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 August: And this is Episode 529 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show, how do screenwriters balance the needs of the scene versus the needs of the story? The two are of course interlinked but in practice are often at odds. We’ll wrestle with how and when to prioritize one over the other.
John August: Then it’s another round of the Three-Page Challenge where we look at scenes submitted by our listeners and offer our honest feedback. And in our bonus segment, for premium members, what do you do when you get bored with what you’re writing? Is that a sign to bail or buckle down?
Craig Mazin: We’re going to give excellent advice and terrific feedback. And overall, provide tremendous value to our listeners.
John August: Right. Provide tremendous value to both our free listeners and our premium members who we love a little bit more.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. I just feel like you we’re a value proposition.
John August: 100 %.
Craig Mazin: I’ve been watching Succession. So, I have all these nerdy business phrases in my head. I think sometimes they’re just making stuff up.
John August: Sometimes, they probably are. But someone said all those things.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. Someone said it somewhere.
John August: Someone said that I don’t love you but I love you.
Craig Mazin: Yeah, I didn’t know what that meant. I got to be honest with you. Sometimes, they are legitimately over my head.
John August: I love succession. And so, we’re going to talk just a little bit on about Succession. I love Succession. But I do feel like that which the intimacy in the tabletop and the next slide dialog will be like, “What the hell did you just say to me? Why would you say that? That was the worst thing you could possibly do.” And yet somehow, they continue on with their lives.
Craig Mazin: Yeah, it is really interesting that they haven’t all just left. I think normally, especially if you can just be bought out of a company, why would you stay?
John August: Why would you stay?
Craig Mazin: If you’re any of them?
John August: So, were of course having a conversation on Friday before Sunday, the finale. So, for all we know, everything’s changed.
Craig Mazin: Do you all love each other now?
John August: Yeah, so my theory going into it, which I can spoil now, is that I think that Tom was wearing a wire through a lot of this season. And that will hopefully be revealed on Sunday’s episode, but it might not. I may have ruined it for other people.
Craig Mazin: If that is revealed, then I assume the government will have to figure out what I love you but I don’t love you.
John August: That’s what it is.
Craig Mazin: I said it backwards. I don’t love you but I love you. Which one was it?
Megana Rao: I don’t love you but I do love you.
John August: Okay. Well, now that just clarified.
Craig Mazin: What?
John August: Yeah. Regardless of interest.
Craig Mazin: I know the difference between I’m not in love, I love you but I’m not in love with you. Is that what they mean?
John August: That’s how I feel about you, Craig. I’m not in love with you. But I do love you as a friend.
Craig Mazin: Sure. I don’t know. It’s a little weak. I don’t like the way you said it.
John August: So, we can have this banter because we are three feet away from each other. For the first time, you’re no longer in Calgary for a brief period of time.
Craig Mazin: Yep. Little hiatus over here.
John August: Yeah. So, we’re here back in our Hancock Park abode. Let’s talk through some news. This is news. Craig, can you tell me what an open writing assignment is?
Craig Mazin: Of course. An open writing assignment is a job that the studios have. They need a writer to write something. It’s often a rewrite. But sometimes, it’s a first draft of some property that they already own.
John August: Or it could be something like how would this be a movie if there was an article they bought, that becomes-
Craig Mazin: That becomes an article. And so, they go to the agencies and they say, this is… and each agency has an agent that covers that studio. And they say to that agent, “We have an open writing assignment. This is the job. This is the producer. And we’re looking roughly for this thing.” And then, the chum is in the water and everybody starts going for it.
John August: Absolutely. And so, in some cases, they may be going out to certain writers, and I say like, oh, we’re out to this writer, this agency, and we’re waiting to hear back this writer. Or, it could be like, this is the thing we’re looking for. Who do you got for us? And the agents reach out to clients and say like, “Is this a thing you’d be interested in pursuing?”
Craig Mazin: Yeah. When they have an open writing assignment, it usually means they aren’t pursuing anyone in particular. They’re looking for people to come in and impress them.
John August: When an assignment is out there, there are emails exchanged back and forth, or phone calls. And this last week, the WGA introduced this thing called the Project Page, which is a one sheeter that essentially collects all that information about a future project in one handy document. It’s shaking it in front of him. So, we’ll put a link to this in the show notes. But it’s just a simple PDF you download.
John August: The idea behind it is that the Product Page is for the producer, executive, to give those critical details about where the IP rights have been secured, who else has written on the project, if there’s talent attached, who are the producers, and hopefully, at some point, get to a place where you can say, “Can you send me the Project Page?” And that’s the summary of where the project is at this moment in time. Will they fill this out? We’ll see.
Craig Mazin: Because you might as well have a big box on here that says, “Are you lying?” The question are the underlying rights secured. They just lie about that all the time.
John August: They will. And so, I had a conversation with some agents about this, this past week. And all of them want this to happen and also feel like it may be hard to get the producers and studios to agree to do it. And yet, I think it’s very useful for writers and maybe we could talk through what’s on the sheet because I don’t think you should be considering taking a job unless you could answer these questions. So, in some ways, I want to have this by the computer to actually check all these boxes, like do I know this information? Because so many times I’ve actually had to call my agents, email my agents to get clarification on like, “Wait, tell me who the producers are because I have a feeling I know who one of the producers are and I will never work with that person again in my life.
Craig Mazin: Yeah, it is a good checklist for stuff that would be nice to know as long as you understand that you might not… let me revise that, that you will be lied to at least to some extent. So, for instance, when it says, how long has the project been in development, they’re going to lie. The names of the previous writers, they’re going to lie. This is a rewrite, number of previous writers, that’ll be a lie. Can you briefly describe the project’s development history? This is a fresh project. We’re looking for an exciting new voice, lie. So, they’re just going to do all that because it’s Hollywood. But the part that I think is helpful is at least putting them on notice that you’re asking the question. Once an agent starts to ask, then the problem for the studio is, if they lie to that agent, and then another agent comes along, and they hear a different thing, then they have an agency problem. So, it’s a good conversation to have. This is maybe the most useful version of this is one that you put in front of your agent and say, it sure would be good if you could tell me the answer to these questions.
John August: That’s what I really think we should be our first and lowest goal is basically say like, before you come to me with this project, I want to be able to know these answers because I want to know the IP rights are not all secured. Great, but what’s happening here, like is it really based on thing? You and I have a common friend. I don’t think she’s ever shared this story publicly. But she wrote something that she thought was an original that ended up being based on something and wasn’t, so she got to arbitration that she found out like, “Oh, this was actually based on a book.”
Craig Mazin: Which they will do.
John August: They will do that. And so, this will not preclude that. But at least you have some conversation. At some point, they said it was not based on something else.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. Once you get hired, they do have to list all the assigned material to you. So, at that point, you should know, it should be in your contract. But certainly, if they don’t have the underlying IP locked up, then not only is there risk for you, but also they’re using you to get the IP.
John August: Let’s also talk about why this is important for any writer considering one of these projects. Because if you are going to go after this thing, that could be not just hours, but days or weeks of your time putting together a pitch, figuring out like is this worth your time to pursue. In many cases, you won’t know if you didn’t have the answers to these questions.
Craig Mazin: Correct. Also, any open writing assignment is usually fraught with a lot of risk. The reason it’s an open writing assignment is the same reason that there’s stuff in the sale bin. It means that it’s not particularly high on the studio’s priority list. It may be something that a producer is pushing really hard that the studio isn’t particularly interested in, but, sure, make 100 people jump through hoops to bide some time before we convince you. We’re not going to ever do this.
Craig Mazin: There’s all problems with open writing assignments. They are somewhat dangerous. They’re like junk bonds. Junk bonds can make you a ton of money as many criminals have proven. But there’s a lot of risk.
John August: Transformers was an open writing assignment at one point. And they came to me with it, like I don’t get transformers, not for me. But it was for somebody and became a huge property. But there have been so many things that across the transom. It’s like, I don’t know.
Craig Mazin: Yeah, the worst version of this, and this is fairly common is they’ll come to you. And they’ll say, “Yes, this is an opening writing assignment. It’s from, let’s pick a studio, Universal, and the producer is, “Let’s just call her Vanessa. And Vanessa has this property that she’s talking to the estate about. And we’re putting a pitch together. The studio is super into this and is a priority for them. And what she’s really doing is laundering things, right? The people who own the rights to the thing, which may be useless, or like, “We’re not going to give you the rights unless we see what the movie would be.”
Craig Mazin: So, they’re going to you, and they’re saying, “Yeah, we can’t give you the job unless you show us what the movie is.” And then, they’re just looking across, share that stuff. And somehow they get money. But it’s all they’re just lying crosswise to everybody.
John August: But I’m pretty sure his job though is just like dream about a movie that could possibly exist and convince folks that you’re building stuff out of smoke, and that’s their job, too.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. I don’t want to imply that that is completely morally treacherous. It has resulted in good things. But a lot of times, open writing assignments are a bit, they’re vaporware. And you just have to be aware of that that they can go away.
John August: I think if I’d had this checklist earlier in my career, there are things that are just like, oh, hell, no, I’m not walking down that road, because I wouldn’t have pursued it. So, if it avoids somehow for some people, it’s a good thing to have them.
Craig Mazin: When you’re young and you don’t have children, what else do you do? Seems like a pretty good use of your time. Practice your skills.
John August: And I think you should practice your skills to the degree that you’re not actually stopping writing original stuff for yourself. And that’s, I think that’s the trap that people fall into this. They’re only pursuing open writing assignments and they’re not actually doing new stuff because they have nothing to show for a year of their writing time.
Craig Mazin: There’s only one writer that’s ever going to get any internal credit from the studio. And that’s the writer that gets this thing, the green light. Everybody else is just somebody that they had to fire along the way. So, odds are that this won’t work out great. So, there’s glum. It’s almost Christmas time. I should probably pep up a little bit. We are out of spooky season, correct?
John August: Yeah we’re in the holiday spirit. Megana who’s here with us, talk to us about how you’re feeling post-spooky season, like we’re still in cozy season. So, is it still a good time of year for you?
Megana Rao: It’s still a good time of year. It’s a little too dark for my taste.
John August: Yeah. My one cool thing is about this darkness. When I asked Siri what time the sunset was and she said 4:45, that’s not okay. A sunset-
Craig Mazin: Do you guys have a little problem with the sunset down here in Los Angeles?
John August: Oh, yeah, we do.
Craig Mazin: Because I wake up in the darkness. And then, I go to lunch in the darkness. And then, I go to bed in the darkness In Calgary.
John August: Yeah, you picked that place.
Craig Mazin: It was selected for us for a number of reasons. I love Calgary. But my goodness, the first thing that happened when we got there in May was we realized that at 5:00 a.m., the laser blast of the sun was going to hit your eyeballs through anything. It penetrates through wood, concrete. And, man, now it’s dark. Oh, wow. Is it dark?
John August: Yeah. People moved to Los Angeles. And I think they don’t… because it’s warmer. They seem like it won’t get dark in some way. But it feels like it gets extra dark here.
Megana Rao: Yeah, because it’s extra bright during the day.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. No, it does not get extra bright no. It’s actually fairly moderate when it comes to that thing.
John August: The main thing I want to talk through today is this idea of scenes versus the whole movie, scenes versus the story and the journey versus the destination. And I think one of the things that’s so fundamental that’s easy to overlook. And we’ve talked about this in various ways over the course of the 10 years of the show. But writers are both creating stories and scenes. And if the scenes are like the individual pieces of Lego, the story is what you build with all those Legos assembled.
John August: But we experience books and movies linearly. So, they are assembled in front of us or watching them be assembled. And the pieces themselves are constructed. They’re little movies themselves are built of these smaller moments, bits of dialogue, visuals, conflict. And so, the tension is that we’re trying to create the most interesting little Lego blocks that are full and joyful to look at and are fantastic. But that will ultimately fit together to build that, the unit we’re trying to build. And sometimes, those are not compatible goals is that we are trying to… both have every moment be spectacular and brilliant and insightful and rewarding and have the whole experience fit together and be what we’re set out to make. And those are real tensions. And you experience it in the movies where you’re experiencing I’m sure the same writing a show right now.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. No, that’s always a challenge. And it’s why I do like to outline early on because it’s the one time where you can engage in very simple scene work like just describing what a scene will be, where is it, and what’s the point, and then look at all of it together. Because what happens when you do all this work is you begin to realize that scenes are always in the context of what came before and what’s coming after. And those things change what that scene feels like to you all the time. You’re guessing how that will work. But it doesn’t always work the way you think. And there are certain things that you… especially once you get into editing, you realize that seems so important. And now, it’s like, yeah, just get rid of it.
John August: Yeah. I think it’s both a craft of making sure the individual later blocks those scenes, those moments as bits are the best possible versions. But also, do we even need that Lego block? Or, no, it’ll all fit together better. And these hold them stronger without that, that extraneous piece is actually breaking the flow of what you had originally intended.
Craig Mazin: It’s so hard because you wonder, Am I giving something away that I should hold on to? Is this one of those stories, where if only I’d kept that thing there? And then, you also think, Oh, wait. Am I being precious about this? And does it not matter? You’re making these value judgments all the time. It’s very frustrating. But it does drive home the need for transitions. I do think that as you’re crafting your Lego piece, if you know how it fits with the one before it and the one after it, better chance that it sticks around.
John August: So, let’s talk about planning versus pantsing. Whether you are carefully outlining and figuring out what the whole story is. So then, as you zoom in on this scene, this scene is to accomplish this thing. This is where I need to get into and this is what needs to achieve at the end. And I’ve done that on movies. There’s also been other movies where I have pants it as it’s grown organically out of like, this is what the scene feels like. This is where the energy of the scene is taking us to the next thing. And sometimes, that works, and you don’t know if it’s going to work. So, it’s probably a riskier way to start. It’s that organic, just like what wants to happen next. But some really good movies have come out of that process.
Craig Mazin: Yeah, certainly. I try and do a bit of a hybrid thing, which I think a lot of people do. I’d like to know, just I like to know what the scene is before I write it. I think some people just start typing and then see where it goes from there, which is a bit like auto writing like using Ouija board. For me, I like to know what I’m supposed to be writing. I like to know what the beginning, middle, and end is of the whole story, of the scene.
Craig Mazin: But then, once I’m in it, a little bit of auto writing is good for you. You get surprised by things. It’s fun to be surprised. And certainly, I have had moments where something just happens. And it’s the best part of the scene because it even got me. If it can get me, right, then it’s definitely going to get other people I think.
John August: That’s when writing is working well. We have good writing and somehow, magically, it feels like both these individual pieces and the whole thing, we’re always in unison. They were always going to support each other. But when we experience bad writing, sometimes it really is that tension where like the writing is bad because it was trying to fit this outline, like this outline probably looks really good and you can still smell the whiteboard markers. They were like locked into this thing. And characters are doing stuff that may not feel organic, that the story is moving in ways that don’t feel like the scenes themselves are rewarding. The scenes aren’t funny. They don’t have texture. They don’t have specificity. They’re not unique moments. They’re just functional. They’re just the basic Lego bricks that are going to hold the thing together But they’re not interesting. And we’ve also seen bad writing, which is like, yeah, moment by moment, these things are interesting but it doesn’t go anywhere. And we all have these frustrations of things that just feel like they’re constantly in a loop because these characters are saying brilliant things and yet we’re not actually achieving our goals.
Craig Mazin: Yeah, there is definitely value in occasional wastes of time, all of its precious real estate. But I’m thinking there’s a rambling bit in Shrek, where Shrek goes on about an onion, or the two of them are talking about the onion. It’s just a shaggy dog thing. Everybody remembers it. And it’s an utter waste of time, particularly in an animated film as CG animated film.
John August: Is watching money burn, yeah.
Craig Mazin: That conversation cost many millions of dollars. And maybe people would have been like you don’t… you can get away with saying one quick thing there. Or showing it. Show, don’t tell every dumb rule there is. But there is a value in occasionally wasting time because it is a human thing. A little bit like singers who have beautiful pitch. If they wobble a little bit on a note, keep it because that’s how everybody knows it was an auto tune.
John August: That says a lot.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. So, I think that it’s good to do that. The trouble is when that’s all people have. And then, you just get one of four… I mean, Megana reads how many of these… They’re still doing for Tarantino up there, right? They’re still just blah blah blah blah blah blah. Yeah, those aren’t so much scenes as indulgences, which if you are a particular writer and filmmaker can be delicious. But for the rest of us, not particularly.
John August: Well, there’s the struggle of the screenwriter who’s working on their script. And, okay, I’ve got the idea for the movie. This is how all the scenes are going to fit together. I’m writing a scene. I’m working on this. But then, there’s the whole second level of like, Okay, now, you’ve turned this in, and now you have developed, you have notes. And you have people who are trying to optimize this. And one of the ways they’ll try to optimize this is like, can’t we just do this shorter? Can we get out of the scene faster? And sometimes that instinct is correct. You and I both experienced, they’ve just squeezed all the life and joy and then that just becomes a plot machine. You’ve lost the things in those scenes to actually make those scenes worthwhile. You’ve tried to cut a scene so short, the scene barely starts, and you should just get rid of the scene. And that’s the frustration is recognizing you could have this master plan, you can have these beautiful scenes. And then, stuff will happen. And you have to find a way to make it work without those things. It’s like you’re building a bridge, and they said, “Oh, no, you have 30% less steel than you expected.” Work with it.
Craig Mazin: Well, that’s pretty much always because I don’t think anyone’s ever gotten the budget they needed. So, even money-wise, this ends up happening, and that’ll impact you as well as the notes. There’s also this thing where you have to be accountable to your own notes because we just talked about sometimes surprises. So, you’ve planned something out, and then you surprise yourself. And then, you go, “Whoa, hold on a second. This now has ramifications for many things. I have to be accountable to those. I can’t just get stuck here.” And then, all of those subsequent scenes need to be considered in the Gestalt. That’s right, I said Gestalt.
John August: And we’re that kind of podcast. [crosstalk]
Craig Mazin: We say those things. Everything. I feel like we talk about almost one topic in so many different ways. And that is about balancing competing interests. And in storytelling, you just have to balance the whole with the parts, because the individual parts of the ones that people love, in the moment, but they will only remember the whole after.
John August: Yeah, they will remember some certain little moments of that little highlights during that thing, but then they’ll have an experience like, did I like the entire thing? Or did I not like the entire thing? And then, that’s the frustration. And I think our shared frustrations also that in teaching screenwriting, there’s such an emphasis on structure, which is the whole, which is basically this roadmap of like how it’s all going to fit together, and not nearly enough emphasis on the actual writing moment to moment. How do we keep all these balls in the air? How do we keep this moment feeling alive and excited? How to make the most fascinating Lego pieces? It’s just about like, here’s how you click the Lego pieces together to build this dinosaur.
Craig Mazin: Yeah, it’s like we make a mosaic. So, we have to have an image that we’re shooting for with all of our little tiles. But each tile has to be really cool. That’s annoying. The Romans just had the blue in the way. And it was fun. And they made a whale. And it was great. But not us. So, to me, the great majority of the work we do is actually inside of the scenes. But the most inspired work we probably do is about the whole, is understanding what is the story that people would care about, why, what tone is it, and roughly, what is the shape of it?
John August: And that shape is really the journey. So, the other metaphor be the destination versus the journey, like you started here, you got there. But really, the experience of the movie is how you got from point A to point B and what route you took. If it’s a road trip, it’s like the fastest way to drive from LA to New York is not going to be the most interesting way to drive from LA to New York, is not going to be the most rewarding way to drive. But you’re going to have to make decisions about what the choices and compromises you’re going to make, like you can’t see all of America. You’ll have short amount of time. You’ll have a certain amount of gas or electric charge. You’re going to have to make some optimizations. And that’s the choices you’re making as a screenwriter.
Craig Mazin: And as you go, you have to look and see how it’s going. And sometimes your beautiful route has just too man rivers in a row. And then, you have to change it. You have to be very relaxed in a weird way when you’re doing it, although I find myself very tense. Well, to me, it’s like a tense relaxed. I guess there’s the balance. Again, you just need to be able to pivot all the time in response to what’s happening.
John August: Yeah, I’m working on two projects now. One of which is the scene work. And one of which is the big macros, or what is the shape of this whole thing want to be? And it’s exciting to have those two opportunities. But even in trying to figure out the whole shape of it, I need to zoom in on certain moments. I feel like, is this even going to be rewarding in those individual moments? I’m imagining myself a few months down the road, am I going to enjoy writing those scenes or not? And that’s a thing you’re always asking yourself.
Craig Mazin: And eventually become accountable to the world. So much thought and energy is required. And then, people can just go, “Sucks.”
John August: So, on the show, we often do a Three-Page Challenge, which is where we look at the first three pages of scenes that people have sent in. We’ve given our honest feedback. And I think that some of that’s in response to the pressure of ordinary screenwriting books and such talking about the structure as a whole thing. So, we zoom in on this really tight… We’ll focus on just three pages, like what’s happening on those pages. But maybe we should look for a way to actually talk about the shape of stories overall. I don’t know if we want to read treatments or longer things. But I felt like-
Craig Mazin: I can answer that question.
John August: You don’t want to read them at all.
Craig Mazin: No.
John August: No.
Craig Mazin: No.
John August: Or we could look at, I guess, when we do our deep dives on existing movies, we have a sense of the shape of the whole thing.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. And ultimately, there is not much interest for me, at least in talking about story in the abstract. Whereas doing scene work is lovely. It’s very detailed. When you’re in production, it’s the work of the day. You’re doing scene work and you can talk about all little things. For overall stories, the truth of the matter is if somebody told me the overall story for karate kid, I probably would shrug and go, “That just feels like so rocky” but like little rocky with karate, I guess. And then, you see the movie and you experience all those scenes, and they’re wonderful. And they collect up too much more than what it sounds like. So, I think we are probably doing this right. I think, in fact, it is one of the problems with… Well, there are a number of problems with screenwriting schools, not the least of which is just listen to this podcast. Honestly.
John August: I do get frustrated when people ask like, “Oh, can you give us some advice on scriptwriting?” I’m like, “Yes, I have a weekly podcast you can listen to. There’s 500 episodes.”
Craig Mazin: Dude. When people are like, “I just want to take you out to lunch and pick your brain, you don’t have to.
John August: No. I’ve done it.
Craig Mazin: It’s picked.
John August: It’s been scraped clean. There’s nothing left on the inside on the scale.
Craig Mazin: We are literally. Why would anyone ask us for screenwriting advice at this point?
John August: No, they shouldn’t.
Craig Mazin: No.
John August: No, but they do. They write down the questions. Sometimes, we answer them.
Craig Mazin: They do.
John August: So, let’s get started on our Three-Page Challenge. We’ll start with Firebird. Now, if you want to read along with us, these PDFs are linked in the show notes. You can stop now and look at the PDF and get your sense of it before we discuss what we’re reading on the page. But Megana will give us a summary of what it is we’re about to read.
Megana Rao: Great. So, Firebird by Benjamin Blattberg. The voice of father narrates an animated Russian folktale about a woodcutter who strays from the safe path when he uses his axe to free a trapped crow. As soon as the woodcutter realizes he stepped off the path, the crow opens its mouth, unleashing explosions. We then cut to Stalingrad in November 1942 where 12-year-old Mila steers out of her apartment at burning buildings and bombings. Her Aunt Anya urges Mila to pack and collect her parents’ jewelry, money, and food to help her escape from Stalingrad. Mila refuses saying her Papa told her not to. Anya slaps her across the face and keeps packing. Mila brings a book a fairy tales with an inscription from her father.
John August: All right. So, that’s where we’re at the end of these first three pages. There’s things I want to talk about in this but I was intrigued. I basically got the setup. I got the situation. I was intrigued to read the next thing. It did feel JoJo Rabbit to me just because that was the most recent movie that I saw that had a similar situation happening. But there’s a lot of stuff here that I thought can work. The animated opening can work, the tie in with a fairytale book. It felt tragic and whimsical at times. These are good combinations. What was your first instinct on this?
Craig Mazin: Yeah, that was really well done. And in the sense of scene work, regardless of how it might unfold, I thought that there was so much here worth recommending to people who are wondering roughly how should these things feel and flow. It looks great on the page. Lovely, broken up. I was-
John August: It’s Courier Prime, so it’s already off to a good start.
Craig Mazin: He’s just a suck up is what he is. But where got me was, I’m following along. I love Russian folklore. So, I’m looking along here and I got a little confused when the woodcutter chops at roots and branches laughing as he frees the crow. The crow flies to his shoulder and they laugh together. I thought, well, that’s very odd.
John August: I didn’t know whether I was confused or whether it hadn’t been clear on the page. What was your instinct?
Craig Mazin: I think it was just tonally bizarre, but that’s okay. Because then, something is coming closer. The crow opens its mouth. But what comes out is the sound of next line, all caps, explosions. Next line, lowercase, far off, coming closer. That’s actually quite horrifying. And then, we are immediately into reality and we realize we’re with a child. She is in the middle of World War II. Her city is being bombed. Her aunt, there’s a slightly clumsy introduction to the fact that she’s the aunt, where she refers specifically to her brother, Mila’s father, she just, my brother was too soft on you. That was-
John August: Well, also, Mila says, “I’m not leaving Aunt Anya.
Craig Mazin: Yeah, we generally don’t do stuff like that. But we’ll figure it out. Eventually, there’ll be a reason to… you don’t need to shove it in right there. I don’t think you can let that develop later. And the conversation between Anya and Mila is pretty good because it’s real. This feels normal.
John August: It feels heightened and rushed in the way that there’s an urgency to it, which is great. And they’re cutting off lines, things trail off when they need to trail off. They dash dash, cut off, when people are cutting each other off. We can improve a little bit here on the bottom half of page two. We run into a situation where between every line of dialogue, there’s a line of scene description. It’s a little staccatoAnd so, you could get some better flow by figuring out when to break that up and when not to break it up, which of those things that go to parenthetical, but that’s a small criticism.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. For instance, where did your father hide money? Mila looks at her blankly, effing hell, where that could just be in parentheses, no response. So, we can absolutely do a little bit of squishing down here. But I could see the space. I could hear it. There was a point of view. I understood that I was with Mila. Certainly, the general concept that her father had left to this book and the book was important that the father had imparted her with a love of fairytales and the fairy tales in theory would help her survive some of this. All that felt there and good. And so, yeah, I think Benjamin Blattberg can do this.
John August: Yeah, I agree. You talk about, so that we’re from Mila’s point of view. And I think that’s crucial. And one of the ways in which we’re seeing it right in Mila’s point of view is when we get to this apartment from the next room, we hear drawers being opened and slammed. Mila just fetches with the buttons and follows code so long and heard that it’s him sweeps the floor. That tells us because we’re starting from her point of view. We’re literally only with her and we’re sitting out here and off camera sounds. We know that she’s the one to follow. If we’d seen the aunt first, it would have been the aunt’s story.
Craig Mazin: Completely, and great use of sound. We talked about transitions. This is full of them. And we’re using all the palette that we are provided, directing on the page, thank God. And also, just like the… things happen with that too much of a Mila being made of them like Anya slaps Mila, that’s a sentence. That’s a perfectly good sentence. Subject, verb, object, done. Great.
John August: Cool. So, let’s go on to our next Three-Page Challenge. This is The Drawing by Todd William Knack.
Megana Rao: Ten-year-old Luke draws a mysterious woman on a piece of paper in his bedroom. It’s Gabrielle Lawson, 38, with a power ponytail, calls to him yelling that it’s time to go. Gabrielle speaks with Officer Raymond Carter in the front doorway. The officer shows her the stakes he’s put in the yard and explains the boundaries of the perimeter. Gabrielle asks Luke where his backpack is, but he doesn’t answer. We learned that Luke doesn’t speak. Twenty-four-year-old Scarlet enters carrying Luke’s backpack. She drops it by her feet where we see her ankle monitor and realize that the new perimeter is for her house arrest.
John August: Craig, start us off here. This is again, we have a story of a young kid. You have a parent authority figure. We have some mystery about what’s going on. How did this work for you?
Craig Mazin: I spent most of these pages utterly confused.
John August: Yeah. I was confused too.
Craig Mazin: Yeah, about what was going on. First of all, there’s the view of an oncoming train and then we reveal it’s actually just a toy train, but that’s a reality shift. And it’s so short. I’m not sure what we’re getting from it exactly other than it’s somewhat clever, but there’s not enough of it to make it feel like it’s a thing.
Craig Mazin: Formatting notes, a ton of capitalized words here in this one paragraph where we see the things in the room. Weirdly, there’s Edward Gorey posters. Edward Gorey is not capitalized, but posters is. Most of the stuff, you don’t need to capitalize like art supplies.
John August: It’s uppercasing and that doesn’t need to happen.
Craig Mazin: Right. And then, we meet this kid and he’s scribbling a picture of a shadowy figure and then we hear a woman off-screen, “Luke time to go.” Who is that woman?
John August: The woman is theoretically Gabrielle, but it’s weird that we don’t identify her here.
Craig Mazin: But also, if she’s yelling to him, she’s also talking to a police officer at the same time. Interior front doorway, that’s not a location. You could be by the front door. You could be foyer. The police officer, here’s the description, crop dark hair in perfect unison with his short beard. Okay.
John August: How are things in unison?
Craig Mazin: Well tidy, I guess, weathered. Never told a joke. But if he did, it would be quality.
John August: I don’t know how to play that.
Craig Mazin: What is that?
John August: I can’t do that. It’s not a playable thing.
Craig Mazin: If you’ve never told a joke, how could it be quality?
John August: So, Ashley Nicole Black, when she was on the show she was talking about, she’s also an actor, and she talks about when she’s going out for a role she reads the character description there and she gets frustrated when it’s just like, that’s not a thing I can actually do or play.
Craig Mazin: No one can do that. But even if you could, you couldn’t because it’s contradictory. Never told a joke, but if he did, it would be quality. That’s like never drove, but if he did, he would nail it. But no, because you’ve never… what?
John August: Yeah. So, never told a joke period. I get that. That’s a playable thing.
Craig Mazin: Yes. So, the sticks in the yard, again, not really sure why they need to be there exactly. But that’s fine. And then, Luke shows up and she says in the pantry, honey, but wasn’t she just calling him telling him to go?
John August: That’s what I’m confused about too.
Craig Mazin: So, if she’s telling to go, but was it maybe, was it Scarlet that was saying time to go? I don’t think so. Because Gabrielle eventually says, “Ready? Where’s your backpack? So, Gabrielle yells, “Time to go.” We don’t identify her by name. And then, she does not seem to have any sense that it’s time to go. Still not a word, huh? Just more drawings. No. No.
John August: You’re setting up too much that this is the fundamental thing. That’s strange about this character. We don’t know how long he’s been involved in their life, which seems strange to. So, let’s talk about the stakes because the literal stakes have been put in the ground by Officer Carter. They’re already in by the time it started. If you were putting the stakes in, that would be intriguing to me. What is he doing that? And then, I was like, “Oh, the fact that it’s about her house arrest and the perimeter, then we’re in the middle of something that’s great.” But they’re just standing having a conversation about a thing that’s already happened. I don’t know the context of it.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. And it’s putting a lot of pressure on this reveal. She’s under house arrest. But there’s probably a more interesting, casual way to drop that in there. I do struggle when characters have this openness with each other. Someone says, still not talking. Yeah, no, just drawing. Typically, a parent of a child who has any struggles will be far less forthcoming than that. Still not talking, huh? No.
John August: Let’s also talk about point of view. So, in the last thing we were looking at, it was clear that we own the little girl’s point of view. I’m not sure who’s…. We’re not in the boy’s point of view.
Craig Mazin: We’re no one’s point of view. So, I don’t know whose scenes belong to. If I were directing the scene between Officer Carter and Gabrielle, I’m not sure what they want. They don’t seem to want anything actually. This is a problem. So, in scenes, typically, people are trying to achieve something. Is he hitting on her? He’s not doing a particularly convincing job of it. Does she want something from him? Does she want him to leave? She doesn’t seem like she does, nor does she want him to stay. Everyone’s mild.
John August: Yeah. And mild is usually not a good sign for a first scene.
Craig Mazin: No.
John August: So, let’s go back to our earlier conversation about the Lego pieces. And it’s like it’s entirely possible that Lego piecewise that this is actually building up, stacking up something interesting in the fact that they’re under house arrest, the stakes are going to be useful down the road, but the actual scene work that we’re seeing, the Lego pieces that we’re looking at, they’re confusing, and that’s not helping us.
Craig Mazin: Yeah, even if this exists just to set up that there’s somebody under house arrest and there’s a kid and he’s drawing a weird picture. And maybe there’s some, who knows what’s with the picture. The problem here is the conversation between the cop and this woman. The two of them don’t seem to have any reason to be talking to each other. It’s almost like we’re watching aimless small talk, which you tend to avoid like on planes and in lines.
John August: So, we actually have a logline for this one. So, we now ask for a logline. So, here’s the logline for the whole thing, which I do believe this Lego thing. After mysterious and tragic incident, artist Scarlet finds herself on house arrest at our strange aunt and silent 10-year-old cousin’s big empty house. Soon she begins to experience supernatural events, all of which she suspects is linked to her cousin’s artwork.
Craig Mazin: Sure. And you get a supernaturally vibe from the description of the artwork itself.
John August: But I don’t feel like she’s the central character of the story. It’s showing on the three pages you’ve given us.
Craig Mazin: No. No, this would be… There’s the answer. This should be from her point of view. She’s the hero. Everything that’s happening here is boring. So, if she’s watching all this and she’s watching a cop describe the perimeter and her looking at it-
John August: That’s interesting.
Craig Mazin: Yeah, that would be interesting, yeah, perspective. I would feel like she would have feelings about that. She’s trapped. So, that’s a good thing. And she’s trapped and then she turns and there’s that little kid staring at her. That would be scary and weird. There’s a lot of ways to go. But the key is her. And we get nothing from her except this very bit at the end, which is like-
John August: Her description is-
Craig Mazin: Cold and distant but without angst.
John August: I don’t know how to play that either. I could play cold and distant without angst.
Craig Mazin: Well, angst is incompatible with cold and distant, right? So, I don’t know what the word but is doing. So, I just think cold and distant would be enough. And then, he adds detached, which I think was covered by cold and distant. And she’s-
John August: But also, cold and distant is a hard thing to stick on your central character. That’s the hard first thing to give us a character who is the one we’re going to actually be following through the course of the story.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. I think it’s also something that is the thing you can get from the execution of the character in the scene with the kid. So, if the kid walks in there and he’s like, “Hey, can I… and she just says one word answer or doesn’t answer at all, but just looks away, that’s cold and distant. Better to do that probably.
John August: Yeah. And use that character description line to give us some visual, some specificity about who this character is versus anybody else who could be in this movie.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. Last thing, Todd, I would say just on when you’re on mild patrol. On page three, Officer Carter chuckles and tips his hat and then at the end of the page, Scarlet chuckles. Chuckling is just for like grandpa. Yeah-
John August: As Megana laughs.
Craig Mazin: And then, you like to chuckle. That doesn’t count as chuckling. That was a proper laugh. I was thinking of chuckling as like [demonstrates chuckling].
Megana Rao: I see. I see.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. Usually, your ruffle a little. Your grandson’s hair because he took him fishing and he said something funny and you go. Chuckling is mild.
John August: Yeah, it’s very mild. All right, let’s get on to Perdition by Terry Rietta. We’ll get a summary from Megana.
Megana Rao: We’re in Cullman, Alabama in the 1830s. Thirteen-year-old Duncan narrates the pastoral setting as he comes upon, strangled 16-year-old Eily’s body by the creek. His father, Loren tells him to go get Pastor Haig. As Duncan runs to the pastor’s house, he flashes back through memories with Eily. Loren and Pastor Haig discuss next steps as they look at the body.
Megana Rao: The sheriff is too far away to reach that day, so they take the corpse to Eily’s home where her mother Eustace falls to pieces at the site of her daughter’s dead body.
John August: Alright. So, yet again, we have young people and dark things happening around them. There were moments here that I like. I liked the idea of finding a body in an older time. We have a sense of what a modern day kid finding a body is. But I liked that it was awkward. And there wasn’t a natural thing to do. There wasn’t police to call. I liked all of that. And yet what I was actually seeing on the page didn’t feel like the best version of this scene in the sequence to me, and there are a lot of small things on there I want to talk about in terms of showing vernacular dialogue, showing accent, showing regionalisms in a way that is suggestive, but not annoying to read, and sometimes just got a little annoying to read in terms of the “gittins” and the “aint’s and the “gahs.”
Craig Mazin: Yeah. And I don’t know, Megana, if these are all linked together by little fantasy moments perhaps because this is the third one in a row now, where there’s a slight fantasy aspect to it because he sees himself playing with the girl when they were younger, and she was choked to death, which I found confusing.
John August: I am confused too. And I don’t know how…. So we’re talking about on page two as he’s running. He sees these things as like, I don’t know that as a viewer. I would get that he was seeing an earlier version of this. And also, it’s weird how the, a teenager, a young person that’s imagining a younger version of himself. That doesn’t happen.
Craig Mazin: It doesn’t happen. And generally, people aren’t looking at themselves in memories. They can see other people in memories perhaps, but happy memories just seemed like we were hit with a pretty tonally shocking thing. And then, on top of that, we were hit with this gimmick. And then, writing over all that is voiceover.
Craig Mazin: So, we have three competing interests. And I’m not sure where I’m supposed to look and feel, but I can tell you what I wanted. To me, what’s really cool is this, a peppercorn snail, and I don’t know what a peppercorn snail is [crosstalk]. But I loved it, a peppercorn snail.
John August: Daddy, I want a peppercorn snail.
Craig Mazin: I want it now. A peppercorn snail crawls up her porcelain shoulder, revealing deep purple bruises around the girl’s neck. I didn’t love it was her and then the girl’s because it sounded like two different people. But what I loved was that there was a snail on a person, and that’s how we find out they’re dead. And that’s really cool and weird. And I wanted basically the kid to shut up. Now, I don’t have anything against voiceover. Sometimes it’s brilliant. In this case, it’s turning everything rather corny.
John August: It is. So, let’s read through the voiceover here. So, it’s labeled as Duncan’s voiceover. I’m confused whether this is Duncan, the 13-year-old kid or an adult. And as I read this aloud, I think you’ll be confused with me. “Cullen, Alabama, was a pretty place anytime of day. Old oaks leaning down, big moss feathered slabs of stone, soft grass will take the print of your foot and hold it. In the spring, the bubbles don’t seem to rise but rather hang like a string of beads. And Eily Jurdan looked the part of it just lying there like a girl in a tale.
John August: Now, in a book, great. I love that. I actually think that’s good writing. And I really do enjoy it. I don’t believe a teenager can say that. So, it has to be an older version.
Craig Mazin: It says a boy, 13, speaks with a soft southern accent.
John August: Yeah. So, I guess that’s him talking but it doesn’t track for me.
Craig Mazin: It doesn’t sound like what anyone would say to anyone. It does sound book-like. It is an omniscient narrator description of things. But if I were describing my town to you and I started talking like this, you would walk away. There’s something wrong with me. Soft grass, it’ll…
John August: I’m going to start doing that.
Craig Mazin: Take the print on your foot and hold, you’d be like, “What? What are you talk… what? Just where are you from?” Staten Island. I think that it’s a bit purple in terms of its prose, which again, in a novel can work. But coming out of someone’s mouth will sound corny. And on top of that, a 13-year-old boy who talks like this should be studied in a lab because it’s just too much.
John August: A very specific on the page note here. So, in that block of dialogue I just read, this voiceover, and Eily in parenthesis, it says rhymes with highly. I like that we have that clarification here. But I was so tempted to read the parenthetical aloud. So, maybe put it in brackets, put it above this if you need to. I didn’t mind knowing how to pronounce it. We also run into problems with Eily on page three. We’re in this open cart and Duncan is in the back. Duncan sits with Eily holding her head in his lap and I had to think like, “Wait, is she dead?” So, I think Eily’s body is really what we needed to have here.
Craig Mazin: Yeah.
John August: On page three is also where we see, the first line is, outta get the sheriff. It should be an oughtta to get sheriff. That oughtta is spelled differently. Half days ride to Huntsville and it’s getting dark. Animals will get at err if we just leave her out. You don’t need the errs in that situation. I think at a certain point you have to stop dropping on all the “g”s. We get a sense of what the sound is supposed to be. But it gets to be frustrating to read that all the time.
Craig Mazin: Yes, you don’t need it. And the actors will generally do that. If you give this to them, you run the risk of really getting a lot of-
John August: But things like animals will get her if we just leave her out. The animals’ll, I like that.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. The animals will get at her. You can say that too. It’s just the err. It does seem a little much… I get immediately confused on page one. First of all, he’s describing things as if they were in the past. But he’s there looking at them in the present. So, I don’t understand quite how that functions.
John August: I don’t know when we are in time.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. And then, Loren is this guy who is staring at her. Now we’re going to presume that unless Duncan sounds like a boy boy, that’s who it is because that’s who’s staring at this girl. And it’s the first person we see. Loren it says blends into the setting, granite face, stoic and sporting blood on his pants. Okay, a couple of things. That does not going to blend into the setting, too. You don’t really spurt blood on your pants, blood-stained pants. But when I see a dead body and then I see a guy next to it with blood-stained pants, my mind goes to weird places.
John August: Pretty natural connection. They’re somehow connected that there’s blood on that. Yes.
Craig Mazin: And yet after reading it over a few because I get very disturbed. And then, he said, “Oh, a few freshly caught rabbits dangle from his belt.” Okay.
John August: Maybe start with rabbits.
Craig Mazin: Yeah, maybe start with the rabbits because right now, oh, bloody pants. Nobody wants that.
John August: Page one. Afternoon sun kisses the foothills of the Appalachians, dangerously purple but okay, I’ll allow it. Next slide, hills, pastures, pines, and hardwoods. You said foothills in the previous sentence. I don’t think you need to say hills twice.
Craig Mazin: Yes, I agree. And when we go into this next section, there’s the promise of Eustace. Before we get to Eustace, there’s a preacher. Duncan has been told to run to get the preacher. And Duncan says, is she dot dot dot? And obviously she is. She’s dead. Clearly. He’s 13. He’s not nine, right, or eight. He should know that she’s definitely dead. She’s not breathing. She’s pretty dead-looking. Regardless. And because it’s always this fake-ish. He finally gets to the preacher’s house. He pounds on the old oak door, a weathered… this is second weathered. The other script had a weathered.
John August: Everyone’s weathered.
Craig Mazin: Everyone’s weathers. Kindly man opens it. A cross around his neck and round spectacles on the end of his nose. A bit central casting there for the old person. This is preacher Haig. The preacher’s face falls at the sight of Duncan standing there, tear-stained and out of breath. What happened? Duncan throws himself in the preacher’s arms. Well, this is a whole different type of movie now. What? So, I think maybe he meant collapses into.
John August: Yeah. Yeah. I’m not buying that either. I’m not buying that moment. I don’t mind buying that as an out. So, what happened is a good exit line in general.
Craig Mazin: You don’t need what happened. How about just uh-oh, right? He reacts to this kid standing there. And then, the two of them are chit-chatting. And then, they get to Eustace who I assume is his mom.
John August: Eustace is a man. Eustace looks past the preacher and sees his little girl. So, last thing I want to talk about is there’s a dedication page. So, after the title page before the real script, definition of the word perdition in Christian theology, a state of eternal punishment and damnation into which a sinful and unpenitent person passes after death. Great. I’ll take it like, yeah, I’m fine with that. And that’s a good use of that dedication page.
Craig Mazin: I did not like that perdition was printed out in syllables.
John August: I’m going to allow it because I could see people pronouncing it strangely or getting tripped up on it. If it weren’t for the Road to Perdition, the Sam Mendes movie I wouldn’t know.
Craig Mazin: You wouldn’t know about perdition. So, I think Terry, less novelistic here probably less than general seems like you’ve got a great eye for visuals. You can really see this place and I can see it with you. You probably are over describing in spots. When I say probably, I mean definitely. And given that you have such a good eye for visuals, don’t clutter it quite so much with extra stuff.
John August: I will be fascinated to see the version of this that basically has no dialogue which is all just visuals telling the story and then fill out the scenes you need to. Here’s a logline, 1830s Alabama, after discovering that a small town’s golden girl has been strangled by in a creek and her friend Isaac, a boy 18 with down syndrome has run off with a stolen horse.
Craig Mazin: What?
John August: It’s a confusing logline. A posse is organized by the girl’s wealthy father to bring back the boy to account for the crime they think he committed.
Craig Mazin: I see.
John August: So, it sounds like there’s a posse going after the presumed killer of this girl.
Craig Mazin: Sure. And that’s fine, but that’s not what this is giving me.
John August: No, it’s not.
Craig Mazin: And it feels a little bit, Terry, like you’re forcing To Kill A Mockingbird on us here. It just feels To Kill A Mockingbird-ish. It’s that vibe. And that’s that vibe. And honestly, it’s an old fashioned vibe.
John August: Yeah, to strangle a sparrow.
Craig Mazin: It’s a great book but it’s an old book. We honor the things that come before but then the fact that they get popularized and then recycled and redone a bunch, you got to move past that and I think this feels a little too Pepperidge Farm remembers.
Megana Rao: Can I ask you a question?
Craig Mazin: Sure, of course.
Megana Rao: On page two where Duncan’s sprinting and as he passes the field, he sees himself much younger with Eily playing in the high grass .Say Terry did want to keep that, would you recommend doing another logline or like a flashback? Would that help?
John August: Yes, I would recommend keeping our kid out of it and just seeing the younger version of the girl. I have a hard time imagining how that’s going to help tell the story. I don’t think it works with the Lego piece but I don’t think it’s going to actually help him and the entire thing is trying to construct is to have flashback moments.
Craig Mazin: That’s also the wrong time for this information. I just saw her dead. Give me a moment or two. Let me learn a little bit about… let me at least hear what supposedly the deals with her before you start showing me things that are maybe private things like her kissing some guy behind the barn. At a church, he sees Eily kissing a man behind a barn. Maybe there’s a barn near the church, usually aren’t.
John August: No, shouldn’t be.
Craig Mazin: No. Regardless. It’s too soon. Oh, I see. He’s running by the church. And then, he sees Eily kissing a man behind a barn. Now, how would you do that?
John August: I don’t know how you do that.
Craig Mazin: I don’t know how you do it.
John August: So, we’re having a hard time visualizing what we’re actually going to see on screen. And that’s a real problem, especially on page 10.
Craig Mazin: Plus, why is he thinking of this at all right now. He’s got a job to do, which is to get to the preacher.
John August: Do your job. Get to the preacher.
Craig Mazin: Throw himself in the preacher’s arms.
Megana Rao: Okay, second question. So, in the last script and maybe in this one, it feels like a thing that you guys are bumping up against is the fake reveal, like false suspense. So, do you think in this script, like with that line is she dot dot dot, if they just said is she dead, that would have been better?
Craig Mazin: Yes. Yes, that actually would have been better because then you would have had an opportunity for the other character to look at him like, what do you think, idiot? And then, that kid could hang his head because that was a stupid question. It gives you an opportunity for humans to interact.
John August: Yeah. And the “is she…” doesn’t… it’s false. Doesn’t feel real. You could say almost anything else would make more sense in that moment. She’s dead, right? Or what do we do? I really don’t have anything. It’s probably better than like the is she because we’re just assuming she’s dead.
Craig Mazin: Is she?
John August: Yeah.
Craig Mazin: Yes.
John August: Is it time for the next sample? Let’s take a look at Helen Sedwick’s pages for Ten Million.
Megana Rao: We open on the San Francisco Bay and close in on an upscale home at Dawn where Patti Wendecker rushes down in her bathrobe to greet a SWAT team of FBI agents pounding at her door. Patti reminisces about the old days in voiceover as we watch federal agents restrain her and storm her home. Patti’s teenage daughters Abby and Monica are escorted downstairs where they’re seated next to Patti. Patti insists the agents have made a mistake until they dragon her husband, Sam, 45, an attorney, whom the agents caught trying to escape in the backyard. Sam apologizes before he’s escorted away. The dFBI asked Patti if she has any firearms in the house.
John August: Great. I like these pages. And I like the situation that was being created here. I’m going to have a lot of very specific notes about things I think could be improved. But meeting this character in this situation, I think feels interesting and right and appropriate. I was a little confused about the time period and start. For some reason, I assume it’s modern day, but it feels like could also be ’80s or ’90s. So, I was a little curious about that. But I was with it moment by moment, which I think is a good sign for these pages. Craig, what was your first instinct on this?
Craig Mazin: Yeah. There is a good reveal here, which I liked. Because she sold me on the fact that they were in the wrong house. And then, turns out they’re not in the wrong house. And that’s interesting. However, there’s a little bit of a thing that happens here early, which lost me a touch and that is Patti in voiceover says, and this is what we hear first as she’s coming downstairs. “If you ask me, the FBI should let you finish your first cup of coffee and run a brush through your hair before they pound on your door with warrants, rifles, and bulletproof vests.” Pound pound pound.
Craig Mazin: Then she opens the door, shakes her head in disgust. “I told them right off you’ve got the wrong house. By noon, FBI idiots would be trending on TikTok.” Now, a couple things, one, shaking your head in disgust. Nobody shakes their head in disgust at the FBI unless they’re like a mob wife and this is the 12th time. This is new. This is weird. Second, by noon, FBI idiots would be trending on TikTok. That makes it sound like that’s exactly what happened. But it isn’t what happened. And also, I don’t see them say you’ve got the… I don’t see her say you’ve got the wrong house. They slam her to the floor. She says sometimes, “I miss those days” in voiceover which I was okay. So, something is interesting.
Craig Mazin: But I was already nervous that I was disconnecting from a normal human reaction to a situation. And I got particularly nervous when the daughters were taken. And towards the end, the agent says to Patti and her girls… and how old are the girls?
John August: They are 16 and 14.
Craig Mazin: Sixteen and 14. Monica is 14. And Daddy has already been dragged off by the FBI and apologizes. Something’s gone terribly wrong. The agents say to Patti and her girls, “Now, don’t move.” And Monica says, “What? And missed all the fun?” Excuse me?
Craig Mazin: You’re 14-year-old mouthing off to the FBI that just apparently justifiably dragged your dad out. And you guys are all on the floor and tied up. No. So, tone was a problem for me. But the layout of things was really interesting. It was a cool scene to start with.
John August: Yeah, I agree. So, I think let’s talk about the daughters because this is about what we hear. Girls scream, Patti’s daughters Abby, 16, and Monica, 14, stumble down the stairs, their hands bound behind them and a behemoth in a black helmet on their tails. Patti tries to stand but with their hands tied behind her, she topples over. The behemoth sits the girls beside Patti and tips her back up.
John August: So, I love Patti trying to stand up. I love the daughters coming down. I don’t know if I believe that they had their hands behind them. Maybe they do. Maybe not.
Craig Mazin: No.
John August: I don’t see it. They’re juveniles. But then, being freaked out is great. But I’m only seeing them as this collective unit. I don’t know anything specific about who they are because they’re not going to be the same girl. And so, give us some visual that distinguishes this. So, who they are, what are they wearing? Are they still in their pajamas? Well, just what’s happening here? Because these are supposed to be important characters I’m taking and I am just getting names for them.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. And they screamed, and they are tied up. And yet they’re sassing the FBI. It just didn’t seem to make sense. This is more where the scene ends. But there is a fairly chunky description at the end of this about what’s on the walls.
John August: Let’s about that because I think there’s actually some good stuff there. And maybe it is the right time to wait and hold back where we can sit for a second where we can actually see some of the stuff. The way that their home reflects affluence, but not true wealth, a wall of glass facing the San Francisco Bay, other walls are lined with shelves holding a chaotic assortment of art and mementos, handmade pottery, Mexican alebrijes, bolga baskets, most of which has been tossed to the floor.
Craig Mazin: Yeah, they were tossing stuff earlier. I think it probably would have been better to integrate that into the action. So, it didn’t feel like we stopped things just to get a little cataloging.
John August: Let’s talk about the difference between how Patti is responding in her voiceover and what she’s doing in real life. Because that’s some of the tension that I think you hit on it at the start. She’s not actually saying, “I told them right off, you’ve got the wrong house. She’s not saying those things. And maybe it’s okay that her reporting of what actually happened is different than what we’re seeing, but maybe it needs to be more dramatically different that she actually didn’t really is freaked out and crying.
Craig Mazin: Which she’s not because she’s having it both ways. It’s like, you guys don’t belong here. You have the wrong house. None of that should be happening, which normally, first of all, why is she… when she opens the door, she’s not surprised. So, I’m confused by what her context for them is.
John August: If this felt like a home invasion almost from the start, which is probably what it would feel like, then her natural reaction to that is probably going to be interesting and compelling. And I can imagine there’s a version of this voiceover that is a good counterpoint to it. But I think to reveal the husband can be done better, because right now the husband’s coming in, for whatever reason. It’s morning, but he’s already dressed in a suit. I don’t understand where he was.
Craig Mazin: And he was in the backyard. Right? That’s where they caught him, in the backyard.
John August: Yeah. He’s trying to get out.
Craig Mazin: Right. But how did he even know to get out like… Anyway, there’s a lot of logical issues here. Patti is incredibly not forthcoming with these agents. And I’m not sure why. Everything that she’s describing here sounds like she’s a mob wife, like she is…. So her husband is a criminal. And she knows it. But she’s getting sassy with the feds. This feels Carmela-like a little bit. But that’s not what she’s saying in the voiceover, really.
John August: I’m going to cheat and look at the logline. Because we don’t look at the loglines before we do this. The logline is a woman’s safe suburban life has shattered when the FBI raids her home and arrest her husband, a high price attorney, for stock fraud. So, it’s not a mafia situation.
Craig Mazin: Then this is not correct. Just tonally speaking. Helen, you’ve got a really interesting situation here. But what you’ve done is you’ve shoehorned in an attitude that doesn’t necessarily comport with even if Patti is just that person who’s got that cold ice water in her veins. Her freaking daughters couldn’t be like that. And plus, if your mom and your two daughters have been tied up and thrown downstairs by the FBI, you’re going to be emotional. She’s just very-
John August: Yeah, so I’m going to take this moment to, again, talk about how amazing Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers is, but one of the things that Hustlers did so well is the characters comport themselves when they’re being interviewed in formal situations. And they present the story of what happened in a very different way than what we actually see in them happening. And so, I would be fascinated if the voiceover that we’re getting in that character that should present yourself at the end, we’re going to learn through how she became that thing. And it doesn’t match up with the character seen at the start. That can be really-
Craig Mazin: That could be really interesting. Unreliable narrator being proven right in front of us.
John August: Yeah. All right. So, as always, we want to thank our four writers who sent in their Three-Page Challenges. But also, everyone who sent us a Three-Page Challenge. Megana will read through how many for this session.
Megana Rao: A bunch, yeah.
John August: A bunch, a bunch. So, thank you, everyone who sent them in.
Craig Mazin: Five.
John August: If you have pages you would like us to look at on the show, you can go to johnaugust.com/threepage, all spelled out. And you’ll see a forum, which you can fill out the information and click to attach your script. And it goes into a magic mailbox that maybe we can look at and pick things for our next Three-Page Challenge. But, again, thank you, everyone who sent that stuff in.
John August: Now, it’s gotten dark as we record it and it is time for one cool things. My one cool thing is this cool little thing that I got this last week that I found very helpful. Craig, can you describe what this is?
Craig Mazin: Oh, this is one of these things. So, this is a flexible strip that you can snap onto your arm. And it lights up. That’s cool.
John August: Yeah, so it’s like a slap wrist.
Craig Mazin: Slap wrist bracelet.
John August: This bracelet thing, but it has an LED inside of it. So, it reflects but also it glows. And so, if you’re running at night or walking your dog, I find it actually really helpful because cars can see you. It can be set to just be a steady light or it can blink and so people can see you because I just find that this time of year, both as a driver and as pedestrian or a runner, it just becomes a little bit dicey because you don’t know that people can actually see you. So, I recommend this. This is cheap. I’ll put a link to it on Amazon. This is the Nite Ize SlapLit, SlapLit.
Craig Mazin: Sorry. SlapLit.
John August: SlapLit, LED Slap Wrap.
Craig Mazin: SlapLit.
John August: Yeah, there’s other ones that-
Craig Mazin: Oh, SlapLit.
John August: SlapLit.
Craig Mazin: I thought it was Slap Let.
John August: SlapLit.
Craig Mazin: Like a Slap Let like a bracelet.
John August: SlapLit.
Craig Mazin: So, SlapLit.
John August: So, I would just recommend this if you’re going to be outside walking in a place where a car can hit you.
Craig Mazin: How much does that cost?
John August: It’s really cheap.
Craig Mazin: I’m looking up right now. The SlapLit is currently going on Amazon for $10.59.
John August: So, to not be hit by a car, I think it’s money well spent.
Craig Mazin: My one cool thing is slightly more expensive than this.
John August: All right, tell us.
Craig Mazin: If you’re in the market for a new computer. And we are writers, it is our instrument. I don’t necessarily recommend this for everyone, of course. It’s a bit of a budget buster. However, in the sense of the technological aspect, the new MacBook Pro 16 with the Apple, this one has the Apple M1 Max, is spectacular. It said return to a chunkier MacBook Pro, which I actually like. I never needed it to be the MacBook Air. I never needed it to be slender. It’s a little heavier. They got rid of the glowy bar that was a wonderful gimmick that literally nobody wanted or liked. The screen is brilliant. But my God, the speed on this thing is remarkable. And the fan doesn’t run. It also uses way less energy so the battery lasts way longer. It’s just everything you would hope for has been put in here. I was telling Megana that the thing that I use that’s the most processor-intensive is when we play Dungeons and Dragons.
John August: And so, last night when you’re playing you were using on this machine and your ability to hang on an app, which is much, much faster.
Craig Mazin: Oh my god. And so, did it read faster-
John August: Oh, yes. Faster, yeah.
Craig Mazin: Because normally it would be like wuuuuuuuuh, and now it’s like poink, which is awesome. And my side, because I’m the DM, my side is always going to be the hardest one to run because it’s seeing everything. So, it’s rendering everything all at once all the time. And it’s also showing me all of your lines of sight. So, it’s basically doing five or six times the work that your computer’s doing. Plus we’re running Zoom. It’s great. So, just a huge thumbs up on these suckers. My favorite computer.
John August: On my home office here, I have an iMac which is my main one. But of course, the MacBooks are much faster than my iMac is at this point, which is frustrating. Megana and I both have the M1 MacBook Air, which have been great. They’ve been super-fast and reliable. Again, you don’t appreciate how nice it is to not have your fan run for anything but the battery lasts forever. It’s smart and good. It’s good.
John August: That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It’s edited by added by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Ryan Gerberding. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to ask @johnaugust.com. That’s also the place where you can send the longer questions. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I’m @johnaugust. We have t-shirts and they’re great as well as hoodies, too. You can find my Cotton Bureau. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes @johnaugest.com. That’s also where you find the Three-Page Challenges that we talked about today. You can find transcripts and can sign up for our weekly newsletter called Inneresting, which has lots of links to things about writing. You can sign up to become a premium member at Scriptsnotes.net, where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments. And starting this week, you can also listen to us on Spotify.
John August: So, if you’re a premium member and want to listen to it through the Spotify app, there are instructions for that. We emailed it to you but you could probably figure it out. It’s not that hard. But if you’re confused, we’ve sent you an email. So, search your email history because we sent you screenshots on how to sign up in Spotify, if you want to listen to the premium feed in your Spotify. Craig, Megana, thank you so much.
Megana Rao: Thank you.
Craig Mazin: Thank you.
John August: All right. For this bonus segment, this is a question we got from Kyle in New York City.
Megana Rao: I’m an amateur screenwriter who started writing during the pandemic.
John August: We don’t believe the word amateur screenwriter.
Megana Rao: I’m represented but hope to eventually get to the point of being paid for my work. I’ve encountered an issue where I can write really well when I’m excited about a project. But I tend to get bored easily. And once something bores me, it’s nearly impossible for me to find the energy to keep hacking at it. I could be wrong since I’m new to the craft. But I imagine one of the traits that separates amateurs from professionals is the ability to keep going even if you’re not feeling what you’re writing. We can’t all be on 100% of the time.
Megana Rao: Do you have any mental tools or tricks you’d recommend for getting back to a place of energy around a project to make sure you give it its due diligence? What do you do when you need to finish a project but are sick of it?
John August: Kyle, I have to embrace you. You’re the only person who’s ever felt this way. Literally from the moment I start a project to the moment I finished project, I fall more in love with it. I start out really liking it. And I realized, no, I’m deeply, deeply in love with it. This is the best thing I’ve ever written. And I cannot wait to get to it every morning.
Craig Mazin: Do you have more sex with your spouse now than you did when you first met?
John August: 100%.
Craig Mazin: Through the roof.
John August: It’s crazy.
Craig Mazin: There’s not enough time in the day and it gets worse year after year.
John August: So, it’s the right equivalent, where I just can’t get my hands off the keyboard. I’m so eager to get back to this project and just keep writing it. I have hypergraphia is really what it is, is that compulsion to write is really this one idea that is just so good. And really everything I’ve ever touched, it’s been that experience.
Craig Mazin: Well, Kyle. So, look, good and bad news. The good news is, yep, you’re like us. You’re like human beings. I don’t know if there’s necessarily anything you can do to get back to that original feeling of excitement. Nor should you need to or want to. Because the original feeling of excitement is a fresh romantic vibe. It means your brain is buzzing because something new has collided into it. The work that we do is to execute carefully and steadily. And that is sometimes rather boring. It’s certainly rigorous. But you’re not going to get that excitement. It’s gone, it’s over. And it will never come back. And like I said last week from beloved Polish poet, even success feels like failure. So, really, this is a goal-oriented process. It is a process process and that you need to learn how to sustain yourself through the process, which is not particularly exciting. But you must be driving toward the goal of finishing.
Craig Mazin: The difference between professionals and amateurs is not that we have the “ability to keep going even if we’re not feeling what we’re writing.” The difference is we’re paid. That’s literally the difference between professionals and amateurs. And it turns out that when you are paid and there are lawyers and contracts, you don’t have the option. You have to do it. And this is actually quite valuable.
John August: There have been times on projects where I’ve just been so frustrated that actually I calculated. This is early in my career when I wasn’t making much money, but I was like, I’m going to calculate how much I am being paid per page. And that’ll get me through this day’s work.
Craig Mazin: But there’s also times where I thought, what would happen if I just gave the money back, every writers had that moment. And lately, sometimes I’ll just think to myself, if I’m in an elevator in a tall building, I’ll just turn to… if I’m with Jacq or Bo and I’ll just say, “Well, if the elevator just plummets, I won’t have to write these episodes,” just get out of some writing, which should be nice. This is the deal.
Craig Mazin: But then, you have moments where you do well. And you will not have those moments until they have happened. They do not happen before they happen. So, you have to do the work to make them happen without having them happen.
John August: So, Kyle’s experiencing intrinsic validation, where he was loving the product, he’s loving doing this because of the excitement about the idea and it was all internally generated. And eventually, it just faded away. And he’s waiting for that moment where there’ll be external forces that will tell him like, “No, no, it’s good. It’s exciting. You’ve done a good job. “And that hasn’t kicked in yet. That’s the reality of being a new person at this.
John August: The other thing I will say is that as you have more experience and no one’s an amateur screenwriter. You’re a newer screenwriter. You don’t have the experience to be able to tell like, “Oh, is this a crush, or is this a possible relationship”, when it comes to a project idea. And so, sometimes you have a crush, like, “Oh my god, I’m so excited about this.”
John August: But Craig and I, you and I both have enough experience to know this is a crush that will pass and I can see what the problem is going to be. And I will fall out of love with this versus there’s some ideas because you’re like, “Oh, that’s a genuinely good idea that I can build a relationship with this project.” This is a thing that can actually sustain and build.
John August: And so, the choice of whether to buckle down or bail, we can make a different calculation because we know how this all goes and we know where this is. But we can only do that because we’ve been in other writing relationships with other projects that know how we react, how projects react. We just know how it all works.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. And I think Kyle probably like most people, his relationship with movies and television is he sees finished products. He doesn’t have a finished product. And even worse, he has to dive into every little grain of this thing over and over and over and over again. It becomes mind-numbing. I can be maddening. And wait until you get into the editing bay. And then, you’re really going over and over and over and over.
Craig Mazin: It’s just the nature of the gig. It’s very foreign to everyone. I think nobody experiences this for the first time it goes, “Is this process been my whole life?” It’s grueling.
John August: Let’s go back to a word he says. I get bored easily. So, let’s talk about boredom. And so, boredom is it happens when it’s no longer new. It’s no longer exciting. It’s no longer fresh. But also, it’s because you don’t know what to do. It’s not intriguing, or the problems in front of you are not interesting, solvable problems, are actually just difficult problems you have to grind on and get through them.
John August: And so, I would say try to look for ways to make that day’s work less boring. Make some challenges for yourself. How can you approach this scene, this Lego piece, and make this the most interesting Lego piece it can possibly be? And once you tackle that, then you get on the next one, the next one eventually. You might fall back in love with it because you see something in this that you didn’t even see when you were first crushing on it.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. Megana, do you have any tricks for yourself when you’re feeling bored or unmotivated?
Megana Rao: I usually have a playlist associated with a project and sometimes listening to that helps, or getting external feedback can help me, I don’t know, relive excitement about certain parts of it. Okay, I have a question for you guys. So, in talking about having a crush on a project versus a long-term relationship. So, I was recently working on a project where I felt like I was banging my head against the wall for so long. And it just felt like endless and I should just walk away from it. Because I’m never going to figure out these problems.
Megana Rao: All of a sudden, it felt like the wall broke open and there was sunlight, and I could see my way out. I’m just confused how I make that differentiation. Do I trust that that’s going to happen always because it happened this time?
John August: I don’t think you can necessarily trust. There’s been projects like that for years. Where I just got to a certain point I just couldn’t quite crack what that was, or that there’s something that I knew was not working quite right. And it just was wrong. And so, even though we have experience with these writing relationships, we can’t know how it’s all going to go or work and how it’s going to really be on the page.
Craig Mazin: Yeah, again, balance. You just wait and hope. But there is a difference, I think between a project where you are stuck but you wish you had the answer, and a project where you stuck because you don’t care what the answer is. And if you’re in that space-
John August: You can stop writing.
Craig Mazin: … it’s over.
John August: Yeah. So, I think the only case you made for finishing that project is if you’re pretty close and you just think you need to have the experience of having finished the things, that makes sense.
Craig Mazin: Which is-
John August: Something.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. There is a resilience that’s required, obviously, to do all of this. But I think if it gets hard, don’t confuse hard with bored. Don’t confuse I think I’m maybe not good enough to do this with bored. Boredom is an all-purpose term for dissatisfaction. But you have to interrogate a little bit why you’re dissatisfied with this. And here’s the tricky part for people who are starting out, a lot of their ideas are bad.
Craig Mazin: And a lot of times, even if the idea is good, their method of executing is bad. So, they should stop because it’s bad. But then, if you don’t finish, you don’t get better. So, balance.
John August: Yeah. You got to work through it. There’s a case we made for finishing those things. The other thing I’ll remind people is that a lot of times, newer screenwriters were always really good at school, for example. They’re always really good writers. And everyone’s like, “Oh, you’re a good writer.” And so, they approach this thing. And they have the sense of like, “I know what good writing is. People tell me I’m a good writer.”
John August: And then, something that’s been comparatively easy for them versus other people, they’re in the middle of it like, “Crap, it’s really hard to write. This is actually exhausting. I don’t know what I’m doing. Maybe I’m just bad. Or maybe it’s this project.” And you’re just not used to struggling.
John August: And sometimes, what you’re saying is bored, it’s actually you’re just struggling and it’s new and it’s uncomfortable and you’re not used to be uncomfortable writing. But that’s what writing is.
Craig Mazin: And our culture encourages everybody to be a jerk. So, everybody grows up. If you’re interested in film, if you’re interested in TV, perversely, you are encouraged by culture and like-minded people to crap all over everything all the time. So, you become rather convinced that it is easy, because look at all the garbage. This is what Ted Elliott has always called crap-plus-one, your job, you think is to just write one better than all the crap out there.
Craig Mazin: But the truth is, with the rarest of exceptions, if you are a new writer, you are actually not good enough to write the crap. That’s how bad you are. And that’s how hard it is. It’s so much harder than they think. So, when they get into it, there is a cognitive dissonance between this thing that’s supposed to be so simple and how hard it is.
Craig Mazin: And I think maybe the brain convinces you that you’re just bored. Because the only other explanation is, you’re not good enough. But you’re not until you are. And unfortunately, you’re never good enough, because you’re just as good as you could be on that day. You try and get better. And then, it’s over.
John August: I’m thinking about Megana and Megana’s metaphor for you and your writing group has a chance of accountability. And so, where you have to do stuff and that might be actually a humble thing for Kyle to find at some group of people who he can be accountable for. So, he’s actually getting some work done. And he also recognized like everyone is struggling at the same time in the same ways. And he can get a sense of how it all fits. And if you could find the right group that might get him on board.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. And you can always pick somebody that if you vibe with that person and say, “Look, we’re going to spend two hours. For one hour, I’m going to talk to you about my problems about this script. And then, for the other hour, you’re going to talk about your problems with the script.” And the only ground rule is that nobody can say, yeah, I thought of that but. Or, yeah, I tried that but. Because that’s just annoying to everybody. Just pretend you didn’t talk it through. Talk everything through.
Craig Mazin: Sometimes just talking makes it clear. If you write alone, you can go deep into your own weird mind and get totally lost and you can confuse feelings with facts.
Megana Rao: One more pitch for writers’ group. There have been times where I’ve gotten so bogged down in the weeds and really unexcited about a project but the people in my writers’ group who have seen it since the inception have reminded me what excited me about it and that can be really helpful.
Craig Mazin: Yes, something was there. You had something that made you do all of this. Certainly, Kyle, if you are writing by the seat of your pants and you feel you have a tendency to get bored, I would strongly recommend plotting the whole thing out first. It’s hard to get bored when you know exactly what you’re supposed to write that day,
John August: Yeah, if you had a good outline and then you could really approach how to make this piece the most awesome scene it could possibly be and not going to waste the work, that might help him.
Craig Mazin: Precisely.
- WGA Introduces Project Page check out the pdf here.
- Follow along with our Three Page Challenges: Firebird by Benjamin Blattberg, The Drawing by Todd William Knack, Perdition by Terry Rietta, Ten Million by Helen Sedwick
- Nite Ize SlapLit LED Slap Wrap
- The New 16 inch MacBook Pro
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- Outro by Ryan Gerberding (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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