The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August, and this is Episode 555 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show, I’m talking with the Emmy Award-winning writer behind Marvel’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and the Emmy Award-winning writer of Marvel’s Loki series, who happened to be the very same person. Welcome to the show, Michael Waldron.
Michael Waldron: Thanks for having me. Five hundred and how many?
John: Five hundred and fifty-five episodes.
John: That’s a lot.
Michael: You brought me on for this milestone episode. Thank you so much.
John: This is the milestone, yes. Chris McCoy we always bring on every 200 episodes, to celebrate our bicentennial or whatever. You’re every whatever 555 is. That’s what you are.
Michael: I’ll see you the 1,010th episode.
John: That’s when we’ll bring you back on. By that point, we’ll have even more to talk about, but what I want to talk with you about today is the mushy boundaries between TV and movies and the role of writer and this weird transition and convergence that we’re facing. We’ll also have some listener questions that I think you’re especially well suited to answer. In our Bonus Segment for Premium Members, I want to talk with you about Atlanta, because you’re from Atlanta. You live in Atlanta now while you’re shooting some stuff. It feels like all of Hollywood will eventually live in Atlanta. I’m hoping that maybe you can give our listeners your writer’s guide to Atlanta.
Michael: Cool, sounds great.
John: Let’s get into it. I’m just for the first time meeting you on this Zoom. I really have no idea about your backstory and how you became a writer. What is the quick Michael Waldron origin story?
Michael: Yes, I’m from Atlanta. I went to University of Georgia. I guess I graduated from college in 2010, which was a time that… It was before the whole movie industry had moved out here. It felt like being a screenwriter was an impossible thing to do. I had not grown up really writing scripts or anything. I just loved movies. I was going to go to law school, and at the last second was like, “I don’t want to be a lawyer. I just like watching Jeff Winger on Community. I like lawyers in movies and on TV.” I bailed on that, and I went out to California, which is the first time I’d even been. I’d never even seen the Pacific Ocean until I got out there.
I went to Pepperdine. They have a screenwriting MFA program, which was great for me. I fell under the tutelage of some really amazing mentors, a guy named Chris Chluess, who was the showrunner of Night Court for a long time, Emmy-winning writer and just a genius, and Sheryl Anderson, who’s the creator/showrunner, Sweet Magnolias on Netflix. I had some great professors. Before, I just knew how to write some jokes and some funny, stupid stuff. They really taught me how to write scripts. From there, I was fortunate enough to land an internship on the first season of Rick and Morty. That was really, really lucky. I was a huge fan of Dan Harmon, because I love Community, even when I was back in Georgia.
John: Before we get on there, I want to talk to you about film school here, because we get a lot of questions about like, “Oh, should I go to film school?” It sounds like for you, you were growing up in Atlanta, you were going to school in Atlanta, you were interested in film, so you just applied to film school and had no other plan or exposure to the film industry, other than like this is how you were going to get started, right?
Michael: Yeah. To me, it was the way I could wrap my head around getting out to LA, because I had no connections, knew nobody in the industry, had no way of getting a job. I was like, “I’ll just go into debt. I’ll just take on a lot of student loan debt.”
John: I want to get more, because we don’t have a lot of guests who actually went through film school. I went through film school for grad school. You show up. Is it a two-year program or a three-year program?
Michael: It’s a two-year program. I think you could take your time. I did it in two years because I wanted to get out and start working. The cool thing about Pepperdine was it was very practical. It was based on just writing pilots, specs. Each semester, you were creating an original piece of work. I had that very difficult process demystified for me very early on, where I was like, “Okay, I know how to write a pilot and create a world.”
Chris Chluess, my professor, did a great thing, where at the end of the semester, I took a half-hour comedy pilot writing class with him, where at the end you had to come in and pitch the show to him and an agent that he brought in. Only at the end did we learn that the agent was actually a real estate agent who was a neighbor of his in the Palisades. It was an incredible simulation of the pressure that I would go on to feel later in my career in some rooms where there’s some real skin in the game. I benefited from a couple of really fantastic professors.
John: You have good professors, but you obviously did something right while you were in that program. Imagine you’re a listener listening to this right now who is in a film program, is in a screenwriting program. What are things you could do in a screenwriting class to get the most out of it? What are the practical steps a student could take if you’re in one of those classes right now, to really dig the most out?
Michael: It’s the time. You’re paying a lot of money to be focused on writing. Now is the time. When I went there, I was still a lazy undergrad college kid. I had to shift out of that mentality and start learning how to be a professional writer, treat deadlines like real deadlines.
The other thing that was actually really helpful for me was the process of reading classmates’ stuff and giving notes on that, because that’s what you’re doing as a writer, especially in a writers’ room, all the time, is you’re reading stuff, you’re pitching, you’re giving feedback.
I was there with Eric Martin, a guy who became a close friend of mine and wrote on Loki with me, went on to work with me on Loki. He and I, we just said we’re going to treat each class like a writers’ room, and every script is a professional script that we want to try and get made with our feedback and everything. I think you just take it seriously. It really is one of those things that you get out of it what you put into it.
John: Yeah, because it’s not like going through a law program or a medical program where there’s clearly like, these are the things you’re going to learn, and you’re going to be tested on these things. It’s not that, because you could probably graduate that program and not really have learned a lot or not really have grown that much, correct?
Michael: A thousand percent. Also, your degree-
John: Has anyone ever asked for your degree?
Michael: Nobody cares. It’s worthless. You’re only there to learn, to make connections, and to hopefully come out of there with original material. That’s the other thing, samples that you can show to potential collaborators, people that are going to help you on your way up in the industry. I wrote the first draft of Heels, my show on Starz, in a class at Pepperdine. It was very, very helpful for me, because I was just finishing stuff.
John: Now, the other thing you got out of this program, apparently, was connections that got you an internship. You got an internship with Dan Harmon’s company. That was set up through the school?
Michael: It was set up through a buddy of mine who was a classmate, who was working on the first season of Rick and Morty. I had a chance to go on and be an intern on the first season, which was a blast.
John: We had Drew Goddard on the show, we’ve had Damon Lindelof on the show, who both said that working on a first season of the show was incredibly hard or being on the ground in a first season of the show was hard because everything was chaos and was constantly falling apart. Sometimes, because of the chaos, you could really learn a lot and you could see how it’s all being put together and be useful. Were you able to be helpful on that first season?
Michael: I think so. I think I totally benefited from the fact that it was a first season show. Nobody knew what it was going to be, at a little fledgling animation studio that Dan had just started with a couple of friends. I came in as the intern. The thing that I did is I made sure everybody knew from the beginning that I wanted to be a writer. That was who I was. Any time there was a hole that could be plugged with an intern who knew how to write, I was the first one to raise my hand.
The other thing that I did while I was there, weirdly, was I started a softball team, I guess as a stealth way to get to know Dan and Dino Stamatopoulos, one of the other owners. They played on the team. I was the coach. It worked out for me, because I went from being the intern to the coach. In that sense, I became a friend and a peer. That friendship led to my first real job as a writer’s PA on Season 5 of Community.
John: You talk about being an intern and offering to write anything they needed to have written. What are some examples of things you would’ve written as an intern on that show?
Michael: It wasn’t even necessarily Rick and Morty specific. It was just as simple as somebody’s got to make a sign to wash your hands or to wash the dishes in the kitchen. It’s like, that’s a chance to be creative. At some point, one of these great writers that’s working here you hope is going to see this stuff and say, “This is actually funny. Who’s doing this stuff?” You’re just trying to put yourself out there. Then writing coverage and just treating everything, every assignment like your life depends on it from a writing standpoint, because as far as I was concerned, it did.
John: You’re working there. You’re writing there on small things. When are you letting them or asking them to read the stuff you’ve been writing for Pepperdine? When are you asking if someone’s willing to read your samples?
Michael: A long time, if ever. I don’t know if I ever did. That was another great piece of advice I got from my mentor, Chris Chluess. He said, “Think of it. You’re sitting at a card table. You only get to cash in those chips, your equity with these guys, one time. You have to be really, really shrewd with where you asked for something, essentially.” It’s a political game. In fact, I think earlier in your career… Obviously, it’s harder now because not everything’s in person. You’re almost, I found, better off selling people on your personality as a colleague and as a collaborator, and then let them be blown away down the line when you’re actually a really good writer. I can’t remember how long it took for me to ask Dan to read something. It was years and years down from our relationship.
John: You’re starting off in Rick and Morty land. Then you’re going over to Community. You said you’re a writers’ room assistant?
Michael: I was the writer’s PA.
John: What was your job like doing that?
Michael: It was a nightmare. It was a nightmare.
John: Were you getting the lunch order?
Michael: Oh my god, the lunch, the dinner, the snack, the coffees, the midnight stack. It really was a blast, but that was a grind. I don’t know, there were like 13 writers that season. It was Season 5 of a network show, 13 or 14 writers. They had assistants. Each coffee order was a double decker, two boxes. I just remember trudging across Paramount with all that. I was getting lunches, getting meals and everything, but I asked Dan if when I wasn’t doing that, if I could sit in the writers’ room and just listen and learn. He was great, and he let me. Then I got to know all the other great writers there and suddenly had a whole new network of great mentors, which included Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, who’d written all the Spider-Man movies. I would show up early to sit in Erik Sommers’s office and just ask him, “What does a manager do vs an agent? What does your attorney… ” I really benefited from there just being so many good folks who wanted to help me learn.
After a certain amount of time, I had I guess earned enough trust to open my mouth and start pitching bad jokes. I got to feel that feeling of, oh, I just pitched a joke that crashed and burned. It was no good. Then I got to feel the feeling of, the world didn’t end. Nobody cares, because everybody’s pitching stuff all day, and a lot of it dies. Then the next thing you know, you pitch something that makes it into the show, and you can tell your wife, “Hey, look, I wrote that joke.” I think that was 2014. We worked from June until January. It was crazy. The hours were insane. In a lot of ways, I feel like I learned everything there.
John: Now, there was an amazing chance to learn things there. We’ve been talking with support staff over the last couple years about those jobs and how underpaid they are and how hard it is for some people to make a living or even keep a roof over their head doing those jobs. Was that your experience? Was the pay low, the hours long? How were you surviving during that time?
Michael: You’re certainly not handsomely paid. On that show, we worked such insane hours that I was actually making a decent amount from overtime. I got some checks that I was like, “Holy crap.” I was lucky in that sense. The food budget was so astronomical. I was in charge of the food. There was always an extra pizza or a tray of sushi coming home with me. I figured out how to scrounge my way through life. Of course, it’s a grind. Everybody, all the support staff is working just as hard as the writers and as everybody else. We’ve got to take better care of those folks, because you can’t do the job without them.
John: Now, what is your transition from you’re sort of in the room on Community, you’re now a repped writer who’s making things? What was that transition? 2014 or so when you’re in this writers’ room. When do you start getting some stuff that is Michael Waldron as a writer in himself?
Michael: That was on the end of Community. I got an email from a guy on the support staff, another assistant, who said that a young agent was looking to discover talent on the support staff, which I know now, an absolute lie. I said, “Wow, this is my big shot.” I sent this supposed young agent the pilot for Heels. They responded. This guy named Harry turned out to just be the assistant to a manager, who was a guy my age, but wanted to meet me.
Long story short, the guy’s my manager until today. We met. We went to The Den in West Hollywood or something. I had my first experience of, oh wow, here’s a guy who feels like a real gatekeeper talking to me about an original script I wrote, giving me feedback but also talking like he wants to be an advocate for me, and he was. I did some revisions on that script based on his feedback and some other folks he introduced me to.
That kicked off I guess that first general meeting tour. You’re meeting the people your age. Everybody’s climbing the ladder at the same pace. You’re meeting young creative executives or assistants and people that are looking to be somebody who discovered someone. Through that, I guess I legitimized the project enough, and there was enough interest in it, that my manager’s company LBI actually took me on as a client. They called me in to their big office, and I sat on the giant table for network. I was like, “Oh my god.” It was like, “We want to rep you.” That felt like wow, I did it. Then of course, you didn’t do it. You didn’t do anything.
Shortly after that, I met a guy who was working at Paramount television who would go on to become one of my best friends. He really championed the show over there. In about 2015, 2016, Paramount Television optioned Heels. It was funny how it happened. He called me and he was like, “Yeah, we want to have a general with you. Some of my bosses read it.” Then on the way over, called me and was like, “No, this is a pitch. We’re really interested.”
John: Oh my god.
Michael: It’s like, I don’t know what happens in this show. This is a sample. There was a lot of tap dancing and making it up as I went, but they got it. I got really lucky to just get into development on something original of my own very young. I was just learning and getting to go through that process. You learn so, so much.
John: If we were to watch the pilot of Heels today, the series that exists, and the sample that you wrote in film school, how close are they?
Michael: The one that I wrote in film school was markedly worse. I actually can look and realize that my writing took a genuine professional leap after going through Community, working on Community, and then suddenly finding myself in real professional situations where the stakes are higher. That actually made me raise my game. It’s not just a homework assignment anymore. You realize that this is something I’m trying to get on television and change my life. I have to put everything I have into this. It’s a hell of a lot better.
John: At this stage, you’re working on Heels. It’s great to have development. This is actually getting money coming in the door, which is fantastic and probably much needed. Were you thinking, okay, now I should try to staff on TV, now I should try to write a feature? What were the other things you were thinking about doing? Obviously, it’s never just one job. You need to keep it going.
Michael: Money coming in the door was insane. I thought about staffing. I guess in my mind, I was like, “I’m a showrunner. I’m a creator. I’m a showrunner. I’m going to get this show made.” So naïve. So stupid. I was like 26. That was I was determined to do. I had the good fortune of I was continuing to work with Dan in a more producorial, executive context. I had some other money coming in the door. I was helping Dan develop some stuff as a producer, which I only knew anything about that because I was just going through it on my own on the other side. I hadn’t written a feature.
John: That’s crazy you had not written a feature, throughout the whole time in film school that you never finished one feature.
Michael: I thought I was going to be a comedy writer. I was mostly focused on that. Then I fell in love with the one-hour world. Like I said, I got lucky, and then Heels caught fire. People really responded to it. It always felt like it had so much momentum. I was like, “I don’t want to step away from this thing. I want to always be able to run it.” Now, I remember I applied for the WGA Showrunner Training Program. In my interview, they were like, “Why are you applying for… Why don’t you go get a staff job? What are you doing?” I was like, “I don’t know, I’m a writer.”
John: I had the experience where I had a very hot script go that was getting a lot of attention. I was able to sell a TV show and make a TV show, a one-hour TV show for the WB. I was a showrunner who had no business being a showrunner. I think the WGA folks would’ve looked at me as well and said, “Why the hell are you doing… You should not be doing this.” I wish someone had pulled me aside to tell me that.
Michael: I needed it, yeah, jeez, because eventually, I would get into that position a year later and have no clue what I was doing.
John: It was just rough. Jump us forward a little bit in time to… Was Heels the first thing of yours that was wholly yours that got made?
Michael: No, the first thing that was wholly mine that got made was Loki.
John: Did Loki come out before Heels?
Michael: Yeah, Loki came out last June, and Heels came out in August. Long story short, what happened was Heels went to a mini room that I ran, as an idiot, but had a great writing staff. I didn’t know what I was doing, didn’t know how to lead a writing staff. I had some great collaborators and ended up writing a great season. We just couldn’t cast it, couldn’t cast the show. Starz put it on a shelf. I was like, “That’s it for me. I’m moving home. That’s end. That’s the end of my meteoric rise.” I licked my wounds, wrote a feature, just to do it, and then went off and actually got that staffing experience on Rick and Morty.
I was a writer and producer on Season 4 of Rick and Morty, went back and got to feel like what it was like on the other side of the whiteboard, which was very helpful, to be a showrunner, to know what your writers are feeling like and their anxieties as they’re pitching and coming in every day. Then right toward the end of Season 4, that feature that I’d written made its way over to Marvel. It was a time travel action comedy that just happened to be the perfect sample for the Loki show they were developing. That’s how I got in the game on that project.
John: Great. Now, before we get into Loki here, I do want to talk about the mini room you did for Heels. How many writers did you have in that room? You said you did it wrong. Tell us some lessons you learned in doing it wrong.
Michael: There was six of us, I believe. I didn’t know how to synthesize all of my writers’ tremendous ideas while still making it be my vision. That was just a hard thing of how do I take what your room is wanting it to be and reconcile that with what I want it to be. Every day I walked away being like, “Am I making the show I even want to make?” Then I wasn’t really giving them great instructions for the first half of the room. It took a while for me to realize that at least my best approach to a writers’ room is if you’re the showrunner, if it’s your thing, then your writers’ room is an extension of your vision, the voices in your head.
The best thing I think you can do as a showrunner is just listen, is to throw something out there, an idea that you’re interested in pursuing, part of your vision, and then let your writers take it somewhere really, because that’s what you’ll be doing at home in your head anyways. Here you have the benefit of great professionals who can do it out loud. It just took me a while to realize that that was the way to do it as opposed to I was a guy who was used to just sitting at home on my couch writing and doing it all on my own. That’s what I had to learn is you don’t have to do it all on your own.
John: Now, when Heels finally did shoot, were they using the scripts that you had come out of from that room, or did you have to go back and take everything out of that?
Michael: It was a combination. The first half of the season was pretty much locked and loaded. We needed to do big revisions on the back half. They brought in Mike O’Malley, the great writer and actor who had created Survivor’s Remorse for Starz, brought in him as showrunner. It was crazy, because it really did feel like I was giving my baby to someone. When they wanted to revive it in 2019, I was off doing Loki, and so there was no way I could do it. I had to give Mike the keys to this car that was very personal to me. Really, I owe Heels everything. I owe it my life, those characters and that world. He was just so gracious and generous and made the show better every step of the way. That in itself was a great learning experience of the ultimate collaboration, giving something so personal to someone else.
John: Let’s jump ahead to Loki here. I want to talk through the process from, okay, Michael, you got the job to now the cameras are rolling and we’re starting to shoot this show. What time frame was that? What were the steps along the way? They’re meeting with you. You’re pitching how you would do it. You get the job. What is your first step? Are you making documents just by yourself? Are you immediately going into a room situation? What is the process like for this Marvel series?
Michael: It was really the dawn of the Marvel series. Loki was the third or fourth one to go. It was at first very solitary. It felt almost like I guess developing a feature. Then it was just meeting with our executive team and pitching on… The core idea they had was, here’s Loki, and it’s Loki and the TVA. The pitch that I developed was where does it go from there. It’s Loki hunting a variant of himself across time.
Once I got the job, first off there was a process of mourning leaving Rick and Morty, where I’d been for nine months and created a lot of great friendships and was very comfortable. There was a real comfort level there. I was going into a situation of total unknown. It was hiring a staff and launching a room. This time around, I knew what I was doing.
On the first day of the Heels writers’ room, the only person I actually knew what to tell to do was the writers’ PA. I was like, “Here’s how the lunch order should go,” because that was the job I had had. On the first day in the Loki writers’ room, I knew I have a vision for how I want this story to go, and I want us to all get there together.
John: Is everybody looking at the same document? Are you talking at them for an hour about the big, broad strokes vision? What are those initial conversations?
Michael: There was a core document that I… They read my pitch that I gave to Kevin Feige that got me the job. It was pretty thorough. Here are the six episodes. Honestly, they’re generally what the episodes ended up being. Episode 3 is Loki and Sylvie are crossing a moon together. Then you want to hear, okay, my brilliant writers, what do you think the best version of a Loki show can be? They know the general framework and where I and Marvel would like to take it.
In the case of that show, our first job was let’s figure out the emotional story of this thing. Let’s figure out what each of the six episodes is. We can say Episode 2 is the zodiac episode. Episode 3 is Before Sunrise. We know what each episode is. Then we had to take about two weeks and just do time travel, which was its own… That was a new experience of really doing a sci-fi camp together, of a lot of us drawing lines, squiggly lines on the whiteboard, and just trying to create a shared institutional language of what is time travel in this show, what is a time law, how can it be broken, because we had to all be on the same page. By the end, it felt like we’d been in the writers’ room for 60 weeks, not 3 or 4.
John: That first writers’ room was how many weeks long?
Michael: Twenty, and that was it.
John: Was it enough?
Michael: It was enough to get solid first drafts of everything. The one tricky part of it is I hadn’t written the pilot. That’s the one atypical part of the process there was I hadn’t written the pilot as the writers’ room launched. It was about 9 or 10 weeks in, it became really important for me to get a decent version of the pilot written so that we could establish the tone of the show. Otherwise, it becomes really hard to write a writer’s draft if you don’t really know what the tone of the show is going to be.
John: For sure. During this 20 weeks, you guys are breaking these 6 episodes. Were there story areas? Were there outlines? What are the actual written documents that are coming out of this process, before there are scripts?
Michael: Everything starts with me with a story circle, which comes from the Dan Harmon camp.
John: Very familiar, yes.
Michael: From the Dan Harmon camp. That was how we broke our stories, which probably drove everybody else crazy, because I think everybody else prefers to do note cards. Even I am like, note cards are probably more efficient. It was outlines. It was let’s get a beat sheet that we feel good about and then let’s send a writer off to write an outline. That outline goes up the flagpole. Once that’s approved, we’ll write a draft.
John: A beat sheet is one to two pages. An outline is longer. Are those the right lengths?
Michael: Yeah, I think our outlines were, I don’t know, never more than 10 pages. Again, that’s probably a function of my own personal style. I am a bad planner. I like to discover it on the page. I’m more apt to send someone off to outline or to script with a little less figured out and leave some room for discovery, which is exactly what happened in Loki Episode 102 a lot. So much of the great stuff with Loki and Mobius in that episode was Elissa Karasik, our writer. I just trusted her to go off and say, “Go figure some of this stuff out,” and she did. It was all great. I was glad that we didn’t waste time in the room trying to figure out all the details when you can just rely on your writers to do that.
John: Is the first time the studio is seeing the specifics of what happens, are they seeing [inaudible 00:33:17] or they’re seeing the outline?
Michael: In the Loki process, we actually had our executives, our producers in the room with us. It was atypical but really fantastic.
John: Were they listening or contributing?
Michael: Contributing. It was great. It was like having other writers, other producers, somebody there who, A, is incredibly steeped in the Marvel lore, what’s come before. They also know what’s coming next. The most important role that is Stephen Broussard and Kevin Wright, they’re producers, but they’re also filmmakers. They may as well have been writers on our team for all the great ideas they had. Some of the most valuable things they did was know the stuff that Kevin Feige and the higher-ups were not going to respond to. Instead of spending five days in the room chasing a storyline that’s just going to end up being an absolute non-starter, you’ve got somebody to say, “No, don’t go there. I don’t think anybody’s going to really respond to that.” As a showrunner, or as somebody running a room, that is invaluable to not have to burn that time.
John: Jac Schaeffer was on the show, and she was talking about how on the first day of her writers’ room, she had up on all the walls all this imagery about what she wanted the show to look like and feel like, because she was in a physical room. You were in a physical room your whole time too, because this is all pre-pandemic.
Michael: Yes, I was in a physical room. The first time I walked by Jac’s room and saw it, absolutely, I was like, “I got to quit.” I was like, “This is a nightmare. I’m bad at my job,” because we shared a wall. They were the room right next to us. You look in there, and I was like, “Oh my god, it’s so organized.” By the way, her writer’s assistant was a guy named Clay Lapari, who was the writer’s assistant on Community with me a hundred years ago. It all comes back around. I came in, I was like, “We got to print some pictures out.” We did. I felt better once we had that stuff up there.
John: Earlier you referenced on Heels this other guy, Mike O’Malley, was coming in to be a showrunner on that show, and yet you’re listed as head writer on Loki. What is the distinction? Is there a meaningful distinction? Job-wise, what he was doing versus what you’re doing, are they similar?
Michael: The Marvel shows don’t have a showrunner. I guess the best way I know to put it is it’s you and the director, whoever the producing director is, you’re passing a baton over to them and working in tandem together, whereas if you’re Mike O’Malley, the showrunner, he’s the final say over the head of directors on set, through the edit, through everything.
The Marvel process is I guess a much more collaborative one, where at least in TV I’m not necessarily the final say. I was like, “There’s definitely an opportunity to have my ego bruised by this.” You realize, “I’m not the showrunner of this.” Then quickly it’s like, “I just want the show to be great.” When we hired Kate, her and I were so instantly on the same page creatively, and her level of ambition with the show matched mine. It was like, “This is going to be good. This is going to work.”
John: This is Kate Herron, the director?
John: At what point in the process did she come on board and did you start having these conversations? Was the room finished? Was the room still going?
Michael: Yeah, maybe, I don’t know, a month or two prior. She came in at a great time in the process where we had our first drafts. I was making my way through my revisions on everything. She represented just creative, fresh eyes. I’m like, “Hey, we’ve all gone insane this summer making this crazy time travel show. Does this make any sense to you as a normal person?” Also, a practical filmmaker’s perspective. We’ve got a trained heist sequence. I could sit with Kate so I’m not wasting a week writing an action sequence that is simply un-renderable on screen.
John: I want to get to some listener questions, but I don’t want to skip all over Doctor Strange and your involvement on Doctor Strange. I’ve done a zillion features. This was your first feature to do. How did you take your experiences on these TV shows and apply it here? Did they apply? What did it feel like to be a writer on a feature?
Michael: Weirdly, it felt like TV. Sometimes it felt like showrunning. That’s just a testament to how collaborative Sam Raimi is and that he empowered me so much. He and I had a really special kinship together, forged by the fact that we were coming up with a movie over the course of 2020 when the world was ending around us. I was not on set of Loki. I was getting ready to fly to Atlanta to be on set. I got a call that said, “We need you more right now on Doctor Strange.”
John: Doctor Strange was shooting in London?
Michael: Shooting in London. Then COVID hit, and it became the last two and a half years of my life. I was on set every day of Doctor Strange. I was there for six months last year locked down in London. When I think about Doctor Strange, really I think about it as much of a filmmaking experience as a writing one. I was writing, but it was also just so much working with our actors and working alongside and learning from Sam about directing and everything he does. When I think about Doctor Strange, I just think about being cold on set in London.
John: A lot of being on set is just being cold or hot or being in the sun when you don’t want to be in the sun.
John: Or cursing the sun for coming up when you’re supposed to be shooting nights and you run out of night.
Michael: Precisely. It was an absolute adventure that didn’t… Probably 2020 and 2021 for a lot of people doesn’t quite feel real, but yet again was an amazing experience, where I just got to learn so much.
John: Great. We have some listener questions. This first one I see is actually about film school. It feels like exactly what we should have you talk to us about. Megana, what’s the first question here?
Megana Rao: Live and Die By Approval from Columbus, Ohio wrote in, “I was recently accepted to USC School of Cinematic Arts. As a country bumpkin from the shire of Ohio in the twilight of his 20s, this is an honor and huge dream come true. Recently, we had a meeting about financial aid options. The thing I most anticipated hearing about were merit-based scholarships. Turns out they emailed everyone who had received a scholarship earlier that day, and I received no such email. It’s funny, despite having gotten into one of the most competitive film schools in the world, I already feel like I’m not enough. If this class is a group of people who they view as having a unique voice among thousands of other voices, I somehow feel like I’m already on the low end of this elite totem pole.
“I guess I’m asking for any words of advice you may have on handling rejection or I’m not enough self-judgments. It’s one thing to battle those voices in your personal life. In dating, for instance, sometimes people just don’t fit. It’s another thing entirely when there’s something as measurable as money at stake to validate your insecurities.”
John: To summarize, Live and Die has gotten into a great film school but feels bad because they didn’t get a merit-based scholarship. They feel like they’re coming in at the bottom of this class or not at the top of this class.
Michael: As somebody who got rejected from USC’s screenwriting program, I would say congratulations. Also, your ability to focus on defeat, even in the glow of victory, means you’ll probably be a very successful writer, because that is a quality we all share.
If I’m reading between the lines of that, I know what it’s like to feel like a country bumpkin wanting to go out to Hollywood and make it. I’d say first off, that is a voice that needs to be… Shit, I’ve made a career out of it. Hollywood needs country bumpkins too. It is an honor to get in, and Hollywood does need your voice, clearly, or you wouldn’t have gotten accepted. I think rejection that is tied to finances is a bummer. That’s just your first lesson in film school, because that is going to be your whole career is rejection tied to finances. Steel yourself now.
John: I would say, Live and Die, that you’re having a feeling, and feelings don’t come from logic. Sometimes we try to use logic to justify the feelings that we’re having. If we actually check the facts, you got into one of the best film schools in the country, if not the best film school. This obsession with a merit-based scholarship is like… What are they actually measuring? Do you even know how many people are getting them, why people get them? Do the people who get them succeed more often than the people who don’t?
I think just hearing Michael on this podcast today, he was talking about how you get value out of film school. It’s actually by showing up and just doing the work all the time and try to do your very best in it. So often, I think as writers, we were probably really good at being in school and were probably really good at getting grades and everyone commending for our writing. Suddenly, when you get into a place where you’re not necessarily the best, you panic that you’re the worst. That’s just not true. You could come in there with a head of steam and actually get amazing stuff done while you’re in film school. I understand your feelings, but you got to push them aside and be excited to be at USC. Megana, do we have another question?
Megana: Yes. Cherry asks, “After years of struggling to break in, I’ve signed my first contract to write a feature, and it will qualify me for the WGA. I’m thrilled to finally be in the game, but now the real work begins. My primary focus is nailing it with this project. My question is, what should I be doing to prepare myself for the next step?
“I have new spec scripts that will be ready to share soon. I’ve had a couple meetings with managers and an offer of representation. I have a light relationship with some producers, agents, and development execs who have read my work. How do I go about getting the next job or getting my new material in front of the right people? It seems like the next step would be to sign with a manager, but I’m not sure how to navigate that. What am I looking for in a manager? More importantly, what am I looking to avoid in a manager? If I didn’t work with a manager at this stage, what would an alternative game plan be?”
John: Michael, you’ve had a manager all this time. Talk to us about managers.
Michael: My relationship with my two managers has been one of the most important parts of my career, as has my relationship with my agents. I’ve had the same team my whole career, which is atypical. My answer to that is it’s all personality base. I am teamed with people that I click with on a personal level whose values align with mine. It’s not based on agency or management company clout. Wherever you’re going to seek representation, I wouldn’t even say tell yourself you need a manager vs an agent. You need somebody that you connect with and that can be an advocate for you. That’s the most important thing.
Then as far as what is that next thing, it’s doing a great job on the project you just landed, which is amazing. Congratulations. That is the most important thing. That’s what will get you the next jobs is kicking ass on the thing you just got hired on. Really, don’t think too much beyond that other than maybe know what is the one thing that I have behind this that I believe in the most that I would show someone when that next opportunity comes calling.
John: You’re going to probably end up signing with some manager, Cherry, who is going to take you on the water bottle tour of Los Angeles that Michael was describing earlier where they just sit you in a bunch of rooms and you talk with people. That’s good. That’s a natural function. Whether it’s this person who’s already introduced themselves to you and wants to represent you… Maybe it’s them.
A really good place to check on that is the other producers you have light relationships with. Ask them. Say, “Hey, this person offered to represent me. What do you think of this person? Is this a good match?” If not, they might suggest a better person or a different person you could meet with. All of my previous assistants have gone on to have writing careers, and most of them had managers. In every case, they would come to me like, “I think this person is great, but I get a weird feeling.” If you get a weird feeling, that’s not the right person. You should not sign with a manager or a representative or a lawyer who you dread taking their phone calls or dread getting their emails. It has to be somebody you’re excited to be on the phone with, because otherwise it’s just not going to work.
Michael: Hundred percent agree with that.
John: Megana, do you have another question for us?
Megana: Yes. Moomin asks, “In the conception phase before any word of the screenplay is put to paper, what tools or methods do you both use to keep everything organized? Where do you compile all your thoughts, ideas, and bits and pieces?”
John: What are you doing for that stuff, Michael?
Michael: Not being as efficient as I should. A lot of my writing is done walking my dog, going for walks in the woods, or driving around. Then as far as recording it, it’s usually going onto my iPad and doing story circles and stuff.
John: Are you doing story circles just with a pen and drawing?
Michael: Yeah, just to get it down. In the inception phase, that’s what I’m doing. I spend a lot of time just daydreaming. I don’t necessarily need to write it all down, because I feel like anything that I don’t remember probably wasn’t that good of an idea to begin with. It’s the stuff that I can’t let go of, finally I know it’s time to put this down. Then when I’m actually writing a script, my process becomes really inefficient, because the way I’ll write a scene is I’ll just retype it over and over and over again, making little, minute changes here and there, because I just need to… It’s how I play the scene out in my head is typing it out.
John: I loop scenes just in my head first. I have the blocking for everybody and the rough dialog. I will do a scribble version, which I’m just like, the quickest version on paper I can possibly get down so I don’t forget it. Then I’ll start tackling the scene. I’ll know that sometimes in this loose version, some stuff’s just not making sense. I’ll work on that when I get to the real final version. That scribbling process isn’t part of my overall note taking or overall recordkeeping.
I think more what Moomin’s asking for is those general ideas that come to you, you don’t want to lose. I’ll have index cards everywhere. I’ll just scribble it down on an index card. Then I just try to process those once a day. I just put them in. Now we’re using Notion, but we used to use other tools for that, just so they are someplace. I don’t look back to that that often, but sometimes I do need to find that thing, or if at least it’s in the same document, I can say, oh, all of these ideas go together, and they fit in a meaningful way. If I don’t write something down, I’m going to have to keep spending brain cycles to remember it, because it’ll go away. I want to use those brain cycles to do new stuff, rather than just remembering stuff.
Michael: That’s how I end up looking back in my Notes app. I’m like, “2016 Moby Dick in space?”
Michael: What an idea.
John: It’s come time for our One Cool Things, where we recommend something to our listeners. Michael, do you have something to recommend to the folks listening to this podcast?
Michael: Yes. A cool thing that I’m going to recommend is giving blood, which is a cause that has become near and dear to my heart. One of my best friends, a writer and actor named Breck Denny, who was a member of the Groundlings, he passed away earlier this year. He was a beneficiary of a lot of blood donations. They were trying to save him. Cycled through an outrageous amount of blood in the hospital. What I learned on the other end of that process is just how bad of a blood shortage there is in the country right now and how far a single blood donation can go. We’re at a historic shortage of blood in the country.
My buddy, he was one of the first people to get COVID back in 2020. After that, he started giving blood religiously, so they could test blood, and was actually part of vaccine trials and everything. He was just a great guy. As a way to honor him, we created a blood drive called Blood for Breck. You can find it in my Instagram bio. I think it’s on my Twitter. You can go there and pledge to give blood.
Really, giving blood, it’s an awesome thing that you go, you do it for 30 minutes, you get to take a picture. It just makes such a difference. It really does save lives. I don’t know. I feel like in a day and age where we spend a lot of time being like, “How can I help?” and it’s like, if I just do an online challenge and donate money, where does that money go? What is this? A bag of your blood is going to go into somebody’s body that’s fighting for their life. It’s just not a thing I ever really thought about until this touched our world, and so now it’s something I’m passionate about.
John: That’s great. Back in college I donated blood and loved donating blood. As of right now, we’re recording this in Pride month of 2022, gay men still can’t donate blood in the US, which is crazy. There’s lots of work being done to try to fix that problem. If you can donate blood, donating blood is a great idea. We’ll put a link in the show notes to your blood donation charity and some other blood donation drives out there across the country.
John: My One Cool Thing is this essay I read this week by Elizabeth Williamson in Slate. It was an excerpt from her book about Sandy Hook. I’ll put a link in the show notes to this. I’ve always been fascinated by conspiracy theorists and people who believe in impossible things. The people who believe school shootings didn’t happen are just this weird, special breed. This is what the article’s really getting into. This one talks about this Tulsa grandmother who goes by the handle gr8mom and really dives into why is she going after parents of Sandy Hook families and continues to believe that all these school shootings are nonsense, and digs into it.
It describes a dark triad of narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, which is basically you really fundamentally cannot convince them that this is not the way it is. There’s no reasoning with them. They literally just cannot be swayed from the path that they think they’re on. If you point out any inconsistency in their logic, they will “what about” to get to another thing.
It wasn’t a hopeful article to be reading, but I think it actually helped me understand more like, oh, they’re actually just psychopaths, really, some of the people who are believing the wildest of these things. As opposed to other people who get sucked into it and they can be talked out of it, there are some people who are just never going to be talked out of this, and maybe we shouldn’t try.
Michael: You found some depression I hadn’t even thought about in a while. That’s great.
John: Absolute pleasure to have you on the show this week. That’s our program. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It’s edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Ryan Gerberding. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin, I’m @johnaugust. Michael, are you on Twitter? That’s where I reached out to you the first time.
Michael: Yes, @michaelwaldron and on Instagram @fakemichaelwaldron.
John: Love it. We have T-shirts, and they’re great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau. We have one Loki-inspired T-shirt, which you should check out. Our 10th anniversary T-shirt is Loki-inspired. Our designer Dustin Box did a great job making it feel both like Scriptnotes and like Loki.
You can find the show notes to this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. You can sign up for our weeklyish newsletter called Inneresting, which has lots of links to things about writing. You can sign up to become a Premium Member at scriptnotes.net, where you get all the back-episodes and Bonus Segments, like the one we’re about to record about Atlanta. In the meantime, Michael Waldron, thank you so much for coming on Scriptnotes and sharing your history here.
Michael: Thanks for having me. It was an honor. I’ll see you after another 555 episodes.
John: It’s going to be great. We’ll be living in the future.
Michael: Yes, exactly.
John: We’re back, and we’re here with Michael Waldron, who is not only a film writer and a TV writer, he is a person who came from Atlanta, who now works in Atlanta. We will all inevitably now work in Atlanta, it seems. Can you give us some tips for… Let’s say I’m a Los Angeles person who is moving to Atlanta for work, to work on a thing. Where should I live in Atlanta? What should I do in Atlanta? Give me an overview of life in Atlanta for a writer.
Michael: Right now I think the heat index is 106 degrees, so don’t come. That’s my biggest advice.
John: We won’t. Okay, done, won’t come.
Michael: It’s great here. It’s been amazing to watch the city become more progressive and grow up as the years have passed. As far as living, the places that you’re going to feel the most like LA, like what you’re used to probably, it’s Inman Park is what you always hear, down south side of the city. Inman Park, Grant Park, Old Fourth Ward.
John: What are the Los Angeles equivalents of any of these neighborhoods? What’s the Silver Lake?
Michael: Inman Park is like the Silver Lake. It’s like one big Silver Lake. There’s a bunch of different areas around there. That’s probably the place to look at if you’re moving that’ll feel like LA. It’s very walkable. Atlanta’s great. There’s a thing called the BeltLine. It’s a sidewalk. It’s a sidewalk that stretches throughout the entire city. You can walk or bike across the whole city. There’s great restaurants and breweries and all sorts of stuff all around it. Inman Park or anywhere right around there, that’s going to be your best bet.
John: If I’m moving to Inman Park, but I’m working on a Marvel property, a Marvel project, how long is my commute to get from where I’m living to-
Michael: Marvel, we shoot all our stuff down at… It’s called Trilith Studios now, which is the old Pinewood, which is in Fayetteville, which is… I don’t know, it’s about a half hour with traffic and stuff. If you’re from LA, you’re not going to be daunted by any of the travel times out here, unless there’s a wreck on 85. Then you’ll be like, “What on earth?”
John: Like, what choices have you made?
Michael: You can get screwed, but it’s nothing. The traffic here, it’s as congested as LA, but somehow you’re always still going 80. It’s like Nascar. Get ready. It’s an intense vehicular experience.
John: Now, when I’ve been shooting things in Vancouver or Toronto, one of the things we have to watch for is any line that a local player has to say that has a U sound in it, so no “abouts” and that sort of problem. There are certain lines we’re going to write around certain things. Is there any local casting things you should be aware of if you’re filming something in Atlanta that is not supposed to be in Atlanta?
Michael: I’m always delighted with the local casting around here. It’s some real talented folks. What wouldn’t you want? I don’t know, if you can write stuff with Southern accents, you’re going to have an easier time. That’s for sure.
John: Now, something like Loki, which obviously had a tremendous amount of set work, you had some real practical exteriors as well in that show, because the main… Or at least the places that weren’t sound stages, like that TVA building. Was that a real building?
Michael: The shot of the archives with the elevators coming down, yeah, that’s an old hotel in Atlanta. Everything else was, generally in the TVA, that was a practical set that we built down there at Trilith. That was Kasra Farahani, our brilliant production designer.
John: Are people who have to come into Atlanta and leave from Atlanta, are there now direct flights? Are there enough direct flights that you can always get back and forth reliably or are you flying two places now?
Michael: It’s so easy out of LA. There’s probably eight or nine flights out of the day. Atlanta, it’s the Delta hub. The airport is massive. You’ll never want to go back to LAX after you’ve been to the Atlanta Airport. Before COVID, they’d added direct Burbank to Atlanta flights, which were really nice, but they were always on planes that felt like they were from the ‘60s. You’d get excited, and you’d take them, and then it was a real like, “I don’t know about this.” You’re normally on a nice airbus if you’re flying Delta to and from LA. It’s pretty easy travel-wise.
John: Now today, a lot of productions have moved to Atlanta, obviously. How much post-production on these shows is happening in Atlanta versus other places in the world? Is any writing happening in Atlanta? I feel like maybe Walking Dead maybe did writing in Atlanta. Do you see either writing or more post happening there?
Michael: I don’t know. I’m certain there’s got to be post going on here. Maybe, sure, Adult Swim does some of their stuff. None of my shows have posted here. That’s all still LA. Writing-wise, still LA, but maybe in the future. I think that if you were doing something that was very specifically Southern, maybe it would be helpful to immerse yourself in the fast food and the fried catfish and stuff for a couple weeks.
John: You as a student who was going to high school and then college in Atlanta, there would’ve been opportunities for you now to be working on sets and doing PA kind of stuff…
John: …that there wouldn’t have been before.
Michael: I was an extra. They were shooting a Revenge of the Nerds reboot that got killed. I got to be an extra in it. I was like, “The movies came to Atlanta. I can’t believe it.” Now it’s everywhere. I think, yeah, if you’re a kid now who loves show business, you can just get out there and do anything, put honey buns in a basket somewhere as a PA, and you’re going to meet people who can help you get that next job.
John: This is not a specific Atlanta question, but what’s your instinct on writers’ rooms going back to in person versus staying virtual? What’s the split going to be? Is it mostly going to be in person? Is it mostly going to be virtual?
Michael: I guess it’ll be dictated by showrunners. Generally, I think people prefer to work in person. You just get better work. I think about so many of our great ideas come from just the moment, the times after lunch when you’re screwing around. It’s like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if Loki went to Walmart?” and suddenly-
John: Then he’s at Walmart, yeah.
Michael: That’s not how that came about, by the way. That was just an example. I think it’ll go back to in person, but probably not the five days out of the week grind. Like in anything in show business, there can be a lot of wasted time in a writers’ room. Hopefully, if we go back to in person, we retain the efficiencies that we’ve picked up from doing it on Zoom.
- Michael Waldron on Twitter and on Instagram
- Donate blood with the Red Cross #BloodforBreck
- “Prove to the World You’ve Lost Your Son” by Elizabeth Williamson for Slate from Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth
- Get a Scriptnotes T-shirt!
- Gift a Scriptnotes Subscription or treat yourself to a premium subscription!
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John August on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by Ryan Gerberding (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
Email us at email@example.com
You can download the episode here.