The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello, and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Oh, my name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 533 of Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting, and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show, why are so many screenwriters worried about the word ‘we’?
Craig: Why? Why?
John: Craig and I will hopefully drive a stake to the heart of the “we hear/we see” prohibition, as we talk through some screenplay fundamentals, before looking at some of the scripts up for awards this season.
Craig: We will see some of those scripts. We will see them, we.
John: We will see them.
Craig: We see.
John: And if we were listening in a room, we could hear them-
John: -because we can hear and we can see. We have the sensors.
John: Then, we’ll get into some listener questions. And our bonus segment for premium members, we will discuss what is the screenwriting equivalent of bootcamp?
Craig: Ooh, that’s interesting.
John: We talk about soap operas being like actor bootcamp. Is there a boot camp for writing?
Craig: Oh, I see what you mean. Got it.
Craig: Understood. Okay.
John: A place where you’re doing so much work that you’re really picking up your skills, you’re developing your craft.
Craig: Mm-hmm. All right. [crosstalk]
John: I like it.
Craig: That’s only if you pay us.
John: If you pay us, you can listen to us talk about that.
John: If you pay enough money, you could own The CW, which is apparently up for sale.
Craig: [chuckles] Wait, what? [chuckles]
Craig: The CW is for sale?
John: It was announced this last week or the week before that a CW may be up on the auction block. CW in the US, for our international listeners, is the home to a lot of great programs, including where Crazy Ex-Girlfriend used to air. It was a joint partnership between Warner Brothers and CBS. So, there were some shows that were CBS shows which was Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and some things. There are a lot of Warner Brothers shows that were there. Now that Warner is more focused on HBO Max stuff, and CBS is focused on Paramount+ stuff, it’s not quite clear how The CW fits in. So, it may end up becoming a new thing, it may change. But anyway, the head of CW said, “You know what? Yeah, we’re probably up for sale.”
Craig: The sentence you just said there, if we had just rolled back to when we started this podcast, would have made utterly no sense to us.
John: No. [crosstalk]
Craig: The HBO Max and– What?
Craig: Paramount– CBS with Par– what? What? Para+. But it’s remarkable how much things have changed. I guess, similarly, it’s remarkable how oddly adaptable we are as human beings. We are terrified of change, but we’re really good at absorbing it and accepting it when it happens. We’re odd little creatures, aren’t we?
John: Obviously, it feels everything’s accelerating, but I think at any given moment in time, we would probably feel it’s accelerating to all these new things. It’s always strange to think back to 100 years ago, cars were new, the time between the first flight at Kitty Hawk to man landing on the moon was so much shorter than you think it would be.
Craig: Yeah. And that’s right. We are witnessing the acceleration of things in our lifetime. But everything that happened before us just feels like history that took forever.
John: Yeah. We’ll see what happens to The CW. One of the discussion points is that CW airs on a bunch of local stations, obviously, and the local stations are part of bigger groups. And that group might just buy out The CW instead of [crosstalk].
Craig: Do you have any interest in it?
John: Honestly, I don’t. I feel at this point, I’m all in on streaming. The normal linear broadcast and stuff is just not so appealing to me.
Craig: I mean, because Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was on it, right?
John: It was. It was great.
Craig: We could own that.
John: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was originally going to be a premium cable show.
Craig: Showtime. Yeah.
John: And then, they retooled that. You can go back and listen to the episode where we talked to Rachel and Aline about the show back when it was a Showtime show before it became The CW show. It was filthier. There used to be a handjob in it and then the handjob became a kiss.
Craig: Ultimately, you’ve summed up the difference between Showtime and The CW.
John: I did.
Craig: It’s just that whatever mathematical equation converts a handjob into a kiss, that’s it.
John: That’s what it is.
Craig: That’s it.
John: That’s the difference between a broadcast and premium cable.
Craig: You’ve got it.
John: Do you remember Stuart Friedel?
Craig: Sorry, who?
John: Our first Scriptnotes producer, Stuart Friedel?
Craig: I mean, Stuart’s a part of our lives.
John: He is. Stuart is the reason for a lot of how Scriptnotes used to work, and of course, the reason why Scriptnotes t-shirts are so soft is because-
John: -Stuart is so sensitive and has this Stuart’s sense of softness. Stuart talked to me last week. He said, “I just had a mentor conversation with a Nebraska kid, who is my mom’s hairdresser’s nephew,” which is classic. “This guy mentioned the movie that he wanted to write. And he described the opening as a Stuart Special. He doesn’t know why it’s called that, but that’s what it’s called on Scriptnotes,” he says.
John: He has no idea that it’s called a Stuart Special because of Stuart Friedel.
Craig: How did he miss that?
Craig: It’s a kind of amazing that there’s a generation of people who are going to call that a Stuart Special. The way in lore, the last shot of your day is the Martini. But the second to last shot is called the Abby or Abby Singer, because there was a first AD named Abby singer, who would call for the martini and he was always one shot off. And so, the second the last one became the Abby. And people will call it a Stuart Special, and then every now and then somebody, “You know why it’s called that by the way?” That’ll be a bit of trivia for people.
John: Yeah. And, of course, it’ll be like, it’s named after Stuart Friedel, who used to be a producer on Scriptnotes before he became a titan of children’s television.
Craig: Before he became the CEO of The CW.
John: Before he bought out The CW and turned it into–
Craig: I want to know what the Megana maneuver is?
John: Oh, yeah. Well, it has to be a term that Megana will coin here. But, Megana, I’m curious, do you know what the Stuart Special is? How would you define it as Stuart Special? Or, is it just all alien territory for you?
Megana: Stuart Special, I think, it’s something I encounter a lot when I read threepage challenges, which is flash forward in a script, and then, by the end of two or three pages, it’s like one week ago or six months ago.
John: Right. Absolutely.
John: That’s the Stuart Special.
Craig: Yeah. It’s showing the moment right before the climax. And then going back like one month earlier. Exactly.
John: Record scratch. I bet you’re wondering how this all happened, and let me talk about this.
John: Flashing back to just a few weeks ago, we had Jack Thorne on the show. We had a great conversation with him. He was talking about disability and also invisible illnesses. This last week, Annie Hayes wrote in. Annie Hayes is a friend of Scriptnotes. She has helped us out at Austin Film Festival. She had such a great letter that I thought, “Oh, it’s much better as a blog post than for us to try to read it on the air.” But Annie Hayes writes about her experience. She’s a staff writer on The CW show In the Dark, and she’s had cystic fibrosis this whole time since [crosstalk] she had cystic fibrosis. And writing about sort of the challenges of living with a chronic illness and working with a chronic illness, a lot people can’t see that you’re fighting this. She started off as an assistant. I think she was assistant at Verve before she started working as a staff writer, but it’s a great overview of what her experience has been.
One of the things she really stresses is that she’s been very open about it, but she also tries to make sure she’s always presenting a solution rather than a problem, which seems good advice in general.
Craig: That is. It’s funny, a little bit after that show, I talked with Jack, because he was curious, because I did mention that I had been dealing with chronic pain for a long time. He was like, “What is it?” He was actually, I think, maybe the first person I’d really talked to about it, because I’m me. I’m not that guy. It’s not related to any feelings about disabilities or physical challenges as much as just my general sense that, “Just shut up, Craig,” [chuckles] is mostly what I struggle with all the time, but it is interesting that you have to make choices when you have an invisible disability or illness or challenge. Whereas you don’t have that choice when it’s visible, at all. Both things come with their own unique difficulties. So, I appreciate Annie writing in about this.
John: Megana, we got another question from a listener about the Jack Throne conversation.
Megana: Great. Alok wrote in and said, “Your recent episode with Jack Thorne was amazing. I love Jack’s Edinburgh TV festival speech. As a person with invisible disabilities, I find his advocacy work really empowering. But I’m looking for a recommendation. My disability forces me to read text documents while simultaneously listening to them using a text-to-speech software. The one I use is called Read Aloud, which is a Chrome plugin. It’s a free software with minimal options that reads documents back to me in a deathly robotic monotone.”
Megana: “It’s not at all suited for reading scripts.”
Megana: “I was wondering if anyone at Scriptnotes was familiar with text-to-voice softwares that professional writers with disabilities could use to read their scripts. Again, it is text-to-voice that I’m looking for, not voice-to-text. If there is something on the market that you recommend suitable for script reading, I don’t mind shelling out some money to purchase it.”
Craig: Oh, that’s an interesting thought there. John, this seems like something you would probably know, if you knew you would know. Not me.
John: A couple things I can point you to. I do have friends who will listen to scripts in the car with some read aloud software. I think having similar experiences where it’s a little bit awkward, because it has no idea that you’re reading a script. Some things that could be helpful. In Highland 2, we have what’s called a narrated script. And what it does is, it’s looking at the same script, but it’s changing it to rather than like:
Tom: Welcome to my house, Mary. Mary: It’s so nice to be here.
It says, “Tom says, ‘Welcome to my house,’ Mary says this.” It’s adding in the says and things, and it actually has the sense of like int and ext become interior and exterior, that may help you. It might make it a little bit easier for you to read. So, it’d just be a matter of throwing that PDF in there and exporting it as a narrated script, that could be a little bit better solution for you.
The Weekend Read beta has text-to-speech that’s actually really good, where you can actually set voices and do things so you can set the male characters to a certain male voice, female characters to a certain female voice. That’s great. It’s still in beta. So, I can’t offer that to everybody. We’ll send a copy to Alok, who can test it. And we’re also doing some new stuff in the new Highland beta that should be a little bit better for folks who need some accessibility things. We’re working with Ryan Knighton who’s our blind friend about making sure that’s fantastic for blind writers to use.
Craig: Well, that’s all sounds pretty useful information there. Turns out, you had all the answers right there, John.
John: I don’t have all the answers though, because I feel we probably have other listeners who are in similar situations. So, if you are like Alok who needs stuff read aloud, scripts read aloud, write into us and tell Megana what you’re using, and we’ll share that on a future episode.
Craig: It’s good idea.
John: Fantastic. All right. Well, let’s talk about screenplays in general and screenplay formatting, because this feels such a giant, fundamental question that we’ve addressed many times over the years. But even just this last week, Craig-
John: -you and I were both a little bit dumbfounded by someone who wrote to us and said like, “Hey, can you explain why you’re so upset against ‘we hear’ and ‘we see’?” And you replied with a GIF of–
Craig: [chuckles] Not sure if serious.
John: Not Sure If Serious. He just had fundamentally like mis–
Craig: Misunderstood, yeah.
John: -what we’re talking about here. So, just to make sure we will reiterate this a thousand times during the podcast. It’s absolutely fine to say “we hear” and “we see” on the page in screenplays. It’s also fine to not use it. You can be a writer who chooses not to use it, that’s great. But it’s an available tool for you, and you should not feel at all bad about using it. And if anyone smacks you down for using it, they’re being dumb.
Craig: They’re bad.
John: They’re bad.
Craig: Yeah, I use it all the time. Like John says, it’s not that we recommend using it. It’s just if you like it, great. I find it to be a useful tool. We’ve talked quite a bit about why it does something unique, that other presentations of actions do not so that it’s not simply a stylistic choice or a bit of decoration, but it has–
John: It’s not lazy. No.
Craig: No, it has purpose. I am mystified. I wish I could go find the patient zero of no one should ever write “we see” in screenplays. I don’t know who started this terrible virus, but it’s wrong. And it is metastasized throughout all of these mediocre schools. And the mediocre schools, I mean [chuckles] they’re all mediocre when it comes to this sort of thing. Waves of human beings have just keep arriving on Reddit, like teeming onto Reddit shores to explain to other people why you can’t use “we see.” And the two of us have just been standing there trying to rescue people from this nonsense because, I guess we can’t. But let’s try one more time.
John: We’ll try one more time. As we get into this, we’ll answer a bunch of listener simpler questions, and that’ll hopefully stack up together to a broader understanding of what we’re trying to do here on screenplay page. Megana, if you start us off with Adrian in Dublin here.
Megana: He asks, “I’ve been writing for years, but I’m still puzzled by the question when to use action in the quote ‘action section’ of a script and when to use it as a parenthetical.”
John: Adrian’s wondering, and this is a thing that every writer still makes choices, kind of every line is like, “Okay, is this going to be better as an action or scene description on the left-hand margin? Or is just the kind of thing that it’s better tucked underneath the character, the header, in parenthetical saying a small little thing that as part of that character’s direction or as a part of the overall scene direction?” You’re always making choices? for what that’s going to be. Craig, what general guidance are you thinking through when you’re making a decision about whether to use parenthetical or an action line?
Craig: Almost always, I’m going to use an action line for action. Parentheticals are the orthodoxies. Parentheticals are for terms that influence the way the line is read, or are there to imply that there’s a pause. However, every now and then, if there is an action that is super tiny, and is necessary to understand the dialogue properly, and the dialogue would be best served if we didn’t chop it up into two bits, then I will use the parenthetical. If I’m running a bit of dialogue and between two lines, someone lights a match, I might put that in parentheticals (lights a match).
Craig: And then, they keep going. But it would have to be, we’re talking about an action that could easily be described in a couple of words, and more importantly, would feel really dumb and tiny if it were its own action line.
John: Agreed. It’s how short the action is both in screen time and in words, because parentheticals that go on for 6 or 7 or 10 words, that should have probably been an action line. In my whole writing career, I’ve probably written two parentheticals that were that long and it was for some very specific purpose that I needed to keep them together as a parenthetical, rather than moving them in as an action line. Parentheticals, if it’s affecting how that line is going to be read, it’s really affecting the tone, the tenor, the intention of that line, that’s great for a parenthetical. If it is something that a single character is doing that is breaking their dialogue block, like a sneeze, that can fit great in a parenthetical, but anything that’s between multiple characters, beyond offering a handshake, that becomes action.
John: One of the reasons why you may mix it up occasionally or decide to make something parenthetical versus a longer line is, you and I both have a preference against long columns of just two characters talking. Therefore, we’ll both look for opportunities. It’s like okay, this is a dialogue scene, but I would love to have some moments where over on the left hand margin in an action line, just to break up visually on page and not make it feel like this is just a tunnel of text.
Craig: Yeah, I call it ticker tape. Ticker tape screenplay page where it’s just dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, and just run out of things down the middle. If you require that you break it up, it forces you also to start thinking about, “Well, where are they? What are they doing? How are they moving in the space? Is there anything I can do to make this visually interesting?” Otherwise, it’s just going to be bing-bong, bing-bong, bing-bong.
John: Great. Another question for us, Megana.
Megana: Nick in LA asks, “Over the last few months, I’ve been listening through all the back episodes of Scriptnotes, and there was a string of episodes in 2014 where John and Craig brainstormed ideas for a top-to-bottom reimagining of the screenplay as we know it. This new format included things like embedded music, images, more clickable links, etc. In general, a more interactive and dynamic document than the current standard. My question is, now that we’re sevenish years later, do you still feel the same way about the standard screenplay format? Has any progress been made in terms of what is permissible to include in your script, and is changing anything a fool’s errand? What you described in those episodes sounds great and made a lot of sense to me, but it seems little has changed since 2014.”
John: Very little has changed. I do see links in screenplays more often. I have seen clickable links in PDFs of screenplays that will link out to an image or something that explains something more fully. But no. I think you and I both had a little bit more utopian idea of this is what’s going to change, and it didn’t.
Craig: Well, I think we thought this is what we would like to change. This is what we would hope for change. But no, it hasn’t happened, and I think it’s still a great idea. It hasn’t happened at all. Part of the problem is Final Draft. It’s just this monster that sits on top of Hollywood and keeps this entire format back. I really do believe that. No one is sitting there at HBO or Universal or Disney saying, “We really love this 100-year-old method of putting screenplays down.” They don’t. Unfortunately, Final Draft, which is now owned by a payroll company, which is perfect, has essentially cornered the market on the format of screenplays as connecting into the format for budgeting and scheduling. There’s just no appetite for it, because everyone’s just stuck using it. It’s the Windows problem.
John: It’s the Windows problem. I’m not going to put all the blame at Final Draft’s feet, because I do think if Final Draft were to suddenly just explode and go away, it wouldn’t change quickly, because I think everyone’s just so used to scripts looking a certain way. You’re doing your show right now, and you could do your scripts a different way. You could choose to do something different. You’re not using Final Draft, you’re using Fade In, and you could do something different. But it’s easy to keep people doing the same thing they’re doing and it’s working for you. What I do think has changed since 2014 is, and this is also, I think, because the pandemic, because of Zoom, I see screenwriters doing a lot more work in Keynote or PowerPoint. A lot of early presentation stuff is now being done as slides. I think slide decking has become a more important part of describing a project early on. It’s not like I’m turning in a script and add a deck for things. But for some stuff, I might because it would at least show this is what this is meant to look like.
There’s a big world-building project that I may or may not do. I think if I were to take on that project, my script might be accompanied by, “Here are the images that go with it,” because everything I can describe on a page, so helpful. But to me being able to show it to you, it’s going to be more instructive.
Craig: I would do something else. I would write my show now in a different way if the tool were available. It’s not.
Craig: There’s just no tool, and I don’t think there’s going to be a tool available until someone feels the amount of time, energy, and resources to create something like that would be rewarded, because it just takes a lot. If Final Draft disappeared tomorrow, there would be a period where people would have to use other things that would basically be the same thing. But there would also be a massive opening. I think you would see a lot of people trying to become the next Final Draft, and figure out how to fill that space, but do it better. If there were a tool while we were writing, there was a way to create a document that wasn’t a PDF– by the way, that’s the other issue is that PDF that format is just kind of useless. It’s useful, but useless.
John: Yeah, the good thing about PDF is it’s baked in and locked down. The bad thing about it is it’s baked in and locked down, and it’s hard to do anything else with it.
Craig: It’s a printed piece of paper, except it’s on your screen. That’s all it is. It’s static. If there were a software platform that created a document that people could open and view that was dynamic, that would be amazing, and I would use it all the time, but there isn’t.
John: I will tell you that for Late Night and Variety comedy writing, especially the daily shows, they are sometimes now using fully online writing software where you can– the monologue, it’s constantly updated by everybody all at once. It’s a better version of Google Docs.
Craig: Yeah. What’s that, Script 2.0? Ah, what’s the one–
John: It’s lot like WriterDuet.
Craig: WriterDuet, yes.
John: It’s like that, but very deliberately multiple users can really work on it. It’s not just you and your writing partner. Everyone can tag in. You can see who’s made what changes. And it works, but it’s very specifically set up for that kind of show to do. I think Colbert’s show does that. Some of those changes are working in places where they really need. They have very specific, very time-based needs. And so little of what we do is urgent in that way. But I will say, Craig, you’re working on a show right now that if you could update everyone live in terms of, these are the changes, it would be fantastic. But you’re probably doing some version of this just distribution lists of things go out.
Craig: Well, it’s Scenechronize. Scenechronize is the other big behemoth, and Scenechronize is the standard distribution software for things. Scenechronize could distribute anything. I think it’s just that there is the file format that I would love, the kind of method of creation of a screenplay document that I would love just doesn’t exist. Where when you’re talking about a song, there is a little note icon, you click it and it starts to play that song, and brings it up in a soft window, up to the right, that you can minimize or get rid of, or just click away if you chose to. There are little icons and things to say, “Okay, I want to see what this looks like.” We can’t do that, because there’s no document that we can release that other people can look at that works like that. That’s the biggest issue.
John: Okay. Yeah, as a person who builds the software for a living, I can see some of the solutions, but I can also see some of the issues. It’s what the shape of that container document is. Are you sending the document? Are you sending a link to something that lives on a server?
Craig: For privacy purposes and all the rest of it, whichever would be fine, whichever people would want. But the problem is, there isn’t the receiving thing on the other end. It’s going to be hard to create that because you’re asking people to download and they don’t want to [chuckles] and you’re asking them to try a new format, and it’s new. Change is hard. Tip of the hat to the screenplay format, as we’re talking about it, it has lasted longer than most human beings. In fact, it’s lasted longer than almost every human being.
John: Absolutely. I think we should also stress that what we’re describing in terms of changes to screenplay format is not the words on the page. We’re not talking about the “we hear”, “we see,” we’re not talking about the job of the writer. We’re talking about the container in which this is going out there so that your words can be accompanied by other useful material and be updated in real time in ways that aren’t so torturous. Because right now, how we handle screenplays, especially as we go into production, with star changes and such is so linked back to when we had to xerox pages and send them out, that it’s maddening.
Craig: Yeah, it’s pretty weird.
John: Another question for us, Megana?
Megana: Scott asks, “I’ve been working on a spec script based on a true story that feels like it’s taken on the scope of a Godfather-esque crime epic. The question of whether to expand this into a longer miniseries-type structure has come up before. But my producer and I both agree this feels like a feature film. As we’ve gone back and forth on drafts, the length of the script has fluctuated from 140 pages at its longest down to 125. I’ve always been taught no one wants to read a spec from an unproven writer longer than 120 pages and I’ve tried to reach that magic number, but the notes we keep getting from colleagues is to dig deeper into the characters and to explore more, not less. So, my question is this. In our current climate with the line between film and TV forever blurring, is the 120-page rule the end-all and be-all, or 132 pages reasonable for a decade spanning crime saga? Follow-up question, why are gangster movies always so long?
John: They do seem longer as a rule. Let’s take this last part first. I think because we have expectations of the genre, that it’s going to be a bunch of characters and there’s going to be complicated family dynamics in addition to the A plot, that there’s just going to be a lot happening, and so we just allow them to be long, and also because the Godfather is long.
Craig: Yeah. It may have something to do with the fact that the directors who have made these things have come out of a school where length wasn’t a problem. There have been mobster movies forever, but the big ones were coming out in the 70s. But then again, you look at like Martin Scorsese’s first movie, Mean Streets, I think that was his first movie, it’s under two hours. So, it’s not necessarily always the case that they need to be super long, but I think John is right. If you’re telling the Godfather saga, then it is marked by an epic nature. They’re very Shakespearean in this regard. They are telling long family dramas, and they’re telling involved crime plots, and we seem to enjoy– otherwise, it becomes an action movie. Part of it is the opera. It’s opera. By the way, Godfather III is that– you’ve seen Godfather Part III, I assume.
John: I have seen it. I have seen all of them now.
Craig: Yeah. I love that operatic third act. It’s just lovely. Anyway, I think that’s what it is. Scott, here’s the deal, man, if the first 10 pages are awesome, people will keep reading, they really will. Especially these days, I just think the rules are not the rules anymore. They’ll be reading it wondering, “Well, maybe I could turn this into a limited series.” You never know what they’re going to be thinking.
John: Craig is right. Obviously, if it’s good, they’ll keep reading and you should not worry about that much. A 125-page script is a lot different than 140-page script. 140-pages, people start to go, “Oh, okay, wow. This could be a problem because it’s going to probably be longer when that one’s actually shot.” I would say that my expectations of movies are things you can watch in one sitting and we always had a sense of like it’s a story that can only happen once.
But as we look now at limited series that also feel like they’re things that can only happen once, maybe there’s nothing wrong with thinking about, does this story really work best for me sitting in a chair for two hours watching it? Or does it have natural parts in installments that build out in ways that it could fit a limited series? If the first 50 pages or 60 pages of what you wrote has a natural cliffhanger, it can be a phenomenal writing sample for you, and a phenomenal spec to take out there in the world for people to see like, “Oh, this person can write really well.” And they’re more likely to read that one-hour thing versus a two-and-a-half-hour thing, because the one-hour thing can get made because people are hungry for the one-hour thing.
Craig: Yeah. Also, we’re in a weird time, you could maybe make just two-hour longs or three-hour longss. You say, “Okay, it’s at 140 at its longest.” So, you’re talking about 45 pages-ish, 43 pages-ish per episode of a three-episode thing. Well, you’re probably squeezing yourself in 140 anyway. Expand a few things here and there, write some endings so that each episode has an ending and each episode is beginning. So, there you’re filling some things out. Before you know it, you’ve got three-hour long episodes.
John: Yeah. My one cool thing this week is going to be a six-hour thing that feels like a movie. It is cinematic and tightly focused, but it could only work a limited series, and it works really well as that. Keep that in mind.
John: All right. Let’s take a look at some movie movies, like actual movies that showed up on big screens this past year.
John: I saw many of these but not all of these. But the good thing about 2021-2022 is you can read the scripts for all these movies online for free because they put them out there for award season. We will have links in the show notes to all the scripts that we’re talking through. I really encourage you, if you’re a person who’s interested in screenwriting, to read through these. You don’t have to finish them, but just look at what they actually look like on the page, either before or after you see the movie because you’ll get a real good sense of, this was the intention on the page and this is how it translated.
In most of these cases, these were the writers directing. In a couple of cases, there’s different screenwriters and directors. But they’re all really good and interesting in different ways. They’re all chock full of “we hears” and “we sees.” And we’ll not just cherry pick the ones that had them. Most movies, I would say probably do use “we hear” and “we see.”
Craig: Yeah, because it’s incredibly useful.
John: It’s incredibly useful. I want to start with a young writer named Aaron Sorkin.
John: This early work, this is called Being the Ricardos. This is a story of behind the scenes of I Love Lucy. I actually really enjoyed this, I actually tweeted a little screenshot of a scene that I really liked a few weeks ago. This is all a backstage drama of an imagined week on the set of I Love Lucy and the conflict and controversies behind the scenes. The thing I tweeted about was, there’s a scene on page 5 that goes on for a long time. And it’s all OS, it’s all off screen. Basically, we are focused on a radio while Lucy is off screen and she’s listening to this thing, but having conversations with other people, and we don’t see people’s faces for a long time. It’s a deliberate choice on Sorkin’s part just to not show Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem for a long time, so we’d be invested in them as characters before we saw their faces and had to make a judgement of like, “Oh, does she look enough like Lucille Ball?”
Craig: Yeah. What I love about these pages, and well done, young writer Aaron Sorkin, is how much whitespace there is. Even in scenes where there’s huge blocks. For instance, on page 5, the announcers has just got this big huge– what is it nine-line bit of dialogue all because he’s reading advertisements, and he’s doing an intro to radio stuff. All fine, because then there’s just these wonderful seas of white, as Lindsay Doran would say, “Like milk.” And it’s so useful. It’s really useful. Interesting choice, by the way. This is what the Academy voters see, is that correct, John?
John: Mm-hmm, it is.
Craig: Interesting choice. When you go into production, inevitably, they’re going to be revisions that you want to do. Just as a holdover from the old days where people would have to have binders where they would insert pages into, there are A pages and B pages, and there are pages where there’s only stuff on half a page, because they get rid of the rest, but the page numbers don’t change. I would imagine that a lot of people would just do a collapsed page unlock version. But he just sent over the other one. He also does something that I don’t do, which is at the top of the page, it says “Continued:” and then the scene number, which I don’t do.
John: Which we don’t. This is a thing that Final Draft and Fade In can do for you. I’ve never found it especially useful. It’s never tripped me up. So, I’ve never done it. I want to get back to the scene where we have this radio announcer talking and we’re not seeing their faces. We come out of it, and the broadcast continues as we hear the front door open.
John: The next minute or so, we’ll see no faces, just out of focus arms and legs and other shards of movement as they pass through the frame, which remains on the radio, the only thing in focus. We hear and we see in the same paragraph from Mr. Aaron Sorkin, who’s won many, many awards for being a good writer.
Craig: How else would you even do this? I’m top of page 6, “We HEAR his face being SLAPPED–” In this case, Aaron Sorkin has capitalized word ‘HEAR’ just to stick it to all of you, ding dong “professors of screenwriting,” because how else was he supposed to describe that? Someone hears his face being– the sound of a face being slapped? Like what do you say? Of course, we hear it. We hear it.
John: Love it. I think that Sorkin does, which another one of our writers that we’ll to talk about today, he capitalizes every character’s name, even in scene description. You can do that, that’s not common. I would say that’s maybe 5% of scripts I would see do this, but he does it. And you know what? It’s fine. But I wouldn’t leap on that as an example, but you could do it.
Craig: Clearly, and because the truth is I read through some of this, and I didn’t even notice it, because it just doesn’t matter.
John: He doesn’t use a ton of seeing description in his things. And there are ticker tape pages where it’s just all dialogue down the page. You know what? It’s really good dialogue, that helps.
Craig: It does help. And if you do have pages of ticker tape, for instance, page 12, the lines are short. The longest line is three lines long. Then, okay, actually, in a weird way, that’s a ticker tape conversation, snappity, snap, snap back and forth. I like it.
John: We were talking about A pages and B pages. An example is page 22A. At scene 24, and it’s just one line goes over the edge of this. Lucy has a single block of dialog there. It’s a good reminder that this all comes from a time when you were distributing physical pages. So, rather than having to send people a brand-new script, when there’s a tiny change, you just send in the pages that changed. But if there was too much to fit on one page, you create an A page or B page, and it would fit in between. So, his script would go page 22, 22A, a 22B if there needed to be and then there’d be a 23. That’s historically how we’ve done it. We could still do it that way. Craig, on your show, are there A, B pages, how do you do that?
Craig: You know what? There are. I’m starting to wonder why I’m bothering, because I have not seen anyone with a printed script on my set. Everyone used to carry binders around, but our script supervisor, the incredible Chris Roufs, he uses an iPad, as I think almost every script supervisor at this point uses an iPad or laptop. The first AD isn’t walking around with a binder with pages in it. I’m starting to wonder if I should just get rid of that. And just [crosstalk] do it anymore.
John: Here’s the issue. If you were to then unlock pages, you’d have to talk about what scene it is and never talk about the page numbers again, because the page numbers will keep changing.
Craig: But we never talk about page numbers anyway, we just talk about–
John: Yeah, because they’re [crosstalk] scenes.
Craig: And we talk scene numbers which never change. By the way, it’s so weird. It’s been a while since I’ve worked just a couple of years now on a feature script in production. Scene numbers here looks so tiny, because in television shows you start with scene 101, because that’s Episode 1, scene 1. And then, by the time you get to your 10th episode, it’s starting with scene 1001.
John: On these shows, do you have scripts that have more than 100 scenes?
Craig: No, that would be insane. I don’t even know how– [crosstalk]
John: Yeah. I was just thinking really complicated Game of Thrones episodes where you’re constantly cutting back and forth between a bunch of different things, but you’re not really-
Craig: You would just sort of–[crosstalk]
John: -picking those individual scenes, because they’re all a part of–[crosstalk]
Craig: Yeah. I’ll just pull a random script here. I’ll take episode 5. Let’s see what the number is of this particular– how many scenes I hit. 56. I have a feeling that’s probably pretty standard for me.
John: Yeah, that makes sense.
John: Last thing I want to say about Being the Ricardos, this is on bottom page 23. The scene description reads, “We’re going to start to go in and out of LUCY’s head as the reading goes on. She’s imagining what each beat will be like in its final form the way a chess master can see the board twelve moves ahead. She can also see and hear what the audience is going to laugh at.” Basically, so the idea is, we’re intercutting between the table reading of a script, and Lucy’s imagination of how it will actually be staged. It works really well in the movie, but it’s done very simply on the page. And Sorkin trusts that the reader is going to pay attention and follow what’s happening here, and you do.
Craig: Yeah. This is an area where– because sometimes people will say, [in mimicking tone] “Well, if you’re directing–” and that’s yes, to an extent, that is true. He can shorthand things somewhat, because what he doesn’t have to worry about is a director coming along and going, “I don’t know what the hell it is. I guess I’ll just make something up.” When you’re writing for other people directing, and I typically am, I will at least try and put things in there to make sure that the stuff that I need to happen or want to happen is there. That said, there’s always some amounts of confusion or things that can be cleared up. And that’s why we have 4000 meetings [chuckles] before we start shooting. So many meetings. Oh, my Lord.
John: [crosstalk] -obviously, there’s a tone meeting, which is really talking through what are we actually going for scene by scene? What does this need to feel like? But we have so many logistical production meetings to just figure out every department what do they need? What is the intention behind this? What does Craig want? What is the director need? All these things.
Craig: Yes. There are questions that are legitimately, “Can you explain this?” There are questions of, “Okay, we think you’re saying this, but are you saying that?” Then, there are questions that fall into the general category of, “I don’t want to be yelled at on the day.” It says here that he stabs him. Is that meant to be through the clothes, because if it’s not, then we have to build a prosthetic. And on the day, I don’t want you to show up and be like, “What the h–?”
Craig: They ask, and it’s reasonable. They should ask. [chuckles] Making television and movies is basically a game of how many questions can I answer today without falling apart?
John: Let’s move on and take a look at The Lost Daughter by Maggie Gyllenhaal. This script is based on the Elena Ferrante novel. Obviously, she has that to draw from. As I’m looking through this, especially this opening sequence, there’s not purple prose, she’s not painting every sunset, but it’s very effective, especially in terms of describing the house that the character is renting, the house that she’s moving into, and giving us a sense of the geography inside the space. I felt like, “Oh, I can see where things are.” I can feel how would I generally get from one place to another, and how this character specifically is approaching this space. I really liked what they did there.
There’s also a man who’s like a– I was in the movie, so I think it’s interesting, a supporting character man, but I liked his character description is just his white hair. From the initial description, I felt I could see him, but then he was doing very specific things along the way and saying specific stuff. That was helpful for grounding him but also the space, this [unintelligible [00:38:22] that we’re staying on.
Craig: Yeah. This is an example of a script that generally does things differently than I do, and I don’t care. I like to bold my scene headers. Maggie doesn’t. I like to keep my action description chunks really tiny. She will occasionally roll off one that’s 12 lines long. I don’t care. As long as it’s interesting and I can make it through it, then I’m fine. She uses CONT’Ds. When a character talks, then there’s an action description, then the same character talks. I don’t do that, don’t care.
John: I generally do that if it’s going to be unclear. So, I will do that.
Craig: Yeah, I don’t it. It just doesn’t matter. Ultimately, the point is you set yourself free, people, it’s all good. Everything works fine if the script is good. The other thing that Maggie will do, she puts up– getting back to our parenthetical question from earlier, she puts a lot of stuff in parentheticals. She’ll have two-line parentheticals, and that’s fine. There is nothing better than a good script. And there are no formatting issues that a good script can’t overcome.
John: One small thing that I would do if I’d had access to the script, is do a search and replace for double spaces and make them one space because there’s places where there’s one space and places where it’s two spaces, and it’s just a little bit off. That’s a personal little pet peeve of mine, that does not influence the quality of the writing.
Craig: Well, yeah. Look, the very title page, there’s a comma after the word ‘based on’ that shouldn’t be there. [chuckles] I would say, Maggie, John and I are available for basic stuff like that.
John: Punctuation consultants, that’s all we’re asking.
Craig: Mostly, we just want to hang out with Maggie Gyllenhaal. [crosstalk]
Craig: We just want to hang out. We want to be your friend.
John: I met Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal a zillion years ago back when they were children because they used to live down the street from me.
Craig: Oh, wow.
John: It’s nice to see that they’ve made something of themselves.
Craig: They’re doing all right. They’re doing all right, those crazy kids.
John: The other thing I’ll say it’s important about, as we’re reading through the script, is right from the very start, it sets up the rules of how this movie is going to work, and that we are going to be going back and forth in time, and that is important. It’s important to do that early enough in movie, so we get a sense of like, “Oh, this is this kind of movie where the back and forth will matter.”
Mitchells vs. the Machines is a film I’d love from this past year. It’s written by Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe. I just really adored it and I was happy to see that so much of what I adored, starts on page 1 of the script. It is one of the busiest first pages I’ve encountered. And yet, I could follow it and really get a sense of what this movie was going to feel like. It was chaotic, but ultimately with a point.
Craig: The script on the page feels like it’s on cocaine, which is correct.
Craig: Lord and Miller as producers have a really good record of both kinds of paces and things, but this has that kind of fantastic growing up in the 70s, we ate way too much sugar cereal in the morning, and then just sat down and watch these strobe lights of terrible cartoons, and our attention spans are shortened to nothing. Obviously, here’s just this wonderful quality that Mike and Jeff have put down on the page, but it does also have that just crazy snap to it.
Craig: It’s almost exhausting reading these pages. You can feel yourself like, “Oh, my God. Oh, yeah.” [onomatopoeia] [chuckles]
John: And then the movie does really trade on that. In the end, the movie eventually does settle into some quieter moments so it’s not this frenzy all the time, but it does kick off with a tremendous amount of energy. There are so many exclamation points on this first page, but none of them feel gratuitous. The word “we” is used constantly because we’re always there with them. Basically, it’s inviting us to be a part of this journey with the characters. I really dug it.
There is a shotgun introduction of all of our main characters. In one paragraph on page 2, “The VERY stoppable “warriors” are: RICK (40, Bearded, nature-loving Dad), LINDA (38, colorful, yet nervous Mom, worn out from trying to keep everyone together), AARON (8, nerdy blonde Muppet who wears exclusively dinosaur shirts), delightfully round pug, MONCHI. And KATIE (17, exploding with creative energy- nerdy now, but will be cool in college).
Generally, shotgun intros are not my favorite, and it works really well here because they boldfaced all the character names, so you see that, “This is important, pay attention here, we’re really going to see these people. This is our movie, is these four characters, plus this pug that looks like a loaf of bread. That is who we’re going to follow in the course of the story.”
Craig: The introductions feel they’re part of the tone. If you stop and did standard introductions, you’d be like, “Oh, what happened? Did you guys get tired?” Because, they’re just like, “Bah,” on page one, and then page two like, “Bah,” and then they’re like, “Okay, now let’s talk about dad is a–.” It’s wonderful, because they’re going to make a point of stopping this madness on page 4, when it literally says, “We go from this manic energy to,” boop, “a quiet, boring suburban neighborhood.” And that’s where they slowed down a bit, because they can.
John: It’s an animation script, and writing is not different than normal writing, there’s no fundamental difference here. This could be a live action script as well. So, we just reminded that animation writing is writing. The only thing you may notice is that parentheticals, here in this case, have been tucked in to the first line of dialogue, rather than having their own separate line. You see that more often in animation. Nothing would change if we were to do normal parentheticals here, you could absolutely do normal parentheticals in this case, and nothing would break or change. We’re not seeing scene numbers here. Numbering scenes and sequences in animation is its own special, unique beast. My advice is to do whatever they tell you to do.
Craig: Yeah, because it’s practical. There’s no magic to that. If you find yourself as you’re writing, dwelling on these issues of formatting, just make a mental note that you are trying to avoid writing.
John: A film I greatly enjoyed watching was Passing. This is a film by Rebecca Hall. She adapted it from a novel by Nella Larsen. Here’s what I want to point out about Passing, is that the movie and the script have this kind of hallucinatory, too bright, kind of uncomfortable, kind of stagey artificial feel to it. That really works for the film. There are moments in in it I felt like, “Wait, is this somebody’s 16-millimeter project from the 90s?” And then, you realize like, “Oh, no, it’s actually the incredibly well-made best version of that film aesthetic.” I really dug that the film, partly for just how strange it is, and it feels strange on the page too. It radiates from the page to how they actually shot it.
Craig: Lots of little short bursts of things, then there’s longer stuff. There’s an interesting thing that happens on the bottom of page 1 where there’s a scene header.
John: Yeah, I saw that too.
Craig: Then the same starts in the next page, which we never really do. We always combine the scene header with at least the first line of the scene itself.
John: And who do we have to thank for that? Final Draft. Final Draft, honestly, one of the few things Final Draft did well early on in its incarnation is, making sure that scene headers don’t flow at the bottom of pages, so they always carry through the next page. It just automatically does that, and so is Highland and so does Fade In. Everyone does that.
Craig: That wasn’t something about the steno pool of Warner Brothers and– [crosstalk]
John: Oh, the steno pool did it, but, I think-
Craig: Oh, okay. Final Draft turned it into an automatic–
John: Automated, yeah. You and I don’t think about it because you and I never have to manually do that.
Craig: We don’t manually do it, which made me wonder if Rebecca had written this in Microsoft Word or something, because [crosstalk] notes, which is totally fine. Again, doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter.
John: It just doesn’t matter. And she’s capitalizing all the character names like you might in a play. It works fine.
Craig: Also, in the second paragraph of the first page, it says, “Dissolve to Light flaring in a static frame.” She’s capitalized the word ‘light.’ Not all caps, just the L. Um, okay. [chuckles] It’s fine.
John: Yeah. If we’re doing a three-page challenge [crosstalk] we’d then point out that’s unusual.
Craig: It’s unusual. It doesn’t kill anything, and maybe it’s intentional. I can’t tell if it’s intentional or just Rebecca is one of those people– because there is a whole generation of people, they don’t care about capitalization or punctuation. That’s all fungible to them.
John: We’ll see.
Craig: We’ll see.
John: I’ll quickly get through Belfast. This is a script by Kenneth Branagh. He’s a person who’s done some [unintelligible 00:46:40] movies, it’s not his first here. This is labeled as “Shooting Draft.” It’s also in Gill Sans rather than Courier. I strongly suspect that this is something that some studio put out and said, “Oh, it shouldn’t be in Courier.” I’d be willing to bet $100, this was a Courier script that’s somebody down the road ultimately put it to Gill Sans for us to read, because it’s weird that it’s in Gill Sans. I don’t think it’s helpful that’s in Gill Sans.
Craig: It is odd, only because of all the things that people can and can’t do, Courier is the one that just about everyone does, 99.9%. So, when it’s not in Courier, there’s a little bit of a, “Oh, so I guess you don’t need to get in line like the rest of us.”
Craig: Special, feel special, do we?
Craig: It’s a little tricky, but it also makes me yearn for a different time or a different day where we wouldn’t have to necessarily be in Courier, because actually on the page, it’s rather pretty. It’s just different.
John: It is. I wouldn’t have picked this typeface. I love a sans-serif typeface. This, I think it’s actually a little bit hard to read. I think Gill Sans is a great face for certain things. All uppercase doesn’t look great in Gill Sans. Some things are harder to read than they necessarily need to be. Again, character names are being uppercased through the whole thing for whatever reason. Maybe it’s a British thing. Maybe that’s why Rebecca Hall is doing this as well. A thing I really did appreciate about this though is there’s on page 3, the description, “The camera is high above and behind BUDDY as he starts to walk down the middle of the street. You can see clearly all the way down to the other end, where it meets a road going horizontally across, making a T junction.” Great. I can see that. Also, weird, we got a “you” rather than a “we?” Sure.
Craig: Yeah, I’m fine with it, because “you” and “we” are doing the same thing. They’re just saying in the audience, whether you feel like you’re a part of an audience, perhaps at this point in his career in life, Kenneth Branagh, when he watches movies, just buys up the entire thing. [chuckles] [crosstalk] So, he just presumes that everyone watches it alone.
John: Yeah. He doesn’t want to share armrest with anybody.
Craig: There’s no one else there, but you see the following.
John: It’s also important should point out that, we’re following a young boy through this, all the action is character limited to what he can see and experience until a certain point. Basically, there’s a mob that’s descending, and we’re only getting limited information from what he’s encountering until the mob is upon us. And then eventually, we break that limited POV and see everything, but that’s just good technique. It’s a technique that works on the page, that translates really well to visual medium. [crosstalk] -thinking of that.
Craig: Yeah. There’s another thing that happens on page 7, which is cool. He’s doing a montage really. It’s not so much a montage, it’s just a rapid sequence of things, and he uses CUT TO: for each one of them, which he doesn’t use for other scenes. It makes everything spread out really big on that page. But in a sense, that also helps me see each one of those things. I actually quite liked it. Generally, I don’t do it even in something like this, because I’m always scrambling for paged count time, but the truth is, this is probably more accurate. Again, no problems. It’s fine.
John: No problems. Last one I want to look at is Tick, Tick… Boom!, a film I really enjoyed. This script is by Steven Levinson. It’s based on Jonathan Larson’s musical, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. On page 1 and 2– the thing I think the film does really crucially, and you see this here on the script, is it has to set up, okay, this is who Jonathan Larson was, this is why he’s famous, and we’re not going to get to that stuff at all. This is all going to take place before then. And that’s a lot to do in two pages, and it does it really, really well. Basically, framing this is how much of the story we’re going to tell, and only this part of the story is really important. I thought they did a very effective job here, starting off with making sure you understood why you’re watching the movie, and what movie you’re going to watch.
Craig: Yeah, totally agree. Quality-wise, obviously, great. There’s an interesting choice here that I struggle with a little bit format-wise on a script that is only 104 pages. So, you have the time, meaning you have the space, to not put that extra line break before each scene header. It just makes everything– and to not bold, the scene headers, it’s harder to read. I just find it harder to read. I get confused a little bit as I’m going through or the transitions don’t feel quite as crackly or sharp because it’s just a smudge. For me, and this is really a pure readability thing, I think people should put that extra line break before the scene header or bold the scene header, but to do neither is rough. That said, doesn’t stop things from working.
John: It could work. Your choices are one or more of extra line space before the scene header, underlining scene header, which some people do–[crosstalk]
Craig: Yup, that works.
John: -are choices. There’s underlining here which I think it’s really important in top of page 3. “NOTE: Throughout the film, we move back and forth between Jon in 1992 performing at the show, and the events he is narrating as they occur in 1990.” This is something that is completely obvious when you’re watching the movie, but could be perplexing as you’re reading the script. What the script does, INT – LOCATION – DAY, and then will say either 1990 or 1992, because they’re two different timelines and we can see it when I watch the movie. But on the page, it could get confusing. So, it’s important to put that note out there for the reader.
John: Great. These are some pretty good scripts. So, congratulations to all of our writers here. I think you did a good job, I think you have promising careers ahead of you.
John: But I really do strongly encourage our listeners to click through the links and take a look at the pages that we’re discussing and describing because that’s how you learn, is by reading scripts and reading good scripts is a great way to learn how some good writers’ work.
John: We have time for maybe a question. I see one here from Johnny. Megana, can you ask us that one?
Megana: Johnny asks, “I have this question for John about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Charlie inherited the chocolate factory from Wonka because of his good nature/personality/traits, honesty, kindness, compassion, etc. However, in the beginning, he bought the chocolate using the $10 bill on the street. He didn’t try to find the owner or turn it in. Does this behavior contradict his good nature?”
John: Craig, I have a question for you before we get into the actual script for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. If you find $10 on the street, do you have an ethical duty to find its owner?
Craig: How the hell are you going to find the owner?
John: That’s my question.
John: Money is fungible. I can’t tell you whose money that is. If I find a wallet, I’m going to find-
Craig: Yeah, of course.
John: -the owner of the wallet.
Craig: Of course. But if you find money on the street, there’s literally no way to identify who that came from. None. If somebody came rushing back around the street was like, “Oh, my God! Did you find a $10 bill on the street?” I’d say, “You know what? I did. Here it is.” Because there’s no way they would have known that it was a 10 or on the street if they weren’t there. But otherwise, no. That’s that’s a weird question.
John: It’s a strange question. But I wanted to point to Johnny to say, just go to the library, go to my johnaugust.com Library, and you can just read the script, that’s not actually what happens. And I realized like, “I’d never actually posted the scripts for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” I posted the working scripts, and then a final script for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And just like our Aaron Sorkin script, I put in the change pages so people can see this was the white draft, here’s the blue pages, here’s the pink pages, and here’s the final script all together so you can see how this fit in. I also put in the memos that go out with those distributions so people can see like, “Oh, this is why these things are changed.” And this, again, back in the time of physical pages going out. I would put a list of, “This is the order of pages that you should see,” because sometimes it gets confusing. All those things are out there.
The reason why I point to the original script though is that doesn’t say like you won it because you were good. He says, “I invited five children to the factory, and the one who is least rotten would be the winner.” Charlie doesn’t have to be good, he just has to be the least rotten. It’s also important to share my version of Charlie and Chocolate Factory. Wonka is going through this existential crisis and self-doubt and all sorts of weird things are crashing down on him. He doesn’t really want to give up his factory. So, that’s the point of like, Wonka is protagonating over the course of this and really going through this crisis. He’s not even quite sure why he’s invited these kids in here. But it’s not because he wants to find a good-hearted kid, because that’s not even how Wonka is wired.
Craig: Other than getting everything wrong, Johnny’s question was great.
John: What Johnny’s question did, is it did motivate me to actually finally put up the scripts, which I’m not sure why I didn’t put up the scripts before, so people can read how Charlie and Chocolate Factory looked on the page. All right, I think it’s time for One Cool Things.
John: As promised, my One Cool Thing is a limited series that I enjoyed and really loved called Vigil. This is a British show that in the US is on Peacock. I guess this is on Peacock, you don’t even have to subscribe to Peacock. Even the free Peacock would have it. It’s created by Tom Edge. Personally, I follow him on Twitter. George Northy described it as “Mare of Easttown on a nuclear submarine.” And that’s actually probably what it is. You have a female police detective investigating a murder. It’s on this British nuclear submarine, but she has family custodial drama. There’s just a lot happening in her personal life [unintelligible 00:56:11] being a claustrophobic character on a submarine. I just really dug it. I love everything that has a submarine, but I really thought it worked especially well. The twists and turns were great. There’s that classic sense of Mare of Easttown. At a certain point, you suspect that every character you’ve seen on screen somehow was involved in these murders. That’s the show, and I really, really dug it.
Craig: Fantastic. My one cool thing this week, is the MIT Mystery Hunt, which you cannot– Currently, it’s a week later now when you’re hearing this or five days later, and it will surely have been solved by some group of incredibly brilliant people. But I don’t know if you’re familiar with the MIT Mystery Hunt, John.
John: I don’t know what it is.
Craig: MIT Mystery Hunt has been going on for quite some time, maybe 20 years. It was always a physical hunt that took place on the MIT campus that involved solving lots and lots of puzzles, which would feed into meta puzzles. It’s like an incredibly complicated, long version of the thing that David Quang and I did at The Magic Castle that you attended.
Craig: It would take place over the course of a number of days. It would involve moving physically around the campus and finding a coin, and then you won. If you found the coin, you were the team that won. Over the years, it’s become more and more complicated. The last couple of years, it’s been virtual for obvious reasons, including this year.
One of the interesting things about the MIT Mystery Hunt is that the team that wins is responsible for creating the mystery hunt for the next year. When I tell you that this is like a full-time job, I’m not kidding. Last year, a team named Palindrome or Team Palindrome, they won, and they have won before, a couple of times, I think. Some of my friends are on it, including Dave Shukan and Mark Halpin. There’s also a guy that I’ve occasionally solved puzzles with named Eric Berlin, who I think was their captain. These folks, along with dozens of other people, this is a very large team, by all accounts created quite the hunt, and I think it legitimately took them all year to create this huge event that teams are currently working on and solving right now.
To give you a sense of how complicated it gets, the team last year, Galactic Trendsetters, they were the ones that won the year before us, they created the puzzle hunt last year, they literally created their own MMO for this event. Because you’re dealing with MIT people. They can do anything, anything. They’re coding. They created their own proprietary software for this. Anyway, it’s very exciting. I’m a decent solver. I’m just not at this level. I can solve the first tier of their puzzles, but the later tier, beyond me, definitely beyond me. It’s going on right now. I don’t think anyone’s won yet. But my guess is probably by– we’re recording on a Saturday. Probably by Sunday, there will be a winner. So, I just wanted to say one cool thing to Team Palindrome for creating all that working, so hard. It’s not a paid job. And then, congrats to everyone that solves it and participates in it. And of course, a special congratulations to the team that wins. I don’t know who they are yet.
John: I was going to say, I wonder why someone would do something like this when they aren’t getting paid for it, and all they could do is have some sense of satisfaction of how they made a thing, after– [crosstalk]
Craig: Well, we get to do this one hour a week. The sense I got was that this was practically a full-time job that required its own organizational structure and methods, and just review– I actually test solve quite a few puzzles for them. I think they were nice to only have me test solve the ones that I was capable of solving, but they were all really interesting. There are rafts of test solvers that are being worked on. They have this point system for evaluating. It’s incredibly com– it’s like producing a show. It’s something else. Great work on that, everyone. I’m hoping everyone’s enjoying it. I’m sure they are. Dave Shukan has told me that he will send me a collection of good ones that he thinks I [chuckles] can solve that I haven’t already solved. So, thanks, Dave. I appreciate that.
John: Fantastic. Also, it might be a good moment to shout out a congratulations to a friend of the show, David Kwong, who is now engaged.
Craig: That’s right. David Kwong is finally going to be an honest man.
Craig: We’re incredibly happy for him.
John: Yeah, please don’t saw your wife in half. That’s all we’re asking.
Craig: Those are the people that are doing all the hard work on stage. You know that, right?
John: Yeah, of course. They’re the contortionists.
Craig: Yeah, exactly.
John: Yeah. And that’s our show this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It’s edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by William Brink. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin, I am @johnaugust. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. It’s also where you can also find the links to some of the scripts we talked about today. You’ll find the transcripts there. And you can sign up for our weekly-ish newsletter called Inneresting, which has lots of links to things about writing. We have t-shirts, and they’re great. They have Stuart’s sense of softness. You can find them at Cotton Bureau. The hoodies are great. Now, Craig, did you pick up your hoodie while you’re in town or not?
Craig: Oh, I don’t think I did.
John: Okay. Well, we’ll ship it to you up in Calgary so you can keep warm.
Craig: Oh, thank you.
John: They turned out really well. You can sign up to become a premium member at scriptnotes.net, where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments, like the one we’re about to record, talking about the screenwriter equivalent of bootcamp. Until then, relax, stay chill. And we’ll see you next time on Scriptnotes. Bye.
John: Hey, Megana, we got a question from Andrew. Read the question that Andrew has?
Megana: Andrew asks, “I’ve heard many former or current soap opera actors refer to working on the soap as a bootcamp for them, mainly because of the production schedule and the need to get everything right the first time. Soap actors who find work elsewhere are praised for their ability to memorize and always get things right quickly. Is it the same for writers? Do writers who worked on soap operas have an insane work ethic and the ability to turn out content? If not, what is the writing equivalent of a writing boot camp?”
John: All right. That’s an interesting question. There obviously are. There are actors who started out soap opera actors who are now some of our best actors out there. Not everyone who works on a soap opera is going to be the best actor out there. But that sense of being able to show up, do the work, get it done, get it right the first time, memorize a bunch of lines, that all feels great and crucial. Craig, can you think of examples of high pressure or writing jobs where there’s so much quantity that you actually do pick up good skills?
Craig: Sure. I think I went through it, and it’s called advertising. Copywriting in advertising is pretty brutal. You have to do a lot of different kinds of writing, is to do a lot of idea making, which is important obviously. You have to talk a lot about how to get into something and what the purpose of something is, so you learn about purposefulness. And then you have to write a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of versions. Versions, and versions and versions. And they all have to fit to time. You’re dealing with a very limited amount of time to get your idea across, the purpose, the point, structure, beginning, middle, end. And then, you have to do it again, but for a shorter amount of time to do multiple versions of it. When you’re cutting things together for marketing like trailers and things, you need to start asking which of this stuff is emerging as important or salient or notable. And you also learn which movies are harder to market because they don’t know what they’re about either. All of that is pretty great bootcamp. You learn audio, you learn visual, you learn how to write, purpose, revisions, rewrites.
When you come out of it, you’re pretty well set up to go on to the next thing. I’m not recommending that people go seek it out as the basis for a screenwriting career, but having gone through it, I think boot camps is a pretty darn good term for it.
John: My freshman year of college, I was a journalism advertising major. My J54 was the basic news writing class I had to take. It was famously difficult class, it was exhausting class, because it was 8:00 in the morning, you’d show up and the professor say, “Okay, I need each of you to find a story on campus and it needs to be delivered in the next 90 minutes.” So, you’re like, “Argh.” You’re running around, trying to find something to write about. Get introduced, get notes, get back, sit down at a computer and write the story. And then, he would hover over you as you’re writing. It really made you focus in on just getting it done, getting the words out, thinking about that pyramid style, like the most important stuff at the top and being able to cut off the story at any point, and breaking some of your preciousness are the way that you can get in your own way with stuff. So, I had to learn how to write those kinds of news stories. And yeah, I did learn a lot there.
But that kind of news writing is different than longform journalism. When I would actually have the time to actually do more work and to do more than just reporting, but actually think about synthesizing and putting stuff together, those classes were much more useful in terms of my actual screenwriting, in terms of thinking about how I’m going to go from, “Here’s a bunch of ideas,” to, “Here is the way I’m going to structure and tell these ideas in a way that is interesting.” I think we have to have both. I just stayed doing news writing, it would be like when I was working at Tristar and having to write coverage on two scripts a day. It would burn a hole in your brain and limit you from doing other kind of writing.
Craig: That’s one of the downsides of working as a young person in something like advertising, is that the people who have remained, you can tell that they have been scarred and changed by it.
John: Yeah. [chuckles]
Craig: It’s because there is something brutal about writing that isn’t about the writing itself. That whatever you write is in service of a purpose. You learn to write with purpose, but only purpose. Whereas when you’re writing things to entertain people, there is its own intrinsic value. The point is watch this, not watch something else, or learn about something else. When are in your 20s and you’re working at these things, you often are working for people that are maybe a little roughed up. I remember meeting some wonderful people. It’s possible also that my experience and your experience was strongly informed by the year it was. The 90s, people were meaner in the 90s.
Craig: They really were. People were mean.
John: Well, let’s think about things that are closer to what we are actually doing for a living. People do write soap operas obviously, and soaps are covered by the WJ. There’s WJ writers who are writing soaps. I don’t see a lot of people who are moving from writing soaps into other things. It feels almost like game show writing. It’s a very unique specialty, because you’re just having to crank out so much and there’s just not time to do the kinds of other work you could be doing. But there’s obviously people write on network one-hours that are like procedural shows, and there’s a whole way procedural shows work. There’s TV sitcoms, which have a very different vibe in how it’s all geared up towards the weekly taping of the show. Those are very differing experiences, but you are on the hook for generating a lot of material each week. And it’s going to get you out of some of your preciousness about everything having to be perfect at all times.
Craig: Yeah. You can pick up skills in these things. Accountability is a big one. It would have been really hard as a 21- or 22-year-old to start writing a screenplay with no sense of accountability whatsoever. When you are paying your bills because of the stuff you’re writing, you learn accountability. You also learn frustration.
Craig: The frustration of being a writer, I don’t want to say it’s a good thing, but it’s a helpful thing that we get frustrated so frequently, because we get better and better at dealing with it. There are other categories of artists in our business that I don’t think have been exposed to the frustration we’ve been exposed to. It’s harder for them to deal with. We are weathered.
John: We’re talking about these early jobs as being you’re accountable for doing stuff, and you haven’t just turned stuff in. Schools can be accountability mechanisms, where basically you are having to turn stuff in and therefore having to get work done on a regular basis, and be able to show it to people and actually have a conversation with people, which could be great. But, Megana, I’m thinking about the writing groups that you’re a part of. A large part of that is accountability, where you’re getting better because you’re being forced to generate stuff for each week’s meeting.
Megana: Absolutely. I think the social pressure of it is really helpful too. I think you lose your preciousness really fast. One thing my writing group implemented, which has been helpful during the pandemic, is that you have to say what your goal is for the next session, and if you don’t meet that you have to contribute a certain amount into a pot that we use at the end of six months to take ourselves out. So, there’s a financial repercussion if you’re not meeting your goals.
Craig: Yeah. That’s right.
Megana: That is helpful. It’s like, “Ah, okay, well, I’ll send something in that I feel unsure about because I don’t want to spend 20 bucks on missing this deadline.”
Craig: Hmm. You don’t want to give me that option of buying my way out of writing though.
John: Well, let’s talk about– Craig and I have been bought many times. I want to think about when we do weekly work, and I’m not doing as many weeklies as I used to, but for a time I was doing a fair number of weeklies, and it wasn’t very classically that pick two motto. Something could be fast or cheap, or good, and you’re going to pick two. They would pay me really good money. I was not cheap, but I was fast and I was good. It was my ability to recognize what they needed, to be able to deliver what they needed within this short period of time that they had. If I could write great pages but I couldn’t turn them in on time, that was not helpful to them. If I was fast and I wasn’t delivering what they needed, it wouldn’t have worked. So, I did learn a lot having to generate pages that could shoot tomorrow on that timeline.
Craig: Everybody has their own internal clock. If you find yourself in a situation where writing has to be done really quickly and really well in a short amount of time, it may not be for you. You may not have the ability to write well that quickly. You may not have the emotional ability to write that well that quickly. One of the things that happens when you’re working on a weekly, and it’s very similar to when you’re working on short term, impulse projects like advertising and so forth, is you’re also going to be getting the same amount of compressed reviewing and critiquing in the short amount of time. So, you work on something for a week, you’re readily expecting to be rewriting and rewriting and rewriting and hearing and talking and back and forth and back and forth for the week, it’s intense. And you need to be able to do all that, and have the emotional fortitude and the mental stamina, and your mind just has to work quickly. It’s not for everybody, it really isn’t.
I love doing weeklies because they actually don’t have the level of accountability that other things have. And I don’t mean to imply that I write a bunch of crap and walk away laughing. I care very much. But it’s focused, it’s so focused, I’m not responsible for the entire movie. I’m just trying to fix the first act. And then, I’m gone. I’m doing everything I can in that moment to help, but I am not raising this child. I’m just watching them like a grandparent for three days.
John: Absolutely. It’s more like you’re the emergency room doctor who’s keeping the patient alive and stabilized and getting them so they can walk out of the hospital, but you’re not responsible for like, “Oh, that other thing which we detected,” you’re not going to fix all those problems.
Craig: I did. There was one project I’m working on where I was like, “I’m not the emergency doctor trying to stabilize this patient. I am the undertaker just trying to get you into open casket funeral.”
Craig: That’s all I’m doing. This thing is dead. I just wanted the parents to be able to see it when you wheel it out there because right now, oh, my God.
John: Yeah. We’ve all been there. We’ve seen some of those movies and early things. I say yes, there are some bootcamp situations. Do you need to enroll or list yourself in a bootcamp situation? I would say to our friend who wrote in, Andrew, assess what you need. Is your problem that you’re just not getting stuff done? Is your problem accountability? Then, signing up for a class or getting into a writing group might be good interest in terms of getting you to generate more pages. If the problem’s that you’re just not generating a lot, that’s great. If you’re a person who’s generating a lot of stuff, it’s just not very good, maybe what you don’t need is a bootcamp. Maybe you just need some quality control. Maybe you need to slow down a little bit more and focus on refining some stuff, and getting some people to read you, who can really help talk you through what’s working, what’s not working, so you can actually polish rather than just generate the most you can generate.
John: Cool. Thanks, guys.
Craig: Thank you, guys.
Megana: Thank you.
- The CW is for sale!
- Annie Hayes on Writing with an Invisible Illness on John’s blog
- Being the Ricardos by Aaron Sorkin
- The Lost Daughter by Maggie Gyllenhaal
- The Mitchells vs. the Machines by Mike Rianda And Jeff Rowe
- Passing by Rebecca Hall
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