The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August. This is Episode 581 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the show, what’s this?
Why, it’s a clip show. Producer Megana Rao has been working on a forthcoming Scriptnotes book and has found three vintage Scriptnotes segments, in which Craig and I try to answer the question, what is good writing, and how does one do it. Megana, can you tell us what segments you have picked, and more importantly, why?
Megana Rao: Great. I picked three segments that talk about the components of good writing and what elements need to be there and what immediately turns you guys off as signals of things you don’t have confidence in the writer in. We start with Episode 239, which you guys recorded in March of 2016. You guys talk about what good writing feels like.
John: I suspect that we were talking about good writing involves an element of surprise, confidence. It’s not just the words you’re choosing to describe a story but how much we believe that you are telling a story that we want to keep turning the pages on.
Megana: It’s interesting because you guys talk about how these elements function on a sentence level but also structurally. You talk about how you want to surprise and delight your readers in scene description, but also with a plot twist at the end of act two or whatever. It’s cool to see how good writing, that sort of DNA exists in every aspect of a screenplay.
John: Cool. Great. That’ll be our first segment. What’s the second segment we’ll listen to?
Megana: The next one is Episode 76, called How Screenwriters Find Their Voice, with Aline. That one was recorded in February of 2013. You guys are a little bit younger but really consistent in some of the advice that you give. It’s interesting, because you guys talk to each other about your perceptions of each others’ voices. You talk about your impressions from the first times reading each other’s scripts too.
John: It’s interesting, because at that point, Craig was just a comedy writer really. He was only known for the bigger, broader comedies that he’d done. I’m sure it’ll be a good time machine for people to listen to. You say we’re younger, which I’m rather offended by, but it is weird to think we’ve been doing this so long that we were actually younger back in those days.
Megana: You’re a full decade younger, basically.
John: Yeah. Wow. How about for Segment 3? What’s our third segment?
Megana: The last segment is from Episode 432, Learning From Movies. That one, you and Craig talk about your techniques for watching movies. You introduce this concept of mindfulness around movies. What’s interesting is, as you’re talking about the framework for how you analyze a movie, you also teach people what are the key things to be thinking about when you write a movie.
John: Great. It’s important to remember that before we were writers, we were all readers, and we were watchers of movies. We have a sense of what is supposed to happen in a movie. We have a sense of what we’d love to see happen in a movie. As writers, we have to be aware that our audience is doing some of that work too. Just as we’re learning from the movies that we’re watching, we are hopefully writing movies that are aware of how they’re going to be taken in, that they’re not just going into a void, they’re meant to be projected into somebody’s brain. We can learn a lot from thinking about how we watch our movies.
Megana: I think for newer writers, it offers a useful way of pulling out the tools to see how the sausage is made.
John: Cool. We’ll have these three segments. Then we’ll be back at the end of the episode to do our One Cool Things. In our Bonus Segment for Premium Members, Megana and I will be talking once more about the Scriptnotes book and rumors of industry strife coming in 2023. Megana, thank you for picking these segments.
Megana: Thank you. Hope you guys enjoy this craft compendium.
239 – What Is Good Writing
John: So the idea for this topic came up because I read this piece in Slate and which is originally from Quora. It was by this guy, Marcus Geduld. And he was trying to answer the question, how do you differentiate good acting from bad acting? So I’ll put a link to the show notes for his original piece but I thought it was actually a really nicely designed explanation of sort of what he’s looking for in good acting.
And what I especially liked about it is he says, “If anyone tells you there are objective standards, they’re full of crap. This is a matter of personal taste. There are trends — there are many people who love Philip Seymour Hoffman’s acting but if you don’t, you’re not wrong.”
And so, as we get into the succession of acting and writing, I would back up what he says. It’s not there’s a one objective standard, but there’s things that I tend to notice when I’m saying like, well, that’s really good acting or really good writing and it may be useful to point them out.
Craig: This is a large philosophical discussion but I do agree with this gentleman as well. When it comes to writing, it’s not possible to say that this is capital G good and this is capital G bad. What you can say is that this is to my taste or it is not and here’s why. We do know that there are certain kinds of writing and the writing of certain writers that tends to be toward to most people’s taste, to a lot of people’s taste. There are some writers who appeal to the taste of those who consider themselves refined. There are some that appeal to the average man or woman.
But I’m with this guy completely. That’s why anytime I talk about a movie, I’m like, “It wasn’t for me.” That’s the best I could do.
John: Let’s take a look at his criteria for good acting. He says, “Good actors make me believe that the actor is going through whatever his character is actually going through.” So there’s a believability. You really believe that he has been shot, that he is terrified in this moment. And he singles out sort of like if you can tell they’re faking it, then it’s honestly kind of worse. Like you can sense that they’re acting. And that’s very true. I mean, the performances that I admire the most, I genuinely believe that they are experiencing — obviously you know there’s artifice, you know that they’re in a movie — and yet the moment feels incredibly real because they’re responding to things in a very real way.
Craig: And ultimately verisimilitude is kind of what we do, right?
Craig: We’re trying to create a fake world that at least seems real to you while you’re experiencing it or is real enough that you can suspend your disbelief. And this advice I think is perfect for actors or writers.
Craig: Actors, obviously it’s immediate. We see and hear them and so we know that they’re believable or not. But for us as writers, believability, that probably is my number one problem with most screenplays I read. I read something, I read a character’s line or I witness their choice and I think, “I just don’t believe that that’s what a person would do in that circumstance.”
John: Absolutely. You say like, “I don’t believe it. I don’t buy it. I don’t get it. It doesn’t connect for me.”
John: That’s because you don’t believe that character is performing that way in that moment. But very related to that, Geduld is looking for surprise. The great actors surprise him. So out of all the choices they could make, they are making really interesting choices.
So he singles out sort of like if there’s a bank teller, you sort of want that bank teller just to be believable as a bank teller and not draw any attention or draw any focus to himself.
But your main actors in your piece, they should be making really fascinating and interesting choices at times so you don’t know what they’re going to do next. Because if you can predict perfectly what they’re going to do next, you get bored. I think I see the same thing with writing. If I can tell you what’s going to happen three pages later or three sentences later, then I stop being so intrigued. I’m not curious what’s going to happen next.
Craig: Yeah, that’s where the boredom happens. And when we see characters doing these things that are sort of obvious, right, there’s the lack of surprise, this is when you tend to hear things like, well, tropey or just sort of, “I’ve seen it before.” The element of surprise isn’t so much about leaping out and going boo at the audience as much as it is delighting them with something that they were not expecting.
All comedy is surprise. You cannot get a laugh if there’s no surprise, right?
Craig: Everybody knows that. If you tell somebody a joke and they’re like, “I’ve heard it before,” don’t keep telling the joke. There will be no surprise. All actors surprise, all emotion I think is surprise. It creeps up on you. Even when you are not surprised by the thing that happens, the intensity of it surprises you, and thus, the tears come.
John: And there’s no surprise without expectation. So the reason why a joke works is because you set up an expectation for what the natural outcome is and the punch line is a surprise.
The same thing happens in drama. You set an expectation for what is going to happen next and the surprise is something different happens or a different choice is made. So you don’t get those moments of surprise unless you’ve set expectation really well.
That’s one of the things I enjoyed most about Drew Goddard’s adaptation of The Martian is he was very clever about setting up expectations about what was going to happen next so that all the calamities that would happen to poor Matt Damon on Mars can still be surprising. You don’t get those surprises unless you’ve very carefully laid out for the audience what he thinks is going to happen next.
Craig: It’s remarkable how similar what we do is to what magicians do, because there is no surprise for the magician and there’s none for us. We know how it ends. We know everything. So there’s this careful craft of misdirection and misleading and setting up one expectation only to deliver something else. It’s all very crafted.
You know, if you spend any time reading Agatha Christie, she is just a master of this because in her case, think about what she has to do. She has to surprise the reader at the end and the entire time they are battling her.
Craig: They are not surprised that there’s a surprise. So it’s a bit like watching a close-up magician at work. You know he or she is trying to fool you. And then they fool you anyway.
John: Yeah. I think the other crucial thing to remember about surprise is if everything is surprising, nothing is surprising. And so if you don’t allow characters to behave in a way that we can have some ability to predict what’s going to happen next, we will stop caring or just stop trying to put our confidence in you that they are going to do something worthwhile. That there’s going to be a payoff to this. And you see that sometimes in writing as well, where it’s just such a scramble of different things, it’s going in so many different directions. The rug is always being pulled out from underneath you to the point where like, “You know what, I’m not going to stand on that rug because I just know you’re going to pull it out from under me.”
Craig: No question. And in acting, we know this feeling when we’re watching a movie and we want to turn to somebody next to us and say, “Do you have any idea what this person is doing or talking about?” I love Apocalypse Now. I love that movie and my favorite book is Heart of Darkness. And I think there’s more great performances in that movie than practically any other movie I can think of. But Marlon Brando’s performance is essentially surprising constantly to the point where I can’t quite get a handle on him at all as Kurtz. For me at least, that performance, it’s just all surprises and nothing to push against.
John: Yeah. It can be the real frustration. And of course, when you talk about an actor’s performance, we really are balancing what was written, what was the scripted performance and what was the actor actually doing. And in the case of Apocalypse Now, that was just a huge jumble.
Craig: Oh, yeah. [laughs]
John: But there’s times where, you know, you’re trying to look at a character in a movie and it becomes very hard to tell, like, did that not work because it was bad on the page or did that not work because the actor made bizarre choices that made it impossible for that to function? And it’s one of the reasons why it can be so crucial to have a writer around on a set to sort of be that set of eyes to let the director know and everybody else know, like, “Okay, what they’re doing is fascinating but it will not actually add up and you’re going to be in real trouble when you get to the editing room.”
Craig: Yeah, there’s no question. I think Brando famously showed up on that set like 100 pounds overweight, hadn’t read the book, probably hadn’t read the script, didn’t know any of his lines. [laughs] Yeah, that one was a disaster.
John: Geduld’s next point is that great actors are vulnerable, which is very true. You feel like the great actors are letting you see parts of themselves that they might be embarrassed by or essentially that they’re not embarrassed to show you those things that are sort of icky inside them and they’re not trying to be perfectly put together at all moments. They’re letting you in and showing you the cracks. And good writing does that, too. Good writing isn’t trying to impress you at all moments. Good writing is trying to explore uncomfortable emotions and uncomfortable feelings.
Craig: Yeah. This can be a little bit of a trap for writers who work in comedy because comedy is one of the great defense mechanisms of all time. And there are very funny movies that essentially truck entirely in comedy and they never show vulnerability and they never get you in a moment where suddenly you feel, you deeply feel. You’re there to laugh. And by the way, it’s perfectly fine. I mean, you know, there are a lot of terrific movies that are just there to make you laugh. But if you are trying to do a certain kind of comedy, you need to be able to access your vulnerable side and put aside your humor armor and just be real. Sometimes, it’s those moments inside of comedies that are the most touching because of the contrast.
John: Absolutely. I mean, you obviously had that moment with Melissa McCarthy in Identity Thief but I’m also thinking about Melissa McCarthy in Spy. And I think one of the reasons why Spy worked so well is you definitely see what she is longing for and sort of her obsession with her boss that she doesn’t really want to own up to and her own fears and frustrations sort of bubbling out. And so they find great comedic moments for it but they also really let you deep inside. And that’s why you can sort of identify so closely with her character.
Craig: And Melissa’s really good at that. I mean, Melissa, you know, she has one of those faces, like Zach Galifianakis and Steve Carell, these are people that you want to take home and hug, and yet they’re also so funny.
Craig: Then there are some really funny people that I don’t want to take home and hug. Like Ryan Reynolds is really funny. But he doesn’t seem to need my emotional support. [laughs] He seems to be just fine, you know what I mean?
Craig: Whereas like Zach or Steve Carell or Melissa, I’m like, “Okay, come here, here’s some soup. Let’s talk it out.”
Craig: You know, let me take care of you.
John: Yeah. His next point is listening, that the great actors watch them when they’re listening to other characters speak, which is a thing I’ve definitely noticed is that there are some people who just seem to be waiting for their turn to act next and there’s other actors who you feel like everything they’re saying is in response to the previous character, that they’re engaged in this moment, they’re engaged in listening. And those actors help the other person’s performance so much because they direct your attention back to what the other character is saying.
It’s such a simple and kind of obvious thing, but if you look at scenes that aren’t working, it’s often because you don’t believe that the other character is actually listening to what the first character is saying.
Craig: Yeah. This is acting school 101, you know. Sometimes all you do is just sit and listen and learning how to listen seems weird. Like why would it be so hard for me to do something I’m constantly doing anyway? But in the moment, when you are required to say things that you didn’t think and they are not extemporaneous, they were written down and studied, the act of listening in and of itself is a challenge, because suddenly you’ve lost yourself listening to this other person and you forgot you have something to say. That’s really tricky but what it comes down to is essentially putting your ego aside and not feeling like it’s more important for you to be in command of your moment when you say words.
Sometimes the big moments are the ones where you listen. Film actors, the ones who’ve been around the block a lot, they know that oftentimes the camera is on them more when they’re not talking.
Craig: So listening becomes crucial.
John: From the writer’s point of view, you are often writing those words that they are saying. And so if you are just batting a ball back and forth, it’s unlikely that you’re writing your very best dialogue for those actors because it doesn’t feel like they had to hear what the previous person said to respond to it, didn’t actually need to process it, but rather is like, funny line, funny line, funny line, funny line, that scene is not going to work or this is not going to work as well as it could. And the actors are not going to be able to bring anything special to it because you’re not giving them any things to hold on to. There’s just no handholds in that kind of dialogue.
Craig: There are exceptions. Sorkin is very good at putting lots of dialogue and not giving his characters a lot of time to listen because he demands that they’re fast and smart. So I think of the first scene of Social Network, it’s very ratatat. It’s very verbal. But then in that scene, when there is a moment where somebody suddenly stops, it means something.
Craig: You realize that they’ve been knocked back on their feet a little bit. Those are very challenging scenes for actors to do.
John: Yeah. Well, you know, if you’re writing things where the point is that they actually sort of aren’t listening, where they are basically two simultaneous monologues directed towards each other, that can be great and be fascinating. But if your whole movie is built of that, you better be Aaron Sorkin.
Craig: Well, yeah, and even Aaron Sorkin understands that after a scene like that, you need a break.
John: Yeah. His next point, the great actors use their instruments to their best effect. So by instruments, he means their body, their voice, basically what they came to the show with. And so it’s recognizing what you have and how to make the most of what you have. So his example is Philip Seymour Hoffman who was overweight and not conventionally attractive but definitely knew how to use his body to best effect to, you know, be that character or sort of provide that character a reality within that world. And I think that’s something we’re always looking for with our own writing and with the characters we’re creating is how do you use who they are and what they bring to best effect.
Craig: And also for ourselves, there are things that we know we do well. John Lee Hancock, he always says that when he is sent something, a script for consideration to direct, the first question he asks while reading it or after reading it is, “Is this a pitch I can hit?”
John: Ah, yes.
Craig: You know, and the truth is, not everyone can do everything. And there are things that sometimes we want to do for a change because they’re exciting, and those are terrific. But there are also things we know we can do. And this is why some great actors have been bad in movies because they were miscast. That’s what miscasting is, right? So for us as well, we have to kind of cast ourselves into what we write to make sure that we’re writing with the wind at our back and not in our face.
John: For sure. So let’s go on beyond his suggestions and think of some of our own suggestions for the things we notice about good writing that are sometimes lacking in writing that is not so good. Do you want to start?
Craig: Sure. For me, just a few things that came to mind that don’t really apply for the acting model of things. One is layers. Good writing I think is accomplishing more than one thing at a time. Usually, I’m watching plot happen while I’m also watching a relationship change or watching a character grow. There’s just layers to things. I think audiences appreciate those complexities when it’s very — okay, this, now we stop doing and we talk and we have a relationship. Now we do talking again. It starts to feel very simple to me.
John: Yeah. And sometimes in procedural dramas on television, you’ll notice this, like they’re just doing the one thing. They’re basically like just putting out information about the next thing they’re going to do. And that’s sometimes how procedural dramas need to work but it’s not sort of the best writing we could aspire to in other forms.
Craig: Agreed. The other thing I think is a hallmark of good writing is hidden scenes because, you know, we are trying to create the illusion of something that is whole and of one piece because it really happened even though it didn’t. Of course, that requires us to stitch things together. And sometimes we have to do things in our stories to make them work that aren’t completely organic to what happened before. And I think good writing knows how to hide those scenes so that they’re not even visible at all. It’s like a good tile guy knows how to fit two slabs together so you don’t even notice that it’s two pieces and it looks like one.
John: Yeah. You brought up magic before and I think of sort of what David Kwong does in his close-up work. And I don’t ever want to ask him how he does what he does because I’m never going to be able to do it. It’s sort of more fun for me not to know. But I’m sure some of the misdirection is a real vigilance about where the audience’s attention is going to be. And so when you talk about hidden seams, you’re really basically being very mindful of like what are they going to see and what are they not going to see. And by putting something over here, they’re not going to be paying attention to this thing that I’m doing over sort of down here on the page. It’s being very aware of like where they are at and their experience of reading the story, of watching this movie so they’re not going to see what you’re actually needing to do.
Craig: Yeah. A lot of times when people talk about good craft, I think this is a big part of it, is just hiding the artifice and avoiding all those — you know, there’s a common thing people say in Hollywood when they want to say they had a problem with something in a script. They’ll say, “This bumped me.” And bumped means, literally, I felt the seam, you know. Like I was in a car, I was on what I thought was a smooth stretch of road and then bump, right? So those are the things we try and hide.
The other thing that I think is part of good writing is a point of view that unlike a performance which is delivering one character and making us believe that character, the writer needs a point of view because otherwise the story isn’t really about anything in particular. The writer needs something interesting to say and they have to have an interesting way of saying it. It doesn’t need to be text, it could be subtext. And it doesn’t have to be grand. It doesn’t have to be unsaid by anyone else before. But we do need a point of view.
John: Yeah. On the blog about two weeks ago, I addressed this article that Michael Tabb had written about — he called it premise and I sort of disagreed with him calling it premise. But what he was really talking about was this idea like what is the point, like what are you actually wrestling with in the story? Even if characters aren’t speaking aloud, even if it’s not even sort of obvious subtext, it’s the reason why you wrote the story, it’s the question you’re trying to answer. It may not even be like the dramatic question that a character is going to ask or resolve. It’s not the plot. It is sort of the point.
It’s like, I want to believe that the story is about more than just the surface plotting of it and that there’s a reason why you wrote this story, there’s a reason why I should be spending my time on it. That even if there’s not necessarily one answer, that you’re going to try to convince me of some point of view.
Craig: Yeah. I call it the central dramatic argument. Everybody’s got a different, you know, phrase for it. Scott Frank told me he wrote a script once and he sent it to, I won’t say who, but a big screenwriter, to get their opinion and that person’s response was, “This screenplay is well-written but it’s answering a question no one is asking.” And I thought that was a really tough love way of saying that whatever the point of view was there, it wasn’t something that would connect universally.
And we talk about this a lot. When you’re writing movies, you are creating the uncommon and the bizarre and the remarkable and notable because those are the stories worth seeing. But buried in there, something that is the opposite, incredibly common, completely universal, applicable to everyone’s life experience.
So that’s where the point of view comes in. And similarly, I think that connects to another part of what I consider to be good writing, and that’s a general unity, that there’s a cohesion of the narrative, the end feels like a proper resolution of the beginning. The phrase coming full circle. A good movie comes full circle.
John: Yeah. And when we say coming full circle, meaning both in terms of like story and plot. So like we started some place and we got some place, the characters went through a journey, we actually saw them do something, we saw them accomplish something or failed something in an interesting way. But also, thematically, that there was like these were the themes we were exploring and we succeeded in exploring these themes through different characters, through different situations and we got someplace. And it all feels like it’s of one piece and it’s not just like a bunch of things that happened and now the credits are rolling.
Craig: Yeah. Ideally, the beginning informs what the end is and the end informs what the beginning is, the two of them are yin and yang. And those pieces fit together gorgeously. By the time you get to the end of the movie, you go, “Yes, it had to start that way, it had to end that way.”
John: And yet, at the same time, ideally, starting at that place, you should not have been able to predict that it got to that place.
John: And that’s the narrative trick. That’s good writing.
Craig: That’s good writing. And the way to, I think, your best friend in achieving that trick is having a point of view, because that’s what you’re bringing that the audience doesn’t walk in with.
John: Yeah. The thing that I think I’ve noticed about good writing is confidence and that the writer has confidence in his or her words and that his or her story is going to be interesting enough that me as the reader should be spending my time to follow them on this journey. And it’s a hard thing to describe because you don’t sort of see it, you just feel it. You feel like, okay, this writer is confident, I am confident in this writer that this is going to be an interesting journey worth taking.
Some of the things that make me lose confidence at times are simple mistakes. And so, you know, a typo here and there isn’t going to kill you. But a lot of typos makes me wonder like, “Wow, are you really that dedicated to your story? Did you not even proofread this?” And sometimes it’s sort of more they’re not typos but they’re just like things they didn’t think through, like logic flaws that make me question whether this is going to end well.
And so, confidence is a thing I look for in writing. And when I see it, I sort of lean into it. I’m excited to see where they’re going to go next.
Craig: Yeah. You know, you say that the idea that the writer is in control of the story and that’s exactly right. When you read a well-written script, you’re turning the pages knowing full well that when you turn the page, the next one is not going to be the one that makes you go, “Oh, god, really?” Whereas in bad writing, I’m feeling that on almost every page. I mean, all of your triggers that you mentioned are correct. The one that always gets me is when I see the writer solving a problem in an evident way. And then I go, “Okay, I get that you had a problem and I get you needed to get out of that problem so that you could do blah, blah, blah, blah, but I don’t want to see that. Now I have no confidence in your story. Now I see the artifice.”
You know, I’ve been starting to create crossword puzzles because I’m not a dork enough, I guess. And when you’re building crossword puzzles, you have your big theme answers and then you’re going to fill in words around it. And sometimes you get jammed in a spot where, in order to make everything work, you need to stick a word in that’s just a really bad dumb crossword word.
John: What’s an example of a bad crossword word?
Craig: Well, there are so many. Well, there’s the crossword ease words like Etui and Esai and, you know, ero. And then there’s ones that are just like, you know, NGP and then you’re like, “What the heck’s an NGP?” And then it’s like, okay, one person once said it and it’s like this bizzaro thing or some foreign capital no one even knows.
And people do it because they have to solve their problem. But the good crossword puzzle creators, they just go, “Nope, let me undo this section and do it again because I don’t want people to hit that thing where they go, ‘Oh, that’s right, this is fake and you just magneted a solution on here so you could get to the next page.’”
John: Yeah. So things that make me lose confidence — typos, those kind of just like hacky solutions to things, and clichés which is a general kind of hackiness where it’s like, okay, that’s a really obvious tropey either plotting device or just a bad phrase that you just didn’t spend the time to think of a better way to say that thing.
And so, cliché can be great if you’re going to explode the cliché or sort of like play against the cliché. And if I have a lot of confidence in your story, in your writing, I will see that cliché and like, “You know what, that’s fine because they’re going to do something great with it. I’m going to keep turning pages because it’s going to be awesome.”
But if I was starting to lose confidence and then I encounter one of those cliché’s, I’m like, “Oh, it’s dipping low.” And remember in our last live show or two live shows ago, we had Riki Lindhome up. She was talking about when they were staffing for Another Period. And it’s like, oh, how many pages of a script do you read before you say yes or no? It’s like, well, about three.
John: And so, if she encounters a really hacky cliché on page three, she’s done. And that’s what you have to be so vigilant about.
Craig: Yeah. This idea of confidence in what the writer is doing is going to come up in one of our Three Page Challenges. I think we’ll see it pretty clearly. Part of what happens is when you feel good about the writing and then something comes along that’s a little squidgy, you give the writer the benefit of the doubt, “This must be intentional, it will work out.” And then, in well-written scripts, it does.
Think of like a script as the Titanic and it’s sailing along and it’s got its watertight compartments. You can hit, you know, one or two things and if you fill one or two watertight compartments, you can stay afloat for a while. But when you’re dragging something across all of them, you’re going to sink.
Craig: And when I read scripts where characters are, their voices are changing from scene to scene, characters are behaving in the middle of situations that are just bizarre and not realistic at all or inconsistent with what they did before, suddenly, the Titanic is being ripped in half, Jack is drowning, Rose is on the piece of door.
Craig: Oh, yeah, the Titanic does go down.
John: Sorry, man.
Craig: Yeah, spoiler.
John: It’s good to bring up voices because voice is one of those things — we talk about characters having voices and making sure the voices sound believable. But writers also have voices. And good writing, that writer has a voice. And so I don’t care if it’s a non-fiction piece in Slate or something in The New Yorker or a Hemingway short story or Faulkner, or just any screenplay. You know, you read a Tarantino screenplay versus an episode of Game of Thrones, you read one of their things, they’re all very different but they all have a voice. They all sound like they’re written by a person who is confident about the words that they’re using to describe their world.
And as we get to the Three Pages, I think this sense of voice is really crucial. It’s a thing that keeps you turning pages because like, “Oh, even if I don’t necessarily love the story, I love hearing this person’s voice.”
John: And there are writers who like, I’m not actually nuts about some of their plotting but their voices are just so fantastic. You want to talk about an amazing writer, someone we both follow on Twitter, Paul Rudnick.
Craig: Yeah. [laughs]
John: What an amazing voice he has.
John: So Paul Rudnick wrote In & Out and lots of other movies.
Craig: Addams Family.
John: Was it Addams Family or —
John: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. But he also used to write as Libby Gelman-Waxner. It was a column for Premiere Magazine which was the big film magazine at the time. And it was written for the point of view of this film critic kind of. She would review two movies in every issue. But it was mostly about her life and sort of her daughter and her dentist husband, Josh, I think.
John: And basically, it was all about sort of her even though she was technically reviewing these films. And it was all just a wonderful exercise in voice.
Craig: Yeah. I’m just such a fan of his. In & Out is such a good movie. I love that movie. I mean, that’s a great movie, by the way, for anyone to study in terms of structure because it’s structured perfectly. And talk about, it’s loaded with surprise. I mean, you have a movie where someone is gay but isn’t ready to come out of the closet and you’re like, okay, it’s going to end with him coming out of the closet. Yeah, but that’s not where the surprise is, you know.
And then his voice, look, he’s one of the wittiest people ever. [laughs] He’s like Dorothy Parker witty. That guy is, he’s great.
John: He’s fantastic.
John: My last little thing I’ll say about good writing, and this is not an exhaustive list, there’s probably other things you can think of, but I want to talk about finesse. And this is a thing that you maybe only kind of recognize when you have written a lot. But when I see a writer doing something that’s actually really difficult and they make it look so easy, you’re like, “Wait, how did you do that?”
John: And that’s the thing that I start to really appreciate. And so, two recent examples I can think of, over the Christmas break I read To Kill a Mockingbird. And obviously the book is great on many levels and that’s why you study it in high school.
But looking at it now, Harper Lee was able to do these things, these transitions where she was in a scene and it was like really a detailed scene and like every moment, every sort of gasp and every, you know, scratch on the floor, and then like within just a few sentences, several months could pass and then we’re off to something completely new. She was able to transition in and out of these sort of close-up moments in ways that were just remarkably subtle and clever and adept that you didn’t even sort of notice. Like, “Oh, wow, just months passed and now Scout’s older and like two sentences have gone by.”
John: That’s a really remarkable thing.
Craig: It is. I think that the idea of making the difficult scene easy is more a hallmark of great writing. You know, the person that confounds me time and time again is Neil Gaiman. I read this guy and I’m like, “How did you just do that? How did you pull that off?”
You know, just reading through the entire Sandman series at least once in every issue, I’d go, “Wow. Wow. How did you — ” especially later on when you’re like, “Wait, did you set up something three years ago and it just paid off?” [laughs] I mean, his mind is just remarkable and he makes it look so easy.
John: Yeah. And I had this filed underneath the finesse category but it speaks back to sort of all these things, so maybe my final example will sort of talk about how well she did on all these different levels.
So Gillian Flynn in Gone Girl, both in the book and in the movie, and different ways how she did it in both the book and the movie, there’s this narrative handoff that has to happen halfway through. And when you see what she did, we’re talking about the layers, there was actually much more going on than you sort of thought was going on. There were these hidden scenes that she was just masterful.
She had a point of view as an author about what she was trying to express but also very clearly you could understand the characters’ points of view on this. There was a unity, there was a deeper thing that this was all sort of connected to. And she had confidence and it’s only because I had confidence in her writing and sort of what she was doing that I was able to take this giant leap halfway through the book and halfway through the movie that like, “Okay, everything has completely changed and I’m so excited to see where this is going next.”
Craig: It’s such a good feeling knowing that every page you’re reading has been thought out and is part of a larger plan.
Craig: And you never get that sense of — because I’ve read some novels where — I read one in particular recently where I was so happy halfway through. And then I got into the second half and it just seemed to me that the author had kind of gone, “Okay, that’s enough craft. Let’s just wing it.” [laughs] And it just fell apart.
John: I will tell you quite honestly, there was a book I was sent as an adaptation, I had this two years ago maybe, maybe even more than that. And it had sold for a fair amount and then I heard back — so I read it, it’s like, “Well, the first half is really good and the second half is not really good at all.” And the backstory was like, yeah, people only read the first half. They bought it at an auction, they only read the first half. And so no one sort of knew how it ended. And then they got the rest of it and they’re like, “Oh, oh, no. Oh, no.” And it just wasn’t a good ending.
Craig: No. And that’s a real challenge for us when we’re adapting these things because, like I said before, the ending must be fundamentally there in the beginning. So it means that the beginning that you like so much, you might have to change that a little bit.
76 – How Screenwriters Find Their Voice
John: Absolutely. Well, the reason why I wanted to start off with voices is I thought today we might start talking about when you first discovered a writer’s voice, or sort of your own writer’s voice, and sort of what that process was like. Because I remember reading books and reading magazines and enjoying them and recognizing that people wrote in different ways, but never really got a sense of what a voice was until I started reading Spy Magazine. And Spy Magazine, the entire magazine was written with such a specific sardonic, snarky voice. And like that first introductory “Welcome to this Month” kind of thing was written so specifically that I was like, “I want to write like that.” It was the first time I started experimenting writing in someone else’s voice.
But it got really clear when I sort of switched into having a voice of my own. Because I feel like if you read through most of my scripts, there are things I write, they’re consistent, but I’m not quite sure why they’re consistent or sort of how that develops. So, I want to talk about voice and how writers find their voices.
Aline, do you think you have a voice that persists from script to script, or is it different every time?
Aline: That’s all I had when I started, really, was just a way that I spoke, or the characters spoke. And, you know, one of the downsides of that is all the characters spoke the same way. And they all sounded like the scene description. And I have a tendency to put the best jokes in the scene description, too.
But, you know, I had a point of view. The other stuff was stuff that was more of an effort — the plot, particularly the plotting stuff, and differentiating the characters. But, you know, even before I became a writer I just tend to have a particular way of speaking. So, that was I would say the part that came to me the most easily. Craig?
Craig: Yeah. It’s funny. I almost had like an opposite problem. Because the movies I was writing initially were very broad comedies, everything was about jokes. And in the jokes, yeah, definitely, there is a specific kind of joke that my wife will say, “Oh, that’s such a you joke.” And it’s funny — she’s now so good, like she’ll pick them out from trailers or from movies. She’ll just turn to me, “That was you, that was you, that was you.” She knows those things.
But, did I have a voice, like a dramatic voice? Early on, no. And in fact that was something I had to kind of get to. On the plus side, it was helpful to actually… — I never had the problem with characters sounding the same. And in a way I looked at it like it was mimicry, you know, like how does this person talk, how does this person talk, how does this person talk? Because I’m fascinated by the way people talk and I like to do impressions of people.
But over time I have noticed, and lately more so, there is a dramatic expression, maybe is the best way I can put it. There’s a certain way I like the story to unfold that is, I think, kind of like my voice. But it’s funny. It’s not like…
Aline: That’s so interesting. Because you have a very distinct authorial voice in your non-screenwriting that’s extremely distinct, your emails and your prose is extremely distinct.
Craig: Well, because that’s me. And if I’m writing a character I want them to just be true to them.
Craig: And not be me. And sometimes I also feel like I’m, yeah, I guess I just sort of go from that point of view. I’m more interested in other people, so I like to go that way. But some voice-like thing has occurred over the years.
John: It’s challenging with screenwriting because when we talk about voice, are we talking about the way characters are speaking? Are we talking about the authorial voice? And when you’re saying in early scripts you didn’t have the technique, you didn’t have the skills, you didn’t have the plot and all that stuff, but you had a voice is, I think, part of the reason I became a writer is I apparently had a voice, and I had confidence on the page. I felt like, you know, people would read through the whole thing. And it felt like it was all of one piece, and it was not just desperate to get to the next thing.
It was enjoyable to read on the page. And it was sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because I had somewhat of a voice people would say, “Yeah, you should keep writing.” And so then I would write more and it sort of developed into that thing. Same way people develop styles or fashions or ways they present themselves, people get reinforcement for the way they talk.
Aline: Your voice is kind of badass. I mean, I had read Go and then when I met you I really expected you to be a little bit more of a hipster badass than you are.
Craig: Oh, yeah, for sure. He’s not what you think from reading your work. Which is cool. I actually like that. You know, I mean, for me because it was comedy, you kind of get a little screwed over in comedy because people laugh. And they go, “I laughed.” But all the work around the laughing, they tend to either not see or not give you credit for, and they certainly don’t reinforce. They don’t teach you how to do it. You’re kind of left to figure it out on your own.
And in a weird way you’re left to figure it out from non-comedies. And it’s the rare comedy like Groundhog Day where you look and you go, “Oh, look how, at least I can see what’s happening around the jokes here…”
Aline: But it took me awhile to learn that the jokes don’t play if the scene work and the dramatic structure doesn’t play. And you know that from your own work, and you know that also from going to countless punch-ups where if the scene doesn’t work, or the characters don’t work, the jokes don’t stick.
Craig: The jokes won’t work. And, unfortunately, no one tells you early on, “I love this joke because of all this wonderful dramatic context around it, or character context, or the way that it served some moment in the scene to connect to the next scene.” No one ever says that. They just say, “Oh my god, that line was so funny.”
John: I was looking up some lines last night for this other project, and so I’m on like great classic movie dialogue lines, a lot of them were from Star Wars. And one of them was like, “You’re awful short for a Storm Trooper, aren’t you?” And that’s actually not that funny of a line, but the only reason it’s memorable is because that movie is really good and the moment worked. And so therefore that line feels appropriate for that moment. So, “Oh, it’s a good line,” but independently it’s not a great line.
Aline: Oh, “I begged you to get therapy,” is one of the best jokes in any comedy, and in and of itself it’s not a joke.
Craig: Yeah. There you go.
John: “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” That’s a great line independent of a really great scene, but so many things aren’t.
Craig: Right. I know. And also now the way that we write movies now, they’re a little less written, I don’t know how else to put it. They’re obviously written, but that’s such a written line. You’ll hear sometimes people say, “Oh, that just feels like writing. It doesn’t feel like actual human talk. No one is that witty.”
Aline: I love written lines.
Craig: I know. I mean, the problem is, it’s like so many times I see them play out on screen and I go, “Yeah, congratulations to me for being clever.”
Craig: But that human didn’t say that. And so there’s…
Aline: Fine line.
Craig: There’s a thing between the audience and the line.
John: That’s the luxury of writing a period movie or something that’s set in an alternate thing that’s not meant to be here and now, because you can get away with those lines.
Craig: You can.
John: There’s probably not a single line in Django Unchained that an actual human being would say, but it’s really enjoyable to see in that context.
Craig: Or any Tarantino movie. I mean, everybody speaks, it is understood that we’ve signed a contract with Tarantino that all of his characters are, it’s like it’s opera. I don’t know how else to put it. They speak like the way that recitative is sort of to opera. It’s not human dialogue. It’s awesome.
John: I mean, Tarantino is a great person to bring up, because you want to talk about voice, that’s what he had more than anything else. I mean, I think there was interesting plotting and interesting stuff going on, but if you just plunked down and read one of his scripts — I remember reading Natural Born Killers as a script when it was just his script. And it was the first script that I ever read to the end, flipped back to page one and read through again, because it’s just a great voice that you love to hear. And it’s not about the dialogue. It’s about everything that’s fitting together, that the world feels.
And I think people can learn a lot of the other things. You can learn the plots. You can learn how to sort of get through the story. But, when you read a sample that has really good writing, really good voice, that’s what you sort of get to.
Aline: Can we all say the word “recitative.”
Craig & John: “Recitative.”
Craig: Is that right? It’s “recitative” is what it is. “Recitative.”
John: Oh, “recite-a-tive” is how it’s pronounced.
Craig: Yes, “recitative.” Why are you looking at me like that?
John: On NPR yesterday, or actually one of the other podcasts I was listening to, they were doing a thing about Les Mis, and they went into the “recitative…”
John: And they played a little clip of it. Like out of context with the whole movie it just sounds crazy.
Craig: It’s hysterical.
Craig: Like, why is this person singing, “What’s this? It’s sunny. Where is my hat!” It’s ridiculous. But, you know, once you’re in the middle of it… — I mean, frankly, that is the worst part of Les Mis for me. I mean, when I went to go see Les Mis for the first time I’m like, stop all the sing talking, just talk, then sing the songs. I’d be much happier. I really, really would. Or, just sing the songs, [laughs], and I’ll figure out what’s going on between them. Or hand out a pamphlet and I’ll just read what happens in between them. I would have been happier. The recitative is a tough one.
John: But don’t you sometimes read scripts from people who, like, are aspiring writers and they’re — you don’t know what to say to them other than the fact that like, “You don’t have a voice.” You’re like, “At least I’m not getting any sort of voice from you.” And that’s one of the hardest things; there’s no nice way to say that.
Craig: Well, other than to say, “Look, you’re not the only person. And it’s not fatal. Because people have pulled out of that flat spin before.” But if you read something, I mean, you’ve had this experience where you read something and you think, “Yeah, I could write the next five pages just like you did here, in a minute.” Or, anybody could write these pages. There’s no reason I need you to write the rest of this story. You’re not expressing it uniquely.
Aline: Right. But some people have a voice in life as they walk around. They just can’t get it onto a piece of paper.
Aline: And so partly it’s about learning what your point of view is, what makes you interesting to people, and being confident that that’s going to interest a reader.
Craig: Well, that’s the thing right there. Because I think people are just scared that their natural expression is boring. And what they do is they chase. And everybody has to sort of start like that with rare exception. There are prodigies, but so many people start by copying. You know, that’s how we learn to speak, by copying. So, it’s natural that we learn to write by copying, but at some point you got to kind of take the training wheels off, because all you’ll ever be is a copyist at that point.
John: Yeah. It’s having the courage to speak as you actually see the world.
Aline: Some screenwriters have been incredibly influential. I would say William Goldman, Shane Black, just in terms of having a very distinct way of writing that people then imitated. I mean, Goldman was huge for a very long time and people would write in that kind of epigrammatic way that he wrote. And then Shane Black, obviously. I mean, I think people are still writing in that tone.
Craig: Yeah. To me, it’s the first mistake. It’s the mistake of page zero is that you’re copying. I mean, all it says is it looks like I’m going to have to go get Shane Black, I guess, to fix this script, because I just got ersatz Shane Black.
There is nothing else you can offer as a writer except that which is unique to you. If it’s not unique to you, I don’t need it from you.
John: I’ll say it’s useful to look through the writing that you like a lot and figure out why you like it that way. And there may be aspects of that that you can completely use. Rather than sort of aping Shane Black’s short sentences and overuse of periods, find your way of getting that scene description on the page in a way that’s meaningful. Find your dialogue that is useful in those ways. A writer who we both, Aline and I both — I’m pointing to Aline. Pointing doesn’t do any good on a podcast.
Craig: Right. This one over here.
John: This one over here. — We both talked about Lena Dunham and how much we enjoy her stuff. And you want to talk about somebody who has perspective and a voice, this feels like, you know, her world and what’s interesting to her being nicely put together on screen.
Aline: And you feel like you could see a line — someone could say something in life and you’d be like, “Oh, that’s such a Lena Dunham kind of moment.” You know, she already has, at such a young age, she already has a signature style/way of looking at the world perspective.
I mean, what’s amazing about her is when you see Tiny Furniture, it was all there. It was always all there. And she has such a distinct point of view. And I think, you know, because people do start out often by copying, I think we’re going to see a lot of stuff which is…
Craig: Oh, for sure.
Aline: …you know, young women in their 20s. She, though, will free other people who have different… — You know, that’s what’s interesting about somebody like a Quentin or a Lena or somebody. If you have a distinct point of view you kind of give other people permission to find their own voice and to be that.
John: Absolutely. I get very frustrated by the knocks on Go as being like Pulp Fiction light, but I’m fully willing to acknowledge the fact that it would have been very hard to make Go without Pulp Fiction, because restarting the story twice and our structure, everyone would be like, “Well that’s not going to work. You can’t do that.” And once you’re like, “Well, there’s a very successful movie…”
Craig: I don’t think of Go, I mean, I don’t think of it that way. Maybe in the moment…
John: In the moment it was. That’s what people compared it to.
Craig: Well, and that’s what people do. It’s pattern bias. You know, “Well, that thing just happened so it must have caused this.” But it’s important to know the range of your own voice. There are people that have really specific voices like Tarantino or Dunham, and they write that kind of thing.
But it’s also okay to be the sort of person that is the Jack of all trades, who can kind of move in between, as long as there’s something unifying. It might not be dialogue, but unified in a way you tell a story, how you structure you out, what themes you dwell on. There’s all sorts of ways to express yourself, but you have to at least express yourself.
John: Now, Aline, most of your produced movies seem to fall into a certain kind of, not even genre really, but a certain kind of mold. Is that because you’ve picked those movies, or those are the movies that have gotten made? What’s the through line?
Aline: Well, the first couple movies that I wrote were pretty straight up rom-coms, I would say. And then The Devil Wears Prada is not, and well, 27 Dresses also is a straight up rom-com. But then I wrote a few that were sort of women in the workplace trying to balance their life. And that was just, Prada was brought to me. Morning Glory was something that I wanted to show the first time a woman has real responsibility in a workplace, so that was a different spin on that.
And then I Don’t Know How She Does It is a work/life balance thing. But, it’s funny, I don’t think of myself as being a genre writer, because I don’t think of myself — I think of myself as writing pieces that are essentially dramatic, even if they have jokes in them. Dramas with jokes.
And, so, I sort of — I did We Bought a Zoo, which is a family movie.
John: That’s also a drama with jokes.
Aline: It’s a drama with jokes. Yeah. So, some of the other stuff that I branched into, I just approach it as sort of characters/character dilemma. So, I never think of myself as a genre writer. But I don’t think anybody does. So, it’s funny, you know, I’m doing a broader range of stuff, even though I’ll always love — I love single lead comedies. I love romantic comedies. But one of the things I’m writing is a robot movie which one of our samples today is a…
Craig: Yeah, a robot movie. So, we’ll get into that.
Aline: So, I’m writing a robot movie. And what’s been interesting is working in different genres. I mean, I think I still have a lot of the same concerns and interests irrespective of what kind of material I’m dealing with.
John: Because I got pigeonholed right from the very start as a kid’s book writer — the first two projects I got were kid’s book adaptations, which didn’t get made, but I was only being that guy. I’d written Go largely just to break out of that box.
Aline: Oh, that’s interesting.
John: And so I very deliberately, consciously wrote that, saying like…
Craig: To not be the Fried Worms guy.
John: Exactly. And so with that, the weird luxury is everyone saw whatever they wanted to see in it. And so they’d say, like, “Oh, you are the edgy action movie guy.” “Oh, you are the comedy guy.” “You are this guy.” And so I was able to quickly get a lot of different things.
And I don’t think it hurt my sort of craft, but it did make it harder to sort of figure out what — ultimately what box to put me for other things. Because I didn’t become a brand in comedy, I didn’t become a brand in action. I just became the guy who does the various different kind of things.
What’s weird is that when you sort of take a big step back and look at the movies that actually got made, almost all of them are sort of “Two World” movies, where like there’s a normal world and the character decides to cross into this other world that has special rules, and ultimately sort of comes back out of it. And it’s very much sort of —
Aline: Yeah. I would probably, in my own stuff I would play more to thematics and layers than genre similarities.
John: Yeah. I described your movies in the previous podcast as want-coms.
Aline: I remember that.
Craig: The want-coms. Yeah, I’ve been all over the map. I mean, I’ve been very, remarkably uncalculating in my own career for somebody that’s kind of like, I have a tendency to calculate. But really kind of I just like making movies. So, I’ve always gravitated towards what’s getting made. And I had some really rough experiences. The best things I think I’ve ever written haven’t been made.
So, I started to be more interested in just writing movies. I just don’t like writing scripts that don’t get made. It just feels so awful.
Aline: My husband calls that the Document Production Business.
Craig: Yeah, pretty much. You’re just pushing paper around and then in the end it’s a booklet that no one reads. You know, I adapted Harvey and I wrote a movie called Game Voice at Bruckheimer. I love those scripts. And they meant something to me. And I adapted a Philip Dick short story. These are all really the ones I cared about, and then it just didn’t happen. So, I started, basically, okay, well what’s in front of me that’s getting made? And I think the downside is sometimes what’s getting made isn’t that great. But, it then got me to a place where now some of the things that are getting made I really do think are great, and I love them. You know, so, I don’t know. I always feel like, I swear, maybe it’s just me — I always feel like I’m just a rookie still. I don’t know how many times… — I always feel like the next ten years are the ten years that count. In any given year, I always think the next ten years are the ones that count.
Until I finally get to retire, which as you know I’m really looking forward to. That’s my big thing.
Aline: Yeah. Nobody wants to retire more than you.
Craig: Oh, I can’t wait. I cannot wait. So much fun to think about all the things I can do.
John: You’re being serious? You’re actually thinking about retirement?
Aline: He’s always talking…
John: Oh, god, I never talk about retirement. I cannot ever imagine retiring.
Aline: Me neither.
Craig: Oh, no, no, it’s going to be the best.
John: Yeah. I will die mid-draft.
Craig: Now, listen, I’m not going to retire next year. I’m not going to retire in five years. But once I hit 50, then I’m going to start thinking about it. And then I’d like to have a nice regenerative breaking down kind of vibe towards 60. And then I’m out.
Aline: There’s a good recitative in that.
Craig: There is!
Aline: [singing] Here I am. I’m a…for 50.
John: [singing] But what will you do?
Craig: So many things! [singing] Anything I want. [laughs] Why do they do that?
Aline: Do you have enough hobbies?
Craig: Well, that’s the thing. I have a lot of hobbies, and there are a lot of things I want to learn. Like I want to learn some languages. I want to learn to play the guitar better. There are things I know how to do, just not well. And I want to be able to do them better. So, I’d like to learn things, go places, check stuff out, see my friends, hang out.
And, by the way, I would still write, but I would write for myself. I would write things that aren’t screenplays. I would just do stuff because I wouldn’t be worrying about saving for my kids, and my family, and retirement and all the rest of it. And also, frankly, I like what I’m doing right now. I do. I just feel like — this is a whole separate therapy discussion — but at some point you have to stop doing what you’re doing. You can’t do it for your entire life. You can’t.
Aline: You can if you’re my dad.
Craig: I know. You can if you’re my dad, too. But I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do that. I’m saying you shouldn’t.
Aline: He loves it.
Craig: Yes, some people do. Here’s the thing: I don’t. Like I know, sorry — I know that I need something new at some point. I get excited when things change. I love chaos and mayhem, basically. And I think I want to change it up. You know, I can feel change coming. You know what? There’s a wind of change in the air.
Aline: [singing] There’s a wind…
Craig: Recitative. You want to talk about…?
John: I want to talk about one more thing before we get into that. I could imagine at some point not writing screenplays, but I’m also sort of — part of me lives like ten years in the future where there’s some movies I’ve already directed. Like I already know, like, well that’s that movie I’m going to direct. And so at some point I’m going to get to that point. So, retirement is always way beyond these other movies that I’m going to be doing.
Aline: You have lots of hobbies and interests.
John: I have a lot of interests, yeah.
Aline: Your hobbies are businesses.
Craig: You’d be better at retirement. You love making apps. You’re a little app-making elf.
John: But I would never stop my current career to do that. So, I enjoy it, but I want everything to happen simultaneously.
Craig: The world needs apps.
John: I mostly just want to clone myself and send out the army of John Augusts to do different things.
Craig: What a horrifying thought.
John: It would be great.
Craig: And army of John Augusts.
Aline: I think it’s already happened.
Craig: It might have. Which one do you think we’re talking to now? Which generation of August is this?
Aline: The relaxed fit.
Craig: Oh, this is Relaxed Fit August?
432 – Learning From Movies
John: So Craig, one thing I’ve done in 2019 which was helpful and I’m definitely carrying it with me into the new year is when I watch a movie I try to take some notes afterwards about what worked in that movie for me. And so this first segment I want to talk through this idea of what we can learn from movies.
So I think so often we’re talking about screenplays or like reading scripts and all that stuff but really what all of us do is we watch movies and we take things from movies. And I want to have a discussion about how to be a little bit more systematic and really thoughtful about what we’re taking from movies as we finish watching a film.
Craig: Mindful viewing of movies. That’s a good idea. Everybody that does what we do uses other movies as examples or inspiration. Sometimes we use them as negative examples.
John: Of course.
Craig: But the movies that we love we tend to really think about carefully. It’s a little bit like what you and I do when we walk through one of these movies.
John: Exactly. And so we did our walkthrough of Die Hard and that was really trying to look systematically at what the movie was doing and how the movie was working. That’s a thing that people can do by themselves with every movie that they watch. And really if you’re aspiring to be a screenwriter, or you are a screenwriter, it’s not a bad practice to get into with everything. So if you watch a pilot of a TV show or you watch a movie, just take a few minutes and really look at how that movie worked. Because when you don’t do that it tends to be only the most recent thing you’ve watched is the only example you have in your head. And if you do it more systematically it will work for everything.
John: So my questions I want to ask myself when I finish a movie is what’s working in it, what’s not working for you in it? If it’s not working why is it not working? Really troubleshoot for yourself what didn’t click for you and why didn’t it click. And what could you have done differently in that movie to make it click?
Really you’re trying to focus on the how questions. How is the movie working and how could the movie be working better if you were to have access to the engine underneath it?
Craig: Yeah. There’s this saying that people put out there about social media. Don’t compare your inside to other people’s outside. And sometimes if we watch movies, particularly ones that we love, and we don’t think about them in a gear-watch-works way then we may suffer from that. We may think, OK, I’m currently sitting here with a pile of tiny little gears and cogs and springs and it’s not a watch. And I just saw the most beautiful watch. I suck.
If you start to really look at it from the point of view of a craftsperson then you can see that they had the same problems and limitations you did. And it’s really helpful I think to start to strip away stuff that isn’t purely writing. Start to strip away the lighting. Start to strip away the music. Start to strip away the performances. And just think about the movements of things that were commanded by text, because that’s what you’re doing.
John: Absolutely. So let’s start at the fundamental. Let’s start at the hero. Let’s take a look at who the hero is in this story and what the function of that hero is. So, as the viewer do you understand who that hero is? What they want? Both on a macro scale, the overall arc of their journey through the story, but on a micro level. On a scene-by-scene, moment-by-moment do you understand what that hero wants? And if you do how is that being communicated? What information are they giving you to let you know what that hero wants?
And that is purely craft. That is the screenwriter’s job is to make it clear what that central character is trying to go after.
Craig: And it’s perfectly reasonable to study how people do that elegantly. So Damon Lindelof and his team did Watchmen which I loved and a lot of people do. And one of the things that I thought was so good about it was what I call non-expository exposition. They were so clever – and that is craft – about making the information release interesting and meaningful beyond just you need to know this. They managed to weave it into other things. Really good lessons learned from that. And I think that when we watch movies it’s fair to look at those really hardcore craft things and say, oh, you know what I’m not going to steal the way, like their movie there, but I’m going to steal their ambition. Like they clearly aspire to do better than the usual. I should, too.
John: Absolutely. Watchmen is a great example for my next question which is how does the hero fit the story. So thinking about what story do you want to tell and which hero is the appropriate hero for telling that story. The fit between hero and world in Watchmen could not have been better. So you had a character whose grandfather was part of this sort of long story, this long struggle, to get us up to this present moment. So she was uniquely qualified to be the central character in the story.
Craig: And you can sometimes struggle when you watch a movie because you’re looking at the wrong person. This is another thing that movies do all the time, we just don’t notice it until we really watch meaningfully. And that is they have us following somebody that isn’t the hero. We think they’re the hero. They’re not the hero.
Sometimes the hero is this side character or somebody we think of as a side character because they’re not occupying this huge space in the story. But the story is really about this smaller – I mean, the most famous example that people kick around is who is Ferris Bueller about? Who is the hero of Ferries Bueller? And it’s Cameron. It’s the friend. Because he’s the only one that has a choice to make. He is the only one who has a problem, who is running away from his problem, who has to confront his problem, and overcome his problem. But he’s not Ferris Bueller. He’s not in the title. Nor is he the guy we watch in the beginning, or the end. It seems like Ferris Bueller is the hero but he’s not. So meaningful watching helps you get there.
John: Absolutely. And finding those situations where the central character of Ferris Bueller is not the protagonist. It’s not the one that actually undergoes the transformation, the journey. So really being deliberate to look at sort of who is playing what role in the story. And once you do that figure out how are they introduced. How are you as a viewer first introduced to these characters? And how quickly do you understand who they are and why you should be interested in them. Those initial scenes of meeting those characters we all know as writers are so crucial. Well, how did this film do it? And ask yourself what are the other choices they could have made and why was this the right choice or the wrong choice?
Craig: Introductions are something that I think writers probably glide past all the time and should not. Maybe it’s because they think their “directing on the page.” As you know I’m a huge fan of directing on the page. I think that’s our job. And I think of movies that are delightful and how often their delight is conveyed to us through an introduction of a character. Like so when we first meet Jack Sparrow in the very first Pirates of the Caribbean movie he’s on this ship, he is a proud pirate, he seems like just one of those plot armored heroes where no wrong can. And then you reveal that his boat is sinking and he literally steps off the top of it onto a deck as it disappears below the waves. That says so much not just about him but about this world, the tone. It’s delightful.
Craig: In the second movie I believe he shoots his way out of a coffin. It’s another just – it’s surprising. So, another excellent thing to keep an eye on for all movies. And sometimes they’re not flashy like that. The introduction of the family in Parasite–
Craig: Spectacular. Just the way that they’re living in a basement sort of, and how their day is consumed by trying to steal wifi. Brilliant.
John: It’s really talk about all these aspects, like who are the right characters for the story, how are we meeting these characters, and do we understand what they want? And Parasite is a great example of how you’re seeing all three of those things in one initial sequence that’s really telling you this is their situation. These are the people you’re going to be watching through the course of the story.
Craig: Yeah. If you’re watching a movie and you feel good at the end of a scene, stop. I don’t mean to say that you should do this the first time you see it. But when it’s time to watch it meaningfully and thoughtfully if the scene works for you stop and then roll back and then watch it again. And just think about the layers and why.
This is so much more important than why – I feel like our culture is just obsessed with people explaining why they hate things. They’re rewarded for it, I guess. It teaches you very little. It really does. I’ll tell you, more than anything when I watch something I don’t like I get scared. I get scared because I think would I have done the exact same thing in that situation? How would I have done it differently? I’m starting to get scared. Better to look at things you love.
John: Looking at any of these characters, a useful metric for me is could I describe this character independently of the actor? Do I have enough information about that character at the start and as the story progresses that I could talk about that character independently of the actor who is playing him? So I think Jack Sparrow is actually a great example. Because we think of him as Johnny Depp, but that character is very, very specific independently of the performance of Johnny Depp. Same with all the family members in Parasite whose names I don’t know. And so they are such strongly drawn characters that I don’t have to fall back on a description of who the actor was playing them to be able to describe them as what they’re trying to do in the story.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, Disney, the folks who are running Disney very famously they knew they had hired Johnny Depp and when they saw what he was doing and what he looked like and how he sounded and walked they freaked out, because that was not some sort of inevitable thing that travels out of Johnny Depp. That was something specific and different. And it is a character that could be played by another person. It could be. Would it have been played the same way? No.
Craig: I think he was perfect. I really do. But in some alternate universe someone else is playing it and people also love the movie.
John: Agreed. So we talked about the hero, let’s talk about the antagonist. How does the antagonist arrive in the story? How do they challenge the hero? And in movies that work well the antagonist is so specific to the story and so specific to the hero that it’s hard to imagine them existing outside of that universe. So we talk about this in Die Hard. We talk about it in almost any of the movies we love, they have a villain or a chief character who is challenging the hero who is so specific to that story. So always look for how is that antagonist introduced and how specifically drawn are they to challenge your hero in the story.
Craig: And if it works for you, accept that. You know, you could fall into a trap of trying to fit things into categories and saying, well, sometimes I’ll see people say, “You know, I really liked this movie but it doesn’t follow the rule of blankety-blank.” Correct. It does not. Because that is not a rule. The rule that you just cited isn’t a rule. There are movies where the villain, the antagonist, is the weather. There are movies where it’s a dog. There’s movies where it’s a ghost. There’s movies where it’s fate. There’s movies where it’s the person you love the most.
It’s defined in so many different ways, so start with the fact that it worked. And then say, OK, I’ve just learned a new way of conceiving of what an antagonist is. The word villain, also, a bit of a trap.
John: Agreed. So then we have our characters. Let’s talk about the storytelling of the movie. So, how quickly and how well does it establish who is important and what they’re going after? How does the movie move between storylines? And this I think is the most crucial kind of craft question. Obviously there’s multiple things that are going to be happening. How does the movie decide how to switch back and forth between? Does it limit POV to only things that the hero knows? Or does the audience have omniscient POV? How is it working in terms of telling you its story? And how quickly – going back to the Pirates example – does it set up what its tone and genre are really going to be?
And these are fundamental things. And if the movie is not working you’re going to notice it here.
Craig: Correct. And that’s why it’s so important to carefully watch a movie that is working for you. Because when it is working it is designed for you to not notice any seams whatsoever. You won’t notice cuts. You won’t notice that one scene has changed to another. You won’t notice transitions. It will all seem inevitable and purposeful and of a single whole. So take the time to now go, OK, but it’s not. So let’s be amateur magicians that are invited to the magic castle and we’re asking the really good sleight of hand guy, OK, slow it down for me. Let me see it bit by bit, move by move. That’s how you’re going to learn.
John: Absolutely. The last bit of technique which I think is so crucial to be monitoring is how does the movie surprise you? Because by this point you’ve watched thousands of movies. You are a sophisticated movie viewer. The movies that succeed are the ones that still manage to surprise you. That you feel like you’re caught up with them and they still have some more tricks up their sleeve. So how do they do that? How did they deceive you in a way that got you to that moment of surprise? And those are the moments to really go back and really figure out what was the set up that got you to that misunderstanding.
Craig: Setups, payoffs, misdirections, but also just as important clues, hints. We will not feel as satisfied if there were no hints. I was watching, so Knives Out, written and directed by our friend Rian Johnson, which has done extraordinarily well and for good reason. I watched it again and there’s a moment that happens during the reading of the will when the lawyer announces that the old man has left all of his stuff, all of it, to Marta, his nurse. There’s one little thing that happens with one character that is a clue. But you sure don’t know it at the time because it’s a clever clue. It’s a smart clue. And I thought, OK, there’s intelligence at work and there’s also an understanding of how fair play actually improves the misdirection and the surprise.
It is, again, a very calculated, careful crafted bit. And at its best moviemaking is about marrying this really hardcore calculating craft with a kind of inspired wild creative abandon.
Craig: And that’s what good things like Knives Out do.
John: Absolutely. And I think a crucial thing about Knives Out is to remember like, so Rian Johnson is both the writer and the director. That scene is incredibly well directed, but that moment that you’re describing is a written moment.
John: It was very clearly an idea that occurred in the writing stage of this. And so I think it’s also great to have a separate discussion about what works on a directing level, on a cinematography level, on casting, costuming. Think about all those things but as a separate conversation. Really just focus on what is it about the storytelling, about the writing that is working for you so well in this part of the process.
Craig: Whodunits are amazing for this. If you want to really study the craft of surprise and misdirection just watch whodunits. Because that’s all they’re about. I mean, they are about some other things occasionally. I mean, Knives Out has a certain commentary about class and what it means to be an immigrant in the United States and inherited wealth versus earned wealth. All of that stuff is there. But mostly it’s about the machinery of who did it. And that’s what’s so satisfying about it.
John: Well it’s also a meta examination of sort of the whodunit as a genre, because it ultimately is not so much a whodunit.
Craig: Correct. It’s sort of like we know who did it, but whodunit. And I love those movies because they really do instruct you. Comedies, also, I will say comedies are oftentimes–
John: Well, there’s setup, payoff.
Craig: It’s machinery.
John: Yeah, it’s machinery behind.
Craig: Study the machinery.
John: So we’ve watched the movie and now we’re trying to focus on it. Obviously if you have someone there to go have a drink with afterwards you can talk through all that stuff, which is great. But if you’re watching the movie by yourself what I found to be really helpful and I’ve started doing it much more for the last couple months is just one page of notes, bullet points of like these were the things I learned from this movie. And if it’s a movie that I loved, great. These are some things I loved and some things that this filmmaker was able to do in the writing that really worked for me and things I wanted to remember from this.
If it’s a movie I didn’t love, I find that also to be really helpful. This thing they tried to do just did not work, or I was confused by these moments. This isn’t a review. This is like what is it that you can take from this thing you just watched and apply to your own work. And what you said before about when you watch a movie that’s not working you get that moment of fear. Would I have made the same mistakes? And as I look at the movies that didn’t work, yeah, I definitely see some things where I probably would have tried that in that situation, too. So it’s helpful. It’s a chance to sort of have the experience of having made that movie that didn’t work and learn from it without having spent years of your life making a movie that didn’t work.
Craig: How nice is that, right? I mean, it’s hard enough doing these things. So if there’s anything we can do to save ourselves from a trap. By the way, we probably can’t. I mean, if we’re going to fall into a trap we’re going to fall into a trap. But studying other people’s good stuff but help I think but make us better. And if you do see, well, I guess here is how I would put it with the negative things. I do think of these things as relationships. We have a relationship with something. A movie. This is why very, very smart, cultured, tasteful people can have violent disagreements about the same movie. Because it’s not about the movie being good or bad, or you being a good or bad viewer. It’s about this unique relationship that forms between you and it, which is the sum of all of what it is and all of what you are.
So, when we watch these things and we find ourselves in a good or bad relationship, what’s worthy there is it will help us craft something that we have a good relationship with as we write. Because I’ve written things before where I just thought I’m fighting with this thing. I mean, this thing doesn’t want to exist, or it shouldn’t exist, but I’m being paid to make it exist and I am fighting with it. I am at war. And it’s not a good feeling. Figuring out how to have a good relationship with what you’re writing is something that you might be able to be helped to do by thinking about the good relationships you’ve had with other things.
John: Absolutely. One unique thing about the time people are living in now versus when we were starting out is that pretty much any movie you’ve really enjoyed you can read the screenplay of. And so if you have questions about how it worked on the page you can go back and look at those scripts. This is the part where you and I come clean and say we don’t read the scripts. We’re not reading those For Your Consideration scripts.
John: But they’re available there for people to read. And it was very important for me when I was starting to write to read a bunch of those scripts. And so definitely go out and read those scripts if you are new to the craft and learning how it all works.
Craig and I tend to watch movies and we can sort of see the script coming through there. So, obviously we don’t know what the drama was and what changed on the set, but we get a pretty sense of what the storytelling was on the page that led to that movie. But if you’re new to this that’s a great place to start. And so I would recommend watch the movie, read the script, and see how it compares. Or if there’s something that you’ve not seen, reverse it sometimes and read the script, see the movie in your head, and then watch the final movie to see sort of how the filmmakers did the job of converting that screenplay into a movie.
Craig: I mean, really what you’re advising people to do is their homework.
Craig: Do you homework, people.
Craig: This is a job. They don’t just pay you for nothing.
John: And I guess–
Craig: You got to know stuff.
John: In my taking notes on movies that I’m watching now I’m just sort of trying to do my homework a little bit more. I feel like I’ve been letting it slide for a few years and just like watching the movie just as a fan. That’s why I like to watch a movie just to enjoy it, but then afterwards take those notes. I’m not taking notes during it.
Craig: Well that’s a really good way to keep yourself relevant also. I think as people get older sometimes we think of them as losing a step or losing some zip on their fastballs, as we say, but sometimes I think all that’s happening is they’ve just disconnected from the churn of culture and what is relevant and what’s happening around us that is new and different. Because people are constantly kicking over the old stuff.
Like for instance what Rian did with Knives Out. It sort of kicks over the old stuff a bit. And if you’re not paying attention to that you will just make more old stuff. Sometimes I read things, I’m sure you have too, where a studio will say we really like this idea. It’s not quite working. Can you fix it? And you read it and you think, well, I get it. This is a good idea. It feels like it was written 30 years ago.
Craig: It just seems like whoever wrote this stopped at some point and you can’t.
John: Move forward.
Craig: Move forward.
John: We are back in 2023. It’s time for our first One Cool Things of 2023. No pressure whatsoever. My One Cool Thing is a blog post that I saw a bunch of people linking to this past week. A lot of the newsletters I subscribe to had it. It’s called the Dangers of Elite Perception by Jarrett Walker. He is an urban theorist, a philosopher, a person who talks about public transit. His concept of elite perception is that the folks in elite positions often believe they actually understand how things work overall. They have this natural bias. They can only see what their experience would be.
The example he gives is that someone would say, “How is this new subway going to help me, a guy with a BMW parked in my driveway?” and not understanding not everyone has access to a car and that it’s not going to be useful for him necessarily. He’s not going to directly benefit but everyone else might benefit.
I think you can really broaden this idea of elite perception beyond just urban transportation to a lot of situations where it’s so easy to get caught up in the solipsism of everything in the world functions the way it functions to me and really stresses the importance of going out and just asking questions and figuring out different people’s perspective and needs and wants, because it’s very unlikely that your experience is the same as other people’s experiences.
That feels especially true for anyone writing stories, anybody who has to really think beyond what their immediate needs are. Just be aware that there’s a lot of other things out there, and just always be asking yourself, “I think it’s this way, but why do I think it’s this way? Is there some other people I can ask about how they really see the situation?”
Megana: That’s so interesting. It seems so obvious that if you’re designing public transit, you would be thinking about the people who are already using public transit the most versus yourself who owns a BMW or something.
John: I think the same thing can be applied to any industry-wide thing. We have a bunch of different people who are involved in the process of making movies and TV shows. The needs of one group may not match up with the needs of other groups. Recognize that if you’re pushing for one thing that you really want, it may have harmful effects to other people as well. Always good to be looking at what are the needs of the whole and not always prioritize what are your immediate needs.
Megana: I love that. I feel like as I learn more about design, it really comes down to asking more questions of people making sure that the design’s actually functional.
John: Absolutely. Some of the software stuff that we’re doing, I have persnickety taste, and so a lot of things in Highland or Weekend Read are very much what I want. It’s only when we actually have betas out there that other people can use or people who are trying to use the software for different things than I’m trying to use it for, that we can really see what’s useful. Ryan Knighton, who’s been a frequent guest, tests out our iOS apps to make sure they actually work for blind people, for example. We can turn on the simulators to see what would it be like for a blind person, but we are not a blind person who can use this app. He’s our guinea pig there and really lets us know what he needs.
Megana: Great. In keeping in theme of broadening point of view, my One Cool Thing for this week is a book by Gabrielle Blair. It’s called Ejaculate Responsibly: A Whole New Way to Think About Abortion. It’s this short, funny, thought-provoking read. You could probably finish it in one sitting.
In the book, she lays out these 20 arguments where she makes the case for why we should move the debate away from legislating/controlling women’s bodies and instead focuses on the role of men in sexual health. I think what she does so well is she takes away some of the political and religious weight that we bring into these conversations, and instead, really roots it in these biological and scientific arguments around fertility. I learned a lot from it. It was a really interesting read. I think it’s an important perspective to consider.
John: Absolutely. I think you’re right to tie it into this dangers of elite perception. I think we have this sense when it comes to fertility and abortion and all these things that it’s strictly just a women’s issue.
Megana: Really helpful way to frame this conversation.
John: It all comes from just an act that happened on one day that has these long repercussions, and that we should probably be thinking about that moment rather than all the other stuff around it.
Megana: She really gets into the science of the fertility and the difference between it. These are things that I have known and felt, but to see these arguments written out in this way was just really powerful. I think it’s really smart the way that she does it.
John: Great. I’m looking forward to reading it. That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao, and two of our segments were produced by Stuart Friedel way back in the day.
John: It’s edited by Matthew Chilelli as always. Our outro is by Martin Kubitsky. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send questions. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find transcripts and sign up for our weeklyish newsletter called Inneresting, which has lots of links to things about writing. We have T-shirts, and they’re great. You can find them at Cotton Bureau. You can sign up to become a Premium Member at scriptnotes.net, where you get all the back-episodes and Bonus Segments, like the one we’re about to record on the Scriptnotes book and other things coming in 2023. Megana, thank you for putting together this episode.
Megana: Thank you.
John: Megana, this whole episode came to be because you were working on a chapter for the Scriptnotes book. We’ve not had a lot of big updates. We’re still not talking about delivery dates and things like that, when we have to turn it in to our publishers at Crown. It’s been fun going back through the archives and seeing who we were then and what advice we had. I’m sure our writing advice is pretty consistent, but other stuff has changed. What are you finding as you’re looking through things?
Megana: It’s interesting to also hear how much more confident you guys are in talking about these things as time goes on. There are kernels of truth that you’ve been saying since Episode 70 of the podcast, 500 episodes ago. That’s really cool, because I think that these lessons that you’re teaching are consistent, but they’re also really difficult to learn, which is why we have to keep talking about them.
John: One of the goals of the Scriptnotes book is that it can be a little bit timeless, that it’s really screenwriting advice that’ll be applicable in 2023 or 2043 hopefully. There’ll be things that’ll still be the same. Other stuff does keep evolving and changing.
One of the things that you and I have been trying to figure out is that… Over the next year, we’re going to be coming up on a new WGA contract. There’s going to be all the questions of stuff about what happens around that. That’s a difficult thing for us to do on the show, because we’re not that timely of a show. We record a week in advance sometimes. We can’t be especially responsive. We have international listeners and listeners who are listening just for the fun of it, who don’t necessarily need to know about the intricate details of WGA stuff. It’s not cool for them.
What you and I have been talking about is maybe just doing short little side-cast episodes that are not a full hour, not our normal thing, but are just about WGA topics that come up related to this new contract that don’t have to be about everything else. If you want a normal Scriptnotes episode, you’ll get your normal Scriptnotes episode on Tuesday, but there may be some extra little bonus things that come out not on a Tuesday, about just this WGA stuff.
Megana: Absolutely. I think the one common thing of everyone in Hollywood is they’re incredibly dramatic. As we are coming up to some of these conversations, I have been hearing crazy, wild takes. I think it’ll be nice to have a really measured, responsive way of hearing what’s true or not, because you’ve had so much experience with the WGA, at least negotiations, to shed some more light and insight into what’s actually going on.
John: Absolutely. I’ve been through many negotiation cycles. I’ve been on the negotiating committee. I’m on the negotiating committee this year. I can’t comment specifically about some stuff in this negotiation, because that’s just not appropriate. The only place that you’re going to hear the real scoop from the WGA side is going to be from the WGA itself and from the folks who are in charge of things. What I can hopefully do is offer some just broad frameworks for thinking about the timelines of things, how stuff works, because there’s terminology that is just facts, but it’s not necessarily obvious to someone going through it for the first time. I see here in the Workflowy you have two questions from people who’ve written in already. Maybe we can try to just break the seal with these two.
Megana: Chris wrote in and asked, “I’m a new pre-WGA arrival to LA and have been taking some general water bottle tour meetings with execs at various studios and production companies. During my last three conversations, the execs all mentioned that they were concerned about the uncertainty of a pending writer’s strike in May, with two of the three saying they believed it likely to happen. I’ve not heard this possibility discussed on any recent Scriptnotes episodes, and I’m wondering if you can share your thoughts.”
John: What Chris is experiencing is probably what Megana’s experiencing, what I’m experiencing too, is that when you have conversations in general meetings with people who work in the industry, film or television, they’ll ask like, “Oh, it’s getting crazy. There could be a strike.” People will weigh their percentage odds on what that’s going to be.
Here’s the very general thing that people are looking at and talking about timeline-wise is that the the WGA works under a contract with all the studios, all the big studios, everyone who makes film and television. That contract is renewed every three years. We have a negotiation to update and revise and renew and approve a new contract with the studios. The existing contract runs out May 1st.
In the time leading up to that, you would expect there to be negotiations with the studios between the WGA and the studios to figure out what that new contract will be. In some years it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a very contentious contract. In some years it feels like a more contentious contract. There’s a lot of discussion this year about what’s going to be in that, but there are no proposals from either side. We don’t know what it’s going to look like. I just think there’s a general feeling that it looks like there’s a lot of stuff to be figured out.
We’re not the only people negotiating contract. It should be noted that IATSE, who represents most of the below-the-line decisions, they’ve already negotiated a contract. The DGA may be in negotiations to work on their contract. SAG, the actors generally go after us. There’s a lot of negotiations happening this year about contracts. It’s very normal for someone like Chris to be hearing these conversations as they go in and have these just general chitchatty meetings about what’s going to happen and thinking about head to if there were to be a strike, what that might look like. Megana, are you hearing these conversations too?
Megana: Yeah, and I would say that they’re a little bit further, where people are banking on the inevitability of it. I just heard someone at a party recently saying that they were planning a vacation around when they think the strike would happen, because to me that feels like putting the horse before the cart. Wait, no, that’s where you’re supposed to put the horse.
John: The horses generally do go in front of the carts, but you do you.
Megana: Putting the cart before the horse. You and I had an interesting discussion about this. I was hoping you could talk about why we shouldn’t presume an inevitability of a strike.
John: I don’t think this idea of inevitability helps anybody, because I think what it could do is back some producers and some studios into rushing or making some hasty decisions that they’re going to regret. I also think it doesn’t do well for writers, because if everyone assumes there’s going to be a strike, then maybe the other side isn’t negotiating with best intentions of actually averting a problem. I just don’t think inevitable is a great word to be thinking about, especially when, again, there are no proposals. There’s no deal to be discussing. It’s just a lot of speculation at this point. I don’t think it’s especially great to be doing that.
Listen. All writers I think at some point have this dream list of like, what if there were a snow day and I didn’t have to do my other work and I can just do whatever I wanted to do. That’s natural. That’s a natural fantasy in film. I’m sure executives have that too. Presuming that there’s going to be a giant blizzard and that the school’s going to be canceled for a period of time isn’t a great way to be approaching the works that you actually need to be doing.
Megana: Oh my gosh, and it sets you up for so much disappointment.
John: I don’t think inevitable is a great word to be throwing around here. I see a second question here from Liliana.
Megana: Liliana from Los Angeles wrote in and said, “A few episodes ago, Craig mentioned a potential writer’s strike next summer, and it made me curious what you all think it means for assistants. I currently work for a writer under her overall deal, and she warned me about the strike as well. If her deal ends, I’ll be out of a job. What can pre-WGA writers/assistants do to prepare? What was it like for them in ’07 and ’08?”
John: I can’t speak specifically to how things worked for below-the-line staff, writing staff, in ’07 and ’08, folks who were writers’ room assistants, who were showrunners’ assistants. What I will say is that I think given Pay Up Hollywood and our general better awareness of the issues faced by folks who were working in those rooms, there will be some more awareness of how do we keep those people solvent during any sort of work stoppage if it were to happen.
There’s not a lot I can advise Liliana to do other than to be frugal with her money, which is a hard thing for me to say, because I know she’s not probably being paid a lot, to be aware and open, and to be maybe ready to shift to something else if she needs to during a time if work were to ever stop, if there were to be some sort of strike or some sort of other action.
If there were to be a strike or work stoppage or a lockout or anything like that, if there is to be a disruption, it stops for everybody. Studios will look to trim costs where they can, and they will fire people. They will not employ people. In some cases, they are able to keep productions going for a little time, but it’s tough. Liliana could be out of a job for a time. I do recall something from the last strike that I was involved in. Things also ramp up really quickly again. It’s not going to be like the pandemic where you just don’t know what is possibly going to happen. We do know how to get out of these things and how to get back to things.
Megana: Resuming production after the pandemic had so many questions, and we introduced this whole new role of the COVID safety officer, but you’re saying that this is like, as soon as it’s back on, it’s on.
John: Yeah. After the ’07-’08 strike, the next day, rooms were reopening and things were getting back into shape. Did people need to figure some stuff out? Sure, but a lot of stuff did just resume, pick up right where it left off. Not everything. People did lose overall deals. There were other things that were trims and there were [inaudible 01:32:11]. I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture, but it did kind of get back to the way it was, and just with a better contract. It certainly is doable. It won’t necessarily feel like a dramatic change if there’s a stoppage and then it comes back.
Megana: Got it. Basically, you’re saying maybe don’t think on it, but also put more money in your bank from your savings for the first part of the year.
John: Yeah. To go back to the storm metaphor, don’t count on a blizzard that’s going to close schools, but you should also have some emergency mac and cheese in your cupboards in case it does happen.
Megana: Yeah, or study for the English test that you’re hoping will get canceled.
John: That’s exactly it. Somehow I have a feeling, Megana, you were always prepared for those things. Do you long for snow days or do you rue snow days?
Megana: I think it depended. I loved a snow day, but if I had a big test, I’d rather just get that over with, because you’re delaying this terrible thing you have to do. We would usually have one really cold week in January where we would just have a week full of snow days, and that is incredible.
John: I loved a snow day where it was enough to close school, but I could still get over to my friend’s house and hang out. Those were the ideal snow days for me is the ones where… They were less fun as I got older. I just remember the grade school snow days just felt like, “Wow, this is a thing I can’t even believe has happened.” I definitely agree with your point where there’s times where you’ve crammed for the test and you’re so ready, and if you had to delay and then cram again, it just felt like wasted work, because you knew that you weren’t going to hold onto those facts about chemistry.
Megana: Yeah. This is all short-term memory. None of this is being-
John: None of this is sticking.
John: Now, our poor kids these days, they can just Zoom into school or they have to just turn in their paper digitally.
Megana: Oh my gosh.
John: They don’t get it.
Megana: Oh, wow.
John: It’s unfair. The world has become unfair.
Megana: That is one of the biggest joys of my childhood.
John: Hopefully, there’ll be no snow days that derail the delivery of the Scriptnotes book, but that is another thing. We’ll be working on it very hard. We don’t know exactly when it’s going to ship, but we know our delivery day is going to be sometime this year. We have a lot of work ahead for us. I’m not saying I want any sort of labor disruption, but if there is a labor disruption, that’s a little more time we can be working on the book.
Megana: I feel like that’s what we just advised against talking about.
John: I’m not saying I’m looking forward to it. I’m just saying a writer can’t help but theorize, if something were to go awry, this might be something I would do in that gap period of time and that might be something I’d work on in that gap period of time if it were to happen.
Megana: That’s fair. I just feel wizened from the pandemic that I know that that will never happen for me.
John: Absolutely. You always think, “Oh, I’m going to have all this luxury free time.” Then it’s like, no, I’m not.
John: If there’s a strike, I’ll be marching outside of Paramount like I did last time. Who knows? Thanks, Megana.
Megana: Thanks, John.
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