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 588 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show, what happens when a beloved character leaves a long-running program? How should writers think about replacing them, and does it have to change the fundamental dynamics? We’ll look at examples from the past 50 years and the past few days, because Craig, I have to tell you something. Megana Rao, our producer, she’s gone.
Craig: Now, when you say she’s gone, is she dead?
John: She is not dead at all. It’s actually very good news. She has been staffed on a television program. She’s now on the writing staff of a show. We’re so excited and happy for her, but also sad that she’s not here to laugh at all your jokes and be awesome.
Craig: Basically, we’re going to go back to the old days where I say something that I think is legitimately funny and then there’s just-
Craig: … a weird, creepy, silent pause. I have to tip my hat to the great Megana Rao. We’ve had a lot of terrific producers along the way, a lot of people doing excellent work. Obviously, the legendary Stuart.
John: The legendary Stuart Friedel.
Craig: Here’s a question for you, John. It’s related to Megana. You watch Saturday Night Live, I assume.
John: Of course. Of course.
Craig: You have for so, so long, like so many of us. Most valuable player, and the way I’ll define it is the person that-
Craig: There’s quality and length. We’re going to use two things. You can absolutely say Kenan. It’s for how good and for how long. You’re saying Kenan.
John: I don’t think you can top Kenan Thompson. I think he was the glue that has held together through so many cast changes. That’s my guess. Tell me who you think is the MVP there.
Craig: For me, the MVP is Kristen Wiig.
John: She was amazing, but yet the show has continued without her.
Craig: Sure. Look, the show will continue without Kenan. The show will never end.
John: It will never end.
Craig: I guess the interesting thing is you can absolutely make a great argument for Kenan, and he’s still there. There are some people that through quality and time put in become MVPs. Megana’s going to be a tough person to beat.
John: Absolutely true.
Craig: She was great.
John: I think we have to acknowledge that the job of producer for Scriptnotes is really a behind-the-scenes role, and Megana was the first to really step forward, because her laughter permeated through, and then she started reading questions, and then she just became a regular fixture on the show. We are sad to lose her.
I want to talk a little bit about the moment she left, because it was a Tuesday afternoon. We’d done our normal staff meeting Zoom. She’s like, “Hey John, can I talk to you a little bit afterwards?” After everyone dropped off the Zoom, she said, “Hey, so I had a really good meeting with the showrunner this morning.” I was like, “That’s great.” She’s had a lot of showrunner meetings, so I knew stuff was percolating. Then she Slacked me later that afternoon and said, “They want me to start tomorrow.”
John: That’s how it goes. That’s how it’s gone with previous assistants. That’s how it’s gone with Megan McDonald. I was prepared for it, but also you’re never quite prepared. This person who is invaluable to you is now moving on to another thing. That was how quickly it can happen, where you go from, “Hey, I’ve never heard of this show,” to suddenly you need to be in Glendale tomorrow morning at 10 a.m.
Craig: Wow. I am so proud of her and happy for her. I can’t think of a better addition. She’s going to be a delight, obviously. Not only did Megana read questions, but eventually Megana started having questions, which is also great.
John: She did. Oh, gosh. We need to get her back. There’s an open invitation. We’ve both extended an open invitation for her to come back-
Craig: Oh, of course.
John: … just so we can sing…
John and Craig: (singing) Megana Has a Question.
Craig: I will say, should one of us be struck down prematurely, I’d be perfectly happy with Megana filling in.
John: I get you there. I haven’t updated my will in a while.
Craig: That’s a great point. Should I leave everything to Megana?
John: Forget your family, Craig. Everything goes to Megana.
Craig: I think they would really struggle with that one. I gotta be honest. Like, “Wait, what?” She has that infectious laugh. I think that’s what I’ll cite in my will. She had an infectious laugh.
John: Indeed. She Slacked this morning and she said, “I will be back soon, so don’t get used to my absence.”
John: “Same to the listenership. Please remind Craig that I love him and I am validating his feelings/laughing at his jokes from above in the Valley.”
John: “Also, I am very excited for more folks to meet Drew, because he’s lovely,” which is a great segue.
Craig: Let’s talk about Drew. Drew’s right here, right?
John: Drew’s right here.
Drew Marquardt: That’s really nice.
John: Drew Marquardt, you’ve heard him on the podcast before. He was our Scriptnotes summer intern who has been helping out with the Scriptnotes book. He is now going to be producing the Scriptnotes podcast. Welcome, Drew.
Craig: Welcome, Drew.
Drew: Thank you so much. It’s bittersweet. I miss Megana, but I’m very excited to be here.
Craig: We get that.
Craig: Quick question. Your name is interesting. I like it. I assume that it’s Scandinavian of some kind.
Drew: I think it’s French German, and I think I pronounce it wrong is basically what I’ve learned.
Craig: When I see that name, I think MAHR-kahrt. What do you say?
Drew: I think that’s the correct pronunciation. I say mahr-KWAHRT, like a qu.
Craig: Oh, you go qu.
Drew: We lean into the Q-U, yeah.
Craig: Fair enough. I’m glad that I’m doing it right at least, because that’s how I would guess. I guess if it’s French, you would… No, French would be qu, right? Mahr-KWAHRT. Oh, no, but then it’s kahrt if it’s… I don’t know. You know what? You get to decide how your name is pronounced. It’s your name.
Drew: The Midwest changed it. I think it’s mahr-KWAHRT. Running with it. It’s mahr-KWAHRT.
Craig: Oh, isn’t that a university, Marquardt?
Drew: There’s a Marquette.
Craig: Oh, that’s what I’m thinking of, Marquette. Either way, you’re the producer now. Oh, man.
John: Drew, we’re going to be hearing from you later on in the podcast, because you’ll get to ask the questions that our listeners have asked. We have a whole big mailbag to get through of those. In our Bonus Segment for Premium Members, I want to talk about drugs. Specifically, Craig, I want to talk about prescription drugs and the best ways to navigate our dumb drug health care system in the United States, because we’re doing it wrong.
Craig: I’m excited for that conversation. I am armed with interesting insight from spending so much time in Canada and so much time with my Canadian friends. I used to over-romanticize the Canadian system. My Canadian friends have been giving me a different point of view on it. We have pluses and minuses on either side of the border here.
John: For sure. From my time living in Paris, try to get an Advil, good luck. Pluses and minuses. I think I actually have some more pluses to offer our listeners-
John: … because everyone has to get prescription drugs.
John: We’ll talk about that. First some follow-up.
John: A few episodes back, I mentioned that I was having some trouble some mornings looking at my monitor. Things were fuzzy, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on, did I need to go get medium distance reading glasses. Several of our brilliant listeners wrote in, including an actual ophthalmologist, who said, “John, what you actually have is dry eyes, and you just need to put in some eyedrops.” They were absolutely correct. Now I have this little thing of eyedrops by my monitor. If I can’t read, I put in some eyedrops, and it’s better.
Craig: Suddenly you can. Nice. How about that?
John: I needed no surgery, need no glasses. I just needed some eyedrops.
Craig: That’s the way we like to imagine medicine works. We have this very complicated problem that some city slicker doctor would send you into the MRI for. Then the old country doctor’s like, “Kid, you just need some cinnamon,” and then you’re fine. I like this.
John: I tried putting cinnamon in my eyes, and it just didn’t work.
Craig: Try harder. Put in more. That’s the answer. Really rub it in there. Kids at home, do not put cinnamon in your eyes.
John: There’s no new cinnamon challenge that Craig is offering. Don’t do this.
Craig: For the love of God.
John: When Aline was on two episodes ago, we were answering a listener question about staffing while pregnant. We invited our listeners to send in their experiences, and two of them did. Craig, I thought maybe you’d take this first one.
Craig: This is from A Formerly Pregnant, Current New Mom, Television Writer. She writes, “I stopped my walk while listening to this episode to write this because I’m a TV writer who was pregnant a year ago and had the same concerns about telling my reps. I did tell them early on, but I wish I had handled it differently and wanted to share my experience.
“Most of my reps are women and some others, so I thought that when I said I wanted to work in staff, they’d believe me, but turns out unconscious biases about pregnant women are everywhere. I soon realized my agent saw my due date as my end work date and weren’t putting me up for rooms that overlapped with it. They were sending far few open writing assignments and development opportunities my way. It took several follow-up conversations to correct course and I missed opportunities in that time.”
What she’s suggesting here is that, “When you do tell your reps, be extremely clear about what you want. Over-communicate, check in regularly, and even stretch the truth. If you want a couple of months off, tell you plan on one month and then you’ll assess. Remind them you can take eight weeks leave from a show with protection thanks to our union. My agents didn’t know that.
“One thing I was reminded of during this experience is that our reps have a very different work life. The moms on my team have stable jobs that afforded them long parental leaves. They projected their experiences onto me and assumed I’d want the same. While I would’ve loved more time off, we simply don’t have that luxury as contract workers. Ultimately, I think it’s a good idea to loop them in, since you want people in your corner to plan your year with. Remember, they will make their own assumptions about what you want, and you just can’t let them.” That’s very good insight there, I think.
John: We have great listeners. I want to thank her for sending that in. A second listener wrote in. This is Claytia. She writes, “A few years ago, I was a pregnant PA who wore baggy clothes to keep it concealed. When everyone found out, they made it a big deal and I hated it. Damn maternity pants. Flash forward to pregnancy number two, which overlapped with me getting staffed on my first show. I chose to notify my agent and manager in my second trimester when I was actually going out for staffing, and I was eight months pregnant when my room finally opened. I did call my showrunner before the room, and I told him, very enthusiastically, ‘We’re having a baby,’ and that was that. The AP knew my due date. I had the baby and was able to be back in the room virtually with accommodations. It was okay if I needed to be off camera, take time for doctor’s appointments, etc.
“I’ll admit I was nervous about how everyone would handle it, but I worked with some amazing folks who valued family and I made it my personal duty to bring my A-game to every meeting. My rule has always been to keep my pregnancy on a need-to-know basis. I’d play a game where I’d ask myself, if I were a non-gestational parent with a baby on the way, when would I share? Equality, you know. I just wanted to share that a pregnant lady in a room is possible, even at the lower level. If I had to do it over, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Craig: That is very interesting. Thank you, Claytia. I don’t know if it’s KLAY-shuh or KLAY-tee-uh. It’s spelled C-L-A-Y-T-I-A. I haven’t encountered that name before. This is really interesting. When we had this question posed to us, the three of us gave our best insight. You and I gave it as current dads but former baby dads, and Aline gave it from the point of view of a current mom and a former baby mom.
All of us are 20 years away now or whatever, 18 years away from our last birth. The world changes, obviously, and so we’re all kind of guessing a little bit. This is really interesting to get these perspectives. I like the fact that there’s a little bit of an emphasis on open communication. I think that’s really great.
What’s striking me about this is this interesting point Claytia makes about non-gestational parents. First of all, I actually haven’t encountered that phrase before. I think it’s brilliant. I presume this means, for instance, if you have a surrogate or if you’re adopting and you know that there’s a child on the way.
John: Or if you’re a father.
Craig: Or if you’re a father. There you go. That’s interesting. We used to say expecting, but I guess that implies you’re actually carrying the baby. This is a great point. If you have someone who’s a surrogate or you’re a dad and you’re not carrying the baby yourself, it does seem like, yeah, I probably would mention that sort of thing. I think equality is exactly right, Claytia. I think that’s a great point.
John: Our friend Travis, I remember him having his first kid. He was on the WGA board. He had his first kid the day before his first WGA meeting. He’s also a staff writer in a room. There’s just a lot. Being a new parent is a lot, whether you’re actually physically giving birth or not. The difference is Travis was not visibly pregnant going through all that, but he was going through a big life change there too.
It’s a question of would he have necessarily told his reps about that? Would he have told his showrunner about that? I think it’s a great question. I think Claytia frames it really nicely.
Craig: If anybody is enterprising enough to dig back through very old published minutes of WA board meetings, they will see that in the board meeting of December of 2004, there’s an agenda item mentioning that I was not there before I was at the hospital where my second child was being born.
John: Very nice.
Craig: How about that? Eighteen years ago.
John: That’s crazy. Other good, happy news, my previous One Cool Thing, the thing that makes Craig giggle every time he sees it, My Year in Dicks, Pamela Ribon’s Oscar-nominated animated short film. It’s now streaming on Hulu. If you’re curious about it, and you want to watch it, it’s on Hulu now, so you should just watch it, because it’s so damn delightful.
Craig: Can I tell you something? I think it’s going to win.
John: I think it has a really good shot of winning. I don’t want to jinx it.
Craig: I don’t believe in jinxes. I honestly think it’s going to win. I’m not promoting one thing over another. I’m just saying I think it’s going to win.
John: I think it could. It has a buzzy title. It’s really, really well done.
Craig: Pam, what a deserving person. She’s just a wonderful person and an excellent writer, and this is very exciting. Very exciting.
John: We have a little bit of update about script consultants in Europe. We have letters in from Lorenz and from Sean. I’m just going to summarize here. Basically, script consultants aren’t employed by the state, so essentially, Lorenz is saying that you’re submitting a project for this program, you can go in with a script consultant attached to it. Basically, they have to be someone who’s qualified to do it with certifications, but you go in together, so it’s not like the state is going to apply one to you in the Austria system.
Then Sean wrote in saying that he got his first state-funded script editing job in Ireland. They paid him for the work that he did. Screen Ireland paid him, but they weren’t controlling him, because I think one of the issues we raised is if you have the state paying for things, they can try to influence how stuff is depicted. Both Sean and Lorenz said, “Yeah, I understand that concern, but that’s not actually how it works, because it’s not like there’s some government official who’s now going to come through and edit your script.” It seems like a better setup system than that.
Craig: That’s great. Listen, if it works to the benefit of the writers there, then fantastic. It’s a strange thing for us to wrap our minds around here, because Hollywood is such a privatized, corporate, capitalistic system, and not really subsidized much by the government. To the extent that the government subsidizes anything, it’s subsidizing the studios to get tax money back when they’re producing things.
It’s an interesting marriage of state and artist in Europe. I think it comes with benefits. It clearly comes with some limitations. I think the fact is we just have a much larger pool of financing to draw from here in the U.S., which is why Hollywood is the predominant television and film industry in the world and always has been.
John: Indeed. Two last little bits of follow-up. On Episode 587, we talked about these doppelganger murders, basically this woman who found somebody who looked like her and killed her to try to fake her own death. Megana saw a similar story. This is a woman who is convicted for poisoning her lookalike with cheesecake in order to conceal her identity.
John: Really, I think the cheesecake was the missing element of this. A poison cheesecake.
Craig: What the hell? This is amazing. This is, it looks like two women in Queens, in New York. It looks like they’re both Eastern European, possibly Russian, from the names. Yeah, she’s Russian, and she had already done this once before.
“Viktoria Nasyrova was accused of fatally drugging a neighbor in her native Russia in 2014. She denied killing the woman.” Now she’s done it again. You know what? I feel like if you get picked up for the second time, you probably did the first one. It’s not like, “You know what? I got unfairly accused of something, but that gives me an idea.”
John: Unless you were a framer the second time because there was already suspicion the first time. It could be an extra level of deception there.
Craig: Listen, you’re right. There could be many layers to this cheesecake.
John: That’s terrible.
Craig: This is terrible. I retire.
John: Scriptnotes voted cheesecake as the 2022 best dessert. Remember our sweepstakes, our brackets?
Craig: Great. I’m completely there for that. I know it’s a little bit divisive. I know. I know it’s divisive, but cheesecake is one of the great desserts IMO.
John: Craig, speaking of Russia and Russians, have you seen the trailer for Tetris?
Craig: No. Is it about the creation of Tetris?
John: It’s about the creation and licensing of Tetris. It’s basically if you took the origin story of Tetris and did it as Chernobyl, kind of.
Craig: Oh, my.
John: I think it’s a really good trailer. Apple bought the movie. There’s a new Apple trailer out today for it, so take a look at the Tetris trailer.
Craig: I will jump on that after we finish recording.
John: “In the episode with Sarah Polley, Craig briefly mentioned having some problems with using child actors. How did those concerns impact the way you write scenes for child actors? For example, in Episode 5 of The Last of Us, it was amazing, but I would never let my 10-year-old watch scenes that the 10-year-old Keivonn Woodward acted in.”
Craig, I’ll just ask. Can you talk about your process of working with actors that young? What did he see? What did he know? You weren’t doing The Shining, where this kid doesn’t know that he’s actually in the movie. What was your process with working with him?
Craig: My kid was much younger. It’s a great question, Spencer. First things first, I don’t worry about those things when I’m writing the script. I think when you’re writing the script, you write the best script you can. Then you deal with the practicalities of how to work with child actors.
When it comes to content, one of the things we have is camera angles. If through editing, Keivonn stares at something and looks at it in horror, and then we see what he’s looking at, he may not be there to see that thing. In fact, he probably isn’t, because any time a child actor, the camera isn’t actively pointing at them, they’re not there, because you’re on the clock with kid actors. Every minute is precious, because you get so few of them, as opposed to adult actors that they show up and they put in their 12-hour day. A lot of times they’re not seeing the things you see.
In the case of Episode 5, so much of the stuff that was going on there, he was not there to see, or it was greatly enhanced by visual effects, so it wasn’t as gory or as horrifying. That’s it. There were a lot of people running around in pretty intense Cordyceps prosthetics, because we like to do as much as we can practically.
You can actually see, there’s this beautiful little video that HBO put together, a nice behind-the-scenes video that’s all about Keivonn and how we worked with Keivonn and how our director of ASL, CJ Jones, worked with Keivonn and us. It’s beautiful. I’m going to see if I can dig up the link to that thing, because it’s out there. I’m pretty sure that in that video, you can see we’re introducing him to a lot of the stunt actors, and he gets to feel the prosthetics. We invite him behind the curtain to see the backstage of it and to see that it’s make-believe and it’s pretend. That was great for him.
We also make sure that we’re communicating constantly with his guardian. In this case, it was his mother, April, who’s wonderful, and so we just check in. We just make safety a priority, and then a child isn’t terrified or scared or getting nightmares or traumatized by any of the things they see. You just make it a priority to take care of the kid. Why wouldn’t you want to? In this case, it was great. I think we did it really well, and Keivonn had a fantastic time and was very sad when it was all over. I think we all were. It’s a great question, Spencer. Too long didn’t read: put their feelings and thoughts first as you’re planning things out, and take care of them.
John: Indeed. I think I might’ve talked about this when Sarah was on the show. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory obviously had a ton of kids in it. One of the things we had to figure out early on is that the only way we can shoot with these kids and make our days work is if they are only shooting the kids in the morning. The kids go off to school in the afternoons. We shoot all the Oompa Loompa musical numbers. It was such a weird process. That’s how you can actually make your days make sense is by, in the afternoons it was Deep Roy doing a thousand Oompa Loompas every afternoon, just to do the musical numbers, because the kids had such restricted work hours. Of course, Augustus Gloop doesn’t really drown, and Sophia Robb didn’t swell into a blueberry. No actual kids were harmed.
Craig: That’s a bummer.
John: It’s a bummer. Maybe it’s a betrayal to Roald Dahl’s vision that we did not actually harm [crosstalk 00:21:45].
Craig: I think if Roald Dahl were alive today, he’d probably be like, “Bring in more children. Punish them.” Charlie and the Chocolate Factory really is just fetishizing the punishment of children.
John: Terrible children, yes.
Craig: Or not terrible. What’s Augustus Gloop’s crime? He’s just heavy.
John: He’s [crosstalk 00:22:06].
Craig: Or he just overeats. It’s just his brain is different.
John: That’s true.
Craig: It’s one of those stories where today, I don’t think anyone’s writing that story.
John: That’s true. That’s true.
Craig: So many Roald Dahl things. Also, not a big fan of Jews, as it turns out, Roald Dahl. Not Augustus Gloop. I’m sure he loved Jews.
John: He was German but the good Germans.
Craig: Yes, the good one.
John: Let’s talk about our main issue today, which is changing of the guard. This of course is inspired by our losing Megana. I got to thinking about a lot of programs have gone through transitions where a major character is no longer there. Either the actor’s left or there’s some other transition that has to happen.
You can break it down into two categories. There’s cases where an actor left and they just put a different actor in the role, so the classic Bewitched situation. There’s other times where a character goes away and you retool or you find a functional replacement for that. The show pivots without that character. This is a very dated reference, but Valerie’s family starring Valerie Harper, she left and it became The Hogan Family, and Jason Bateman was still there and other folks were still there, but the actual title character went away. Same case with Roseanne. Roseanne went away, and it became The Conners.
I thought we’d just talk through that and maybe some of the decisions you would make as a writer in these situations. We’ve never had to do it ourselves, but we can certainly theorize what it would feel like and what you would have to do as the showrunner facing that type of challenge.
Craig: There are probably two circumstances that lead to these things. One is that something’s just not working well, and so you need to make that change to keep the show going and make it go well. You’re fixing things. The other circumstance is either somebody important quits or dies. Then you have no choice. The show was working, but you have to figure out how to regroup.
For instance, the one that always comes to mind for me is Cheers. That was the first, because I watched Bewitched when I was a kid. I barely noticed the difference between the Darrins. Cheers, Coach was Coach. He was this lovely old guy. He was this central mentor figure for Sam Malone, Ted Danson’s character, and then the actor died. They incorporated that storyline, of course. They acknowledged that he died. Then in comes this new ding-dong played by Woody Harrelson. Woody Harrelson was so good that you felt okay. Not only will it be fine, hey, maybe this is better. You never know. It’s at least as good. That was a choice that they had never wanted to make. That happens.
In your list here, you’ve noted Aaron Sorkin leaving The West Wing. Even Aaron Sorkin didn’t die, happily, him leaving The West Wing is a kind of, okay, now what do we do? It’s similar to death. What do we do now? We weren’t expecting this.
John: Absolutely. I want to go back to Cheers for a second, because the bigger change there was Shelley Long leaves and Kirstie Alley comes in. Diane is replaced. That central dynamic was crucial to those early seasons of Sam and Diane, and they made it so when she left, her character didn’t die, her character just went away, because the actress wanted to leave. They had to figure out what is the new dynamic, what was she providing that we need to find a different way to do. It’s not just Kirstie Alley’s character who could be a foil for Sam, but I think Frasier got elevated a little bit more into that spot.
Frasier still stuck around after Diane left. Then of course, Frasier ultimately spun off into his own show. I’m sure the creators in the room were figuring out, how do we make this work with the people who we have and what do we need to bring in to make the dynamics pop.
Craig: You can see how in work where a character is constantly being re-portrayed, it’s a little bit easier. There have been a lot of Batmen.
John: A lot of James Bonds.
Craig: A lot of Bonds. If you’re making a show about Batman or James Bond and somebody needs to go, it’s okay. We’ve all gotten used to this. We don’t even expect that somebody will just stay there forever for us. In other things, we do.
In the case of Sam and Diane, the big challenge for writers, and if you find yourself in this position, this is what you’ll have to grapple with, how do we replace her without replacing her, because you can’t replace her. You don’t want to just bring in the same thing, because that person is screwed. They don’t want to just do a Diane impression. They will always suffer from comparison.
Also, dramatically, it feels bereft. You couldn’t think of any other kind of human being that could possibly be in that bar? Kirstie Alley was a different kind of character. The relationship, even though it heads towards the same place, starts very differently and feels different. That’s the big challenge is figuring out how to fill this gap with something that isn’t quite the same.
John: I suspect what it involves is really taking a big step back and looking at it overall, not looking at the events of any given episode, but out of the whole, what functions did that missing character portray and how can you reapportion those functions among the existing people or bring in a new person who can do some of those functions, but in a different way, because I agree, just swapping in one for one is almost never going to work.
In the case of Charlie’s Angels, the original TV series, you could just swap a different Angel in, but that was always the conceit of the show. The conceit of it is that they are these women who work for Charlie. You knew them as individuals, but they were functionally working for him. One of them could leave, and a different person could come in. It would still basically work.
A bigger challenge on Three’s Company where they have contracts [inaudible 00:28:02] Suzanne Somers, you have to bring in somebody to just do that, but it can’t be exactly that. Anyone is going to suffer by comparison to what she specifically was doing.
Craig: In that case, that was one where they did try to just sort of duplicate it. They didn’t go fully into duplication. That’s the issue. In the older shows, I think back in the day, where in sitcoms and dramas, characters were a bit thinner. Let’s just be honest. They were. The characterizations have become much more complicated, particularly on television across the board, in all of its varieties. It was maybe a little bit easier to say, look, this person played this type, the whole point was that they were playing a type, so let’s throw the type back in there. It’s much harder to do now.
If anything, I think now, rather than doing that, you would look at a big change as an opportunity to ask what would I have done differently or how can we make ourselves a little bit uncomfortable again with the way things are, how do we lean into the discomfort of change, which I think has been done very effectively on a lot of things. They have the big differences. Back then, when there’s a change on NYPD Blue, for instance, there isn’t a billion people on Twitter arguing about it. We just watched it. We talked about it amongst ourselves and we kept watching. It was fine. Jimmy Smits was cool. Nowadays, you just have to know with all these things, there’s this very vocal discourse about all of it.
John: Your earlier point though about leaning into discomfort of change I think is really important though, because it helps keep things fresh. It helps you really re-evaluate what it is you’re doing and how you could improve what you’re doing. I think that’s part of the reason why Megana moving on or Megan McDonald before her and Stuart before them, I’ve enjoyed it. It’s a chance to look at what we’re doing on the show, what we’re doing in the office, and try some new things. We’re breaking up some responsibilities a little bit differently, for example. It’ll be nice. I think some stuff will work, some stuff won’t, but we’ll make the change.
Craig: Obviously, I’m terrified. I just remember this moment in Wayne’s World where Garth is alone. He’s rarely alone. This guy’s explaining to him that now that the show is going to be on a real channel, that there’s going to be some changes. He just goes, “I fear change,” while he’s beating this weird hand that’s moving around, this animatronic hand. It’s a very strange moment. I always think of Garth going, “I fear change.” I do too. We all do. I think that’s why… Isn’t fear at the heart of so much of what we do? Hone it and embrace it.
John: Own it. Hey Craig, one of the changes I would love to make in my life, and you may have an opinion, but also our listeners may have answers for it, is in my office, the home office, originally we had five telephone lines coming in. This is how long we’ve been in this house, 20 years. We had two home lines, two office lines, and a fax line. Obviously, the fax line went away. We’re down now to just a home line and an office line.
When the phone rings, we basically don’t answer it, because it’s always spam. There’s really no good reason to answer these phones. I’m wondering about maybe getting rid of the phones all together. During the pandemic, everyone just started calling me directly me on my cellphone, which was mostly fine, but I don’t want that all the time.
Craig, what are you doing with… Someone calls the office. Are they calling a physical office line number? Are they calling some virtual number that goes to your assistant? What are you doing? Because I need to do something better.
Craig: I hear you. When we started doing this podcast, like you, I had an office line. I didn’t have multiple office lines. I had an office line, I had a home line, I had a fax line. All those are gone. I did have some phone lines in my Pasadena office, which we almost never used. I eventually got rid of those too. Because I’m a bit nomadic now, where I live here, then I live in Canada, then I live here, then I live in Canada, it doesn’t make a ton of sense.
Right now in our current offices in Hollywood, we don’t have phones. We just have our cellphones. What I do is see who’s calling. If I am able to or have a desire to talk to them in that moment, I answer it. If I can’t or don’t, I don’t. The thing is, that’s how our kids do it. We were raised to think that not answering the phone is the pinnacle of rudeness. It’s not. It’s just how it goes. There’s so much texting. There’s so many ways to get in touch with us.
Basically, I just have my phone. If I see somebody calling and I know who they are but I don’t know what they want, I might hand it off to my assistant, I might hand it off to Allie, or I’ll just deal with it myself, but no landlines, no ringing in the house, none of that stuff. It’s all gone.
John: That may be where we ultimately get back to. If listeners have a suggestion for here’s how you transfer your office line number to a virtual thing that during certain hours rings to Drew and certain hours just goes to voice mail or rings to my phone, I’d love suggestions on that, because it feels like that may be a middle ground and we’re transitioning here, because it was nice for someone to be able to answer the phone and for Megana or Megan before her to say, “Oh, I have Ken Richman calling,” and I can pick up the phone.
Craig: That’s the thing. Our phones now are almost like the old… Do you remember way, way back when? Hey, let’s go back in the time machine, shall we? Let’s jump in the old time machine back to the ’90s.
John: Oh, god.
Craig: I know, Drew, this is going to rock your world. Here’s how we used to work. There’s a person in an office, and then they have their assistant in another office. There are office phones. The assistant has the phone. The person in the back has the phone. Somebody calls the office. It doesn’t necessarily ring in the, we’ll call them the principal’s office.
Then they had this thing where they would type onto a little machine. I can’t remember the name of it. It looked like a little mini typewriter. It would say something like, hey, Ken Richman is on the line. That would go bloop on the other machine on that person’s desk. It was this really bad green texty readout. Then there were these pre-programmed buttons they could hit, like call back, I’ll take it, take a message, not here.
That’s how that shit would go. Our phones do that now for us. Culture has changed to the point where nobody really cares, I don’t think. Say you call your agent, John. What’s your agent’s name?
John: Bill. I have three agents. Let’s say Bill.
Craig: Bill. Let’s say Bill. You call up. They say, “Oh, it’s Bill’s office.” You’re like, “Hey, it’s John August for Bill.” What do they say back to you?
John: “One moment, let me see if I can get him.”
Craig: “Let me see if I can get him.” “Let me see if I can get blank” became the all-purpose… Drew, I’m going to take you back again. The way it used to be is they would be like, “Hold on.” Then they would come back and say, “Sorry, he’s not available.” You’d be like, “If he’s not available, why were you saying hold on?” Everybody knew that meant just, eh, he doesn’t want to talk to me. Then they, “Let me see if I can get him,” as if everything is like, “Oh my god, I gotta run up to the top of the hill and find him. Oh my god, I couldn’t find him. I couldn’t get him. I couldn’t get him.” Lies. That culture’s gone. Even though they still say that as agents, everybody knows. Everybody knows.
John: I think “Let me see if I can get him” also was part of the pandemic, because no one was in the office. It was basically like, can I actually reach him on this conference calling or whatever we’re using.
Craig: I gotta then hand it to Todd Felton’s assistants, because they’ve been saying, “Let me see if I can get him,” for 15 years. He’s trained them well.
John: It’s been a growing thing, but the pandemic fully broke it.
Craig: Makes sense.
John: Listeners, if you have suggestions for me or if I should just [inaudible 00:36:28] just do what Craig says and get rid of your phones, that’s also possible.
Craig: By the way, what if I don’t know that Drew is actually 63?
John: Wouldn’t it be great?
Craig: I don’t know.
John: You’re assuming he’s a young, spry person.
Craig: I haven’t met him in person yet, so I’m like, “Hey, let me blow your mind.” He’s like, “Let me blow your mind. I was in Vietnam.”
John: He’s months away from retirement.
Craig: Look, I got my first laugh out of Drew. Yes! Yes!
John: He’s trying so hard.
Craig: Megana, there’s hope. There’s hope.
John: There’s hope. Let’s do some listener questions.
John: Drew, can you start us off?
Drew: Yeah. Max asks, “Right now I’m an assistant for a writer/producer working on a pitch for an original series. This would be her first network show if it was picked up. At this point, I feel like I’ve contributed a good deal creatively to the project. That being said, we don’t have any type of contract drawn up. Should I be worried that if the show was picked up, I’d be cut out in some way? I’m only 22, so even though this has been a great experience for me, I don’t need to be naïve. Do you think I need to approach this conversation with her, even if we’re not in talks with the network yet? If I want to speak with her about this, how should I go about it?”
John: All right, Max. I would just say frame what your expectations actually are, because it’s a little unclear from your question. You contributed a great deal creatively, but also, are you contributing it as a writer or are you contributing it as an assistant or a sounding board or other things? If you’re as an assistant, and you’re wondering, will I stay on to be a showrunner’s assistant if this thing goes, how do I stay involved, great. That’s a probably reasonable expectation. If it’s that you were some co-writer on this thing, that’s a whole different thing. Craig, what’s your instinct?
Craig: Slight red flags here, because of how vague you’re being, Max. Let me tell you what the nightmare is from our side of things, Max, and then we’ll talk about the nightmare from your side.
From our side, the nightmare is we’re sitting there talking about stuff out loud, and we’ve asked our assistant to write stuff down on cards and put them up on the board. Then you may say to your assistant, “By the way, do you like this? What do you think? Do you think this is good?” They may say, “Yeah, although I’m wondering about this.” You may go, “That’s an interesting question. I don’t know,” blah blah blah.
That to us isn’t really contributing. That’s just us being nice and doing a job of including you and helping get you introduced to this process. It’s not necessarily like, hey, we’re writing partners. Then that person comes later and goes, “Hey, I did this too, and I should be a blankety blank.” They’re like, “No, don’t punish me for a good deed.”
Now, the nightmare on your side is sometimes writers do take advantage of their assistants. They do have their assistants doing real creative work. Then they jam them later and cut them out.
Here’s what I would suggest. First, really examine the situation and ask yourself what is going on exactly. Then two, I think it probably would be good to have a conversation here, but to have it carefully and to acknowledge that it’s an awkward conversation, because it is, and say, “I would love… ” You can always put it in the positive. “I love doing the job of being your assistant. I really love doing this stuff. I would love to, for whatever use my contributions are, continue doing that and to be included if this goes further.” You can say that, but I have to tell you, if she wants to cut you out, she’s going to cut you out. There’s another potential course here where you just don’t do anything and you see what happens. I’m torn.
John: I’m torn too. It’s because I don’t know what Max is actually contributing and how realistic Max is being here. The other thing I would recommend Max do is to talk with other people at his level in his position. Meet some other assistants and see what they’re doing. If you’re doing 9,000 times more creative stuff, you’re writing stuff for all this, and you really should be a co-creator of this thing, that’s one thing.
More than likely, you are a person who she is allowing into the process. You’re giving some good hands-on experience. What you should be hoping for is to be that showrunner’s assistant as the show gets picked up or if something else happens. I just think that’s more realistic for you.
John: Cool. Drew, what do you got for us next?
Drew: Jacob from Chicago asks, “In the companion podcast for The Last of Us, Craig tells the story of pitching the show to HBO. By the end, they all shake hands and HBO buys the show in the room. How much value does this handshake traditionally have? HBO hadn’t yet secured the rights to the IP. A budget wasn’t set. Who has the power when it comes to salary negotiations? Can’t lots go wrong in between agreeing to buy the show and actually buying the show? As someone with dreams of shopping my own IP, how is one supposed to act in this dream scenario when plenty of details haven’t been discussed in the room?”
Craig: I can give you the specifics of that, and then we can talk generally, because the specifics in this case don’t always exist in other circumstances. In this case, they didn’t have to worry about salary, because I already had an overall deal at HBO, which meant that all that stuff had been predetermined and they were paying it anyway. That part was easy.
You’re absolutely right that they hadn’t yet secured the rights to the IP. What we knew going in there, because we did our homework first, was that the IP was available, that the owner of the IP, which is Sony, had agreed that HBO would be a good place for the show to be, and it was understood that a good faith negotiation between two very large corporations would occur.
Before we went in the room, Sony knew we were going to HBO, and HBO knew that Sony Television specifically was going to be involved in some aspect, from a financial or ownership point of view. Everybody knew that. Everybody said, “Understood. We still would like to hear it.” We pitched it. They said, “Great.”
Now, yeah, what happened after that, Jacob, was a very long negotiation between corporations to figure out how to do all that. While they were doing all that, Neil and I just sat on Zoom and thought about the creative part of it, because that’s our job.
John: When you say a very long time, it was months and months, right?
Craig: Yeah, it was months. The wheel turned slowly on this stuff. There were moments where it seemed dicier than others. In the end, like everything else, when people want to do something, when there’s a will, there’s a way, and they figure it out. I think it is not unheard of that things fall apart because of unrealistic demands or an inability for two entities to mesh, but it’s rare, generally speaking, because hearing yes is such a rare word in our business. When you get it, everybody’s incentivized to figure it out.
John: I’m trying to think of a situation where I’ve sold it in the room, the equivalent of that handshake there in the room. That handshake, for Jacob’s question, it’s probably not a legally binding handshake. It’s just that good faith, like, “We’re going to try to make a deal here.” I’ve had a fair number of I sold it in the parking lot. I was in the room. I walked out. I got a call from my agent saying, “Great, they want to buy it.” That’s more commonly the situation.
There’s still going to be a negotiation to get you to that point. Maybe you will get to that point, and maybe you won’t get to that point. It’s going to happen. It’s exciting when you get that confirmation. Yes, it’s worthwhile, because it really does mean that they want it, but it’s no guarantee it’s going to happen.
Craig: There’s this fun little dopamine rollercoaster where you go in there, you pitch something, and a company says, “Yes!” Everyone’s like, “We did it! Let’s go out to dinner and champagne. We sold it.” Then three days later, somebody else entirely, who was not in that room, who doesn’t know anything about the show, just knows that they want to buy it, that person in Business Affairs calls and is like, “Got it. Our offer is this old dirty shoe and a half-eaten apple.” Then you’re like, “Wait, what?” Then everything gets dark and ugly and you feel insulted and hurt and confused. In your brain it’s like, “It’s never going to happen.” Then it all works out and it’s fine, and then you’re back again.
Just understand it’s going to be a party, a funeral, and then the thing in between, which is a mature understanding that we’ve arrived at a reasonable place and now the work must begin.
John: Sounds good. Drew, what else you got for us here?
Drew: The follow-up to that. Jason says, “I’m part of a writing trio, one of which is an established Big Five author. His UTA agent sent out our TV pilot and pitch deck, and we’ve landed six meetings with shockingly legitimate production companies, many of which have first look deals with a streamer. They’ve all been friendly, getting to know you affairs. Often, they ask what else we have or are working on. In a highly unlikely best-case scenario, what would the next step be? Are original projects optioned like novel adaptations? If a production company is interested in developing our concept, would we be evolved or cut out? How many projects should new writers be expected to bring into a meeting? Should they all be written and polished with a pitch deck?”
John: A whole slough of questions here. Let’s go through this best-case scenario. It’s this writing trio. One to them is a Big Five author. Writing trios are unusual but great.
Craig: They exist.
John: They exist. You’re going in with this project. People seem to be excited about it. That should be your priority going into those rooms. Maybe one of them will say, “Yes, we really want to do that,” in which case they will either buy it or they will option it. You will be involved at some capacity. They may say, “Oh, we need to bring in an established showrunner at some point.” Sure, great. That’s your project. That’s great.
The second part of the question here though is, what else should you be saying in that room, like what else are you working on? I wouldn’t bring in some other polished deck for the second project or the third project, but be ready to talk through two or three other things that you are working on. Give the 30-second, one-minute version of it. Just throw out that line and see if they bite on that, and maybe talk to them about it a little bit more. The first thing you should really be talking about is the project that got you in there.
Craig: Completely agree. Just understand, Jason, that when they say, “Hey, so what else you got?” what they’re saying is, “We don’t want this.” That’s kind of implied. It’s not completely implied. It’s not an automatic, like, “We don’t want this thing.” It kind of might be like, “Hey, look, we really like the writing. We think you guys have an interesting voice. You’re clearly capable of putting together something that might interest investment, but we’re not going to buy this, so what else you got?” Just know that that’s there.
I do agree with John. You want to emphasize what you are selling in the moment, because what can occur from “What else you got?” is a fishing expedition. It cost them nothing to have you guys just start spinning in a circle to come up with something else that makes them happy, cost them literally nothing, so why wouldn’t they?
If you can concentrate on the people that seem specifically interested in this, that’s great. Otherwise, what you’re really having are general meetings. General meetings, yeah. Then like John said, you can absolutely talk about some areas of interest.
You can also ask them, “Hey, do you have things that you think we would be right for?” because sometimes they have projects that need rewriting or re-conceiving or they’ve bought a book that they need somebody to adapt.
Yes, they can option things, but what you’re looking for these days is somewhere where you can actually get a commitment to make a show or, at least to start with, to get a commitment to write another episode or give a full bible or whatever it is. No, you don’t want to waste a lot of time dressing everything else up. You want to really concentrate on the one you’re bringing.
John: You’ve mentioned here that you have a UTA agent, or this Big Five author does. That agent will tell you before any meeting, “They’re thinking about optioning or buying this project. They want to talk to you about that.” Great. That is your point of focus. That’s your pitch deck. That’s your everything. You’re going in there. You’re making the presentation.
The agent may also say, “Listen, they’re not going to buy this, but they really like you.” That’s your opportunity to go in and press them about what you guys together can do, what you’re looking to do. That’s when you’re really thinking about the next project, the other project. It’s a really good sign when they volunteer, like, “Here are the things we’re looking to do. Here are the things that we’re interested in.” Take that, because that means they are thinking about you in those future projects.
With Go!, I went out on a zillion meetings when we first sent that out. My agent could tell me, “Listen, they are not in a position to buy the scripts. They’re just not going to do it, but they really liked it. This is your chance to make connections, make relationships, and find some stuff you can be paid to write.” That’s exactly what happened.
Craig: Hell yeah.
John: Hell yeah. Drew, let’s take one more question.
Drew: Cecilia asks, “Most aspiring screenwriters write under their birth name, right? The thing is that I’m a well-known wedding photographer. My website is under my name, as well as on my social media and communication avenues. If you Google my name, a lot of wedding photography images, interviews, awards come home. I want to start on a clean slate and be taken seriously as a screenwriter. Should I write under a pseudonym? My concern is that people might then think I’m not real, and it might damage my credibility even before I start. Will my name influence how I’m perceived as a professional writer? If I write under a pseudonym, should I explain why?”
Craig: John, what’s your instinct here?
John: I changed my name before I moved to Hollywood.
Craig: That’s true.
John: My original name was unpronounceable, German last name.
Craig: John Meise [MEE-zee]. MEE-zuh.
Craig: You can’t even pronounce it.
John: Our family pronounced it MAI-zee the same way Drew’s family pronounces it MAHR-kwahrt even though it could be MAHR-gahrt. It just was not a useful name for me to have, so I took my dad’s middle name, which is August. I am a big believer in picking a name that works for you.
In your case, Cecilia, you have a name that works for you as a wedding photographer. I don’t know that’s a huge problem that you’re a little bit famous in that space, because I think it’s okay. They’re orthogonal to each other, but it doesn’t mean that people won’t take you seriously as a writer. As long as your name isn’t Cecilia Deathbringer or something, I would maybe stick with your real name. Craig, what’s your instinct?
Craig: If her name is Cecilia Deathbringer, she has to stick with her real name, because that’s awesome.
John: She does.
Craig: I get the instinct here, Cecilia, I think what you’re concerned about is that there’s a slight cheese factor associated with wedding media, so wedding videos, wedding photography. All that stuff has a little bit of a cheese vibe, even though a lot of the people that work in that industry are very talented and very well paid. I presume you’re one of them, since you mentioned awards.
It really comes down to actually how you feel. If you write a great script, the fact that you’re a wedding photographer becomes part of the interesting story. If you write a bad script, the fact that you’re a wedding photographer is something that they could add on to why they don’t like it. “Oh my god, this wedding photographer script reads just like you would imagine a wedding photographer writing a script.” You can hear it, right? It’s actually mostly about your comfort level. You can write under a pseudonym. You need to start that at the beginning.
John: Yeah, definitely.
Craig: Otherwise, it becomes an issue. You actually have to make a little bit of a permanent choice here, the way that John did. It can’t harm you. The only harm that it would do to you is if you ultimately regretted it. I don’t think that the perception will impact you as much as the quality of your work.
Craig: If it makes you feel more comfortable and confident to write under another name, why not?
John: I would say as you’re looking at alternative names, it could just be one you pick and make up. It could be you and your middle name. It could be your married name. If you want to differentiate between the two brands of Cecilia, great. Just have something that makes sense. Have something that you’re going to be comfortable with for the rest of your writing career. It can definitely work.
I’ll also say that having worked in middle-grade fiction, the idea of using different names for different kinds of properties is really common there. Particularly, women will… JK Rowling. Using initials or some other way to not identify yourself as a woman is a common thing too. You don’t see it as much in screenwriting, but it also does happen. You have choices. I would say whatever you do, don’t make a choice that calls attention to it. Make it a choice that feels natural, like, “Oh, of course this is Cecilia last name. I love her script.”
Craig: This is very common. Just so you know, Cecilia, this happens all the time. People, sometimes all they do is change their names for practical reasons, like John, because his last name was just leading to a lot of Who’s On First conversations about how to pronounce it.
David Benioff, his actual name is David Friedman. There are about a thousand of those, incredibly common name. If you show up, and if your name is Cecilia Gomez, there are probably a thousand Cecilia Gomezes just west of the Mississippi. You’re not going to be able to use it actually. One of the things that you’re looking is to avoid marketplace confusion. Actors have to do this all the time. It’s incredibly common. It’s Hollywood. Elton John is not Elton John’s name. You know what his name is?
John: I don’t know what his real name is.
Craig: Drew, do you know what his name is?
John: I saw Rocketman, but I forgot.
Drew: It’s Reginald something, right?
Craig: Yes. You get half points. You get one half point to Gryffindor. Reginald Dwight I believe is his actual name. David Bowie, his real name is?
John: No idea.
Craig: Davey Jones. Davey Jones. There were two Davey Joneses.
John: That’s weird.
Craig: Can you imagine a more common name that David Jones? Yeah, David Bowie made sense.
John: Hey, Craig, do you remember my husband Mike’s original last name?
Craig: I don’t even know if I… Have I ever heard it?
John: I don’t know if you ever have.
Craig: I don’t think I have.
John: My husband is Michael Douglas.
Craig: That’s awesome. I must’ve heard this, because you’ve heard the story where Chris Miller and I were on a plane, and Michael Keaton was on the plane.
John: Oh yeah, of course, because Michael Keaton’s real last name is Douglas.
Craig: He’s Michael Douglas. We did not know that. We weren’t traveling together. There’s this LA-to-New York flight that a lot of people end up on. I’m like, “Oh, look at you.” He’s like, “Hey, look at you.” We’re just chitchatting. Then he’s like, “Hey, check it out. Across the aisle there is Michael Keaton.” I’m like, “It’s Michael Keaton.”
The flight attendant comes by, and she’s like, “Oh, Mr. Miller, what would you like for lunch? Mr. Mazin, what would you like?” She says to Michael Keaton, “Mr. Douglas, what would you like for lunch?” Chris and I were like, why would a famous person use one of those names to avoid being noticed but pick another famous guy’s name? It turns out he didn’t. That’s his actual name is Michael Douglas, and that’s why he has to be Michael Keaton, because there was already a Michael Douglas. I love that the world is full of Michael Douglases and you found one of them. That’s beautiful.
John: It’s lovely. Thank you for the questions, Drew.
Craig: Great job, Drew.
Drew: Of course.
Craig: You know what? Drew did a really good job.
John: Did a nice job. Good start there. Plus, a half credit on the quiz, so love it all. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is an article by Caitlin Moscatello. It ran in The Cut. The headline is “The Fleishman Effect: In a city of Rachels and Libbys, the FX show has some New York moms worried they’re the ones in trouble.”
We had Taffy on the show a couple episodes back. We talked all about the Fleishman Is in Trouble series and book. This article is a great examination of the way that people see themselves in media. In this case, it’s a bunch of New York moms and women who find themselves on the same treadmills and traps that the characters in Fleishman Is in Trouble find themselves in, and just a good reminder that sometimes the art we make is helpful for people framing the experiences that they’re having, and that sometimes what we create lets people put a name to what they’re feeling. I love this article. Just another reason why I loved Taffy’s show.
Craig: No better reason to do what we do. We’re trying to connect with people, and when you do, that’s exciting. It’s an interesting feedback loop. You observe, you describe, and then you impact. That’s very exciting. I read this independent of your recommendation. I did read this. It was recommended. I thought it was very good.
My One Cool Thing is a thousand cool things all at once. We’re recording this on February 16th, which is a Thursday. This past Monday, I approved the final VFX shot for The Last of Us. It is done.
John: Congratulations, Craig.
Craig: Thank you. One of the benefits of running a show the way HBO does, episode a week, is that the run of the show covers a span of time, which gives you extra time to finish the visual effects for the final episodes, because you got some time. We finished.
I just want to acknowledge the amazing work of our visual effects team on the inside, led by Alex Wong, our visual effects supervisor, and Sean Nowlan, our visual effects producer, their team, all of the men and women that worked with them from our production, and then I’m not sure exactly how many, but I’m just going to say a thousand people and maybe more, all around the world, from Wētā in New Zealand and DNEG in the UK and Vancouver. We had teams working in Sweden. We had teams everywhere. There were so many vendors working on the show, all of whom just poured so much time and energy and effort into it, which I think shows and I think is reflected in the show. They did tremendous work. They’re all artists, and I am incredibly grateful for all they’ve done.
One reason I think we, people like you and me who are in this position, are obligated to call out our visual effects teams is because it’s one of the few jobs where if you do it perfectly, no one knows you were there.
That sometimes leads to situations where people, they just don’t know what you did. I can say for a fact that I read a lot of things where people talked about, “Oh my god, it’s incredible. Look at this practical thing they made.” I’m like, “Nope, that was not a practical thing.” I’m not going to talk about it, because I don’t like bringing people backstage too much.
I just want to acknowledge all of these men and women who worked so, so hard to deliver all of this on time and at this ridiculous level of quality. I’m amazed. I would constantly say wow. Thank you to our team and thank you to all the teams across all the vendors all over the world.
John: Big love for everyone in post.
Craig: Big love.
John: Such a hard job.
Craig: It is.
John: Big love. That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Drew Marquardt with help from Chris Csont. It’s edited this week by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro is by David Kawale.
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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 drugs. Drew, welcome, and Craig, thank you.
Craig: Thank you, guys.
Drew: Thank you.
John: Craig, let’s talk prescription drugs, prescription drug prices, availability. You and I are both in the Writers Guild. We’re on the Writers Guild health plan. We can get stuff at the pharmacy if we need to, but then longer-term medications, the things that you take all the time, we have to get through Express Scripts, which I find to be one of the worst places on earth.
Craig: Interesting. I have had no problem with them, but I will tell you that you and Scott Frank can have a wonderful discussion with each other on how much you hate that. To clarify for people, and I think a lot of plans work like this, we can go into a CVS or a Walgreens and say, “Here’s the prescription,” or our doctor phones it in, and we get it.
What happens is, we can keep getting it there, we’ll get an insane amount of annoying messages saying, “You know it’s going to cost a lot less if you got a 90-day supply of this stuff that you take every day and get it mail ordered through Express Scripts,” because it saves the plan money, because it’s in bulk, and because it’s cutting out a lot of the stuff that… They don’t have to maintain a whole store like CVS does, the brick and mortar thing. I have to say I’ve never had a problem with them, but I’ve heard a lot of people have.
John: Here are the problems that Mike and I have with Express Scripts. They will call constantly. We still have phones in our house, which is part of the problem.
Craig: There you go.
John: They will call to say, “Hey, we’re going to fill this prescription for you that we’ve been filling for the last 10 years. Is it okay for us to send this through? Can you verify your address?” Jesus, yes. I’m always going to be taking Atorvastatin, Lipitor. I’m still taking it. I’m going to be taking it for the rest of my life. Yes, you can send it. It’s so, so, so maddening.
Craig: They’ve never done that with me, although they have done this other thing. My oldest kid has a lot of just medical issues because of Crohn’s disease. When you have Crohn’s, there are all these medications that you have to take chronically. Some of them are injected. Some of them are infusions. There’s all sorts of stuff. My oldest is now 21, and they’ll call me. I’m like, “I’m not even allowed to talk to you about their health. They’re an adult. They’re on my plan, but you can’t do this.” I don’t know what to tell… I don’t know how many times I’ve had to say it to them. They just keep calling. I’m like, “You guys are I think legitimately breaking the law. This is a HIPAA violation.”
John: HIPAA violation.
Craig: They really do struggle with some of the basics. That said, like you, I take Atorvastatin every day, and it shows up. I have thousands of Atorvastatins.
Craig: My doctor says, “Send him 90 days worth of Atorvastatin. Then when you’re getting close, send another 90 days worth.” I feel like they send them every 12 days. I’m drowning in pills.
John: I’m a little over supply on some of those things. This is not just a bitch solution. I have some solutions for certain things.
John: First off, if you are in Los Angeles or a market that has Capsule Pharmacy, it’s really good for the things that you would normally go into CVS, because you can have your doctor call into Capsule, and they will just deliver it to your house for free. It is so incredibly super handy. The things actually, some of them are cheaper. I don’t understand how it works. It’s probably one of those things where it had VC money and will ultimately go bankrupt. Until it goes bankrupt, it’s a giant savings for me of time and money, so Capsule if you’re in LA.
Craig: Early on, I think in the early days of our podcast, we were talking about Webvan. We were like, “How the hell is this company going to work?” It turned out it couldn’t. This may be the MoviePass of pharmacy, but still, that sounds awesome.
John: For now it’s really good. There’s some things we get, that I get or that my daughter gets, that just get delivered from Capsule. It’s better and it’s faster. It’s filled in like an hour.
Craig: Love that.
John: Love that. I was reading articles online. I talked with Mike. We decided, let’s explore. Amazon has a pharmacy for generic drugs. Mark Cuban, the billionaire Mark Cuban, has Cost Plus Drugs. We ended up using Mark Cuban’s Cost Plus Drugs. We’ve figured out the generics that we get are actually much, much, much cheaper to get through him. They came. It all works. Exactly one delivery from them, but it was cheaper and better than my Express Scripts experience.
John: I would say if you’re on regularly occurring generic drugs… I’ve put it in the Workflowy here so you can see the differences for Atorvastatin, what you and I both take the generic version of Lipitor.
Craig: This is per 90 pills or something?
John: Per 90 days. Express Scripts is not too expensive. $9.53 on Express Scripts. $23.10 on Amazon. $7.50 on Cost Plus, so cheaper. That same thing, if I got it at Walgreens, $136.
Craig: Oh, man.
Craig: That’s why our system is bananas. Our system is full of pretend numbers. In the long run, I’m not sure what the major differences are and how much we all spend on these things, but my guess is ultimately the cost of things are the cost of things. It’s just that more of it is shouldered by private citizens here in the U.S., but the cost is the cost. Then you could say, okay, but in the other place, the taxes are high. Everybody’s paying for it somehow. I don’t think there’s any question that our system is not without major and correctable flaws. I have to say, if I’m getting 90 days for $9.53, I’m not sure I want to go through the heartache and the potential screw-ups to just save $2 every three months.
John: A hundred percent that. For us, it was like freeing ourselves from the hell of Express Scripts. It was really we hated Express Scripts, and that’s why we wanted to change. Finasteride, which is the generic version of Propecia, is a huge [01:06:53]. Express Scripts for 90 days was 62 bucks, Cost Plus $7.50.
Craig: You take Propecia?
John: Yeah, Mike and I both take Propecia. I’ve been on Propecia since before I lost all of my hair. I take Propecia, and Mike does too.
Craig: What is the hair that it’s giving you?
John: The hair that I have left would go away. My doctor wants me to stay on it because once you’re on it, it’s probably better to stay on it.
Craig: I see what you’re saying. That’s a major difference. I gotta be honest with you.
John: Is it worth it?
Craig: It’s worth checking out. For me, what I want to take a look at is, we do have some more expensive things. I take a medicine for my chronic back pain because of spinal stenosis. That’s not the cheapest one through Express Scripts. It’s not brutal. It’s covered. Particularly interested in the Crohn’s medicines to see if there’s a major difference there. Interesting.
John: I bring this up as a bonus topic just because whether it’s these services or GoodRX… Megana put GoodRX in the show notes. Megana, who clearly today must’ve logged into the Workflowy to add something in, she misses us. She mentioned GoodRX.
Craig: She can’t let us go.
John: There are other services that are worth checking out. I would just say don’t assume the default price for a medicine is the right price for it, because it’s probably cheaper someplace else. If you like a service that is more convenient or better, I say switch.
Craig: Hey Drew, you know you’re hearing messages from the future right now, right?
Drew: I’m 63 years old, so this is very helpful.
Craig: “We didn’t have any of this stuff.”
Drew: Online prescriptions?
Craig: “We didn’t have online. We didn’t even have medicine. We had bourbon.” I just had my annual physical the other day. I was saying to my doctor, “Shouldn’t there just be a pill call middle-aged man that has Atorvastatin and Lisinopril for your blood pressure and an aspirin for your heart, just one horse tablet every guy gets once they hit 50?” I don’t know anybody our age that isn’t on one of these things.
John: It’s incredibly common and sort of ubiquitous. Anyway, just my advice, just shop around, and don’t assume that the price you’re getting is the right price for a drug, because it’s probably a lot cheaper.
John: Thanks, gents.
Craig: Thank you.
Drew: Thank you so much.
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