Scriptnotes Episode 299: The Vision as a Writer/Director and Handling Rejection

On May 9th, 2017, Craig Mazin hosted a live Scriptnotes podcast at the Arclight Theater with special guests Diana Fox, Rob McElhenney (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Rian Johnson (Looper, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) where they discuss breaking into Hollywood, handling rejection, and keeping the vision as a writer and a director.

The podcast began with Rob McElhenney, who writes, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”. He mentioned several times throughout that he absolutely hates writing and notes that desperation helped him get through the sluggish lulls. “I was working in every bar and restaurant in New York City… I was not getting any jobs, so, I was encouraged very aggressively by my agent to stop bitching and write something myself” (Mazin, Fox, McElhenny and Johnson 2017).

Rian Johnson meanwhile spoke of keeping a vision as a director and he hinted that sometimes when you’re trying to break into the industry and someone hands you an opportunity for a script that you’ve written, but, they wish to change things, sometimes your gut may tell you to leave that opportunity alone  and wait for the right one.

At the end of the discussion, there were questions from the audience. Diana Fox noted that when it comes to writing a screenplay and dealing with strikes: “A little practical advice too, take your pajamas off, because if you don’t look like you’re at a job, you won’t feel like you’re at a job, and if you don’t have real pressure, create fake pressure that’s so fucked up that you actually start believing in” (Mazin, Fox, McElhenny and Johnson 2017).

The main take away from the podcast though is this: it is always best to follow your skill set instead of your dreams, because sometimes your dreams don’t transcend into reality. Sometimes you have to wake up and live a life and whatever you life you choose, be sure to be good at it. That’s probably the best advice most of us will ever hear.

Work Cited

Mazin, Chris, Diana Fox, Rob McElhenney, and Rian Johnson. “Scriptnotes 299 – It’s Always Sunny in Star Wars.” Audio blog post. Scriptnotes. N.p., 09 May 2017. Web. 10 May 2017.

Scriptnotes Episode 298 – How Characters Move and Speak in Scripts

On May 2nd 2017, John August and Chris Mazin speak on the Scriptnotes podcast with character movement and portraying character physicality. They spoke of how to go about employing such technique in screenplays in both senses – in terms of writing in general, and then in terms of having characters say something without verbal communication (i.e. body language).

August admits that as he goes along, he generally does not think about this consciously, and generally blocks that characters, but doesn’t do much else: “Thinking through what character movement’s could be and when it’s helpful to call them out, because a lot of times, I’ve seen them in my head, but I haven’t bothered to describe them on the page” (August and Mazin 2017).

Mazin notes this reaction is normal and that sometimes it isn’t always necessary. “It will always be necessary for an actor to make a choice about their own physicality…. but in key moments it’s important for us to think about it and you can kind of break it down into two categories – one is situation and one is constitutional” (August and Mazin 2017).

They discuss motion, but they note that a physicality of a character can indicate certain aspects and how a character moves through a space, such as posture, strength and weakness, a slight limp. They use the example of “No Country for Old Men” where a character limps, which becomes important to his character. “99% of writers will not really go there” Mazin notes. “But they should, it doesn’t mean that you should always do something like that… but when you’re creating a monster and give him a slight imperfection, calling back to Frankenstein’s monster, it could be really interesting” (August and Mazin 2017).

They mention behavioral ticks, such as “um’s” and suggest that writer’s listen to people and watch people with the sound off in their head – what are the things that people do. Mazin continues by saying: “Those little things sometimes tell us so much, and the audience enjoys [this]. They know that that character really isn’t aware of it… we’re learning something about them that they don’t want us to know” (August and Mazin 2017).

The two then go on to three reader submissions where they go over three important points of each three-page submitted script:

  1. Action and dialogue can sometimes go on for too long. Writer’s essentially need to show us what we need to know, but not everything we see.
  2. You can sometimes nix the INT./EXT. to create a voice for yourself, but know that they will be put in at some point.
  3. Make sure that dialogue has a purpose and relates to the action. Attempt to do something different with tropes such as characters riding off into the sunset.

Work Cited

August, John, and Chris Mazin. “Scriptnotes 298: How Characters Move.” Audio blog post. Scriptnotes. N.p., 2 May 2017. Web. 3 May 2017.

Scriptnotes: Inside the Writer’s Room with Damon Lindelof

On April 18th, 2017, John August spoke with Damon Lindelof, show-runner of Lost, and writer of The Leftovers speaks to the motions of the writer’s room, going through the processes of gathering a writing team to creating ideas and how an outline, in terms of a television series, forms into a script and how everything works with the network/studio.

To begin, Lindelof notes that how a show-runner selects someone to be in the writer’s room is based on the spec that was written but also based on whether that particular writer has the correct personality for the room as a whole: “So you read somebody’s sample and that gets them in the room, but the intangible is, you set down with them for an hour and ninety minutes, if the interview is going particularly well, and you ask yourself: can I hang out with this person in a room for 9=10 hours a day and enjoy hanging out with them? And that’s just a gut instinct, there are some amazing writers, incredible on the page,who just had an awkward interview” (August and Lindelof 2017). Lindelof continues by saying that the room, to use a buzzword, has to be “diverse”, particularly with people of color and gender, and as a de-facto rule, Lindelof says that the writer’s room has to be 50/50.

Of course, even though the show-runner makes the decision on who is in the writer’s room, it is ultimately the studio who has a voice in the room. August asked a question of how scripts are read and Lindelof notes that it was the studio or the network. “If they’re staffing a show that had just gone done or they have deals with talent, probably less so than before, or someone that they’ve been monitoring that they’re big fans of… [with The Leftovers] they came from a whole spectrum- some of them were playwrights, some of them were novelists, very few had television experience before and I think the thinking was like let’s put people in this room who haven’t done it before because they’ll come up with more out of the box ideas” (Lindelof and August 2017).

The next step, once the writer’s room is put together, is to brainstorm on a white board, at least for Lindelof and after ideas are bounced around, a detailed outline is created and then the script is written. All of this takes place in roughly the span of three weeks due to Lindelof and another writer from the room working on a script with everyone working on the outline (that the studio executives see) (Lindelof and August 2017).

A question from a listener came in: “I wrote a co-pilot a few years ago… one of the major studios loved it… a few days, the deal fell apart when it went to business affairs because of a production company attachment we had that the studio did not want, their attachment deal has now expired and we have full control of the project again, but the development people that wanted the show are no longer there and we’re starting from scratch. [Our agents are telling us] once a project comes around once, it is old news and no one wants to look at it again. In your experience is that true and do we have any shot at reviving this?”

Lindelof answered with: “Yes and yes.” The industry, he notes, has a bias towards anything that is rehashed or old news (this begs the question of reboots and remakes then). Usually people want to be the first to say that something started because of their enthusiasm for a project rather than to pick something up that was rejected. Ultimately Lindelof answered: “Strong material, if available, people will snap it up” (Lindelof and August 2017).

The moral of this story that Lindelof ultimately gets to is that it is not the end of the universe, it is possible to revive or re-purpose something. Mr. Robot, for example, was originally a film script, but it was re-worked as a television script and was picked up. The same is true for Mad Men. Working in a writer’s room is a tough business, but similar to film, you are dealing with studios who make the decisions for you and sometimes that could be a pain and heartbreaking, but it shouldn’t be taken personally or as the end of something. You can always bounce back and return with a little elbow grease involved, to use a phrase.

Work Cited

August, John, and Damon Lindelof. “296 – Television with Damon Lindelof.” Audio blog post. Scriptnotes. N.p., 18 Apr. 2017. Web.

Why Race Doesn’t Really Matter When Writing Scripts: Scriptnotes

On Tuesday, March 14th, 2017, Scriptnotes hosts John August and Craig Mazin tackle viewer questions and answer them to the best of their ability. Ranging in a variety of questions in regards to screenwriting, this podcast was generally focused on writing credits, the importance of an agent, and, what caught the eye the most, the portrayal of race and history in screenplays.

Several questions dealt with the issue. The first in the episode came from a Los Angeles viewer who asked: “I try to mindful of representation when describing characters in terms of race; however, in my current project, the characters races don’t play any significant role in the plot or interactions with other characters. They could be played by an actor of any color despite how I’ve described them. Is it better to describe the character in colorblind terms… or with racial implications?”

Upon answering this question, both hosts came up with similar answers, John noted that there will always be two competing ways of thinking – if the other characters are diverse, then it allows the reader to think of the main character as diverse and that a choice is a choice and that the writer made that specific choice for a reason or that it ultimately doesn’t matter (August and Mazin 2017). While Craig suggested making a list of people who could possibly fit the role as sometimes “it’s really more about age or gravitas and other things that are just more important than skin color. So I think it’s fair for you, especially if you’re writing a spec script, to include – here are some general ideas of who I was thinking when I doing this…” (August and Mazin 2017).

Later, Craig Mazin made an excellent point that is extremely important in writing scripts. “I think sometimes what ends up happening is people start to get nervous, and it’s white people that are getting nervous, let’s be clear about this, white writers get nervous (not all of them), but some of them about seeming racist or falling into some kind of trap, and so they overthink and they start to suddenly pepper the script with all of these racial descriptions to say ‘look at me, look at me, I’m not default white’ which is fine except that, you’re actually doing somewhat artificial at times” (August and Mazin 2017).

The most artificial thing a screenwriter can do, in my opinion, is to not be honest with yourself and to make a world inclusive for inclusivity’s sake. In other words, it is not progressive to have the television commercial with every single race on the planet represented because you want to be seen as a person who is inclusive. If this occurs, it may likely be seen as the opposite, that you are pandering to a specific group just to obtain a “non-racist card” as it were.

The problem that exists in screenwriting is that people are sometimes oversensitive when it comes to characters and their race. Is it nice to have people who are diverse, of course it is, but as Mazin points out “It doesn’t really matter” (August and Mazin 2017). This is not a Social Justice Course. It’s screenwriting and filmmaking. Let’s stop with the extreme politics and just write and make movies without the fear of being called a racist. It’s not always about race. It’s mostly about character and characters.

Work Cited

August, John, and Craig Mazin. “Scriptnotes: 292 – Question Time.” Audio blog post. Scriptnotes. N.p., 14 Mar. 2017. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.