girls 5eva. Great songs throughout.
Craig: Well yeah. I mean, Sara Bareilles and Renee Elise Goldsberry, those two alone – I mean, I just watch them sing. So if they’re singing at all I would be thrilled.
John: Oh they’re singing a ton. And Sara Bareilles is a really good actor.
Craig: Isn’t that fun when that happens?
John: It’s so good when someone is from a different field but they can actually – she can act her little heart out.
Craig: A little bit like, you know, I think in a couple of weeks there might be an episode of Mythic Quest with another brilliant performance.
John: I’m excited to see it.
Craig: I’m going to just tease it like this. Craig with hair.
John: Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh.
Craig: It is so weird. I sent Melissa a picture from the makeup trailer. And I was wearing my mask and so she couldn’t see my whole face, but I just sent a picture of me wearing a mask, but with hair, and she wrote back, “Who is that?” She literally didn’t know it was me.
John: Did not recognize her own husband.
Craig: Yes. Correct.
John: Love it.
Craig: And happily she wasn’t like, “Hmm, who is that?” She was like, “Eww. Who is that?”
John: Elon Musk treatment there, yeah.
John: The hair back.
Craig: Well, my One Cool Thing this week is sort of a redo of another one. At one point, I’ve been looking for translation apps because I’m working with a number of folks from other countries. And there’s got to be a really good one. And I was using one I think called Mate, and it was decent. It didn’t quite do a perfect job translating. And it would lose formatting. For instance line breaks and stuff, which was really frustrating.
And I’m so sorry, someone on Twitter, and I cannot find the tweet so I cannot give them credit, but I apologize. If you tweet back again I will give you credit next week. Turned me onto something called Deepl Translator. That’s Deepl Translator.
And like a number of these things there’s a cost if you want to use it fully. It works really well. And I ran a translation by Kantemir Balagov, our Russian director. Because I always feel like translating to Russian that’s a good challenge. And he was like this is really good.
So I’m using Deepl Translator. So if you do have needs for translating. And what I also love about the simplicity of it is, this is very good, you write a bunch of stuff, you want to translate it. You just highlight it and then you do, if you’re on a Mac, Command C twice. That’s all you do. You just do the copy command twice and it automatically brings up a screen and starts translating it. Very good.
John: Cool. That’s the future.
Craig: The future is now.
John: One last request for our Scriptnotes listeners. We have a Wikipedia page like all things on the Internet. There’s a Wikipedia page for Scriptnotes. It’s really out of date. It’s like super, super out of date. And so if people want to take a look at that and bring it a little bit more up to date. I’m going to put links in the show notes to the Scriptnotes index that Megana worked on and also a Scriptnotes guest list that we have. Because I want our Wikipedia page to be just a little bit more up to date. And you’re not really supposed to do it yourself. And so if you guys want to take that on as a little project that would be great to see our Wikipedia page be a little bit more updated if that’s a thing you like to do. I suspect we have some Wiki editors in our listenership right now.
Craig: Oh, yeah. I haven’t looked at it in a long time. Now that you’ve said that it’s just going to be like–
John: It’s going to be madness.
Craig: Massive vandalism on our Wikipedia page.
John: Wikipedia does a pretty good job dealing with vandalism. So I think we have responsible listeners who will do well by us.
Craig: We have the best listeners.
John: Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao, the best producer. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro is by Brian Ramos. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter I am @johnaugust. Craig is there but he just kind of sends gifs, so don’t really ask him any questions.
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Craig and Megana, thank you guys so much.
Craig: Thank you.
Megana: Thank you.
John: All right, so Craig this last week my daughter took the AP US History exam. And so she had the whiteboard filled with a timeline of all these things. And I recognized some of the names of these events that occurred in US history but I couldn’t tell you what actually happened in them.
I took AP US History and dropped it at the semester mark because I just did not like it. And I ended up finishing it on a tele-course over the summer and enjoyed that much more. I suspect, and you actually promised, that you have strong opinions about the AP exams.
Craig: I do.
Craig: They should be eliminated.
John: All right.
Craig: They should be eliminated with force. They should be all piled together, put on some sort of space vessel, and shot into the sun. And here is why. AP exams are entirely unnecessary. The initial thought about AP exams was that if you were particularly advanced in a certain topic that you could test out of having to take an introductory class at the college level, which I understand. You’re paying for college. You don’t want to necessarily just sit there in a boring class that is a prerequisite to get to the class you want when it’s already something you already know. That’s all it was meant to be. Just place out of stuff so you could start a little further along in college.
And what it has become in an insane arms race regarding your GPA, your grade point average. Because AP classes, which are classes that are taught to exams, and the AP classes should not exist in my belief, load on bonus points to your grade point average. And this insanity in our nation that every ounce of your existence as a child must be focused to the great prime achievement of getting into “good college” which therefore defines you as a good person and a future success. All of that is nonsense.
It is destroying kids’ childhoods. It’s also destroying the entire concept of what high school education is supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be that. The stress that we are piling on these kids over this AP stuff is insane. Not only do they have to study massive amounts to take these exams and do way more work than they normally would have to basically do extra high school while they’re in high school, they’re also doing 12 other extracurriculars because they’ve got to be well rounded. You’ve got to be well rounded all so that you a group of people sitting in a room somewhere at freaking Dartmouth can go, “Yes, this person is worthy.”
Horseshit. It’s horseshit. Look, if I could wave a magic wand I would eliminate most colleges entirely. OK? Because I think the entire higher education business is largely fraud and a certification Ponzi scheme. But if I can’t do that, and I can’t, then at least give me a want to get rid of the freaking AP exams. Or, if I can’t do that, keep the AP exams, get rid of AP classes, and say to kids if you really do want to advance yourself when you get to college just study on the side at home or over the summer and take this test and then you can. But we’re not giving you anything for your stupid GPA. So stop asking.
And just go back to, oh my god, the highest number you can have for a GPA is 4.0. There you go. We’re done. No more of the valedictorian has a 6.8.
John: Now, Craig, does it make you feel any better that colleges and many schools are actually already taking your advice and they are getting rid of AP exams?
Craig: It does make me feel better. But it has to happen – OK, so education is largely driven by the major state schools. A little bit by Ivy League schools. But for instance almost everything that happens in the California public school system has to do with the UC system. If the UC system accepts something everybody is funneling towards that. Everybody. And it’s the UC system that has to say we’re not doing this anymore. It’s over. Stop it.
John: Yeah. So no more Stand and Deliver for Craig Mazin. He believes that is a false promise, a false goal. That Edward James Olmos should be ashamed of himself.
Craig: I don’t know about that because I don’t remember – what was he doing in that? Was he teaching an AP class?
John: He taught his high school, he started the first AP Calculus class at his school.
Craig: I mean, look, I have a whole problem with the entire genre. Like John Gatins, our screenwriting friend, has a genre.
John: Inspiring teacher.
Craig: Yeah. I didn’t know that insert, you know, minority could do that. I didn’t know that Latinos could do Calculus. That’s not a genre of movie, but it sort of somehow became one. Like, wow, I didn’t – yes, of course they can. Of course they can. And you should be able to teach anyone calculus. And if kids want to learn regular calculus just teach them calculus. Calculus is enough. Why is there AP Calculus? “Well, it’s extra calculus because I don’t want to have to do regular calculus at college.” Fine, then go do that on your own time.
But this – what we’re doing is we’re putting college into high school. Then what the hell is college for?
John: Now, Craig, back when you were in high school did you take AP classes?
Craig: When I was in high school I was in a magnet program for medical sciences. So it was like a pre-pre-med program. We didn’t have AP classes. I don’t think we even had them at Freehold High School in New Jersey. What we did have were some specialized classes in topics that were not offered normally, like for instance we had a class in organic chemistry. It was called AP Orgo or anything like that. It was just organic chemistry.
So we did not have AP classes as far as I understood them. I never took an AP exam. What I did was take a few of the SAT achievement tests. Do you remember those?
John: Yeah. They’ve gotten rid of those largely, too.
Craig: Exactly. All of it nonsense. All of it unnecessary. And I can’t explain how much I’m retroactively angry at the process of being a high school kid with this college insanity looming over me. I’m angry at how happy I was to get into the school I got. I’m angry that they made me happy about it. And I’m not coming from a point of bitterness. Meaning it wasn’t like I got rejected so I’m angry. I didn’t. I got accepted. And it’s wrong.
It’s wrong. The whole thing is wrong. There are wonderful schools out there who teach kids terrific things as young adults in higher education and we don’t know their names because they don’t have marketing budgets or a $500 billion endowment. And so nobody cares about them. They’re just driven to whatever the hell, I don’t know, USC wants.
But why? Why? Why? Why?
John: This is not a defense of AP exams.
Craig: Oh good.
John: But I will talk about my high school experience was I ended up dropping AP US History. I did take AP English. And I learned a lot in AP English, but I think it was just the Honors English class. We read good stuff. We discussed it. Great. And so whether I took the test or not it doesn’t really matter.
John: I also took AP Spanish Lit, which I think they still offer the test. It was a helpful test for me in that we read a lot of books and I took the test and I did well on it. And it was handy for me to get to college and I already had more than a semester done. And so it really lightened my load. In college let me sort of explore a lot more in college because I didn’t have to – I had so many literature credits going into it that I didn’t have to take certain classes which was great.
So I appreciated that. But I recognize that on this conversation you and I are both like stumbling blindly because we have someone else on the call who has much, much more experience with AP exams. Megana Rao, can you talk to us about your AP experience?
Megana: So, I just looked it up and I think I took like 12 or 13 AP classes.
Craig: Oh god. No.
John: And how do you feel about those AP classes and exams now looking back?
Megana: I mean, I agree with so many of Craig’s points, and like College Board and the whole thing is just a racket. But, I really enjoyed taking those classes. And I think at a lot of public schools it gives – just because it is so standardized it gives you a really rigorous curriculum that you might not be getting from your education in certain school districts. And I think like at Harvard they didn’t accept them, but if I were to have gone to Ohio State like I would have started off as I think a spring semester sophomore.
Craig: That’s crazy.
Megana: I mean, this is a larger conversation about, you know, higher education. But I think that does seem like a good option for people because college is so outrageously expensive. So I think that option of being able to, I don’t know, mitigate that at some level feels like maybe a positive thing.
Craig: But look what they’ve done? They’ve created a system where you have to jump through a thousand hoops as a child to then not have to pay them so freaking much because they charge so much. That is so warped.
And by the way, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against honors classes. I’m not against kids if they are at a certain level and they want to learn a little bit more they can. Honors classes are fine. But this thing where there’s any indication whatsoever that taking an honors class is going to move you ahead in college and leap frog you past other things in college is crazy. And the idea that you would get these weighted GPAs, so suddenly grade point averages are in these insane inflated numbers is crazy. And the fact that education, higher education, costs so much that you’re going to beat yourself up as a 16-year-old to try and get a bunch of free things, but you don’t have to pay as much. How about don’t pay them anything?
How about that? How about we shouldn’t even have to go to college? How about that?
John: All right. So let’s imagine AP classes go away and look at the pros and cons of that. So obviously from a college level once they’ve admitted you as a student they could just give you a placement test to see like, OK, which physics should you be in, which Spanish should you be in. That’s great and fine. They can absolutely do that. So we’re really not losing much there.
I want to get to Megana’s point which I had not considered but I think is really good is that if you’re looking across the country and different communities, where you have really good high schools or not really good high schools, the AP curriculum actually does give some comfort of like I know that if this student is taking this AP curriculum they’re going to actually at least have this. That they’re actually going to learn this and there’s going to be some kind of rigor, some sort of standardization. It may be too standardized. It may be sort of you’re teaching towards that test, but at least you know these people got this out of it.
And in a country where there’s such wild disparities of educational access and opportunity AP could help arguably to make sure that students have access to a certain kind of rigor that they might not otherwise get in their underfunded schools.
Craig: Allow me to rebut.
Craig: If the school can teach an AP curriculum then it can teach an AP curriculum. Just doesn’t have to call it an AP curriculum. Meaning it’s capable of doing it, therefore it can and should do it. But let’s be honest about the way our system functions. If there is a deal where there’s a specific thing called an AP class that leads to an AP exam that lets you skip ahead then rich kids will always do better. Always. Because they can afford tutors. And because they don’t have to work. They don’t have jobs.
I had a freaking job.
John: I had a job, too.
Craig: I couldn’t have been in those classes. Like I couldn’t do the things. But, you know, these rich kids – did we talk about, what is it, the Polaris List? Did we talk about that on the show?
John: I don’t remember what that was. No.
Craig: He’s a kid, he’s a young guy. And he’s put together this list that basically is like every high school in the country, private or public, how many kids did they send to either Princeton, Harvard, or MIT. I believe those are the three that they picked. And it is astonishing. Astonishing. The top ten schools, it’s just like, wow.
So Harvard Westlake. Percentages.
John: Or Marlborough. All of those.
Craig: It’s a joke. It’s a freaking joke. My school that I went to, this is so good. Because any time there’s a thing like that, they’ll all say we believe in equal access to education and all the rest of it. Somebody pointed out that if say Harvard, or Princeton, why not. I’ll go after my own. Let’s say Harvard or Princeton really was committed to equal opportunity of higher education for everybody in the country what they would do if they were really interested in that is kill themselves. They would dissolve their institutions and take all that money and create a whole bunch of equal opportunity programs spread out across the country.
We’re talking about billions. Billions. Do you know what the Harvard endowment is?
John: It’s probably a billion dollars itself.
Craig: Oh, I think it’s got to be more.
Megana: It’s something like $30 billion or $26 billion or something.
John: Oh my god.
Craig: $30 billion. $30. Do you see what I’m saying? Like when you really look at it, I know I sound crazy. I know I sound a little like QAnon here. But if you really look at the situation with just a very sober eye there is very little in our country that is as insane and Kafkaesque as the way we are educating our children to a purpose.
And the purpose is getting more education from some place and then when they’re done we go, ha-ha, have fun. With no job. Have fun. You did it. You achieved something. You rode all the way to the top of the rollercoaster and that’s it. You just get to the top and then you fall off and you hit the ground. That’s it.
John: Megana, I want to hear what you think about a life without AP classes.
Megana: So I do agree with a lot of what Craig is saying. I recently read this tweet that was like Millennials have 4% of the national wealth and I think Gen X had had 9% and Baby Boomers have had like 21% when they were at this stage. And it’s because we have gone through the system and taken on all of this student debt and it has not paid off with the job market that’s been available to us.
But, I will say that, you know, I did not come from one of those feeder schools and I was I think like the first kid maybe from my high school to go to an Ivy League, to go to Harvard. And when you get there and there are all of these kids from super elite prep schools and private schools from all over the world there is something reassuring in being like, OK, well we all took these classes and – like for some of the classes I just read those AP books on my own and then took the test and did well. And I’m not saying, I’m not advocating for AP, but there is something nice about having that standardization that I was able to have confidence that I was stepping up to freshmen year on sort of an equal playing field. And that those resources were easily accessible to me.
Craig: I’m like you. I came from the same situation.
John: Yeah. I want some clarification here. So, how many AP classes did you have versus tests did you have?
Megana: I think I took 10 AP classes and then I took two that I did not have the classes for and I just took the test from reading textbooks.
John: OK. So that’s something Craig would argue kind of in favor of to some degree, to be able to prove that on your own you did this thing.
Craig: But the problem is that there are far fewer – the AP – let’s call it a ladder to success. That ladder is far narrower for people that come from backgrounds like yours or mine. And it’s why you were the first person to go to Harvard from your school. I don’t know if I was the first person to go to Princeton, but we didn’t send many people to Ivy League schools from my school and we still don’t. Maybe one or two.
And there are dozens, dozens, of kids every year coming from Harvard Westlake. Why? It’s not because they are inherently smarter. It’s because everybody is getting a boost up that ladder. Everybody. This is what happens when you – you extend an opportunity and people game it because the entire thing is set up to be gamed and smart people are always going to figure out ways to mess with it. If the SAT is designed to be a standardized thing that gives everybody the same chance, well putting aside the inherent biases and however the test is created, it’s not an even playing field because now you have tutors. You have the Princeton Review.
If you can pay for the Princeton Review you’re already doing better. If you go to two of those classes and you learn their simple methods of process of elimination and all of that stuff you are already doing better. It’s not – it all gets – by the way, Harvard’s endowment is $41 billion.
Megana: Oh my goodness.
Craig: Thank you. So, it’s like a small country. And these things that are dangled, if we eliminated all of it, if we just eliminated all of those things and we just said write your application and we’ll take a look, and we expanded the understanding of what a good school is, we’d be vastly better off.
The problem for Harvard or Princeton, and if I worked at one of those admissions offices I don’t know what I would do, because I’m taking in 3% of the applications I receive. How the hell am I discriminating between all of these people? It’s impossible.
John: It’s really hard. So I’ve been on Zooms with college admissions things that are organized to sort of talk through what they’re doing. And those admissions offices are on some of those Zooms. And they’ll say, listen, we’re not looking at ACTs or SATs. They’re just looking it up – in both UC schools – Cal State schools and UC schools are not taking SATs or ACTs. They’re not requiring them anymore. And so all of these admissions officers have to look for other things to sort of determine is this kid going to be able to succeed at our school.
They look at grades. They look at where that kid falls in class rankings overall. What activities. And basically – and this sort of feels appropriate for a podcast about something – is what is this kid’s story? Basically how can this kid articulate sort of where they come from and what they’re trying to do? And that’s ultimately what they’re making admissions decisions based on. It’s tough.
Craig: I wish they wouldn’t. Because that’s gross. When we take a step back and we think about it, some panel of eight people in a room are examining what my child’s story is? F-off. They don’t know my kid and they’re never going to know my kid from an application. It’s impossible.
The whole concept of it is insane. That’s my point. The whole concept of deciding who belongs here is insane. And the notion of selectivity is kind of insane. I just don’t get it. I don’t. And I will remain forever angry about it.
Oh, and also US News & World Report should go to hell.
John: All right. But, the good news is I think we actually have a first candidate for Change Craig’s Mind is like if we can change Craig’s mind on some aspect of the college process then that will be a goal for this. I don’t even know what I want to change him to.
Craig: Or anything. Just change it.
Craig: Oh man, I feel bad for that person. Oh, this was a good one. I feel so good. I feel like I exorcised a lot of demons today.
Craig: God, I hope some admissions officer writes in like, “Well, you know, we actually can tell about what a human being is like from their five pages and their dumb essay.” Oh please. Please. Beat it. [laughs] That’s all I have to say.
Thank you for tolerating me through all of that, by the way. You’re both incredibly patient and lovely people.
John: Thank you both.
Craig: Thanks guys.
Megana: Thank you. Bye.
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