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: This is Episode 540 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show, how do we get characters to meet each other, and can we make it adorable? We’re looking at the history and mechanics of the meet-cute in rom-coms and beyond.
Then we’ll be digging into our overflowing mailbag to take a look at listener questions on brands, managers, and what a novelist should expect when selling a book to Hollywood.
In our Bonus Segment for Premium Members, we’ll discuss onboarding. How do you get somebody started in a story, and particularly in reference to a new game called Elden Ring, which Craig and I have been dying in a lot.
Craig: Yes, indeed. John, I just noticed that I should bring this to everyone’s attention that because we’re going to be doing some listener questions, that means that Megana’s going to be with us. You mentioned that we had some questions on managers. I just noticed that managers anagrams to Megana Sr, so I thought it was important to share that with her.
John: Oh my gosh, that’s really important. Now we know.
Megana Rao: You have such a special brain.
Craig: Isn’t it?
John: It’s a good special brain.
Craig: It sure is.
John: We can’t get started on this show that we’re recording on the 5th day of March, 2022, without talking about the change in the world order that’s happened this last couple weeks. Your boy Zelenskyy of Ukraine, who you met doing Chernobyl, is trying to keep Ukraine from falling to the Russian invasion. It’s a lot going on here.
Craig: It’s such a mess, and it’s so tragic. Ukraine, which regardless of what Putin says, is in fact a nation with an incredibly long history, has been invaded for absolutely no reason whatsoever other than Putin being a dick. Currently Ukraine is fighting back. If you know Ukrainians and if you’ve been to Ukraine, that part shouldn’t be a surprise. Similarly, the kind of Keystone Cops clown party that is the Russian military is also not surprising. If you have an incompetent massive army versus an incredibly competent and small amount of people, of course it means that there are going to be and there have been Russian casualties and Ukrainian casualties, but also quite a number of civilians have died in Ukraine. This is absolutely heartbreaking.
President Zelenskyy, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has proven himself to be just about the most remarkable leader I think I’ve seen in my lifetime in terms of a political leader. I just don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this in my lifetime. There were people that you and I have been taught about in school and Megana’s been taught about in school, and they seem so fricking far away from what we’ve had. Here is this guy who’s just been absolutely heroic, dodging assassins, remaining with his people, and rallying the world. He’s a wonderful person.
He’s also one of us, John. He’s a writer. He’s a performer. He’s an actor. He came out of the industry. He very famously played the part of the president of Ukraine. He was a comic writer and a comic actor, and a very good one. I was actually supposed to meet with him again when he came to the United States a few months ago, but he had to change his schedule so that he was going to meet with Biden. There’s your answer.
John: He made choices. It’s a tough choice but he made his choice.
Craig: There’s your answer. Anybody was wondering who’s more important, me or the President of the United States, Joseph Biden, the answer is Biden. I’m very grateful that he’s still alive. For all the people that I have met in Ukraine, I’ve talked to a few of them who are there or have left but are safe and sound, I’m very pleased that they are all still alive. I don’t pray, but I surely do hope fervently that this ends quickly.
John: Watching this over the course of the last week, I’ve just really been struck by the degree to which it does feel like we’re seeing history being made, because clearly, one order is falling and a new order is beginning. Whenever you’re seeing history happen, you’re always wondering, okay, how is this going to end. You try to think of this as a story, try to think of what are the next beats, how does this all go. It’s a natural instinct. I was frustrated by the desire to cast the movie at the very start, because it’s just in the opening pages of this.
It can be useful to look back in history and find the story in it, but finding the story in the moment as it’s actually happening I think can be a very dangerous and destructive thing, because it can take you away from the actual realities of what’s in front of you, because then when reality doesn’t match the story you’ve had anticipated, you’re caught flatfooted. I felt caught flatfooted by when Russia clearly going to invade, I kept thinking every morning I was going to wake up and see, okay, Ukraine has fallen. Then when I didn’t, I was like, oh, it’s awesome that they didn’t. Then it sets this pattern for… I keep trying to rewrite the story and it doesn’t match my expectations, rather than looking at what the actual facts are on the ground. Stories are fantastic, but facts are more important.
Craig: Just the way that when you and I were kids, nobody really cared about the Box Office. The news didn’t report the Box Office. Then suddenly it became something that everybody talked about and cared about. The adaptation of history into the dramatization has become so prominent and so frequent, and the window between event and dramatization has shrunk so dramatically, that people immediately start doing this. I find it rather upsetting actually. People are fighting for their lives, and I’m getting tweets like, “You should do Chernobyl part two.” I’m like, guys, that’s not how this works.
John: When we do a How Would This Be A Movie segment, obviously we’re not doing one on Ukraine. When we do those, it’s because there’s a unique slice of story that is finished, that we can look at and have some relatives to things. I don’t think anything about the Ukraine situation is finished to a degree that we should be looking at the adaptation.
Craig: No. There are small events or interesting bits of true crime or weirdness that you can just go ahead and make a story about, but when you’re dealing with unfolding history, the most important gift to the dramatizer, assuming that they are doing the right thing, is perspective. Perspective requires time. How in God’s name could anybody write a… You can’t write Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List in 1943. It’s insane. We need time to see what happens and to absorb it. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but in the long run I have to believe that Ukraine, a nation and a people that have suffered dramatically throughout the 20th century and now here in the 21st, will prevail. That’s just my great, great hope. I don’t know how, and I don’t know how long it’s going to take, and I don’t know what it’s going to look like.
John: All you can do is watch and take the actions that hopefully will get you to the place you want to end up, rather than assuming the story’s going to end up there.
Craig: You know the way people now will go back, listen to early episodes of our increasingly long running podcast and say things like, “Oh my god, listened to you guys before Donald Trump was elected, ha ha. Lol so innocent.” That’s the point.
John: We didn’t know what was going to happen.
Craig: No, and we don’t know now. If you’re listening to this 12 years from now, you might be giggling at how absolutely stupid we were, because it turned out that everything ended on… They recorded it on March 5th. March 6th the Russians left and then blah blah. Then it turned out that Zelenskyy was terrible.
John: Zelenskyy was not who you think.
Craig: I’m sure you are laughing at us. That’s the point. We don’t have perspective yet at all.
John: That’s why you should not even be thinking about making the movie now or telling the story now, because there’s not a story to tell.
Craig: What we’re saying, Megana, is stop writing the script.
John: Stop your adaptation.
Craig: Stop it, Megana.
John: Megana, what you can do for us is give us some follow-up. We have a letter here from Derek in Provo, Utah.
Megana: Derek wrote in and said, “In Episode 536 you gave a lot of great explanations for why the movie is never as good as the book. I just watched a really interesting video that explained the human mind’s bias for thinking that, even when it’s not statistically true. Here’s where the bias comes in. We humans don’t generally care about bad adaptations of unremarkable books. When thinking of adaptations of good books, we can think of lots of good and bad examples. It’s likely that the only adaptations of bad or unremarkable books you could think of right off the bat are all pretty good, because that’s the only situation in which that kind of adaptation would be remarkable.
“It turns out this is a phenomenon that applies to various attribute relationships called Berkson’s Paradox. That means these biases act sort of like a filter, accentuating the correlations that are already there, to the point where people feel totally comfortable making ridiculous claims like the book is always better than the movie, or even Hollywood ruins books.”
Craig: Makes sense.
John: I wasn’t familiar with Berkson’s Paradox, but it also reminds me of the phenomenon of silent evidence, which is that you can see these two things and say, oh, there must be a correlation here, but then also you’re not actually looking for all the other examples of things that would show those aren’t correlated or that there’s other things out there that you just haven’t paid any attention to because they weren’t what you were looking for. That does feel true to this idea that all book adaptations are bad book adaptations, because you’re only looking at the ones you happen to notice.
Craig: That is really interesting. Thank you for sharing that with us, Derek. Let’s file Berkson’s Paradox under our big header Our Brains Stink, because they do. Every time I hear about one of these things, I do think, oh, I’m going to try and avoid doing that.
John: I’ll push back. Our brains don’t stink. Our brains were designed to do very specific things. They’re designed to keep us alive, to regulate our body temperature and our internal processes and to make sure we didn’t get eaten by predators. The things that we were selected for got us here. They’re great, but they’re not really good at judgment calls about which book adaptations turned into movies in a good way and whether that’s systematically true.
Craig: What’s more important than that though?
John: Nothing’s more important than that. Literature to film adaptation, the cinematic history of that is the most important thing. It’s much like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, absolutely at the top, or the base. It’s the whole pyramid.
Craig: We can do calculus, and that’s super amazing, but we’re blowing this fundamental requirement we have to properly analyze the relationship. Anyway, I like hearing about these new biases and logical mistakes that we make.
John: We’re all fallacies. We’re all fallacies. Let’s get to our marquee topic. This is the meet-cute. This is based on last week’s installment of the newsletter Interesting, where Chris looked at the original of the term meet-cute. It turns out, I didn’t know where this actually came from, but it goes back to 1941. I thought it was much more recent. There’s this book, this mystery novel, Case of the Solid Key, in which a character says, “We met cute, as they say in story conferences.” It’s already in existence by 1941.
From Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, a character explains, “Dear boy, the beginning of a movie is childishly simple. The boy and the girl meet. The only important thing to remember is that in a movie, the boy and the girl must meet in some cute way. They cannot meet like normal people, perhaps at a cocktail party or other social function. No, it is terribly important that they meet cute.”
Craig: I actually thought that this phrase meet-cute or this term meet-cute was older than that, because it is so damn weird. It has always bothered me. It should be meet cutely or cutely meet. Why is it meet cute?
John: Cute may be one of those words that can function adverbially.
Craig: It cannot.
John: Maybe it could at one point. I think that’s why you thought it was archaic.
Craig: I refuse. I will not use cute as an adverb. Also, it’s backwards. It’s German. Instead of cutely meet, it’s meet cute.
John: Meet cute.
Craig: It’s meet cute. It always bothered me. It was one of those terms, Megana I’m curious if you have had this too, when you first get to Hollywood and people start throwing jargon around, I had no idea what the hell they were talking about when they said meet cute, to be honest with you. I also didn’t know what a set piece was. They kept talking about set pieces, and I was like, “Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.” In my mind I’m like, “What’s a set piece?” Megana, see, back then we did not have the internet. Actually, there was an internet, but it wasn’t really the internet. There wasn’t even Google. I don’t know, Megana, now does everybody know everything because of the internet before they get here?
Megana: You would think, but I don’t think that the internet has really helped people.
Craig: That’s curious.
John: I’d be curious whether a non-screenwriter person would know what a meet-cute was. Is that just a thing that’s just out there in culture? I think we’re going to commission a Scriptnotes survey of a thousand households and figure out whether they know the term meet-cute and if they’re involved in the film industry at all. It’d have to be a non-Los Angeles sampling of people.
Megana: As rom-coms have become more self-aware, I feel like they do reference them in The Holiday, the Nancy Meyers classic. They have a whole scene about the meet-cute.
Craig: It’s become meta, in other words. Got it.
John: When we had Greta Gerwig on the show, she was talking about the structural changes she made to the adaptation of Little Women so that she could introduce the eventual love interest very early on in the story, because she said that the first person you see that character with is the person you feel like they need to end up with at the end. I think that is also just what we’ve learned about romantic comedies, watching romantic comedies. She recognized that the audience was not going to be happy with her ending up with this guy who showed up late in the story.
Craig: That makes total sense.
John: They need to have a meet-cute.
Craig: They need to have a meet-cute. I guess part of this concept, and it connects back to what we were just talking about with stories and history and things, when we meet other people in a non-meet-cute way, another couple, eventually someone’s going to say, “How did you guys meet?” with the expectation that there’s going to be good story, when in fact it’s never really good.
John: Almost never. Puts weird pressure on things.
Craig: You know how I met Melissa? I was running across the street because I was late for a big meeting where I was going to get a promotion or be fired, and she was running the other way with an armful of books, because she was on her way to an exam, and we smashed together and everything fell down and I picked up and I met her in the eyes. Then somebody honked at us and we laughed and then we left each other and then I had to find her. No.
John: I met Mike on a gay dating site that doesn’t exist anymore. He had a profile. I responded to it. We had talked on the phone before we actually, because pre-texting. We exchanged emails. We talked on the phone. We met for a coffee at The Abbey.
Craig: Of course.
John: The Abbey was not even a bar at that point. It was just a coffee shop.
Craig: It was a coffee shop, I remember.
John: Before they had a liquor license. That was our first. That was our meeting.
Craig: The Abbey was such a coffee place that I would just go there for coffee sometimes, because it didn’t feel like a club. If I went to The Abbey now, I think I would feel like, okay, I’m–
John: You would have to push all the bridal parties out of the way.
Craig: Oh my god, there’s so much bitterness smashed into that sentence. So much gay bitterness. Get out of my club. This is how it functions. It’s not cute. Of course, the entire concept of a romance or a romantic comedy is the enormous lie that gives us the most, as you said, adorable, heart-swelling, awe golly gee version of human relationships possible, so of course it must start in a wacky way.
John: Let’s take a look at first the rom-com meet-cute and then let’s generalize it back out to any two characters meeting each other, because that’s going to happen in all of our scripts. We’ll start with rom-coms. There’s basically four different patterns you can see with this character meets that character and what is the dynamic there. Sometimes they immediately have chemistry. You can see, oh, they should be together and there’s an obstacle in the way. A great example of that would be Her, is that you have Joaquin Phoenix’s character and you have the AI character, and they clearly have a spark and a thing, but she’s just an AI, so there’s an obstacle in the way there.
Craig: It wouldn’t be an obstacle for you.
John: No, not for me. Just 100%, just plug right in there.
Craig: Just one subroutine running into another one.
John: They have their mutual attraction. There’s also the mutual hatred of each other. When Harry Met Sally is a great example of that. We meet the two characters at the same time. They just do not like each other.
John: Another dynamic that’s common is one is really into the other, and the other can’t stand the first person. The Notebook is very much that, where he’s a stalker pursuing her and eventually wears her down. Then the fourth dynamic I’d say is when they don’t know who the other person is. That’s what they did in Big Fish. That’s also Romeo and Juliet, where these two characters have this immediate spark. They don’t recognize what the obstacle is between the two of them. They can’t find each other.
Craig: All of these are way outside the bounds of normal human relationships. It’s actually quite rare that people meet each other and hate each other instantly or people meet each other and one hates the other instantly. The only time in my life I think I met somebody and hated them instantly was Ted Cruz. Instantly. Does that count as a meet-cute? I don’t think so.
John: It would count as a meet-cute if ultimately you did, down the road, fall in love together.
Craig: Exactly. All the vomiting has just happened. In general, when people meet each other and hate each other, they will continue to hate each other. What we like about these circumstances is the notion that we as humans just can’t quite get to where we belong, and so God or fate is going to nudge us together, because like most of the stories, ultimately it boils down to fear. I’m afraid of something, and so I am not living the best life I can. I’m living according to a different theory. Fate smushes me together with another person. If it were easy, there wouldn’t be a story. It actually has to be hard.
The point is, the nature of the meet-cute sets up, in a way, or exemplifies, in a way, the problem, that one or the other or both people have. That meet-cute is a little microcosm of why they are not with somebody that they love. By the end of the movie, they will overcome their problems and be with each other.
John: In any rom-com or any romantic movie, the premise of the whole thing is that central relationship. It’s understandable that there’s such a spotlight on how those two characters meet. Of course, all of our scripts and all of our stories have characters meeting each other for the first time.
Let’s generalize this to look at how you introduce two characters to each other. This can be, a few examples that Megana and I were thinking through, 21 Jump Street, how those two guys meet the first time. Only Murders in the Building was all about how those three characters meet and get hooked up. There’s this whole special mentor meet-cute situation, Training Day, Devil Wears Prada. In all these cases, you’re setting the audience expectations for where this relationship is going to go. Even though it’s not a romantic relationship, we know that that relationship is going to be important, we’re going to be following those two characters and ups and downs together throughout the course of the story.
Craig: For our friends out there who are writing, hopefully most of you, let’s talk about how we start. As is so often the case, we have to think about how we want it to end, and then go all the way backwards, as far as you can, as close to 180 degrees as you can get. It doesn’t have to be 180 degrees in some obvious way, but really more about the internal thing. Don’t think so much about how they care about each other in the beginning of the story or how they care about each other in the end. Think about who they are in the end. Think of who they must therefore be in the beginning. Then you might get a sense of what would be the most natural kind of thing. Even though the meet-cute is an extreme circumstance or a weird circumstance, the characters in that moment behave in the most them way possible. That’s the problem for them. That maybe will help you build your meet-cute.
John: Indeed. Obviously, we talk about protagonists. These are the characters who have to grow and change and face the obstacles. You can also think about that relationship as being the protagonist, the idea of that relationship growing and changing over the course of the story and facing struggles. If you think about that as idea as the protagonist, you can maybe really see the arc of what that relationship is changing to over the course of the story.
Let’s think about the situations in which characters meet. The most common one in our stories is that the audience knows one character, generally your hero, and is being introduced to the second character. That’s going to happen not in every scene, but so many scenes, where we’re getting information about this new character the same time the character, our hero is getting information about it. As a writer, we can just choose what information we want to get out, because we don’t need to tell the audience anything new about our hero necessarily. Our hero is pulling information out of this other character, or if anything, we are seeing some new side about our hero about how they are describing themselves, how they are introducing themselves to this new character.
Craig: It’s an interesting question, I guess, listening to you talk about that. Are there examples or would it be advisable at this point, given how many meet-cutes there have been and how now, like Megana says, there’s a meta meet-cute discussion that happens in these movies, to meet not cute, even to disregard or violate the rule that George Axelrod laid out and say meet boring? Is there value in a meet-boring?
John: Megana and I were talking about this. I think there’s an example of characters who know each other, but over the course of the story, that overlooked character or recontextualized character becomes important. That red shirt in Star Trek who actually does have a name and becomes useful, Hermione when she shows up in the dress. She was always just a friend. Now you’re seeing her now as a romantic character. Paul Rudd’s character in Clueless, which is that he wasn’t perceived as being a romantic character, so therefore he doesn’t get a meet-cute really as we introduce him into the story, I think very cleverly, not making him seem like a potential love interest down the road.
Craig: That’s an interesting method is that it’s not so much about a meet-boring, it’s about a not-meet-at-all, that even though characters are meeting, there are meetings and there are meetings. If you happen to be introduced to somebody, along with three other people in a scene, then you haven’t met that person in a meet scene. Now you just know them. That’s an interesting notion of just avoiding. It’s not so much the cute you might want to consider avoiding. It’s the meet itself.
John: Now, we were trying to think of examples of situations where we as an audience meet both of our central characters at the same time. This is how we’re getting information now. When Harry Met Sally is basically that situation. We’re with Billy Crystal for moments before they get in the car together. Licorice Pizza from this year literally just is this long tracking shot where we’re meeting both of these characters for the first time. They have this very long conversation, where we’re getting all the information about both of them. That’s an example of they really are setting this up as a two-hander, like these are the two people we’re going to follow and we’re starting this on equal footing.
Craig: As we get smarter and smarter and more and more sophisticated, because we have seen more and more versions of the same things over and over, the idea that maybe the way we approach shopworn but necessary moments like two characters meeting is to just fling ourselves in one direction or the other really far, just triple down or underplay it completely, because I don’t know if there’s room any more for Matthew McConaughey to bump into Jennifer Lopez in the middle of the street. I don’t know if we can do it anymore.
John: There’s no way to do it without making it feel like it’s that kind of moment, where just you can hear the music behind it. I was watching Worst Person in the World, which is I think one of the best movies of the year. I really absolutely loved it. Norwegian film. Everyone should check it out. Nominated for Best Screenplay for the Oscars, which is pretty remarkable. It does a really interesting thing about the two love interests, the two men that she meets up with and connects with over the course of the movie. Both of those meet-cutes are handled in… The first one’s just an offhanded way. She’s just talking to different people, and she talks to this guy, and that becomes the guy. The second one is a much bigger spotlight on this meet-cute moment that just extends and extends and extends in a way that’s really rewarding. The example of the first one slips in through the back door and the second one is just really aware of the tropes that… The characters are aware of the tropes that they’re entering into, which is fun.
Craig: That’s good, because I think smart filmmakers, smart television makers are aware, at least in part, of all the stuff that’s come before them. It’s harder and harder to say I’m doing something in a new way that hasn’t been done before, but that’s not necessary. Sometimes you just need to let the audience know that you know. I never want people to think, does he not know that that already happened a thousand times? Does he think he invented that? Because that’s just an annoying, prideful sort of thing.
John: Last scenario. We talked about the audience knows one character’s meeting another character for the first time. We’ve talked about where the audience knows neither character. The last example is where the audience knows both characters separately, and then we see the characters meet each other for the first time. This happens a fair amount. It happens, obviously, if you’ve seen the villain separately, and you’ve seen the hero separately, and they’re suddenly crossing paths. Think about Jack and Rose in Titanic. We establish both of those characters for a long time separately before we see them together.
Craig: That’s a good point.
John: Crazy Ship of Love does that. You’ve Got Mail does that. Even later seasons of Game of Thrones, it was just really weird when Jon Snow and Dany finally met. We spent years with these characters and they’re just meeting each other for the first time. It’s a thing that does happen.
Craig: That was weird.
John: It’s also just strange how we are so ahead of the characters in that moment, that if they were to talk about where they came from, what this stuff was, it’s not interesting to us, unless you can find a way to make that interesting, because all that we’re learning new about the characters is how they interact with this character we’ve already established.
Craig: It’s funny, I was just thinking about one of the strangest and most effective meet-cutes in cinematic history is in Titanic. I don’t think you would be able to do it like that today.
John: Remind me of the actual scene, because I’m not picturing where they first meet.
Craig: Rose is going to kill herself. She’s preparing to throw herself into the ocean to avoid having to marry this awful man. She is seconds away from committing suicide. Then Leonardo DiCaprio wanders out, being all cool and everything and like, “It would sure be a shame for you to suicide yourself there.” Then he pulls her back and she’s like, “Oh, sir.” The thing is, I don’t think you could do that today. On the other hand, for the tone of that movie it was perfection, just utter perfection [crosstalk 00:27:24].
John: Everything being elevated to where it was going.
Craig: You got the sense that she wasn’t actually going to jump, that she actually suddenly panicked and didn’t want to jump, which I think was very important for the tone of that, but you remember it. Actually, you didn’t.
John: I forgot in the moment.
Craig: I remember it.
John: Gave me an extra 20 seconds, I would’ve remembered it.
Craig: There you go. Very good.
John: It’s got that iconic imagery there. Takeaways from meet-cuting, I think it’s useful to think about all the ways characters meet in rom-coms, because if you’re writing a romantic comedy or something that deals in the general space of a rom-com, you’re going to be dealing with all the expectations of what that initial meeting’s going to be, but then to just generalize it back out to your characters are always meeting each other, so what are the situations that they’re meeting, and can or should this be an interesting, unlikely, surprising way of these two characters meeting, or should you deliberately not do that, because otherwise it sets this expectation of some kind of future for this relationship which may not be realistic.
Craig: Certainly don’t think that you are limited to this question for romances. There are meet-cutes across almost every genre, but in particular, when there are people that are partnering on a job together, when they are thrown into some sort of collective dramatic scenario that they didn’t know each other and now they do, whatever it is, it doesn’t have anything to do with romance. It’s really about relationship. It’s about two people who are going to have a relationship. It doesn’t matter if there’s romance. It doesn’t matter what their age is, gender, any of that stuff. Think about the meet-cuteness of things and how to apply it to the specific situation that your characters are in, as it relates to who they are and what their damage is.
John: Last takeaway I’ll give you is that whenever you’re introducing characters to us as the reader, as to the audience, and there’s another character there to talk with, don’t do the thing which I’ve seen in so many bad movies and so many bad scripts, where characters feel like they’re introducing themselves to a character they already should know, where you as a writer are trying to get information out, and so they’re saying it to a character who would already know that. That’s just a bad habit we need to get out of. You can feel the development notes that got into that.
Craig: “It’s John, the assistant DA in Trenton. It’s been a while since I’ve seen you. As I recall, we didn’t get along too well last time.”
John: “How’s the wife and the kids? How’s your dad who’s suffering from PTSD?”
John: Boo, don’t like it.
John: Now, we’ve done a lot of shows. I kind of feel like introducing a new segment to the show.
Craig: Great, let’s do it. (singing)
John: Love it. Megana, do you have a question for us?
Megana: I do. I had a busy week this past week.
Craig: (singing) On to our next thing.
Megana: For me, because of my entry point, I think of the writing behind a project as the genesis. I guess I had this naïve assumption that everyone else also thought that the writers and their idea or take was the most important part of a project, the foundation, but through some of my recent conversations, I am realizing that that’s not necessarily, in fact it’s very rarely the case, whether it’s this hot piece of IP or a talent attachment that’s driving the project. I guess I just had this moment where I was like, oh, that’s the shiny thing, and the writers are just this tool you can slot in to make the shiny thing shine. I’m curious whether that’s always been the case. Is that just normal for the industry? Is it normal to feel that way? Is this a more recent shift? Have I just been sheltered?
John: In the context of general meetings or meetings on a project, to realize, oh, okay, I’m not the most important part of the project, yes. I would say yes, certainly at my early stages in my career, but even as recent as this past week. There was a project that was sent to me. It was a book adaptation, a good book. I wanted to meet with the producers ahead of time to see what is it about this book and why are they coming to me. It became very clear that these producers, they like me, they like this book, but man, they really, really, really like this director who’s attached to the book. That was the most important part of the project, really, honestly. That was fine. That’s the way sometimes these projects go. It did influence my decision about is this a project that I should necessarily pursue based on relative value of things? At an early stage of my career, but even as of this past week, yes, I’m rarely the most important part of the project.
Megana: To Craig’s earlier point about jargon that you learn in Hollywood, mandate is a fairly new word for me.
Craig: What the hell? What does that mean? Oh, like the company’s mandate is to create a franchise-friendly event film that blah blah blah?
Craig: Oh, lord. You mean like what you want? Mandate.
Megana: I’m not saying this against… I’ve met such lovely people. This isn’t anything about them. It’s more like this coming-of-age realization where you realize the world doesn’t revolve around you and Hollywood does not revolve around writers.
Craig: This is fascinating. This never occurred to me. I always presumed that I had to work my way up from the baseline, which was here’s a writer that we don’t care about, who we want to spend as little money on as possible, and unless they save everything for us and make a green light happen, we want to fire them into the sun. It never occurred to me that I would be the most important part of anything. Now in television, yes, if I say, “Look, here’s a project. I want to do this thing. It’s going to be this many episodes. I will be the showrunner. I will write the episodes. I will be there every day,” then yeah, okay, clearly then I’m the producer, I’m the boss. I’m the most important part of the thing. In movies or anything else, it just never seemed possible.
Megana: I don’t know, we’re all writing heads over here. Even if I wasn’t in this industry, the storytelling is usually the thing that I am most attracted to in a movie anyways.
Craig: Of course.
Megana: Not that I as the writer would be the most important thing, but that’s what I think is most important. It’s a weird recontextualization where, oh, actually nobody else feels that way.
Craig: I’ll pretend to.
John: Everyone pretends to. Here’s the useful thing I think you can take out of that, is that in any project, you can just look for what’s really driving it and what is the reason why this project is exciting to this studio, these producers at this time. It goes back to what you’re asking about a mandate. What are they trying to do? What is their overall stated goal of the things they are trying to do? What things are they trying to not do? For example, this place is like, we’re not doing musicals. That’s just clearly a mandate. It’s like, great, it’s good to know that musicals are not part of it.
If you can go into a project and get a sense of what are they actually looking for and who is driving this and are they trying to make this kind of movie or that kind of movie, is incredibly helpful just in terms of both which projects you’re going to pursue and figuring out how you’re going to pursue these projects and whose notes you’re going to listen to the most. Is this really being driven by the producer? Is it being driven by that director? Is it being driven by the studio head, the actor? You got to know those things, because that’s going to really influence the work you’re going to be doing for them.
Craig: Megana, have you ever seen Barton Fink?
Megana: No, I haven’t, actually. It’s on a long list of movies.
Craig: It’s on a long list of things. Move it up to the top, because aside from being an absolutely brilliant film by the endless brilliant Joel and Ethan Coen, it is a fantastic exploration both of what it means to be a writer in Hollywood and what writing is and what writers block is about, and about managing your desires with what is required of you and also managing your own romantic notions of writing with the reality of writing. It’s brilliant.
There’s a couple of scenes with Tony Shalhoub. John Turturro plays a playwright, loosely based on Clifford Odets, named Barton Fink, who’s brought up to Hollywood in 1941. He’s brought out to Hollywood, which was often the case. They would bring out these playwrights to put them to work, like Fitzgerald, also a novelist. Of course these brilliant people were then put to work writing nonsense, and really struggled with it. John Turturro’s struggling a little bit. He’s been assigned a job. He’s supposed to write a Wallace Beery wrestling picture, which would be the equivalent of a Steven Seagal movie now or 10 years now. He’s struggling with it. Tony Shalhoub plays his producer, Ben Geisler, who basically says something to the effect of, “What are you talking about? It’s Wallace Beery. It’s men in tights. He hits him, he falls down. Write it.”
This is where Barton Fink just suddenly realizes, this is machinery. I’m in a machine and nobody cares about me at all. The way that the more sinister studio head, played by Michael Lerner, makes him feel like he is the center of it, and then what happens after is so brilliantly, wonderfully true. Highly recommend it. It’s a very funny movie. It’s a very weird movie. John Goodman is incredible in it. Strongly recommend Barton Fink.
Megana: I can’t wait. My new analogy for how I’m feeling is like a sunglass salesman at the beach. You know when you’re hanging out at the beach and these guys come up to you with their tarps full of sunglasses? I just feel like I’m going up to these different companies and I’m like, “I can unroll this and show you all the cool things that I’m working on.” They’re like, “Yeah, I’m good. I actually brought sunglasses to the beach.” I’m just going to continue bumbling down.
Craig: That’s right.
John: There’s also a moment in those meetings where they are unrolling their sunglasses. It’s like, “Here are the sunglasses that we have that we like.” You’re not sure if you’re actually allowed to touch them or put them on. They’re talking about the things they’re working on. I do find though, looking at their sunglasses that they have laid out gives me a sense of what I could actually provide for them and what they think they need. That’s useful as a part of that conversation too.
Craig: It’s like some weird singles bar, where every time you show interest in somebody, they run away from you until they finally show interest back, at which point you run away from them. It’s so weird. The worst thing you can do in Hollywood is actually get what you wanted, because I always feel like… John, you’ve had this thing where people pursue you and they’re like, “Oh my god, we need you, we need you, we need you. You’re everything,” blah blah blah, “Anything, anything.” Then you’re like, “Fine, I’ll do it.” Then they’re like, okay, now we’re going to treat you like crap.
John: 100%. Situations like there was an animation project that was stalking me for so long. I finally said, “Okay, yeah, great.” I went back in and pitched them the thing. They were like, “Oh yeah, I don’t think we could do that.” It was like, ah, so much time has passed doing this.
Craig: So much.
John: So much time.
Craig: Basically we’re all Barton Fink. (singing) and it was good.
John: Let’s do our other listener questions. Let’s start us off with Katie here.
Megana: Katie writes, “I’m a novelist and an avid Scriptnotes listener. My husband’s a screenwriter. While my career has taken off, a book deal with the Big Five, healthy advance, lead title status, and a film TV agent at WME, my husband’s has not. We both understand that we’re just at different stages right now, but I have so much confidence in his talent. I know with hard work, he’ll break through. I’m at the beginning of my career, so I’m reluctant to shove his scripts at my agent. At a certain point, I’ll feel comfortable doing so. How do creatives at different points in their careers manage the early/late/staggered arrival of success? How can I practically support him when screenwriting seems so much more Sisyphusean than traditional publishing?”
Craig: I don’t know the answer to this, because I’ve never had any experience with it.
John: No, but it feels like a good story. I can visualize the tension between these two people, in one person being successful, one person not being successful. I guess Marriage Story had a bit of that, where her career was taking off in one way, his career was taking off in another way, but not as quickly. You don’t want to be in a story. You want actual practical advice right now. I can’t give you great practical advice right now other than to be there and positive and supportive to what he’s doing. Make sure that it never feels patronizing. Help him where you can help him. Introduce him where you can introduce him. Also, he’s going to have to find his own way into his screenwriting career, and just as you found your way into your novel writing career.
Craig: There’s some danger here, Katie, it seems to me, that you have to be aware of. While you’re asking the right questions, I would strongly advise you to be directing these questions towards a professional, rather than your favorite podcast hosts, because this is the kind of thing that can wreck stuff.
Don’t think that if I just say or do the right things in the right order, it won’t wreck stuff, because it can, because what happens is, you are people who have dreams and desires and hopes. You meet each other and you fall in love with each other, and then it happens to somebody and that person is changed because of it. I’m not saying you’re changed because suddenly it went to your head. Not at all. It’s just your life changes. When you become successful at this particular thing, your life changes. Your partner can feel left behind or shut out or less than if they’re trying to also change their life in the exact same way. The cascade of issues, I don’t have to list them for you, quite large. Regardless of who gets there first, there are so many issues.
I would urge you, if you have concerns about this or if you feel like your husband has concerns about this now, start talking about it now with somebody. I think that’s the important thing is communicate. Really communicate about this. Honesty is incredibly important. What you will never want to feel, I think, I hope, is a sense that maybe anything that does befall him was only because you begged and somebody threw you a bone.
This is a storyline we did in Mythic Quest where a woman gets married to a man, she becomes this incredibly successful novelist. He is not. He only publishes a series of books that are not well-read, and only with the publishers that she was publishing with. Clearly, people were throwing him scraps, and he knows it. This can be a real issue. I feel for you. I don’t know the answer myself, other than to say take it seriously. Don’t let this fester.
John: I would also want to acknowledge there’s a gendered component to this. The valance shouldn’t be any different, but I think societally the valance does feel a little bit different when the woman is so successful and the man is not successful. I agree with Craig that I think getting some help now and just talking through it will be helpful down the road. Also just make sure, Katie, you’re not ever self-sabotaging to make this feel better, because that is another worry I would have is that you might not take some opportunity because you feel like it’s going to feel bad for your husband.
Craig: Just take it seriously. It sounds like you are. I would say escalate it. You’ve called the first level of customer service, which is your favorite podcasters. You haven’t said that we’re your favorite podcast. I’m just deciding. We’re going to escalate this to a supervisor, aka therapist.
John: Next question, Megana.
Megana: Baggage asked, “For the first time in my career I’ve been asked to be on set for several weeks of international filming. Do you have any packing advice or travel hacks? Should I only bring athleisure and sensible shoes, a jacket for every possible weather? Are there certain items you’ve learned to never leave home without, things that can help make an extended stay in a hotel feel more cozy?”
Craig: Oh boy, I wonder what this would be like, to figure how to live somewhere else for a long, long time.
John: For a long time. A couple things that Baggage is already suggesting is that you need to make sure that you’re going to feel comfortable on set, and so wearing stuff, honestly dark clothes that you can keep wearing a lot can work great. You may not always have great laundry facilities, so always be thinking about, okay, if I need to use hotel laundry that takes two days to get back, how I’m going to get through that. Make sure you have enough changes of clothes.
Make sure you have something nice to wear out to the occasional dinners with actors or producers and anyone else who comes in. Depending where you’re at, that may mean a jacket and a tie or it may mean a dress or whatever it is that you need to wear to be a little bit more formal.
Shoes for on set, just think about you’re going to be on your feet a lot. Think about how to not be on your feet. Think about actually sitting down where you can sit down. Just be comfortable. I would say layers is good, and if you’re any place that can get cold, just anticipate being cold, because being on a set is honestly standing around a lot, and that can just get really cold.
Craig: I suspect that Baggage is a lady. Men generally are slobs and have way less… We just get caught unaware all the time. We just show up somewhere and it’s freezing, we’re like, “I got my hoodie.” Here’s the thing, Baggage. When you’re on set for several weeks, you will have access to the lovely folks in the costume department. If you need a hat or something, they’ll just give you one. You can’t keep it, but they can lend you something. Don’t feel like you need to cover everything. You don’t. Cover the basics. Make sure you’re comfortable.
Going to dinner with actors, lovely, happily, most actors that I go to dinner with are also slobs, so everybody can be a slob together. Sloppiness, it depends on your role. If you are a producer, executive type of person, generally yes, you do dress a bit better. Everyone expects the writer to dress like Barton Fink.
I am a big believer in comfort items. Here’s what I have learned to bring with me: my slippers, my robe, because my slippers and my robe are my morning things, and my pillow. I like my pillow. I want my pillow. I don’t want their pillow. I want mine. Then just remember the little things, sometimes it’s just easier to just buy them there. Yes, you can absolutely pack your luggage full of every possible little, tiny, tiny thing you would need, or you can just remember that unless you’re going somewhere particularly remote, you can just buy some stuff that’s cheap there and you’ll be okay. Just remember, you’re not going to the moon. You’re going probably to a place that has lots of other stuff.
John: If you’re filming Mad Max: Fury Road, then yes, you’re going to the moon, but anywhere else, you’re in a city where you can do stuff. I was thinking about a pilot I shot up in Vancouver. I thought I had rain gear, but I did not have Vancouver rain gear. I did not have Vancouver production rain gear. I needed the absolute, not just breathable GORE-TEX it needs to just be pure rubber that you’re wearing and the rubber boots and the rain pants and everything. That stuff you get there, because that’s the place where they sell it. The producer just sent me off with a PA, saying, “Go get him… ” I went, tried on the stuff, put it on the card. That became my rain gear. Some stuff you’ll just pick up locally.
Do think about what’ll make you comfortable. For Craig it was his slippers and his robe. Maybe the kind of tea you like that’s hard to get other places, pack a bunch of that so you’ll at least have the tea that you like there and have a way to get started in the morning or wind down at the end of the day, something like that to enjoy yourself.
Craig: Way more important to have those little things than 14 different weights of pants.
John: I will say, we do travel with our Apple TV. Apple TV is a nice way to get all the stuff that I want to see at home. It’s a little bit of a hassle to set it up on a hotel WiFi, but I’ll put a link in the show notes for how to get your Apple TV to connect to hotel WiFi, because when you don’t have the ability to type in the WiFi password, it can be a hassle, but there’s ways to do it.
John: Cool. Another question.
Megana: Luke from LA asks, “I’m another aspiring screenwriter currently doing a screenwriting graduate program at UCLA. The other day a professor in class said something that troubled me. He said when we’re starting out, we have to know our brand.”
Craig: Oh for God’s sakes.
Megana: “When trying to get an agent, the two or three scripts that we show them should be of the same type/genre, instead of, for example, trying to show our versatility, and go with a couple of different types of products. That way the agent can quickly see how to sell this new writer.”
John: The question is should your samples be similar to each other or should they be wildly divergent? I remember at the Austin Film Festival we had an agent and manager on the stage with us, and we were talking through that, did they want to see the range of what you can do or do they want to be able to target and focus you. I think the answer we got from them was a little bit more focused. It wasn’t all that dissimilar to what this professor in the class said.
Craig: The dissimilar part was that, the key was you had to have a script that they could sell. If you had five scripts that were all B minuses, then they were probably going to look at you and say, “I don’t know what you are. I don’t think you know what you are.” That’s not about brand. That’s just about your voice. If you walk in and you have an A-plus script and a C script, they’re going to say, “Okay, guess what? We actually don’t like that script at all, no big deal, but we do love this one. We’re going to put you out there with this one. You may get offered jobs in the genre that this one is in because it’s a good script.”
My thing is, how in the hell are you supposed to know beforehand? How do you know beforehand? If you write two or three scripts that are all the same genre and type, they might also say, this person really just is writing the same script over and over again. Maybe one day a professor at one of these places will say something that I like, but we’ve been doing it a long time, and I just find that all of this advice is circling around the most obvious thing, which is they don’t sell you at all. They sell a script.
John: I’ll put an extreme example, but an example that could make a little more sense here. Let’s say your samples are here is a historical war drama, it’s a retelling of 1812, battles of 1812. They have a half-hour multi-cam script, and they have this weird quirky sci-fi indie thing. That is a hard thing for an agent or manager to put their hands around and say, oh, you need to read this writer, because, oh, I’d love to read another thing, something completely different that won’t actually validate this experience.
The other thing, I’ve talked with a lot of writers who are thinking about, oh, I want to be starting TV, give me examples of some things you think I should be writing for this. I often say, I love to read a sample that is so, so good that I cannot wait to meet this person. Then when I meet this person, I’m like, “Yes, that’s exactly the person I hoped wrote that script.” Something that feels like it introduces you and your voice and why you would be asked to be in that room, these are great things. Writing something that is unique to your experience is a great choice if you’re thinking about how am I going to be an asset in that room or on this project. If my script can give a sense of what my personality is like, what my unique voice is like, that’s great. There are going to tend to be things that will speak to a genre.
Craig: I don’t see it that way.
John: That’s fine.
Craig: I just think that basically everyone is reading a fire hosed volume of crap every day, every script stinks, and then one day they read one that’s good. I don’t think they’re going to even care what the other ones are. They’re so happy that they found somebody who can write. If that person has written other scripts, and they’re like, “I want to read another thing that you wrote,” and it’s completely different, then that person might say, “Okay, you know what? I just like this one.” Reading two scripts and going, “Okay… “
Here’s the deal. If you can write a good script, you’ll write another good script. Any good writer can write at least something that is competent in any genre. I may not say I want to make this movie. You give me a genre to write, I’ll write it. At least I will apply basic writing skill to it and things like characters and relationships. Everyone’s trying to figure out the secret or the way you’re going to get through. The way you’re going to get through is you’re going to write something good. I’m not sure if you have a script that you love and you wrote, and then someone’s like, “You got to write it again in that genre,” and you want to write something in another genre, your thing in the other genre might be even better. I would never dissuade anybody from that, nor would I ever ding anybody for having things in different genres. I guess then again I’ve weirdly become the poster child for somebody whose genres are completely all over the place.
John: Now I will say I was hired and getting work before Go, and my script was a romantic tragedy. It was funny enough, but it wasn’t a great sample for some of the things I was getting, which were How To Eat Fried Worms and Wrinkle In Time, kids book adaptations. My other sample was the novelization of Natural Born Killers, which was not a laugh riot. The useful thing about the script for Go was that people could read it and see anything they wanted to see in it, and so it could serve as a sample for any kind of genre you wanted to put me out for.
Craig: It was good.
John: It was good. I would say just write Go, and then your problems are solved.
Craig: Write Go and then add an OD to it and you’re there. Just write something good. That’s your brand, good writer, because literally everyone else’s brand is bad writer.
John: Megana, another question.
Megana: Cranky Screenwriter writes–
Craig: That’s me.
Megana: “I started working with a manager a year ago. My manager has not set up a single meeting for me in this time, although there’s always an excuse, and usually ignores my emails unless they pertain to projects on which director she also represents is attached, meaning the manager would get paid twice if they’re successful. Recently she had me write a treatment for a remake of a major studio picture for a Hollywood super producer with an all-around streaming deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars. I was not paid for this treatment. My manager didn’t provide notes, nor did she ever even confirm that it was even sent to the producer. Obviously, there’s no meeting forthcoming either. Is this sort of behavior normal and do I just need to be more patient, or is it time for me to cut her loose and find someone who will work harder on my behalf?”
John: Craig, I don’t know, it sounds like… Cranky Screenwriter is so lucky to have a manager. I don’t know why they’re… Why are they emailing us? Because listen, you’re so lucky you have a manager.
Craig: What’s the level below cut her loose? What can you do that’s even more extreme than cutting her loose?
John: You need to fire her into the sun.
Craig: Fire her into the sun. By the way, this behavior is normal among terrible, predatory, crappy, peripheral managers. She’s awful. She’s awful. Having her as a manager is worse than having no manager. She is exploitative. She’s not helping you at all. While she’s hurting you, she’s also not even balancing it out with help. She’s terrible and you should, yes, cut her loose.
Megana: Angel of After School Specials asks, “Last year a script of mine was produced for what I thought would be a streamer, but ended up being a cable channel. I was a little bummed, as it wasn’t what I’d envisioned, but something made is a win, right? Another script was recently optioned is gearing up for production on a streaming service, but through their TV arm. Two scripts, two TV movies. I kept telling myself I didn’t need to be nervous, but something just happened that has me wondering. I’ve sold two projects and pitches, one to a major studio and another to a streamer. Yet, I just had a call with my reps about a project I’m really excited about. I saw it as a big theatrical play, but they told me I should aim for cable, again. I’m not sure if that’s because that’s where they have more relationships or if this is the box they’re putting me into, but either way, I’m not happy about it.
“Honestly, I’m scared. Currently, I have a team. That sounds good. It feels safe. They know me, and I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. Honestly, no other reps have shown interest. When you’ve had success that’s quantifiable in sales, but not produced work, how do you move up the ranks, and what should my expectations be? I think my biggest concern is that I see myself one way, but they’re pushing me into a smaller category because that’s where my work actually belongs.”
John: A lot going on here. Angel has some self-doubt, but also some success and some perspective, but also is feeling frustrated and trapped. It’s the flip side of our last question. You don’t have a terrible manager. The manager’s getting you work. Stuff’s selling. That’s great. You got a career started, but you’re also getting pigeonholed as being a cable person, and you really see yourself being able to do bigger, more exciting things than that. Craig, what do you advise?
Craig: Angel of After School Specials, the one thing that you said that made me the most nervous for you is at the very end. You said, “I think my biggest concern is that I see myself one way, but they’re pushing me into a smaller category because that’s where my work actually belongs.” I want to tell you, that is not why they’re doing that. Your work doesn’t necessarily only belong on cable. By the way, cable used to be good. We’re talking about smaller cable channels here.
You may feel like, am I missing something? Is there something super cabley about what I’m doing? No. They’re moving you there because that’s who’s paying them. That’s who’s paying you, so that’s who’s paying them. Representatives in general will take the path of least resistance to money. There are some that are smart enough and have enough perspective to take the long view, to turn things down, to aim higher. Most, especially when you’re starting out and you’re early on, do not. They just want to go where they know it’s easiest. What they’re telling you is that’s what’s easiest. Certainly when you say, I want to write a theatrical play, what they hear is, oh, we’re not getting paid at all, because–
John: [Unclear 00:58:34].
Craig: 99% of theatrical plays don’t generate a penny. They’re saying, look, over here are people who basically they have a checkbook out and they want to do it again. Let’s go over there where the checkbook’s at and let’s do it again. I understand why you’re scared. It is scary. Here’s my very practical advice for you, Angel of After School Specials. You can divide your time and work and energy into two modes. You can write things that you know are going to get picked up and put on that thing, table, and you’ll get money in your pocket and you pay your bills, but write the other thing. Write the other thing too. See what happens. If you see this one as a big theatrical play and they say aim for cable again, you can say, “You know what? I actually am going to aim for cable again with another thing that’s very cabley, because I like getting paid too.” Then you work on your big theatrical play.
You can’t live only by one way or the other. You won’t survive if you’re just writing passion projects for yourself that nobody’s going to pay you for. You also won’t survive if all you do is what you’re being told to do. Carve out some time, one for them, one for me. It’s a classic bit of advice that I probably should’ve heeded sooner in my career than I did, and protect that. You will feel much better. If they don’t get it and they don’t want you to do that, they don’t even need to know about it, do they?
John: No. I agree that you should be doing this, writing the stuff that you actually want to see happen on your own time. Make sure you’re splitting your time. I agree with Craig with that completely. I think there’s an opportunity to switch agencies though. I think that time is probably going to come pretty soon. It sounds like you have another thing that’s going for a streamer that’s ramping up to be in production. Once that’s in production, once that’s closer to coming out, that may be a good moment for you to start meeting with other places.
How do you find those other places. How do you find people who might be interested in working with you? It’s talking with the executives and on projects you’re working on or projects that are in development, to see, hey, where do you think is a good place for me to end up, or talking to other writers who are having good experiences with their agents or managers, because switching agencies, Craig will tell you, I will tell you, is an opportunity for a bit of a reset in terms of how the town is seeing you, going out on new generals, meeting with new people, and getting people re-excited about the next thing that you want to do. I think you need to do the work for yourself, but then you also need to really look at changing agencies, because it’s going to be hard for you to make that change at the same agency where you’re at, because they’re just used to you being a certain kind of client.
Craig: There’s going to be a space open with Cranky Screenwriter’s manager soon.
John: That one seems fantastic.
Craig: Sounds amazing.
John: Those are our questions. It’s now time for our One Cool Things. Craig, start us off. What’s your One Cool Thing?
Craig: My One Cool Thing is just a little shout-out to a very faithful listener of ours over the many years. Her name is Cara Anderson. I’m just flagging her for everybody, because she is also not only a listener, but a fantastic member of our special effects squad on The Last of Us. She’s based out in Vancouver. Special effects people spread out all over the place, because they have their laboratories where they’re blowing things up and then they have their places where they’re buying things and moving stuff in and out of warehouses. Then of course we have our team that’s on set blowing things up in person or spraying blood on things. I’m giving away stuff. Spoiler alert, there’s blood in The Last of Us.
John: I can’t believe I can’t watch the show anymore.
Craig: Let’s see if [cross-talk 01:02:22] deadline. Cara Anderson has been doing such a good job for us for so long. I just wanted to say hi to her and let her know we’re very happy to have her as a listener.
John: Now Craig, just because you brought this up, special effects versus visual effects, at what point in the pre-production process do you figure out which team is handling this thing that you’ve written into the script, like this is an explosion. When do you know that it’s going to be special effects being done on set versus something that’s being done later on in post?
Craig: The interesting thing is pre-production never ends when you’re making television. You’re always in prep and production and post-production. This conversation never stops. Once the script comes out, everybody breaks it down, goes through it. The first AD usually spends a little bit of time with the effects and special effects, asking the questions. Some things are obvious. Some things are clearly going to be visual effects. Some things are going to be special effects. A lot of times the real question isn’t should this be special effects or visual effects, the question should be is this going to be visual effects or should we just build it or should we be there? That’s more of a discussion. The special effects stuff is pretty well defined. There was one, actually just shot it last week, the sequence where there was a huge discussion about whether it should be special effects or visual effects, and where we landed was it should be both, and indeed it will.
John: Nice, I love it. My One Cool Thing is the half-marathon, just the half-marathon as a concept. This last week I ran a half-marathon in Las Vegas.
John: It was really fun. It was called the Run Rock and Roll Half-Marathon. What I loved about it, it was a nighttime one. I hate the sun. It was nice to be able to run at night, and the Strip is a fun place for that. I don’t like the sun.
Craig: You look like you don’t like the sun.
John: I’m a very pale person. This was fun because it was all on the Strip, and it was pretty well lit. You could see things. It was a giant crowd. It was fun for all those reasons. I want to talk about the half-marathon as a distance, because I think it’s actually one of those really good benchmark things, because it’s difficult but it won’t kill you. I don’t think I could ever do a marathon, but a half-marathon I can do. It’s 13.1 miles. If people are curious about running, because I was never a runner until [unclear 01:04:37] so during the course of this podcast I became a runner.
The first app we used was called Couch To 5k, which basically just trains you how to start go from walking to actually being able to run short distances and ultimately run a 5k. During that first year, I did a couch to 5k, then 5k to 10k. I ran my first 10k. I ran a 15k. Now I’ve run two half-marathons, which is 21k. Running is pretty great. I’m surprised to be saying this now, because I was never a runner before this time, but human beings are uniquely well-designed to run. Once you learn how to do it, it just feels great to have that kind of fundamental skill under your belt. If you’re curious ever about running a marathon, I would say don’t. Don’t run a marathon, but try to build up to run a half-marathon, because it’s a thing I think most people could probably do.
Craig: It’s just a quirk of history. Maybe the half-marathon should be the marathon, and the marathon should be a double marathon.
John: Sure. That would make a lot more sense, because a half-marathon’s, it’s 13 miles, but 10 miles is also a pretty good distance. It’s a lot of work, but again, it’s two hours of your day, rather than four hours. In fact, four hours really kills you in a marathon.
Craig: Four hours and heat stroke.
John: Heat stroke, yeah, all those things. Never good. That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao.
Craig: You know it.
John: It’s edited by Matthew Chilelli. A special thanks this week to Chris Sond [ph], who put together all the initial research for the meet-cute segment. Our outro this week is by Nico Mansy. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also a place where you can send longer questions like the ones we answered today. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin, I’m @johnaugust. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts and sign up for our weeklyish newsletter called Interesting, which has lots of links to things about writing. We have T-shirts and hoodies and they’re great. Almost all the T-shirts we’ve made, you can now get as a pullover hoodie. Our special zip-up hoodies are… Craig, I guess you still haven’t gotten your zip-up hoodie.
Craig: Not yet.
John: Our special zipper hoodies are back to print. For the next two weeks, you can order a zipper hoodie. You can find those at Cotton Bureau. You can sign up to become a Premium member at scriptnotes.net, where you get all the back-episodes and Bonus Segments like the one we’re about to record on onboarding. Craig and Megana, thank you for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you guys.
Megana: Thank you.
John: Craig, this week as we were preparing to play Dungeons and Dragons, you and I got into a long discussion about Elden Ring, which is the new video game that we’re playing. I think the short review of it is that it is a gorgeous-looking game, it is a game in which you die a lot. You know that you’re going to die a lot going into it. We were also both struck by the weird onboarding and, to me, unsuccessful onboarding in this game. I thought we’d talk about onboarding as it relates to video games, but also of course every movie and every TV show has an aspect of onboarding too, where you’re getting the audience familiar with how your show is going to work.
Craig: This is a term I’ve become obsessed with ever since I heard Neil Druckmann say it. This is a concept in video game production. How do you get the player from I just hit start for the first time to where you need them to be to start playing the game? We deal with this all the time. Somebody sits down, presses play, probably on their iPad or their television or weirdly maybe sits in a movie theater, and they have to go from nothing to something. You have to get them there so it’s okay. Elden Ring is an extension of the Dark Souls series, which the company FromSoftware is notorious for this kind of brutal format where you’re constantly dying. I knew that part was [unclear 01:08:39] but what I didn’t expect was that I would have no goddamn idea who I was, where I was, and why I was. It’s really weird, because there’s an incredibly long opening sequence that you have to watch.
John: Written by George R.R. Martin apparently.
Craig: It explains nothing. No offense to George.
John: It’s like, what is the Elden Ring? I have no idea. Is it a person? Is it a place? Is it a thing? I don’t know.
Craig: I don’t know. I can’t blame it on George, because he probably wrote quite a bit, that then they took and put together. There’s so much happening. It was the weirdest thing, because they told you everything and nothing at the same time, because there was no progression. I think about how the Lord of the Rings, I still think about how brilliant that screenplay was for Fellowship of the Ring, because they onboarded you through this narration by Galadriel and an explainer about the rings and what they were, who made them, why there was a problem, how there was a big fight, how one of the rings got lost. By the time you get to the hobbits, you basically know what you need to know.
I think, weirdly, everyone’s been chasing that forever, and now it’s at a place where there was so much of that crap in there and none of it connected to anything. It felt like it was written by somebody who didn’t speak English, to be honest with you. I thought it was a bad translation maybe.
John: It felt poetic. It was a poem that took me to a good place. One of the real challenges here, and we should both acknowledge that we’re in the early stages of playing the game, and so as I look at these reviews, everyone’s just like, oh, 40 hours in you realize, oh my gosh, what a big world this is and how it all fits together. I’m like, I’m looking forward to that, but also, just as the screenwriter in me, I think I should be beyond the inciting incident by now. I don’t think I am. I don’t know what my objective is. I don’t know who I am or what these forces are around me. That is frustrating. Now, it’s unique to video games but also to apps, because I am building Highland for the Mac. There’s also an onboarding process where you’re teaching people how to use the controls, how to do the things that they want to do with that.
John: Tutorials. There are tutorials in Elden Ring, just as there are tutorials in Highland to get you started. I largely figured some stuff out, but I think I would not have been able to figure them out if I didn’t have my phone next to me and I could Google, how do I do this thing.
Craig: It’s a failure of onboarding then.
John: Is it a failure of onboarding in 2022?
John: We have an expectation that people can look stuff up. I just feel like they were expecting I would look some stuff up other places because I couldn’t figure out where these controls were.
Craig: That’s just crazy at that point, or just say to people, “Google it.” Literally have the video game by like, “Sorry, Google it.” I’m okay with them wanting to throw you in the deep end and everything, but for instance, in Elden Ring, after you watch the endless and indecipherable prologue, you’re asked to choose what kind of character you want to be.
John: Essentially a character class.
Craig: What character class. You have no idea what any of them mean. They don’t tell you what is interesting or special or good or bad about any of them. It seems almost like it’s just a random choice.
John: Of course what I did is I Googled to see what do the choices mean, what are they good for.
Craig: My whole thing is, no, you owe me.
John: That’s not how it works.
Craig: I bought this. You owe me. What’s next in television or movies? We put up a card that says, “Press pause here and Google what is confusing to you,” or, for instance, at the end of the second Matrix movie, it should just say, “If you didn’t understand what the architect said, please Google it.” No. That’s a failure. In my book, it is a failure of onboarding.
John: I do get and acknowledge that. The other experience of onboarding I had recently is I switched over from using Mac Mail to using Superhuman, which is a web-based mail system which I really like a lot. They do not let you use the app until you go through onboarding with a live person on Zoom talking you through how to do it. This seems incredibly restrictive and silly, because I should be able to figure it all out just through the app, but you can’t, or you could figure out how to do it, but you wouldn’t actually recognize the smart ways to do it. It’s like in Elden Ring, someone came to your house and sat beside you, Craig, and said, “Okay, let’s talk through this and let’s figure out, get you really good on controls. Let’s try to do some dodge rolls and do a guard so you can actually get that power attack in there.” It was strange to have this experience with Superhuman, because honestly kind of great, because I feel like I’m a really good user of the app now, because they forced me to go through that training.
Craig: Do you think that I would like it?
John: Yeah, I’ve told you about this before.
Craig: I know. I remember. I think I probably stumbled over the, sorry, you’re making me do what? I guess I would say to you, is it way better than the other experiences? I ditched Apple Mail years ago.
John: I would say it’s way better. In terms of the actual being able to replay to things and get down to inbox zero, just not have stuff sitting there, is really good. How it filters stuff out, and your important stuff and your not important stuff, is really good. It’s worth a shot. Should you stop your life right now to do it? Maybe wait until after you’re done with some production.
Craig: Done ruining my life.
John: It was Rachel Bloom who put me on to it. I think that she and I both agreed it’s a good app.
Craig: Rachel Bloom was already a superhuman, so it makes sense.
John: Back to our Elden Ring experience, I feel like also part of what you’re dealing with with any video game or any sort of piece of entertainment is you’re dealing with expectation. I have certain expectations about what buttons are going to do what kinds of things. I find myself drinking all of my potions because I’m expecting the square button to be–
Craig: Oh my god.
John: It’s not just me.
Craig: No. It’s so frustrating. Megana, I know that you’ve literally slept past into the ninth level of coma at this point, but hear me out. You’re wandering around in a world where you have no idea where you’re supposed to go really and whether or not you’re facing off against creatures that are way too strong for you or not. All you have to keep you alive are three swigs of your potion.
John: Your vile of crimson tears.
Craig: Which they don’t tell you that’s what it is, but you eventually figure it out.
John: It was red so of course it’s [crosstalk 01:15:11].
Craig: It was red, yeah. The way they’ve said, usually in these games, you’ll have to hit a button to bring up a little menu, and then you press a button to drink it. You can’t mistakenly do it. In this game–
John: Glug glug glug.
Craig: The button that generally is crouch for every other game is drink your very, very limited amount of health potion. I’ve done it twice. I’ve drank two health potions within seconds and just wanted to just jump out my window.
John: I’ll be in the middle of a fight and my character will stop to drink a health potion and I’ll get stabbed in the back. That’s what’s going to happen.
Craig: I’m at full health. Everything’s fine. I’m walking across the thing. I come to something, and then I just drink a health potion for no reason. The other thing is, most video games will not let you drink health potions if you’re at full health. They’re like, no, you don’t want to do that. This game’s like, do it, lol.
John: We’re going to get so much email about this, because we’re–
Craig: Video game players.
Craig: Sorry, Megana.
John: Megana’s going to get so much mail about this.
Craig: Megana, if it makes you feel better, the fans of FromSoftware games are even more intense than most video game fans. The thing is I’m going to keep playing it. It is gorgeous. I can see where after 40 hours, once I get out of this training area, that I’m also ill-equipped to survive in, it’s going to be amazing. Neil Druckmann has been playing it, and he tweeted some things. He’s gotten pretty far. He’s really good at video games, isn’t a big surprise.
John: No surprise there.
Craig: He’s gotten pretty far, although now that I’m thinking about it, I’m like, hey, I emailed him the other day, and he was like, “Oh sorry, it took me a while to get back to you.” I’m like, you know what?
Craig: I know what’s happening. I know what’s going on here.
John: I limit my time to 30 minutes. I will set 30 minutes on my watch when I play and then I will just stop at a certain point, because otherwise hours just dissolve.
Craig: For me, I don’t think I played more than one hour at a time, because it’s so frustrating. Instead of setting an alarm on my watch, I just listen to myself wanting to kill myself, and then I think, oh, I should probably stop playing this right now.
John: I’m playing this video game.
Craig: This video game is way too frustrating for me. There are some wonderful videos online of people almost beating a guy and then losing it and freaking out. It’s wonderful. Sorry, Megana. I apologize for everything, Megana. I got to be honest. Everything. Everything we’ve just talked about.
John: That’s Megana’s job to apologize for everything.
Craig: She’s like, I’m sorry that you’re so sorry. We’re sorry. We’re all sorry.
John: Everyone’s sorry.
Craig: Everyone’s sorry.
- Volodymyr Zelensky and the ongoing war in Ukraine
- Does Hollywood Ruin Books? by Numberphile on Youtube on Berkson’s Paradox
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- Scriptnotes 433: The One with Greta Gerwig
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