The original post for this episode can now be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 458 of Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on this podcast we’re going to talk about why and how screenwriters find themselves collapsing and combining scenes. We also have a bunch of listener follow up about returning to production, portrayals of police on screen, and issues faced by Black writers. And in our bonus segment for Premium members we will talk about the return of professional sports.
Craig: Your favorite. I know you’ve just been on the edge of your seat.
John: I am weirdly excited about the return of professional sports.
Craig: Oh wow.
John: A lot to get into.
Craig: If there was ever a reason for somebody to quickly subscribe to the Premium member feed it’s this. Because even I’m–
John: What is John excited about with the NBA?
Craig: I couldn’t possibly–
John: Only the Premium members will know.
Craig: I mean, I cannot wait to hear this.
John: But professional sports are not the only thing going back into production. So, on previous episodes we’ve talked about how actors are likely to be the deciding factors about when shows and movies go back into production with COVID-19 precautions. And we also noted the power imbalance between stars on the top of the call sheet and those listed lower.
But Joe wrote in. Craig, do you want to talk about what Joe–?
Craig: Sure. Joe says, “I’m an actor and a member of SAG/AFTRA and the truth is that virtually no actors make a consistent living from performing. The overwhelming majority of actors book one or two day-player gigs a year. That’s if they’re lucky. And then they have a regular job that pays the bills. So the question that actors in this situation, which is most of them, have to ask themselves now is do I risk my life for a non-life-changing role? Because getting COVID for an occasional day-player gig that pays a thousand bucks can cost them the job that actually pays their bills.
“Actors are so desperate to land that life-changing role. So my hunch is that they’ll continue to risk their lives for the day-player gigs just to stay somewhat relevant. It’s a sad F’ed up situation because the odds of deriving a livelihood just from acting are slim to none.”
John: Well that’s more depressing with each paragraph.
John: But let’s do talk about that, because I think it’s important to acknowledge that WGA writers who are working in Hollywood, some are working a lot, some are not working as often. But if you’re a working writer you’re a working writer and that can be your main source of income.
With actors there’s a lot more variability and there are a lot of actors who are a member of the union who really are in the situation that Joe describes where you’re booking one or two jobs a year. And so for them, god, do they take the risk of going to a set that they don’t feel safe on? It’s a hard calculation.
Craig: Well, go a little further. Because Joe stops his calculus at day player. So for those of you who don’t know what that phrase is, actors are hired usually week to week. That’s how your general cast is employed, either on an episode basis or a week to week on a feature basis. Day players are people that are hired for one day. So that’s the role of the waiter who comes by and says, “Sorry sir, we don’t have what you asked for.” That’s a one-day job. They’re paid one day.
But what about background? So extras. Extras are already working kind of in tough conditions. They’re not particularly well cared for by productions. They are often smooshed together under tents. And they eat separately from everybody. I wonder about them as well, particularly because extras are the ones that are in crowd scenes. So when you see a big crowded room and you think to yourself in our post-COVID mentality, oh good lord, everyone is going to get COVID in that room, almost all of those people are background.
John: Yeah. So all the precautions we’re talking about in terms of like, oh, maybe we can shoot two parts of a scene separately so the actors aren’t actually as close as they seem. Or we’ll do things, when we talk about not having crowd scenes, well in some cases you’re still going to have to have some background players moving through there. Even in a show like Brooklyn 99 there are people who move through the backgrounds of those scenes and those people wouldn’t be masked.
And so it’s tough. And it’s tough for those people to decide, OK, I feel comfortable being in this situation without a mask while this is happening. It’s a lot.
Craig: I’m afraid that Joe is right though that a lot of people want to be in show business. And not only will day players show up at risk to themselves to make as he says a thousand bucks, but background artists and extras will show up to make a couple of hundred bucks. Therefore it is kind of incumbent upon our business to figure out how to keep these sets safe because people will show up.
John: Yeah. And we should also stipulate that everyone working on a set, like everyone working overall, is taking some risk by showing up. It’s just that the precautions that a grip or a gaffer can have about masking up and other safety equipment, a background player may not be able to have those because they’re literally on camera. So that’s what we’re talking about here.
The same way that we see news people having to make the decision of are they taking off their mask when they’re on a camera shot or are they leaving their mask on, those are tough calls. And people are having to make those decisions in real time.
John: Yeah. Another thing we’ve been talking about a lot on the show is portrayals of the justice system. And we’ve speculated that networks and showrunners will be looking at shows that portray policing and the justice system more realistically or in different ways than they classically have. Bob Shane wrote in to say, “I’d like to call your attention to a really good series that was on ABC for two years and it got canceled this year called For the People. In it a group of young lawyers who recently passed the bar exam are hired. Some by the federal prosecutors’ office and others by the federal public defenders’ office in New York. The show cuts back and forth between the cases. It never pandered to the police or authoritarian law and order agenda. And it did a great job exposing the flaws in the system. It was created by Paul William Davis and produced by Shonda Rhimes’ company.
“I suspect that this would be the moment for fans of that show to ask ABC to bring it back, or for Shonda Land to get Netflix to pick it up.”
And so this was a show that I had in my head and I could not remember the name of it as we were talking about it. Because Paul Davies is actually a friend. His daughter and my daughter went to school together and I knew when he was actually just starting his career as a TV writer. He’s a lawyer who transitioned to that. And so he’s always been on my list of like, oh, I have to have Paul on the show to talk about transitioning from another career in your 30s. Because he made that transition and got to run a show really early in his writing life.
So, yes, I think that’s the kind of show I can imagining happening more often. But even in the description that Bob puts here I can see why it’s a harder show to program than the other 19 police procedurals.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, the thing about police procedurals and we’ll also call them justice procedurals, like Law & Order, which was built around trials, which don’t exist, is that they’re easy to do. It’s built-in drama. I mean, trials are dramatic. They have an incredibly narrative-friendly structure. You make an argument. You make an argument. You cross-examine. There’s banging of gavels and objections and moments of drama. And then people go and decide. Who wins?
Well, that’s just perfect.
John: Yeah. It’s like sports. There’s a clear outcome. There’s a winner and a loser.
John: In ways that reality doesn’t have winners and losers.
Craig: That’s exactly right. Most of the time people are losers when they end up in the justice system and their loss is some kind of brokered loss that’s done a bit bloodlessly.
So, I agree with you. That does sound like a hard one. But I’m sure that, you know, look, if it got on the air, it was on for two seasons. So it was obviously doable. I think that will ABC bring it back? It’s unlikely. And I don’t think this is the time where we should be looking backwards and sort of dusting things off. Everything has changed quite a bit. It’s time we write new things. So it would be interesting to see what somebody like Paul Davies would do now if he continued working with Shonda Land or purely for himself or anything.
John: Yeah. Well on that topic of what we do now and do forward, do you want to read what Ryan in Florida wrote?
Craig: Ryan writes that “Episode 456 forced me to take a closer look at one of my characters, a sheriff, and to rethink his role in my story, which I believe was your intent. It occurred to me that the sheriff is a ‘the end justifies the means’ sort of guy. Where did this thinking, the end justifies the means, come from? And why is it so pervasive in a country founded on the principles of freedom, equality, and justice for all? Your podcast reminded me that the means is the end. Separation of the two concepts exists only in our mind. Here’s to hoping that America will rediscover the passion of its principles and pursue the ideals that changed the world.”
Here, here, Ryan.
John: Yeah. So I want to unpack a little of that because America was founded on the idea of justice for all and freedom, but it was also founded on this idea of like the frontier and the going your own way and sort of the lone wolf thing. So, it’s interesting that our sheriff mentality tends to be towards the hero/lone wolf person. And other parts of our justice system are more about the teamwork and justice for all. America has always been built on that duality of like we’re all in this together, oh it’s every man for himself.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, this was a debate that was going on when they were coming over in the Mayflower. Literally they were having this debate. Because we are a nation of what we’ll call sort of progressive liberal thinkers, a guy like Roger Williams who founded Rhode Island among other things and who believed in the equality of all peoples, including Native Americans, with whom – he learned their language and he had good relationships.
And then you had the true hardcore puritan Calvinists who believed that people were born either good or bad, as babies. It had been predetermined by god. And so, of course, if that’s your point of view and you believe someone is evil, why in god’s name would you allow the means to disrupt what must be divine justice?
Similarly, if you believe that you are good then you should be able to take whatever you want. Hence, manifest destiny. This is the American duality. And it’s interesting to see writers starting to at the very least recognize the duality is there. And once you know it’s there you have choices to make.
John: Also this week I saw a discussion that Brooklyn 99 was talking about it needed to throw out the first four scripts they have written for this next season to shoot, because they just don’t make sense given the environment. And that is a thing that you’re going to see in every writer’s room. Those initial weeks’ discussions will be really challenging to figure out what is our show in 2021. What makes sense?
John: And it’s tough to see. But I think it does come back to some of these fundamental American principles that are in conflict with each other. That we are a nation born of people who sought freedom who also enslaved people.
John: We’re always going to be grappling with that. I think it’s just much more obvious that we’re grappling with it as we come up with this next batch of series.
Craig: Yeah. And, look, a lot of people are going to accuse Hollywood of virtue signaling. And I think it’s important to recognize the difference between virtue signaling and evidence of virtue. Because virtue signaling is a cynical act. You’re not virtuous. You’re not trying to be virtuous. You don’t even understand the virtue of the virtue you’re signaling. You’re just putting on a show in the hopes that people will praise you, or not attack you.
Evidence of virtue is just that. If you are making an effort because of the right reasons to be a more equitable employer, to be a writer who is more aware of other perspectives, to be listening, to be changing, evolving, including, then people will see evidence of what I would consider to be virtue. And the cynical tarring of all evidence of virtue as virtue signaling is also something dangerous that we need to keep aware of.
Not saying that we shouldn’t also be – because, look, there’s a lot of virtue signaling. So let’s not pretend. Even if 90% of it is virtue signaling, at least 10% of it is evidence of actual virtue. And so be brave enough to do that and hopefully you don’t get hit with that accusation.
John: Yup. Widening our clock back further, we started this year talking about assistant pay and assistant pay cuts. Nick wrote in this week a suggestion which I found really interesting. So it’s kind of long but I want to read through it because it’s systematic and it speaks to systemic ways of thinking about it that might be helpful.
John: So Nick writes, “I’m an officer in the air force and I’ve lived in a few different countries over the last few years. Pay in the military is rank-based, meaning no matter what your position is if you’re X rank with Y years of service you get Z pay. It’s a very simple formula and you can even look it up in military pay charts to figure out what that pay is because it’s public knowledge.
“But because the military is spread across the world it would be unfair to give everyone the exact same wage because being stationed in Los Angeles would obviously be extremely more expensive than living in Oklahoma. That’s where BAH, or basic allowance for housing, comes into play. Every zip code in the US has a certain BAH based on different factors that the Department of Defense updates regularly. If you Google BAH calculator you can input a zip code and find out how much the government would pay you on top of your base pay if you were stationed there.
“This is something our government already does and is supposed to represent the amount of money you need just for housing in order to live decently in that area. The studios could easily start using this data to determine what is fair to pay their assistants on top of whatever the minimum wage type salary they’re trying to pay their assistants.
“For example, using LA zip code 90038 and a pay grade of E2, air man, normally a high school graduate with no college education, and brand new to the service, the monthly BAH would be $2,079. Using the rank of O1, a second lieutenant, the minimum requirement for which is a Bachelor’s degree and probably more closely aligned with the education level of an assistant, the BAH gets raised to $2,430.
“Do you think this is something the studios could use as a starting off point when determining what is a fair wage for their assistants? I feel like it’s as impartial as you can get and ensures that assistants are getting paid enough money to live comfortably.”
Craig: Interesting. Well, double-edged sword there. So always have to look at the law of unintended consequences. If you rigorously format payment then what you end up with is a situation similar to what we do when we’re negotiating union minimums. The minimum becomes the maximum. So, the deal is we only have to pay you – this is what the chart says, so that’s what you’re getting paid. And, yeah, we’ll pay you a little bit extra for living there. But there isn’t going to be as much upward variability.
Now, people could argue that it’s the downward variability that’s been crushing everybody. And I think that’s reasonable. The thought experiment is what happens if we firm up the floor, what happens to the ceiling? And that’s an interesting economic question. I don’t quite know the answer. But I think that since everyone who is an assistant in LA is living somewhere in incredibly expensive LA, this is probably not as impactful as it is for the military where as Nick writes people could be living in vastly different kinds of environments in terms of cost of living.
John: Yeah. So what I think your analogy with scale is absolutely appropriate. It is setting a floor. And so when unions negotiate scale it’s to set a floor so nothing goes below that. And for assistants we’ve talked a lot about sort of like what is the minimum sort of livable wage in Los Angeles. And so we talk about for a 40-hour week is it $25/hour? For a 60-week is it $20/hour? Is there some basis for which a person can make enough to live? And something like this calculator is helpful for figuring out what is the actual expense of living in Los Angeles, or the expense of living in New York.
What I do wonder is if this variability based on location could be helpful in thinking about how much we’re paying crews who are living and working outside of Los Angeles. Because some markets are a lot more expensive than Los Angeles and some are a lot less expensive. And so we’d be thinking about how much does a gaffer who is working in Atlanta need to be paid versus a gaffer who is living in Los Angeles? What are actual livable wages in those places? That might be interesting.
But because each of those productions is sort of working as a one-off I don’t know that you’re going to have a bigger impact or the range of impact that you would hope to have by using this kind of calculation.
Craig: You start to feel bad for people who move to stretch their salary further and then the company says, oh you’ve moved, we’re cutting your salary.
John: And that does happen. I have friends who moved from Los Angeles to cheaper places and the companies they’re working for are like, “That’s fantastic. You had an allowance for living in London and now you’re not living in London.”
John: Not easy answers there.
John: I also want to point our attention to – this wasn’t written directly towards us, but a lot of people mentioned us in it. Nicole French had a Twitter thread from this past week.
Craig: Yeah, I saw this.
John: She writes, “Today a Black film editor posted in a Facebook group for Hollywood editors looking to connect with other Black editors as they’re severe under-representation in post-production and they can be hard to find. What ensued is a slew of white editors who immediately objected to the post, asked for it to be taken down by moderators, and accused the poster of breaking the law, discriminating against whites, fanning ‘anti-white racism’ against them. And insulted Black editors and white editors speaking up for diversity.”
And this just felt like a giant Yikes to me.
Craig: Yeah. [laughs] I mean, I saw it. I went through it. I looked at it. I’m not on Facebook, but because the link was there I could kind of go through or somebody had maybe just sort of copy and screen shot it. Is that the past tense of screen shot? It’s not screen shut?
Craig: Screen-shotted those things. And so first of all there’s just a question is that illegal and the answer is no.
Craig: I mean, if somebody said, “Hi, I’m looking to hire people and I will only hire” and then lists a group, there are employment issues. There’s employment law and things like that. But saying, yeah, I’m looking to just have a discussion group or meet up with or talk to, I mean, what? Of course it’s not illegal. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.
John: Yeah. An affinity group for underrepresented population, yes, that’s not illegal.
Craig: No. It’s not illegal. And then there was just stupidity. Look, there’s all sorts of levels of racism. This was not quality racism. I don’t know how else to put it. It was like dumb-dumb racism. It wasn’t like, oh, I don’t know, when some sort of super thinky person writes this very long essay that disguises their racism in rather thought-provoking terms. No. This was just dumb-dumb racism. Like, “What? That’s not…bah.”
And I just thought, well, this makes white editors look awful. It was every single one of those. I just want – I’m going to say this, because I can. Because this isn’t illegal. I would never, never – I will never – hire any of those editors. Not because they’re white. I’ve hired white editors before and I’ll hire white editors again, no question. And not because they’re men. I’ve hired male editors and I’ve hired female editors. I won’t hire them because they’re dumb. How about that?
Craig: So, anyway, you’re not working for me anymore. And I hope other people look at those names and go, yeah, I don’t want to work with you either. Because you’re a dick. There you go. And I want a new group that’s for not dicks. Is that OK? Is that illegal?
John: Now, Craig, it struck me that I was seeing these Facebook messages, these screen shots, and it’s like I can’t imagine writers who do that. And maybe it’s just because we’ve been in this a little bit longer, but I don’t see the same things happening among screenwriters. And I’ve definitely seen concern about, you know, you and I have both talked to young white men who are trying to get staff writer jobs and feel like it’s really hard for them to get a staff writer job. And I’ve heard that. I’ve listened to that. And I’ve also been able to sort of talk them through that. None of them would be so stupid as these people who are replying in this thread, how they were replying.
Craig: I mean, these people seemed like editors who had jobs. So it was like they were eating in a restaurant and someone came in and said, “Hey, for those of you who have not yet been served do you want to come have a discussion?” And they said, what, you’re excluding us because we’re already eating? No! We get to talk to anybody.
And you’re like, goddammit. No, writers tend to not be this absurd. Or at least, no, let me take it back. There have been writers who have been this absurd, but not in a cluster like that. It was this weird cluster. It was like a herd of dopes.
John: I also felt like that a lot of those things happened like 10 years ago, or five years ago. I think we went through that wave and those people got culled a little bit. So, there just wasn’t a culling yet in this ring.
Craig: It’s not really praise for writers as much as just more damning evidence of these guys. I just – it was just like, ugh, they were just dumb-dumbs.
John: Dumb-dumbs. All right, Craig, now this is a thing I don’t think you’ve read ahead in the outline, but I feel like it’s important that you probably read this message from Tyler because I want to see how you respond.
Craig: Sure. This is going to go great. Tyler from Bellingham writes, “I just became a Premium subscriber and I’m listening through the back catalog. I just listened to Episode 7 and made a horrifying discovery. Not only is John withholding from Craig the riches he’s acquired through the podcast, he owes him potentially millions of dollars for coming up with the very idea of Highland.” This is great so far. I like you, Tyler.
“Toward the end of the episode John and Craig discuss screenwriting software. This is prior to John creating Highland. As they’re wrapping up the conversation Craig says he believes there is an opportunity in the market for a mid-priced screenwriting software to compete against Final Draft and other smaller players. Shortly thereafter John released Highland.”
All right, Tyler, your argument is falling apart quickly. “If I’ve learned anything from Scriptnotes it’s that an offhanded comment in an informal setting is 100% copyrightable and stands as a legally binding contract. Thus, John owes Craig bigly. I look forward to hearing how John plans to right this wrong.”
Tyler, this is one of the best things anyone has ever written in. You’re great. [laughs] You’re great. And you’re right. An offhanded comment, and certainly an idea as we all know, is property. John owes me what I think is probably millions of dollars.
John: Yeah. Probably [unintelligible]. Tyler, it shows a good understanding of the entire dynamic of Scriptnotes to be able to retroactively apply to that conversation we had way back then. And probably Highland was in the works back then. I just may not have said anything about it. But we can figure out in the timeline when we actually – when I started talking about Highland. Because there was a public beta for like a year before we released it. So, who knows?
Craig: Well, yeah, I guess I probably am owed money for that as well. I’m a saint. That’s what I think. Eventually people are going to understand that–
John: Saint Craig.
Craig: I’m a Saint.
John: He’s a Jewish Saint.
Craig: Yup. I’m a Jewish Saint. We have those now.
John: All right. I want to propose a craft topic. So this was something that I was encountering this week. And Craig I feel like you probably encounter this too.
Craig: Oh, of course.
John: If you have not encountered this I will be so angry.
Craig: Oh, no, no. All the time.
John: All right. So the project I’m working on I have a detailed outline and have really good understanding of what all the scenes and sequences were and I felt really good about it. But then I still encountered a thing that I’ve encountered in most of the scripts I’ve written is that – and it often happens in the third act, but it can happen sort of anywhere is that there are two or three story beats that I intended to be separate scenes or sequences and in looking at it and looking at the overall length of things and how stuff was working I was like, crap, I need to compress these down to become one thing. These can’t be separate scenes. They need to be shrunk down into one scene. And I feel like I’ve done that in nearly every screenplay I’ve written. And yet I don’t remember us ever talking about that as a topic on this podcast. Have you done this?
Craig: Yeah, of course. Of course. Usually I think when I’ve been doing this it’s not as a result of the creative process within but as you point out it’s when we’re going through budget and the practicalities of shooting.
Craig: So there was quite a budget battle on Chernobyl. It was a prolonged slog. It was a WWI trench warfare battle. And thank god I had Jane Featherstone and Carolyn Strauss and Sanne Wohlenberg to fight that fight and I never had to get on the phone to do that, thank god. Sooner or later they had to come to me and say, OK, well we have a list of things. We’ve gotten a bunch more but we have to make some concessions. We have a list of things that we could compress. So, let’s talk through them. And then my job – and this is almost I think every writer faces this at some point or another in production is you are the one who knows the difference between hitting an artery and hitting a capillary.
And so your job is to guide people away from the arteries and figure out how to kind of squish the capillaries back into other things.
John: Yup. So, let me talk through an example of this and offer some of the choices that a screenwriter might make. So here’s the example. Let’s say you have – this is the middle of a script. You have two characters. You have Denise and Alfonso and they notice a strange smell in their house. That’s one beat. Second beat. They search the house and eventually discover that a family of raccoons is living in the attic. That’s the second beat. Third beat is the animal removal guy hits on Denise in front of Alfonso. So that’s a third beat, which should hopefully be a surprise.
So those three beats, they might be fine. They might work really well. They could be funny. They could build on each other. They could be effective just as it is. But if for reasons of length or budget or just a sense like I can’t have these three beats you need to compress or collapse these. You have a couple of choices. And so let’s talk through what those choices might be.
You could move the first and second beat together. So scene, we’ll call it A and B, could be combined. So we might come into the scene with Denise and Alfonso already searching for the source of the smell. So we don’t see the discovery of it. We don’t see the realization that there is a smell. We come into the scene and they’re already looking and we just set up within the already looking that they smell something. So that’s a choice to compress and combine those two.
Second choice. You could move B into C. So it’s basically cutting out the discovery of the raccoons and going from I smell something to there’s the animal control guy who is getting the raccoons out of the attic. So within C you’d have to explain that there is a family of raccoons up there, but you can get rid of B.
Third choice. You cut A and B and you just do – if the important thing is C, like the animal control guy hitting on Denise, you just do C and you sort of build the setup into the start of C.
Or, if the raccoons were more important than the animal control guy you might cut C and just do A and B.
Craig, can you think of any more choices you might make in terms of getting through those three beats if you had to lose and compress stuff?
Craig: No, I mean, those – you’ve got the permutations. And the fact that you’re using A, B, and C kind of, that’s the giveaway that what we’re talking about here is essentially the multiple scenes being reimagined as multiple beats in one scene. Right?
So, setup a conflict, a reversal, a complication, and payoff. This is roughly how these things go. So, what we’re saying here is if someone comes to you and says we have to squish this down your job is to analyze these three beats and say what is actually the purpose of all of this. What am I trying to do here? Is my purpose to show that Denise and Alfonso are a stronger couple than they realized? Well then I need to see the guy hit on Denise in front of him and I need to see probably them already mid-search, freaking out over something together that maybe somebody insists isn’t there. So four people are searching but only Denise and Alfonso smell it. It’s the thing that binds them together. See what I mean? The point of all this can’t be the plot.
The point has to be, well, probably relationship of some sort or even if not a relationship some sort of internal character growth, that’s the part you need. And so now your job is to figure out what is the most essential other bit required to get that part to work.
Craig: And a lot of times what you find when you do this exercise is you’ve made things better. Because you’re essentially pre-editing with a good editor, not a dumb-dumb. And we don’t necessarily need to see lots of things. This happens all the time in the editing room where we’re not making these cuts or compressions to save money, we’ve already shot it. We’re making them to tell the story better.
John: Yeah. And if you were able to do this in the writing phase versus when it’s on the nonlinear editor in front of you can do a better job. I mean, you can do amazing things in the editing room, but you can do much more cogent and clever things if you do it while you’re writing. I should have said another option is you cut A, B, and C and just find a different way to achieve those same ends. Maybe there’s going to be too much shoe leather to get you through all those beats if you are trying to do this. Maybe you don’t need the animal removal guy and there’s a different way to achieve what you’re trying to achieve by that whole sequence that can be done as a scene.
John: A reason why I often find myself doing this in scripts as I sort of think retrospectively about stuff I’ve written is the too many endings problem. Is that a lot of times when I’m compressing and collapsing things it’s because the movie wants to be over and I’m not letting it be over. And so if there’s stuff to pay off rather than have multiple scenes that are paying off one thing I need to get those all to sort of be part of one movement, as part of one action. Because the reader and the audience get tired of things just closing and ending. And they want to be done. And so sometimes you need to compress those moments down.
I’ll often find those beats though in the first act, too, where it’s like I know why I’m setting these things up, but if it feels like we’re just setting stuff up it’s not going to work. So I need to find ways to compress those beats and combine those beats into a single scene rather than have multiple scenes stacked up one after the next.
Craig: Yeah. The flow of this stuff wants to be concise. I think it’s a fairly common syndrome for people to want to stretch out. Maybe because some of the movies that turn them on initially are movies that feel very dialogue-y. Many people have remarked that Pulp Fiction gave birth to a million terrible scripts because it seemed like they were Shaggy Dog scenes that would just go on and on and people were talking. And some of them were. But the dialogue was fantastic. And things that were happening as it turned out were pieces of a fairly intricate clockwork mechanism.
A lot of times your instinct is to stretch out and just play through moments and find what matters and find what’s impactful. But ultimately things want to compress. You want less. And so you are going to start collapsing. Even as you’re writing inside of moments you’re going to start collapsing.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: Until what you thought was a sequence of A, B, C, D, and E you realize is really just a sequence of A and B. That’s all it is. It’s just two things. So let’s just two-thing it, not five-thing it.
John: Yeah. Great. So that is collapsing scenes. Let us do a big transition to our special guests for this episode. So, about two weeks ago on June 12 the WGA Committee of Black Writers put out an open letter to the town calling for systemic change on a host of issues. To talk about those concerns let’s welcome the co-chairs of this committee. Michelle Amor, Hilliard Guess, and Bianca Sams. Now, we’re all talking on Zoom so we can see each other, but it’s challenging when we have five voices on a podcast. So, Michelle, can you introduce yourself so we can hear your voice and know who is talking?
Michelle Amor: Yes. Hi, I am Michelle Amor.
John: And Michelle, where are you from and how long have you been writing in Los Angeles?
Michelle: Oh, I’m from Chicago. I moved to LA in 2010 to attend UCLA to get my MFA. And I have been writing professionally since just right before that, but also I’m a fulltime professor of screenwriting over at Loyola Marymount University.
John: Fantastic. Hilliard Guess, talk us through how long you’ve been in Los Angeles and how long you’ve been a writer. What’s your background here?
Hilliard Guess: I’ve been in LA since ’96. I’m a former actor turned writer and producer. And I’ve been writing since about 2000/2001.
Hilliard: I now do film and TV. So I’m back and forth.
John: Fantastic. And Bianca could you introduce yourself and how long you’ve been in LA? What’s your background here?
Bianca Sams: Hi. My name is Bianca Sams. I am the vice chair. And I’ve been in LA about five years. I was a playwright and an actor. Moved into film and TV. I came for the Warner Bros program and have stayed. And yeah.
John: Excellent. Now, Michelle, let’s start with you. So in your letter you start off talking about the public statements that the studios and other companies made in the wake of the George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black people killed by police. How important was it for you that these companies made these public statements, or saying that Black lives matter? How important was it for them to say that?
Michelle: It was very important. I mean, at the end of the day it’s very frustrating to be a Black American. I mean, I think a lot of people now are seeing how frustrated we’ve been. I mean, most of the people I know for example we’re contributing members to our society. We work really hard. And we’re just constantly oppressed in so many ways. So, hearing even just the words, it definitely helped. And it inspired us to think about responding to it. And that’s why the letter also had the historical context because it’s important to know where you’re going knowing where you came from.
So we couldn’t let that slide without talking about things like Birth of a Nation and all of the issues that we face every day.
Craig: Well I like the fact that you’re not letting things slide. Because I think for a long time that’s kind of been the nature of things, right? People complain and then everybody yes, yes, yes, and then they let it slide. That’s been everyone’s default position. And I want to read this line that you guys wrote which in and of itself is a gorgeous piece of writing. So that’s why I want to read it, because I like reading good words.
It says, you said, the three of you, “Basically either you commit to a new institutionalized system of accountability with and to Black writers, or you prove that you’re putting on just another strategic virtue signaling performance deemed necessary to survive the times.”
First of all, bravo. That’s awesome. And I love the clarity of it. And I particularly love the word prove. Because I think it’s fair to say at this point after about a thousand virtue signaling performances that that’s exactly what the studios and networks have done for all of these years. They’ve just done what they felt they needed to do so they could just survive and not be canceled as the kids say.
So, tell me about the thrust of that because I’m sure there was probably some debate about how to temper this statement. How strong, how aggressive, how not aggressive, how conciliatory. Talk to me a little bit about if there was just an automatic unity of thought of how you should proceed with this statement.
Michelle: So, yeah, the whole thing was like, OK, let’s come with facts. Let’s hit them hard. But let’s also leave the door open for real change. Like we understand that we want to work in this business. We’re not saying like blackball us and kick us out. We’re saying, listen, we’re here because we want to tell our stories, too. And now we want you to follow those statements up with some real action. And we used our numbers so you could understand that we understand where the problems lie. If, for example, we’re 15% of the population but we only make up 5.6% of the film writing jobs then that’s a problem that we can work to correct.
Michelle: And those are things that we really wanted to be sure of. And let me just be clear here. It was very important to me specifically that the statement not only said what we wanted to say but it said it very well. We knew we were going to send it out to a mostly writers community. And we didn’t want anyone, “Look at those Black writers. What are they saying?” We wanted to impress the hell out of all of you. We wanted you to look at those words like, “Ooh, look at the command.” That was very thoughtful.
Craig: Nailed it.
John: Now Hilliard one of the recurring points in the letter is about accountability. So, let’s talk about that because every year the WGA puts out pretty detailed reports about who is getting hired or not hired. We also see university reports about representation on screen. But that feels like a way of counting, and it feels like in your letter you’re really arguing more for a moral accountability that you’re looking for. That you want an outcome that’s not just pure numbers but is actually what you’re describing is a systemic change.
So you say, “We need to revolutionize the way our industry hires writers.” What does that look like? What are some parameters, some benchmarks? And what does the change look like if it happens?
Hilliard: Let me just give you a couple things, just to think about it like this. If we have people in higher places, more people will be hired. That’s just the way it is. The reason why a lot of white guys are being hired is because their white friends are there. So it’s the same thing. Which is why, as you see, my favorite line in the entire thing that Michelle wrote was this line. “You need more Black friends.”
So if you think about that, right, then the system will change itself. Because if you had more Black friends in your rooms and not just one, you know, that the system would change itself. So we need more people in places to hire. We need more people in rooms. We need more people in the place with a voice. And we need the opportunity to fail. You know? Three or four key things that I know if you just did that alone things would change.
Craig: We’ve been talking a lot about the opportunity to fail. It’s a weird one, because it might be maybe a first instinct to not talk about it, because it has the word fail in it. But there is nothing shameful about failing. Writing is – what is writing? It’s failing a thousand times in a row and then you get what you call your last draft. Right? What’s rewriting? It’s just fixing your failures.
And allowing people to fail, it’s how they learn. It’s how they learn. And I think one of the issues that we know as a town, we were talking I guess it was last week, we were talking about the difficulty of some of the diversity programs whether or not their heart is in the right place, it sort of makes it like come on in, and then if you fail, well, I guess you failed so that’s a diversity failure. Next person in, please. It just doesn’t connect.
Hilliard: One of the things that a lot of the TV shows forget when they staff, these writers coming out – and Bianca was in an actual program so she can speak to this specifically, but they forget that she got into that program as an example over like 3,000 or 4,000 other people. You’re talking to the top people.
Hilliard: You know what I mean? So their script is better than every staff writer that’s staffed. Do you know what I mean? So you keep forgetting that. And I actually just told this to Jack Melbourne yesterday. I’m like, dude, you guys got to be better. [Unintelligible] it’s ridiculous. I’m sorry, go ahead Bianca.
Bianca: No, but it’s also even the idea of failure. Like that’s why they’re not moving up or why that’s not happening for them which is honestly usually not in fact the case. They’re only paid for for one year. And when they have to pay for them then they cycle them out for another free person and they’re not in fact encouraging the mentoring and moving them up. They’re seeing them more sometimes as tissue people. OK, here’s a spot at the bottom. You have the least amount of power. You have the least amount of ability to change the culture in the room. But you have a spot for the moment. Next. Onto the next.
But to go back to something that John said, actually I think the numbers are very important. And I think it’s a thing that if you want to make something better you have to be able to track it. You have to be able to analyze it. And you have to put your energy there to be able to improve it. So you have to be very specific though, right? Like if you have – we don’t have complete numbers, for example. So it’s hard for us to say OK here are really the problems. We’re kind of glossing over and you’re kind of maybe looking a little bit here, and maybe looking a little bit there. And it might appear on the surface that things were improving but in reality if you can’t tell me well how many Black writers are moving from staff writer to story editor, and how quickly? If they’re being asked to repeat four or five times then we can’t actually see that that’s a pattern. It happens year over year over year. How do you go back except for anecdotal information and change that problem?
And I know for myself, numbers again is my thing, I’ve asked for these numbers, I’ve looked for these numbers, and depending on where you go they’re all very different. And it’s hard to just be like what are the Black writers. What are the Black female writers? What are the Black male writers? We can’t get that kind of data. And oftentimes it feels like we’re putting Band-Aids over dams because it’s like, OK, we do this one thing over here and we have these two little things and everything will be fine.
Craig: Because there’s this sense that the companies are looking for an answer that will make this all be quiet. But there is no one answer and we’re missing certain – like baseball has a thousand new statistics. I love all of them. But we need an upward mobility statistic for writers in Hollywood in all groups who have been marginalized. Right? We just don’t have that – whatever that factor is, we don’t have it. Sorry, John, I cut you off.
John: Yeah. So it sounds like what Bianca is describing is we have good numbers that are trying to speak to equity and access, like sort of being able to get into the system, but we don’t have good numbers about equity of opportunity, equity of outcome. That the same person who is at the same job can move up the ladder in the same ways. And so tracking that and having meaningful statistics that actually follow the path of people through it will help, because like everyone else on this call I’ve heard all the stories of writers having to repeat at levels that they should not be repeating, or not being able to move from being paid out of a different fund out to being the real staff member. And we need to actually be able to chart that better.
Michelle: You know, I was talking to a showrunner yesterday about not just getting in as a staff writer, but how many Black EPs are in this town and how many Black show creators have shows on the air and how many Black writers have overall deals? Because that’s where the real power is. When you talk about that power seat, you talk about where are we in a position? It’s like Hilliard said, when you have Black showrunners nine times out of ten they’re creating what we would consider Black content. So they’re going to hire Black writers. And that’s really what’s happening on I would say like the white side or the mainstream side.
But, you know, we can write on any show. That’s the other thing, too. This idea that, oh well, I don’t have any Black characters, I don’t need a Black writer. It’s like excuse me? I love action. I love sci-fi. I love horror. We can write on any genre. And to assume that we can speak for voices outside of our own yet others always try to tell our story. That’s frustrating.
Craig: Yeah. White people aren’t shy about writing on Black shows, are they?
Michelle: Not at all.
Michelle: And I think some people, you know, really don’t get how insulting that is. Where you’re not even represented in your own way. Like I sold a show to CBS last year. I remember having discussions with executives about this Black woman. And they were like, mmm, they were not Black, they were not women, and they were really kind of pushing back on me telling them who I am. And I remember I was like, hmm, this is weird. So I’m saying that to say it’s frustrating because we’re constantly fighting to even just tell our own story because so much of who we are it’s like stereotype and frustrating.
Hilliard: And when I signed to one of the big four agencies I remember sitting down at the table with them and they were all excited about me. They were going to do all these great things for me. And before I left I said in front of everybody, “Here’s the last thing you need to know. Do not just send me out for things that are Black.” I live in a white world. I know everything about you guys. We’re consumed with you. So to assume that we don’t know you is the most ridiculous thing.
Now, for you to get me is where I’m impressed. For you to get the nuance that we have that’s when I’m impressed.
Michelle: Yeah. I always tell my students, I mean, I teach at LMU. Most of my students come from Republican/conservative white families. And I’ll say to them when they say, “I want to tell a story about a poor little Black boy.” My first question is why. Because I say to them you’re probably going to screw it up. You’re not going to get it right. And your reasoning is because you’re being told, oh, I’m won’t get a job in Hollywood because I’m a white guy. And I tell my white male students that’s a bunch of crap. I’m like, no, don’t go in there. You still tell your own story, whatever that is. Don’t feel like you have to try to tell mine.
First of all, you’re not going to get it right. And it’s frustrating because you’re seeing it even in the schools and that’s carrying over. And so professors like me, I’m constantly fighting to teach students to tell their own truth. I don’t care if you’re from a little town in Colorado. Whatever. Tell your story. Tell me about your funny uncle. Tell me about your experience. And that’s what we’re going to be drawn to.
But if you’re trying to force it, and I’m seeing too much of that now. And it’s honestly – it’s just frustrating.
Craig: Yeah. There’s no lack of cynicism. In every corner of this business, I guess it’s endemic to who we are. But I’m wondering as you guys have gone through this process of witnessing and experiencing both the events of the last we’ll say month and a half but also the events of your entire lives, and looking at the way people are responding now, and I think there I’m pretty much saying white people and white businesses, are you feeling any sense of hope in that there’s a difference? Or is too soon to tell?
Hilliard: Well, I mean, a lot of people have asked us, you know, myself, Michelle, and Bianca, what has Hollywood’s response been. Guess what? We haven’t heard from hardly anybody. And by the time we’re through here. Now, we’ve heard from some showrunners going, “Wow, you guys wrote an amazing thing,” but we’ve not heard from the HBOs, the Netflix, the people that we called out going, hey, you guys are the ones claiming this stuff. Do you know what I mean? Let’s see what you guys are doing. Sit down with us. But nobody has done that.
Michelle: But I will say this. I have been reached out to several individuals, some of whom have a bit of power, and I think that there’s conversations that are happening. I’m hearing, for example I heard yesterday that one of our top execs in this town on a call and said that he wants to see all of his shows change as far as seeing Black writers on these shows. And it came from a pretty good source. I won’t say who it is.
But I’m saying that to say it’s coming – I’m hearing things. We just don’t want it to be something that’s sporadic all over the place. We really want systemic. And a couple years ago I actually pushed the guild for a Rooney Rule. I really wanted to go out to the studios and have them sit down and come up with a plan, similar to the NFL, where you have to interview us. I mean, again, we’re not asking you to give us anything. We’re saying at least have something in your company where you say, OK, for every job we have to go out to so many Black writers, so many writers of color, etc. And find a way to track that so you can say, OK, we interviewed these number of writers. We were able to hire these many. And over a period of time you can at least track to see how that’s impacted.
Because what’s going to happen is this. If the studios and the production companies and all the networks suddenly change the way they do business then the agencies have to. And we get right now the whole issue with agencies, but then the agencies will say, “Oh, we have to go and find some Black writers because everybody wants some.” We can then get the opportunities that we’re saying we simply would like to have. As opposed to, as Hilliard knows, we always get showrunners that come to our committee and ask us, “Hey, you got any writers? We’re looking for writers.” But they’re afraid to say out loud “Black.” Because they’re like, oh, we can’t just ask for Black writers. I’m like why not? You don’t have any. The first thing is being comfortable enough to have the conversation and say, “We have no Black writers in this room. And we need to change that.”
And so if you can say the words then you can start working to feel some of those positions.
Hilliard: And we need them in higher positions is the problem. They hire these staff writers with no voice.
Bianca: And if you have a voice you’re penalized for having said voice. You’re at the bottom of the table.
Michelle: But let me also add they are looking for Black showrunners. Here’s the problem. Due to the systemic racism – we had writers back in the ‘80s and ‘90s who were incredible writers on incredible shows. As you know the ‘90s had a lot of Black shows. Those writers were never allowed to get past story editor. If they were allowed they would now be showrunners. We would have probably 20, 30 additional Black showrunners in this town who are so talented. They’ve not lost their talent because they’ve gotten older. They just were not able to get the opportunities. And so part of what we’re trying to do at the guild is bring those writers back into the fold and bring them back up. Because they were really torn down. They were devastated.
They were done really dirty. We do stand on the shoulders of some truly talented people. And so part of it is things were taken from us and they need to be restored. The value needs to be restored. Because it’s one thing to say like, oh, we don’t have anybody. It’s like, yeah, because you intentionally prevented that from happening.
Bianca: But we’re also recreating those problems now. When people are repeating, and repeating, and repeating. Right? To repeat staff writer four, five, six, seven times you think about how many times are you supposed to, or more people normally. One, two times maybe. Four, five, six. You’re not getting script fees. You’re not [growing pension]. People leave. People fall out. People have a harder time moving up.
So if you think about somebody being four years at staff writer where would they have been in those four years if they were promoted like other people? Or six years? And so we’re doing it now to a new class of people. Last week there were people asking for mid-levels and they’re like, “Oh, well we can’t find any.” And I’m like well maybe look at somebody who has been here for six years, been working on shows every year getting scripts. They’re clearly capable of producing episodes. But they’ve also been kept back. And are you willing to say I’m going to look at an executive story editor who has been here who has repeated staff writer for four years, wrote three, four scripts. Repeated story editor a couple times. Now is an executive story editor. And might actually have more experience than somebody who is technically mid-level but their title says something different.
And so we’re doing sort of the same thing now where we have classes of people who have been stuck. I know myself I’ve repeated staff writer four times. I was asked seven times to repeat staff writer. And I literally had to walk away from things until somebody decided – like until somebody offered something else I would not do it.
And so there’s a system in place as well right now that’s recreating those problems in real time.
Hilliard: Which also goes to they always assume that the Black staff writer has no experience whatsoever. They forget most of us have shot movies and produced them. Have produced our own pilots. Have produced proof of concepts. Dozens of them. You know what I mean? So when we get in a room I’m already a co-EP in my head over these other people.
Michelle: I mean, true, everyone is not capable we get of running an entire show. It requires a lot. But there’s some pretty dope people out there who could do it. You know? And people do it all the time.
Craig: People do it all the time. I mean, it’s hard to get those jobs, but it’s hard for – I mean, it’s hard for everybody in a sense. Like everybody that’s playing here is playing at a professional sports league level. But, yeah, so it’s hard for everybody. The point is people can do it. We know that. It’s doable. So—
Michelle: Yeah. Has it been perfect? No. But we’ve done a really good job. And I think back to what Hilliard says, you know, we should be allowed to fail.
And let me talk about because of this we’re artists. Like who wants to create under these stressful situations? Just like everyone, like I want to create beautiful, vivid worlds. John, you don’t know this but one year I went to Sundance and we snuck away and went to go see your movie Big Fish. And I just remember thinking like, yes, like I love movies, I love television, and I just want the opportunity to create my own Big Fish. Like my own work that people can look at and be also as moved.
And that’s why we’re here. So when you’re creating and you’re constantly worried like, oh, I have to represent the whole race. That’s exhausting. Right? I want to get on a show. I’m sure you don’t think like, oh, as a white guy, I’ve got to represent all white men.
Craig: Oh yeah. I’m trying to not represent white men. That’s my new thing. [laughs]
Michelle: We want to represent the world and have fun, you know. I know Hilliard loves like cool cars. I’m sure that would be something in his show. And Bianca probably has some like mad genius or something in her world. I don’t know. Those are things that made us want to come into this industry in the first place. And we get that Hollywood is a microcosm of America. But to your question, I do believe there is a change. It’s why the statement was written. We think that there is a paradigm shift. What we plan to do though is to hold them to it.
So we’re not done. We’re also preparing to, you know, take some more action.
Craig: Good. Yeah.
John: Let’s talk about those next steps. So, if I’m a Black WGA member listening to this and I want to get involved, what do I do next? How do I reach out to you? What happens?
Michelle: Well, we have a committee. And we meet – of course, because of the pandemic things were a bit off. But we’re going to have a new meeting in August. We also have an incredible meet and greet coming up in July. We have 100 of our brightest, most talented writers. There are going to be 33 showrunners. Like a speed dating session.
Hilliard: Meet and greet.
Michelle: So we have a lot of things that we do already for our committee behind the scenes. And a lot of people don’t realize. It’s like oh wow what’s going on over there. But because of the pandemic we had to, of course, slow things down. But we’re planning a bunch of virtual panels and events for the remainder of the year because as you know in America Black people are dying at the highest rate from COVID-19. So we are not going to take a chance on our lives.
That’s another thing. You know, with the industry opening, it’s like are they fully thinking about Black lives? Again.
Craig: The answer is no.
Michelle: You get the virus. Yeah, we get that you could live. But—
Craig: Yeah, right. I think, yeah, staying home is a good idea. I think staying home is a great idea, actually, for all of us.
Bianca: Another quick thing if they haven’t already, just for stats purposes as the number person, if you have not already self-identified on the website that is really, really helpful. I’ve been getting most of my staff from there. And some of it is that people have not self-identified. You can also email us and join the CBW if you are a Black writer. And come to the meetings and figure out how you too can get involved. We have a lot of great things coming up. Financial literacy things. Things outside that aren’t just about the industry straightforward.
So, get involved. Get excited. And, you know, we’re moving and shaking.
Hilliard: We have a Facebook page, too, that they can join.
John: Cool. Bianca, Hilliard, Michelle, thank you so much for joining us on this. It was so good to talk with all of you.
Craig: That was awesome. Thank you guys.
John: Thanks for all your hard work. And we look forward to hearing what happens next. We’ll keep an eye out for you.
Hilliard: Awesome. Thanks for having us man.
John: Thank you.
Craig: Thanks. Keep going. Keep going.
John: And Craig it’s now just you and me. It is time for our One Cool Things.
Craig: One Cool Thing.
John: You got one?
Craig: Yeah, I do. I don’t know, your dog Lambert – is Lambert a picky eater?
John: He was a very picky eater when he first came to our house. He’s a less picky eater now. What do you got?
Craig: Well, we have our wonderful dog, Cookie. She is fantastic. She is also just a little princess when it comes to food. Good, she’s so, mmm. So dogs can’t just eat treats all day. They need real actual kibble and stuff like that. Or some certain wet food. But she just literally will turn her nose up at it. She’ll look at it and then her nose will go up and she will walk away.
So, it’s getting frustrating, especially because sometimes she gets so hungry that she’ll barf.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: They do that. Because they have too much bile building up. And you’re like, well, if you’re that hungry just eat the food. But she’s like, no, I don’t want to. It’s gross.
So, in looking around I had some other stuff that I used to crumble on it and put on it. And it sort of worked a little bit but not great. Now – now I have Marie’s Magical Diner Dust.
John: All right.
Craig: Marie’s Magical Diner Dust is made my Steller & Chewy and it’s some kind of horrifying – it’s like basically the stuff that dogs like the most is the stuff that would make us puke the most. It’s like it’s made of skull and chicken dicks and stuff. So it’s just dried up little powder. So I sprinkled a little bit on there and it was like I had brought out some cocaine in the club. She just went bananas. And just immediately started eating. So, thank you Stella & Chewy for your Marie’s Magical Diner Dust for dogs. So gross. So effective.
John: Excellent. When Lambert first came to live with us he did not like our food. And so we experimented with different foods to get one that would work with his system well. But then he would still be really picky about eating it. When Megan McDonnell would dog sit him she couldn’t get him to eat at all and she would have to like sort of hand feed him kibble.
What we discovered was pretty useful which if other people want to try this before reverting to dinner dust is you take a tiny bit of peanut butter and rub it on the inside of his bowl and that was appealing enough that he would start to lick the peanut butter and he was like as long as I’m here I guess I’ll eat the kibble too. So we would soften his dry food.
Now he’s just gotten over it and so eats his food. We wet it down a little bit and he’s a good eater.
Craig: Yeah. No, so I’m envious. This dog, trying to get her to eat, ridiculous. What about you, John? You got a One Cool Thing for us?
John: I do. So mine is an immersive light field video with layered mesh representation.
Craig: Of course.
John: This is from SIGGRAPH 2020, so a big visual effects conference. Click through the link here, Craig, and it’s something I’ve sort of speculated we should be able to do soon but we finally now have the computer processing ability to do it. If you can imagine if you took a whole bunch of Go Pros and layered them all around a big sphere you could get a full 360 view of things. They’re doing that, but then they’re doing incredibly computational intensive processing to make a full field view from that. So, you can film something and then in real time move to any space in that video in any space in that world. You click through in the little sample videos you’ll see a guy with a homemade flame-thrower.
Craig: It’s really cool. Yeah.
John: And so you can move around in 3D space while it’s happening, so it feels kind of like a videogame, because it is kind of using videogame engines to take real video and figure out the surface mapping of stuff and create 3D models out of it. It’s really impressively done. So I would just say it’s a little preview of stuff you’re going to be seeing in movies in about six months.
Craig: In six months?
John: Well, I think you’re going to see application of this kind of stuff in movies coming really soon. Because the moment you can do stuff like this in a demo everyone is looking at this and it’s like I already sent it through to a director I’m working with. Oh, we’re doing this, aren’t we? He’s like, oh yes, we’re definitely going to do that.
Craig: Look, it’s awesome. I’m looking at it. It’s really, really cool. I can definitely see how it would actually enhance videogames for sure. I don’t know if I would want to watch a passively observed story like this.
John: Oh, no, no, no. I’m not saying you’re going to see the whole movie that way. But I’m going to say like bullet time in the Matrix, there’s things like that where I can imagine us moving through a space and moving through a battle sequence where the different fields of planes are in different timings. You could just do really amazing things if you had this kind of information.
John: And it’s the kind of thing which, again, you could do right now with just pure visual effects. But to actually have the real photography behind it will enable some amazing things.
Craig: That’s very cool.
Craig: Very cool.
John: And that is our show for this week. So stick around after the credits for our discussion of professional sports. But if you’re not a Premium member you’ll have to just wonder. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is a classic Matthew Chilelli outro. He’s done some of our best ones. It’s actually how he became our editor is by doing a whole bunch of outros for us.
If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you send longer questions or things like we read today. For short questions, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. Just today Craig replied in a really great thread about someone’s question and concerns, so thank you for doing that, Craig.
Craig: You got it.
John: So follow Craig. We have t-shirts. We have t-shirts at Cotton Bureau. They’re terrific. You should check those out. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you find the transcripts.
You can sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments. Craig, thanks for a fun episode.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: All right, Craig, baseball is coming back. Basketball is coming back. I am weirdly excited for both of them.
Craig: Are you? [laughs]
John: I’m excited because it’s a new thing and I’m really curious how they’re going to do it. I also feel like I like when systems and structures try to react to the outside world and find a new normal.
Craig: Oh my god. That’s the most robot thing you’ve ever said. Sorry, that’s the second most robot thing you ever said. The first most robot thing you ever said was immersive light field video with a layered mesh representation. [laughs]
John: So, for our international listeners who may not be following what’s happening in American professional sports, the NBA, the National Basketball Association has announced that they are planning to kind of resume this season. They’re moving all the players and families and coaches and staff to Orlando, Florida where they will be playing a truncated version of this season and going into the playoffs. And we will have a national champion. Do you call it a national champion? What do you call the winner of basketball?
Craig: Oh man. It’s just the champion. It’s the champion. NBA champion.
John: NBA champion. That’s what I was looking for. So they’re going to do that but it’s going to be a highly tested environment. But even as we’re recording this today like a bunch of players already tested positive for it, so there you go.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah.
John: But so basketball I think will probably work. I mean, the teams are relatively small in these pretty controlled environments. Baseball is outdoors, which is great.
John: But, you know, usually teams travel and so it’s not like everyone is going to go to one place where they will do all baseball.
John: I just don’t know.
Craig: Yeah, how will they do baseball? This is the most important question. Look, I think – I’m more worried about the NBA. Because basketball is a contact sport. We don’t think of it in the way that football is a contact sport where you’re encouraging contact, where it’s required on every play, but basketball players are in each other’s faces. They are up against each other physically. They are sweating on each other. And they’re smashing into each other and falling down on each other. Whereas baseball, everyone is actually quite far apart.
I mean, some players, when you’re in the field are really far apart.
Craig: So, who is close together? And I’m going to remove the dugout from the situation. So in the dugout all the players are waiting to have their turn at bat if they’re in the lineup. You can work that out. You can have sort of a social distancing dugout kind of situation. In the field the catcher is pretty close to the home plate umpire and the batter. But if they are wearing – I mean the catcher is already wearing a mask. And you should be fine.
Beyond that there is not a ton of contact in baseball. People slide into base and they’ve already reduced the amount of contact just per the rules to reduce injury. So I’m not so concerned transmission during a game between players. It’s what happens in between the games that’s obviously the problem. Because it’s just hard to keep people who are working together from, you know, being near each other and potentially infecting each other. And all those players – sorry, many of the players have wives and they have children. And, you know, there’s more vectors for infection.
Obviously there’s not going to be fans. We’re not doing that. Have you seen what they’ve done, I think it was in South Korea where baseball is very popular, they filled the stands with stuffed animals.
John: Which is exactly how it should be at all times.
Craig: So great. It was so great. I thought it was the greatest thing ever. And then I saw one photo of an orchestra that was playing–
John: To potted plants, yes.
Craig: Yes. An audience of plants, which is very sweet. It will be weird.
John: Well, so baseball it feels like all your potential concerns and objections, like they have families, they’re going to encounter other people. Yes. And also everyone else who is going back to work in any capacity is going to have those same problems.
John: So it’s similar to that. Except there’s additional travel with baseball and it looks like they’re taking efforts to travel less than the other ones would.
Craig: Yeah. I think if they can reduce the travel down, because obviously far fewer games are going to be played. I don’t think anyone is going to look at this season as a “real” season, no matter who wins the World Series. It will have an asterisk a mile wide next to it because it’s just a weird year. There was a strike-shortened season where there was another asterisk World Series winner. So, it’s just a weird one. But the players want to play. And the owners want the players to play. And there is money to be made from the television rights. And I would watch, for sure.
I did years ago when–
John: Craig, one moment though. Because from a television viewer perspective, someone who is just watching a baseball game, it doesn’t necessarily going to feel any different. I mean, I don’t know that you would necessarily know there was a problem–
Craig: It will. Oh yes.
John: Tell me why it will feel different.
Craig: Because it’s silent. So, baseball games are loud. Baseball stadiums are much larger than indoor arenas where NBA teams play. They are not as big as football stadiums, but you’re talking typically about somewhere between 25,000 to 50,000 per game, outside, cheering.
John: If only we had a way to pipe in sound that wasn’t actually part of a scene when it was recorded.
Craig: That would be awful. If you had artificial crowd reactions it would be the worst.
John: Bum-bum-bum-bum. Yeah.
Craig: Yeah. It would be just awful. It would all sound like a videogame.
John: So it’s going to feel like golf is what it’s going to feel like.
Craig: It’s going to feel like golf. There was a game that was played years ago when Freddie Gray died in the custody of police in Baltimore and civil unrest occurred which as we know solved the problem of police brutality. Anyway, just amazing, right? We’ve been doing this – that’s a whole – I’m not going to go down that road again. But just, argh, police.
So, Baltimore had a curfew. They were essentially shut down for a day or two. But I can’t remember which team, maybe the Angels, were in town to play the Orioles and they played a game in an empty stadium. And it was the weirdest damn thing I’ve ever seen. Because like you just heard stuff. It was weird. It was just like – yeah.
John: I watched, this past week was the worldwide developer’s conference for Apple. And so some years I’ve gone. I always watch it and there’s always a live keynote. And it’s a big thing and it’s a huge crowd. And obviously they couldn’t do any of that this year.
John: And they made choices like, you know what, we’re going to change the format completely. We’re going to lean into it and not try to do the normal things we’re doing and they did a much better job. So I think it will be weird at the start but I bet they can also just find ways to film it differently so that you’re not expecting some of the moments that you would normally expect with the crowd.
Craig: I am laughing at you, not with you. Because the thing is we don’t really film – I mean, yeah, occasionally you’ll look at, they’ll have a crowd shot. But by and large it’s just the sense of the crowd reacting as things are happening is part of what’s going on. And there’s always this low crowd hum.
It’s a little bit like when they show you–
John: The sitcoms without the laugh tracks?
Craig: Yes. It’s that eerie. It’s just eerie.
John: Oh, that would be so good.
Craig: Because it’s like, OK, it’s 3-2 and bases loaded and two outs. This the payoff pitch. And in those situations the crowd is at a fever pitch. Every little moment is just adrenalized. And in this one it will just be like…and he struck out. Silence. Everyone just walks back. It’s gonna be weird.
John: Yeah. It’s gonna be weird. But let’s talk about how weird basketball is. So they’ve made a completely different choice. It’s sort of New Zealand’s choice of we are going to isolate this group of people and not let them have any encounter with the outside world. In theory that should work. If you actually keep a tight quarantine on these people they can be as in each other’s face as you want because there will be no virus for them to transmit.
Craig: Right. Good luck.
John: Yeah. Good luck. I genuinely wish them good luck. But it’s going to be tough.
Craig: This virus, I mean, COVID particularly, it’s like water. It’s going to find any little crack and it will get through. It just doesn’t seem realistic. It really doesn’t. If they can pull it off, great. Just remember people are going to have to be feeding them. There’s doctors and there’s food service and there’s janitorial service and there’s shopping. You can’t – it’s not Bio-Dome. You can’t seal them up.
John: Yeah. My mom is in a senior living place and it’s kind of Bio-Dome-ish. They are pretty – they’re vigilant. And, again, I’m not confident that there will never be a case at her place, but they’re taking the precautions that they can take. And so I guess on the NBA side I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that it’s worthwhile to try doing what they’re doing.
Craig: Yeah. You can theoretically Bio-Dome folks who generally have reduced mobility and independence anyway. Bio-Doming 20 to 40 year old men and their wives, their significant others, their children. Listen, obviously I’m not rooting for anyone to be sick. I hope it works. I really, really do. And weirdly I would say basketball – it will be less weird to watch without a crowd because basketball is a playground sport. It’s everywhere. So we all have the experience of watching basketball where there’s no crowd. You just go down to any of the basketball courts, like Venice. When you go down to Venice here in LA there are these famous basketball courts. It’s where they shot a bunch of White Men Can’t Jump.
And they play. You’re just used to it. You’re not used to seeing baseball games with no one there. It’s just not really a huge thing. And so it’s just going to be interesting.
John: Yeah. A good experiment. We’ll see how it all plays out. No one is expecting the NFL to come back. Correct?
Craig: If the NFL came back that would be madness. I don’t know. It would be absolute madness. But they might. I mean, that’s the thing. The amount of money behind all of this is extraordinary. Yeah. But until a vaccine happens – I mean, yeah, I don’t know. That one seems weird to me.
John: And so it seems like none of these issues will impact anything in our direct lives, but literally I was having a conversation with a network about plans for this thing I may be working on. They’re like, “Yeah, it’s really going to be a question of whether NBC does the Olympics or not, or when those happen.” We’re trying to think like two or three years out for where stuff is going to be. And it’s like, yeah, that’s right. The Olympics is a huge, huge – obviously it’s an athletic event, but also three weeks of solid programming. And if you don’t have that, that’s important.
Craig: I think a lot of the folks that are in those executive suites are doing the only thing they can do which is make plans. But as they’re making plans I think they’re all well aware that their plans are pointless. They are doing what – they don’t want to sit there and do nothing, but no one knows how this is going to go. No one. Anybody that has any kind of certainty is a lunatic.
John: Yup. Thanks Craig.
Craig: Thank you, John.
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