The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: This is Episode 610 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show, what is it even about? We are discussing the premise, the very foundation of story, upon which we construct our takes. We also have a ton of follow-up on AI and language, listener questions, and more. In our Bonus Segment for Premium members, it’s back to school season. We’ll reminisce about pencils and notebooks and what we do and don’t miss about being in school.
Craig: Oh my god, that’s like, we’ll reminisce about penny candy.
John: Ah, indeed. I love it.
Craig: Pencils and notebooks, what?
John: A preview for our listeners, I have such distinct olfactory memories, actually, of back to school season, like the smell of glue and paste and when you open up a new thing of Mead paper and the notebooks. I love it all.
Craig: Listen, it’s going to be a Gen X fest.
John: It is.
Craig: We’re gonna talk you through all the pink erasers and-
John: Oh my gosh.
Craig: … the little plasticky zip-loc pencil holders that would go on your three-ring binder. Oh, we got it all, my friends.
John: Yeah, plus the new jeans that are really too stiff when you’re first trying to break them in.
Craig: New jeans. Hey, guess what? Jeans used to be made out of the same stuff they use to cover old boats.
John: Now they use them to make the new WGA T-shirts.
Craig: That’s right, exactly. They use that now to punish us, in our hair shirts. Yes, all true, all true.
John: It’ll be fun. We’ll start with some actual news. In the headlines this week, there was a ruling saying that AI-created art is not copyrightable. This was a bid. Stephen Thaler is an artist, a person who made something or had his machine make something. He wanted to register it for copyright. The copyright office said, “Nope.” The judge in the case said, “Yeah, the copyright did the wrong thing. That is a no from me, dog. You cannot say that is a thing that you created that is going to be subject to copyright.”
It is interesting. There’s been a lot of little moments that have come along this way. I’ve testified on the WGA’s behalf in terms of our perspective on copyright and AI. It’s going to be an interesting area to follow over the next couple years about whether things that are made by AIs can be copyrighted and in what circumstances.
Craig: I think Stephen Thaler, I believe he owns some sort of AI business. I don’t think he’s an artist in and of himself. I could be wrong. Maybe he considers himself one. To me, this was a slam dunk. There is no reason to imagine that AI would have copyright production, any more than there’s a reason to think that AI would have freedom of speech protection. AI is not a person.
If there’s one thing we know, that I think we can all agree on when it comes to the Constitution – and copyright is enshrined in the United States Constitution – it is that the people who wrote it were writing it about people and did not imagine, predict that there would be artificial intelligence. There wasn’t even a cognate for it.
Sometimes people point out that the Second Amendment was written at a time when guns needed to be loaded slowly with a rod and powder and that the founding fathers did not foresee assault weapons. True, but there were guns. At least we know, okay, so there was a gun. Guns have gotten crazy. All right, we can discuss. There were no computers, no calculators. There wasn’t even an adding machine. There was nothing. Copyright is for people.
I did read the decision. Sometimes you read these things, and you can just tell that the judge is like, “Oh, come on. Really? No.” It was very much a no. I foresee that that will continue. I cannot imagine that this would survive in challenges. I don’t care who’s on the Supreme Court. I really don’t. Unless the Supreme Court is entirely made up of people that own AI businesses, I just don’t see how anybody could ever argue that AI-created stuff qualifies for copyright.
John: We’ll put a link in the show notes to the pdf of the decision, which is great. People should read through it. The article I’ll also link to talks about some of the other challenges to copyright that have come up over the years. Of course, you and I, Craig, we both work for corporations, and corporations are retaining the copyright on the things we do, because we are doing work for hire. I think that was part of Stephen Thaler’s argument here is that the machine was essentially work for hire and the same kind of principle should apply here.
John: What I argued in front of the U.S. Copyright Office is that copyright was initially intended to protect… There was always a human author. It was always about the authorship. While the final copyright might transfer to somebody else or transfer to a corporation, it was originally intended to protect that author and that author’s expression and to foster more expression from authors. That is not a thing that a machine knows or wants to do.
Craig: No. Work for hire was about commissioning work. You could commission it from people. Again, there was no understanding or conception or ability to foresee that you could commission work from something that wasn’t alive.
For instance, nobody would’ve argued that if somebody had, I don’t know, a loom that could operate itself, that that would be creating works of art. Player pianos, interestingly, created all sorts of issues around copyright. That led to a whole understanding of mechanical copies and things like that and how mechanical copying was in and of itself a derivative of copyright.
We do not commission work. I think work for hire and the commissioning actually started in, I don’t know, prerevolutionary time with silversmiths, people like Paul Revere, I suppose.
John: It’s all Paul Revere’s fault.
Craig: They would come up with a design and say, “Listen, you work in my factory. I do all the silver stuff. Come up with a design of something. I’ll make a bunch of buckles. I’m going to own the buckle copyright if you want to work here.” That became the way that functioned.
You cannot commission something that is not alive, because you can’t pay it. It’s not a thing. So work for hire requires payment. It requires employment. You cannot employ something that isn’t alive. That’s not what employment is. Employment is paying a human for a thing.
John: The use of technology has also come up in copyright over the years. As photography came to be, they had to decide, a photograph taken by a camera, is that copyrightable, and is it to the person who took the photo, and if it’s to the person who took the photo, does it apply to the monkey who takes a photo. There famously was a monkey who took a selfie. Who owns the copyright to that selfie?
Craig: What courts have found is that humans causing something to be created is an essential part of copyright. If a camera falls off the back of a truck and the take a picture button gets hit, and it takes a picture, welcome to public domain. No one caused it to be created.
Animals cannot cause something to be created in an intentional sense, or at least in the sense that we say is necessary for copyright. No, selfies by animals, pictures by animals, paintings by elephants, none of it can be considered copyrightable, nor can a human say, “I am causing an animal to create something. Therefore, I should have the copyright on this.”
John: Where I think the decisions will ultimately come down, and it’s trying to draw that line of, when a human being uses AI programs to create a work of art, or to create anything that would normally be subject to copyright, where is that line, where it’s like, okay, that human gets the copyright claim. Caselaw will figure that out.
Craig: That’s a real thing. That’s happening now, and to the extent that there are elements in there that you can say are unique. This is the key. People need to look at some of the language underpinning all of this, but the most important word is “unique.” Unique work expressed in fixed form. Unique is key.
If people are using AI to make something, but the AI elements that they’re employing are not unique, it’s gonna be very hard for them to qualify for things, because other people can… It’s just basically, you’re remixing chunks of stuff that somebody else has created.
John: While all culture is remixing, how you’re doing it and the things you’re using to do it with does matter.
Craig: Yes, exactly. You can remix to the extent that, okay, I’m gonna write a song that’s gonna hint at a little phrase that was in this piece of music and maybe do a variation of something else, and it’s unique.
What you can’t do on your own, just because, is do Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys, and then not have to deal with the fact that you’re using copyrighted works that you are remixing. That is gonna be a mess, because AI itself can’t really exist without the input of stuff that somebody made.
John: Craig, on this listening session, I gave my little testimony, but then I also got to listen in as other people gave theirs. This was an interesting thought experiment, which is gonna not even be a thought experiment soon. This will come up, and it’ll become an issue.
Let’s take a game like Red Dead Redemption. You would agree that the company that makes Red Dead Redemption can copyright the material that’s in Red Dead Redemption. Someone wrote all the stuff that’s in there. There’s an ability to protect that material, correct?
Craig: Yes. Rockstar commissioned a lot of people on a work-for-hire basis. Rockstar owns the copyright to Red Dead Redemption. Correct.
John: Imagine a future version of Red Dead Redemption where the dialogue and situations that occur within Red Dead Redemption are not the product of people writing things, but instead of AI generating, in real time, within the game itself, those scenarios, the dialogue, what’s happening, creating characterizations. Would that material be copyrightable by Rockstar Games?
Craig: It would, because Rockstar is creating a derivative work of their own copyrighted material.
John: Okay. Defensible, but also challenging to protect in certain ways. If it wasn’t IP that was clearly already owned, then you can imagine scenarios in which there is, inside a computer game, new material being created, and a real question, a live question, of whether that material created by AI is protectable.
Craig: They would have to be able to show that their AI… Let’s just call it a black box. You put stuff into the black box. Stuff comes out of the black box. They would have to show that they only exclusively fed the black box stuff that they had 100% intellectual property control over. At that point, I don’t see how you can argue that the black box somehow undoes that.
Now, if they say, we’re gonna put in all of our stuff, plus we’re also gonna feed the black box 30 Westerns, now you got a problem. Then I think they can’t. That’s where it gets interesting. I think it’s actually, weirdly, not that complicated, as long as you understand how copyright works and what you can and can’t do and what it means to own something. Either you do or you don’t. If you don’t, you can’t half-own it. You own it or you don’t.
John: Other news this last week, Disney is releasing on Blu-ray Disc… Blu-ray Discs still exist, apparently.
Craig: Yes, they do.
John: Mandalorian, Loki, WandaVision, and some other titles. Just notable because you don’t hear about Blu-ray or DVD releases that often. There’s always that concern of shows will disappear off their services, and then no one will ever be able to find it. This is a counterexample, where these things are so popular that Disney recognizes, people will pay us money for these things that have special features on them, and they believe they can make a buck on it. What’s your reaction to some stuff coming out on disc?
Craig: Just last week I received my 4K and Blu-ray copies of The Last of Us on DVD.
John: Fantastic. Talk to us about that and also what is the sales pitch for a consumer. Why would a person want that, versus watching it on HBO Max?
Craig: Quality. It just simply comes down to playback quality. It doesn’t matter how fast your internet connection is. Let’s say it’s maximum speed. It still doesn’t matter, because in order to put the signal out in an efficient way across the world, every streaming service has to compress the image, and the sound to some extent, much less. Really, the image has to be compressed in such a way that it’s deliverable.
When you are getting 4K in particular, but also Blu-rays, it’s just higher resolution than what you’re getting over a streaming service. 4K would be the maximum resolution. In fact, technically, we didn’t even shoot the season in 4K. We were going to shoot the next season in true 4K. Then we went through an HDR process, and it gets up-ressed, and magically, I don’t know, something happens.
John: Probably AI.
Craig: It’s probably AI.
John: It genuinely is probably AI. It’s pattern matching to figure out what the missing pixels would be.
Craig: I have no idea. It’s probably more algorithmic than AI. The bottom line is, there’s no reason to buy any of these things unless you really want to see it at its best, which of course, as a cinephile, I do, for certain things.
Also, as our screens get bigger at home, the flaws of streaming will become more and more evident. You would think that as time goes on, speeds would get faster and faster, and therefore the ability to send something through at full resolution would be closer and closer. But the problem is because everything is now going through the same pipe. They have to feed that pipe across the world to billions of people. It’s gonna be a while, I think, before we have that kind of infrastructure. Owning these things on DVD at full resolution is as close as you can get to permanency, as long as they keep manufacturing the equipment to play them back.
John: That’s gonna be the question. We do have a Blu-ray player, but we got it specifically because Stuart Friedel, formerly Scriptnotes podcast producer, has purchased, for my daughter, a Blu-ray copy of Freaks and Geeks, because she’d never seen Freaks and Geeks. He got her a Blu-ray copy, and we realized we don’t have a Blu-ray player. We got a Blu-ray player so she could watch Freaks and Geeks. I think she watched an episode.
Craig: Stuart got you a gift that ended up costing you a lot of money.
John: It did. It did. It cost us a lot. This news that these titles are coming out on disc, I’m excited for those creators and showrunners and everyone who worked on them, because they know there’s some permanent copy of this, which years from now you can look back at, which is fantastic. Reflecting on my own experience, it’s been two or three years since I’ve played anything off of a disc. It’s just the reality. I don’t know what your experience has been.
Craig: Similar. I think that where home video on DVD, VHS, used to be this enormous market, at this point, it’s more akin to the way laser discs used to be, something that people who really care about image quality purchase. It’s more of a niche marketplace. It is a little bit of a prestigious kind of, “Look, you can even own it for yourself at full la da da da.” That’s terrific, but as you note, this is not something that they do for everything.
Luckily, I’ve had it for Chernobyl and for The Last of Us, because when I was writing movies, there’s DVDs for all of those things, because there was DVDs for everything then. So far, I haven’t written anything that could theoretically be disappeared off the planet, or as the kids would say, yeeted, or you know what? I don’t even think they say that anymore. I bet yeeted is 10 years old now.
John: Yeah, it’s moved on. It’s a historical term.
Craig: Yeeted got yeeted.
John: If you’re listening to this podcast 10 years from now, and we say yeeted, and you don’t know what we’re talking about, or you do know it, and Craig was wrong, and it did come back, please write-
Craig: It’s going to come back.
John: … to future producer, Adam Middlemarch, and tell Adam what happened.
Craig: Now we have to comb the hospital records for an Adam Middlemarch being born.
John: Good stuff.
Craig: Find him and just be like, “You have been chosen. It is your fate.”
John: “You have been chosen.”
Craig: “You will fulfill your destiny.”
John: We have some follow-up. Drew, talk us through. This first one, I’ll tell, his name is Adam Lisagor, because it’s hard to guess how you would pronounce that name. He’s a very smart writer, actor, producer, director person and a friend of mine. He wrote back about our conversation on large language models in 607.
Drew Marquardt: Adam Lisagor writes, “To Craig’s question of why we don’t like hearing our names over and over again, prefer using pronoun variables for comfort, my best guess is it’s a mix of two things. First, it’s a conservation of energy. Naming something with specificity requires effort, and naming something with generality requires less effort. We’d prefer to just not have to think so hard.
“Second, conservation of cortisol and our limbic system’s threat detection, because usually, hearing your name is a signal that something needs your attention immediately, can induce panic, like a new email alert tone. When there’s context, your name can be a really nice sound. When there’s less context, it causes stress. That’s my best guess.
“But I’ve been thinking a lot about why we would choose to use so many permutations of words to convey an idea instead of always trying to stick to the same words as the path of least resistance and best communication. I guess the best answer is that’s what makes us human. We derive so much joy from infinitely combining and recombining the elements to new and surprising outcomes, even at the expense of efficiency, even when it causes miscommunication. I guess that’s why writers write. When you find exactly the right new permutation of words, the link you can create with the receiver is that much more powerful. I’m not high right now.”
John: Two basic points here. The first is his pronouns argument, is that we use pronouns not just for simplicity, but also because it’s just more comfortable, because you’re not calling the person out every time by name. You don’t ring the bell as hard when you use the pronoun. Is that striking you as all accurate?
Craig: Yeah. I don’t buy the conservation of energy theory. When we talk about where we live, we don’t say, “I live in town,” although I suppose I say, “I live in the city.” There’s things that we refer to specifically all the time.
I do think that there’s something to the notion that your name is an attention grabber. Attention, what we know, if you keep ringing a bell over and over and over, it just starts to disappear. Our brains can’t handle repetitive alerts like that. Yes, that makes sense. It takes a little bit of the edge off of that. I agree. I don’t think he’s high right now. He might be high right now.
John: As he wrote this email, he probably wasn’t high. His second point is about basically, our language could be simpler. We could choose to speak in simpler words. We’ve definitely seen examples of cases where you’re limited now to 115 words you have to communicate. You can get it done.
There’s a game we played in the office a few weeks ago called Poetry for Neanderthals, where you can only use single-syllable words. It’s difficult, but it’s very doable to get your point across. The ability to mix things up and really surprise yourself and everyone else around you by how you’re stringing words together is what makes language delightful.
Craig: Agreed. I like your observation there, not-high-at-the-time Adam Lisagor.
John: We have some more follow-up on Esperanto.
Craig: Oh, god.
John: I love Esperanto.
Craig: We can’t kill this topic any more than we can kill the fake language Esperanto. It just keeps coming back.
Drew: You’re going to get a couple knocks on this one, Craig.
Craig: Of course I will.
Drew: Mark F writes, “One point that pricked up my ears was Craig’s reference to Esperanto being an aspiration of recent vintage. I just happened to be reading about Esperanto in the wonderful book, Humanly Possible, a historical overview of humanism by Sarah Bakewell. She includes a chapter on Ludwik Zamenhof, who originated Esperanto in the 1870s, with the ambition of making a universal language that would break down barriers and help promote a more humanistic civilization across cultures.
“An incredible part of the story is that Zamenhof developed the language as a teenager, but before he was able to work on introducing it to society, his father locked away all his language notebooks, to force the young man to focus his energies on studying to become a doctor. He was sent to Russia to study medicine, but when he returned, he discovered his father had actually burned the notebooks, at which point he started over and rebuilt the language from memory. Amazing.”
Craig: I’m really on board with his dad. I think Ludwik Zamenhof’s dad was spot-on.
John: Craig, this is the first time I knew that Zamenhof had worked on this as a teenager. That teenager idealism does still ring through in the language, in Esperanto. I’ve of course picked it up a couple times. It’s on my Duolingo little things I can study. It is clever in many ways. It’s so ambitiously unambitious in a way. It’s almost an example of how few words do you need, because it has a limited vocabulary by default, but it’s logical in ways that are all really appealing. No one is ever going to speak it in a meaningful way, because it’s just-
John: There’s not gonna be any native speakers of it, and so therefore, it’s never going to catch on. I still find it delightful.
Craig: Regardless of when Esperanto was originally conceived and then burnt and then reconceived, culturally it did seem like it had a moment in the ’50s and ’60s and then rapidly went away. I’m sure there were lots of moments along the way, between 1870 and when it finally… Although again, it will never end. Esperanto is the Ayn Rand of languages. It’s just one of these things where it’s like, guys, it doesn’t work. Let it go. They won’t go.
John: Like communism. There’s never been a true communist country.
Craig: Exactly, nor will there be. There’s a reason for that. Now all the Marxists are gonna write in. Guys, it’s not gonna happen. Let it go.
John: But maybe like Marxism, you can say, what is it that’s fascinating about this idea, and how can you apply it to actual, real places where real people are living? Here’s my generous take on it. Looking at Esperanto and while it did work, it probably got a lot of people curious about how languages actually really do work.
That probably could’ve started a whole generation of folks who were more curious to learn about the actual languages that people out there in the world are speaking, and the quest for what is the universal grammar that’s underneath all these languages, like what is it about our brains that is causing us to create the same patterns again and again and again, and why languages broadly work in very similar ways, when we can imagine that they could work, that they just don’t work.
Craig: That is remarkably generous.
John: Thank you.
Craig: I don’t think Esperanto did a goddamn thing.
John: People with the little green stars, Esperanto speakers.
Craig: Esperanto speakers, yes, they can all talk to each other at the world’s most boring conference.
John: We will have universal translators very soon. Arguably, we have them right now in that-
Craig: Yeah, it’s called English.
John: Also, what’s on our phones right now, those translate features are really good.
Craig: They’re really good. They are really good.
John: It’ll become less important. Our last bit of follow-up here is about lingua franca, and it really pertains to this.
Drew: Chris writes, “As a fellow language nerd, I enjoyed Episode 607, but I have to correct Craig’s assertion that the term lingua franca derives from the fact that French was once the common language for international communication. In fact, lingua franca was spoken throughout the Mediterranean, where Europeans came into contact with people from the Middle East and Africa, for whom Franks was a general term for Europeans. Lingua franca was the language of the Franks.
“Scholars argue quite a bit about whether lingua franca really qualified as its own language or was more of a pidgin dialect, but in any case, the languages to which it was the closest were Italian dialects, not French. Some version of lingua franca was still spoken in North Africa into the 19th century, but a Frenchman would not have understood it.”
Craig: That is fascinating. I did not know that. Lingua franca is a combination of Italian and French and other stuff, but yeah, I guess more akin to Italian than… It’s its own language. It was the Esperanto of its time, except that it emerged, I presume naturally, as, Chris says, a pidgin dialect as opposed to-
John: Yeah, which is when you have people who can’t speak the same language have to figure out how to get along, you get a pidgin. Then if their kids speak that as a creole, which is a more formalized version, a new language is formed.
I want to defend you here, Craig, because you were talking about lingua franca in the way that we typically use it, rather than the historical terms, because we now talk about lingua franca as being the actual default or the bridge language in a place. English is a lingua franca for a lot of places, where it’s just like, the British language is the common language that people speak. If we throw in that Wikipedia link there.
Craig: Again, you’re being very kind. I think I just screwed up, because I’m pretty sure that, it sounds like, I can’t remember exactly, but I probably said something like, “Lingua franca, which comes from French, because that was the language of diplomacy,” which it was. I’m sure I referenced the Olympics and the fact that they constantly would repeat everything in French in the Olympics for some reason. It made sense in my brain, but I was wrong.
This is the kind of thing that… I have to say, some people don’t like people like Chris at parties. “Well, actually… ” But I do. By the way, I also appreciate that Chris did not use the word “actually,” even though I’m sure Chris really wanted to. Thank you, Chris.
John: He said “in fact,” which is the gentleman’s “actually.”
Craig: Could be a she
John: Absolutely. 100% true. I don’t know why I jumped to that conclusion.
Craig: Because you are a-
John: I’m a monster.
Craig: You’re a monster. You’re a cancelable monster. Thank you, Chris. I appreciate the correction. You are completely correct. I was entirely wrong. Now I know something that I can bother other people about.
John: I love it. Hey, Craig, let’s talk about the premise. Our marquee topic here in the weekly Inneresting newsletter, which is sort of the print version of Scriptnotes, Chris Csont had picked an old blog post I did back in 2016, where I was responding to something that Michael Tabb had written for Script Magazine.
In that, Tabb was talking about how a premise is the core belief system of a script and the lifeblood of a story. I was arguing, “What you’re talking about seems great. I really wouldn’t call that the premise. Greek scholars might call that the premise, but I would really say that is the thesis, that is the dramatic question.”
I wanted to talk with you, Craig, about what we mean by the premise, what we mean by a thesis, and really what we mean when someone says, “What is your movie about? What is your story about?” Because that about is really two very different things. It can be about what is the TV Guide’s synopsis, it can be talking about that log line, or it could be like, what is it emotionally about for the characters within, what is it about for the writer, what is the purpose behind the work. Sometimes when we have challenges talking with people about their work, I think sometimes we’re really not understanding what we mean by “about” when we ask, “What is this about?”
Craig: This is a great question. I tend to answer as follows when people say, “What’s your show about? What’s your movie about?” I’ll say, “What it’s about is blah blah blah, but what it’s really about is blah blah blah.”
What it’s really about, that’s the theme, that’s the central dramatic question, whatever vocabulary you want for that. What is it about to me is the plot premise, what’s happening, literally what’s the basic, simple thing of what’s happening in your show. What it’s about, it’s about the nuclear disaster that happened. It’s about a guy that has to take a girl who might have the cure for worldwide plague from point A to point B. It is the hardware premise, because that is the very first thing that will hit people’s eyes and ears when you put a trailer out, for instance, or a teaser.
John: That sort of log line description, for The Martian, is an astronaut stranded on Mars has to find a way home. That is a good example of, it’s explaining what the problem is and what the quest of the movie is. It feels like, oh, how would you do that? That’s intriguing. It feels like there’s a question mark to that.
Sometimes we’re talking about the story area. What is your movie about? It’s about Hawaiian indigenous rights. Great. Or it’s about fatherhood, which is a broad, general theme, but fatherhood is not a central dramatic question. It’s not a thing you’re necessarily grappling with.
Craig: I try and avoid topics as a premise, because a topic just is a topic. Okay, it’s about indigenous rights in Polynesia. Okay, that’s a topic. That can be a term paper. It could be a nonfiction book. But what is the premise of the movie or show?
John: If it’s about a tribal leader leading a revolution against some other people for indigenous rights in this one Polynesian island, that is specific.
Craig: A premise has occurred. We need to know what some big, huge thing is happening. Typically, it’s the big, huge thing that happens very early on that is the thing. Most people, by the way, out there in the world, the vast majority of the audience, will never get past that “what’s it about” when they’re telling other people what it’s about.
When we’re talking about this with potential people, to buy it, act in it, direct it, write it, whatever it is that we’re trying to get somebody to do when we’re communicating this within our industry, it’s very important to know the both what it’s about, because if it’s super high-concept, people may get very excited, like, “Whoa, these three guys get together to fight an outbreak of ghosts in Manhattan? Very high concept. I can see how that movie… It’s a comedy. Okay, got it.”
Then what’s it about-about? Then maybe in a circumstance like this, there’s very, very little. It’s about somebody going from being cynical to a believer. That’s cool. But there are other situations where, what’s it about, it’s about one baseball game of no importance, that happened in 1976, between two teams that weren’t even in contention, for a pennant. But what it’s really about is da da da da. Then you’re like, “Oh, this is fascinating.” We need to know both. It’s very important.
John: Not only do you need to be able to communicate both, you need to really deeply understand both. I was on a phone call yesterday with a young writer, talking about her project. Her two abouts didn’t really match up, because she could tell me both abouts. I just didn’t think they were fundamentally compatible. That’s really the heart of our conversation.
She was doing a period musical about a young woman trying to get over a breakup and move on. Okay, I see that as a plot premise, I guess, and her inner emotion. But what it’s really about is this writer’s own feelings of exile after being forced to leave the country.
I said, “Okay, I get those two things separately. I don’t see how you’re drawing the connections there. Okay, that feeling of exile and loneliness, sure, but I don’t see how those two things are going to tie together with everything else you’re describing here. I think maybe you’re going to have to honestly change one of your abouts, to get something that’s actually going to be writeable. I think the reason why you’re struggling is you’re trying to write two different incompatible movies. I think that’s why you’re finding it so difficult to have scenes that actually resonate and have a story that feels that it gets you to a meaningful conclusion.”
Craig: Yeah, it’s so important. There’s only one reason for the plot premise to exist, and that is to ultimately convey, in some form or shape, the “what it’s really about” premise. But there’s only one reason for the “what it’s really about” premise to exist, and that is to live inside of the “what happens” premise. They are connected, inherently.
Typically, we will think of a plot premise first. But the very next job should be, “Okay, but what would that serve? What could I learn or note or be fascinated by, even if it’s incredibly simple? What sort of thing would make this interesting once I have absorbed the reality of what it is?”
The opposite is also true. If we’re like, “You know what? I really… ” A lot of people start things with their own experiences. “I had an experience where I’ve lost somebody, and I experienced grief, and I want to write a story about grief.” Okay. “But also, one of my favorite things to do when I was a kid was skeet shooting. I want to write about grief, set against the world of skeet shooting.”
Your common love of things is not enough. They are not purposefully reflecting each other. They are simply living side by side. One has to purposely reflect the other. They must serve each other. It must make sense. Otherwise, like you said, you’re just going to have one thing floating on top of another, and nobody wants that.
John: If you have that inner premise and no external premise, the inner premise could be a great poem. You can just have free-floating feelings and analysis of questions. It could be an essay. But it’s not going to have characters and a story that can actually get you to a place, because that’s the social contract you’re making with an audience is that, if you’ve given your attention, I will tell a story that will be meaningful, and it will take you on a journey.
There’s not gonna be a journey if it’s just, “This is what I think about a thing.” If you just have a central dramatic question or this feeling you want to explore, that’s not gonna be a movie. That’s not gonna be a story. That’s just a thing. Maybe it’s a song. But that’s all you got.
Craig: Yeah, precisely. We sometimes get a little reductive about this stuff. That’s why I don’t like the whole pitch contest thing, even though I’ve judged them. It boils things down to only thinking about these premises like polishing these premises to sharp edges and points when they don’t need to be. They don’t even need to be interesting. The premise can be utterly boring if the “what it’s really about” is fascinating, and vice versa.
God knows how many times I’ve said it. We talked about it at length in the How to Write a Movie episode of our podcast. The “what it’s really about” of Finding Nemo is so banal and so dumb fortune cookie, it’s almost giggleable. But it’s what’s perfect about it, is that you sometimes want to take something that’s so simple and obvious and then explain it through the most remarkable premise, plot premise, so that you finally get it.
It’s weird. Sometimes the simplest things just fly right over our heads, because they’re so cliché, they don’t even sink into our skin. We need to be reminded through fascinating plots and vice versa. Sometimes the simplest plot is what you need to absorb something that’s very complicated.
John: Absolutely. I can think of many films I love, including many great indie films, where you look at the description, you’re like, “That’s not enough for a movie.” You Can Count On Me, it’s a woman’s sort of shiftless brother moves home. It’s like, is that it? There’s not a lot of plot, story to it. It’s terrific, because it’s actually exploring the rarely asked questions about how adult siblings get along and what the nature of that relationship can and should be. Both are good things. I’m saying, don’t freak out if they’re not equal weight for you. But they have to serve each other, no matter what.
There’s a project I’m hoping, whenever the Strike is resolved, to take out. I am genuinely very, very excited about the movie poster premise of it all and what you’re gonna see in the trailer, but even more excited about the “what it’s actually really about” of it all. Those two things I think are gonna marry really well together. I’d say I’m excited by the flashy, what’s in the trailer of it all, but I’m really excited to write the deeply what it’s about, if I get a chance to do so.
John: We’ll hope.
Craig: That’s true. We have to hope. I don’t want to just go presume that it’s gonna be fantastic. I agree with you. First of all, we have to… You said, “Whenever the Strike ends.” If the Strike. Let’s just say if.
John: Oh, come now.
Craig: Come on.
John: Craig, no.
Craig: Craig, no. Craig. Craig.
Craig: Craig. No, I believe it’ll end.
John: It’ll end.
Craig: Everything ends, John.
John: Everything ends.
Craig: Everything ends.
John: The heat death of the universe.
Craig: That’s right, John. One day the Sun will devour us.
John: Memento mori. Remember that you will die.
Craig: Craig, no!
John: Memento mori!
Craig: Craig, no! We should do some listener questions. We’ve probably built up quite a few.
John: We have. Drew, start us off.
Drew: Our first one comes from Johan on Twitter. He writes, “Hey, John and Craig. Is the whole starting a script with FADE IN actually just a myth? I think I see it in like 5% of the American scripts I’ve read through the years. Seems like a huge waste of space. Cheers.”
Craig: “A huge waste of space.”
John: Craig, do you write FADE IN?
Craig: No, but does it really seem like “a huge waste of space?” It’s one line. Who cares?
John: It is one line, but also, it’s the first line. If your first line is a useless line, I’d say get rid of it.
Craig: Look, I don’t use it. I think it is superfluous. Also, not every film fades in.
John: No, it doesn’t.
Craig: Often, you just start with a boop, where you just pop in. You don’t need to start a script with anything there than INTERIOR, EXTERIOR, blah-dah-dee blah, or even not.
John: Or not that.
Craig: You could start with just we hear a bunch of sounds or whatever.
John: Or just an image, because it’s not even clear where you are.
Craig: Exactly. That said, it is not “a huge waste of space.” It is precisely line. You can absorb it.
John: Absolutely. Now we’re gonna get all the people who are so angry at us. It’s like the CUT TOs and the we hears and the we sees.
Craig: I like that. Do it.
John: Do it. Write in.
Craig: Let them fight.
John: Waste our time. Waste Drew’s time, because he won’t put it in the outline for us.
Craig: It seems like a huge waste of time. What’s next?
Drew: Patrick writes, “Apart from supplying the budget, what services do the studios actually provide during the production of a movie? If you got the money elsewhere, as per your billionaire episode, would you still need to work with the studios? Equipment, studio space, crews, cast, post facilities, marketing companies, etc, are all available elsewhere, right? Are studios just glorified banks? Is it all about the distribution?”
Craig: Cutting right to it.
John: He’s challenging the fundamental premise of the studios.
Craig: I think he’s confirming the fundamental premise of the studios.
John: Craig, you can talk us through. Also, Drew just graduated from the Stark Program, so he’ll have a perspective on what studios do. Craig, start us off.
Craig: I think Patrick’s put his finger on exactly why we do use them. Studios are, in fact, a combination of a distribution facility, a bank, and an advertising agency. That is what they are. The rest is what we do. But what they do is they pay for it, they advertise it, and then they put it out. That’s it. That’s what they do.
John: It’s easy to confuse the fact that they have physical lots where you can shoot films, and they obviously have some equipment there, and they have facilities there for doing post. But of course, Craig and I will both tell you that so often, a show that is for CBS will actually shoot on, like, Universal stages, because that’s what was available. It’s not like they’re always shooting their own things on their own lots. They do that wherever they could do it.
There are, of course, lots of movies that were made completely outside of the system. There are independent films and other things that are sold after they are produced, to a company that distributes them. But it’s that distribution function and marketing function that’s really, I think, the heart of why there still is a modern American studio system.
Craig: Yeah. There are stages everywhere.
Craig: There are post facilities everywhere. Sometimes when things are independently financed, you take away the bank aspect of the studio, but you’re still maintaining the marketing, the advertising aspect, and the distribution aspect, which is why independent films are constantly looking to get distribution from studios. That’s sort of how it goes.
John: We talked about Legendary Pictures. Legendary, it’s kind of a studio. They definitely have money. They do their own development of stuff. They can put stuff in production. They have money to put stuff in production, but they’re not a distribution company. I’m sure they have a lot of sway in the marketing, but they don’t have unilateral control over the marketing of things.
Craig: That’s right.
John: They partner up with other companies for distribution. Drew, any insights that you have from having just completed the Stark Program and knowing… You’ve had a studio management course recently.
Drew: You guys have nailed it. I think marketing and distribution is obviously so key. I think it seems so easy for indie producers or indie filmmakers or people outside the studio system, that we would be able to jump in, and the idea of, oh, you can get some money together and make a movie. But without that distribution… Marketing costs, I think it’s a million dollars per 100 screens, just to try and get you to the place where you’re gonna break even on that money.
Then I think for people, for writers and for artists, it becomes an institutional check too. You can try and make a career outside of it, but I’m not sure. I think you need to have that to have a certain longevity.
John: Maybe so. One point I want to make about distribution is you need an ongoing distribution program. Basically, you can’t just spin up in a distribution company once, to distribute one movie, and then wind it all back down.
John: You need to have ongoing people who do that, not just so you have the expertise to do it, but also, to collect the money that you made in those theaters, you have to have another movie coming out, so you can say, “Hey, deadbeat exhibitor, before we give you this next movie, you gotta pay us what you owe us.” That historically has been an incredibly important part of why studios who have spun up and done one or two or three years of movies have failed, because they couldn’t get the money back in, because they didn’t have the ongoing pipeline of product.
Craig: Money goes out instantly, comes back slowly. You also need a library to keep you afloat. You need to have the ability to absorb that slow return. Also, when it comes to distribution, there is a leverage when you’re dealing with…
Let’s just deal with theaters, which are having a nice little bounce-back. Hooray. There’s a limited amount of theaters. Do you want Batman? Yeah, you do want Batman if you’re a theater owner. I need you to also take this thing. You get to where, as if you just have this thing, and they’re like, “We don’t want to show that.” I don’t have a Batman to make you show it.
You’re absolutely right. There is a reason why the only new studios that are appearing are from companies that are already enormous. Really, Netflix was kind of the only one to emerge without having been a legacy studio or a preexisting massive entity, like Apple or Amazon. But even then, Netflix has absorbed an insane amount of venture capital. It is a massive endeavor to start one of these things from scratch. The war field is littered with the bodies of companies that tried and failed.
John: We’re phrasing everything in terms of movies, but the same thing happens in TV. If a studio has a TV show that they’ve made, that they want to then sell around the world, they need to have a team that sells that show around the world and collects the money from around the world.
If they have Designing Women, and they want to sell it to Portugal, and some Portuguese company wants to air it, they have to make that contract, enforce that contract, collect the money. That’s just a lot of overhead. You can’t expect one individual to do that. It just takes a lot of people and bodies to do it.
Craig: It takes a lot of people, which is why you can’t really create one of these things as a single-use entity, because the amount of people required, lawyers, financiers, to keep the pipeline functioning, it just is not warranted by a single-use entity.
The HBO is an interesting case, because they have certain, unlike Netflix or Amazon or Apple, which is just one worldwide, or Disney Plus, for instance. Everybody just logs on to the one thing. HBO still has linear. They have Max. They have Max LatAm. They have Max Nordic. There’s some local versions of it around the world.
Then for most places internationally, they’re making good old-fashioned distribution deals. For instance, in the United Kingdom, HBO material, through a deal that the studio made with Sky, is shown on Sky in the UK. In Canada, it’s shown on an outlet called Crave. Every single one of those deals has to be negotiated and forced, managed, renewed, evaluated. John, the amount of PowerPoints, we can’t imagine. We can’t imagine.
John: Obviously, Craig doesn’t have to worry about each of those individual deals. Craig might be asked to go to travel to some place to hype up the show as it’s being released in Canada, but he’s not responsible for negotiating the Canadian deal.
Craig: I don’t have to do any of that.
John: He doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to.
Craig: Thank god, because I would be like, “I’d love for Canadians to see it, but guys, how about just free? It’s free.”
John: It’s free. It’s free. I remember Rachel Bloom came to Paris while I was living in Paris, because Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had just started airing on its new network, and they wanted her to go there and promote it. She’s like, “I’ll go there and promote it.” We hung out. We drank some wine. It was nice.
I don’t want to get off this topic though without saying that just because it’s hard to build up an entire studio distribution marketing arm doesn’t mean that it’s hard for any given billionaire to make the production part of it. The production part of it’s actually the easier part. You make a thing, and you sell it to a distributor who does all the rest of that. We would love more people to do that, to do what Legendary does, to do what other companies have done to create that, because that’s awesome.
Craig: There is a lot of money in the world. There are only a few studios that are capable of marketing and distributing a film. Yes, lots of money. Now, traditionally, investing in movies and television has been a great way to lose a billion dollars.
John: Absolutely. It’s like opening a vineyard. It’s like, oh, it’s a great way to make a little money off of a lot of money.
Craig: You know how to make a million dollars in the wine business? Start with a billion dollars. It’s definitely a thing. But it has always been, I think for a certain segment of independent financiers, a labor of love. Patron of the arts is a thing. Nobody who supports the production of Broadway shows, for instance, nobody goes into that thinking, “I’m gonna make a gazillion dollars.”
John: “I’m gonna be rich.”
Craig: No. You are doing it because you love it. Now, you may still be a hard-charging guy who’s probably corrupt, because Broadway accounting makes Hollywood accounting look absolutely spotless. Nonetheless, the point is, you can make a whole lot more money just handing it to a hedge fund and just sitting back.
There is still a value to the Medici-style patron of the arts. Those people exist. Those entities exist. Every now and then, a very wealthy scion will go into that business. The Ellisons, for instance, both Ellison siblings have done so.
Craig: And have led to the creation of some fantastic stuff.
John: Absolutely. You look at the success of A24, and as horribly toxic as they were, The Weinstein Company at its peak recognized the ability to make and market a certain kind of movie and distribute a certain kind of movie that did really well for them and did well for the industry, at least in terms of the quality of material they were able to put out there and some of the artists they were able to introduce. I don’t want to say it’s impossible to do it, but it’s not possible to compete on the big studio level with just a billion dollars.
Craig: No, it is very difficult. It may be the case that the lesson of the Weinsteins is that it’s only possible to be successful in going to war against those big studios if you are an absolute shameless son of a bitch. But who knows?
John: Who knows?
Craig: Look. A24, there are companies that do quite well.
Craig: I don’t mean to take things away. A24 really is the new Miramax. They really are. They seem to be doing it quite well.
John: Fantastic. Let’s try one more quick question here.
Craig: CR asks, “I want to ask if having log lines or summaries of some of my original unsold scripts posted to a personal website with a prompt saying, ‘If you’d like to read this, please contact me at whatever email for the full script,’ is remotely a good idea. I’m friends with several amateur artists trying to break into their respective industries. One does a web comic posted to her personal website. She was telling me to start finding ways to give myself an internet footprint, so if someone wants to find me, there’s something to find. She recommended a website.
“The only problem is, what do I put on this website if I have nothing sold? I can’t just put up random pieces of writing like an artist might post sketches. I thought about putting final versions of original scripts I have up, but I’m not sure if I’m comfortable just having my unsold scripts there for the taking.”
John: My first instinct is, I don’t think it’s a bad idea. I just don’t think that’s actually gonna be successful for you. I’m curious what our listeners think, because we obviously have 10 years of aspiring screenwriters who have listened to this podcast. I’m curious whether any of them have done anything like this and found it to be successful in terms of getting people to read it.
My other instinct is, let people read your writing, but maybe just put up the first 10 pages so they can see, and if they want to read more, they can read more. Craig, what’s your instinct?
Craig: I don’t understand why you can’t put up random pieces of writing, like an artist might post sketches. Throw a couple of scenes on. Throw one scene on. Throw one scene on with a storyboard. Maybe your friend who does a web comic can… Throw her a couple of bucks and have her do a little… Why not? I don’t understand why. Nobody wants to read a whole script anyway. Everyone hates reading scripts.
Also, you say, “I’m not sure if I’m comfortable just having my unsold scripts there for the taking.” What are you afraid of? You have the copyright on them. They’re there. You’ve published them on the web. Register them with the United States Copyright Office for whatever it is, 100 bucks, and then put them there. Why worry? Dude, no one’s stealing your script, man.
John: No one’s stealing your script.
Craig: No one’s stealing it.
John: If it’s on the web, an AI will scrape it. They’ve already scraped it. But you know what? They’re gonna scrape everything anyway. We can’t stop it.
Craig: You should be so lucky, because then you can point back and say, “This was copyrighted.” Now the people that scraped it and folded it into whatever have to pay you a lot. No, I think there is no problem whatsoever. Think about this. Photographers do it all the time.
Craig: Photographers take a picture. It is their copyright. They put it on the internet. Anyone can take it, copy it, and stick it somewhere. People don’t stick it in anything that’s actually legit and moneymaking, because they’re gonna get sued, and it’s gonna cost them money. They’ll throw it all over a bunch of crap that isn’t gonna make money, but also, they’re not pretending that they took the picture. I just don’t think this is a problem.
I think, I have always said this, the paranoia that people are gonna steal your unsold script is not warranted. You should be far more concerned about the odds, the minuscule chance that somebody who can make a difference in your life is also gonna find it and also gonna read it and also gonna like it. That tiny, little lottery victory is worth the chance that some dingdong somewhere is gonna take your pages and put them into his unsold script. It’s not a problem.
John: It doesn’t happen.
Craig: It doesn’t happen. Even if it did, you would have recourse. I just wouldn’t worry about it.
John: Agreed. It’s time for our One Cool Things. My One Cool Thing is a holdover from our live show. We were gonna do One Cool Things. We ran long, and it was messy and chaotic.
Craig: Just say Natasha Lyonne. My belovedly messy and chaotic Natasha Lyonne.
John: My One Cool Thing is an article by Danielle Campoamor in Marie Claire. Headline is, We Need to See More Parents Having Abortions in Film and Television. The point is that if you look at, in film and TV, whenever you do see a character having an abortion, it is a young, unmarried white girl. That’s not actually the majority of abortions in America. It’s actually people who already have children are the ones who are getting the most abortions in the US. So rarely do we see that portrayed on screen. Literally, in 2020, of characters who had abortions on film, 73% were white, and one third were teenagers, and not a single one of them was a parent.
It’s just arguing for, we need to have representation of what reality is, because people see themselves in that and see the choices they need to make reflected in those characters. That gets people thinking about abortion in a different way, because I think our image of what it is is just that unmarried teen mom, and that’s just not the reality. It’s actually people who already have multiple kids and are deciding whether to have another child.
Craig: I completely sympathize with this. I think it’s important to get that message out. I’m not sure drama is necessarily the best way to do it. The problem is a little bit like showing… I bet you if we cataloged the portrayals of leukemia on film, you would also see a predominance of children and teenagers, maybe kids, or rather, young adults in their 20s. What you wouldn’t see are a lot of people in their 70s or 80s or something like that, because nobody cares, because it’s not dramatic.
The problem is the reality of abortion is it’s not dramatic. This is just the stark reality. It’s not dramatic. People who are in committed relationships, with three kids, and a woman gets pregnant, and they decide rationally, oh yeah, no, actually, this was not a pregnancy we wanted. She goes to a clinic. She goes to a gynecologist. There is an abortion. It’s done. Move on. I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying it’s fun. But it’s not dramatic.
That’s specifically the point I think that Danielle’s making is that what we tend to concentrate on is the overdramatic abortion scenario, a 13-year-old white girl, because white girls. Oh, god, white girl. That’s what we concentrate on. Therein lies the problem, is that we are dramatists.
We’ve talked about medical shows and legal shows. They’re soaking in this problem. They’re just not building medical shows around the mundane medical needs of people, nor are they building legal shows around the vast predominance of legal cases, which are boring and result in settlements between people in quiet rooms.
I understand. I think it’s a fair critique. I think the critique needs to be acknowledged. I think it is important. For instance, what I would argue is that at the end of an episode or a movie about or that contains such an abortion storyline, it would be important to actually put this information up on screen. That’s more, I think, actionable than just forcing non-dramatic situations into a product that is supposed to be entertaining and dramatic. It’s a tricky thing to do, but that’s where I would go with it myself. I’m sure no one will have any thoughts or comments about this.
But as somebody that actively and aggressively supports reproductive rights and access to reproductive rights in this country, I just want to make sure that we don’t end up getting stuck on too much of a hook as dramatists, to portray situations that are inherently not dramatic.
John: The article itself actually points out Crazy Ex-Girlfriend as an exception to the rule, because on that show, Rachel and Aline had a character who was a mom of two kids, who had an abortion. It wasn’t a big deal. I think it was such a smart choice to have the character who was facing this decision not be Rachel Bloom’s character, but her friend, who is a central character, but is not the unwed young mother. I think there are definitely ways to do it.
I guess, Craig, I would just challenge that it’s not necessarily that we need to wedge this into more things. I’ve not even seen a movie that it happens in, or it even be the central thing in a movie. I’ve never seen it come up as an issue in this stuff. It feels like it could. There’s gonna be interesting ways to do it, and unexpected ways. We have such a stereotype of who a character is who has an abortion. It’s great to always challenge those stereotypes.
Craig: I completely agree with that. Listen, I guess in a way, I’m almost being more aggressive about it, by saying that we should just put facts on screen, white letters on black, and just say, “What you’ve just seen is a dramatization, or is drama. Understand, however, this is the reality,” da da da da da da da da da, to aggressively deromanticize and dedramatize the truth of how abortions occur, not only in our country but around the world, and have always done.
But I agree with you. I’m not suggesting that it’s not possible to do. Of course it is. Nor is there a way to do it in a way where there is no burden of drama on it. Really, what I’m saying is I don’t want to unfairly judge works of art that do portray-
John: I get that.
Craig: … the most dramatic form of abortion, particularly because I suspect in most of those dramatizations, the characters do end up either having an abortion or relaying a positive perspective of that essential reproductive right. Could be wrong about that.
John: I think what we’re both saying is we don’t need fewer portrayals of abortion. We want more portrayals of abortion, and among those, maybe a broader range of experiences.
Craig: With an acknowledgement of the truth, because I think what Danielle’s writing about is incredibly important. People don’t understand how this actually functions. We are typically, in this country, always afraid of the wrong thing.
My One Cool Thing is just as much of a hot topic. It is not. We gotta take a break from some of the serious stuff and talk about things that are even more serious, like Dungeons and Dragons. Oh, boys.
John: It’s Dungeons and Dragons adjacent. You don’t actually have to play D and D to play this game.
Craig: You don’t. This is sort of exciting. Again, not for everybody, but for boys and girls who are dorks like us, and who do like role-playing games. There is a new board game out. This is not a typical role-playing game of the sort you might see on Critical Role or the kind that John and I play on a weekly basis, sometimes on a biweekly basis. This is a board game version of Dungeons and Dragons that is playable in one shot, I think they estimate over the course of two hours, which is not wildly nuts. It’s like a nice, long Monopoly game. It’s called Dungeons and Dragons: Trials of Tempus.
This is an officially licensed product, so it gets to use all of the characters, classes, spells, and so forths from Dungeons and Dragons. It was created by two friends of mine, along with a fellow I don’t know, Adam Carasso, and then my friends, Thor Knai and Kyle Newman. It’s excellent if you enjoy nerdery like we do.
What’s really interesting about it is you get to do something that we generally don’t get to do when we’re playing D and D, which is fight against each other. You get divided into two parties. The two parties are rivals in an heroic adventure. Normally, when I’m DMing, technically I suppose it’s like the DM versus the players, but I think that makes you a bad DM. I think it’s the DM with the players. The point is we’re all gonna get through this and have a great time and go through highs and lows and all the rest. This is more of a traditional “our team wins.”
It’s got all sorts of D and D-ish things about it. I know the overlap between D and D players and board game players is almost 100%, so I think you might like it. Check it out, Dungeons and Dragons: Trials of Tempus, freshly out, available online and all sorts of places, including Schmamazon.
John: I checked this out when I was at your house this last time. It is beautifully put together. It’s in a very heavy box. It’s full of figurines and cards and things and all the accoutrement that you love in a board game. I’m excited to play it with you.
Craig: (Speaks French.)
John: (Speaks French.) That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Drew Marquardt.
John: It’s edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Adam Pineless. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also a place where you can send questions. You’ll find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts and sign up for our weekly newsletter called Inneresting, which has lots of links to things about writing. Craig, we gotta talk merch.
Craig: Oh, god.
John: We have T-shirts, and they’re great. They’re at Cotton Bureau, including the new Scriptnotes University T-shirt and sweatshirt.
John: Craig, have you even seen this?
Craig: No, but I want a Scriptnotes University… Is there a hoodie?
John: Of course there’s a hoodie, but also just a normal sweatshirt, a collared sweatshirt.
Craig: I never wear those.
John: I’m gonna paste a link in the Workflowy here so you can see it.
Craig: What I need is a hoodie.
John: There’s hoodies.
Craig: I’m getting one.
John: Our hoodies are good.
Craig: You know Cotton Bureau, by the way, used to make the blank T-shirt in the Stuart tri-blend?
John: They don’t do it anymore?
Craig: They don’t do it anymore. They stopped.
John: Oh, wow.
Craig: It’s such a shame. I’m checking out… I love the look of it. Oh, but this doesn’t show me… Oh, it doesn’t have a hoodie. Oh yeah, it does.
John: It does have a hoodie, yes.
Craig: But it’s not a zip hoodie.
John: Oh, you want a zip hoodie.
Craig: Yeah, I want a zip-
John: We’ll figure it out.
John: We’ll figure it out.
John: The problem is the zipper would go through the logo itself. That’s the problem with a zip hoodie.
Craig: That’s absolutely true. Ugh.
John: It has a pullover crew neck. The pullover crew neck is what you would think about for a sweatshirt.
Craig: What about doing a zip one where you take the Scriptnotes University and just make it a bit smaller and put it on one side? I don’t want to screw up our merchandise methods. I’m just saying. A tank top? Wow. Who’s walking around in the Scriptnotes University tank top? That’s cool. Aw, there’s a onesie. Aw.
John: There’s a onesie. See?
Craig: Aw, so cute.
John: Make them for everybody. This was inspired by a Scriptnotes listener who wrote in. She wants to remain anonymous. She said, “I really feel like I learned more from Scriptnotes University than I did from actual film school. I really want a Scriptnotes University T-shirt, sweatshirt.” We’re now making this for her and for everybody else. If you zoom in, you’ll see that the little logo at the center has a typewriter. It’s surrounded by brads. It says “scriptum notas” and “ira and ratio,” which is umbrage and reason.
Craig: I love it. I love it.
John: Established 2011.
Craig: Established 2011, Scriptnotes University is objectively superior to every film school in the world and costs far less. I’m just saying it. I don’t care. I’m saying it now constantly. It’s just a fact. I know you guys went to Stark and everything. I’m just saying it. It’s a fact. We’re just better.
John: Speaking of college, any listeners who are college students, reminder that you can get Highland 2 for free for the student license. You just write in. There’s a link in the show notes. Also, just go to highland2.app. If you have a student ID, if you have a student dot-edu address, you get it for free. Why would you not want to do that?
We also have the new XL version of Writer Emergency Pack in the store at writeremergency.com. 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 Craig and I are about to record about going back to school.
Craig: Back to school.
John: Craig and Drew, thank you so much.
Craig: Thanks, guys.
John: Oh, Craig. Megana was back from her trip, and she texted you and me, saying, “Oh, I was at Target, and I saw that it’s now spooky season, because they have Halloween stuff out.”
Craig: Freaking August.
John: Megana, it’s not spooky season yet-
Craig: it’s not.
John: … because it’s still back to school season. Back-to-school season is the best time of year. I loved back-to-school season. I didn’t like necessarily going back to school, but I loved school supplies. I loved stocking up for the new year.
Craig: Always fun, yes. Fresh, new stuff. Crisp, new stuff. I was the sort of kid that would just ruin his notebook or binder over the course of the first two months. To have a fresh, new binder, a new notebook, with that weird marble cover that makes no sense, all of that stuff was wonderful, and getting my new pencils, and pens, which we weren’t really allowed to use, until we were in, what, 7th grade or something?
John: For a while, we were allowed to use the erasable pens, which-
Craig: Those stank.
John: I’m sure they still exist, but no one uses erasable pens anymore.
Craig: What was it called, Paper Mate?
John: Paper Mate.
Craig: Paper Mate. Those stank. Poor lefties were just erasing their little-
John: That smear.
Craig: It was just so sad. Those stank. Protractor.
John: Oh yeah, compass.
Craig: Compass, all that great stuff. That weird eraser, that big, chunky, pink, trapezoidal, or parallelogrammatic.
John: I want to know, how did that form come to be, because where it’s slanted, it’s-
Craig: It’s a parallelogram.
John: It’s a parallelogram. That’s what it is.
Craig: It’s a parallelogram.
John: On the side. It’s a parallelogram extended as a solid.
Craig: What was it? Was it a Pearl? Was that what it’s called, Pearl Eraser?
John: Yeah, Pearl Eraser. Yeah, Pearl Eraser. A very distinct smell.
Craig: So distinct.
John: You’re not rubbing through the paper, but you can smell that burning rubber to it.
Craig: You know what? It’s by the Paper Mate company, and it’s called the Pink Pearl Eraser. It is one of those products still available, of course, that seemingly will never change. The script on it that says Pink Pearl and all that, it just will never change.
John: Why would you change it? It’s already perfect.
Craig: It’s kind of perfect. It does have that weird smell. Occasionally, it would crack.
John: Yeah, because it would dry out over the course of the year too. It was much better when it’s fresh out of the package.
Craig: Everything is.
John: A few months in, it’s pretty bad.
Craig: Everything is better. Also, we did have new clothes, which in my case meant going to Sears and buying-
John: Sears or JC Penney’s.
Craig: Yeah. On Staten Island, you would go to Sears, and you would have to buy all of your winter clothes, because that’s when they were available, because for some reason, they would only have winter clothes in the summer and summer clothes in the winter, which made me crazy. We were all in the same lower middle class economic stratum. We would get to school, and everybody’s wearing the exact same coat, this weird polyester thing with fake fur and a bright orange inside. Did you have that one?
John: I didn’t have that one, but I know exactly what you’re talking about. I also had this maroon color coat that was my coat for a couple years.
Craig: There was that. There were your jeans, your new sneakers. Everything was fresh, fresh, fresh.
John: You did not have hand-me-downs, because you were the oldest.
Craig: I was the oldest, yes.
John: I got a lot of hand-me-downs.
Craig: My younger sibling was a girl, my sister. She wasn’t really getting my stuff. That’s probably why our stuff was so shitty, because you could only use it once. It was all really cheap. I had a lot of Wrangler shirts. You know those Western style button-downs?
John: Oh, yeah.
Craig: You’d get a haircut. Your hair’s all combed. You had to look super clean and neat on day one. This ended on day one. Day two, you could be an absolute rolling, lice-filled wreck. But day one, spotless.
John: Now, did you have school photos on day one, or was it in that first week? When were your school photos taken?
Craig: That’s a really interesting question. I can’t remember. Maybe it was in the first couple of weeks.
John: I think it was the first school week. I do remember, because there was another day where you had to actually look pretty good and bring a comb, or they’d give you one of the incredibly sharp, painful, disposable combs to run through your hair. Every year, I would have to get my photos retaken, because I just could not smile properly.
Craig: Was there some… Emotionally damaged or-
John: I would make the wrong choice in that last millisecond before the shutter went off.
Craig: Was it the kind of thing where you would smile and everybody would be terrified, like look evil?
John: No. I would just be looking away or something. I would get nervous by the eye contact.
Craig: I do remember, it was always like every year, you would just be in the same arrangement. I was generally taller, and so I would be in the back, next to my tall friend. Man, every now and then, somebody will send me something like, “Oh my god, look. Your former classmate, who’s on Facebook, put this thing up from 3rd grade.” They’ll copy and send me the photo, because I’m not on Facebook. I’m just like, “What am I wearing? What is this weird, horrible, nylon disco outfit that my parents have put me in?” It was just nightmarish.
John: I think it’s more fun to look at what the teachers were wearing, because the teachers were actually indicative of what adults were wearing at the time. Like, oh my god, how was that comfortable? That looks like polyester death.
Craig: Everyone was wearing some sort of plastic clothing.
John: Not a tri-blend. No. It was actually just all plastic.
Craig: A uni-blend of some sort of cancer fiber that we were all breathing in. You know what? It was also a lovely time, because I’m sure it was like this for you, for us in New York, the weather was getting cooler. Finally, summer was ending. Fall was sweeping in. Fall in New York is lovely. There’s also all the fun fall stuff. It’s not spooky season. I just want to be clear. It was just more like apple cider and whatever. I don’t know. Leaves.
John: I remember we would get the Ditto machined copy of like, this is what you need to bring for your school supplies. I just loved that, checking off the things. You had to bring a box of Kleenex, because somebody, mostly me, I would go through all the Kleenex is the classroom, because my nose was always runny.
Craig: You were the snot kid.
John: I was snot kid, because I had terrible allergies in a time before people understood what allergies were, apparently.
John: Now, I take medicines for them, but at that time I didn’t have them.
Craig: There was always a kid with snot. I guess it was you.
John: It was me.
Craig: Then we would also have to bring a shoebox, which all the girls or resourceful boys or non-resourceful boys’ mothers would cover in wallpaper or newspaper or something to make it look pretty. That was our school supply box. We would have our Elmer’s glue and our safety scissor and whatever else was on that Ditto sheet, which I’m sure, Drew, you are absolutely falling asleep here, but let me just wake you up for a second and explain.
We did not get emails listing what we required. No. A teacher hand-wrote a list of things on this toxic piece of disgusting purple paper, that was then stuck to a large roller, coated in even more disgusting purple fluid. Then they would roll it with their hands. As they would roll it, it would stick onto another piece of paper, send that piece of paper off, pull in another piece of paper, and thus, like a small Gutenberg printing press, made of purple death. Each one of those things stank, and yet we all loved the smell of it.
John: You did, because you’d get a fresh Ditto machine, you’d just stick it up to your-
John: Stick the paper up and inhale it, yeah.
Craig: Everyone was snorting whatever was in that. I don’t even want to know what was in it. We were absolutely huffing paint, in the classroom, by the way. The teacher would be like, “Go ahead, kids. Snort it up.” Then we would go to work. That’s what we would get. What a time. What a time to be alive.
John: My olfactory memories of that age are so distinct, because I also remember when you have heads down for Thumbs Up, Seven Up on a rainy day, I remember what the desk would smell like. It would smell like this weird cleaner, whatever they used to clean the desks. I have that memory firmly in my head.
Craig: Same. It’s funny, you went to school halfway across the country from me, and our desks smelled exactly the same.
John: Absolutely. It was not quite urine, but it’s almost that. It was an ammonia-ish kind of thing to it.
Craig: It was ammonia. It was this weird, rank ammonia smell. It’s a disgusting smell. The desktop was some horrible, again, plasticky, lacquery thing.
John: It looked like wood, but it was not wood.
Craig: It also had a little bit of a sour milk smell to it. It just was disgusting.
John: Craig, did you have a number line taped to the top of your desk?
Craig: Of course we did. Of course. We all had a number line when we were learning addition and subtraction. Also, lining up in size order. Drew, did you ever have to line up in size order?
Drew: Yeah. I was always at the front because I was tiny.
John: Aw, little Drew.
Craig: Aw, little Drew. Oh my god, he was in the front.
John: We were almost always in alphabetical order, especially if we were going to lunch, because we had to go through the lunch line. If you were buying lunch, they would check your name off on the little logbook.
Craig: I see. That actually makes sense. Lining up in size order seems unnecessarily cruel to everyone on either extreme of the line. Even if you weren’t on the extreme of the line, if you put two boys, if they happen to be next to each other in the size-order line, there would almost certainly be a shoving fight over who was taller. Just pointless. Why? What is this size order thing? Who came up with that? What does it even matter what the order is? What does it matter?
John: They want to make sure Drew gets his milk first.
Craig: Because he needed it. They’re like, “There’s only one thing that’s gonna make this kid grow: warm, under-refrigerated milk.”
John: In a cardboard container.
Craig: That has the picture of a lost child on it.
John: Indeed. Drew, what are we forgetting about back-to-school?
Drew: Oh, my god.
Craig: He’s like, “You guys are from a different time.”
Drew: No, the smell is real, but I can never delineate where the smell is cleaning product and what is just the smell of children.
John: That’s true.
Drew: Maybe that sounds strange, but-
Craig: It really does sound strange.
Drew: It does.
Craig: That’s really upsetting.
Drew: Should probably walk that back, but yeah.
Craig: I just like the idea of a small Drew just walking around, just sniffing.
Craig: Everyone’s like, “Oh my god, what is with that kid? Oh, leave him alone. He’s small.” They didn’t know what the Ditto fluid was. Ditto fluid.
Drew: I wonder when they retired the Ditto machines, because I definitely went to a school that did not have up-to-date equipment by any stretch of the imagination, and we didn’t have one, which makes me feel like they must’ve-
John: At your point, it was all photocopies, right?
Craig: Here’s a website that says mimeographs, that was the technical name, “The classroom chore that smelled so good.” I’m just looking to see if they actually identify what was in there. The duplicator fluid was methanol and isopropanol, so basically-
Craig: … alcohol, but non-drinkable alcohol, the kind of alcohol that makes you blind. That’s what we were snorting. Hooray.
Drew: In my generation, we had the markers that ended up, I think had to be the same stuff that kids would just stick straight in their nostril.
John: Craig, you and I didn’t really have markers as much, because even Sharpies were late in my career. We had some marker things, but it wasn’t a default thing. I didn’t go to school with Crayola markers at the start. Did you?
Craig: They were much later on. We typically went to school with a box of Crayola crayons. The classic was the 64… I have one. I bought one of them just off of eBay for two bucks. I loved it. It was a proper 1970s era 64 Crayola crayons with the crayon sharpener in the back, which didn’t-
John: Good stuff.
Craig: … sharpen shit.
John: No, but you didn’t really need to. Of course, the pink color was labeled Flesh, because that was the default white.
Craig: Yes, Flesh was that, yes, was a slightly whitey peach-ish. I don’t even think Flesh was my color of flesh. It was really for John and Melissa.
John: Basically, yeah. It’s a difference between my very tanned legs and my very pale ankles. It’s the pale ankle color.
Craig: It’s the pale ankle color, yeah. Flesh, it was like, oh, you’re very light. That is back when things weren’t quite the way they are. There was also Indian Red. That was a color, Indian Red. They’re not red, and they’re also not Indians, but okay, Crayola. That’s how we grew up. We had the Crayola thing and, oh yeah, man, the tape. Magic Tape was a huge deal.
John: Oh, Magic Tape, a huge innovation.
Craig: Yes. Before Magic Tape, Drew, regular Scotch Tape was shiny as hell.
John: Yeah, it was shiny and gross.
Craig: You’d put it on something, and it would just reflect like a mirror. Then somebody over there came up with this matte finish, called it Magic Tape. It was invisible. Everybody lost their crap.
John: Those 3M scientists, we don’t talk enough about the innovations they had. Magic Tape. Then they had the Post-It notes.
Craig: Oh my god, absolutely. They’re geniuses over there, absolute wizards.
John: Oh, question for both of you. Were you required to… You got your textbooks, or your math book or your science book.
Craig: Cover it?
John: Did you have to put a cover on them?
John: Was it like part of your task is, okay, now you have to put on this cover?
Craig: Book covers, yes.
John: Loved them.
Craig: Which I bet you made your own book covers.
John: Yeah, out of paper bags, for sure.
Craig: I knew you would. I knew it. Now, you’ve seen me attempt to do crafts, so you know that I could not. My mom would have to do it. Then eventually, I got my sister to start doing it. If it ripped in class, you would get in trouble. I don’t know why. I would ask one of the kids sitting next to me. I’m like, “Can you fix my da da?” Then they would, because everybody just understood I was helpless.
John: They would rip off a piece of their shiny tape and fix your book cover.
Craig: Yes, just so shiny. So shiny. Inside the textbook, sometimes it would be like “this book is the property of” and then there’d be one kid after another, and it’s stamped. What was that about? Who needs to know?
John: I loved that.
Craig: Yeah, like, “Oh my god.”
John: They had the history. “Did you know that some of these kids are dead by now, and they owned this book.”
John: They got sent off to war.
John: Some of these people who were reading this book had been sent off to Vietnam, and I’m reading this book.
Craig: I’m reading this book on vocabulary, and the last kid who had it died in Inchon. It’s all very grim. I gotta say, man, every generation has its ups and downs and things, but you know what? Generation X, we’re pretty great.
John: We’re pretty great.
Craig: Does anyone hate us? I don’t think anyone hates us.
John: No, because we’re a small generation too.
Craig: We’re small. We’re kind of like, “Whatever, man.” We were still there when computers came around. We reminisce, but not like, “And our way was better.” We’re usually reminiscing in a way of like, “God, that sucked.” We like everybody except the Boomers. Nobody likes the Boomers. Let’s face it.
John: We grew up mostly with a fear of nuclear war.
Craig: Yeah, we’re terrified. We’re all right.
John: We’re all right.
Craig: Last question for you, Drew, on back-to-school week. Are there people that don’t like Generation X, or is there a generation that you think is opposed-
Drew: To Gen X?
Craig: … naturally to Generation X?
Drew: I don’t think so. I think you guys are truly safe, because my generation looked up to you. I’m firmly Millennial. We looked up to you. You were creating all the content when we were growing up. I think Gen Z likes you much more than us, because we’re very cringey to Gen Z, because we’re very cringey in general.
Craig: Yeah, you guys are special. You know what? It’s not your fault. Your echo Boomers. You’re the children of Boomers. You are trying to outrun a legacy in your blood, and you’re doing all right.
Drew: We can’t escape it though.
Craig: It’s tough. It’s a tough one. That was amazing. I wish it were back-to-school week every week.
John: I love it. Drew and Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thanks, guys.
- AI-Created Art Isn’t Copyrightable, Judge Says in Ruling That Could Give Hollywood Studios Pause by Winston Cho for The Hollywood Reporter
- Thaler v. Perlmutter
- The Mandalorian, Loki, And WandaVision Are Getting Limited Edition 4K And Blu-Ray Releases by Ryan Scott for Slash Film
- Lingua franca
- Where Story Begins – Premise by Michael Tabb for Script Magazine
- The premise, or what’s the point? by John August
- We Need to See More Parents Having Abortions in Film and Television by Danielle Campoamor for Marie Claire
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