The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. I have a pre-correction to this episode you’re about to listen to. Later on, I refer to Jesse Alexander of Succession. The quote is actually by Lucy Prebble, another executive producer of Succession. That’s it. That’s my mistake. Enjoy the episode.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August, and you’re listening to Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show, we answer listener questions on the craft and the business of writing from our overflowing mailbag. In our bonus segment for premium members, what do you do when a coworker is nice but incompetent? We’ll discuss one of the trickiest workplace situations.
Craig is traveling this week, but luckily, we have someone extraordinarily qualified to take his place. Danielle Sanchez-Witzel is a writer-producer whose many credits include My Name is Earl, The Carmichael Show. Her latest show is Up Here, streaming now on Hulu. Welcome, Danielle.
Danielle Sanchez-Witzel: Hi. Thanks for having me, John. I’m happy to be here.
John: Danielle, you and I only know each other because we’re both on the negotiating committee. We’ve been sitting in these giant rooms across tables from each other. It’s so great to talk to you about what you do.
Danielle: I am so happy we met that way. I knew of you, just to be clear. I just didn’t know you until I got into that room. Happy to be doing something that’s not negotiating, to be perfectly honest with you, John.
John: Absolutely. We had a question last night at the member meeting about what does the negotiating committee actually do, what do you do in the room. I tried to answer that, and I feel like I kind of flubbed it, honestly, because I was trying to segue to talk about something else, but I was trying to quickly get through the negotiating part. Because I have a podcast, I’m going to take a second crack at it here. I’m going to try to explain what happens in the negotiating room.
I think I have this fantasy that it’s going to be like an Aaron Sorkin movie, like The Social Network, where people get these devastating lines and there’s rhetorical traps that are laid, that spring and change everything. It’s not like that.
Danielle: It’s not. It’s not like that at all, no.
John: No. It’s more like those foreign streaming shows that people tell you to watch, and they’ll say, “It’s really, really slow, but you’ve gotta stick with it, because you’ll think that nothing’s happening, but eventually it all happens.” You’re like, “Oh wow, that was actually really impressive, but it was subtle.” It’s one of those maddening but subtle kind of processes for me. Has that been your experience?
Danielle: Absolutely. I was really glad that question was asked at the meeting last night, because I think it’s such a fair question. I don’t know if our members wonder about it, but clearly that member did, so I imagine more perhaps do.
This is going to sound crazy, but something that really surprised me when we first walked into the room is that we’re literally sitting across a table from each other, just the visual. The table is pretty narrow, and we’re just sitting across from it.
This is my first negotiating committee I’ve ever been on. I know that’s not true for you. I’m really giving first impression kind of a take. I don’t know why I was surprised by being so close to the AMPTP members. I think what you’re describing in terms of vibe and pace is pretty accurate.
John: We have incredibly smart people on our side. Staff does almost all of the talking in the room when we’re actually in the room with the other people. Then we get back to our caucus room, and that’s the chance where we get to actually say clever things as writers and tell jokes and make important points.
One of the important points I really loved hearing you talk about was your experience making these last two shows. In addition to Up Here, you also have Survival of the Thickest, this Netflix show. You were talking about how challenging it’s been to make shows as a writer-producer these days because of structural changes of the industry, that the experience of doing My Name is Earl is just so vastly different from what’s happening now with these new shows. Could you give us a sense of that, what it’s like to be making a show in 2023 and how challenging it is for you as a showrunner?
Danielle: Absolutely. I have spent a majority of my career making broadcast network shows. I have to say I’m really grateful for that experience. I know young writers will understand what I’m saying, because what I had access to… Somehow we separated writing from production, and so this next generation of writers isn’t getting access to what I had access to on every show I worked on, on My Name is Earl, on New Girl, a brilliant staff of writers who were there for the entire time of making the show.
Pre-production, when there’s no production going on, when you’re just in a writers’ room coming up with ideas and stories and writing scripts and rewriting scripts, tabling scripts. I work in comedy, so the table is really important.
Then during production, which overlaps in broadcast network, so now you’re actually shooting the show and you’re making the show and the writers are still there. A writer or two is on set, covering the production, while a writers’ room is continuing to do work, continuing to rewrite, continuing to write stories.
Then in post-production, which I think is the thing that writers are really not getting access to anymore, maybe even in broadcast network, and that’s obviously watching cuts and giving notes. There’s a ton of rewriting that happens in pre-production, especially in comedy, but I think drama too. We’re rewriting jokes. We’re rewriting ADR. There’s so much you can do if you’re on an actor’s back. I’m sure savvy television watchers know, like, “That line was ADR. There’s no way that’s what they said here.” It’s the final phase of storytelling.
I came up in my career being a part of that, all of that, that whole process, and having a whole staff to be able to be there, to work on all phases of the show, including when I ran The Carmichael Show, which was a multi-cam broadcast network. I am so grateful that I had this amazing staff of writers who was there to help me. It’s very hard to run a show. It’s so much work. Writers are a vital part of the entire process. Now I am exclusively making stream. Up Here was, as you said, a show for Hulu that I did with a very talented group of Broadway superstars, Tony winners. They needed one person who had never won a Tony, so somehow I got added to that group. We’ve separated for streaming.
Even though that was a 20th studio show for Hulu, meaning 20th makes shows for broadcast network, so as a studio they understand what this model was, for some reason streaming, because it’s less episodes, somehow the industry companies thought, “You don’t need writers for as long of a time, because it’s less episodes.” Both of the shows I just made were eight-episode orders.
There’s this new model now. Any young writers who have experienced this, who might be listening, you know what it is. You can have writers for somewhere around 12 to 20 weeks, 20 if you’re lucky. That’s it. Then they all go away. Again, if you’re lucky, maybe you get to keep one writer who comes to set with you or continues the process with you, but that’s it.
This machine that has worked so well for so many generations and produced the best shows in the history of TV stopped working that way. All of a sudden, it just got cut off for a reason I can’t tell you. I can’t tell you why, because we’re the ones who make it. We know how to make the product. I don’t know how exactly over the last five, six years this industry practice started.
It became this thing where you’re supposed to try and write all the scripts and get it all right before you hit production. It’s impossible. It’s not how the sausage is made. That’s not how we do it. That’s not how we’ve ever done it. It’s left showrunners to have to do everything, again maybe with one pal, with one super talented pal, do all the rewriting, get all the scripts ready, now handle all the production, and then overlap with post and do all of that while you’re just a crew of one or two people.
On Survival of the Thickest, which is the Netflix show, the last show I made, I was very lucky that my star is also a writer, co-creator of the show. Guess what? She’s acting now. I had one other writer, a really talented woman named Grace Edwards, who thank god was there with me.
The process is the process for a reason. I really got worn down. I know there are a lot of showrunners who are having to do this who are really worn down. Plus a lot of writers who aren’t getting access to what they need know they could be valuable to the process and are being told, “We don’t need you anymore.” I assure you I’m not the one saying we don’t need you anymore. I’ve been screaming, “I need them. I need them,” and I was told no. I was told I couldn’t have them. That’s the state of the industry through my eyes, at least.
John: I’ve avoided TV for most of my career, mostly because I was afraid of the doing 19 jobs at once problem. I was hired on to do a show called DC very early on in my career. I had no business being a showrunner on it. I was trying to prep an episode, shoot an episode, write an episode, post an episode, and do all these things at once. I couldn’t do it. I said, “Oh, TV’s not for me, at least not for me at this point in my life.”
I thought, oh, this change to shorter orders, the ability to write all the scripts at once and then just do one thing at a time seems really good, until you surface all these problems you’re describing, which is that by separating these things so completely, you don’t have any support to actually make the show.
Those writers who should be learning about all the other parts of the process, they’re gone. They’re hopefully on other shows. They are just not part of the process anymore. It’s not only hurting the show that you’re making right now. It’s hurting all the future shows that these other writers are going to be making, because they will not have the experience. They’ll be just as clueless as I was when I was trying to make my first show, because they will not have had production experience. We have people who come to these member meetings who say, “I have written on three shows, a full season on three shows. I have never been to set.” That is a crisis in the making.
Danielle: Absolutely. I have told the companies I work for that this is going to hurt them. I don’t know that anyone’s believed me. Maybe I’m not talking to the people who really have the power to change it.
The truth is that the business model has worked for a reason. I think there was this misunderstanding of shorter order creating a new world that isn’t truly how to make a thing. I think it would be interesting to see what people think about the quality of TV. I know that’s something we think about creators so much and as writers and the people making these worlds is that we want it to be the best it can be. I know I don’t have the resources to do what I used to have the resources to do. I know that that is going to affect all kinds of things. At the end of the day, we’re making a product to entertain people. You want that to be the best product it can possibly be.
It’s frustrating at every level. I don’t think there’s a writer who isn’t frustrated in episodic television right now, because it is a collaborative process. That’s what it is. We’re taking collaboration away quickly. It’s like you can collaborate for a little bit, but then you’re done collaborating. It’s just not how to do 8 episodes or 10 episodes or 22 episodes.
It’s a big issue in our industry that we’re looking to fix for everybody. I do think it’s a win-win. I think the companies will win if we fix this and we will win if we fix this at the end of the day in terms of how to get it done.
John: It’s almost important to point out that what we’re describing is not impossible. I was looking at an interview with Jesse Alexander, who runs Succession. They were asking him, “How do you have so many great lines in every episode?” He said, “We have two to three writers on set at all times.” That’s the great answer.
Danielle: That’s the great answer. Jesse’s great answer.
John: It is a short season, and so theoretically, you could’ve written all of those ahead of time, sent everybody home, and had Jesse Alexander run the whole thing by himself. This is a person who recognizes, no, we actually need the writers here to do the work of writing in production. I’m sure those writers were involved in every step of post-production too. I know they overshoot stuff. You’re always making decisions about how to shape the episode in post.
This is a very, very successful show that has a sizable writing staff that is involved throughout production in a short-order season scenario. It’s very definitely doable. This is the right solution for Succession. I think it’s the right solution for so many shows. If we can make some changes in our contract that makes it more clear this is how we really need to structure these things, it’s going to be better for television but also for everyone who needs to make shows.
Danielle: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s good to hear that. In success, maybe you’ll get more of what you’re asking for. It’s like, how do I succeed if you’re not giving me the tools I need in the first place? I’m supposed to succeed by the skin of my teeth, and then if there’s any sort of succeeding, then you can have what you need. I’m really happy to hear that. That’s the truth. I think Succession is one of the funniest shows on television-
Danielle: … although it’s not billed that way.
John: Technically a drama, but yes, it has comedy bones to it. Let’s tackle some listener questions. I’m sure we’ll be threading in some more of our thoughts about television throughout this. Drew, do you want to start us off with a craft question?
Drew Marquardt: Yeah, let’s start with Patrick. Patrick asks, “How much pressure should we be putting on ourselves as writers to make sure something is purely original? I recently saw an obscure international film from the ‘50s, and it sparked an idea that would involve borrowing the initial premise and taking the story in a different direction, one that they wouldn’t have been able to explore in that period of time.
“The idea didn’t leave me, and now I have an outline for what I think could be a great drama. It’s my own story, but it would have a ringing similarity for anyone who has also seen the film that inspired it. I’m torn between whether this is a reason to not move forward with the idea and wondered where you consider the line between taking inspiration and ripping off someone else’s work.
“Part of me wants to justify it by saying writers do this all the time with genre pieces, Die Hard onto something or something in space, so why can’t I with a character drama? Part of me feels icky.”
John: Patrick, yeah, I get the sense of feeling icky about these things, but you’re also right to be pointing out that all art is iterative. Everything is inspired by things that happened before. I think you’re worried about like, am I borrowing too directly from this obscure movie that most people haven’t seen? Danielle, what’s your first instinct here for Patrick’s quandary?
Danielle: I wish I knew whatever inciting incident it was that he wanted to, because it might matter. I do think a gut feeling of ickiness is trying to tell you something. I think writers are paid for their gut. I say this a lot. I like using your gut as a bar for, “I think the story should go this way, this way.”
I think if there’s something you’re feeling icky about, then maybe there is one piece of this, and again not knowing the specifics, that might need to change a little bit more than what the plan is.
We’re never reinventing a wheel. It’s just through different eyes and different perspectives and interesting characters who maybe haven’t told a story before. If a lot of the story is personal, I would think you’re in okay territory. I would just ask yourself, what is the icky thing, and can whatever that thing is that’s making you feel a little bit icky change enough so you don’t feel that way?
John: I also wonder if Patrick needs to do a little bit more research about this premise and maybe familiarize himself with the idea there’s probably other movies that are doing a similar kind of thing.
Danielle: That’s a good idea.
John: This may be the first time you’ve encountered this dramatic question being asked in a film, but I bet it wasn’t the first time this was asked. If you do research on this film, you might even find out that this was inspired by something else that came before it.
I’m also thinking back to, I don’t know if you ever saw the Todd Haynes film Far From Heaven. It’s a Julianne Moore movie set in the 1950s. It was very much done in the style of the 1950s, but in a way that you couldn’t have done, addressed those questions in the time.
There’s something about recognizing that you are taking a period idea and examining through a lens which is transforming. It definitely could actually have the same beats as an original thing but actually become so different because of the lens you’re looking at it through that you may not be giving yourself enough credit for the amount of transformation you are enacting on this work.
I get it, Patrick, but I think you need to be a little kinder to yourself and really look at why this idea is so compelling for you and just do some more research around it, but probably do it, because those ideas that you can’t shake are the ones that are definitely worth pursuing.
Danielle: I would definitely say write it. For myself, I’ll come up with a million reasons why I don’t write something. Don’t let it stop you. Write it. You could always rewrite it too if you ever hit a bump. I think that’s great advice, John. Don’t let it stop you. I think write it. Just write it.
John: Write it. Just write it. Let’s try another one, Drew.
Drew: Michelle in San Francisco writes, “Over the years, John and Craig have taught us so much about feature structure, but now that I’m trying to write a limited series that’s six to eight episodes, I’m at a loss for what the structure should be. Could you guys talk about how a TV series should be structured, especially a limited series, and not just the pilot, but the following episodes as well?
“Does each episode need to have the four acts that many people talk about, or is that just the pilot? Do characters really need to have their own arc within each episode or is it okay to just write one long story and delineate episode breaks where there’s a nice cliffhanger-y type endpoint and where it makes sense in terms of page count?”
John: Danielle, we have you here to answer this question, because this is what you’ve been doing. Talk to us about the process of structuring your eight-episode series and what you’re thinking about in terms of how much story fits into each episode, act breaks. I don’t know, for Hulu you may actually have to plan for act breaks. For Netflix, you don’t. Talk to us about that structuring of episodes within an eight-episode order.
Danielle: Interestingly enough, Netflix now has ads. I don’t know if anyone out there is… I don’t think there is any longer a streamer where that isn’t the case. We were not asked at Netflix to structure in acts, but I structure in acts. I am a writer who always structures in acts.
I think you are always in good shape to think of it in terms of acts, to think of each individual episode in terms of acts and then think of the whole piece, if that’s 8 episodes total or 10, also as one long story, the way that she’s suggesting.
I was given advice early in my career. Things were a little bit more straightforward when I was given this advice. Look at a few limited series that you admire and break it down. Just do a breakdown yourself. Write down each little scene. Just bullet point. For you, look, where do act breaks seem to be, are there act breaks, are there not act breaks. The truth is, I’m sure if you did three or four limited series that you really liked, they wouldn’t all follow form so literally, but I think you need to know form to be able to break form.
I would certainly say, especially early in your career, yes to all the questions, even though you want the answer to be no, because wouldn’t it be easier if every character didn’t have to arc and every episode didn’t have to have four acts?
I learned something interesting. The first streaming show I did was a show called Up Here for Hulu, which is a half-hour romantic comedy musical, Broadway musical. I was working with Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who are the most prolific, talented people, let along songwriters, I’ve ever met. They’re two of the most talented people I’ve ever met. Steven Levenson, we co-wrote the first two episodes. He wrote the book for Dear Evan Hanson, as well as he did Fosse/Verdon for FX. Tommy Kail, who directed Hamilton and also did Fosse/Verdon with Steven… Anyway, these are amazing Broadway musical people who I admired, who I was so excited to work with.
Believe it or not, I am answering this question. I’m on topic. John, I haven’t left the topic. I’m on the topic.
John: I have full faith in you.
Danielle: It was interesting to do a first streaming show, which is kind of like what this person is writing in asking about. What do I do if I have eight episodes? Something that Bobby and Kristen and Steven really taught me was… They’re like, “We’re going to make eight mini musicals. Each episode is going to have to work on its own as a musical,” which is just a way of storytelling. Basically, they’re saying it has to work as a story on its own, with these elements of music. Then they’re all going to have to make one long musical. It’s all going to have to add up to one long musical. Again, same as I think what this person is asking about a limited series, it all has to add up to one long movie, or however you want to think about it.
What that does, and what that did for Up Here, and I certainly used it to make Survival of the Thickest, and I think every streaming show moving forward I’ll really get, but it was interesting to think of it in Broadway musical terms, is four or five is a midpoint. That’s the middle of your movie. That’s the middle of your story, and so you’re looking for something to really change significantly. There is some sort of moment that’s going to shift your world.
However you’ve learned the craft of storytelling, whether that’s save the cat or you have an MFA or whatever, you learned how a movie breaks down or what works, and so I think you look at it those ways. Even though it sounds daunting, and all the questions you asked are like, does it have to do this, this, this, this, and the answers are yes, it really just needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s what it needs. It needs to play that way.
I think no matter which way you approached it, if you thought of it as a long-form eight-episode, which seems daunting to me, but if you just wrote it with no act breaks and no anything, I think you would find that your brain naturally put them in, because you know a story has to turn.
Even if you’re just a watcher of television or movies, you understand story structure. You know what’s happening. You know when you need to feel what you need to feel and when you need to shift things.
The answer is yes, but I think there’s just no other way of doing it, because I’ve always wanted to be that person who can just sit down and not need an outline. I just want to write, man. I just want to let it flow, man. I’m not that person. I believe that maybe there are a handful of those people out there in the world. Structure is storytelling. Even little kids, when you tell them a story, you read them a book, there’s some amount of structure. They understand what a story is.
I would really just think of it as beginning, middle, end, but apply those rules, because they’ll help you. For me, act breaks help me understand balance. Is the story misbalanced? Is there too much at the top and not enough at the end? Is there no middle? For comedy, it’s three-act. We work in more of a three-act structure, although sometimes it’s a four-act structure. You just need to understand, am I turning things, is it interesting. For me, that’s act breaks. That’s how I get it.
John: In Episode 584 we had Taffy Brodesser-Akner on to talk about Fleishman Is in Trouble. She was adapting her own book into the limited series. It was fascinating to hear her talk about. The limited series is exactly the book. Everything that happens in them happens in both. Figuring out how you break those into episodes and how there’s growth and change within an episode, and it feels like this episode has really started, this episode has finished, is a thing she had to learn.
She was lucky to have Susannah Grant and Susannah Grant’s producing partner on to really help with that initial stage of figuring out how to structure this into individual episodes and how to make the gross of the characters and gross of the story really make sense over that limited time, which seems like it would be so different than going back to earlier shows you worked on, like My Name is Earl or The Carmichael Show. You might have some sense at the start of the season, like, this is where we’re going to, but you’re really probably thinking much more episode by episode, aren’t you?
Danielle: Absolutely, yeah. I think it’s called episodic TV for a reason. I think that in those scenarios, we’re making 22, 24, 26 episodes in a season, and broadcast network is designed… I’ll speak a little bit more for comedy here, because I think there are dramas where this wouldn’t apply. I don’t remember what the numbers were or what they said, but a viewer who loved the show watches every third or fourth episode on broadcast network.
Danielle: That may be an antiquated way of thinking, but I know when I was coming up in my career, that’s what we were told. It has to be designed to drop in and see it this week but not see it next week. They really have to be self-contained episodes, even though our favorite shows that we grew up watching, pick your favorite show, had arcs, usually love stories. That’ll take you through Jim and Pam and Sam and Diane for me, for my all-time favorite show, which is Cheers. You could miss some and still get it.
I think that the streaming model is different, and that’s not how people are consuming it, and that’s not how it’s meant to be consumed. You shouldn’t be able to miss the third one, because I think you’re supposed to be told one long story. I think the goal is completion, for people to watch all of your episodes. That’s not necessarily the goal of broadcast network, by and large. I think cable is probably a little bit more of the streaming model than not, storytelling-wise. I think that you’re meant to sit down and watch every one.
John: I think in cable you see both kinds of things. You definitely see the ongoing progress of some storylines, but there’s also shows like the USA shows, which were very much, you could catch one, not catch one. There’s not huge growth between the two of them if you missed that one episode. Both things can work.
I loved Star Trek: The Next Generation growing up. It was one of my very favorite shows. Watching the third season of Picard, which is basically just Star Trek: The Next Generation but if it was done as a limited series, you have to watch it in order because there’s very specific builds and revelations and tweaks. It’s just fascinating to watch the difference between how a show works if an episode is all self-contained versus an ongoing limited series. They’re both great, but it feels like Picard is definitely the 2023 version of how you would tell that story.
Danielle: What’s amazing for I think us as storytellers is that all of those options are on the table. It really is, what do you want to tell and how do you want to tell it? Okay, then here’s the form for you.
I think we’re spending a lot of time talking about what’s not working and what’s broken in the industry. There’s a lot of exciting, amazing things as storytellers for us out there. We just need to get the ship righted a little bit. It’s amazing that there’s a lot of outlets and a lot of ways to tell stories now, completely different from when I started my career, you tell me, John, but I think in features and in television, both.
John: Obviously in features, the writers had traditionally less direct say in this is my vision for how stuff is going to go, whereas TV showrunners often had that sort of initial creator entrepreneurial vision for what a thing is. In features, we also have independent film. We have the ability to make things at incredibly small levels and just really experiment with a form. That’s a thing that is sometimes more challenging in TV, because you have to find a home for that thing versus being able to make it on your own and sell it. Drew, let’s get a new question.
Drew: Danielle, you mentioned love stories. We have an email from Marvin in Germany. Marvin writes, “I’m a young screenwriter currently working on my first big project. Without going into too much detail, there’s a love triangle in it. I was wondering, how can I analyze for myself or for the demands of the scene if it’s really necessary to explicitly show the action? Should I go into those intimate scenes or just hint at them without showing too much? Sometimes in romantic films, I like to see the protagonists finally getting together, but on the other hand, intimate scenes are often kind of sexist, and I don’t want to put my actresses and actors in a weird position where they need to flash.”
John: Explicitness. There’s a new TV adaptation of Fatal Attraction I’m really excited to see. I’ll be curious both how explicit the show is on screen but also what those scenes look like on the page, because I feel like most of the times when I see something made in 2023, what’s on the screen is also reflected on the page.
Danielle, what do you see? How explicit are you seeing stuff being written in scripts? Obviously, the comedies you’re making, maybe it’s not such a factor, but what are you thinking?
Danielle: There was a show called Normal People, which was an adaptation of a book for Hulu. That was really the first time as a creator I started thinking about… Because I spend so much time doing broadcast network too. We were not showing anything on broadcast network. When I watched that show, it was so intimate and beautiful and beautifully acted and beautifully shot and beautifully written and a really true adaptation of the book. That was the first time I had read… There was an article I think that came out after about an intimacy coordinator, which is a crew position now that I think we didn’t always have and now I think we always have.
When I was talking earlier about listening to your gut and that we get paid for our gut, which doesn’t sound elegant but I think is true. You as the writer, this person who’s creating this world, I think will ultimately need to listen to their own instincts about what is necessary to tell the story.
I agree that we have seen so much sexist content for decades in movies and this. In the ’80s, which was my era of growing up, watching movies, there was always boobs. It was just like, oh, here’s boobs. It’s going to be boobs. If it’s a comedy, there’s going to be boobs. Why? Why is that the case? I think that there are so many interesting ways to tell a story and tell an intimate scene.
What I would encourage this writer to do is think of it through a different lens. How have you not seen it? What have you bristled at that you’ve seen? What is the story you’re telling? What is the intimate moment that you might want to tell that maybe isn’t nudity at all, or maybe it is but it’s just in…
I thought Normal People, just to go back to the original point, just did something, made these two characters… The whole series was about connecting and connection and that these two people keep being drawn back to each other. The intimacy was really necessary and I think well done.
I appreciate that this writer is thinking about ultimately putting an actor in front of a camera, because now that I’m making streaming, having shot recently with my partner, co-creator, and muse of Survival of the Thickest, a stand-up named Michelle Buteau… That is based on a book of essays that she wrote. There’s a really funny chunk in there that’s about sexual encounters and when she was single. We’re inspired by a lot of what there was.
You write a certain thing, but then you get there to shoot it, and you’re like, “Oh, my goodness. Now we’re really doing this.” When I’m asking two actors to go be brave… Michelle is the bravest of the brave, and an amazing actress, comedically and dramatically.
One of the things that we were excited about doing with that show, in terms of what I’m suggesting, thinking about it through different lenses or whatever… If you’ve not seen this, Michelle is a plus-sized, beautiful woman, which is where the title Survival of the Thickest comes from. We wanted to show her in intimate scenes. We wanted her to be the star, the one who is in the love triangle and is having sex and is having all of these encounters, because we felt like that wasn’t being shown enough, that that’s just not the person who is always front and center in a show, especially as a woman. We wanted to make sure that character was a very sexual character, not that the show is super R-rated or anything, but it was really important to us, so we had a reason for it.
I guess my best advice would be, have a reason for what you’re doing and know why you’re doing it. If there is no reason, then you’re right, it will be gratuitous and unnecessary.
John: If you’re writing a love triangle story, there’s good odds that the sex that you want to put in the story is not going to be gratuitous. Then you have to think about, what is it about this moment that’s going to be interesting? What am I actually going to want to look at and show in this thing?
Ultimately, anything that’s going to show up on screen needs to be on the page. It can be awkward at times to put that stuff down there, but someone has to make those decisions. If you don’t make those decisions, those decisions are going to be made for you by somebody else, by directors or other people, and it may not be what the story actually needs. I think you have to start with what’s on the page.
Then it gets to a process of a director, an intimacy coordinator, and actors, and hopefully you involved as well, about what is the story point of this moment, to make sure it’s really reflecting the goals of the scene.
I would just say, again, follow your gut, but I also say be brave. You’re telling this story for a reason. Make sure all these scenes are really helping to tell the story you’re trying to tell. Let’s do a simpler question, if we can. How about something on intercutting?
Drew: Jared writes, “Formatting question. I’m intercutting between two different conversations occurring at the same time, say between Bob and Steve and Sarah and Tina. After I’ve established scene headings once for each conversation, it looks very odd to then just have a string of conversations without anything in between. It might be difficult for the reader to discern who is talking to whom, especially if only one person speaks before jumping to the other conversation. Would it be preferred in this multi-party intercut to just include scene headings every time the conversation switches?”
John: Danielle, what’s your instinct here? What do you tend to do when you’re having to intercut between two different conversations or two different scenes?
Danielle: It is tricky, and it’s a frustrating as a writer when you’re like, “I just need you to understand what’s in my head. I just need you to understand what’s happening here.” I don’t think that there’s only one way to do it. I think there’s multiple ways to do it.
I just try and make it as easy as possible for the reader. I think a lot of times readers skip action that might be explaining, which sounds crazy, but I just think they skip action that might be explaining it to you. I feel like scene headers probably just really will get the eye and the brain to go, “Now I’m in a different setting. Now I’m in a different setting. Now I’m in a different setting. Now I’m in a different setting.”
I understand that it may hurt the rhythm of the page a little bit, but I think clarity is what’s important. You don’t want someone to have to go back up and go, “What did I just read? I don’t understand. Where is anybody, and what’s going on?” You want your reader and ultimately your audience to be smart, but you also have to prepare for if that’s not the case.
John: I agree that you need to make sure that a person who might skip that little notification that we’re intercutting two scenes still gets the point of what’s going on there. You can obviously bold the intercutting there if it’s helpful.
What I find is often most useful is, rather than doing a full INT. BAR, NIGHT and INT. HOUSE, DAY, that you’re cutting between those two spaces, just go like, “Back at the bar,” dash dash, “Back at the house,” because whenever you see an INT., I think you naturally think, oh, it’s a whole brand new scene, we’re in a whole brand new place.
If you’re just intercutting between two places, doing the intermediary slug line, it’s not really a scene header, might be a way just to let the reader understand, okay, that’s right, we’re jumping back and forth between these two conversations.
It’s again one of those things you’re going to feel on the page that you won’t know until you see situationally how it’s going to work. If these are two-page scenes and you’re intercutting between the two of them, that’s more probably a scene header situation for me. If it’s quick rapid fire between two things, then the shortest little things are going to be probably your friend.
Cool. Let’s try two more questions. What do you got for us, Drew?
Drew: Carl asks, “How can I warn a reader that I’m not being cliché, but I want the viewer to say in their mind, ‘Ugh, so cliché.’ For example, a boy goes back to their hometown and sees his former hometown love. Their eyes lock, and the viewer thinks it’s the standard love story scene a thousand times, but within a few beats it’s made clear that this isn’t the case. Should I be worried about a reader losing interest and putting the screenplay down upon reading the cliché or am I over-thinking this?”
John: Danielle, this must come up all the time in comedies that you’re writing, which is basically you’re playing with a trope. You’re definitely trying to set up the expectation like, oh, it’s this kind of thing, but it’s not this kind of thing. How do you deal with that?
Danielle: I think in comedy, I will make the action line funny. I will say, “Sit with me here. It’s not going to do what you think it’s going to do,” in a parenthetical or something, if that feels appropriate to you. I don’t know exactly what this piece is, but if that feels appropriate.
I’ve worked a with lot of stand-ups. Like I said, Michelle Buteau is the last person that I just worked with. She writes the funniest action lines I’ve ever read. It’s almost like you’re having a dialog with her in her voice.
I think that you can be entertaining, and I think you can get your point across by… If you’re trying not to be cliché but you have this tone you’re trying to achieve, if you can achieve that tone in an action line, I think that that can be really helpful for you and might entertain the reader.
I don’t know if it’s pages of cliché until you get to the turn, but I’m assuming it’s not. I’m assuming it’s fairly quickly that you get to the turn. I also wouldn’t be too worried about a reader tuning out because it’s something they’ve seen. Everything is something they’ve seen before to some degree, with twists in there. I wouldn’t be too worried about that, but I would suggest trying to get it across in the action line.
John: Totally. Carl says here it’s like a boy goes back to hometown, sees the hometown love, their eyes lock. You’re going to have moments in there where you can really signal to the reader, yes, this is the most cliché moment possible. By setting that up, the punchline for how it’s not going to be that is going to be more rewarding. You’ll be fine. Don’t worry about that.
The ability to communicate tone through scene description is such a crucial craft skill you pick up over time and one of those things which, if this were a show rather than a movie, you’d learn the house style for how you do these things.
It’s fascinating to watch how in a given show, the scripts, they have the same voice. They have the same way of working, and you start to understand how to read those scripts. If you read a Lost script, the Lost scripts, no matter who’s writing them, all sound like they’re from the same person, because their house style develops. Part of that house style will be how ironic you are, what happens in the scene descriptions, how much caps are being used, and teaches you how to read those scripts.
If you were doing this as a feature, you have to do all that work from the start, basically letting the reader understand how to read your style, your script. That’s why those first couple pages are so crucial, to make the reader feel confident that you are going to be leading them on a journey that’s going to be worthwhile.
Drew, I said a craft question, but I see a business question here which I actually have the answer for, so let’s skip ahead to our Australian Sam.
Drew: Sam in Australia writes, “I loved your recent episode with Megana and her cluelessness about how to write a check. I feel her pain pretty hard. I’m a writer based in Australia who wrote on my first US show a couple of years ago. I was completely delighted to start receiving those glorious residual checks from the WGA until I learned that there’s absolutely no way in my country to cash them. All the big Australian banks have stopped taking overseas checks, rightly believing that they should become extinct, and so now I’ve got about six residual checks sitting on my desk staring at me. I tried sending them to my US agent, but they got lost in an accounts vortex, and I had to get a lovely man at the WGA to reissue them before they were lost forever. Why can’t residuals be electronically transferred? Surely that would be cheaper than all that postage.”
John: Oh, residuals. Danielle, do you love residuals?
Danielle: Oh, me. Who doesn’t love residuals? With all my heart I love them.
John: You open your mailbox. You see that green envelope. You’re like, “Oh my gosh.” There’s just some money in there. You don’t know what it’s for. You don’t know how big it’s going to be. It can be just wonderful and something you’ve forgot you ever worked on. Suddenly there’s a residual check. It’s a nice thing.
John: The problem that our Australian friend is having here is that Australia basically doesn’t deal with paper checks anymore. It’s just not a thing that exists there. I asked on Twitter for other international listeners what they’re doing, and actually some Australians wrote back in. The best advice I got was to just get a US account and deposit all of your residual checks there in a US account and then transfer the money out. That’s probably good advice for most situations, but it could be a weird case of tax things, so don’t do that until you actually check with somebody who actually knows about taxes for that.
I also got a recommendation from a guy named Jason Reed, who says, “The only bank I’ve found that’ll process US dollar paper checks is RACQ Bank. Just make sure to do it within 90 days of it being issued.”
I don’t know how much longer we’re going to have paper checks, residual checks. It’s a thing that does come up. Without tipping anything, I think both the studios and the writers would love for this to happen. It’s just a matter of getting it all figured out and how to make sure we do it in a way that has clear accounting. Danielle, what’s your thought? Your weekly checks for working on a show, are those still check checks or are those direct deposited for you right now?
Danielle: I know you want me to know the answer to this, John. How is that money collected? I think they’re paper checks.
John: I think they’re still paper checks. I think that they’re probably going through one of the payroll services companies, and they’re still paper checks. That’s a thing that, yes, it can and should change. Drew’s checks I know are electronic. Correct, Drew?
John: We were able to figure that out. We go through a payroll services company that was able to direct deposit into his account. It’s tough because as writers were working on a project or with a company for a short period of time. It’s not like we are a years-long employee of the Disney Corporation, where we can set everything up. There’s only a couple payroll services companies. It feels like it’s a thing that we should be able to figure out, because they know who you are and they know your tax ID number. It should be doable.
Danielle: Absolutely. I pay myself digitally, because a lot of writers are their own companies, their own LLCs.
John: That’s right.
Danielle: I don’t give myself a check. I know that much. That just goes right into the account.
John: We love that. Those are a lot of good questions. We still have plenty of good questions left over, so Craig and I will tackle those later on. Before we get to One Cool Things, I have a correction for last week’s episode.
I talked about Jefferson Mays and that I’d seen him in I Am My Own Wife. I said that he’s written I Am My Own Wife, which is crazy, because I know he didn’t. Doug Wright, who I know from Sundance, he wrote I Am My Own Wife. He’s an incredibly talented playwright. He is the person who wrote I Am My Own Wife. Jefferson Mays is a talented star of it, but Doug Wright is the playwright who wrote it. Doug Wright also has Good Night, Oscar, starring Sean Hayes, on Broadway. Doug Wright, not Jefferson Mays.
I was wrong. I just want to make sure that it gets publicly into the record that I was wrong just this once, on an episode that Craig is not a part of and not listening to. It’s time for our One Cool Things. Danielle, what do you got for us?
Danielle: I have an Instagram account. Glucose Goddess is her name. She is a French biochemist. She has one book out and another book coming out I think in May. I am always looking for ways to be healthy, because I think this job certainly does its best to challenge that, to challenge staying healthy, especially when you’re in season, making a television show.
Her account is all about keeping your glucose spikes level and not having huge spikes, which sounds like a very small thing. This isn’t about weight loss. This is just about general health. Apparently, your glucose levels have a lot to do with disease predictors and all kinds of things. I don’t know how cool it is, but she’s very cool. It’s a very fun thing.
Her first book is 10 hacks about keeping the spikes level. I’m trying them for fun, because I’m like, what could it hurt? What could it hurt? I’m feeling really good using her hacks. That is my Cool Thing, Glucose Goddess on Instagram.
John: Nice. I would say something that is not helpful for glucose spikes would be the candy closet in the negotiating room.
Danielle: A hundred percent, but you know what I’ve been doing? I’ve been looking at the nuts. The other thing is… I’ll just keep telling you about her hacks. If this is interesting to no one, I apologize to your listeners. She’s not an anti-dessert, anti-sweet. Again, this is not about weight loss. This is about general health. If there’s something in the candy closet I want, one of the hacks is to have savory snacks but save the sweets for dessert. What she would suggest is I put that candy bar in my purse, and after dinner, with a full meal, I eat the dessert. Even that is like, yeah, that candy closet, there’s a way to do it.
John: There’s always a way to do it. My thing is also a food-related One Cool Thing. I think I’ve talked before on the podcast that my favorite pancake recipe is this one that Jason Kottke has up on his blog, which is a buttermilk pancake recipe. It’s really great. It’s really great if you have buttermilk, but so often you just don’t have buttermilk and you want to make pancakes. I found this other recipe, which is also really, really good, that uses just milk, but you also put two tablespoons of white vinegar in it, just to sour the milk, to curdle the milk before you make it, which sounds like it would be disgusting, it would taste vinegary.
Danielle: It sure does.
John: It doesn’t. It’s really good. Actually, it’s very close to the buttermilk pancake recipe and really simple. The pancakes are crispy on the edges in just the perfect ways. If you’re looking for a pancake recipe, I’m going to recommend this. It’s just on All Recipes. It’s delicious. I’ve made it twice, and I highly recommend it. I think pancakes are probably not good for the glucose of it all.
Danielle: Can I tell you what she would say?
John: What would she say?
Danielle: Then if you’re interested, you’ll look it up and see what this means. She would say put a little clothes on your carbs. Put a little clothes on your carbs.
John: Does that mean eat a protein with it?
Danielle: Yes. You’ve decoded it immediately. She’s just done a ton of research. I like her because she’s coming from a science background. It’s really cool, the experiments she’s done and the science that she… It would drastically change what happens when you eat those delicious pancakes if you put a little bit of clothes on them.
John: Hooray. Danielle, before we wrap up here, remind us where we see your programs. Up Here is currently streaming on Hulu?
Danielle: Currently streaming on Hulu. All the episodes are up. Watch the eight mini musicals and the one long musical that they all add up to. Then Survival of the Thickest will be premiering on Netflix later this year, 2023.
John: Fantastic. That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Drew Marquardt. It’s edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Alicia Jo Rabins. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send questions. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts and sign up for our weeklyish newsletter called Inneresting, which has lots of links to things about writing. We have T-shirts and hoodies. They’re great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau. You can sign up to become a premium member at scriptnotes.net, where you get all the back-episodes and bonus segments, like the one we’re about to record on people who are incompetent but nice. Danielle, you are nice and not even remotely incompetent. You are so, so competent. Thank you so much for joining us here.
Danielle: Thank you, John. It’s such a pleasure to be here. I know there are so many writers who are fans of this podcast. I just think it’s incredible, what you guys do, providing this kind of information. It was such a pleasure to hear your advice.
Danielle: Thank you.
John: Thank you.
John: Okay, our bonus segment. It’s a blog I started reading. I don’t even really quite know why. It’s by Jacob Kaplan-Moss. He’s mostly writing about HR and management stuff and things that happen, hiring and firing of stuff.
This one post I thought was really smart, because he talks about how among coworkers or people you’re hiring, people you’re managing, there are two axes you can look at that factor in here. You can look at how good someone is at their job, are they good at their job, or are they bad at their job, and are they nice to work with, so are they nice or are they a jerk.
He breaks it down into four quadrants, that you have people who are good at their job and nice to work with, and those are superstars. You just love them, because they’re so great to have those people. You want all those people around you. You also have people who are good at their job but are kind of jerks. Those would be the brilliant assholes. You might put up with them, but oh my god, they’re hard to work with. You have people who are bad at their jobs and jerks, and you just fire those people. It’s great to fire them.
The most difficult category for his post here was, what do you with somebody who is really nice to work with but just bad at their job? I thought we might spend a few minutes talking about those folks and times in my life where I’ve been that person and how we think about that, because Danielle, you definitely have more experience managing people than I do. Is this a useful quadrant theory for the kinds of people you encounter working on sets, working in rooms? Does this resonate at all with you?
Danielle: A hundred percent, and it made me laugh, which is my favorite thing about a graph. I think it’s very funny. Wait, I have to go back to… Which person have you been? What are you saying?
John: I’ve been the incompetent but nice.
John: Here’s an example of me being incompetent but nice, because also, I worked as a temp a lot. I was given an assignment to work at this bank in Colorado, maybe Fort Collins, somewhere, or probably Louisville, close to where I grew up in Boulder. They sat me down at this desk. I was just the person at the front desk who just directed people where to go. Within an hour of sitting at that desk, I had set off the silent alarms and the police came. I had no business doing that, being there. I didn’t last long at that job.
Danielle: That’s an amazing visual. I love it.
John: That’s example.
Danielle: Love it. I love that. I think managing people, it’s the craziest thing about all these crazy things that there are in Hollywood. The fact that we’re just, especially for episodic writers, we’re writing in a room, we’re telling jokes, we’re eating the candy, because there’s candy closets on TV shows too, and then all of a sudden you’re in charge of everybody and you’re supposed to be able to manage writers in the writers’ room, but also like you said, the crew, actors.
Not to bring it back to our original point, but hopefully you have had the training to do all that stuff, because if you hadn’t, what kind of chance do you have? I loved this thought. I loved this graph, because I think we’ve probably all worked with, even if you weren’t in charge of the people, people in all of these quadrants.
My rule of thumb with regard to, not even just managing people… This is how I decided to conduct myself when I got to Hollywood. I think I credit my parents for giving me a wonderful foundation of how to treat people and how to demand to be treated. I have three older sisters who are really great role models. I feel like it’s somehow accredited to the foundation. The way I translate it in my head is, whoever I’m dealing with, whatever the hard situation is, I want to be able to run into them in a restaurant a week from now or six weeks from now or six months from now and not have to hide, and be able to say-
John: Oh, wow.
Danielle: … hello with my head up and have them say hello back to me. When I was working for people in difficult situations, I always thought, okay, I need to go have an honest conversation, be very respectful, and know if I run into them, I don’t want to have to hide, and I don’t want them to hide from me.
Once that became the reverse and I was managing people, I thought the same thing. I was like, okay, whatever happens, you’re going to want to be able to… This is a small town. Comedy is small. You’re going to want to always have good relationships with people.
I’ve definitely worked with people, not just writers, the crew, worked with people who fall into this category. As a manager, I think my job is to make sure that I’m providing for you everything you need to be your best, and I’m creating an environment where you can be your best.
If I’m doing both of those things, which is not a perfect science, because I think we do the best we can, but those are basic philosophies of mine, if I’m doing both of those things and you’re wonderful and you’re not doing well, then I think the next thing I owe to you as a good manager is to come tell you you’re not meeting expectations, whatever those expectations are.
I need to clearly state, “You’re a wonderful person. Everyone loves being around you,” which I’ve had this conversation before, but fill in the blank. Whatever job it is you’re doing here on my show as part of this crew isn’t hitting the mark and here’s why. You have to be able to state where it is that they aren’t being what you would hope they would be, filling a role you’d hope they would fill.
Then you’d give it time. You give it time and you hope that it improves. Then if it doesn’t, I feel like where does that person go? That person ultimately in my world gets fired, but only if they didn’t improve, and only if I really gave them a chance to understand where something was lacking. I think that that’s where that person goes for me.
John: We’re mostly a writing podcast, so let’s talk about, let’s say there’s somebody in your room, hopefully a normal room, not a tiny mini room, but whatever. There’s a writer who’s working under your employ who’s just not cutting it, who’s falling into this incompetent, is nice but incompetent category. What are some things that would make you feel like this person’s not living up to their end of the bargain? Is it how much they’re participating in the room? Is it the actual quality of the drafts they’re turning in? What are some things that might lead you to have that conversation with them?
Danielle: It could be both of those things. One thing is they’re just not getting the tone of the show like everyone else. That could be in room participation, like you said, or in drafts, like you also said, that I have seven people in a room, and six of them are really pitching things that are getting in or at least make sense or are landing with me or feel like they’re in the world of the show, and one person is not hitting that target. The target should be fairly generous, certainly in the beginning of something, but their things are just not the same tone.
With comedy, every show has a tone, a very distinct tone. Maybe you’re collaborating to make it, but once everyone’s on the same page, which as a writer I think you would know… Look, all of our pitches get turned down all day long, myself included. I turn my own pitches down all day, like, “That’s not good. That’s not good. That’s not good.” You know when you hit one that’s good.
If you find yourself in that position where you feel like nothing’s getting in, then it shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise if someone were to tell you, “Let’s talk about what this show is and the direction that it’s moving and why is everything you’re pitching dark or sad,” or I don’t know, I’m just filling in the blank of whatever this is. “This is trying to be light.”
I would say it’s about is it hitting a target, is the script hitting a target, are the story pitches hitting a target. That’s at least the most difficult one to deal with, because it’s the most nuanced.
If you’re just not doing work, if you’re just not spending time on a draft, but you’re nice, but you’re not working hard, that’s a much easier thing to deal with. You’re just not working hard. You’re not working hard enough. Most people are working hard I think in this category and just not hitting the mark.
I think the conversation would be… Give them specifics. “You pitched this, and we were talking about this storyline. You pitched this. We were talking about this storyline. You did this with the B story that you were sent off with, but really that’s outside of what we were trying to send you off to do.” I really think you have to be specific with people if you want them to improve.
Anyone in this little quadrant I would want to improve, because if I like them, that’s a lot. If they’re fun to be around and everyone likes them, that is really valuable, especially in a writers’ room. That’s something that really matters. My first hope would be that I could get this person on course.
I think my advice to someone who might be receiving this information is to try not to be defensive, even though that’s a painful thing to hear. I’ve been told I’ve been off course. There have been jobs I haven’t gotten that I wanted and all those things. There’s so much rejection in our business.
The best thing to do would be to receive it and really think about what is it, what is happening, because I think there are a lot of things that can improve and are correctable. Not everything, but if given an opportunity, I would expect that person would try and listen more and get on track for where the show was headed, because being nice is great, but the quadrant that’s the talented asshole, that person’s working all the time. That’s the truth about Hollywood. That person is working all the time.
John: Let’s get back to the things that are correctable and things that aren’t correctable, because this blog post is really talking about some sort of tech management kind of thing. Some of the solutions that he offers are like, okay, maybe this person needs more training or they need to take a break to do a thing.
In the case of a writer who’s in the writers’ room, some of what you’re describing sounds like a person who just doesn’t get it. I worry, I wonder, and maybe you have much more experience about this than I do, if a writer just doesn’t get it, doesn’t get the tone, doesn’t get what it is that you need, is that correctable in your experience? Have you been able to have that conversation and get that writer back on track?
Danielle: I think it depends how far off they are. Again, I’m really focusing on the creative, because that’s the hardest, most nuanced part of it, because I think if you’re talking too much, if you’re cutting people off, even if you’re likable and you’re doing those things, which is conversations I’ve had, those are a little bit easier. You know those things are correctable. You choose to do it or you don’t.
I think the sad reality of this is, if someone is way off, they’re not going to get back on. That person in that quadrant is going to be fired from that show. There are a lot of talented people who have been fired from shows because they didn’t fit that, especially if they were nice. They didn’t fit that. They didn’t fit the thing that you were trying to do. It depends on the level too.
I’ve been very lucky to work for showrunners who were really mentors. Greg Garcia, who’s a creator of My Name is Earl and many other shows, really mentored me. Everyone I’ve worked for, from my first job to the last time I was on staff, I’ve been really, really lucky. I know there are a lot of people who are really unlucky, who’ve worked with some people who suck and who aren’t looking at the next generation and aren’t considering how they got to where they got. I’ve been wildly lucky to work for people who have really taken the time to talk to me when I was young, to give me responsibility when I was young, and to let me see things. I think it is especially correctable if it’s a younger writer who just no one stopped and told them.
My parents grew up in East LA, but I always joke, I’m like, “It’s as far away from Hollywood as it could possibly be.” If you have nothing to do with Hollywood, you have nothing to do with Hollywood. I had no role models coming in. I had no nepotism. I wish I did. I have a niece who’s writing now. I’m all for nepotism. Let’s go. Let’s bring the whole family into the business. I had nothing. I had nothing and no one to look to. Luckily, I got my MFA at UCLA, because I’m a nerd, and so school was the road to be like, “I don’t know anything about Hollywood. Let me see.” Unless someone is kind enough to tell you, you might be off in terms of how you’re pitching your tone or whatever because nobody stopped to tell you.
I took a class at UCLA taught by a man named Fred Rubin, who changed my whole world. It was a sitcom writing class. It was actually in the MFA program. I was in the producers program, but they let us in. They let us audition in. Andrew Goldberg was in my class at UCLA taught by this guy, Fred Rubin. It just opened a world for me.
I was always trying to figure out, what is the dream? My parents set a goal for my sisters and I, “Wake up every day and love what you do.” When I took Fred Rubin’s class, everything just clicked. I was like, “Oh, this is it. This is what I’ve always anted to do. This is what I’ve been training to do with my loud, funny family where the best joke won the night.” It was like this, this, this. I was so lucky to find him, to find his class, to have someone tell me. There I had school, and then I had great mentors.
I want the door to be way, way, way, way open. When you way, way open the door, you have to also prep people and make sure that someone is stopping and telling them. I think we have amazing people, especially in the Guild, John, some amazing people who are mentoring young writers and really working for the cause of making sure people understand. It’s all related. We’re talking about eliminating so many things from the process and people not having access to production, writers not having access to production and post, and they only have 12 to 20 weeks, and then they have to go find another job.
I guess what I’m saying is, bringing it all back to this idea and the people who in the quadrant, they just might not know. The way of mentorship is really… We’re at a very dangerous brink here of losing being able to show people how to do that. I do think that there are things that might appear to a showrunner to be like you just don’t get it, when really someone didn’t stop and say, “Here’s what we’re trying to do. Do you even know that that’s… ” I don’t mean in a condescending way. I mean truly in a like, “Here’s what we’re trying to do. Here’s what the mission is. Here’s what TV writing is.”
There was a really cool guy that got up and spoke in the meeting last night and was just talking about what his experience is. He was writing on Zoom from his apartment in Brooklyn with no heat. I hope that was a very nurturing environment. Someone’s got to tell you how to do it. Someone has to tell you what the expectations are.
That’s the version I think in this chart that can really be addressed. I think if we look hard enough, what you might be doing is dismissing as so out of the box something that you could bring in if you could just get them aligned. The fact that they’re not thinking like everyone else is great, would be hugely helpful to your show and to the characters, but you’ve got to understand what’s going on and why they’re missing the mark. I guess that’s what I’m saying. I think a good manager investigates that, versus just being like, “You’re nice, but you suck,” because that might not be the truth.
John: Circling back to our initial conversation about these writers being cut out of the production and post-production process, I think you’re going to see a larger group of people who are now suddenly having their own shows, who are nice but incompetent at certain functions of it because they’ve just never been exposed to it.
They don’t know how to cover a set. They don’t know how to do post and how to look at that director’s cut and not vomit, and instead, recognize these are the things that aren’t working. It’s not that the director is incompetent. It’s just that it’s not what you need for the show and how to have that conversation with the director and then the editor to get to the cut that you actually need. There’s going to be a whole generation of these writers who just don’t have the experience.
That’s a case where having a mentor who could say, “Okay, that didn’t work. Let’s talk about why that didn’t work. Here’s what you need to know about this part of the process.” I just worry we’re not going to have people to do that mentoring and the time to do that mentoring. I just don’t know we’re going to have a structure where that makes sense. I just really see a train wreck coming 5, 10 years down the road, probably less than that, if we don’t really address some of these problems right now.
Danielle: I know. It’s happening now. I think you talked about it a little bit earlier. We hit it already. There are co-APs that haven’t been on sets before. If they have, they’ve only been on set, which is a great only. At least they’ve been on set, I should say. It’s very hard to teach someone post. You understand post by doing years and years of posts.
John: It’s feel.
Danielle: There’s so much instinct that is happening in the storytelling. I am so grateful that I could look at something that someone, let’s say an executive, might deem a mess and go, “This cut is terrible. Whatever cut this was, it’s terrible,” and I can just see my way through it and be like, “I know it’s not. I was there when we shot it. It’s not terrible. What you’re not getting, I can fix, I can fix with ADR. I can just zero in on what you’re not getting. I know I can fix it.”
The only reason I can do that is because, just to take one of the many shows I’ve worked on, but New Girl. Just one of the most talented staffs I’ve ever worked on, and I only worked on one season of that show. We watched every cut as a group, and then we did notes as a group, and then we wrote jokes. You had to give Liz Meriwether and Dave Finkel and Brett Baer, who are the amazing people who ran that show… Liz created it, obviously, and Finkel and Baer ran it with her. You had to give them jokes. We were rewriting.
I went to work on it because I was such a huge fan of it. I was like, “I love this show.” I think generations continue to love that show. So much work was put into the craft of that show. Post, it was fun. We watched it together. There was a viewing of a cut. Then whether it was your episode or not, we all pitched jokes and did all of these things.
Those are the things that it’s impossible to teach someone. It’s not impossible to teach someone some things to understand about post, but that is a skill that comes from experience. We did the same thing on My Name is Earl, which was a show that used VoiceOver. So much work was done in post, so we saw so many cuts together and had notes on everybody’s cuts, because that’s just what you did, because writing is still happening. I think that’s the thing that we’re really trying to get across is that writing is happening through this whole process.
John: From your description of it, it sounds like the process of making those two shows, you got through it for eight episodes, killing yourself. It was not sustainable to do more episodes, to do a second season. It wouldn’t have worked. It took everything you had to get what was there.
Danielle: Yeah. I didn’t run Up Here. Steven Levenson is the one who killed himself. I don’t want to speak for him, but I think I can. I was there. I was there watching. The person who was running the show has everything on their shoulders, all of the rewriting. I was available to him, but he didn’t have another writer. He was doing everything.
Like I said, I had Grace Edwards on Survival of the Thickest, and I had Michelle Buteau, but again, she was supposed to be acting in front of the camera, but she was still doing writing, because there was just so much.
When I hear what you said Jesse Armstrong said about Succession, the idea that I could have three writers on that set… Our staff was amazingly talented. We had stand-ups. We had all these different perspectives. We were tiny but an amazing staff. If I could’ve had all of them, that would’ve been the best version. If I could’ve had three writers on that set, it would’ve changed everything. It would’ve changed everything. There were three very talented writers there every day, but they were being asked to do 27 things.
I’m so used to the system where you can call a writers’ room and go, “This scene isn’t working,” or, “We need this,” or, “You know what? We figured out this actor. We need to write into this for this talented actor who wasn’t even cast, by the way, when we had our room.”
There’s almost so many flaws that we can’t even talk about them all. We’re not really doing table reads in comedy. Some shows have figured out how to do some. I managed to get some done, but I didn’t get all eight done. I didn’t have the cast. There are so many things that are very correctable. We’ve done it before. We know how to do it. I don’t think they’re very costly.
The upside, everything that you’re saying, and the concern you have and you know I share and everyone on our negotiating committee shares, as well as the thousands of members that we have, is these are big concerns. We can’t let his happen, because if this happens, what is the future? The young writer who stood up and worked for The Bear, what does it look like for him? Like he said, this is about his next 10 years, his next 20 years.
I had my last 20 years, and I’m still struggling in this system, but I know I’m going to survive. I know I’m going to survive, because I can make demands that everybody can’t make. Even in that, I can’t make all the demands. Even in that, I’m told no. I know I’m not going to make another show this way, but that’s not going to be true for everybody else.
It’s the reason why I said yes to be on a negotiating committee. I’m so comfortable on my couch doing nothing, including not doing podcasts. I’m just comfortable sitting on my couch watching TV under a blanket, but I’m getting out into the world and doing things because I’m so motivated for change. This can’t be how we move forward. It can’t be how we move forward. I think we can change it, and I think we will, John. I think we will.
John: I think we will, you and me and 10,000 members and some good fortune.
Danielle: That’s it.
John: We’ll change it.
Danielle: That’s it.
John: Danielle, thanks again.
Danielle: Thank you.
- Danielle Sanchez-Witzel on IMDb.
- Up Here on Hulu.
- Succession Podcast, S4E2 with Lucy Prebble and Laura Wasser from HBO.
- Incompetent but Nice by Jacob Kaplan-Moss.
- Glucose Goddess on Instagram.
- Non-Buttermilk Pancake Recipe
- Get a Scriptnotes T-shirt!
- Check out the Inneresting Newsletter
- Gift a Scriptnotes Subscription or treat yourself to a premium subscription!
- Craig Mazin on Instagram
- John August on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- John on Mastodon
- Outro by Alicia Jo Rabins (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Drew Marquardt and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can download the episode here.