The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: This is Episode 585 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show, what are the unique characteristics that allow you to distinguish one writer’s writing from another’s. We’ll talk about writer fingerprints, voice, and situations where you may need to mimic someone else’s style. Plus, we have a lot of listener follow-up.
John: In our Bonus Segment for Premium Members, we often answer writer questions about producers, but here we have one from a producer asking about how to best handle a writer who can’t seem to finish or deliver on a script. If you want to know what advice Craig, Megana, and I have for this producer, you can find out as a Premium Member in about one hour when we get to that segment.
Craig: That’s worth the five bucks right there.
John: Right there. Right there.
Craig: Right there.
John: You know what’s worth more than $5?
Craig: What, Segue Man?
John: A spot on Scriptnotes if you are a writer, because we are the number one podcast for getting Oscar nominees to happen. That’s what I’ve decided.
Craig: I think you might be right about this.
John: Our track record this year, pretty darn good. Sarah Polley, Oscar nominee. Rian Johnson, Oscar nominee, Daniels, Oscar nominees. You count them as one or two people?
Craig: I count them as one bi-person duology.
John: Absolutely. Although she wasn’t on the podcast this year, she’s a previous guest, Pamela Ribon, and she was a One Cool Thing, so I think that counts for her animation nomination for My Year of Dicks.
Craig: Absolutely. It’s so funny, Year of Dicks triggered something in me.
John: The title or the film itself?
Craig: The title. I’m so glad I got to say that and it’s preserved eternally. Have you watched Poker Face yet?
John: I haven’t watched it yet. I’m excited too.
Craig: I saw the first episode of Poker Face last night, which is the new show from Rian Johnson and the great Natasha Lyonne, who by the way, have we had Natasha on the show?
John: No, she was never on the show.
Craig: We’re going to change that momentarily. It was a delight. There was a line that was said not once, but twice, possibly thrice. “Cloud of dicks.” It made me happy. I think we have entered the dicks phase of language.
John: Yeah, 100%. Now, I worry though that the success of these writers who came on the Scriptnotes podcast is only going to make it worse for Megana. I don’t know if you know this, Craig, but publicists are flooding her inbox.
Craig: I know.
John: We need to stop that.
Craig: There’s nothing we can do about that really. They’re going to find whoever they can find, and I don’t blame them. I honestly don’t. The thing about these awards seasons is… You’ve been involved in one. I’ve been involved in one. The publicists are constantly looking for these angles. The ones that they love the most are the inside baseball ones, where they know you can go and talk to people for an hour, it’s actually a fun conversation, it’s not brutal, and it’s going to be over-sampled by the people voting in the Guild Awards and for the Academies.
I get it, but also, dear publicists, we’re not a talk show really. This is my favorite kind of show, me and you alone with Megana. Alone with Megana. That’s a great song title. Didn’t Air Supply do that one?
John: I do want to acknowledge that most of the people we’ve had on the show who are writers who get awards were people we just knew independently of publicists. There have been a couple cases where the only place that we could find these people were because of publicists, and some of those have turned out great too. The Greta Gerwig episode is a fantastic episode. I don’t know Greta Gerwig from anybody, but because of publicists, we were able to be connected together. I’m not digging publicists. They serve a great function. I just want to make sure that we are true to our goals of not becoming just a talk show.
Craig: I think we really do try and limit it, even among our friends. We have friends that still bug me, like, “Why haven’t I been on your show?” Because that’s not what we do. It’s not our thing. Then every time we do have a guest, I’m like, “I’m going to hear from people.” It’s honestly not our focus. We are not a come on and plug your thing. The reason that we talk to people almost always, not always, but almost always, is because there is a personal connection. Even the Daniels was just down to, I’d had a nice chat with one of the Daniels on Twitter. There was some connection there.
John: I met them up on the mountain at Sundance.
Craig: There you go. There you go.
John: There was some connection. The person we’ve not been able to get on the show, and we’ve kind of tried, we haven’t tried that hard, but James Cameron is a get that we’d love to get, because not only his most recent work, but how incredibly influential his writing style for films like Terminator and Aliens. Action writing is different because of him. It would be great to have him on the show.
Craig: I am a huge, huge fan of the script for Titanic. I just love it. I love it. It would be great to talk to him for my own interest. I’m that selfish. If other people want to listen, fine, but I want to talk to him.
John: We’ve been trying to make that happen. At some point, maybe we can make that happen. In the meantime, if you want to read any of these scripts that are nominated, you can now, thanks to Megana Rao, read them on the Weekend Read beta. Weekend Read is the app my company makes for reading scripts on your iPhone. We have a beta for the new version. It’s really good. It’s really fun. We now have all the For Your Consideration scripts up in there if you want to read them. The new version has notes. It has a read aloud feature, which is fun.
John: If you would like to try the beta on that, we’ll put a link in the show notes to that. It’s just a simple test flight. There’s still kinks that we’re working out, so if you want to try it out and tell us what’s working and what’s not working, that would help us out a lot.
Craig: Don’t kink-shame.
John: No. Kinks are good. Kink-celebrate.
Craig: I’m giddy today. I’m clearly giddy.
John: You are giddy. Let’s talk about why you’re giddy, because you had a rough start to your day. Do you want to tell us what happened this morning?
Craig: It was an up and down sort of day.
Craig: Exactly. Upside, The Last of Us has been renewed for another season.
Megana Rao: Congratulations.
Craig: Thank you. I was very happy about that. Then on the downside, there’s some businessy, contracty nonsense. Every now and then, you just get a call from your lawyer where you’re like, “Wait, what? What?! What?!” I just got grouchy about that. It’ll all be resolved. Nobody freak out. Then I went and took a shower, and I was moving quickly, because I didn’t want to be late for this show.
John: You don’t want to break your perfect streak of being on time.
Craig: Exactly, because I’m always so punctual, and I really felt like it’s important to not blow it. That’s obviously really important to me, and so I raced. Coming out of the shower, I slipped and I fell in the bathroom. As I was falling, I did a pretty good job of… Time slows down, and you basically get spidey senses. Your body knows somehow, something terrible is about to happen, so your brain goes into a mega state. Everything got slower. I was able to get my hand out to slow things down. I was also able to turn. I took all of the brunt of the fall on my hip, which as you know, is something that old people break all the time. Now I know why. I did not break my hip. I was on the floor, and for a second I was like, “Did I just… No, I think I’m okay.”
There’s a comedian, Alonzo Bodden, who does this bit about how when you’re in your 20s and you fall, you just pop back up and your only concern is, “Did anybody see me? Because I looked really stupid.” When you’re in your 50s and you fall, people tell you, “Whoa, don’t get up. Stay down.” Then he said when you’re in your 80s and you fall, people fly in from out of state. I decided to stay down for a bit, and then I was like, “Everything’s fine.” Then I got back up, and I was just like, “Oh, for God’s sakes, what a start to the day.”
John: I’m so sorry, Craig. I had a fall at the end of last year. We were skiing. Skiing is inherently kind of dangerous. You’re going to fall while you’re skiing.
Craig: At least you fall on snow.
John: I was going in to change my gloves or something. I’m walking in ski boots, which are perilous anyway. I hit some wet concrete, slip, and start to fall. Yes, again, time starts to go more slowly. In fact, they think what’s actually happening is that time isn’t moving more slowly but your memory of it is moving more slowly. It takes more slices. That’s why it seems like-
John: That’s why you remember it happening slowly.
Craig: I like that.
John: I start to fall. I end up falling and hitting my ribs against this row of seats. I bruise my ribs. They’re still now recovering.
Craig: Are you sure you just bruised them?
John: If I’d broken them, it would’ve been harder to breathe.
Craig: It’s probably true.
John: Also, there’s not a lot they can do for broken ribs [crosstalk 00:09:12].
Craig: There really isn’t. You can’t cast them. You just basically tell people don’t take deep breaths.
John: The rib I bruised the most is one of the ribs in back that’s not actually connected to anything. It free floats, which is kind of great, but also they could just remove it like they removed Cher’s ribs. I was thinking, “Maybe they can just remove the rib.”
Craig: Did they really remove Cher’s ribs?
John: I think that is not just a Snopesy thing. We’re going to look it up right now, because I don’t want to put false information out. Snopes Cher rib.
Craig: I’m doing it too, Snopes Cher rib. “Did Cher have ribs removed to make her waist smaller?” False.
Craig: False. The claim was Cher had her lowest pair of ribs surgically removed to achieve an ultra-small waist. That is apparently false. In fact, it doesn’t seem that really anyone has done that.
John: I’m looking up Marilyn Manson too, the other thing I’ve heard.
Craig: For a totally different purpose. We could say auto-fellatio on the show. I don’t think that that violates any… Marilyn Manson, who apparently is a horrible person, from everything I’ve read… Am I allowed to say that on the show?
John: Yeah. I think we avoid libel by saying you’ve heard people say that he’s not a good person.
Craig: I don’t mean to slander anybody. I’m just saying I’ve read things online. It sounds like he’s a horrible person. Some terrible claims have been made against him by people that I have no reason to doubt. The rumor that had been out there is that he had ribs removed so that he could perform auto-fellatio, which it can’t possibly be true.
John: No, it doesn’t seem like it’s true. People apparently are asking him, and he’s giving vague non-answers, probably because he wants the story to continue. Anyway, circling back to-
Craig: Boy, have we gone off… Wow.
John: Craig and I both fell down and hurt ourselves, and we’re older, but we’re okay.
Craig: I like that Megana’s like, “Oh, you guys are so cute, falling down.” Megana, you’re the one that’s going to have to take care of us.
John: Megana has a sore throat.
Craig: Oh, you have a sore throat?
Megana: I have a sore throat, yeah.
Craig: Oh, dear. Oh boy.
Megana: It’s normal. It’s a cool thing to have.
Craig: Is it?
John: It’s a very useful sore throat.
Craig: Megana, I gotta push back on that. I don’t think it’s cool at all.
Megana: It’s not cool, but I got it from being social and fun, not from the two stories we just heard.
John: At a party.
Megana: I got it at a party.
Craig: Not from some pathetic old man lost his balance thing. Cool. Cool cool.
John: We actually have a PSA, not really a question or a follow-up, but from James, which is also about medical-related things. Megana, would you help us out with that?
Megana: James says, “This isn’t a question. It’s a reminder for all writers to look after their tools. For the last couple of years, I’ve been struggling to write. I would feel mentally drained whenever I started writing. Depression and writing became synonymous in my mind. I wasn’t looking at things clearly, literally. I got my eyes checked a few weeks ago, and it turns out that I needed reading glasses. That’s all. The effort required to read was causing me stress and fatigue. These glasses have given me a new surge of creativity, and it’s a joy to write again. If we’re sighted, our eyes are a key tool for our job. Please look after them.”
Craig: That’s fantastic, James.
John: That’s fantastic. I feel very seen by James, because a thing I’ve noticed over the past last few months is some days I wake up and my eyes are just not working quite right. It’s not that I need my reading glasses on or need them off. Just my monitor is hard to read. I actually have an eye appointment to go in and see if I need some sort of medium distance glasses. Right now, as we’re recording, eyes are crystal clear, everything is so sharp, but there’s times where it’s hard just to read, and writing’s tougher.
Craig: You don’t wear reading glasses?
John: I wear reading glasses only for very close distance things.
Craig: I see. John, alas, that is changing. John, your body is going through changes. Have a seat. Let’s talk about what’s happening with your body. Your eye muscles are dying, and so are mine. I will say the more you use reading glasses, the-
John: More you depend on them.
Craig: Oh my god, because your eye muscles are like, “Thank you. We’re done. Everybody go home. We retire.” I think it’s fun actually. I am enjoying this part of being old. I feel like this is the best old time. What follows this is not good old time. This is fun old time, like, “Oh, I need glasses. Oh, I slipped and fell, but really nothing happened, lol.” The 20-something that I work with on my show laughs about it, and that’s funny. In 10 years it’s going to be sad.
Megana: Also, just because most people on the podcast don’t get to see this, you do have quite a flourish when you put your reading glasses on.
Craig: I do?
Craig: I like to snap them open and slap them on. Everybody knows when the reading glasses go on-
Megana: It’s business time.
Craig: It’s business time. Decisions are about to be made.
John: A trick for people is that if you are starting to use reading glasses, like I am, get on Amazon. You can get packs of 10 that are basically all the same. You just leave them around places in your house, so you don’t have to worry about, “Where are my reading glasses?” Your reading glasses are everywhere, and that’s a really helpful thing you can do, just like pens. Just have a pen everywhere you need a pen.
Craig: Try and make as many friends as you can in their 50s and 60s, because they’ll always have reading glasses with them also. I used to look at people 10 years ago in a restaurant with their glasses and their phones with the lights on, looking at menus. I’m like, “What is wrong with these people?” It me.
John: You’re the problem.
Craig: I’m the problem.
John: We have another question that I think we can actually maybe answer, about Apple Podcasts and Siri. Megana, help us out.
Megana: Anthony writes, “I had a weird change in my normal listening habit when I upgraded to a new OS on my phone. I’m using an iPhone 12 Mini and I just upgraded to iOS 16.2. I’m subscribed to the show via Apple Podcasts, and when driving, I used to be able to press a talk button and say, ‘Play Scriptnotes podcast,’ and it just started playing the latest episode or wherever I left off. Now after this update, if I say, ‘Play Scriptnotes podcast,’ it says you have to blah blah blah Apple Music to do that. I tried changing it to say, ‘Play Apple Podcast Scriptnotes,’ and it didn’t work, starts playing Apple Podcasts but other shows. Without boring you to tears, I’ve managed to verbally get it to play a couple of times, but I can’t remember the exact phrasing that worked.”
John: This is a form of prompt engineering. It’s almost like what ChatGPT is, like what am I going to say to this device to get them to do what I want. We have the same kind of problem occasionally. In the morning, we ask Siri to play us the news. We say, “Play the news from NPR,” or just, “Tell us the news.” Sometimes it works like that, and sometimes it doesn’t.
What I think Anthony needs to do is be a little bit more specific. I think the real trick here is that the podcast we’re listening to is not Scriptnotes, it is Scriptnotes Podcast. For whatever reason, when we first set it up, we called it Scriptnotes Podcast. If he says, “Play Scriptnotes Podcast in Podcasts,” it should work. I listen to Overcast, and I’d test it, that, “Play Scriptnotes Podcast in Overcast,” will pull up Overcast and it’ll play in there.
Craig: Is there a way to change that, so that just saying Scriptnotes would work? Is there somebody we could talk to?
John: I think we would probably break… It’s too risky. There’s too many things that could break because of it.
Craig: What if I talk to Tim Apple? Would that help?
John: Tim Apple could fix all of it.
Craig: I’m telling you, this is going to… John, hang on. Just hang on, because this is going to be a show. It’s going to be a show, buddy. It’s going to be a show. We’re going to have a great time.
John: Also, what’s important for people to understand is that we think about Apple controlling podcasts, but they really don’t. It’s just an RSS feed, like your old website, Craig. That RSS feed has really nothing to do with Apple. It’s just people tend to use their iPhones to listen to podcasts.
Craig: I just wanted to say Tim Apple.
John: Tim Apple. Craig, we have talked before about IP-based movies. I think one of the things we got to was there was going to be a Pet Rock movie at some ponit. The moment has come. I was talking with a writer who’s going to pitch on the Pet Rock movie. We had a great conversation about what the Pet Rock movie should be.
Craig: I don’t hate it. Did you have a Pet Rock by the way?
John: I didn’t have an official Pet Rock bought at the store. I got a rock out of the garden and drew some eyes on it.
Craig: Oh my god, that’s the saddest thing in the world.
John: I don’t know what to tell you.
Craig: You were too poor to have the $4 Pet Rock?
John: Yeah, it’s true.
Craig: Oh my god.
John: Basically, my parents said no.
Craig: That is the most Eagle Scout thing I’ve ever heard from you, and you have quite a bit of Eagle Scoutness as an Eagle Scout. I had the actual branded Pet Rock, and I’ve got to tell you, it’s superior to your homemade faux rock.
John: Tell me why it was better.
Craig: No, it wasn’t.
John: What are the characteristics of a real Pet Rock? Are their googly eyes glued to it?
Craig: Yes, there are googly eyes glued to it. That is essentially what it was. Megana, have you even heard of Pet Rock?
Megana: I’ve heard of Pet Rock. I’ve never actually seen one. I haven’t held one.
Craig: There’s probably a few out there still in the wild. The joke of it was I think it was invented as a novelty to make fun of consumerism. It was like, “Look how stupid everyone is.” People would buy a Pet Rock. It’s a gag gift you’d give to somebody on their birthday, “Ha ha ha, I bought you a Pet Rock.” Then it just became a fad, a real fad. In the ‘70s, fads happened in the weirdest ways. We watch fads happening now live on Twitter or Instagram.
These things would just emerge in these crazy, organic ways until eventually they filtered down to people on Staten Island. Then it subverted the whole point. The whole point was look how ridiculous it is. Then actually people were like, “We want Pet Rocks.”
What we have now are a lot of people running Hollywood who are in their 50s and 60s who are remembering Pet Rock. This to me is the epitome of pointless in that nobody who’s going to… They’re not making the Pet Rock movie for people in their 50s and 60s. They’re making it for kids. Kids don’t know about Pet Rocks. Zero cache for them. It could be good though. It could be.
John: It could be good. It could be good, just because there’s literally a blank slate, as the writer said. There’s many rock puns you can get to.
Craig: I get it. Slate.
John: Here’s what I’ll say. I think the idea of this thing that should be completely inanimate being the central character of a story is interesting in the wake of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On and the moments in Everything Everywhere All At Once which are about two rocks just sitting and watching the end of time. I kind of get it, but they’re going to want it to be a big, four-quadrant movie. They’re going to want it to be Minions, and that’s going to be challenging, but somebody’s up for it.
Craig: If you made a movie called Rocks and it was about animated rocks, that would be perfectly… We know that you can make a wonderful animated movie based on almost anything. It’s just the fact that they think Pet Rock has some kind of value.
John: I’m curious whether Pet Rock is a trademark, whether they held onto a trademark for that or if it’s just [inaudible 00:20:40].
Craig: That’s a great question. I don’t know, although now I’m seeing that apparently there is a Pet Rock that is introduced in Minions: The Rise of Gru. Perhaps this is why. It may be that the Pet Rock has been revived via Minions.
John: The other revival of the Pet Rock of course is Elmo’s longstanding beef with Zoe on Sesame Street about her pet rock. Zoe wants to save a piece of pie or a piece of pizza for her pet rock. Elmo’s like, “It’s just a stupid rock.”
Megana: His name’s Rocco.
John: His name’s Rocco, the pet rock.
Craig: Does Elmo physically fight Zoe? Do they fight? Is there blood? Do muppets bleed?
John: Do muppets bleed? We’ve got a title for the episode.
Craig: Hey, Siri, do muppets bleed? I just triggered a lot of phones out there.
John: We will follow the development of the Pet Rock movie. The other thing, which I don’t know if we talked about on the show before, is I was curious why is there not a General Mills cereal movie. Why is there not a Franken Berry movie? Why is there not a Count Chocula?
Craig: Why isn’t there?
John: I looked it up, and there was a whole plan to make them, and it all fell apart.
Craig: Things do tend to fall apart a lot in Hollywood.
John: Things fall apart.
Craig: That is true. Hold on a second. I just had a cool idea for a movie.
Craig: It’s an animated movie. It’s basically a battle royale between all of the cereal mascots.
John: The mascots, yeah.
Craig: All of them. There’s so many. Right off the top of my head, there’s Cap’n Crunch, there’s the Trix are for kids rabbit, there is the Lucky Charms leprechaun.
John: Love it.
Craig: Snap, Crackle, and Pop. There’s the Honey Smacks Dig ‘Em Frog. Was it Honey Smacks?
John: Dig ‘Em Frog, yeah.
Craig: There’s the Dig ‘Em Frog. There’s the wizard from Cookie Crunch or Cookie Crisp. It was a wizard.
John: Cookie Crisp wizard. We obviously have Boo Berry.
Craig: Franken Berry, Boo Berry, Count Chocula, the bee from Honey Nut Cheerios. What else do we need to say?
John: It’s IP-alooza. It feels like it could be Laff-A-Lympics, which is great.
Craig: Or Space Jam.
John: Space Jam is really the comp for it, although those were all within one studio. Getting them all together would be a little bit tough, but completely doable.
Craig: You just have to settle the great Kellogg’s/Post war. That’d be fun. Somebody get to work on that.
John: Easy done. Craig, we’ve talked before about the preface page or whatever we want to call that page after the title page, before the script itself starts. Thanks for Adrianne Cespedes who wrote in with this preface page Tár. Craig, would you mind reading the preface page from Tár?
Craig: Sure. Here’s what it says. “Based on this script’s page count, it would be reasonable to assume that the total running time for Tár will be well under two hours. However, this will not be a reasonable film. There will be tempo changes and soundscapes that require more time than is represented on the page, and of course a great deal of music performed on screen. All this to say, if you are mad enough to greenlight this film, be prepared for one whose necessary length represents these practical accommodations.” That’s great.
John: I really like this. I like it because here we have Todd Field warning the studio distributor that the film is going to be long, but also it feels very Tár-like. It feels like it’s in keeping with the spirit of the film, which is going to be like, “I am going to set impossible standards that are going to make you a little uncomfortable. Let’s get started.”
Craig: You can feel the intelligence radiating off of this. The formality of the language is setting you up for Tár. It’s wonderful and I think probably wasn’t necessary, but additive. If Todd hadn’t put this there, the people would’ve read it and said, “Wow, this movie’s great.” Then you would’ve said, “Terrific. Now, if you want to make it, I gotta tell you, blah blah blah blah blah.” I like that he put it in anyway, because it sets the table.
John: That’s what a preface page does is gets you ready for the read. We have a question from Lorenz in Vienna here.
Craig: Should I read it?
John: Megana, do you want to read this?
Craig: I don’t want to take Megana’s job.
Megana: I appreciate that, Craig.
Craig: You’re welcome.
Megana: Lorenz from Vienna writes, “In Episode 582, Craig briefly mentioned paid script consultants and what he thought about them. I then went back to the transcript of Episode 71 and was surprised to read that essentially you seemed to consider them a waste of money at best and dangerous quacks at worst. I’m an early career writer-director in Europe, and over here, script consultants are an integral part of the industry, with dedicated state funding for them during script development.
“My own experience with consultants has been very positive, and judging from what I’ve learned about writers’ rooms on your show, the relationship feels a bit like a mini room, with the consultant acting as a conversation partner and providing outsider’s perspective on the script. Most of the consultants I know are screenwriters themselves, but the relationship between the quality of their feedback and the measurable success of what they have written is not necessarily linear, similar to how someone might be a successful artist but a terrible arts teacher and vice versa. I’d be curious to hear if this is a completely different kind of consultancy to what you were talking about, what you think about it, and if this kind of relationship exists at all within the Hollywood system.”
John: This ties in actually really well to the Bonus Segment we’re going to be talking about, because that is a British writer and producer, and they have a whole thing called a script editor, which is not a thing we have at all here. Craig, let’s open our minds and think about, what if there were a person who came in to sit down with a writer to help them get their script better? What do we think about that person?
Craig: It sounds like things work quite a bit differently there. I’m trying to dig under the hood of this comment from Lorenz, because it almost feels like script consultants with state funding are operating the way our development executives operate over here. It’s quite a different thing. We’re talking about people that other people pay, like the government, to help develop screenplay and art in Europe.
Lorenz, here in the United States, these people that I’m talking about, writers pay them directly. They are out there saying, “Hey, hire me on a private basis. You pay me this much per hour or this much per read, and I will give you notes,” and things like that. Writers are essentially paying for the thing that in your country the government is funding. To that extent, there’s the problem. You end up with a lot of… When you drive down a city street and you see, I don’t know, store fronts for psychics, you can go in there and pay them if you want. It’s probably not going to work.
John: I agree with you that I think the real corollary here is probably development executives, which is a little bit different than producers, so we should talk about what the difference there is. A producer is a person who’s trying to get your film made.
Craig has talked a lot about working with Lindsay Doran, who is a great producer and has also worked as a development executive in times. She is a person who you can really have very in-depth conversations about your script and what you’re trying to do and how this scene’s working and how that ties into the next. She’s not a writer. She’s a person who works really well with writers. If that is what the script consultant is for someone like Lorenz, that’s great.
Really though, we’re getting back to what is the paid relationship, and is the person really any good. I think so often we’ve just encountered terrible, terrible people who are billing themselves as script consultants, who really have no business doing that at all. That’s I think the reason why we’re so gun-shy about recommending any script consultant is because we’ve had so many bad experiences or people coming in to us with terrible advice, terrible notes. People are just taking their money.
Craig: People are just taking their money. Our operating principle here is that there are perfectly good positions in Hollywood where people are paid, and often quite handsomely, to do the job of helping writers develop a screenplay. The executives who work at the studio are paid by the studio to obviously help the studio, but in doing so, try and give the writer advice and feedback. Then there are producers who are more entrepreneurial, but they too are being paid by someone else, certainly not the writer. That’s fine.
If your goal is to give writers notes and shepherd and develop, then you should be trying to be a studio executive or a producer. If you can’t, because say you’re not good enough, then perhaps you decide instead, “Oh, I know what I’ll do. I’ll just go out there on my own and just start making writers pay me for this. In order to convince them, I will talk about how brilliant I am and what wonderful insight I have.” Eugh.
John: Thinking back to my time up at the mount in Sundance, the Sundance Institute works a lot like this. The consultants, the advisors they’re called for Sundance, they’re not paid. They’re volunteering their time to come up there to sit and work with these writers about their projects. It is not a governmental thing, but it has an organizational integrity quality to it. People are doing it for the best possible reasons and trying to make the best possible films.
Hopefully, that’s what you’re finding there in Austria, Lorenz, is someone who’s doing that. I want to make sure that when we are talking about script consultants negatively, we’re really talking about our experience of Hollywood hucksters who are taking writers’ money and making things worse.
Craig: Hollywood hucksters, that’s a great way of describing them.
John: Great. One last bit of follow-up here. Megana, we have Jake from Dallas.
Megana: “I was listening to John and Craig talk to Sarah Polley, and it reminded me of how supportive and nice the three of you are.”
Megana: “Each of you are very smart and insightful people, which probably means you could be the ‘actually’ person to always correct others, who always tries to one-up those around you or the one who’s just waiting for their next opportunity to shower the conversation with their magnificent oration instead of listening to the people we’re sharing our time with. The Sarah Polley conversation was another example of you behaving in a supportive, constructive, and nice manner. Have you learned this anti-‘actually’ trait over your careers or do you think you always had the capacity to listen and contribute?”
John: It was very nice of Jake to write in with that. I thought it was a great episode too. A lot of people [inaudible 00:31:18] how much they enjoyed the Sarah Polley episode. Craig, what do you think? Actually, what’s going on here?
John: It’s all Matthew cutting out all of our actuallys. That’s really what it is.
Craig: He has a filter now that just automatically strips everything of actually. I think that you and I learned this as we were starting out, because in a way, I think we were forced to, because of the way we were doing the podcast. This was obviously well before Zoom. We generally don’t look at each other when we’re having these things anyway. It’s all audio and certainly was at the start. When you are having a phone conversation with someone, which is what this essentially is, you need to give that person space. Also, I have to say I have occasionally sampled podcasts. I admit it. One of the reasons I struggle with podcasts is because people are constantly talking over each other, and it makes me crazy. What about you?
John: There are podcasts where that’s just the nature of how they work. It’s a tacit agreement between the host that that’s how it all works. It’s oneupmanship and who’s louder. That’s just never been us. My One Cool Thing actually ties into this.
John: Actually. It’s basically how you set affordances so that people can say what they need to say or what they want to say, how do you ask questions that lead to interesting answers and continuing discussion. There’s some prep work there, but it’s also just mostly listening to what the person wants to tell you.
Craig: I think being interested in the people you have on your show is probably a good idea. I will also say that in a personal growth sort of way, it’s been made clear over the last few years by a lot of women that men in particular talk over them. You and I, I don’t think we ever talked over anybody when we had them on the air. I am certainly aware of just the general concept of not mowing people down when they’re talking. I like a nice, slow discussion.
The first scene of this season of The Last of Us is basically a Dick Cavett talk show. I am obsessed with Dick Cavett. I watch these videos of old Dick Cavett interviews, and it’s almost like from another planet of people talking and listening. They’re talking at length. It’s not about constantly entertaining the crowd. You can tell that the discussions haven’t been pre-organized and curated the way they are on talk shows now. I miss that, and to the extent that we can contribute to that sort of culture, I think that’s great.
John: I think also our guest selection is crucial. Sarah was a great example of that. Taffy Brodesser-Akner could take over Craig’s spot tomorrow.
Craig: Good. Please.
John: She definitely has that ability to just keep it all going. There have been times where a publicist has been insistent and gotten somebody onto the show, have been more of the frustrating times, where it’s like, I don’t have a thing to get to next. There have been a couple interviews, actually not that have been on Scriptnotes, but some live things, where the person was not interested in hitting the ball back. Man, it’s just tough.
Craig: It’s brutal. It is almost worse when people aren’t listening to each other. Turn on any news channel now. It’s just people yelling at each other constantly. Aren’t you amused when… It’s always two guys. Two guys are talking, and they’re angry at each other and they’re arguing, and neither one of them is willing to stop talking to let the other one talk, so they just keep going, like a game of chicken where the cars keep smashing into each other over and over. It’s remarkable.
John: They’re encouraged to do it because it generates conflict and it seems exciting. I hate it. A podcast I’ll recommend to everybody, and I think I talked about this on the show before, the Attitudes podcast with Erin Gibson and Bryan Safi is terrific and a great example of people who can talk over each other and yet they’re clearly listening at the same time, because their brains are synced in a way, and they’re improv people, so they can just keep building and building and building in ways that are delightful. I love it when I see people who are doing that really well. Cool.
John: Craig, our main topic here, this came from a recent issue of Inneresting. It was a recap of an old post of mine where I was talking about the things you do that make your writing unique, that you aren’t even aware that makes your writing unique. I also include a quote from Dara Resnick, where she was talking about how sometimes on a writing staff, one of your real goals is to lose your style and just mimic the showrunner style.
I thought I would talk for a few minutes about the kinds of things that are unique to one writer, where if a script dropped on your desk, Craig, and it didn’t have a title page on it, you could sometimes tell, “Oh, this was written by this person.”
Craig: Some of that stuff is magic and hard to parse out. Sometimes it’s almost scary to parse it out. I certainly don’t want to do that to my own stuff. Have you ever seen the Aaron Sorkin supercut?
John: I think I know what you’re talking about, which is basically just the dialog thing that does always happen in Sorkin dialog.
Craig: Exactly. There’s this collection that they’ve pulled from, all the years of West Wing and whatever the SNL show was and Sports Night and A Few Good Men and all the movies. There are these phrases and comments and styles and things that just keep coming up over and over and over. It’s not really self-plagiarism as much as it is just the fingerprint. It’s the style. Now, he’s a very stylistic writer. Part of knowing that it’s Aaron Sorkin is the hyper-literacy and the speed and all the rest of it. Everybody I think who’s good has a signature to them. Figuring out what comprises that is really interesting.
John: With Sorkin, there are words that you can cut together in a supercut. In other cases, it’s actually a little bit hard to parse. I’ll put a link in the show notes to this story about how they figured out how that Robert Galbraith, the writer, was actually JK Rowling. It was just basically forensic linguistics.
Craig: That was her nom de plume.
John: Nom de plume, her pen name. It was a secret that she was Robert Galbraith. There had been some rumors that it could be her. What they did is they went through and they compared the texts and they looked for sequences of adjacent words, sequences of characters, and a third test was on the most common words, and a fourth was about the author’s preference for long or short words. Basically, that’s what builds up that fingerprint. It’s like, “Oh, we are 90% certain that this is actually the same person writing these two things.” These were not deliberate choices that Rowling was making. It’s just that that’s just what happens. It’s just like you do things just because that’s how your brain works.
Craig: We can hear each other in our rhythm. Sometimes people will do an impression of me. When they do, I go, “Oh yeah, that does sound familiar,” but I’m not sure that if somebody had done that and not told me ahead of time that it was me, that I would’ve known it was me. Can you do an impression of me?
John: Not at all. I can’t do impressions of anything. That’s actually one of my biggest frustrations. You’re actually quite good at hearing and being able to do impressions or do accents. It’s just not a thing I’m good at. I can do it in my head. Can you do an impression of me?
Craig: Yeah, I can do an impression of you.
John: Let’s do it.
Craig: There’s a lot of stuff that comes out quickly, but yeah. Okay, moving on. It’s a rhythm thing. My impression of you, it’s not a great impression, because most of what makes you idiosyncratic is the speed of your speech and the rhythm of it. What people always do when they do an impression of me is they’re like, “So. Everything’s huge. Then when you talk you’re big.” I’m like, I guess. Maybe. I don’t know. Megana, can you do an impression of me?
Megana: I think an impression of you would be difficult to do, because you do take these pauses, but then in order to do the impression of you, I’d have to also replicate the eloquence that comes after the pause, and that would be very difficult to do.
Craig: You know what? You’ve won my heart.
John: Just that was a very Craig, like da da, da da da da. You also pitch up. I think you have a much more tonal range than I do or that a lot of speakers do.
Craig: I’m a singer.
John: You’re a singer.
Craig: I like to sing.
John: You’re a natural singer.
Craig: I guess my point bringing all this up and having fun with it is I don’t make those choices and you don’t make those choices and Megana doesn’t make those choices, why we talk the way we talk and why we have the patterns we have. All of that then I think is translatable or at least analogous to the weirdness of the way we write, but I don’t think I necessarily write the way I talk. I don’t think you write the way you talk. It’s this whole other thing.
John: Honestly, we write more similar than you would guess, because as we were working on the Scriptnotes book, one of the big jobs is to take the Scriptnotes transcripts, as we’re having a conversation about scene length or something, and so you and I are having a back-and-forth conversation. When we try to just turn it into a chapter with just prose, literally our sentences do fit together pretty well. We don’t read that different on the page, which is useful.
Craig: We’re like an old married couple that starts looking like each other.
John: Let’s talk about things that are different between-
Craig: I just want to keep upsetting Megana, like, “Aw. Aw.”
John: Let’s talk about some of the things that are different that you can notice on a screenplay page about one writer versus another writer. This is a list I had in my blog post, but we may add to this. How you handle unfinished end-of-line punctuation. Are you two dashes? Are you an ellipses? What are the situations where you’d use an ellipsis versus two dashes. It’s personal style. There’s not one precise right answer.
Craig: You want to try and be consistent within your screenplay. What do you do, by the way?
John: I have two dashes if it’s literally cut off and ellipsis if it’s trailing off.
Craig: Same. I probably use ellipses more than most writers. I know I do. I’m a big fan.
John: I use ellipses less than I used to. I used to use ellipses for everything, but I now do a lot of two dashes.
John: How much uppercase do you use within scene description? Some people just will uppercase a lot more for emphasis. Some people are really spare with the uppercase.
Craig: One of the things I’ve found over time is that my uppercasing tends to increase when I’m writing either… Usually when I’m writing action or something that maybe you wouldn’t define as action but is very physical, like physical humor or something like that.t
John: Absolutely. It’s sometimes that uppercasing can be a way to indicate, this is a shot, this is a shot, this is a shot, or there’s other reasons why you’re using it there. Parentheticals. Are you using parentheticals as say to mean a beat, for clarity, like joking, or how to play this in quotes, “Please die in a fire.” Basically, are you using it for all line things? Those are all valid choices, just different ways to use the parenthetical.
Craig: Some people never use them.
John: Never. Commas and comma usage, very distinctive. You can use them sensibly. You can use them in an Oxford way. You can use them in any way that makes sense.
Craig: The Oxford way is sensible.
John: Often using commas and whether you use them to break off any kind of phrase. If I’m going through and editing someone else’s script, I will move commas all the time and realize that’s just pointless, because they’re just using commas the way they use commas.
Craig: We aren’t writing articles for the New Yorker where there’s a style guide, although I will say that Mrs. Gilligan’s comma lessons in high school have stayed with me. I think about the proper, correct, and orthodox use of commas all the time.
John: Profanity. Is it a spaceship or a giant effing spaceship? Just how often are you using the F word and other words in your script is very distinctive. In the JJ Abrams universe, all those Lost scripts, they will use a lot of that. They’re very punchy and loud and take you by the shoulders and shake you. That’s just the style. If you’re writing in one of those shows, you should write in that style, because otherwise, it’s going to feel wrong for the show.
Craig: That must be really difficult to do. I’ve never had to do that to write in someone else’s actual on-the-page style. I can see how that would be very tricky to do. Then it also implies one reason why showrunners have to then run everything through their own typewriter, even if it’s minimally about let’s say improving things. Sometimes you just need to conform it.
John: That was the point that Dara was making there and what I’ll link to, is that especially that first script you turn in as a staff writer on a show needs to look as much like the showrunner’s script as possible, so they read this and they can actually read it without having to just immediately go, “This is wrong. This is wrong. This is wrong.” They can actually read it like it’s their own script. That’s tough, but you gotta do it.
Craig: I’m imagining me reading a script for my show that wasn’t at all like my scripts, and I’m starting to sweat. It’s bad.
John: How characters see events within a scene. Do they clock them, spot them, notice them, spy them? There’s various choices you can make. Nothing’s wrong.
Craig: It’s okay to be repetitive or, I don’t know, self-copying there, because that stuff’s not going to be on screen literally. If it helps you to fall back on some phrases that work for you and help define for the reader what you see, that’s great. Try and avoid repeating them within the same script, but if you have some go-tos, there’s nothing wrong with that.
John: Transitions, is it a cut-to for every new scene or do cut-tos mostly go away? Just style. Also, I think cut-tos tend to vanish because we want to get pages shorter, but it’s really whatever you need to do.
Paragraph length. What is the upper limit in terms of numbers of lines? On this podcast, often in our Three Page Challenges, we’re urging people to keep those paragraphs short. Three lines or less is great for a lot of things, but that doesn’t mean they all have to be that way. David Koepp writes giant blocks of text.
Craig: He does.
John: It happens. It works.
Craig: He’s great. He’s great. I think we’ve probably said it so many times that it is maybe finally sinking in, although I doubt it, among all the people out there. All these things, there are I wouldn’t call best practices as much as better practices. Nothing that we do can make bad good, and nothing that we do can make good bad. That’s the deal. If it’s good, it’s okay to have that long paragraph if that’s the way you vibe.
Going back to the paragraph that Todd Field puts on the preface page of Tár, that is how many… It is a brick of text. One, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Ten-line paragraph. That’s not three lines or fewer. I loved reading that paragraph, because it was good.
John: Good paragraph. Finally, and this is probably I think a thing I can definitely notice from one writer to another, is how to handle simultaneous or overlapping dialog. Are they doing side-by-sides a lot, or are they doing a parenthetical for overlapping? Are they just making it clear that stuff is overlapping in the scene description around it?
There’s not one precise, right way to do it. Writers can get incredibly granular. When Greta Gerwig was on, she puts a slash in the first character’s dialog where the next character is going to be overlapping them. It’s incredibly precise. A lot of times, I’ll just say “overlapping” and I won’t worry about doing side-by-sides. It’s going to work in the moment.
Craig: I use the side-by-side, but I rarely, very rarely do simultaneous dialog. That’s not because I think it’s wrong. It’s basically stylistically, and perhaps this reflects the way you and I have these discussions, I like when people aren’t talking over each other, and other writers love when people are talking over each other. That’s okay. It’s a tonal thing. Similarly, how many words per sentence do characters say?
Craig: Some people really love having characters talk at length. Tarantino will have characters talk at length at times. Other people listen quietly. They do not interrupt. Go to Samuel Beckett and read Waiting for Godot. There are just strips of pages where Vladimir and Estragon are saying two lines two words each, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. That’s part of the fingerprint.
John: We had Taffy Brodesser-Akner on the show. The dialog for Fleishman Is in Trouble, those are long lines. It’s not just that people have a lot of lines together. One of their lines could be much, much, much longer of a sentence than I would ever feel comfortable doing. It works because it works and because she has really good actors who can pull it off. There’s no right or wrong. You could recognize Taffy’s writing from someone else’s writing. It’d be hard to write in Taffy’s style.
Craig: It should be. That’s part of the sign that your style is unique, and therefore you are expressing your voice, is that other people… You can maybe do a goof version of it, a satire, but you can’t do it. If anyone could do it, then anyone would do it.
John: Let’s talk about situations where we have had to rewrite somebody or choose not to rewrite somebody and actually just blend in, because a lot of times, as feature writers, we would get scripts, and sometimes we are doing a massive overhaul on something. I’m like, “Okay, I see these scenes here. I’m the showrunner. Everything’s going through my typewriter. I’m going to put out a new thing that is in my voice. I’m going to clean it up and make things consistent.”
In some cases, I think that was helpful, because I wasn’t the second writer, I was the seventh writer, and there was a bunch of little pace jobs [inaudible 00:49:52] it wasn’t reading like one document. It was sometimes just me running through the whole thing. It just was a much better read for me having done that. In other cases, I’m just doing two scenes here. It’s doing no one any favors for me to try to change things or make this feel different.
I’ve had to adapt to people’s styles. I’ve done more things in caps than I would’ve put in uppercase, because that’s the rest of the script. What’s been your experience?
Craig: All over the place.
Craig: Honestly, all over the place. Sometimes, more often than not, when I’m doing the kind of work you’re describing, there’s also some preexisting work. A lot of these things, most movies that come out have either a preexisting film because they’re a sequel or they’re based on something, and so there’s other work that you can look back on and investigate.
I don’t really get too worked up over how I do the things that aren’t spoken or aren’t on screen. The things that are spoken and are on screen, I try and stay consistent within the character. Sometimes, the reason that you’re there is because people aren’t happy with the voice, or you can also come and say…
As you’re saying, there’s this patchwork quilt, and someone has to make it all seem like it was from one mind. That is a challenge. It’s a challenge to do something like that without… The phrase I use is, sometimes you have to pull permits, it’s that kind of work, and sometimes you don’t. When you have to pull permits, that means we’re going to be doing quite a bit here. Then you have to undo a lot. It depends on the situation. The spectrum is rather broad for those jobs.
John: I’m thinking of once doing a job where the first half of the script was really great. I really did not want to touch any of it. There were some real significant things that needed to change in the second half. I had to make a choice, like am I going to go back and rewrite all this first half so it’s going to match what I’m doing for the second half, or am I just going to write this new stuff in the style of the first one?
It was a challenge to do, but it actually made sense. Hopefully, the characters’ voices I was able to be consistent, which is great, because we didn’t want to touch those. Even just the scene description making it just feel like it was one thing, that there wasn’t a sudden change in how the whole thing read and felt. Even examples of keeping whatever, their INT period versus INT not period style, sure, I’ll do that. I wanted it to feel like it was the same writer the whole way through.
Craig: If there’s a very idiosyncratic, clear style going on, I’m not going to be a jerk and just start doing… I’m not going to go through and be like, “Okay, first things first, all these two spaces after the period have to turn into one space.” That’s just evil, so I try not to do those things.
John: Obviously, the last thing is if you’re in a situation where you’re generating changed pages with stars in the margins, you’re going to be much more conservative about making that kind of stuff, because you’re not going to release a new page just because you’ve changed two dashes into a long hyphen. No one wants that.
Craig: No one.
John: No one wants that. What people do want are One Cool Things.
Craig: Segue Man.
John: It’s time for that. I referenced this earlier. This is an article by Adam Mastroianni on his Substack, called Good Conversations Have Lots of Doorknobs. He’s really talking about how in a conversation, you tend to have givers and takers. Givers are people who put a lot of stuff out. Takers are people who are just receiving stuff in.
John: There’s an improv quality to a conversation, where you’re yes, and-ing and you’re keeping the ball up in the air. When you have two givers, that can be sometimes a little bit frustrating, because it can feel like no one’s actually receiving. If you have two takers, no one is actually throwing a ball out there to get things going.
What I liked about his discussion is, it’s not just diagnosing the problem but offering some solutions, which is basically affordances, which are the big, easily graspable doorknobs of the conversation. His example of an affordance, if you ask the question, “Why do you think you and your brother turned out so differently?” There’s a lot of possible answers to that. You would have to see how it goes on.
No affordance would be, “How many of your grandparents are still alive?” That’s a number. It doesn’t invite a further discussion. You can take that, “How many of your grandparents are still alive?” and do some judo on it to send it back through, to say, “Both my grandparents are still alive, which has really been remarkable because of this, because I can do these things, and I have these insights,” but it’s tougher.
Just always be thinking in a conversation, next time you’re at a party or whatever, Megana, as you’re getting another virus, think about how do you say things in a way that invites the person to build upon that, rather than just letting it drop there.
Craig: I love just this drive-by shooting of Megana, like that’s her problem.
John: All the parties she goes to.
Craig: I really like this a lot. What it’s prompting for me is how useful this concept is for people who are on the autism spectrum, because this is exactly the kind of… We lump these things into so-called social skills. Social skills is such a broad term it’s almost useless. There’s also this weird judgey-ness to that phrase that I don’t love. What I love about this is, if somebody has a hyper-analytical mind, this is a way for them to understand why certain things are more engaging and more interesting for other people, because that’s something that sometimes people on the spectrum have trouble with. I’m definitely giving this to my kid. I think she’ll be really interested in this. I think she’ll like this.
John: The other thing I would say is that everything that applies to real-life dialog applies to movie dialog as well. As you’re writing dialog scenes, be thinking about naturally you are doing this as a writer anyway. It may be helpful to think about how you are letting this character get to the next thing out of that character, the next thing out of this character, and by the same token, are they deliberately not doing that, and is that part of the frustration and conflict of the scene.
Craig: That’s a great point. This is really useful for thinking about characters, because we don’t want our characters to be fully actualized. All the foibles are what make them interesting. If somebody is trying to chat up a girl at the bar and he asks a dead-end question or as Adam calls it, no affordance, then it’s interesting. You can see the other person struggling with that. I love this. It’s very insightful.
John: Craig, in the second episode of your show, there’s a moment early on where Joel is having a conversation. They’re in that-
John: … salon, and they’re having a conversation. He gives up on the conversation. I really liked that moment, because it felt true to conversations that I don’t see very often, where a person just buries their last line, like, “I guess I’m done talking, but nothing’s really resolved for me.” That felt like a situation that I just hadn’t seen so often on film.
Craig: I’m glad you liked it. Joel is a really interesting character to write, because how much he decides to say… He mostly doesn’t talk. It’ll be interesting for people I think if the season goes on, if they’re watching. He’s not going to always not talk. Let’s put it that way. It’s impactful when he does. When he starts talking, it’s impactful.
John: What do you have for us?
Craig: My One Cool Thing is The Case of the Golden Idol. Now this is a game that normally I wouldn’t be playing, because it’s not on iOS. It is currently on Steam. Neil Druckmann, my partner in crime over at The Last of Us, urged me to get the Steam Deck. Are you familiar with the Steam Deck?
John: Tell me what the Steam Deck is.
Craig: Steam Deck is a handheld game console, not dissimilar from say the handheld Switch, that is designed to tie into your Steam account and play Steam games. You can play them handheld. It’s got a touchscreen. The touchscreen isn’t iPad quality. It doesn’t need to be. It’s got multiple joysticks and buttons and other buttons and trigger buttons. It can basically cover the control system of any game. It’s very portable.
I bought it and played this game that Neil loves, called The Case of the Golden Idol, and now I love it. It’s fascinating. It’s one of those retro style games that’s very much about the pixel art, which generally I hate, because I’m like, I grew up with that crap.
John: We’ve moved on.
Craig: I want good graphics. It’s this very strange concept. Each chapter, there are 12 of them, is a murder has taken place. They’re all loosely connected by the story of this golden idol, which is cursed, clearly. Typically, each murder situation has two or three screens of stuff. On each one of them, there are clickable areas where you can just start collecting information. What you have to do is piece together what happened based on all the clues and bits of information that are there. You have to figure out who is this person, what’s his name, what’s her name, and what have they done and what is this and blah blah blah.
It gets increasingly challenging, to the point where sometimes I’m just sitting there just staring at this thing for 40 minutes, going, “What am I missing?” Then when you finally get it, you’re like, “Ah!” It’s a lot of fun. If you have Steam, check out The Case of the Golden Idol. If you have a Steam Deck, certainly do. I think it plays very nicely on that device.
John: Cool. Nice. Exciting.
John: That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao.
John: It’s edited by Matthew Chilelli.
Craig: Don’t know him.
John: Our outro this week is by Luke Yoquinto, who discovered this in the score to Coming to America by Nile Rodgers. What we’re playing is actually a clip from the score to Coming to America, but it actually has the Scriptnotes theme in it. We have time-traveled back to put it into existing movie scores.
Craig: Well done.
John: 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 questions. We have T-shirts and they’re great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau. You’ll 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 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 on advice to a producer. Craig, Megana, thank you so much for a fun show.
Megana: Thank you.
Craig: Thank you.
John: Craig, here’s what I have. A friend of a friend is a producer in the UK and has a project for which he’s brought on a writer. The project is based on a true story. It’s required a lot of research. This is a relatively new writer but a really good writer who’s from the region, been doing the research, and everything’s very promising. The problem is the producer’s just not getting a draft out of this writer. He’s waiting. There’s whole machineries that it really looks like this movie could happen, but he needs a script.
The producer emailed me just to say, “Hey, do you have any advice for how I should not be an asshole but get the writer to deliver this script? The writer has had a lot of personal issues and things going on in their life that’s made it incredibly difficult. How do we do this?” I wrote back with some of my advice. I’m curious what your advice might be for this producer on how to get this draft out of this writer and what you think might be going on.
Craig: There could be all sorts of things going on. At the end of the day, is the writer being paid?
John: The writer’s being paid.
Craig: No matter what’s going on in our lives, if we are being paid, we are professional by definition, which means we have to behave professionally, which means we either hit our deadlines or we sit down with the employer and we say, “Here’s what’s going on in my life. Here’s why I can’t go through that deadline. I’m giving you the choice now of what to do. I would like to continue. I would like extra time so I can do my job. I need to let you know that this is what’s going on, because it changes the arrangement.” That’s how a professional handles things. It doesn’t sound like this writer is necessarily handling these things professionally. That doesn’t mean that I’m not incredibly sympathetic to whatever problems they’re having. I am, but it’s a job.
The question that I would ask the producer is, do you think that this writer is changeable or not, because there are some writers that it doesn’t matter what you do, they have a rhythm and a process that is unaffectable by you, the moon, anything. Nothing will ever change it. They are as they are. The only question that you have to ask yourself as a producer is, is it worth it or not, because that’s nothing I can do about this. It’s like I’m yelling at clouds.
If it seems like they are the kind of writer that would respond to change, then I think it’s fair to say, “Okay, because this is a professional relationship, I have to create boundaries. The boundary is I need a script by this date, which is already beyond the date that we agreed on. If it doesn’t come in by that date, I’m going to have to talk to another writer.”
John: I think ultimately you need to get to that ultimatum and to that point where it makes it clear. I think there are some steps before you get to that point that could be useful. That’s what I urged the producer to start at.
First off, to understand from the writer’s perspective, the writer feels shitty. I think the writer is aware that they’re late and that they’re holding things up, and they feel bad about it. Feeling bad about it is not helping them write the scripts. They’re not a writer who it seems that that bad feeling is motivating. It seems maybe it’s the opposite. Being late is not helping them get it written.
I think they may also be having a problem that they’re not willing to tell you about, which is that they may be struggling with a script with a story in ways that they are embarrassed about. They just cannot figure it out. They could probably use someone, either you or somebody else, to just talk to about what’s going on, because they may have lost hope or faith or any joy in writing it. That may be really the issue here.
Going back earlier in the episode, we talked about script consultants or that kind of thing. I think you may need to find some other writer who can sit down with them to talk to them about what it is that they’re writing, what’s exciting about it to them, where the problems are, and see if you can get a little of that shaken out.
There could also just be some actual… You’re saying this writer has some struggles in their life. You may need to help provide some structure for their writing time, which basically is like, “Would it help if I got you an office for a month? That way you could just come in on a daily basis and sit down and do your work, because maybe something’s going on at home that is making it really tough for you to write in your normal space.”
Just be aware that there could be some other way you’re going to be able to get them to do the thing. I would try those things first before bringing out the stick of, “If I don’t have it by this date, I’m going to have to cut you off.”
Craig: Certainly, it’s nothing anybody wants, but there are people that just need the structure of consequence. It’s not evil consequence. It’s not unjustified consequence. They just need to know that this is there. There are situations, again, where you may say to yourself, “I have a madman genius on my hands, and I need to just let him go through this insanity, and what’s going to happen on the other end is something great.”
One of the things that I’ve always tried to stress to people I worked with is, if I say I need eight weeks, and you’re telling me you really want it in six weeks, what you’re saying is two weeks of time is more important than you getting it right.
My response is always, those two weeks are going to cost you so much more time than two weeks, because if you get something that’s unworkable, unsellable, unproducable, unshootable, guess what? You’re back to square one. You’re going to have to start all over again anyway. First, you’re going to have to find another writer. That takes time. Then they’re going to have to do it. Then they’re going to run into trouble. You have to do the math in your head. One of the most frustrating parts of being a producer is how you are accountable to the outcome, but you are not in control of the outcome.
John: For sure.
Craig: That’s tricky.
John: Craig, you’re talking about estimating the time it’s going to take you to do a thing. You’re an experienced screenwriter who’s been through this. You’ve written 50 scripts. This writer probably hasn’t and probably has a very limited ability to estimate how long it’s going to take them to do that work. That may be a situation too.
It looks like the producer has actually been able to read some stuff that the writer has done on the project, which is why the producer’s so excited to have the writer finish it, because it’s apparently really good.
I think one of the things that may be important in this conversation is to really stress to the writer how much you love what they’ve delivered so far, because sometimes writing feels hopeless. Just putting that hope back in there can really do it.
I definitely can remember meetings where I’ve been really bummed about a project, I go into it, and then in that discussion something comes up that’s like, “Oh yeah, now I’m actually genuinely excited to write this thing that I was dreading this morning.” That does turn around.
Craig: One bit of practical advice that I would suggest is to maybe, since currently most days I suspect the writer is writing zero pages, say to the writer, “Okay, here’s the plan we’re putting you on, and you must do it. Every day, Monday through Friday, you must write one page. That’s it.” You’ve now reduced the burden and the expectation, which can be crushing sometimes, down to something that seems very achievable. One page. One.
What will happen, almost always, is that once the writer starts writing their one page, they will end up three or four pages later. It’s how our minds work. It’s the starting that is so hard. If you can just give them this, because even if they write one page a day, five pages a week, in a couple of months, you’re going to be doing just fine, and certainly better than you’re doing now anyway. Maybe just smallifying things might help.
John: Megana, what perspectives are we missing here? Anything that is striking you as you listen to this?
Megana: No. I think you’re right. I love the advice that you gave about encouraging this writer, because I just remember when I was in college, I had a roommate who was a real perfectionist and was not sending their thesis advisor the chapters or whatever that they needed to be doing and was just getting herself into such a hole of perfection and misery and doubt. I was like, “You’re smart. I’m sure that the work is fine and good enough.” I think sometimes with a screenplay, it’s this big thing to figure out. I worry that this person is just in a shame spiral. I love the tactics that you offer this producer to help them out of that.
John: On the second Arlo Finch book, I fell behind. I was running late to deliver my first draft. Again, as a professional, I did reach out to my editor and say, “Hey, I’m running behind. Let me talk to you about what the problem is.” She’s like, “Okay, I get this. Let’s make a plan for how you’re going to finish it. Basically, why don’t you take two or three days to just outline the rest of this, figure out what those problems are going to be, and how you’re going to be able to deliver this on time. We’ll reset all the rest of the deadlines to make this work.” Starting that conversation was incredibly stressful, but at the end of it, I just felt such a relief, because I didn’t feel so trapped.
It’s possible this screenwriter feels trapped and stuck. They worry they’re not going to be able to deliver anything that’s going to nearly good enough or to do the job whatsoever. Having that conversation, being that editor in that situation, could be the way out.
Craig: That’s good advice.
John: Cool. Thanks, guys.
Craig: Thank you.
Megana: Thank you.
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