The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August, and this is Episode 538 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today’s episode is something new for us. One of our listeners, Jake Kelley, he wrote in to say that, “Many of my favorite episodes are the ones focused on craft, yet I find myself drawn to those discussions on being a screenwriter, which offer so much insight.” I put this show together to be somewhat the antithesis of a craft compendium. It won’t help you on your script right now, but offers a way to becoming a rounded and mature creative thinker. Jake provided the episodes and time codes for his vision of what this episode could be. Megana and Matthew took those suggestions and a few other bits to come up with this compendium of our conversations, not about screenwriting per se, but being a screenwriter.
If you’re Premium member, you of course have access to the backup episodes, all 537 of them. Today, Premium members should stick around for my conversation with Jake about why he picked these clips and how Scriptnotes has influenced his work as a visual artist, so enjoy. This first clip comes from Episode 6: How kids becoming screenwriters.
What we might talk about today is how people become screenwriters. I don’t mean how to become a screenwriter, because there’s countless books you can buy on any shelf in a Borders to tell you how to be–
Craig Mazin: I would take my microphone off and leave this podcast.
John: Another podcast we’ll talk about the so-called experts and our fury about some of the screenwriting books out there. Rather than talking about how to become a screenwriter, I want to talk about how a person becomes a screenwriter and the paths to that, because if you talk to a professional tennis player and say like, “Hey, how did you become a professional tennis player?” they’ll say something like, “Oh, when I was eight I started playing tennis, and I just played tennis for forever, and now I’m a professional tennis player.” It’s not that they were 21 and they picked up a racket for the first time and became a professional tennis player. That just doesn’t happen. Or if you talk to a doctor and you say like, “Hey, how did you become a doctor?” maybe they were interested in medicine growing up or maybe thought, “I’m going to be a doctor when I grow up,” but they didn’t really do anything serious about becoming a doctor until they went to college, and really until they went to medical school. They might’ve studied the sciences they needed, they got prerequisites they needed, but they didn’t do anything serious to become a doctor until quite late in the game.
Screenwriting is not really either one of those paths. There’s not a thing you could point to where you say, “I’m an eight-year-old who wants to become a screenwriter.” Not only does that not really happen, there’s not even a meaningful way to think about that.
Craig: True, true. It’s the difference between the word “career” and the word “vocation.” “Vocation,” the “voc” root is designed to imply a calling, that you’re called to this somehow by–
John: An evocation.
Craig: Yeah, exactly. Screenwriting falls into that area. You have this innate desire to tell stories, but when does that come, where does that come from, and how do you know you have it, and all that?
John: Malcolm Gladwell famously has been trumpeting this idea of 10,000 hours, that if you look at people who are very successful in any field, you can track back and they’ve put in 10,000 hours of practice to get up to that point. It applies particularly well to sports figures, but even other professions, like musicians and other artists. You can really see that they’ve put in the 10,000 hours of time to get up to their mastery of something. No screenwriter I know, at least no screenwriter I know that’s ever getting started, has put in 10,000 hours of writing screenplays. That just doesn’t happen. You don’t start writing screenplays when you’re six.
Craig: That’s right. If you’ve put in 10,000 hours of screenwriting and you’re still not a professional screenwriter, you suck.
John: That is true. You’re sad, and you probably suck.
Craig: You’re sad and you suck.
John: It’s just a tragedy that’s happened there, because 10,000 hours is a lot of time.
Craig: That’s a huge chunk of your life.
John: I’m not gonna open my little Solver program and tell you exactly how many days and weeks and moments of Seasons of Love that is, but it’s a lot of Seasons of Love to get to 10,000 hours. As I’ve thought more about how did I become a screenwriter, where did I get that experience… The first thing I wrote wasn’t great, but it wasn’t, like I said, I put 10,000 hours in between my first screenplay and Go. Go was a pretty good screenplay. It’s that I think I can make a good argument that I actually had my 10,000 words of experience and exposure in there. It wasn’t all writing, and it certainly didn’t look like screenwriting.
My first memory of this storytelling kind of stuff that I do now is, as a boy I would often… First off, I always woke up really early, and my parents wouldn’t let me come out of my room, so I had to stay in my room and play with all my toys. I would always line up my little toys. There’d be two rival faction armies. Actually, not really armies. They were sort of like Battle of the Network Stars. They’d be on the other side of the river and they’d have to come some competitions and things. I’d always have my favorites, but my favorites wouldn’t always win, because that’s the way the narrative should play.
I’d always have this ongoing narrative of the battle of the network toys, that later progressed once I was allowed to stay up to watch the James Bond movies on Monday nights right before school started in the fall. Again, James Bond and new fall TV shows coinciding in the fall, it was an important season for me. Once I was allowed to watch the James Bond movies on ABC, a lot of my imagination play became James Bond. I was on the speedboat. It was really my bed. I would build myself a graveling hook out of a hanger and some string and do James Bondy kind of things. I think that my early narrative development in the sense of figuring out how this action sequence worked was really as a six or seven-year-old playing James Bond in my room.
Craig: I know exactly what you mean. There’s a way to practice the art of storytelling without actually writing. My experience was around the same time as you, six, seven years old. First of all, I saw Star Wars, which blew my brain open. Then I had a clear memory that almost every night when I would go to bed, I would stay up for about 30, 40 minutes, with the lights out, in my bed, just I guess you’d call it daydreaming, although it was evening, just imagining scenarios. Just imagining. Just envisioning little movies in my head. I would make little sound effects to go along with things. My dad would come in and say, “Stop making rocket noises.” I remember that was the phrase, “rocket noises,” because everything was blowing up all the time. I would do that every night. I don’t know what it was. I was just compelled to tell stories in my head.
John: There’s an assumption that it’s all about how much you read as a kid. I was certainly a big reader, but I wasn’t a bigger reader than many of my peers, most of whom aren’t involved in any sort of narrative writing capability. I read a lot. I read the same kinds of things. I read a lot of the Encyclopedia Browns and the Three Investigators and the things that people read, but it was the imagining my own stories constantly that was more important. I did write. I did some creative writing. I probably wrote stories earlier than other kids might have done that. I was rewarded with teacher praise for doing a good job with it. I can’t chart that writing, my ability to put some words together, with my interest in telling movie style stories later on.
Craig: I’m with you. I remember always having a sense of narrative structure. I read a lot when I was a kid. I would say movies certainly inspired more of my visual sense. In my mind I would tell stories in a very visual way. The books that I did love would inspire those things. The Three Investigators, I remember the thing about them I loved the most was that Jupiter Jones had his headquarters underneath the dump.
John: Uncle Titus’s dump, which is –
Craig: There you go. Thank you. That was awesome to me. I desperately wanted my own headquarters under a dump, because it was so visual and it was so cool.
John: I tried to put on weight in 3rd grade so I could be more like Jupiter Jones.
Craig: I was always more of a Pete guy. Pete seemed like the cool one. I think he broke his arm at one point though.
John: Yeah, and therefore was slightly handicapped, and therefore–
Craig: Yeah, and thus an object of pity.
John: Pity/lust, I get it.
Craig: You feel me on that one. I love those. I remember in 5th grade I had a facility for language. I found reading and writing just came easily to me. Words came easily to me. In 5th grade they asked me to deliver the graduation speech. I remember that I wrote a speech that was rather mockish and infantile, in the way that a 5th grader would. It was a lot of bad metaphors about going through doors, opening doors and closing doors behind you and nonsense like that. It had a structure. I remember that I just innately understood that there should be an introduction where you establish this metaphor of doors opening and closing in your life and then three examples and then a final conclusion where the door closes behind you and you step out and you begin again.
John: That sounds very Toastmasters.
Craig: It was as paint by numbers as you can be, but the interesting thing was there were no numbers. I just had that. I was born with formula. I don’t know, maybe you need to start there. It’s a weird thing. Instead of having to learn it, it’s already in your DNA or something.
John: I think what I can also chart as probably the biggest influence on my development that way, and where I logged a lot of my 10,000 hours, was in Dungeons and Dragons, because D and D is one of those things where on the surface of it, it just seems like you’re pretending to play with swords, and it’s a bunch of people rolling dice and sitting around and table and drinking too much Coke.
Ultimately, when you’re playing a lot of D and D, especially when you’re playing at that age, you recognize that there’s two distinct phases to Dungeons and Dragons. There’s the social aspect where you and your friends are sitting around with your parents at a card table, and you’re playing a game, and one of you is the dungeon master. The other two or three of you are playing. He’s the fighter, he’s the thief, and that’s the wizard over there, the magic user over there. You’re trying to get through this dungeon. It’s very graph papery. You’re looking at a bunch of charts. That’s the part that feels baseball statistics-y, where there’s math involved and you’re trying to win a game. As you play more of it, you get a little bit more sophisticated, you start to really focus on the story and the role-playing aspect of it where you’re pretending to be… You’re this character. You’re this character in this situation. What does this character want? You start to think about your characters independent of this dungeon that you’re going through.
My friend Jason and I had, he had his character Garrett Darkhorse, who was a ranger. We started to build out these elaborate mythologies for the Darkhorse clan and who all the people were in the different generations. Suddenly it was about your character who would have a kid, and that kid would marry the other girl from over there. You started to look at the death of your character being part of the overall arc of the thing. It’s this sophistication that came only as you got to be more sophisticated, thinking about the narrative beyond this one specific game, this one specific dungeon that you were playing.
Craig: I didn’t quite get that massively nerdy, although I did play the… Marvel had a role-playing game.
John: I remember that.
Craig: A few of my friends and I played that. I remember not caring so much for the game, which I thought was just a little odd. I never quite got into the actual game part of it, but I loved making the characters. Everybody had a character and they had a name, and then I typed up backstories for all them, sort of like what you were describing, and actually tried to make sense of their… What happens is you roll dice, and they’re like, he’s really strong and he’s really fast, but he’s stupid. That’s interesting. Now, how can I create a narrative that explains that? I remember doing that and typing it up and printing it out on my daisy wheel printer.
John: You would print out these character backstories for the people who were playing your Marvel role-playing game.
Craig: It was interesting, because what they had were like, he’s got a power and he’s this old and he’s blond. Then I would try and explain where he was from and is he a human and how did he get this way and is he related to anybody and what does he fear, and come up with… The idea I guess was that there was a narrative puzzle presented. I always thinking of screenwriting as just endless puzzle solving. The puzzle is how do you make logical sense of this, some sort of dramatic, compelling theory that makes sense of the character you just created with dice. That was fun. I don’t know so much that I spent a lot of time practicing that is why I do what I do today. It’s that I felt the need to do it in the first place that explains why I do what I do today.
John: You felt a compelling need to create narrative meaning out of this thing that actually didn’t have a lot of meaning because it was rolled by dice. You wanted it to make sense and to exist in a way. It was probably one of the earliest occasions for you to see that the decisions you were making about who the characters were would influence the kind of stories you’d want to tell with those characters. Were you being the equivalent of the dungeon master for this, where you were leading the games?
Craig: No, my friend Dave Rogers was usually the dungeon master. Interestingly, he is a Emmy award-winning director now. He’s a very, very well-regarded director in television, directs a lot of episodes of The Office.
John: I’ve noticed several people who are involved with big TV shows right now come from D and D background. John Rogers, who does Leverage, who’s done a lot of other great shows, still writes for… I guess it’s not TSR now, it’s Wizards of the Coast, who bought out the D and D franchise. I first noticed, oh, there’s this… I was looking through one of the new manuals. I noticed his name. I was like, “I wonder if that’s the same person.” I Googled, like, oh, that’s just so strange that he still is doing that. In fact, he’s doing the new Dungeons and Dragons comic book, which is great. It’s like Firefly, but with swords. If we were to have him on the show, I suspect he had a similar experience where that experience of developing characters and developing a world for characters to run around in is really similar to developing the world of a movie, or even more so, developing the world of a TV show, is that you have a sustainable world that goes beyond the adventures of this one week’s play but has an overall narrative, an overall arc. I haven’t talked to David Benioff to see whether he played much D and D, but I’ve got the feeling that it’s probably true.
Craig: Knowing David, I would guess that he did. Knowing Dan Weiss, I would guess that he did as well.
John: It’s a pretty safe bet. I’ll also stump for the new D and D manuals. I don’t actually play D and D anymore. I wouldn’t have time to. I feel like so much of what I do and get paid to do is so similar that I would be burning out that part of my brain to try to DM a session. I’d still buy the new manuals. The new manuals are fantastic. Anybody who’s listening to this who played in the past and has seen those manuals, and like, “Eh, I wouldn’t go into them,” they’re remarkably well done. It’s Gary Gygax’s sort of legacy but sort of brought through to make a lot more sense. They made very smart choices in the new books. I have a ton of them that are all sitting on shelves and I read them as leisure time books.
Craig: That’s where I would fall apart. That’s why I can’t do that sort of part of the game because I don’t understand all the rules and my mind could not wrap around on that stuff.
John: One of the things I think is interesting about where we are right now is the online games, Diablo and World of Warcraft, that seem to be very similar, where they’re doing a lot… You’re running around and you’re killing things. They don’t develop that same instinct, really, because in those games you are optimizing, because ou are trying to figure out the best kind of character to make, but the character is really just a collection of statistics. The character has no backstory. The character has no motivations beyond the quests that are assigned through the game. You have goals as a person, but that character, individually, has no goals.
Craig: I like the Bethesda games. The main quests, at least, give you some sense of identity and sense of purpose.
John: In terms of choices you make?
Craig: Even in terms of your goal. In Oblivion you are tasked with a job by the dying king. In Fallout 3 you’re actually murdered in the beginning of the… Isn’t that right, in Fallout 3? No, no. That’s not Fallout 3. That was the other one.
John: Fallout 3 is an example of a tremendous–
Craig: Oh, it was in New Vegas you’re murdered.
John: New Vegas, yeah.
Craig: In Fallout 3 you’re actually born and you’re raised by a father and then he disappears and you have to go find him. There’s some sense of character.
John: There’s a sense of character, but you’re not generating that sense of character.
Craig: No. You’re right.
John: You are essentially an audience to that character development. While you might learn a lot by observing it, you’re not responsible for the making of it. You’re not making choices about how that narrative is going to be shaped.
Craig: That’s correct. That is the difference between the passive act of playing a video game that’s presented to you and scripted for you, and the idea that you’re going to make your own story as you go along. No question. No question.
John: Our next clip is from Episode 119: Positive Moviegoing. Craig wanted to talk about positive moviegoing, which I’m not even sure what it means, so Craig start us out. What is positive moviegoing?
Craig: It’s this thing I’ve been thinking about lately because this is the time of year when all the so-called good movies come out. A lot of them are actually good movies. I think it’s just we live in a time of snarkiness and suspicion and nobody seems to want to like anything. People a lot of times go into theaters with their arms crossed, especially in Los Angeles. We’re all in the business. I think people go to movies and they’re demanding to hate them and they’re prejudging them. You name any movie and I could just sort of come up with some pretext for hating it.
What I really have been trying to do is when I go to movie to go wanting to love it and accepting everything about it for at least 20 minutes. I don’t care what happens in the first 20 minutes, I am on board. I will accept it and I will attempt to enjoy it as best I can. I will give myself to the movie. Then at some point, okay, listen, sometimes you just don’t like movies. Sometimes they disappoint. Sometimes they anger you because you hate them so much, and that’s okay. I’m not denying that that can happen. I’ve really been trying to just give myself over to movies.
I went and I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I went in, just gave myself to the movie, and I loved it. I think I would have loved it anyway, but I think it helped that I wasn’t judging. I just decided nobody else goes to movies to judge. Why do we go to movies to judge? Can’t we just enjoy them? Anyway, that’s my thing, positive moviegoing.
John: What you’re describing is almost like… I can picture the body language of it. It’s like you’re sitting down in your seat. You’re not crossing your arms in front of you saying like, “Okay, impress me.” You’re saying, “I’m here. I’m eager to be entertained. I will follow you wherever you go. Take me on a journey.” That’s the message you’re trying to send to this movie.
Craig: That’s right, sort of like meeting somebody at a party and they start to tell you a story. You’re standing there, so be nice. Listen to it. Give it a shot. I get so depressed when I see people ripping movies apart before they even see them.
Aline Brosh McKenna: Yeah, I agree. I think it’s easy to hate things and to bag on things. I think it’s just, it makes people feel fashionable and intellectual. It’s harder. It takes more effort to go out there and say, “You know what? Even if it wasn’t perfect, even if things aren’t prefect, sometimes things that you love are the imperfect perfect thing.” Going in there with an attitude of like, “I’m going to enjoy this. I paid my money to enjoy this, not to find something that I can sit down with my friends later and pick to shreds.”
Craig: Yeah. It will happen that we will encounter movies that infuriate us. And we will pick them to shreds and we will pick them to shreds. If you’ve earned that experience, so you’ve earned it, but there is something to be said for letting yourself be entertained and not attempt to make yourself feel better by pushing a movie away. Frankly even the feeling that, okay, it’s not perfect. How often does that happen? Movies win Oscars and people go, “Oh my god, that piece of crap won an Oscar.” Perfection is irrelevant. I almost think, okay, mistakes aren’t really mistakes. It’s just no more than I got from here to there on a road and it was a really enjoyable journey and there was a pothole. It’s just part of it.
Aline: I like it. I also think it’s very Christmas-y.
John: It’s very Christmas-y. Now, on some level are we talking about expectation? I find that a lot of times the movies that I enjoy most were the ones where my expectations were not set too high going into them. That’s why I love to see a movie during its opening weekend before everyone has sort of told me what I’m supposed to think and feel about it, because when I come into a theater with a set of expectations, nothing can surprise me. I’m sort of preconditioned to think this is how I’m supposed to feel about this particular entertainment.
Aline: Yeah. I miss the days of just going to see a movie and knowing nothing about it. My parents would drive us to the Paramus Park. We used to call it the Millionplex. It had 14 theaters. They would just drop us off there and we would see the 7:30, whatever it was, and just be happy. That’s how I saw Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, which pleasantly surprised us. We laughed, fell out of our chairs laughing. We also saw Yor, The Hunter From the Future that way.
Craig: Good one.
Aline: You don’t have that surprise anymore. You’ve been so inundated with media before you go to see a movie now, that I miss the days of just thinking like, “I just want to see a movie. Let’s see what’s out there.” I miss that.
John: Yeah, I remember seeing 9 to 5 that way. I was a kid dropped off at the theater, and the theater we were supposed to go to… They just dropped us off at the wrong movie, essentially, so we saw 9 to 5. I was far too young to see 9 to 5, which is the best way to see 9 to 5, because they’re smoking pot and having sex and all these things.
Aline: Stringing people up.
John: I also remember in college going to see… We ended up seeing The Handmaid’s Tale because the other movie that we wanted to see was completely sold out. We had no idea what the movie was. That’s so incredibly rewarding when you sit in, the only information you have is what the filmmakers are giving you frame-by-frame as the story unfolds. You had that experience of positive moviegoing because you weren’t preconceived with what we were supposed to feel. There was no expectation about what to —
Aline: You haven’t checked a review aggregator that’s given you 60 opinions before you even set foot there.
Craig: Yeah, or your Twitter feed, or comedians teeing up, or whatever, anything, or even articles that are insisting that it’s the most important thing of all time. It’s funny. 9 to 5 was the first movie I think I was dropped off to see on my own. I remember it was like a weird triple date, like a weird triple fifth-grade date. What were our parents thinking? I really make an effort now when I sit in the movie theater before the movie starts to blank my mind completely. I just say, go ahead movie, write all over me and let’s see where this goes.
John: Some of my favorite experiences are actually like when you see the three trailers, or the four trailers, and then the real movie starts and you’ve forgotten what the movie was that you [unclear 00:25:40] what movie is this. Oh right, it’s the Muppets. It is very exciting.
Now, let’s talk for a second as filmmakers, as screenwriters. Is there anything we can do in those opening pages or in the opening minutes of a movie to get people in the positive moviegoing experienced? What is that like from our side as writers to hopefully foster that good spirit?
Craig: I do have one thing that lately I’ve been tending to do, and that is write a credit sequence. It became out of fashion. Originally movies used to have these opening credit sequences that includes even the credits that we now call end credits, where there are logos and rosters of people. Then there were the standard opening credit sequences. That became out of fashion. For a long time, all the credits went in the back of the movie, so you just started the movie. I really like credit sequences. I like opening credit sequences. The opening credits for Mitty are beautiful. I think that that helps kind of get everybody situated and in the mood, so I’ve been doing that lately.
John: I will also write credit sequences in movies where I feel it’s appropriate. More than anything I try to make sure that the reader and therefore the viewer feels confident, like, trust me, this is going to be a ride that you will enjoy taking with me. You’re going to feel rewarded and smart on this journey. We know what we’re doing. Everything is going to be okay. That shows up in your word selection on those first pages, but also just making sure no one is confused in a bad way in those first pages. If it’s a funny movie, you need to have something funny happen really quickly, so everyone sort of gets what the world of your movie is.
Aline: My husband has a thing where we’ll go to see a movie, and sometimes movies take forever just to get going, and he’ll turn to me at some point and say, “When does the movie start?” 20 minutes into the movie, because sometimes it just seems like, especially because we do know what movies we’re going to see, it does seem like if you’re taking 15 minutes to get us acquainted with what we’ve seen on the poster, that makes me a little itchy. I think our attention span for that has probably changed a bunch, too. I think it’s great to see if you can get to the heart of the matter so the audience knows what movie they are seeing.
John: Let’s segue to our next topic, which you brought up also, which is why it’s important to be friends with writers. My recollection, and my early days in Hollywood, I was friends with a bunch of people who were starting out in Hollywood, but they weren’t necessarily writers. I went through a graduate film program, so everyone was trying to become a producer, a film executive. Some people became writers. I didn’t necessarily seek out other writers. What was your history going to–
Aline: I feel really strongly about that. I think that people sometimes misunderstand what the idea is. The idea is not to be friends with writers who are going to network for you, or who are cool, or who are writing, or who are employed. That’s not really the critical thing. The critical thing is to have friends who do what you do and are engaged in the same kind of work that you are.
A couple of my writer friends are from the very, very, very beginning of our career before we had any success or barely any work. We don’t have workplaces in the way that… My husband works at a mutual fund. He has a workplace. He has coworkers. We don’t have that. Even when we do for a specific project, they’re just for that specific project. My ongoing workplace, my Cheers, my group of people that I check in with, are my other writer friends that I talk to on the phone periodically, or have lunch with.
John: Aline, you talk on the phone?
Aline: I talk on the phone.
Craig: Who talks on the phone?
Aline: I do.
Aline: We can check in on what we’re doing and say, “Hey, I was working on that. What do you think of this? Is this a good idea? What do you think of this person?” That network is invaluable. You will grow with these people. It’s less important to seek out people who you think are going to connect you with a job and more important to seek out people whose process you find productive. Gatins refers to it as lab partners. Finding a lab partner who does their homework and has a neat notebook is important.
John: I don’t think Gatins has a neat notebook. I think Gatins’s notebook is one of those PT folders that he’s like sort of half colored in as he fell asleep.
Craig: Gatins’s notebook, it’s like a folder that you open up and it looks like it’s full of stuff, and you open it up and there’s nothing in there.
Aline: It’s so brilliant.
Craig: It’s all in his head.
Aline: It’s like a workbook where he didn’t do any of the math, but around the margins are those amazing drawings and thoughts. He’s a good example. He’s a great lab partner. Also, something another friend of mine said, which is easier said than done, we were talking about having your friends read stuff. I said, “Who do you go to for that?” He said, “It’s very simple. Send it to someone who roots for you.”
Craig: Perfect. He’s exactly right.
Aline: I don’t know, it was something I hadn’t really thought of in quite that way, because I think we all have friends that we love, but maybe we have other friends who we think root a little harder.
Craig: You mean to say, “Maybe some of them are rooting against us.” That’s what you mean to say, which I think is real, by the way. Listen, it’s human. It bums me out, but I sometimes sense it.
Aline: It’s funny, I have the opposite.
Craig: Same thing about the positive moviegoing.
Aline: I have the opposite of that, which is I really like everyone around me to be really successful because I think it makes me look better.
Aline: It gives me more names to drop. Sometimes it’s even on a specific project. Sometimes you can have a friend who is really supportive but they don’t like an idea that you have. There was just a friend that I had that I pitched him a few things I was working on, and one of them he just thought was a terrible idea. That’s not somebody who I would ever go to and say, “Do you want to read this?” It’s just find somebody who really wants to see you do well, or find someone who really roots for that specific project, because that’s positive moviegoing. You want to share your work and share your career with people who are going in with the best possible intentions.
We generate enough of our own schadenfreude towards ourselves in this process. You don’t really need it from other people. I have lots of friends who are producers and executives and agents, and actors too, but your writer friends understand your struggles and your travails and they can really be there for you. I think if you look around, you can find people to link arms with, and you will all come up together.
John: My friend, Andrew Lippa, who did the music for Big Fish, he has this group of composers, lyricist composers, and they get together once a month and they have to show the work that they’ve been working on. As a group they have to perform the thing and they talk about it, which just seems amazing. There are obviously screenwriter groups that can do the same kind of thing, but it’s different to show your written pages versus actually performing something. It’s that trust element that kicks in.
You were talking about how you might have directors or producers or other people who can read your stuff, agents, but all of them have some vested interest in maybe how they’re going to associate with this project. The great thing about another writer is the writer is just the writer. They’re not trying to take your project. They’re not trying to do anything.
While there’s still sometimes that, it’s not even schadenfreude, but that realization of there’s only so many musical chairs, and that sometimes you’re competing for the same spots, in general we can be very supportive of each other because we’re not trying to do the same thing. We’re all working on our own projects.
Aline: Yeah, and it’s interesting, because I know you guys have talked about this too, but the three of us all met at different phases in our careers.
John: We should talk about how you and I met, because that’s a strange version of how you and I met. Let me tell my recollection of it, because I’m really curious to hear your version of it. Aline and I met on the phone because I was coming in to rewrite a project that she had written as a spec, correct?
Aline: No, I wrote it on assignment for New Line. Then John rewrote it and he cold called me and said, “I want to make sure it’s okay with you that I’m rewriting this.” I said, “Sure.” Then John did a draft of it, and never to be heard from again, that thing.
Craig: John, you killed her movie.
John: I probably killed her movie.
Aline: They were bringing in the big guns, and I got pushed down the stairs. John was the first person, I think might have been the first person ever to call me and do the gracious thing. I was outside on my deck and I remember he said, “Is it okay with you if I do this?”
John: I remember you also saying like, “Somebody is going to do it, and I’d rather you do it than somebody else,” which is honestly the reality of most of these situations. The answer is not going to be they’re going to go back to you, the original writer. If they’re looking for another writer, they’re going to hire another writer, so you want the writer who actually has the ability to make the movie be good and not ruin the movie. Those are the situations you want to have. That was a strange project, because the reason why I was able to get a hold of you is because we both had John Gatins as a friend. I called Gatins to get your number and said like, “Is it going to be cool if I call?”
Aline: Oh, that’s nice.
John: It was this movie that you wrote that I really liked. It was just a really good idea. Suddenly Dustin Hoffman was attached, and so I went to this lunch, this crazy lunch with Dustin Hoffman. Suddenly, this is a movie, and then it just disappeared.
Aline: Yeah, it got complicated in that way those things do. We already knew each other, and I knew Craig already when the strike happened. The strike was really the thing where writers really connected in a different way. I think it was sort of the convergence of the strike plus the internet. All of a sudden people really got to know each other in a way that I had not experienced previously in my career where people really know each other now in a different way than they ever had before. I really think it’s for the good. I always find it funny when you’re talking to an agent or an executive or a producer and you say, “Oh yeah, I talked to so-and-so about that project. Oh, yeah, she did a draft on that. So-and-so is directing it.” They’re like, “How do you know that?” It’s because, I think, we know each other more now than we did.
Craig: We know more than they know sometimes. We know so much more than they think we know. We talk to each other. I have a lot of writer friends. I like writers. It’s been a wonderful thing for me for the last, I don’t know, six or seven years to get this coterie of writers around me that I admire and that I trust and that I can learn from. We share and talk about everything. I think we do so in a way that is informed by our experience of being safe with each other, that over time we haven’t screwed each other over, that the narrative that we just feed off of each other and compete with each other and undercut each other is essentially bullshit, and that, in fact, we are supportive of each other because the pain that we feel is the most salient thing about the job we do. When we see somebody else feeling it, naturally we just want to help them. There have been a couple people here and there, but for the most part I have found screenwriters to be incredibly generous and incredibly empathetic, and sweet and encouraging, to me at least.
Aline: I’ll tell you a good story. On this spec that I was working on, I wanted to give it to somebody who didn’t know me and didn’t know the situation and didn’t know anything about it that I could give to cold, who I really respected. I gave it to a writer who I really, really respect but don’t know super well. I maybe hung out with him a dozen, no, half a dozen times. I sent him the script, and then I didn’t hear from him for a while which is always the thing where you’re like, “Oh god, he hates it and he can’t figure out how to tell me.” Then I get an email from him that says, “Look, my dad was sick, he was in the hospital. I’m just about to read the script,” whatever. I was like, oh no. Then a couple days go by and I get a set of notes, seven pages of notes–
Aline: That are the most amazing thoughtful, heartfelt–
Craig: You’re welcome. You’re welcome.
Aline: Well thought out. Including like, “Page 26, you could be doing this. Page 43, you could be doing this.” Sometimes you get notes from people and it’s like they’re fighting what the movie is. This was just a writer understanding like, oh, this is what she’s trying to do. You are trying to do this. Let me help you. You’re trying to get to such and such a place in five hours. Let me give you the best directions on how to get there. I was so moved when I got that notes document that I was in my office and tears sprang to my eyes. I know how hard it is as a writer to turn your attention from your own imagination and delve into another person’s script. That he would do seven pages of these incredible notes really blew me away. It’s professional camaraderie. Man, the more of that you can find the better. It doesn’t have to be somebody famous. If you’re 23 years old, it can be somebody else that you know who wants to do this, who will read your stuff and put their heart into it.
John: It’s also back to the issue of as writers we want movies to be better. When I’m advising on projects at Sundance or other places, everyone’s like, “Oh, that’s a tremendous amount of your time that you’re spending.” It’s like, yes, but it’s a chance to make movies better. It’s a way to sort of see what a person is attempting to try to do and help them get to that place that they’re trying to get to. Seven pages of notes is above and beyond the call. That’s terrific. Really only a writer could do that, because only a writer could understand what you were trying to do and provide specific ways that you could get to that place.
Craig: I would also say that only a writer can convince you that you’re any good.
Aline: That’s interesting.
Craig: I had a very nice experience. I started writing a novel a couple of years ago. Honestly, I wrote two chapters and then stopped, mostly just out of fear that it wasn’t going to be any good and that I wasn’t any good and I’m no good and blah, blah, blah, rotten tomatoes.
John: Dennis Palumbo?
Craig: No, it’s not Dennis Palumbo. I gave it to Kelly Marcel because she asked to see it. She’s a really good writer. She loved it. I have to believe that. When we give screenplays, or we give our work to people that are employing us, they’re just as overly optimistic as we are. Everybody is rooting, rooting, rooting, but you always wonder. Or you give it to somebody, some producer or agents or coverage. Who’s doing coverage? I don’t know who they are. If a writer reads something of yours and says, “This is good,” then you need to believe it. We can’t get that from anybody else.
John: Yeah. You want that response of, “I’m so happy for you and also a little bit jealous.” That’s the best feeling you can get as a writer is when another writer says, “This is great and I wish I had written it.”
Craig: You know what’s so funny? That’s exactly what she said. She said, I actually think she used the words, “I’m a bit jealous.” Now, I have this other task master that’s making me write this book, which is terrific, terrific, because we also need that. We need somebody. We need a lab partner. We need a lab partner.
John: As we wrap up this segment on the importance of writers being friends, we also need to credit Aline, because during the strike – I agree that the 2008 strike was a big game-changer in terms of especially feature writers knowing who each other are – you organized these events that would happen during the strike, these drink events where we would all get together and mingle. It was my first chance of actually getting to know faces with names of some of these people.
During the strike you were assigned to different studios where you were supposed to be doing picketing. Because I am the palest person on earth, I would picket at Paramount Studios from 5:30 in the morning until 8:30 in the morning, so it would be dark and so I wouldn’t get sunburned. I loved that group of people I was hanging out with. Everyone else was at different studios.
The events that you organized, and there were three or four of them, were terrifically helpful, because just suddenly all these names that I’d seen in the trades are suddenly in front of you and you’re talking about the things you’re talking about. A lot of what we were talking about was the strike, but you’re also talking about the work, and you’re talking about how to make things better.
Aline: It came at a critical point. If you try to do those mixers sometimes, it’s hard to get people to go, but people were really wanting to be with other writers then and talk about what’s going on and what are we going to do, and nobody was working.
You were able to organize them over the internet really quickly, send out an e-vite to hundreds of people. There were a lot of people who I knew their names but had never met them. We all really got to know each other during that experience. People had really varying opinions was the other thing. A thing that always amazed me was people were really all over the map about what they believed about this, but by and large people were able to… The camaraderie of being screenwriters overcame people’s different point of views on the strike.
John: I would say there were different point of views on the strike and what we should be doing on the strike and how long it should go and what we should be fighting for. It made a common point of focus in terms of what our profession is and what it is our job is and what our craft is. By focusing on the feature writers who are usually completely in isolation, bringing thing together, it was a way for us to identify ourselves as a group, because usually we’re not a group the way that TV writers are often in rooms together and know each other. It was a way for us to actually know who these people were.
Craig: There’s a certain kind of way that screenwriters interact with each other that is unique. I love it. It is a very talky, chatty, low-tech, low-fancy environment, almost always. We don’t do it the way other people do it. There are few screenwriters I know that love to glam it up and throw parties at nightclubs and stuff like that, but for the most part it seems to me we’re at our happiest when we’re talking somewhere where we can hear each other. That’s fun. It’s a nice, real way to be in Los Angeles, a town where just around the corner there’s some place that has convinced you is important and you have to go inside, and if you can’t get inside, and who do you know inside, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. There we are with our jeans and our sweaters and our cigars and our wine. We’re able to be real with each other.
Aline: I will tackle people. It’s funny, because I won’t do this with actors or directors really, but if I see a writer whose work I admire… I did a panel with Peter Morgan in 2006, and I was so excited he was going to be there. The video of me is like a running back approaching, of me literally taking guys and grabbing them by the nape of the neck and chucking them out of the way to get to Pete. I was so excited to meet him. I got to him and I was like, “Oh my god, I just came to this thing so I could meet you.” That moment someone said, “Let me take your picture.” There’s a picture like 30 seconds after Pete and I meet, and I look like I’m standing next to Santa Claus. I’m so excited to be meeting Peter.
Craig: John, who was my Peter Morgan in Austin?
John: Oh, it was Breaking Bad. It was Vince Gilligan.
Craig: Vince Gilligan.
Aline: That thing, when you meet somebody whose work you so admire.
Craig: It’s everything. It’s everything.
Aline: It’s so amazing. I will tackle people. Kelly Marcel just moved to town.
Craig: Did you tackle Kelly Marcel?
Aline: I tackled her at the Mr. Banks thing. She’s new to town so she doesn’t know a lot of writers. I was like, oh, there’s people for you to meet.
John: There’s a mixer in your future.
Aline: She went to Austin, which is a really good way. One thing I would say is go to an event like Austin if you’re somebody who is starting out. Again, we just did not have stuff like this when we were starting out. I would have been there tackling people. Go to these events where there is going to be other aspiring people and you will find people that you connect to, that you can pitch your movies to, that you can talk about what they’re working on. You don’t have to be connecting to the fancy people. You can be connecting to people who are exactly in the same stage that you’re in.
John: Everyone grows up together, so there’s lateral things where you’re reading their script, and if you love their script, keep reading their scripts, and keep helping them out, and they will reciprocate. You will find your people, but you have to look for your people because it’s not you’re a professional football player where you’re just going to be around professional football players.
Aline: That’s right.
John: You are always going to be isolation unless you choose to make yourself not in isolation.
Craig: Don’t be judgey. Don’t be judgey. Don’t think that your friends have to be the fanciest writers in the world, or the most successful writers in the world. Don’t let that get in the way. When you fall in love with another writer, you’re falling in love with a kindred spirit and a fellow mind who understands you, who can help you and you can help them. There is no better feeling. The only better feeling than being helped is helping. How is that for Christmas?
John: This clip is from Episode 425: Tough Love versus Self-Care.
This is inspired by a Chuck Wendig blog post over this past week where he talks through the dueling notions of do you buckle down and sit in that chair and get all those words written when you’re hurting, or do you take a step back and practice some self-care. He’s really looking at the trap you can fall into where you’re just self-caring all the time and you’re not actually doing the hard work. As we head into NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, which is where I started Arlo Finch, I thought it was a good time to look at the dueling instincts to you’ve got tough it out versus relax and be easy on yourself.
Craig: Yeah. I loved this. I thought it was really smart. The reason I really appreciated it is because there are two positive ways of thinking about things, and one positive way is I need to take care of myself and be gentle with myself and not beat myself up, because that’s going to be counterproductive. There’s another positive thing that says I need to apply myself and motivate myself and push through difficult things and be resilient in order to get things done. The problem with both of those things is that bad sentiments can easily masquerade as those things.
That’s the part that I thought he really put his finger on brilliantly is that the two things I just said are correct and good, but here’s something that can masquerade as tough love: a kind of brutal self-loathing and self-denial. Here’s something that can masquerade as self-care: just fear and withdrawal and a sense that engaging isn’t worth it. I thought it was really important that especially now because we do concentrate so heavily on self-care ,that somebody said, just watch out, there are these two imposters that will wear the clothing of these two things and neither one is going to help you.
John: Yeah. Let’s go back to that tough love, because someone who is advocating tough love will say, “Yeah, so what? Writing is often hard. You’re not digging a ditch.” To some degree, writing is exercise and it’s just like working out. You get stronger sometimes by pushing through the pain. You’ve got to rip those muscles a little bit so that they can get stronger. I don’t know if physical science would hold that up to be true.
Craig: You did it.
John: I get that. Writing, for all of us, actually sitting down in the button chair and getting to that 1,000 words or those 3 pages can be really tough sometimes. It’s hard to string the words together. We’ve talked about this a lot on the show. What Craig describes as that imposter is a real thing where sometimes it’s your romantic notion that art must be suffering. That writing must be hard and so therefore if writing is hard then I’m doing the right thing because that’s what writing is supposed to be like, that it’s supposed to hurt and it’s supposed to be torture every time you do it. That’s probably not true. That’s not a healthy way to be approaching the craft that you’ve chosen for yourself.
Craig: You can easily get into a trap where you think of yourself as stupid or lazy because it just didn’t happen that day. You can try and try and try. There are days where it’s not going to happen. The healthy thing is to say that that is normal. I am not perfect. Not every day is going to be optimum. That imposter dressed in the clothing of tough love will say, “You suck. You’re weak and lazy and dumb, and a real writer would have gotten it done. You just failed.” That’s not helpful at all.
John: Let’s look at self-care, because you and I are both dealing with shoulder pain. Part of the recommendation for that is, take it easy on your shoulder. Don’t do things that are going to hurt your shoulder. That really is a form of self-care. If you are encountering a lot of mental anguish and other things in your life that makes it hard for you to write, possibly pushing through and forcing yourself to write is going to make that mental anguish worse. Be mindful that there could be a good reason why you should step off the accelerator and give yourself a little bit of a break and not be pushing yourself so hard.
Chuck was writing from the perspective of he’s a guy in a shack who is writing books. I’m reading his book right now. His book is really good. He wrote a big giant tome called Wanderers. It’s sort of like The Stand. It’s as long as The Stand. It’s a big tome that drops down. Chuck is a guy writing by himself out in the woods. He is not in a writing room. I’m going to keep using that word as much as I can.
Craig: Good for you.
John: He’s not in a writing room in a social environment with other people, and so therefore he only has himself to turn to. Some of his advice can be a little bit different about self-care when you are surrounded by a group who can be pushing you or also be supporting you.
Craig: The self-care thing is interesting because we didn’t really have it until a few years ago. Of course, it existed and people would come up with different names, but the notion of self-care and the popularity of it is a relatively modern phenomenon. What happens is there’s this backlash where people say, “Problem is all these snowflakes with their self-care, ergo self-care is stupid.” By the way, the people that say that never use the term ergo, but whatever. That’s not correct. Self-care is actually crucial.
What is correct is that self-care can be used as a name for something that isn’t self-care at all, but a different kind of self-abuse, which is hiding. We can, when we are afraid, sometimes put on the clothing of somebody that is trying to take care of themselves, when really we’re just scared. People might think, how exactly is writing scary? When you don’t know what to say, it’s terrifying. It really is. It’s as scary as a dream where you have to go on stage and give a speech but you haven’t prepared one. That’s what it kind of feels like.
John: Yeah. There’s a natural anxiety that happens, like, am I going to be able to do it? If I can’t do it, then it’s going to suck and I’m going to be embarrassed. Even if I’m the only person who is going to see that I can’t do it, it’ll going to be embarrassing. Yes, there’s a whole cycle that can start about should I sit down and actually start writing today?
Craig: Correct. You can wear the clothing of modern parlance and say, no, today is a self-care day. It is worth taking a real clear moment when you say today is a self-care day to say, “Or is it?” It doesn’t mean you’re lying to yourself. It just means let’s really ask and evaluate first. Then if everything checks out, then yes, it’s a self-care day.
John: I put together a list of five questions that I thought would be a starting place for looking at is this a time for self-care or is this a time for some tough love with myself. et me read through here. Craig, I suspect you’ll have other things to add to this checklist.
First I would say is check the facts. Basically that’s a chance to sort of step outside yourself and just look at the situation you’re in. Is this a situation where you’re dealing with some big stuff that anyone in your situation would say like, okay, given what you’re going through, like the loss of a family member, a big breakup, you’re moving, there are some real reasons why you are not equipped at this moment to be doing this stuff. Just check the facts. Independent of your emotions, what are the actual facts about this situation?
I would ask, are you taking care of the basics? Are you actually eating properly? Are you sleeping enough? Is there some basic survival function that you’re not doing a good enough job at, and is that the thing you really need to fix rather than worrying about how much you’re writing on a day? I would ask, can you take smaller bites? By that I mean rather than committing to 3 hours of sitting writing, can you just write for 20 minutes, or an hour? Can you do a little sprint to get you through some stuff? Can you write 100 words rather than forcing yourself to write 1,000 words at a sitting?
Can you lower the stakes? And this is where I come back to Aline Brosh McKenna’s method of getting in the ocean. I don’t know if you remember her describing this at some point. This is how Aline describes starting to swim in the ocean, is that you sort of step on the sand and you get your toes wet, and then you get your ankles wet, then you splash a little water up on your shins, and then your knees. Eventually you’re in the ocean and you’re swimming and you don’t even realize that you started swimming. I always loved Aline’s visual for how she gets into the ocean, because it’s true. It’s scary to jump into the ocean, but if you just wander in there, you’re like, oh hey, I’m in the ocean and I’m swimming.
Craig: It’s literally how every Jewish woman I’ve ever seen gets into a pool. It’s like every Jewish woman slowly wets the arms, wets the legs. It’s so careful. Maybe it’s just my family. Maybe it’s just the women in my family. I don’t know. It’s such a weird stereotypical thing, and I guess as far as stereotypes go, fairly harmless, because it is a smart way of acclimating to a new environment. I think lowering the stakes is a brilliant point of view on this, because there are times where you may say, “Listen, I think today is a self-care day. You know what? Today is a self-care day. That said, what if I did some writing on a self-care day? It doesn’t even count. It’s like free calories. Because it’s a self-care day. If it happens it happens. If it doesn’t it doesn’t. I’ll just try it now with zero stakes attached because it’s a self-care day. I don’t have to sit there grinding my teeth because it’s not happening.” I think that’s really smart.
John: Katie Silberman when she was on the show recently, she talked about how when she starts a project she’ll write scenes and scenes and scenes that aren’t going to be in the movie that are just the characters talking. Perfect. Those are throwaway scenes. It doesn’t matter. You’re just getting a sense of the voices. There’s no demand that those actually have to be the real scenes in the movie. Try writing those. You’ll be surprised. Some of those will end up in the movie. It’s lowering the stakes. The world isn’t going to come crashing down if those scenes are not perfect.
Craig: There you go. Yeah.
John: Last I would say, can you define what you’ll need to be able to do in order to get back to work as normal? If you say, okay, this is a self-care day, I can’t do it, great. What are the criteria you need to meet for you to be able to get back to work? If you can be just a little bit more concrete about that, like, “Okay, I need to be able to sit for 10 minutes without bursting into tears,” great. That’s a thing, if you can do that, then you’re on your way to being able to do the next thing. “I need to be able to focus on one thing for 20 minutes.” Give yourself some real criteria, benchmarks that you need to hit, so that you can actually say, okay, I’m in this state or I’m not in this state. There’s a sense that there’s an end date to it, that it’s not going to be a permanent condition for you.
Craig: Those are five great questions to ask yourself. I really only have one other one to suggest. It is simply, is the biggest problem on this particular day your writing? Because if the biggest problem, the thing that is taking the most wind out of your sails, the thing that is making you the sickest in your gut is the work itself, it may not be a self-care day. It may be a day where you just have to kind of re-approach your writing and think about what’s not working, because otherwise you could hide forever from that.
John: Yeah. When I was writing the Arlo Finch books, so the third book is in and done, so I’m essentially done with them, it was a lot more regular writing than I’d ever had to do. It’s been four years of really regular writing to get those books done. The word counts were just so much higher and the workload was so much higher than before. I did have to be little tougher on myself in terms of like, yeah, I don’t necessarily really want to do it today but I kind of need to do it today and I’m going to do it today. Even family vacations, I would say, okay, I need an hour this morning to write. I’m not being selfish. It’s what needs to happen. We would plan for I’m writing during this time. then once I got that writing done, I was just free in a way that was great. It wasn’t looming over me because I knew I’d gotten that work done.
I bring this up because sometimes writing actually is what you need to do. Sometimes writing is a really important way to get healthy again because it lets you step outside of yourself, outside of your own internal narrative into a different narrative and really focus on that for a time. It can get you out of your head with the right project.
Craig: That’s such a great point. I’ve got to tell you, that’s me. There are times where I needed a day off or even a week off because of extant circumstances, things that are going on in my family. My son has surgery. You got to deal with life as it comes and there are days where you just can’t do your work. In all honesty, 90% of the time when I am feeling miserable it’s because something is wrong with what I’m writing. The only way to fix that is to solve that problem. It doesn’t mean I have to write the solution. Sometimes I just have to take a long walk or a long shower. Sometimes I just don’t know the answer and I have to sit in that discomfort. That is still a work day to me. My fingers may not be moving on the keys, but I am thinking. I’m trying. I know exactly what you said is correct. When I do solve it and when I write that solution, the pain that I’m feeling will go away. Therefore I can’t self-care that. That can’t be self-cared away. That has to just be worked away. It’s a really smart distinction that you’ve made there.
John: Cool. We will link to Chuck Wendig’s original blog post which we thought was terrific. Chuck Wendig also writes a lot about writing and the writing process, so if you’ve not read any of his books on writing you should do that as well, because he’s a very smart, clever guy and talks really honestly about the frustration of writing but also what’s cool about writing, and has a very good voice. I would encourage you to check out his books as well.
This clip is from Episode 539: How to Grow Old as a Writer.
We have two big topics this week. This one you proposed, so I’m going to let you take leadership on this topic of growing old as a writer.
Craig: I was just thinking about because we’ve been doing this for a while, you and I, and when we started, there was actually quite a lot of concern about ageism in our business. The general idea was that somewhere after 50 the business started kicking people out. In fact, when you look at what the Writers Guild considers a protected class, writers over the age of 40 are considered a protected class. The world has changed drastically since the mid-’90s. I was talking to some people the other day who were pointing out that the writers who are being employed as showrunners, and we’ll call them sort of major feature film writers, generally are older than they’ve ever been before.
I thought, this is interesting. There must be some sort of lessons that we can learn, since you and I are among the people that are still here, about how to keep yourself fresh and motivated and relevant as the years go on, because we are not kids no more.
John: No. Craig, do we want to talk about how to have a long career, or how to be comfortable with aging in your career? Are we talking both? What are the edges of this conversation?
Craig: I feel like they’re intertwined. So, rather than talk in a very practical way about something that is applicable to about 80 people, I want to talk about something that’s applicable to everybody. Everybody who pursues any kind of creative concern, whether you are a visual artist or an actor or a writer or a producer-director, whatever it is that you do, as you get older your relationship to your own art and your own creative process does need to change, or you’re going to suffer. A reflection of that may be in terms of the industry around you and people’s interest in you, or an audience’s response to you. Rather than view it through the lens of industry, I just want to talk about how to keep ourselves in a kind of good place with our own creative minds.
John: Great. The artistic side of growing older and how that relates to the craft and the thing that you’re trying to make on a daily basis.
Craig: Ideally that would be reflected back at you with some sort of industrial success, if that’s what you’re looking for as the years go on. First let’s just consider it all in terms of strategies, because I do think like anything else there’s just practical things that you can apply to yourself as time goes on. These are good thoughts and questions to just, even every birthday, take a 10-minute walk and think about it.
First, you have to think about what your task actually is. Because it changes over time. You may start as someone who for instance in the mid-’90s, you are, “I want to write sitcoms. I’m going to be a sitcom guy that works on network sitcoms.” There are hundreds of them. Over time, that changes. The tasks that are available that match what you think you do can change. Also, formats can change. We think of television as a certain thing now. It’s all over the place. When we started, it was something else. Chernobyl, for instance, couldn’t have been really done until a certain format change occurred. That meant paying attention to what was going on with formats.
There are two kinds of challenges that you can make to yourself. The first is, is the thing that I’m doing the only thing I can be doing, or could I be writing a different kind of thing, like a short story, or like you did, a novel, or like we’ve both done, some songs, or nonfiction work? Also, are we working within a format that is maybe dying out or just getting boring to us? What other formats might expand our own personal expression? If we don’t rotate the crops, as it were, then we will end up with a field that isn’t doing too well.
John: Let’s talk about rotating the crops, because I think that ties into a thing that happens with age, which is this burnout, which is that you’ve done one thing for so long that it’s boring to you. It’s just not interesting to you. It’s hard to work up the enthusiasm to do it again.
I was talking with a writer recently. She was just starting on a new script. She’s like, oh wow, wait, I’m back doing this again. I’m having to start a whole new script again. She was ready to. She knew how to write a script. It was also she didn’t have the same enthusiasm for it that she would have had 5 years, 10 years earlier in her career.
I think that’s one of the reasons why I was attracted to writing the Arlo Finch books or to writing the Big Fish musical is it gave me a chance to be a beginner again, to be someone who is brand new to things and be curious and eager to explore and willing to make mistakes as I’m figuring out this new art form. When you have mastery over something, it’s nice, it’s helpful, things are easier for you, but they’re also less exciting. Picking a new thing to try to do… Just challenge yourself on a regular basis to try something that you haven’t done before as a writer, so that you get that experience of being new at things.
Craig: Yeah. Getting yourself in that rut is the function of a good thing, I think. We know that you need to focus and you need to practice and perfect. That’s part of how you get good at any creative pursuit. There is a point where, and a little bit like when you get in a video game you’ve maxed out your level, you’re now just walking around all the areas of Skyrim and beating everyone’s brains in with ease.
John: Yeah. You’re just doing a little side quest.
Craig: There’s no challenge because you are perfection, and it gets boring. You’re absolutely right. Being a beginner again is a wonderful thing. It’s a little scary, so it’s also a function of fear. Trying new things is scary. The thing that I’m scared of the most is actually, at this point now in my life, being bored. Challenge yourself to reconsider the nature of the formats you do work in, that you’re willing to work in, that you’re willing to try. Take a look at some formats that you didn’t maybe know even existed before, because there are new ones all the time. Challenge yourself to even break out of a genre and into another genre.
John: You’re really saying just stay curious and really look at the world around you and see, what is out there, what is a thing I could make out there that is interesting to me? It doesn’t mean you have to pursue everything. You don’t have to become a social media influencer. You don’t have to master TikTok. It’s okay to leave some stuff by the side, but also recognize that if these things are coming online, they’re serving some need. What is it you can bring to this need, and what can you do that could fit into this bigger universe of new content that’s being made?
Craig: You’ve mentioned the key to all of this, which is stay curious and be connected with the world. The biggest complaint people will make about, we’ll call them aging artists, is that they’re out of touch. How do we get out of touch? We get out of touch by essentially ignoring the world around us because we feel like we figured it out in a moment, and then we stay there. The world will move past that moment. If you don’t, you will be out of touch.
Sometimes people engage with the world simply in opposition. “Kids these days.” Let me just boil it down to that. “I don’t understand the world today. Everyone is on their phones.” Anybody who ever says, “You know what the problem is with the world today? Look around you man. Everyone is staring at their phones. They’re not looking at each other,” you go ahead and tell that person they’re an idiot, because the world changes. They are interacting in fact with more people faster than you could have ever done in your life. Is it true that sometimes uninterrupted eye-to-eye contact is wonderful? Absolutely. Is it a cliché, out-of-touch thing to say, “They’re all looking at their phones?” Absolutely out of touch.
Rather than instinctively saying, “In my day everything was perfect and now it stinks,” listen. Just listen to the world. Even if you disagree with it, listen to it, because perhaps in your experience of the world around you and your differences of opinions with it, you may find grist for the creative mill. Defensiveness isn’t going to get you anywhere.
John: Yeah. Being defensive is never a good look. When you say no to something, people stop engaging with you. I would say over this last 20 years, one of the most helpful ways I’ve been able to stay caught up with how things are for screenwriters and just for general people making creative things, I’ve always had an assistant. My assistants have always been younger than me. They’ve always been at the start of their careers and doing stuff that people at the start of their careers do. It’s been fascinating to see how the starts of careers have changed over the last 20 years because just the industry has changed around them.
Also, just engaging with the people who originally were writing into the website who are now Scriptnotes listeners. You see what they’re doing and what the challenges they’re facing, but also what is exciting to them. I may not be excited about the same things, but what they’re into is valid. Listening to what it is that they are going after is great. I always try to remember that the people I’m interacting with are the people who are going to be running this town in 10, 20, 30 years. It’s worth hearing what’s sparking for them because those are the kinds of movies and TV shows that we will be making the next couple decades.
Craig: Inherently, you are not jealous of the young, nor am I. I think a lot of older people get quietly, subconsciously jealous of young people. My feeling is that when we judge them, remember what it was like when we were judged by older people, because in my memory my feelings were not hurt at all. I just kind of rolled my eyes and made fun of them, because soon they were going to be dead and I was not. They were old and out of it and not vital. My feeling is, judging people who are younger and thinking that all they do, they’re obsessed with their influencers and their TikTok and blah blah blah, you’re not having any impact on them. They’re laughing at you. Maybe just listen to them and observe them. What’s wrong with that?
John: You can also ask advice, which I think a lot of times older people have a hard time asking advice of younger people because it reveals something that they don’t know. The fact is you just don’t know some things, so again, be curious. Ask the questions. Don’t ask the questions in a way that feels judgmental like, “Why are you doing it this crazy, stupid way?” What is it that’s interesting to you about this thing, or why did you decide to make that choice? Again, when you get to move into new fields, that’s very natural because you just actually just don’t know. You’re in a much better position to ask naïve questions because you don’t know what that thing is, versus us as screenwriters we have a good sense of how all the stuff fits together.
That said, when I talked with a writer, Liz Hannah, who just did a movie for Netflix, I am genuinely curious about what the experience is like making a movie for Netflix. What are the deliverables like on that movie? Are they expecting the same things that we’d expect in a theatrical feature delivery system where they want… Are they cutting negative? Are they doing all the stuff that we used to do for normal, traditional features, or is it more like a TV delivery system? Ask those questions and realize that the different kinds of things people are making these days are more likely the future than what we knew.
Craig: The things around us that happen that we can lose touch with in a dangerous way are not just I guess the different experiences that younger people are having, but also the general viewpoint of the world. Attitudes change. It’s very hard for us to keep up with it. It really is. I understand that.
I remember a friend once told me, he was like, “I’m going to keep listening to whatever the pop music station is, the current hits station, because I never want to be one of the old people that doesn’t know current music.” Inevitably, you will be. It’s not possible. There are some things that are going to leave you behind.
General attitudes and vibes and feelings are things you need to be in touch with, because what was once funny may not be anymore. Things like funny and dramatic and scary and shocking are not absolute values. They are relative to the time in which you live. If you’re not paying attention to the kinds of things that are shocking people or making them laugh, you’re going to flop, because you’re out of touch and out of time.
John: Let’s talk about authenticity, because one of the things I see which can be kind of embarrassing is when an older person is trying to seem younger than they are and is not acknowledging the fact that they are in a different generation than people they’re talking to.
Craig: Hello, fellow kids.
John: Language is one where they’re trying to use slang and they’re using it improperly. That’s sort of a tell. It’s not just that it’s embarrassing that they’re using it wrong. It’s that it’s clear that they’re not being authentic to who they are. I think one of the reasons why young people spark so clearly to Bernie Sanders is he feels very much himself. That is true of any generation. When we were in our 20s, we didn’t want the old person who was trying to be like us. We wanted the old person who felt like themselves. Don’t reach too far in terms of your own voice trying to sound young.
In terms of your writing voice, though, you are going to be writing characters of all different ages, all different backgrounds. You have to be listening for how those things sound so that your character’s voices don’t drift away.
Our example in last week’s episode, where we were listening to how people speak, that’s I think even more important as you age into your career, because your assumptions, your memory of what 20-somethings sounded like is not going to match how 20-somethings sound right now.
Craig: Yeah. Then we come to our last point, which is just language, just the realities of language, because you’re right. There is something terribly inauthentic about someone that is chasing language. They will always be five steps behind anyway. They will always be your dad walking in saying, “Oh, chill out. Oh wow, this is fresh.” Shut up, dad. That’s so old and lame. It’s faster now. Whatever is cool five seconds will not be cool five seconds from now, because that’s what youth is. It’s a churn.
Don’t chase it, but do let yourself be carried along by it. Be aware of it. Let yourself be old authentically without either chasing something, which is inauthentic, or denying the reality of it, which is just as terrible. Just be aware of the way that the world is changing and be aware of the way you’re changing. If you are those things and you are willing and open to evolving, then it doesn’t really matter how old you get. You’ll just be cool. Dr. Ruth Westheimer is 4,000 years old.
John: Good lord, yes.
Craig: She’s cool.
John: Yeah, she’s a lich, but she’s really cool.
Craig: She is a lich.
John: There’s a [unclear 01:17:21] hidden away someplace.
Craig: Yeah, she’s a lawful good lich. Very rare. Very rare.
John: Special when you find them.
Craig: She’s a lich.
John: Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao, with segments produced by Stuart Friedel, Godwin Jabangwe, and Megan McDonnell. It’s edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Chris John Mince [ph]. 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 and 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 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. You should get them. You can find them 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 with Jake, who wrote in with the suggestion for this episode. Thanks, and we’ll see you next week.
John: All right, I’m here with Jake Kelley, who is the listener who wrote in with the suggestion for this episode. Jake, welcome to Scriptnotes.
Jake Kelley: Hello. Thank you for having me.
John: Tell me about the inspiration for this episode. What got you thinking about, “Oh, I should put together a compendium episode.”
Jake: It started because I think as listeners what we appreciate about you and Craig is your expertise on the craft of screenwriting. If you listen to enough episodes, it becomes evident that you’re both very wise and experienced guys in other manners. I wanted to put this episode together to showcase some of that wisdom that’s not necessarily craft-specific, but that can still help screenwriters.
John: Stuff that’s not about the words on the page, but the actual experience of being a screenwriter. Are you a screenwriter? Do you write yourself?
Jake: I do write. I am not a professional screenwriter.
John: I see by the little bit of Googling that you’re actually a visual artist. That’s your background?
Jake: That is correct.
John: How do you find the relationship between the creative process, writing, trying to write a script, versus the work you’re doing, painting or doing other visual arts?
Jake: I find the process to be pretty similar. I would say the biggest difference, and it’s a very surface-level difference, but I can only write for about two or three hours a day max, and usually not even that, whereas if I’m doing visual art, it’s pretty easy for me to do five, six, or seven hours straight.
John: They’re similar disciplines, but different in the way that doing physical art, you’re physically doing stuff, you’re in a space, you’re moving around, versus writing, you’re at a desk and you’re making a thousand decisions about this word or that word, this moment or that moment. Even Craig and I, we’re writing two or three hours maximum a day also. It’s not realistic to assume that you’re going to be able to crank out that number of hours.
Jake: There still is a lot of those decisions in creative art. Every time I mix a color, it’s like, is this the right color or the wrong color? Every line, I’m questioning it. It really is a process of thousands of micro decisions you’re making through the course of that working session.
John: Craig, of course, if he were on this podcast, he would say [unclear 01:20:48] drop out of film school. Did you go to art school? Did you learn how to do this in an academic setting?
Jake: Yes. I did go to the University of Wisconsin, where I studied fine art.
John: What are those classes like? I know a writing class, because I went through a journalism program. Those metrics were like, are you able to do the job or not do the job, versus it would seem to be harder to figure out, is this student in my visual arts class actually progressing? Are they doing the work that deserves an A or a B or a pass or a fail?
Jake: I think that was the trouble for some of my educators, some of them being grad students. I would say overall it is measured by progress. These classes were open to non-artists a lot of times. We did try to foster a healthy atmosphere if somebody wanted to come in from a science field and just try to do a life drawing. It was based on progress and effort and attempt. You’d just blow it off, but that was the starting place.
John: Now, coming from a visual background, were you always also writing? Did you write even back in those days or was it a later thing that you got into?
Jake: We can say I was doing some writing, but where they really came together was I was doing comics and comic strips, which is really both writing and drawing at the same time.
John: Talk to me about the comic strips, because that’s absolutely true that you were both having to figure out what the stories, what the words are, what the actual point is, yet you have to have a strong visual representation of how that works. As you were doing comics, were you scripting them out first and then figuring out the panels? What was your process?
Jake: For that, if it was a simple four-panel comic, generally I would just have a vague idea of one I wanted to do. I would fill in the visual information, and then do the text last. Other people did it the other way. If it’s longer form, then I would probably start with some sort of words on a page to help guide me, break up the storytelling information that way.
John: I’m writing a graphic novel right now. I’m loving it. It’s a great process, but I’m finding it is actually exhausting to really have to visualize the page and think, okay, how is this going to be presented on the page, what’s actually happening panel by panel to get me through it, what is the top-of-page to bottom-of-page experience? I love it, but it’s just, even after 20 years doing this as a job, it is still different than the normal screenwriting I’m doing.
Jake: When you’re screenwriting and you’re using only words, what is the engagement of the visual process there for you?
John: Screenwriting with just words, I am envisioning the space, envisioning who the people are and where they are in the space and basically what they’re doing. I just create the loop of this is the moment, this is the scene, this is happening. I don’t think shot by shot. I don’t think what the coverage is going to be. I don’t think necessarily who’s big in frame, who’s small in frame, usually. I just have to put the people there and get them in motion, as opposed to doing this writing now for this graphic novel, I really have to think about who’s in that frame and who am I focused on in that moment. It feels a lot more like the directing from the page has always been okay, but it feels like calling out those closeups, calling out what it is moment by moment I’m going to be seeing. That is a little exhausting for me.
Jake: Of course.
John: I want to talk to you about, you pulled for this episode way back to Episode 6. When did you start listening to this show? When did you find all these little moments? Were you always listening from the beginning or did you go back through the archives? How did you find all these moments?
Jake: I believe I discovered your podcast, I want to say around Episode 390 or so. I’m not actually sure what date that lines up with, maybe three years ago or so. At first I was just listening to the new episode every week it came out. Then I did start to become more interested in the past episodes, because there is a wealth of information there. What I did was I would go reverse chronological by… You break it up into 50-episode chunks. I would go backwards a chunk, but then within that chunk, go forward. I’d jump to Episode 250, then go 251, 252. Then when I reached 300, I would jump backwards to 200 and then 201.
John: I’ve never listened to the back-catalogs. I have a memory of recording them, but I can’t remember who I was at that time or what the show was like.
Jake: Of course.
John: How much has the show changed when you listen back to those early episodes versus what’s happening now on the show?
Jake: I don’t think it actually changed all that much. I know that some people say that the earlier episodes are a little bit rough around the edges. I think that’s only true maybe in terms of microphone quality. Very, very early on, I think you and Craig maybe don’t have quite the same rapport. Honestly, it’s not that noticeable. It really is you could jump to those back-episodes that far back and really truly have the same experience. You guys are as wise and smart as always.
John: Aw. Jake, thank you so much for this. Thank you very much again for writing with this suggestion, because it really was a great pitch for putting together the kind of episodes that we’ve been doing more of as Megana’s come online, to really pick stuff up from this big catalog and make episodes that make sense. We some rerun old episodes, and that can be great, but so much of that information gets weirdly out of date, and our wonderful things don’t match up to anything. A suggestion like this for a special compendium episode is great. Jake, thank you so much again for this.
Jake: Of course. Thanks for having me.
- Episode 6: How Kids Become Screenwriters
- Episode 119: Positive Moviegoing
- Episode 425: Tough Love vs. Self Care
- Episode 439: How to Grow Old as a Writer
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- Thanks to Jake Kelley for the episode suggestion!
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