Scriptnotes, Ep 276: Mammoths of Mercy — Transcript

John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 276 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, we’ll be looking at what it’s like to write and direct a movie for Netflix with a special guest who has done just that. Then it’s a new installment of How Would This Be a Movie, where we ask that question of several stories in the news, this time with a twist because not all of the stories are taken from the headlines. We’ll also be answering listener questions from our overflowing mailbag.

But first, some follow up. Craig, last week’s episode was a repeat and then we had a little mini-episode sort of in between there which is on the day of the election. It was the day of the election results called This Feeling Will End. Craig, did this feeling end?

Craig: It’s better. I don’t think it’s – I’m not completely free of the jaws of it, but much, much better. I mean, you know, this is natural, right. You have all this adrenaline inside of you and then it takes some time to go away. And when adrenaline recedes, it doesn’t just recede without complication. It’s like, you know, when people talk about taking drugs and then there’s the crash, you know. You feel a crash at some point. And oftentimes you will also get a weird elation rise out of it.

None of that is to be trusted. None of it means a damn thing. But one thing to also be aware of is that when we are over-adrenalized, what ends up happening is – this is true for all of the neurological receptors in our body, any kind of hormonal receptor. When they get hit a lot, they naturally dull themselves. It’s very smart, adaptive behavior on our bodies. So, they become less sensitive.

So let’s use adrenaline as the example. Your adrenaline, your natural adrenaline lowers to a normal level. But the normal level is hitting these dulled receptors. So, your body is like, whoa, we’re not getting enough adrenaline. And so it can sometimes spike your adrenaline again. So, just be aware. This will be a little bit of a rollercoaster, but each successive rise and fall will come further and further apart and less and less. And everyone emotionally speaking is going to be fine, assuming that they’re not in actual real life danger.

John: My general state is better than it was when we recording that thing. It couldn’t be any worse than it was when we recorded that thing. But I will say that I approached this week much less biochemically, and much more sort of like trying to figure out how I felt and sort of what was going on in my head. So, as we talked about it on the episode, I did my normal writing, and I happy entered my fantasy world and wrote my fantasy stuff. But by the weekend I was good enough that I could actually write directly about sort of what I was feeling and what my anxieties were.

And anxiety I think itself is a really fascinating theme, because it’s fear of the future. In this case, it’s actually fear of a future where I couldn’t control the outcomes. And leading up to the election, I really felt I had no control. Like these numbers would keep going up and down and they were meaningless to me and I couldn’t actually – there was nothing I could do that could change the number in FiveThirtyEight.

And then with this result, I realized like, oh you know, there actually are some things I could do. And so some of the things I did this week that made me feel better: I donated money to the charities that I felt were going to be most impacted by this result. I actually called my congress people for the first time ever, which was sort of weird. And I don’t know that it was actually directly impactful, but it helped me. And so both the writing and the actual taking actions got me through to the place where I’m at where I can record a podcast and not sound completely despondent.

Craig: Well, that’s fantastic. And I should point out that when you are released from the grip of feelings, it’s remarkable how much more productive you are to counter the things that led to those feelings in the first place. So, you know, for the first week following the election on Twitter I was just watching people running in circles with their heads chopped off, willy-nilly, and it was completely understandable. But, you know, the Vulcan in me is nowhere near the Vulcan in you, just kept thinking, “Well this is isn’t going to do anything. Let’s just give these people a week and then hopefully everybody kind of starts to figure out a smart way of approaching things, because that’s the only way anything ever gets done. Nothing ever gets done from emotion. It’s actually remarkable how much of a brake pedal, or even like an emergency break, emotional cascades can be.

So, I’m glad that you’re feeling that way. I definitely am, too. Much, much better. You know it’s funny, like I actually was thinking the other day: this is a little bit like what happens when you get – you know, we did that episode on the Rocky Shoals, where you get to Page 70 or 80 in a script. And one of the things I’ve always felt is that some of the fear and anxiety we feel when we get to that place in a script is due to the fact that we have fewer choices. That there’s less possibility. And that we are locked in, now, to something. And then you start to think, oh, I guess this is all it’s going to be, right?

So, some of the certainty that came with the election, namely this is going to be your president, was attached to an, “Oh, and this is what it’s going to be.” So even the certainty had this downside. But, overall I hope that people are starting to emerge from their fogs of either euphoria or fear. And returning their focus to getting things done.

John: Yes. And so we will turn our focus to a podcast about screenwriting, including making movies. And so our guest this week is Chris Sparling. He’s a writer whose credits include Buried and this year’s Sea of Trees. His new movie is Mercy which debuts on Netflix today. Chris Sparling, welcome to the show.

Chris Sparling: Thank you, guys. How are you?

Craig: Great. Welcome, Chris.

Chris: Thank you. Thank you.

John: As we established, we’re not perfect, but we’re trying to get through.

Chris: Yeah.

John: So, Chris, tell us about this movie and this situation. And I also – before we even get into it, you are I think our first guest who has actually been a listener question or listener response on the show. You wrote in because you are a writer who works out of Rhode Island. Is that correct?

Chris: Yeah. You know, John, you and I have met a few times over the years. And then, Craig, you and I met recently because of that. It’s funny, because I’m sitting here listening to your guys talk and I’m forgetting, I’m like, oh, I’m actually on the show as opposed to just listening to it right now. So, yeah, I mean, look, I listen all the time. I know a lot of people that do. And so for me it’s kind of an interesting thing where it’s apart from maybe talking to my reps or whatever else, it’s kind of like a lifeline to the industry for me. So yeah.

John: Cool. So, you have – this isn’t your first movie. You directed a tiny little movie called Atticus Institute, but this is a bigger movie you just directed. It debuts on Netflix. What is the path that takes you to Netflix? And is this a movie that you made and then Netflix bought? Or just a movie that Netflix was involved in from the very start?

Chris: They were involved from the start. It’s a Netflix original. So, you know, kind of the long and short of it was I had written a script several years ago, tried different ways to get it made, and just – there were some promising things going on. And then as they do, sometimes they don’t move forward. And then I was approached by XYZ Films, I know those guys over there pretty well. It’s a great outfit. And they said, “Hey look, we have this deal with Netflix. Do you have any scripts that we should know about and they should know about?” So, kind of that’s really how it happened.

I sent them Mercy and they sent it to Netflix and, you know, they really responded. So, it just became a matter of – it really was this straight-forward. It was like, hey, we love the script. Do you think you can do it for X price? And, of course, I said yeah. And that was it.

Craig: So, that’s something that I think everybody in our business, and people outside of our business, are really curious about. Because there’s this on the plus side Netflix is this enormous content producer now. They are a behemoth. Like out of nowhere they became kind of the largest content maker. But, there’s always – there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

So, budget-wise, were they kind of like, “Yeah, we’ll do it, but you know, maybe not for what you have liked to have done it, or what you might have expected to get budget-wise if you had been doing it at a studio?”

Chris: Well, I mean, yeah, I suppose. But, I mean, look, I’m realistic. As John pointed out, my first movie was a small one. This was a chance to a do a bigger movie. So, I mean, if I was a director that had already done ten movies, let’s say, then yeah, I think I would have expected to have more money and everything else. But they offered enough to make the movie. So, to me it was, sure, you always want more. Even if they gave me $50 million to make the movie, I probably would have wanted $10 more.

Craig: Right.

Chris: So, but no, it was a chance – and I don’t want to just chalk it up to, well hey, I had a chance to make a movie, so that’s just a great opportunity and I’m going to take that every time. No, I mean, everything fell in line. The numbers worked. And I didn’t have to really sacrifice anything in terms of the story or, you know, or what I wanted it to be.

John: But one of the changes you are making here is that generally as you make a film, let’s say you’re making this film in a more traditional environment. So you might have made this film and taken it to Sundance and sold it out of Sundance. And there’s all that process. There’s the screenings. There’s the who’s going to buy it. Your first movie I encountered you for was Buried, which was a big Sundance sale.

And so by doing this for Netflix, all that part of the process goes away. You don’t have to worry about the one sheets and are we going to get that screened. Like you know exactly, like before you clicked your first slate you knew exactly where this movie was going to end up. And it’s got to change some of the process going into it. It’s more like making a TV show to some degree than making a normal movie.

Chris: Yeah. And I think it’s partly why they were very – and I mean this in a good way – they were pretty hands off. They really allowed me to get in and make the movie I wanted to make without say maybe micromanaging everything I was doing. And I think because there’s already these “disruptive models” or whatever you want to call them, there’s already this framework that exists and they’re doing it and doing it more. You know you’re going to be – I don’t know, I think they’re in like 190 countries now. Or something ridiculous. And so to your question, or to your point about kind of the festival circuit, is you lose the uncertainty.

You know, you go into those festivals, if you’re lucky enough to get into them, there’s not guarantee you’re going to get distribution. And even if you do, if it’s going to be good distribution. Here, you’re making a movie knowing you’re going to get the eyeballs of millions of people, guaranteed. Unless you just completely make just a terrible movie. And I would imagine they’re not going to release that on their platform.

But, I’d like to think I didn’t. I guess everyone will know tonight.

Craig: Well, I mean, the interesting thing is they don’t really have much in the way of cost to release anything. There’s marketing. In other words, they could choose to put a certain amount of marketing muscle behind what your movie is, I guess, via their promos. But, the actual release of the movie costs nothing. I mean, it’s there, right? It’s on their server. They might as well let you have it if you want it.

I’m actually kind of fascinated by the way that the shape of our televisions has changed this business so much. Because it used to be that when you were making a movie, just the physical process of it was so much different. Not only because it was going to end up being projected, but just the aspect ratio was different than making something for television. And now the aspect ratio is almost identical.

When you know that your movie will not be running in theaters and will only be on televisions, does that change your workflow in terms of your post-production?

Chris: No, it didn’t. We still approached it as if there was a possibility it would get a theatrical, because there was talk of it. You know, maybe getting a small theatrical. Ultimately, it just wasn’t the right fit for, you know, I think a couple of different reasons. But, no, it didn’t impact the workflow. It didn’t really change much of anything.

You know, I think if there’s any sort of thing that’s in the back of your mind is that this thing up to the minute, something can change. In other words, I’m saying to you guys now, it’s like, yeah, the movie is premiering tonight. Blah, blah, blah. Up to the minute, they could change that. Whereas if you’re releasing a movie in theaters, I mean, that’s not going to happen.

Craig: Right. Yeah, they have way more flexibility. That is true.

John: So, talk to us about this last month. Because the movie has been locked for probably a while now. So, you’ve known you had this release date coming up. You’re cutting trailers. You’re doing some of the normal movie stuff. But do you sit down with press? Because there’s all this machinery that normally happens when a movie is being released, be it on the festival circuit, or be it a bigger movie.

Are you doing any of that? Or is it more just like they click a button and suddenly it’s out there in the world? What’s that been like for you this last month?

Chris: There’s been some press. You know, we premiered at the LA Film Festival, so there’s been a little bit of festival stuff, a little bit of press. But I think less, even to say with movies in the past that I’ve been involved with that say I just wrote. There was a lot more press involved with that sort of stuff. A lot more just stuff going into the buildup of the release of the film. Whereas I think with this, it’s more about just get the word out there, get people talking. And then, you know, then the movie is going to be there.

And, you know, Netflix – they’re going to do whatever it is they do to make sure the algorithms, or whatever it is they use to make sure that you get suggested this film, you will. And, look, I mean, I don’t even fully understand how all that stuff works in the traditional sense. And so I’m not going to pretend I know how Netflix does it. But apparently they seem to know what they’re doing because I keep getting movies popping up on my Netflix recommendations and everything else.

Craig: And this is a WGA arrangement and a DGA arrangement?

Chris: Yeah. It’s both.

John: Great.

Craig: And so there’s an expectation of residuals, I presume, from both of those? Yeah.

Chris: Yeah, I mean, if you want to talk pros and cons, I guess, you know, again, I don’t want to sound ignorant to what the process is beyond the movie being done. But, I mean, that’s kind of more in their hands at that point. I can tell you more about the lead up to that. You know, and you can say what the pros and cons are. With a traditional film, you’re looking at the potential of more backend hopefully if you get a good theatrical release and good box office, so on and so forth.

Obviously, that’s probably not going to be the case here. It’s not going to be the case at all in my film, because I didn’t get a theatrical. But there are ancillary markets they sell to and everything else. So the cons are probably there. The pros are people are – you know, this has probably more to do with producers even I would so more so than writers, but it applies. You know, you’re getting fees up front. That’s where you’re making your money. And you’re hoping that those fees are substantial enough to justify you maybe not getting as healthy a backend.

Craig: Right. Makes sense.

Chris: Yeah.

John: Chris, let’s cycle back to the movie itself. So, this is a script that you had written. It was sitting on your shelf essentially. How close had you come to finding a way to make this movie before?

Chris: Pretty close, a few different times. You know, a long while back it was optioned and that ran its course. And so, yeah, I mean, just like anything else where you have a bunch of projects. I’m not one, and I want to say I’ve heard you guys talk about this on the podcast before, but I’m not one to try to revisit old things necessarily. I feel like that’s kind of if it didn’t go, it usually is for a good reason.

But this was one that never really went away. It just kept floating nearby, so to speak. It just never, ever just was dead. So it didn’t become one of these zombie projects that just won’t die officially.

John: And was it always a project that you were going to direct, or were other people involved in the directing front before?

Chris: Not at the outset. I wasn’t attached to direct when it was first optioned. And then just over time, you know, as I started to have the desire more and more to direct, it became for me – you know, when I looked at what I’d written or what I’d planned to write, it seemed like something that was viable. It wasn’t me trying to say, “Hey, I’d love to direct this $50 million or $150 million movie.”

John: Cool. Now, looking at the trailer, it looks like you movie fits into a pattern that, well, it looks like it fits in two patterns. It looks like it’s a domestic family drama that morphs into a single house horror film. Is that an accurate portrayal of what the experience of the movie is?

Chris: For the most part. I think it kind of, it turns from that family drama into a home invasion thriller, I would say. I mean, I don’t even know if you actually see someone full on get killed. I don’t even know if you see like a knife going into a body. No, you don’t.

Craig: Shouldn’t you know that? I mean, you—

Chris: No, well, I know that. The thing is I just don’t want to say something and then I’m saying, “Actually, no, I do see that.” Yeah, well, yes, I know you don’t see a knife get driven into someone’s body. But I was going to say I don’t know if you actually see anyone die in blood and everything else. But, you know, I don’t want to give away too much, that’s why.

Craig: Got it.

John: Well, it reminds me in many ways though we had Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi on before talking about The Invitation. And The Invitation is a similar kind of situation where it looks like one kind of movie and it transforms into another kind of movie. But underlying all of it, what makes it possible to actually make that film is that it is a largely single location movie that is contained and you sort of have within this frame you can do amazing things. But it’s all staying within this frame.

That lets you lower your budget, lower your number of shooting days. It makes a lot of the other decisions much simpler I would hope.

Chris: Yeah, it does. I mean, look, for better or for worse, based on the stuff that I’ve written, I’ve kind of been pigeon-holed as the guy that writes kind of smaller contained thrillers.

John: Yeah. Like Buried. It’s all in a coffin.

Chris: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.

John: You’re really branching out.

Craig: At least you give yourself more room. You started with a coffin, now you have a house. I assume your next movie will be like a block of houses.

Chris: Yeah. That’s it. I’ll have a neighborhood to work with. So, no, I mean, yeah, it’s the sort of thing where, yes, it’s actually a broader canvas than what I had with movies like Buried and other movies I’ve done, but at the same time I feel like having – you know, that’s what I think is the good thing about these contained thrillers is that you kind of are forced to come up with creative solutions. You can’t just say, I guess whatever the writing equivalent would be of throwing money at a problem. You have to come up with a creative solution because you really don’t have the resources. And that’s probably why you’re doing a single location thriller is because most likely you don’t have the resources to go and go shoot in Iceland or something.

John: Yeah. Cool. Well, Chris, we wish you so much luck with your movie, debuting today. If people want to see it, just turn on Netflix and it will be there, which is the amazing thing about the time we live in is that people can actually see your movie. There’s really no excuse for like, oh, it wasn’t playing in my town. You don’t have to do a Mike Birbiglia 40-city tour to get people to see your movie. They just have to turn on their TV.

Chris: Thank you guys.

Craig: Nobody wants to do anything that Mike Birbiglia does. Listen, if you’re stuck doing what Mike Birbiglia does, something has gone terribly wrong. [laughs]

John: So much hard work. Well, let’s go from your movie to talk about other potential movies. So, this is a feature I’m sure you’ve heard on the show before. It’s called How Would This Be a Movie. And we’re going to take a look at some stories that we found and look at what they’d be like as a movie.

The first one I want to propose is Dear Mike’s New Girlfriend. It’s by Silvia Killingsworth for The Awl. And unlike most of these stories we’ve done before, this is not a news story. There’s no real events here. It is told from the point of view of a group of women who are writing to the new girlfriend of Mike. So, I’m going to read you the first couple of paragraphs to give you a taste of what this is.

Dear Mike’s New Girlfriend,
Wow. Big news! Congratulations on today’s announcements. We’re genuinely excited for you guys.
We realized a few years ago that the social value of dating Mike was so obvious and the advantages so overwhelming that every girl would want to date him, or “someone just like him,” within the decade. It’s validating to see you’ve come around to the same way of thinking. And even though — being honest here — it’s a little scary, we know just getting it all over with will bring a better future forward faster.
However, all this is harder than it looks. So, as you set out to find out just how terrible he is, we want to give you some friendly advice.

So, the rest of the story is written as a sort of advice column to the new woman who is dating Mike, who is a louse. Craig, what was your first instinct? What did you think of this as a movie?

Craig: I was so confused by it to be honest with you. I didn’t understand the perspective. I was struggling. Because, you know, when you read something you’re like, okay, let’s just cut down to like what’s the point, right? And the point seems to be that Mike sucks. But then I don’t understand why this woman is dating Mike. Nor do I understand what the girlfriends are trying to tell her, the ex-girlfriends, because they seem to be saying it’s good, but no, it’s never good. I didn’t understand.

So, but I did think, okay, that’s not – so what, so I didn’t understand it, big deal. The point is, how do you make this a movie. And then I thought, well, there’s this concept of this group of ex-girlfriends. And you are a woman who has met a guy and he seems perfect and he seems great and you start dating him. And then you get almost like The Matrix, like you get a message. And you essentially encounter this secret society of 20 women that have all dated him. And they all have very strong opinions. And you have to start to decide am I number 21, or am I different? Is he what they think, or is he different?

You know, that cuts to something that is universal. Everybody who is currently in a solid, successful relationship with somebody is in a solid, successful relationship with somebody who has an ex that hates them and thinks they’re the worst and nobody should be with them. So, that’s – but then, of course, sometimes they’re right and you just think you’re in a successful relationship. So, that cuts to something real. I like that high concept. I just didn’t quite – I don’t know if I could get anything more out of this piece per se.

John: Chris, what was your first take here?

Chris: I agree with Craig. I was kind of lost at first. I didn’t fully understand it either. But I went dark. I went dark with it. I said what if it’s a stalker thriller. So, you have this actual thing exists in the real world. This woman – not that the real author, just we’ll say a fake author writes this piece. Puts it out in the real world and then there’s this real deranged individual named Mike that believes it’s him. She’s writing about him. And just completely just it becomes that he’s just stalking her. And meanwhile as a result of the piece, like any piece that goes viral, which it probably did in real life I’m assuming. And then her career as a writer, she’s on the rise, like she’s on the Today Show. So her career is growing. She needed this, too.

And meanwhile this guy is kind of infiltrating her life more and more and getting creepier and creepier and turning violent. And the reality is she made this whole thing up. There’s no Mike. And she has to kind of make the decision do I come clean and destroy this career I just built myself off of this, or do I risk dying as a result of this. So.

Craig: I would definitely choose not dying. [laughs]

Chris: Yeah, well–

John: I think many women have to choose between career and the guy. So, even the guy that’s trying to kill them. So, Chris went meta with it. My instinct is a little bit more like what Craig’s is. I do agree, like I really liked the concept of the piece. I felt like some of the execution was a little bit muddled here. So, I was really more taking the general idea of a group of women who show up to say, “Listen, this guy is terrible and you have to believe us. And we understand why you won’t believe us, but we just want to tell you what to look out for.”

And so I thought some of the specifics about sort of like, you know, feeling the need that you have to compose a thoughtful response to his manic emails. You have to sort of always be there for him, even though he’s never going to be there for you. I thought all of that stuff had the good framework for what could be a movie. But this piece didn’t give me exactly who the characters were. It just gave me this cipher of a Mike.

The first task would be making Mike very specific and very attractive yet horrible in a way that you can believe that our heroine of the story would fall for him and not recognize all of his flaws immediately.

Craig: Yeah. Or maybe not horrible. I mean, that’s the other twist is that maybe he changed. [laughs] That’s the thing. It’s so strange. I like Chris’s version though, too. I think there’s something interesting about inventing someone that you claim to know, people seem to be caught doing this constantly now. What used to be shocking, you know, like with – when somebody would write a novel, a memoir, that as entirely fake. Now it’s like, well, it’s just a daily thing. We’ve almost presumed that people are making stuff up now.

But to make up this guy that rallies the world, you know. Like, yes, that’s a terrible person. And I love the idea of some guy sitting there going, “She’s talking about me.” It’s so ironic that he thinks that that’s him. That’s kind of cool, too.

John: Yeah. There’s a version in which he’s the bad guy and she’s in danger because he’s the bad guy. But there’s also the version in which he’s just the guy and everyone assumes it’s him, or he just has the same name as the guy that she uses in this. And everyone assumes, like, you’re this terrible, horrible person. It’s like, no, I’m not this person at all. And yet the degree to which he is that terrible person because we’re all that terrible person. We’re all Mike.

Chris: Yeah. And we’re all her though, too. And that’s why I was saying about deciding whether, you know, taking this to an extreme, whether to die or admit that you made all this up. I mean, I just feel like it’s kind of the world we live in, right? This fame, and this desire for fame, and this desire for likes, and to be liked. I don’t know, I just feel like it’s a drug.

And I do question if someone would be willing to give up that fame, you know?

John: I wish we had Tess Morris on to talk us through the romantic comedy version of this, because she’s our romantic comedy guru. I think there’s actually something very fascinating about how you would go into a relationship with all of these flaws being exposed. Like if both Mike and the equivalent girl in this had been so publically sort of excoriated, like how they could connect and how love is basically recognizing a person’s flaws and loving them despite them.

And I wonder if there’s a version of this that could start with like this letter about Mike and actually get to a place where there’s a happy ending.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, there could be a cool moment where she’s – because, look, if you have a bunch of exes show up and say, “You need to look for the following signs,” you’re going to be looking for them. And when you start to get them, it’s going to obviously enforce what they say is going – they’re giving you a fate. This is what’s going to happen to you. It’s what happened to us. So you assume that that’s going to happen. And there’s kind of an interesting thing that might occur when they’re going to breakup, but she’s going to breakup with him because she finally agrees with all the exes. And she goes there and he breaks up with her. And he’s breaking up with her because he’s been talking to all of her exes. [laughs] And they have the same damn problems with her.

And you start to realize everybody is walking around with this wrecking crew in their past of people that god forbid would get together and share stories. And then, you know, seek to ruin you from that point forward. We all have it. I mean, that may be a nice happy ending for the movie is that they both realize, oh my god, and then kind of agree to love each other despite the flaws, because that’s the only way you can love somebody.

John: I think that’s right. Cool. So let’s go onto our next story. This is How a Fake News Writer Earned Donald Trump the White House. It’s by Caitlin Dewey writing for The Washington Post. So this is a story about Paul Horner, the 38-year-old impresario of Facebook Fake News Empire. Who makes his living writing viral news stories, all of them fake.

And so some of the ones he’s known for are like, you know, the Amish Vote Overwhelmingly for so-and-so. And he’s the person who creates those stories that get circulated as if they’re real. And they get retweeted by political figures as if they’re real stories.

And one of the things I found so frustrating is that one of the URLs he has is like And so people will retweet that thinking it’s actually ABC News and it’s not. It’s not. It’s just his.

Craig: Yeah.

Chris: Yeah.

Craig: Yeah. This guy. I mean, first of all, there’s this amazing thing that occurred. I probably read four different articles in the last week where somebody essentially says, “Oh my god, I think it’s my fault.” No it’s not. Just stop. You’re not that important.

Chris: Well, it’s funny, right? It wasn’t funny that he said that. You know, that sense of hubris. Yeah, I did this. It was because of me. And then when he was kind of taken to task on it he said, “No, no, I don’t think it was me.” Now that you’re blaming me for it, and I did something bad, no, it wasn’t me at all.

Craig: He’s a member of a class of people that do not care how they make their money. He’s, I guess, let’s just call him a mercenary for lack of a better term. Because what he’s doing – he’s not doing this for comedy sake. He’s not doing this for the way that The Onion does it, right? So, any proper comedy site, they’re going to say the whole point is we’re doing this on purpose. Give us credit for how funny we are. This guy’s point is to hide and simply make money off of clicks. So, he’s intentionally spreading noise into the system. And the noise is damaging. And the noise is causing problems.

One could argue that perhaps if he weren’t doing it, some other mercenary would. But, he seems to be the largest of them. He feels like a character in a movie. I don’t know if his story is a movie. Doesn’t seem like there’s much of a movie to tell there, because he’s basically doing one thing repetitively, which is kind of the nature of Internet scamming is just an endless repetitive because the only way to make money off the Internet is massive volume.

So, he feels like he would be a great scum-bucket character in a movie. Like what’s a scum-buckety job? Oh my god, this dude. That’s what he does? Like he would be an amazing roommate of a protagonist in a romantic comedy. You know, like, oh, every time he comes home this dude is writing some new terrible thing that isn’t true. And then when our hero goes out in the world, you know, and he meets somebody and they repeat it back to him as true and he’s like, oh my god, this world that I live in is the worst. So, I would go with scum-bucket character more than movie.

John: So, what I thought was actually interesting about him as a character is like this is a guy who spots an opportunity. Like there’s an opportunity – people will click on stupid things. And so I think the original stories he was doing were not really political. They were just random things that would get shared around a lot. And so it was stupid people sharing stupid things. And he had the unique gift for writing really viral stories that would get passed around that were completely hoaxes.

And so he was doing it kind of for the LOLs. But then the election comes and like, oh you know what, I’m going to troll the Trump campaign by writing up all these crazy things. And all these stupid Trump people would put it around. Which is true. He did not think that this would tip the election. He really thought that the Trump people would be embarrassed when they got caught sort of like repeating these things. And, of course, they weren’t. There’s no shame.

So, you’ve built the monster that then destroys you. I think that is the hero’s arc you could sort of get to. But I agree that I don’t know if it’s a whole movie. It feels like it’s a piece of a movie, or he’s one character in a bigger sort of Altman-esque tableau about a situation. Chris, what was your instinct on this?

Chris: I agree. I think he’s a very interesting character. I mean, any framework I thought of would just kind of be more of a ‘70s style conspiracy thriller. So, you know, you have a guy like him who is doing exactly what he’s doing. But somehow, someway in the course of gathering, I don’t know, photos that he’s pulling from wherever and attributing false stories to them, in the course of doing that I’m thinking maybe he actually gets something real, you know, something that people really, you know, very, very damaging that people don’t want him putting out into the world. And then it becomes a guy on the run movie.

Craig: Yeah. You could also do the kind of, I guess, Conspiracy Theory did a similar thing. He writes one of his hundreds of fake news stories is true. He just didn’t realize it. You know, his fiction happens to be true and now they’re after him. I could see that.

John: It make sense with the universe we’re living in, because it does feel like of all the quantum possibilities of universes that we could have ended up in, we’re in the one where the crazy thing happens a lot. And so it does feel like he’s the person who writes the thing that ended up coming true. And so he looks like he’s prescient or something, that he really knows what he’s talking about, when of course he’s just trying to get the clicks. And that’s interesting, too.

There’s also an aspect to the Facebook fake news story is that its algorithms that are actually determining things. And so the absence of humans monitoring things leads to – at this point they’re not AI, but soon there will be AIs really determining what we see and what we think.

So, there’s a serious thing you could get to underneath this thing which seems sort of foolish and lighthearted on the surface. There’s something unsettling below it, even if you don’t go to the paranoid thriller aspect.

Craig: Yeah. It feels like we are starting to wake up to the notion that there needs to be some kind of clearinghouse for at the very least this is intentionally fake. We will argue over what’s true forever. That’s our nature as humans, and so it goes. But you can’t argue that something was just fictionalized, like literally made up. There needs to be some kind of weird – like I have a little extension on my browser that basically says, okay, we have a database of phishing websites, spoof websites. So, if you should happen to mistakenly go to one, we show a little red light or we tell you this is probably not what you thought it was.

It’s almost like we need that for this.

John: Yeah, we do. I don’t know what that would be. I’ll find a link for it and post it in the show notes of people who post things on Facebook from The Onion thinking that it’s a real story. And it’s like, “I can’t believe this is true. This is disgusting. This is horrifying.” And they’re citing these stories from The Onion that are completely absurd. And, like, who could anyone possibly believe that’s true? But they just don’t get that The Onion is a fake news site. And this guy has sort of found the place that’s just shy enough that enough people are believing that it’s real news. That’s sad.

Craig: Yeah. You know, if there were a company that had massive resources that they could dedicate to this financially speaking, it would be – oh, wait, Facebook. Hmm.

John: Yeah, they could do it, too.

Craig: It’s like Facebook is just like, “Well, you know, people post this junk, but hey, our algorithm will post the Snopes debunking of it right below that.” Nobody is – why are you relying on Snopes, which I believe is a husband and a wife and an intern working through all this. It’s insane. They have to do this. They all have to do it. It’s out of control.

Not to accrue to the benefit of either party, because I see absolute junk promulgated by people on the left and the right. There’s fake news for everybody. Don’t like reality? Don’t worry, we’ve got something that speaks right to what you wish the world were like. Or gives you a point you wish you could use in a debate with somebody. We have to figure this out.

But that’s a side note. It has nothing to do with how this would be a movie.

John: Yeah. All right, let’s get to our final possible movie. This is suggested by Dave Wells, a listener. This is the Mammoth Pirates. It’s a story by Amos Chapple, writing for Radio Free Europe. And you should definitely click through the link in the show notes because the photos that go with this are really amazing. It’s called the Mammoth Pirates and it’s a story taking place in Northern Russia where they are digging up these mammoth tusks. So it’s basically mammoth ivory that has been frozen in the permafrost. And it’s these crews that go up there to try to find mammoth remains and find these ivory tusks which are worth a tremendous amount of money, but the process of getting them out of the ground is dangerous and incredibly environmentally destructive. And most people leave with nothing.

It very much felt like the Gold Rush, but in modern day, and maybe even more tragic. Craig, what was your take on this for a movie?

Craig: I mean, I was really fascinated by it. Well, first of all, people should look at the website because just as an example of website design, these folks at – okay, so they’re not masters of URL. RFERL is the worst I’ve ever heard. RFERL.

John: Well, it’s Radio Free Europe.

Craig: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. I mean, it would – anyway. As bad as that URL is, the page design is brilliant. I mean, it’s really one of the best designed websites I’ve ever seen. So I was reading it mostly fascinated that such a thing existed. There is this, ivory is a substance like diamond that has no inherent value, and yet people seem to love it. I don’t know why.

And we have so many laws against ivory poaching. And, you know, I guess we could give some people credit. They ethically don’t want ivory from animals like elephants and rhinoceroses that there’s all this money in digging up old ivory tusks of long dead mammoths, which seems so crazy to me. And for what? So because apparently there’s a big market in China for sculpted ivory and there’s a big market in Asia for powered ivory to be used as fake medicine for problems. Obviously, ivory cures nothing.

So, what you have is this fascinating culture of people, many of whom apparently are routinely drunk, using retrofitted snow-blower motors to jet water into the sides of hills in this wasteland. You know, movie wise, it didn’t seem like there was on the nose version of this. I don’t think it’s interesting enough, because once you see some guys digging up an ivory tusk, you’ve seen it.

One’s mind naturally goes to the “they find something else in the ground.” But that feels so done to me. I got very little out of this that felt like a movie. I would love the documentary. You know? But fictionally I was not inspired here.

John: I loved the world. I loved the setting. Because I hadn’t seen it before. And I loved, the photos really showed me sort of what it all looks like, and that was great. But it felt like it was one stop along another movie. Like a movie might take us there for one location. Jason Bourne would have some set piece there. Or a Bond movie would have a set piece there. But then you’d get out of there and you’d go to someplace new, because it didn’t feel like a place where you were going to start and go through a whole movie.

Now, that said, sometimes there are movies that take place in very specific little strange environments, and it’s really about the friendship between these three guys who are trying to do this thing. And that could totally work. That’s a small little movie that’s about them. It’s a very character-driven story. But as a Hollywood movie, it didn’t feel like enough in this story for me.

Chris, what was your take?

Chris: Yeah, kind of the same. My first thought was this seems like more of a TV idea. Because as you said, it’s a really interesting world. I’ve never seen it before. And so because of that, I mean, I think what really jumped out to me was where the ivory goes. You know, it was really, really fascinating to see how the stuff is sourced, but then in the article it said it goes to China where extremely wealthy people are using it for all host of different reasons and decorative things. And as you said, Craig, I think it’s used as a medicine, so on and so forth.

I’d love to see kind of what the next step of this process is. So, if you’re making a movie, you’re seeing these guys doing this, who are the people – who are the wealthy people, the business people, the corporations that come in and start to take control of this, or say the organized crime that comes in and takes control of this industry, and how do they then traffic this stuff.

Kind of treating it like you would I guess arms, or anything else. Kind of watching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of it all. The seedy underbelly of this pretty unique world. I don’t know, that’s where my mind went.

John: Yeah. So that’s sort of like a Steven Soderbergh Traffic version in which you’re seeing the same thing from multiple points of view.

Chris: Yeah.

Craig: It’s going to be hard to pull that off because we understand inherently that drugs are an enormous problem, they’re an enormous health problem, and they cause massive amounts of violence. And similarly guns are created only to inflict violence. But not really the case with the tusk trade. I mean, it’s something. It’s a little bit like Blood Diamonds. I remember when I watched Blood Diamonds you could see like they wrote the whole point was like it’s not about diamonds, it’s about blood. You know, it’s about humans. But even then, it’s hard to grab people’s attention on a large scale.

I actually think John has solved it. Personally, the idea that in a Bond movie you would have a chase through these creepy tunnels, these weird manmade tunnels. It almost looks like men are burrowing through – like ants. The way ants make tunnels. So you’re in this remote region. There’s bugs everywhere. People are pulling tusks out and they’re going into the earth, into places that shouldn’t be exposed because they’re so old, and because they’re looking for old things.

And you’re doing this crazy shooting chase. And then, of course, things are collapsing around you because these people have – I mean, they’re drunk. And they have absolutely no idea what they’re doing. They’re not engineers. They’re fortune hunters. So, that would be a very cool sequence.

John: Cool. All right, so let’s vote. Of these three things we talked about, do we think any of them are going to be a movie? So, Dear Mike’s New Girlfriend, yes movie, no movie?

Chris: That would not be my top one.

Craig: I would say that it could be. I could see a movie about somebody dealing with the exes of their – a romantic comedy like that. But probably not.

John: Yeah, Ghosts of Girlfriends past, I had a sense of that as well.

Craig: Exactly.

John: I think there’s a movie kind of in this universe, but I don’t think it’s based on this article. The fake news writer, the fake news Facebook thing? Yes/no?

Craig: No.

Chris: Still tough. But of the three, I would say that one is the most likely. But I still don’t see it as being a movie.

John: All right. And Mammoth Pirates. Yes or no on a movie?

Craig: Definitely not.

Chris: No.

John: I don’t think it’s a movie by itself.

Chris: I don’t think so.

John: I think if there is going to be a movie, I think it’s going to be one of those kind of Sundance movies about like, you know, there’s always one about Inuit culture that’s really great, but it’s very sort of insular. And there could be a movie set like that that could exist, but I don’t see it happening as a big movie.

Chris: I think you could do it as a TV show.

John: For sure.

Craig: Yeah.

John: All right. Let’s get to some listener questions. Craig from Canada wrote in and this is what he said. “I am currently writing a script that I want to briefly delve into the cosplay subculture. While the culture as is practiced is largely fair use, would a film using a character’s likeness in a cosplay context be considered infringing?”

Craig, you’re not a lawyer, but you often play one on the podcast.

Craig: Definitely on the podcast. I don’t think I need to be a lawyer to say for sure it would be infringing. You cannot for instance – let’s just take the most obvious example. Somebody is cosplaying as the Genie from Aladdin. So, that’s a Disney property. Obviously Disney doesn’t own the root story of Aladdin, but they own the design of that character. You will be sued severely and rapidly. But, of course, in cosplay culture, since everybody is dressing as copyrighted character, you will be sued rapidly and vigorously by everyone. It is not doable.

John: You should do cosplay where everybody is playing Sherlock Holmes, or some sort of like character that is not so – is iconic and yet not as protected as a Disney-owned property.

Craig: And even then you’re – the problem is that people generally aren’t dressing as their interpretations of fair use or public domain characters. They’re dressing as company’s interpretations of those characters. So, now, it may be that the old Basil Rathbone, deer stalker hat, you know, version – I don’t think it has gone into public domain yet, but it might. But more likely what you’re dealing with is every video game manufacturer and every film company is going to come at –

Now, this is different than say a documentary. In a documentary, you have the right to film a public space. And if people are walking through that public space, you are not creating that – you are free to do that. So the news can report on these things, and you can make a documentary. But if you’re making a fictional work, so now you’re creating costumes or having people bring their own created costumes and putting it in your fictional work? No. No way.

John: Yeah. You’re in real trouble there.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Next question comes from Richard Scott in San Antonio. Let’s take a listen.

Richard Scott: My most recent project, which happens to be a spoof, was announced by Variety and the Internet trolls have been brutal. My favorite comments, “If there ever was a movie written entirely on a napkin in a bar, this is it. I have found the description of the worst movie ever. Who gave a ten-year-old coke and a typewriter?” Anyway, trolls will be trolls, but the problem is I wrote the first draft and then was rewritten by others six times to the point that the shooting draft is only a shadow of my original work.

All of the articles only list my name. Questions: how do you handle the initial criticism when the movie isn’t even out yet and, of course, the subsequent backlash once it is when you had very little to do with the project? Is it okay to confess it wasn’t your draft in professional discussions? Or should I accept the responsibility and take it for the team? And how much would this hurt my career considering I don’t even have representation? But naturally, if it’s a success, I’ll gladly take 93% of the credit.

Anyway, thanks for any advice guys and for all you do.

John: Well, let’s talk about this, because we’ve all had movies that have gotten a great response and some movies that have not gotten a great response. And so how do you handle that criticism when it’s not really our movie. It wasn’t the vision that we set out to do.

Chris: You know, I mean, if I were in that exact situation, I haven’t been, I don’t know. To me, it seems like it would be poor form to get out there and start saying, “Hey, I didn’t write this. I didn’t write this. Stop attacking me.” Because essentially I think you’re saying you should be attacking somebody else.

I feel like that would be poor form. But, yeah, that aside, please, I had just with Sea of Trees, we’re not even talking Internet trolls. I mean, I think the New York Times said I should find a new profession. And so–

Craig: [laughs] That’s so great. Yeah, because they know. This is the same New York Times that just issued a statement, an internal memo, saying, “We didn’t really do a good job of reporting.” You had one job.

Listen, Richard, here’s the thing. None of that matters or is real. I mean, you literally have to stop looking at it, which is hard at first. Very hard. And it took me a while to kind of get to that place. But it doesn’t matter what somebody says. In your mind, you have to think, okay, somebody reads something and thinks in their head, “Well that’s stupid. I could do better than that.” Right? It costs them nothing. It takes nothing. And then it’s out of their minds instantly. They’ve moved on.

Well, the Internet makes that instant thought of their semi-permanent. And so it’s harder for you to move on, but it is just as meaningless. And nobody cares about any of it. There is no one in this business who is making any decision about whom to hire based on comments on the Internet. That is absurd. Plus, everybody in this business has been ripped to shreds by these ding-a-lings, so it doesn’t matter. The larger question of what to do when it’s not your draft, well, first of all, let’s see if you get credit or not. Right?

I mean, I don’t know if this is a WGA film or not, but if it’s WGA you’ll have your name as shared Story By credit, but you won’t have screenplay credit if it’s as distant from your work as you say.

Generally speaking, I don’t talk about any of these things publically. I never talk about a movie that I’ve written on that I don’t have credit on, and I don’t talk about movies that I do have credit on but maybe I’m being unfairly targeted as the prime mover of it. However, you mention professional discussions. Absolutely fair game to say, “Let me tell you the real story of what happened there.” First of all, people are always fascinated by it. And second of all, as long as you’re fair and you’re not absolutely embellishing the past to make yourself look as good as possible, it’s fair to give people full context and tell them the real story.

Similarly, you know, I know you’re joking when you say naturally if it’s a success I’ll take 100% of the credit. You don’t really do that, either. I mean, you know, everyone will move past this very, very quickly. And you have to kind of train yourself to move past it as quickly as they do, which I have been working on really, really hard and getting better. Getting better.

John: I agree with most of what Craig said. Is that there’s a difference between publically talking about sort of the process and sort of how bad it was and how little of the draft is yours if it’s a bad movie. And the private process which is when you’re in a meeting with somebody and it comes up, they raise the question of like, oh, so what was that like? You can be honest in the small rooms.

And you don’t have to be paranoid that that’s going to get out that you’re talking bad about other people involved in the project. Be honest about sort of what really happened there. Be fair, but be honest, because that’s – they’re hiring you to do something else in the future. And it’s fair for them to know this is what the process was like on that situation.

You can’t know how things are going to be before they’re done. Until the movie comes out, you really won’t know what it’s like.

I will say that with the passage of more time both the injuries become much duller. Like you don’t feel them as sharply. And the other people who were involved in the process, it sort of feels like you were all in a war together. Like you weren’t sort of battling each other. You were all just – it’s a process you all went through.

And so there’s movies in which I was one of the writers with other folks and we all get along kind of swell. And we can talk publically in public forums now about sort of what the process was like and who wrote what because we’re all friends and it’s all good. And maybe that will be a situation with this movie.

Or maybe this movie will be a huge hit and then it’ll be complicated in a very different way because you’re going to be credited with this movie that wasn’t quite what you expected it to be.

So, you just can’t know. Again, we’re in this quantum universe of possibilities and don’t anticipate – don’t try to lock one down quite yet. Schrödinger’s cat is neither alive nor dead at this moment.

Craig: So true.

John: Finally, Brady Chambers writes, “Hello, My name is Brady from Philadelphia, United States. My question is how do you write an effective parallel narrative? I’m currently writing one, but I’m having trouble keeping focus on the two stories?”

So, parallel narrative, he’s saying that there’s two characters doing different things in different timelines. It could be the same timeline. But you’re moving back and forth between two storylines and he’s having a tough time with that.

Craig: I would start by saying you’re not really writing two parallel stories. You’re writing one story. And what you’re doing is writing two stories that comment on each other and should tie together to make each one more effective. There’s no other reason to write parallel stories. Right? Assuming that you’re writing a movie here and you’re not talking about a TV series where you have, okay, here’s my A story, here’s my B story.

So, for me, if I were approaching this I would start immediately by outlining very, very carefully. And I would want to make sure that I understood why this story needed to be parallel to this one. What was happening that would make each story comment on each other? And every time I go back and forth, the first question I’m asking before I go to my new story, or my side story, is why am I going to the side story and how is it going to change what I understand about the other story when I go back there?

And then when I go back there, I have that information, and I’m asking the same question. Good, now, when I go back to the other one, how is what’s going to happen now going to effect and make me interested in what’s happening then? Obviously, it is always good advice to watch movies that do what you’re trying to do. The one that just comes to mind quickly is Dead Again, written by Scott Frank, produced by Lindsay Doran, and directed by Kenneth Branagh, which has a very nice little parallel construction between present and past.

But, that’s kind of what – I mean, it’s pretty broad advice, but it’s a fairly broad question. What do you think, Chris?

Chris: I understood the question to mean more how it appears on the page. So, I thought he was asking what should I do when I write this. How do I show these different timelines? And maybe I’m misunderstanding the question, but just in case that’s what he meant. Look, you could always make a note to the reader, obviously the goal is clarity. You don’t want the person that’s reading it to get completely lost because you’re jumping different timelines and so on and so forth.

One option might be to write one in maybe a different type of font or maybe a different – maybe bolded, or in italics, something to that effect, with a note that really just delineates it that this is the way when you’re in say bold you’re with this person, and when you’re in standard font you’re with this person. You know, but it goes against the grain, you know, I know you guys always rail against and I agree with the so-called gurus who are saying you can’t put things in like notes to the reader and stuff like that. Which is bullshit.

Craig: Oh yeah. You can do anything you want.

John: If that really is Brady’s question, then yes. I think if it’s just confusing on the page, then do things on the page to make it not confusing for your reader. I took this more as like he really is trying to construct a parallel narrative, like there’s these two storylines running and I agree. From Big Fish and sort of other movies I’ve written that go back and forth, you really have to make sure that anytime you’re cutting from one story to another storyline you’re advancing both storylines through that cut.

And you can outline that really carefully but it’s ultimately going to be how it feels on the page and making sure the out of a scene really does jump the next scene forward, even if it’s in a different timeline. You have to really always be thinking across that gap. And where the audience is at in both of those timelines. And what they expect to happen next in both timelines and how you can both honor that expectation and surpass it whenever possible.

Craig: I’m down with that.

John: Cool. All right, it’s time for our One Cool Things. Now, long time listeners of the show will probably be able to anticipate what my One Cool Thing is because it’s been my One Cool Thing every year for about this time of year, which is the Flu Shot. The flu shot is one of our great innovations. We’ve taken a disease which used to cost billions of dollars of lost time and made people really sick and killed people and now we can just stop it with an annual shot that’s coordinated through international agencies and it’s just a remarkable thing.

So, I had my flu shot here in Paris. Now, people in Europe would probably say like, oh, of course that’s how it would work here. But as an American it was a strange process, so I want to talk you through sort of what you do for a flu shot here. So, to get your flu shot in Paris, you go to the pharmacy and say, “I’d like a flu shot.” And they go, great. And they sell you a flu shot. But they actually sell you a box with a needle in it that is your flu shot.

And so then you take the box and you go to your doctor and you say, “I have a flu shot.” And they’re like, great, and then they give you your flu shot. And it works out really well. And it’s just a very different way of doing things. And so I should say for our European listeners who don’t understand what that’s so unusual is that in the US you go to your doctor, they have the flu vaccine usually, but they don’t always have it, and then they give you your flu shot. Or sometimes people come to work and they’ll do a whole bunch of flu shots at once.

Increasingly, you can go to your pharmacy and the pharmacist there will give you the flu shot. But the system here is that you pick up your drugs at the pharmacy and then take them to the doctor and the doctor does it, which is just – it works. Just a different way of doing it.

Craig: Aren’t you tempted to just jab yourself at that point? I mean…?

John: I was incredibly tempted. Because I had the flu shot for like five days before I could get the appointment.

Craig: Just do it. I mean, you know what they’re going to do. They’re going to put it in the muscle of your upper arm. Just stick it in there and do it.

John: Yeah. I should have just stuck it in there. Just stick it in.

Craig: Stick it in. That’s my–

John: Stick it in.

Craig: That’s my motto. Stick it in. Everyone knows that.

John: But anyway, so the reason why I always harp on flu shots is it just one of those simple things you can do. Like sickness insurance. Basically like if you get this shot, you probably won’t get the flu. And that’s better than getting the flu because the flu sucks. So, anyway, get your flu shot.

Craig: I’m getting mine today actually.

John: Congratulations. Craig, what’s your One Cool Thing?

Craig: My One Cool Thing is USB-C. Now, hold on everyone. So, I did get the new MacBook. And I’m not going to make that my One Cool Thing because I don’t want people like, uh, thanks for your One Cool Thing costing thousands of dollars. But, there’s been a lot of criticism of Apple for essentially migrating their laptops to USB-C only, which is requiring dongles to adapt to the old style USB and other things. But in working with USB just for two days, I realize, oh, absolutely this is it. Like we are all going here and this is actually going to be great because at last we have one standard that is going to handle power and it is going to handle peripherals and it is going to handle monitors and printers. Everything. Phones. Everything is going to be USB-C.

And, from what I understand, the technology is inherently upgradable. So, they can make it better, and better, and better without changing the form factor. At last, it doesn’t matter which side, up or down you’re pushing it in. the only downside as far as I can tell to USB-C is that because it is the main channel to deliver power, the MacBook has lost one of its best features which was the Magsafe power connector.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Which definitely saved my computer twice over the course of I would say ten years. Two times I would have absolutely destroyed my computer. So, possibly a slight moneymaking opportunity for Apple there. But other than that, it’s really, really good. And we just have to be slightly patient here.

And for those of you who are old, like me, you remember hopefully that when USB first came out and, again, Apple was the one that promoted it, everyone was like what the hell is this and are you insane? What happened to our regular ADB connectors? All this nonsense like that.

Well, no, they weren’t insane. And within a year the whole world just turned on a dime because USB was just way better. Well, this is a way better USB. I think it’s definitely a huge step forward. Big Fan. It basically eliminates fire-wire and thunderbolt and lightning, and USB, and USB – and I think all the different shapes of USB are going to go away. It’s great.

John: So, some pedants will write in, or have already started writing the email, saying like the MacBook’s implementation of USB-C actually is thunderbolt. So, technically it is still a thunderbolt, it’s just a different shape of thunderbolt.

Craig: Right.

John: They merged the standards.

Craig: That is correct. USB-C is I believe Thunderbolt 3.0 or something like that.

John: But they share enough stuff that they can do it.

Craig: Yeah. But I’m talking about the form factor here. So, you know, I think we’re going to be much, much happier. Obviously the next iPhone will just have USB-C on both ends. We’re in great shape here.

John: Cool. Chris Sparling, do you have a One Cool Thing for us?

Chris: I do. I do. Something I retweeted recently called Rise of the Boogeyman. So, this was – you guys probably a while back remember that thing Hell’s Club. I think, John, you mentioned eye lines, the importance of eye lines. It was a mashup.

John: Yes.

Chris: Okay, great. And so I think it’s the same guy that did that created something called this, called Rise of the Boogeyman. And it’s pretty much just something similar where you have all your iconic horror characters all converging on this one location, all meeting up and having this big Battle Royale, if you will. And it’s just, I don’t know, it’s just really cool. I’m glad people are out there doing these sort of things because I certainly enjoy them.

John: Great. I love myself a supercut, so I will check that out.

So, that’s our show for this week. Our show, as always, is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Pedro Aguilera. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to That’s also a place to send questions like the ones we answered today.

On Twitter, I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. Chris, what are you on Twitter?

Chris: Just my name. @chrissparling.

John: Fantastic. We’re also on Facebook and this last week I posted a few things on Facebook including news about our t-shirts and other stuff, so if you are on Facebook we are the Scriptnotes Podcast. We are the only one that looks like this.

You can find us on iTunes at Scriptnotes. Just search for Scriptnotes. The show notes for this episode and all episodes of Scriptnotes are at Just search for the episode number and you’ll see all the links to things we talked about. Also where you’ll find the transcripts. We get those up about four days after the episodes air.

You can find all the back episodes of the show at and also on the last few Scriptnotes USB drives we have left at

Chris Sparling, thank you so much for being on the show. Good luck with your movie.

Chris: Thank you guys. I appreciate it.

John: Everyone check it out right now on Netflix. It’s called Mercy. And, Chris, have a great week. Craig, I’ll talk to you next week.

Chris: Thank you.

Craig: All right guys. Bye.

John: See you guys.


Email us at

You can download the episode here.

Scriptnotes, Ep 275: English is not Latin — Transcript

John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.

Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.

John: And this is Episode 275 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. We are coming to you one day earlier than usual because Tuesday, I’ve heard, is the Election Day in the U.S. Craig, is that right?

Craig: Oh, is it? I don’t — they should probably say something about it on the news.

John: I heard a rumor of it. So I thought maybe we’d get this episode out the day before the election. Also in the theory that some people may be a little bit stressed out about the election–

Craig: Oh, yeah.

John: And may want to hear about anything other than the election, so we will not talk about the election whatsoever in this podcast.

Craig: No, I would honestly would love it if somebody could just knock me out until the day after, just put me under. I can’t take this anymore, I can’t.

John: I’m sorry. I can’t either.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So today on the podcast, we are going to be looking at how movies and TV shapes the English language and how writers should think about their role in all of this. And we’ll also examine the uncomfortable overlap between rom-com characters and stalkers.

But first a reminder, t-shirts, today, this Monday that you’re listening to the podcast, is the very final opportunity to buy one of the two Scriptnotes t-shirts. There’s the blue shirt, there’s the gold standard shirt, they are both lovely but this is your last chance to get them. And when I say it’s your last day, I mean, daytime because at 5:00 p.m. today Monday Los Angeles time, they are closed forever. You will not be able to buy a t-shirt after 5:00 p.m. today on Monday.

Craig: I better buy some shirts.

John: You better buy some shirts. I think, Craig, we will find you a special friend of the show magic cohost discount. I think you’ll get maybe like $0.50 off. So–

Craig: Whoa.

John: Whoa.

Craig: I was not expecting that kind of generosity today.

John: Well, I’m feeling very generous today.

Craig: Nice.

John: But everybody else, you need to like click the links that are on the show notes and buy your shirts because if you don’t buy your shirts you’re going to feel really sad when you’re wandering around the Austin Film Festival without a Scriptnotes t-shirt.

Craig: I mean, it does seem, honestly, like a lot of people have those shirts on. It’s the must have. It’s the must have wear of Austin.

John: It proves that you’re part of the inside crowd. So I want to thank everyone who bought a shirt or two shirts, you guys are awesome. I want to thank people for buying enough shirts that we are now on the wall of fame forever at Cotton Bureau as one of the most popular t-shirts ever made at Cotton Bureau.

Craig: Whoa.

John: You guys are the best.

Craig: How many — so they made like, what, four or five different kinds of shirts there?

John: [laughs] They did, yeah. They’ve made a whole range of different shirts and our two shirts are both on the wall.

Craig: You know, again, I’m reminded of this fact that often slips my mind that people listen to this. There are more than just you or me.

John: So last week, we crossed 100,000 listeners–

Craig: My God.

John: In a week, which is nuts.

Craig: That is insane.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And so, god, the amount of money you’re making, it just keeps going up, right?

John: You know, I feel like I should do a blog host that like lays out exactly what money comes in because there’s this whole idea that this is a money-making venture.

Craig: Where do you think that idea comes from? I don’t know where.

John: I think it comes from you, Craig.

Craig: What?

John: What? So anyway, the t-shirts are a lovely thing. They will start to pay for some of Matthew’s time.

Craig: I like that.

John: That’s really what it will do.

Craig: It start to pay for some. I assume that we remain a money losing operation, you know, we — is that right, or–

John: I think we are. We approach breakeven. It really depends on how much of [unintelligible] salary you want to throw towards this podcast.

Craig: Oh, I see.

John: That’s what it comes down to.

Craig: Well, that really comes down to, you know, how much nonsense you have been doing throughout the day. I don’t know.

John: Yeah, there’s plenty of nonsense.

Craig: Yeah.

John: There’s plenty of scaring ducks away from the pool.

Craig: [laughs] That’s the best job ever. Have you given him a firearm?

John: I have not, but Stuart gave him like the best techniques in terms of like tennis balls can be effective, you could just–

Craig: Wow.

John: Go out there and wave your arms. Basically, you don’t want the ducks to root in your pool because they will stay in your pool and that is not good for the pool or for the ducks.

Craig: Yeah, I don’t even–

John: The podcast becomes extra relatable when we talk about our swimming pools.

Craig: Listen, man, I haven’t mentioned a thing about that. I live in a very modest home.

John: You really do live in a very modest compound.

Craig: [laughs] Rich-guy laugh right there.

John: On last week’s episode we were talking about one of our listeners who we believe to be Martin Sheen, and we wanted him to do a voice over for us on a future Three Page Challenge. Literally moments after we recorded the episode, I found out that it wasn’t Martin Sheen, it was Michael Sheen, another incredibly talented actor but not Martin Sheen. This is Michael Sheen who is the star of Frost/Nixon, Masters of Sex, the Twilight series. He’s great on 30 Rock. He’s Welsh. We love him. He’s apparently a listener. So we actually have audio for this.

So Michael Sheen was on a podcast called My Dad Wrote a Porno and this is how he came to find about that show.

Michael Sheen: I think it was one of your guests, one of your previous guests. I think it was Rachel Bloom.

Male Voice: Right.

Michael Sheen: Who I heard on another podcast called Sciptnotes, which is about screenwriting.

Male Voice: Yes.

Michael Sheen: And they do a thing at the end which is One Cool Thing and her One Cool Thing when she was a guest on it was this. That sounds interesting.

Male Voice: That sounds ridiculous.

Michael Sheen: I’m going to have a listen to that.

Craig: He was in the Underworld. He was in — he was the head of lycans, he was the head werewolf.

John: I have not seen Underworld, but come on.

Craig: Oh, you haven’t. Those movies are good.

John: So the one movie Craig has seen that I have not seen.

Craig: Well, there’s a bunch of them.

John: Well, not the one movie.

Craig: There’s–

John: There’s a bunch of movies but like the–

Craig: There’s the–

John: Craig, your shtick is that you’ve not seen any movies.

Craig: Well, here’s the deal. If you put good-looking people in leather and have vampires fighting werewolves, Bill Nighy as an ancient vampire. Ooh.

John: Oh, that’s pretty great.

Craig: Yeah. Plus they have guns. Here’s the genius of Underworld. They were like we like vampires and we live werewolves and we like the idea of them fighting but we also like the Matrix. Let’s do all of that.

John: Let’s do all of that.

Craig: Yeah, just do–

John: Let’s do all the scenes.

Craig: Do all of it at once.

John: Kate Beckinsale. Done.

Craig: Yes. Kate Beckinsale–

John: Yes.

Craig: Moving around in like super tight leather, it’s great. The whole thing top to bottom, incredibly entertaining movie series, super geeky. If you — I mean, you’re a D&D guy, you would actually probably enjoy the – oh, and then there’s some Interview of the Vampire kind of stuff thrown in there.

John: Sure.

Craig: It’s like 12 different movies that they just blended together in a smoothie. And Michael Sheen — so first of all — sorry, Michael Sheen. That’s really embarrassing although it can’t be the first time, right? I mean, he’s had this before.

John: I mean, better than Charlie Sheen. If we had confused him with Charlie Sheen.

Craig: That would have been a little weird. And also it’s not fair because Michael Sheen’s real last name, I’m assuming, is Sheen and Martin Sheen’s real last name is Estévez. So Martin Sheen, that’s not even he’s real name, right. So we should have known.

John: Yeah.

Craig: We should have known it was Michael Sheen. Michael Sheen is fantastic. He’s one of those actors that’s never bad. You know that kind of actor that’s never bad. Because even like — look, Robert De Niro is an amazing actor. He’s been terrible at times.

John: Yeah, he has been.

Craig: Miscast, wrong role, didn’t seem to care, whatever it was, just he was bad, you know. Michael Sheen, never bad.

John: Do you think Michael Sheen is blushing right now as he hears you extoling his many virtues?

Craig: Well, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t – is he a blusher. I guess, you know, Welsh people probably — they’re — you know, they’re fair skinned.

John: Yeah. So a little blushing could happen.

Craig: Yeah.

John: But that’s fine. I mean, I think it only shows how great of an actor he is that he lets that emotion come through.

Craig: Especially when he’s the werewolf guy.

John: Yeah, for sure. Oh, so he’s a werewolf not a vampire. That’s crucial distinction.

Craig: Oh, yeah. I don’t even know how you could have thought he’d be the vampire. He’s clearly–

John: No, but I think he’s a vampire though in the Twilight series.

Craig: Oh, yeah, he is. Maybe that’s why you thought that, yeah.

John: Maybe–

Craig: Okay. Now I can understand why you would think he’d be a vampire because he played a vampire in an incredibly popular film series. He was–

John: That’s how talented of an actor he is. He could be both a vampire and a werewolf.

Craig: He’s so much better as a werewolf, I’m telling you. So much better.

John: Well, regardless of, we’re lucky to have him as a listener and we’re lucky to have our 99,000 listeners as well. So thank you everyone who listened and bought a t-shirt.

And now on with today’s show.

Craig: All right.

John: So back at Episode 260, we implored listeners to stop using the phrase begs the question. You remember that, Craig?

Craig: I do, I do. We begged them.

John: So we begged them to stop using begs the question because beg the question and begging the question really means to use circular logic, it doesn’t mean to raise the question or to invite the question. And my theory, which I had no evidence to support actually, was that the misuse of begs the question probably came from film and TV writers who were trying to use legal terms in courtroom dramas and didn’t really know what it meant and then they started using the same terms in places that really had nothing to do with legal situations.

So I — my theory, which I really can’t prove and I’m not going to do like the sophisticated data analysis to figure out like when it happened, but my theory is that we are kind of partly to blame for how begs the question has become misused and how it doesn’t mean what it kind of originally was supposed to mean.

Craig: Well, there’s no doubt that we, we meaning Hollywood, right, what is that? Is that a synecdoche when I make we into Hollywood, but I don’t know what it is? But we–

John: Charlie Kaufman would know what that meant.

Craig: He would know. Hollywood essentially powers the great bulk of American culture, let’s call it nonmusical American culture, and then by extension an enormous amount of global culture. And the way that we present language absolutely matters and it does impact things. Look at, for instance, one of your favorite movies and I love it, too, Clueless.

John: Oh, yes.

Craig: So Clueless, like Valley Girl before it, it popularized certain little local expressions that suddenly then become everywhere. “As if” became–

John: Yes.

Craig: A thing. What I just said, “Start a thing,” that’s what Mean Girls made a thing a thing. Stop trying to make the blank a thing, right? So–

John: Absolutely.

Craig: It is actually kind of remarkable how much influence movies do have on popular language even if movies aren’t inventing that language, in fact, they rarely invent any language but they do gather up bits and pieces of things especially when they’re making movies about young people, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and on and on and on, and then they megaphone it and amplify it. And sometimes in their megaphoning and amplifying they get it wrong.

John: Yeah, sometimes they do and sometimes they lock in some weird mistakes and changes that really are not part of the normal way that the language is used. So writers have always been doing this. So going back to Shakespeare, Shakespeare was using the language he heard around him but he was also inventing new language and a lot of things he was inventing and putting on stage for the very first time became parts of our language. Similarly, the language as spoken, the language as written for a long period of English history have been very different things but eventually as the written language started to more resemble the spoken language, the spoken language kind of drifted towards what the written language was doing and vice versa.

And so I think when we look at sort of the changes that movies and television make on our language, you have to be in mind like, yes, people may have been speaking that way but because it’s now on a fixed form and that dialogue is frozen in that movie, we start to think like, “Oh, that’s how people speak,” which in the case of Valley Girl or Clueless, that wasn’t necessarily how a large population was speaking, but now everyone was hearing it and everybody was imitating it, consciously or subconsciously.

Craig: Yeah, and this is, of course, the problem that we have when we watch old movies, I mean, movies from the ‘30s or ‘40s or ‘50s and we think, “Oh, that’s how people all spoke back then.” No, no more than the world looked black and white back then. It was a crafted presentation. Movies have always been special amplified presentations of reality. So it’s a mistake to look back at old movies and think, “That’s how people must have spoken.” Not at all.

John: So here’s a great example, so let’s listen to a clip from The Philadelphia Story. This is in 1940 and just listen to the language that they’re using.

Cary Grant: I suppose you’ll still be attractive to any man of spirit though. There’s something engaging about it, this goddess business, something more challenging to the male than the more obvious charms.

Katharine Hepburn: Really?

Cary Grant: Really. We’re very vain, you know. This citadel can and shall be taken and I’m the boy to do it.

Katharine Hepburn: You seem quite contemptuous of me all of a sudden.

Cary Grant: Not really. Not of you. Never of you.

John: So this Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn talking in The Philadelphia Story and where are they from, Craig?

Craig: Well, they’re from a magical land that’s right between the United States and England. It’s called Middle Atlantic Land.

John: Exactly. It’s a really peculiar accent that has features of British English and some Briticisms but it also has other weird special characteristics. And so, we’ll put a link in the show notes to an article by Dan Nosowitz for Atlas Obscura which is talking about how people in movies before 1950 spoke so strangely. His article is called How a Fake British Accent Took Hollywood by Storm. And that’s kind of what we’re hearing. It’s like they’re not trying to be British but they’re trying to not sound American and they’re trying to sound kind of fancy. There’s just like there’s no other kind of good word for it.

Craig: Yeah.

John: It’s sort of rich, it’s fancy. It’s a highly cultured way of speaking, but it’s really off.

Craig: It is really off. I mean, you have words like, for instance, I think he says challenging in there and it’s challenging, challenging. And I don’t even think the British would say challenging and the Americans certainly wouldn’t say challenging. And then really, really, really. It is a reflection, I think, of Hollywood’s desire to aim high and present a classy product. The people involved were beautiful, classy people that we would aspire to. They weren’t non-Americans because we’re Americans and we need to be American, see, but better. And this was at a time when I think there was a sense that class mobility was more of a thing, that you would aspire to speak that way and wouldn’t you be putting on the Ritz if you did.

John: Yeah. So imagine, this is the movies after all, this is the pinnacle of sort of like everyone watching the same bit of culture together. Everyone is watching people speak this accent and, yes, this accent may have existed in pockets before and people may have been trying to speak in a fancy way. But like this was kind of an invention. This was an invention and in 1942, like two years after this movie, there’s actually a very famous book by Edith Skinner who has a book called Speak with Distinction where she defines “good speech” and it has basically these characteristics that we hear these actors speaking, which is non-rhoticity, which basically means dropping your Rs. And so words like here and Charles, you don’t hear the R in there. There’s no scrape to that R. There’re weird things that she wants you to do with the tempo of words and how you’re hitting your accents on things. It’s a very peculiar way of speaking that lasted for quite a long time in movies even though it didn’t like necessarily break out into the larger world. I think people still aspired to that accent.

Craig: There was a time before, really before sound came in, where acting was incredibly performative. Nobody was meant to be acting naturalistically. If you look at a movie like, say, Nosferatu. Everyone is what we would call emoting, overacting. It was a kind of act that you might do on stage in a big, big theater house where people all the way in the back needed to see that you were scared. And you had to act things really big because you couldn’t say words, right?

And then when sound came in, Hollywood understood, “Wait a second. There is a more naturalistic way to be. We should start acting the way people actually act.” And so you have this wave coming in and, you know, very famously, James Dean is one of the — and Marlon Brando, this kind of naturalistic acting. And you could see how it wasn’t like a — there was no revolution. It was just a gradual thing that occurred. And just as that happened, when you watched the motion from — in the way people talk, just dialogue and sounds from ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, even ‘60s. And then by the time you get to the late ‘60s, it’s already disappearing. And you have, you know, you’re looking at movies that are heralding the coming ‘70s era, you know, a movie like Easy Rider. There is no interest in putting on airs. If anything it is how can we be the most real and normal that we can be.

John: Yeah. And normal is often a code word for authentic. It’s basically, it’s how do you make it feel like these people are actually really in this space and they are the characters that they’re portraying. Which in The Philadelphia Story, that wasn’t — I mean, that wasn’t the urgency. It wasn’t about like getting the perfect voice for like where that person was supposed to come from. Everyone sort of spoke like they were in this magical kind of movie world. And I think a lot of people kind of wanted to be in that magical movie world. I think this woman, Edith Skinner, she was being a prescriptivist. She was talking about good speech was trying to sound like you’re in this kind of movie. So I want to talk about prescriptivism as it relates to sort of language overall and English overall because I think the greater trend, and I think something we all notice as writers is there’s all these rules which are applied to us that we learned from grade school on about how English is supposed to work.

And many of those rules are really arbitrary. They really are just things that have come down over the years from people who want English to be something that it’s not at all. And so, this isn’t quite our gold standard episode where we talk about like the history of gold as an economic tool. But I want to take a little bit of time here to talk about like why English is the way it is and sort of clear up some misconceptions about how English came to be because I don’t think we’ve never done that in our 275 episodes.

Craig: Well, I just thought it came to be when Americans invented it.

John: Well, we did invent it. We kind of perfected it. I mean, other people had tried but we just — we nailed it.

Craig: Nailed it.

John: We just got it done. Nailed it.

So let’s go through the very short history of English. Because I remember when I was in high school, I watch like this — I think it was Bill Moyers’ PBS series which was like the 10-hour version of the story of English. But here is the sort of a few minute version story of English so you can be a little bit smarter than some of your other friends at a cocktail party.

So a root language that most of the languages that we are familiar with in Europe is called Indo-European, and no one actually speaks Indo-European right now. But they could trace it back and they can figure out that it’s the origin of English, Spanish, Hindi, Portugese, Bengali, Russian, Persian, Punjabi, so a huge chunk of our currently spoken languages trace their way back to this Indo-European language. The branch that we ended up on was Proto-Germanic. And so that’s Dutch, German, Swedish and the original English that was spoken in the Isle of Britain by the Anglos and Saxons was very much like sort of how German works now. It had a lot of those — Craig, did you ever learn German? Did you ever take German?

Craig: No. I grew up fearing Germans. I can’t imagine why.

John: That’s fair enough. But, you know, German does a lot of things. When you first start learning German, you take a German class, they’re like, wow, you have to — it feels like you have to conjugate everything. It’s because there’s declensions on nouns and nouns come in different cases and they do a lot of special things. English used to do that or at least Old English used to do that, the stuff that was spoken by the Anglos and the Saxons in the Isle of Britain. So if you look at the original poem of Beowulf, it’s Old English but it’s basically unintelligible to us now because it does all that old difficult stuff. It’s written in a language called West Saxon. And so the nouns, the adjectives, the pronouns, verbs, everything has these special endings and forms. And so if you’ve taken other languages, you know, that in Spanish or in French, you have to modify the ends of words to match up with things.

Craig: Yeah. I hate that.

John: Yeah. Isn’t so rough like it’s — all this extra work. And basically, we used to do all that in English and then we just sort of stopped. The reason we stopped is probably, mostly because of the Vikings.

Craig: Thank you, Vikings.

John: Thank you, Vikings. So Vikings spoke a language that was sort of Old Norse, which was very much — it was one of the old Germanic languages but they had different endings on their nouns. And so when they came to Britain, as adults, they were trying to speak this language that was being spoken here and they could sort of do it but they couldn’t do it very well.

Craig: They were just too dumb. They were literally too stupid to learn the language. They’re like, “We’re not learning your language. We’re changing it. It’s too hard.”

John: So as someone who is currently living in Paris, I have so much sympathy for the Vikings because I spoke some French before I got here. But a lot of the parents at my daughter’s school showed up here like not knowing a word of it. And it’s really tough as an adult to sort of get up to mastering things. So you end up sort of just like getting by and I think that’s probably what the Vikings were doing is they would show up as adults and like, “Argh. Okay, we’re getting by.”

Craig: Yeah.

John: And what they basically did is they kind of just — they were like ordering at a restaurant where they didn’t quite speak what was there and everyone could understand them but they couldn’t quite make it all work.

Craig: I’m not sure that’s what the Vikings were doing but, okay.

John: Yeah. There was also raping and pillaging, too. There’s probably a bit of that.

Craig: Touch of it.

John: Touch of that. They showed up, their nouns had like the same root but they had different endings, so they just sort of stopped using the endings of the nouns. They brought a lot of their words relating to ships and things like that and everyone just sort of got by. Meanwhile, also in the Island of Britain, there were the Celtic peoples who were already there and they had some impact. Probably the biggest impact they had was, you know how in English, we do this really strange thing with the verb, “do.”

Craig: Yes.

John: Really kind of a verb, how we use it. Nobody does that. But the Celts sort of did something like this, which is that we use did and do in order to form questions. Like, “Did you go to the park today?”

Craig: Right.

John: But we also use it in negatives in ways that’s really strange. So this is a sentence that should make sense in English, “I no go to the park today.”

Craig: Right.

John: We can’t say that or, “I not go to the park today.” You can’t say that. You have to put the did in there. It’s a useless did but you have to put the did in there, “I did not go to the park today.” And that’s a really weird thing in English and the linguist, John McWhorter, thinks that probably came from the Celtic people who are already there in the England.

Craig: Yeah. They might have been drunk when they were coming up with that.

John: Yeah. But you know what? It’s part of our language now. It stuck around. So that’s how we do it.

Craig: Hey, it’s — you know what? I love it personally because I speak it. I’m really — I’m so good at English. I have all the best words.

John: I have all the best words. Well, our best words came from the French. So the Norman invasion of the Island of Britain happened in the 11th century and they brought in all of their words. In a lot of cases, we had the same words already kind of from the same roots but then we ended up using the French words as well. And so we sort of — we didn’t quite double our vocabulary but we got a lot of like duplicate words. And so that’s why in English, we have both the word royal and the word regal which are from the same root but we sort of got both of them, and, hey, bonus words.

So the French was the last sort of big impact of like new words. Then in the 15th century, we start with modern English. We start with printing presses. We start with the King James Bible. There’s the great vowel shift which I barely understand but essentially all of our vowels shifted sort of one notch on the sort of the loop of vowels. And it’s part of the reason why all of our spelling is so strange because we used to pronounce things very differently and we used to pronounce things the way that they were kind of written down and everything just shifted because our vowels shifted and the letters that we pronounce shifted as well.

Craig: Yeah. You end up with these bizarre cases like — was it Ogden Nash who famously said you could spell the word fish, G-H-O-T-I.

John: Yeah. That’s so great. So let’s see if I can remember, it’s the GH from enough, right?

Craig: Right.

John: The O from —

Craig: That’s the tricky one.

John: I don’t remember what O sounds like in–

Craig: Women.

John: Oh, you’re absolutely right.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And then the TI is the TI in like question and a lot of those words.

Craig: Exactly. So, that obviously is bananas. And somebody — I was talking to somebody who — I can’t remember who it was or where he was from but English was not his first language. And I said, you know, is it hard to learn English? Because everyone across the world, you see people learning English. It is becoming the most global language. And he said, in his experience, it was actually quite easy because there were so many quirky things. So you understood like, “Oh, that word just sounds like this.” It’s not like I have to —

John: Yeah.

Craig: You know, continually apply certain things. Like it’s easy for me to learn the word women because it’s just distinct. It’s women. That’s it. Boom. Done.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And no feminine or masculine or things like that.

John: Well, yeah. There’s a lot of simplifications that happened. So we lost our genders on all our nouns, great, helpful.

Craig: Great.

John: We also basically stopped conjugating at all. So we conjugate the first person plural. And so I speak, you speak, he/she/it speaks.

Craig: Right.

John: And then we speak. You all speak. They speak. So it’s only that third person is singular that we–

Craig: How great is that?

John: Yeah. It’s so simple.

Craig: That literally — that would turn, like I took French in high school. That would have been — that’s like three-quarters of it is gone because you’re not conjugating.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And then, oh my god, it’s not enough that you have conjugate everything. And then there are irregular conjugations. And then there are the imperative conjugations. If I want to command somebody to speak, I say, “Speak.”

John: Yeah.

Craig: That’s it. It’s as simple as that. No wonder people are learning this language. It’s not hard.

John: So one of my husband’s friends is an English teacher here in France. And so, it’s so fascinating to hear his explanation of like how things work in English because I don’t think he’s actually right a lot of times because he will say like, “Oh, you don’t have this form but you just do this.” And I was like, “I don’t think that’s actually accurate but I think it actually makes sense most of the time. So, fine, it’s fine for you to say that.” Like we basically don’t —

Craig: [laughs] He is a bad teacher.

John: We really don’t have the subjunctive in English.

Craig: Yes, we do. We have the subjunctive.

John: We have subjunctive but we use it so rarely. So it’s not a crucial thing for you to understand.

Craig: I use it frequently.

John: So give me an example of when you love to use the subjunctive in English.

Craig: Well, the most common use is following an if. If I were to go to here, if I were to do this, if I were to do that. I wish — if and I wish are probably the two most common. I wish that I were a little bit taller. I wish I were a baller. I wish I — that would be a bad version of that song. I agree. But accurate subjunctive. I’m a fan.

John: I’m a fan of like the hortatory subjunctive. Like, may we all be so lucky.

Craig: Ooh, I like that.

John: So that’s, we be.

Craig: Yes. May we all be, yes, there but for the grace of God go —

John: Exactly.

Craig: No, that one doesn’t quite work.

John: Yeah. But we don’t have to think about it nearly as much as other languages do, which is kind of great. Other sort of weird advantages to English that have come up is like we’re very phonetically rich so it’s very easy for us to bring in words from other languages and sort of make them fit and work. Other languages tend to have fewer phonemes and so it’s harder for them to sort of get a word — to be able to pronounce a word that’s not a native word for them, but they make it work. Every place can sort of incorporate words. But English seems to be especially greedy at taking in new words.

Craig: Yeah. I can’t think of too many — in French, I think we can cover everything. I mean, there’s the — there’s, you know, the kind of nasal thing or the back of the throat R.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But we’re capable. Those are really just, you know, little sprinkles on top of sounds we already have. In Italian, there is a sound that we do not have.

John: All right. What is it?

Craig: It’s this particular kind of plural case or sometimes you’ll see in some words they’ll also have a GLI. So GLI, which sounds like glee. In Italian, it’s actually LYE. It’s hard. I can’t quite…LYE. It’s LY-combined together-E. LYE.

John: Yeah. Yeah.

Craig: That’s a weird sound.

John: Yeah. And so it’s — we’re not perfect. We don’t sort of have everything. But we have just like a huge range of things. And so even as I listen to some adults here mispronouncing something in French, I want to tell them like, “No. No. We really do have that sound, you’re just try apply the wrong vowel for that.”

Craig: Right.

John: It’s like, you know, just like your ghoti-fish example, like we really do have that sound to make that. You’re just thinking of the wrong letter for it. And if you could think of the right letter for it, you’d make it to be able to work.

But English has some significant downsides. And I think it’s worth pointing what’s not so great about English. Because we got rid of all of our endings on words, word order ends up mattering a lot more in English than in many other languages. So you have to put things in a certain order for them to make sense. In some languages like Latin, for example, you can put stuff in kind of whatever order it pleases you because it’s very clear what that noun is doing in the sentence. Here, we have to use helper words and a lot of word order for sentences to make sense.

Craig: I like it that way.

John: You like it that way?

Craig: Yeah.

John: Because we’re used to it. It’s natural to us and it’s a hard thing for some people to learn from other languages.

Craig: Tough.

John: We have strange ambiguities and we’re sort of missing some things that other languages have. So, an example which I already used when I was trying to lay out the conjugations is we use the same word for you, singular, and you, plural. And it doesn’t trip us up that often, but there are weird cases where you’re talking about more than one person and if we had a different form of you for that would be helpful. We used to have thou, which was that second person singular and it just — it disappeared. You took its place. But it was useful.

Craig: Well, you can see how colloquially people fill it in themselves. So where I grew up in New York, there was “you’s.” And obviously, in the South, in huge swaths of the South and even to the mid-South, it’s “ya’ll” which is incredibly common, and then, there’s “you all” which I hear all the time. I hear that out here in California. So, people will add little zippitys on there to kind of get themselves into a second person plural as opposed to second person singular.

But there’s also cases in, for instance, in French, you know, they have the formal and informal which we do not have. So, “vous” could be second person singular if you’re talking to somebody fancy.

John: Yeah. And the explanation behind the “vous” being formal in that situation is it’s also like of a royal we. It’s the same kind of idea where like you’re giving somebody extra respect as if they’re kind of two people by using the “vous” form with them.

Craig: It’s ridiculous.

John: We also lost our version of a sort of — or we sort of use you for. We don’t have the thing to say like a generic person like sort of not anyone specifically, but a general person.

Craig: We have one. Yeah.

John: Yeah. We have one. Yeah.

Craig: Which doesn’t quite work, but then, there’s — but we often do use “you” to mean you, a person who’s not here who but like one.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Yeah. You can’t get there from here. Like, who’s that “you?” It’s not literally you.

Craig: Exactly.

John: Because of how our language evolved, we ended up with a ton of words that are misspells and hard to figure out how to pronounce. And so, one of the great advantages of English, I think, is that we have a huge dictionary and a huge range of words you can choose from. But if you’re trying to learn the language, man, that’s a lot of words.

And so, we have “tree” and we have “arbor” and there’s no apparent connection between the two of them, but they are connected and there’s just a lot more to sort of master if you’re going to try to master English as a language.

Craig: Yeah. I love vocabulary. I do.

John: You’re a crossword player. So, like, for you, it’s great.

Craig: We prefer puzzler or solver, sir.

John: I’m so sorry.

Craig: Solver, yeah.

John: You’re a solver.

Craig: I don’t play crosswords.

John: I’m a giver-upper on crosswords.

Craig: I’m going to get you started. I am. I feel like you would be great.

John: I literally tried the New York Times this afternoon. I tried the Thursday Puzzle. Is the Thursday Puzzle hard? Because it was hard for me.

Craig: Yeah. Well, this Thursday had rebus. So, that can be tricky. I don’t know if you – a rebus is when one square holds more than one letter.

John: Yeah. And today’s, one was AG, and it just completely stumped me.

Craig: Right. Yeah. Thursday — start with Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Just work on those.

John: All right.

Craig: Get your sea legs, feel good about yourself, and then just know that Thursday will always have a gimmick.

John: Ooh.

Craig: So, be looking for — always, Thursday, there’s always a gimmick.

John: Okay.

Craig: Friday and Saturday are tough ones. They are just difficult, usually gimmick-less, but difficult. And then, Sunday is like a Thursday. It’s like a big Thursday.

John: Okay.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Well, now, I know.

Craig: But, yeah, go Monday and Wednesday. You should be able to do Monday easy-breezy.

John: Cool. I will try a Monday puzzle when Monday comes.

Craig: Excellent.

John: Because I will be looking to do anything other than focus on Tuesday.

Craig: I know, seriously. You may not be able to come home.

John: Ugh. We won’t talk about that.

Craig: Right.

John: All right. So, let’s get back to our discussion of English. And so, just like we had the woman who was talking about the accent that everyone should speak with, we have a lot of people who are talking about like how everyone should write and the words that people should use. And these prescriptivists for the English language, a lot of them are coming from Latin because they were church people. And, church people, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, Craig, but church people like rules and they want an orderly universe. So, it comes from–

Craig: Like commandants even.

John: Yeah, even that. Like, divinely inspired texts.

Craig: Right.

John: And they’re reading the bible or they come from a background where the bible is in Latin and Latin is a very orderly language. It has a lot of special rules. And so, they’re looking at how cool Latin is. When you look at English, it’s like, well, English should be more like Latin or at least we should try to make English a little bit more like Latin.

And so, a lot of the rules that we’ve been taught over the years come from these prescriptivists who are looking at English saying like, “But in Latin, you do it like this. So, therefore, the rule should be that you do it like this.” That comes up a lot in cases with our pronouns because even though we got rid of most of our cases for nouns, we still have them for “he” and “him” or “she” and “her” for “I” and “me.”

A lot of the rules you see people trying to apply to English come from Latin where they’re trying to say like, “Oh, well, this is how you do it in Latin. So, you should do it this way in English.” And when we mess things up in English or when we are chastised for things in English, it’s often because people are looking at how we should be doing things because they were done a certain way in Latin.

Craig: Yeah. There is a — I mean, I will freely admit that I’m a grammarian. And the joy of grammar for me is not one of any kind of metaphysical superiority. There is no significance in and of itself to grammar. The joy is in — it’s in the fastidiousness itself. It is a joy of joyfulness. I am begging the question here. I like the specificity. I do think that there are a lot of cases where being grammatically correct actually does better express intention and meaning, but not always.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Most of the time, I just like grammar because I like being in control of the algorithms of speech and of writing.

John: Absolutely. And so, the kind of grammar you’re describing is how people use language and how to use language effectively to communicate the meaning that you’re trying to communicate which is great and like there’s reasons why, I think, it’s important to understand these rules, as they’re set down as rules, to make sure that what you’re trying to communicate actually is getting through on the other end and to be able to anticipate.

If you break any of these rules or tenets, the person on the other end may perceive you in a way that you don’t want to be perceived or perceive your ability to use the language negatively because of a choice you’ve made not to follow a certain set of rules. And so an example would be, “Craig and I host a podcast.” Great. “Me and Craig host a podcast.” Well, that actually is not wrong, per se. There’s lots of good defense for using “me” as a subject in that case. But most people would say no. And if you’re going to do that, you’re going to have to be aware that people are going to assume that you’ve made a mistake there.

Craig: Yeah. It’s a signifier. I mean, what we often look at with grammar is the signifier of education.

John: Yes.

Craig: And the thing about “Me and Craig host the podcast”, I mean, my sister texted me the other day. She’s a brilliant attorney and she wrote, “Me and this other guy did a blank, blank, blank.” And I understand, when you’re casual and when you’re texting, when you’re chit-chatting, it’s totally fine. But, if you were to write something and publish something, it is essentially saying, “Me hosts a podcast” and now, you sound like Tarzan or Cookie Monster and it’s ridiculous.

So, it really does come down to signification for most, but for me, also, there is a certain beauty to the sound of “Craig and I host a podcast” because it flows and it flows into my understanding of how I host a podcast should sound. There’s an assonance to it as opposed to dissonance. I feel dissonant. Similarly, I’m the person that gets irked when people make the mistake when it’s the — when it’s an object and they’ll say, “She went to the store with John and me,” right? That’s correct.

“She went to the store with John and I.” I hear that all the time. Now, the signification is you’re trying to sound smart, but you actually screwed it up and now you sound dumb. So, it’s about — it’s a weird thing. It’s like music to me and just the notes sound wrong if you’re using “me” when you should be saying “I.”

John: Absolutely. So, I would point listeners to a great podcast hosted by John McWhorter who’s a good linguist who talks about specifically the “Billy and me” sort of problem. And it’s a weird thing. He actually makes a very compelling case that “I” is actually the special case and there’s a weird thing with “I” that you basically — “I” has to go right before the verb. And if there’s really anything between “I,” it breaks.

And so, basically in English, it’s evolved to be the case where the “I” has to be right next to the verb, otherwise, you have to use “me” or something else there. Because, think about a sentence, like, “Craig and I, not knowing what we wanted to do decided to blah, blah, blah…” The most space you put between “I” and the verb, the more the whole sentence breaks down. Another example he sort of gives is that “Who’s there?” You don’t say, “I.”

Craig: Right.

John: I is never the answer to the question. “I” is basically only the pronoun that goes right before the verb when you’re talking about yourself.

Craig: Yeah.

John: And it’s a strange case.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, the — and by the way, speaking of crosswords, a common crossword answer is “Is it I?” So, there’s a famous bible quote, “Is it I, my lord?” and that is correct. So, “Who’s there?” “It is I.” That is grammatically correct. Almost no one says that because he’s absolutely right. I is demanding the verb following the — you can do in a positive. That’s when you have a little phrase set apart by commas that work like parenthesis. So, you can say “I, angrily, went to the store” or–

John: Yeah.

Craig: “I, in need of a book, went to the bookstore”. The longer that a positive comes, the more broken down the sentence is, and frankly, almost no one will put in a positive in there because it is ugly-sounding. Again, it’s musical.

John: It is absolutely musical. So, that’s where I want to get to the whole point of this discussion of English is that the writing that we are doing for screenwriting is very musical writing. And, so, the same reasons why you would not want to have a character say, “It is I,” are the reasons why you need to think about the grammar choices you’re making when you’re writing screenplays.

So, let’s talk about it. So, first, let’s talk about screenplays as a whole form. They are written in the present tense. I’ve read screenplays that are written in the past tense, more like a book. It feels weird that the standard has become that we write screenplays in the present tense and that every moment is happening sort of right in front of you. They’re a reflection of the experience of watching the movie. The same way the movie is flowing right in front of your eyes, the screenplay is flowing right in front of your eyes in the present tense. Craig, have you read any scripts that are not present tense?

Craig: No. I’ve never seen that and I can’t imagine how that would feel because it seemingly clashes with the dialogue. Now, there are books where, you know, most novels are written past tense, third-person past tense. And then, when people are speaking, but then, that’s why when people speak in books where the prose is third-person past tense, the novelist is constantly adding to the dialogue “He said,” “She said,” “He asked,” right? To put the dialogue in the context of the past. Sometimes, there’ll be cases where an author will make dialogue very present feeling and they will often — like, Stephen King is famous for this. He will set some dialogue apart in italics as a kind of stream of consciousness or thought which does feel very present. And, so, it’s set apart from the book by its italicization.

But, with what we’re doing, everyone is speaking in the present and there is no “He said/she said,” because there’s no narrator. So, I can’t imagine how that would feel to say, “John walked outside. He took a look around. John, ‘This is wonderful right now, but so wrong.’”

John: Yeah. So, the thing I want to point out though is like we say it’s the present tense, but it’s also not only the present tense. So, in previous podcasts, we’ve talked about the present-progressive which is that like “He is sitting,” “He is doing something.” It’s that interruptible form of the present that English has that a lot of the other languages don’t have, by the way, which is useful and delightful.

And we’ve been strongly encouraging people to use it when appropriate because it’s not passive writing. It’s actually writing that reflects ongoing states in ways that movies are about ongoing states. And so, it’s a very useful form of the present tense to be using.

Craig: Completely, completely. We should be able to use all tools in the present tense toolbox.

John: Every once in a while in scripts, you will also see the future tense used and they’ll often be in callouts to the reader saying like, “We will come back to this later on,” like they tend to be parentheticals, you know, not parentheticals over dialogue, but parentheticals to the reader in scene description that’s reflecting the sense that like you are in the present tense right now where I am, but trust me. There is a future coming and this will become important.

So, you will occasionally see breaks out to the future, even breaks out to the past where we say like, “We met this character on page such and such,” but those are not the normal flow of screenwriting. They’re very special cases.

Craig: Right. Yeah. Those tend to indicate some kind of meta awareness where we are now breaking the reality of the movie. You could say in the description something like, “Vanessa is unhappy with her job. One day, she will be a billionaire, but not now, and not for a while.”

So, you know what I mean? And that’s a direct communication to the reader that is floating above the reality of the movie. It’s understood that people in an audience will not have that experience. It’s there so that that reader can get closer to the movie experience because, of course, we are trying to make something audio-visual with text only.

John: Absolutely. I think that also ties into why we say that screenplays are written in the third-person, but really they’re often written in a sort of a second-person plural. That’s why you’ll see “we’s” in screenplays and I some people hate “we’s” in screenplays. Craig and I are fans of “we’s” in screenplays because it is a collective experience. We’re going through this process together. So, it feels very strange to see an “I” or a “me.”

Craig: Yeah. That would be weird.

John: But I think I’ve seen it in a Shane Black script, but in general, you will sometimes see a second-person plural “we” to describe this experience of what’s happening and what we’re doing together.

Craig: Yeah.

John: So, we hear, we see.

Craig: Again, if you were to say “I” or “me,” you are making a winking comment to the reader. You are not doing something that could possibly be shown on screen because you, the writer, are not there. You don’t exist for the audience nor should you unless there is, again, some kind of special case — so, yeah, no question.

John: Right. So, that’s all the stuff that’s not the dialogue, but, really, I think the crucial thing I want to get to here and the part that actually has an influence on culture is the dialogue because that is the writing that the audience is taking with them.

And so, let’s talk about sort of the things you’re doing in the writing of dialogue that are going to impact how people are using their language 30 years from now. So, well, a lot of the mistakes you see listed on websites are spelling mistakes. Guess what? People can’t hear your spelling mistakes. That’s the lovely thing about being a screenwriter. It doesn’t mean spelling is not important. It’s incredibly important. But like a spelling-mistake in dialogue is just a spelling-mistake in dialogue. It’s not a thing that the viewer is going to encounter.

Craig: No, it’s not. But it can snag the reader.

John: Yes.

Craig: Typically does snag the reader. So as the writer — I think it’s — you want to spell things correctly not for the audience but for the readers so that they understand that you are — well here is the illusion that you’re creating for the reader. As opposed to all the — I mean, the mega illusion of a movie for an audience, the mini illusion for a reader is that you the writer are in complete control of the story. Every word, every moment has been carefully designed with intention and purpose and that they’re in good hands. And when something is misspelled, particularly when something is misspelled in a way to indicate that the writer just didn’t know the real word, they stop and think, “Oh, this person is not that smart or didn’t take the time to proofread, or literally doesn’t know what a word means.” And that can get shaky for you. It hurts the read.

John: It does hurt the read. So, I sort of deliberately set you up for the like spelling doesn’t matter. Of course it matters. And if you’ve listened to our Three Page Challenges, we will single out on spelling mistakes because that is the first experience the reader is going to have with you and your script.

But let’s take a look at what else is communicated in dialogue. Well, can the listener understand what the character is saying? You’re trying to balance accuracy to, like, how the character would speak, and clarity so the listener would actually understand what’s happening there. And so, you know, if you’re doing an historical drama there’s going to be a balancing act between how that character really would have spoken in that time and what a viewer in 2016 will actually be able to understand that character saying.

Craig: Correct. We had a Three Page Challenge where somebody was faithfully reproducing Jim’s dialogue from Huckleberry Finn and the problem was it was unintelligible essentially. And what may have been intelligible to readers in the 1800s no longer so the case here for a reader of the screenplay. I mean, you know, English class you have a teacher working you through it but we don’t want to make a screenplay work. We want it to be something that is absorbed freely, without effort by the reader. So that’s where our effort comes in.

This also becomes tricky when people are writing dialectically for characters in whose skin they do not live. Very frequently — well not as frequently as it used to be and happily so. But I would read scripts where writers who clearly were not black were writing black characters with black dialogue. And it was just hard. It was hard to get through. It felt fake and weird and way too confining and it’s not great. I remember early, early on in my career, I wrote a movie for Shawn — I’m sorry for Marlon Wayans and there’s so many Wayanses I was bound to maybe slip up and say the wrong one.
Shawn was in the movie but smaller part. And I remember before I started writing Marlon said to me, “Oh and by the way, don’t write it black. Don’t do that. Just write it. I’ll make it black, don’t worry.” And I said “You got it buddy”. It was a weight off my shoulders because I’m not black.

What happens is there is this weird circular feedback where white writers will watch movies written by white writers pretending to be black people and they’ll think, “Oh, that’s how black people talk then.” But really what they’re doing is an imitation of white people imitating black people. And at that point it’s just a mess and it becomes a self-serving and self-fulfilling prophecy, and it’s no good. So you have to make these careful judgments about how you’re going to present dialogue when you are trying to alter your grammar or pronunciation to match the style of another person that you are not.

John: Yeah, but at the same time, Craig, I want to make sure we’re not giving — we’re not letting writers off the hook for even — I don’t want to say attempting to reflect the voice of a character because there’s a way that a person could misapply what you’re saying there. And say, like, well I should only write — I should only put white people in my movie. Or I shouldn’t try to make the African-American characters in my movie sound like human beings who are living in 2016.

Craig: Right.

John: In the situations where I have encountered this, my focus has always been on writing the dialogue that reflects what the character is saying and then understanding that there will be a discussion about the actual words that the actors are going to be saying no matter what their background. That stuff may change based on what’s going to be comfortable coming out of their mouth. And it’s the same kind of discussion no matter what background of actor you’re talking about.

Craig: Yeah. You have to — part of what we do is, because no matter who you are as a writer, you will be writing people that you’re not constantly, almost all of them. And when I say people you’re not, I mean, obviously, you’re not any of the characters that you’re writing but if you are let’s say a Latina woman, you are sooner or later going to be writing characters that are not Latina women.

John: Yes.

Craig: So part of our jobs is to understand the music and cadence and rhythms and patterns of all different kinds of human speech. But where I think it – you kind of have to draw an interesting line. For instance there’s a colloquialism among African-Americans where they’ll say I’m — where you or I might say, “I’m getting ready to do something” there’s a colloquialism where they’ll say, “I’m fixing to.” Right?

Now, in very colloquialized African-American speech, that will get contracted down to “I’m finna” and you can — and I see like on Twitter, like, on the very famous Black Twitter you’ll see “I’m finna” sometimes people say “I’m F-I-N-N-A” or F-I-T-N-A or — and, you know, so, for me if I’m writing character and I hear that pattern, I might want to say, you know, “I’m fixing to dah, dah, dah” I don’t know if I would write “I’m finna to” because it’s starting to get a little — I don’t know. It’s weird. You have to draw this interesting line you know?

John: Yeah. You don’t want to go into pantomime. You don’t want to go into this place–

Craig: Right.

John: Where you’re sort of aping a culture that you don’t really understand. You’re using words that you would have no business ever using. So that’s absolutely true. But I think what your example is with finna is a great example of this other thing which we noticed which is — we talked about with Clueless, we talked about with Valley Girl where you like you see speech happening and then you’re reflecting that speech. And if you had a movie that was using that throughout, people would start using that more often, and at a certain point it would become commonly accepted. That same thing happened with like, and the way that modern people use like to mean a bunch of things that have nothing to do with like. Where she was like this, or it takes the place of “said” or it takes the place of any kind of filler word, “like” is there. And same with literally which means not at all what literally is supposed to mean.

Craig: It means the opposite now.

John: But people say literally. So, the thing that I find myself being careful of but using more often than not is “wanna, oughta, and gotta,” which is basically the shortened versions of “want to, ought to, and got to,” because spelling out got to, in most characters’ dialogue feels really bizarre and it actually is not the right sense and tone for what a character would say.

Craig: Yeah. Well, there are characters who are educated and fastidious and prickly. And they might say, “I have to,” or “I am going to.” But “gonna” I’m constantly using “gonna” and “gimme” you know. Yeah, and those are perfectly common. And nobody reading a script is going to stop and say, “What, it’s ‘going to’ you cretin”. Like, everything that we discuss on this show, because we are so anti-rule, it’s about having the skill to go far enough and not too far. It is — dialogue and how to manipulate speech, how to break speech and grammar on purpose to match the way people naturally speak as opposed to the way people unnaturally write is the hardest and perhaps impossible thing to teach. You either got it or you don’t.

John: So let’s bring this all the way back around to how this all started off which was begging the question, which was my plea for writers to stop using “begging the question” incorrectly. And really ask the question like when is it okay to use the phrase incorrectly, because you know what, that’s what the character would actually say? And so examples are “who” versus “that.” “Which” versus “that.” “Less” versus “fewer, farther, further.” “Between” and “among.” All the examples I just gave, I’m actually kind of fine with a character using the incorrect version of that. Like you’re supposed to use between two things and among several things, whatever, nobody necessarily does that. So I’m fine with the character doing any of those things. It’s when you’re trying to pull a strange esoteric phrase in and use it incorrectly that my hackles go up.

Craig: Yeah, you know, we’ve said a lot on the show that one of the best ways to think about characters, and create or achieve verisimilitude, is to think of them as liars, because people are liars. People are constantly lying, and people are constantly bending and breaking language. So what it comes down to is what’s going to draw more attention, more unwanted attention, using between incorrectly, or using among correctly.

John: Yes.

Craig: And that’s really what it comes down to, where do you want attention to fall? I think of grammar all the time, in a way with my characters, to divide them by class and education. And just as to bring it back around to the non-rhoticity, strange Middle-Atlantic accent, that was seen as a sign of erudition, education, class, money. So people who have those things, I try and write in that way, even between — look, I have a movie with talking sheep. The smart sheep’s grammar is perfect. It’s perfect. She actually — she corrects somebody who says, “Who?” asks the question who, and she says, “Whom?” Because of what it refers to.

The other sheep just speak, and some of them have terrible grammar, but she’s the smart one. She has excellent grammar. So that’s how I think of these things. When you’re talking about how to write characters in relation to grammar, the tricky part for writers is you can’t manipulate the rules and break the conventions, and differentiate between characters based on how they speak if you don’t know the rules.

John: Absolutely. And what you just said there, you as the form that does not exist in English. That’s English for us.

Craig: Right. That’s right. If one does not know the rules.

John: Our language is crazy, but it’s good, I love it.

Craig: Yeah.

John: Our next topic will be shorter. This is an article that you posted in the outline called, how – actually what was the actual real title of the thing?

Craig: It’s called “How Rom-Coms Undermine Women” by Megan Garber. This is an article in The Atlantic. And it runs through something that I think has probably occurred to all of us. You know, there’s a convention in romantic comedies that a boy is in love with a girl, and she is in love with somebody else, usually the wrong person, and he is the good guy that only if she could see how wonderful he is, and how truly he loves her, she would be in love with him. And he tries, and he tries, and it’s not working, and somebody at some point says to him something like, “If you want her, you got to go get her.” And so he does some grand romantic gesture like for instance showing up at her house, and holding up a boom box in front of her window, and playing, you know, a wonderful song, or showing up at the airport where she’s about to leave the country, or showing up at her workplace to sing a song, or showing up at her home to show her the cue cards with his devotional written on it.

But the point is, he’s showing up somewhere he’s not supposed to be and doing some big thing and in real life that makes you like a creepy stalker.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And so the question is, are we teaching this really bad thing to people as normal? And the hard part is, I think that, well, I’m kind of curious about what you think, but my personal feeling is that these things do happen in life, rarely, but they’re not stalkery if they work and they super are stalkery if they don’t. So, it’s kind of a weird thing. What do you think?

John: I think it is absolutely valid to point out the trope of it. And we’ll put a link in the show notes to the TV tropes guide to stalking is love, which is basically all the situations in which someone is calling out like — someone’s love behavior is actually really kind of stalking and a little bit crazy.

Another recent article was about how to talk to a woman who’s wearing headphones, which was such a great example of like this really clueless male behavior, and just like really offensive, and yet, we would sort of get a pass in movies a lot which is not cool either. So I think sort of like the discussion of language, it’s one of the situations where screenwriters are culpable to some degree for perpetuating these ideas, and yet I agree with you that they are out there because they also do sometimes exist.

The thing which I disagreed is, or at least a short coming of this article to me was that I don’t think she recognized that the female characters in romantic comedies also do these kind of things as well.

Craig: Correct.

John: You look at Rebecca Bunch in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, you look at Nancy in Tess Morris’s movie, Man Up, they are deceiving the men around them, they’re doing things that are not good or appropriate, and things that would seem like a dangerous person would be doing if they were not in the genre of romantic comedy. So I think it’s troubling.

And maybe it’s just a thing to be aware of the same way we should be aware of the messages we send out with our action movies and with all sorts of other genres of movies, where we portray a world that is not accurate and which if these things happened in the real world would be hugely upsetting.

Craig: Yeah. I think actually audiences are very good at understanding that movies aren’t real. I do. If you were to make a list of things to write about, of concern, that audiences were taking seriously, I think far before you got to, you know, Lloyd showing up and holding up a boom box, you would get to people shooting each other in the head. Now we do have a bit of gun violence going on in our world, no question about that, but certainly not to the tune of what you see in movies. Fist fights even. There’s constant fist-fighting movies. I’ve never been in a fist fight in my life. Never. Not once.

John: That’s true. People break bottles over heads, which you should never do. It’s a horrible thing. Head injuries are terrible.

Craig: You’ll kill someone. You’ll kill someone if you do that. People are breaking chairs over each other’s heads, they’re punching each other in the head all the time. In the head. Car chases. Have you ever been in a car chase, John?

John: Not a one, I’m delighted to report.

Craig: Yeah. No, I’ve never pursued somebody in a vehicle. People are pretty good at understanding the difference between these things. One thing that mitigates all of this stuff is that when we go to see a movie, a romantic comedy, there’s a contract before the movie even begins, between the movie and the audience, and that is that these two people could be wonderful together. That they are not bad people. They’re good people, and fate has torn them apart, a la Romeo and Juliet. The enemy in a weird way is not the woman who’s resisting stupidly this man’s advances, nor is the enemy the man who is perhaps going to somewhat extreme measures to get this woman to see how wonderful and deserving of love he is. The enemy is fate. Fate has gotten in the way.

Now, occasionally, you’ll get a romantic comedy where it’s the anti-romantic comedy, and you know, they don’t end up together and that’s fine, too. But that’s our understanding of these things. That said, the problem with the romantic comedy stalking behavior is similar to the problem that I think people have in real life, anyway, men and women, which is what is the line between being passive and quitter, and being obsessive and stalkery?

John: Yeah.

Craig: It’s a hard thing to navigate. Courting, courtship is difficult.

John: Yeah. The lesson we learned on today’s Scriptnotes. I don’t know that I have more to say, other than I think, it’s useful to be aware of it, be aware of it as a trope, and if there’s a way to hang a lantern on it so it’s clear to the audience that you’re in on this, the troubling aspect of this behavior, too, maybe do that. But I agree that like we don’t go to movies necessarily for lessons about how to date and marry. We end up taking them in, just the same way we take in language by accident. And that’s I guess one of the things about our culture. It’s how we get some of our education.

Craig: Yes. And another one just came to mind is While You Were Sleeping. Remember that movie?

John: Oh yeah, absolutely.

Craig: She’s just like completely is obsessed with this dude, completely obsessed with him. And then when he is hit by a train and goes into a coma, she like insinuates herself into his family’s life and poses as his girlfriend, as his fiancé.

John: Yeah.

Craig: That’s definitely, if you did that in real life, you would have to go to the bin.

John: Yeah.

Craig: But when Sandra Bullock does it, we’re like, aww.

John: Aww. That’s actually one of the reasons why I love the new opening to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend this season, where basically it just explains like she’s just a girl in love, and like you can’t call me crazy because I’m an ingénue. And an ingénue in love is crazy, so therefore, I’m just an ingénue. Just a girl in love.

Craig: It’s kind of like, we’re now kind of at the fun part of our culture where we can take these things apart, but keep the little bits inside that are true, get rid of the junk that is like, look, part of this article is like Hitch is really screwed up, and the movie, the premise of Hitch is screwed up. This is a guy who’s basically the pick-up artist who is teaching men how to consciously and insidiously manipulate women into being with them. That’s gross. And you know, they’ve been trying to develop that pick-up artist book for years, as a movie, which I just think is atrocious.

John: Yeah.

Craig: They shouldn’t do that.

John: They shouldn’t do that. So if nothing else, maybe we’ll stop that movie from getting made, and it will all have been worth it.

Craig: Yeah, I don’t think so. We don’t have that power.

John: We have none of that power. We have the power to talk about cool things. So my One Cool Thing this week–

Craig: Segue Man.

John: Is Time Travel: A History, by James Gleick, is a book that is — I’m reading right now that I think is just delightful. So Craig, how long back ago do you think time travel was invented?

Craig: You mean the concept of time travel?

John: The concept of time travel.

Craig: Or actual time travel?

John: The concept of time travel.

Craig: Because actual time travel was developed 14,000 years from now.

John: Yes.

Craig: The concept of time travel, oh, I would say, I don’t remember anything like that in Shakespeare, like maybe turn of the century like 1800?

John: Yeah, 100 years ago, H. G. Wells. So what’s so fascinating–

Craig: Oh, 20th Century then.

John: 20th Century, so it’s — the time machine, it’s his story, is really where you can start to think about time travel as you and I think about it now, which is that a person develops a way to go forward or backward in time. So there were other stories in which people like with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, they get hit on the head and they show up–

Craig: Wait a second. Yeah, what about Dickens and A Christmas Carol? He goes back, the Ghost of Christmas Past. He goes back in time.

John: It’s not a conscious choice.

Craig: It’s a ghost.

John: It was not a conscious choice to go back in those times. So there’s been many situations like a dreaming of previous times, a dreaming of alternate time lines, that – Fantasias have happened, but that sense of like the future is a place that you could travel into is actually a brand new concept. And we didn’t use to have a sort of space to think about like the future as this new area out in front of us.

And so all the paradoxes of like, you know, like what if you can go back and kill Hitler? We’d never thought of that before. There was never like a what if you could go back and kill Caesar? That was not a thing. It’s only because — and Gleick makes a very compelling argument for the only reason why we have our current thought of time travel and Terminator and sort of all the iterations of timelines and stuff like that, is because of the inventions of this last century and the scientific discoveries of Einstein and everything else that sort of put it in the public culture, but also the acceleration of culture so that it’s only when generations started being born where they recognize like, wow, my life is nothing like my parents’ life, and my kids’ lives will be nothing like my life. That’s when we started to have a future, and started to think about the future as something different than the present.

Craig: That makes total sense, yeah, because like back in the old days they’d be like, well, why would I want to go into the past? It’s like now, but just a little bit lamer.

John: Yeah.

Craig: The future will be like now, but like a little bit better.

John: Maybe, hopefully, who knows?

Craig: Yeah. Ish.

John: So I’m quite enjoying this book, so I’ll have a link to that in the show notes.

Craig: Well, keeping on track with Science, my One Cool Thing is a young woman named Maanasa Mendu. Maanasa Mendu is 13 years old. She lives in Ohio. She’s a middle school student. And as part of a competition, she created something that’s kind of amazing. She was looking at the shaking branches on a tree in her yard and thought, as we often do, you or I, boy that reminds me of the action of Piezo-electrical materials. And it turns out that she created with, I think it was like 10 bucks worth of Styrofoam and plastic, created a device that essentially captures naturally occurring vibrations in the environment along with solar and wind, and creates electricity from it, and was able to power a small light bulb with this little $10 thing she made, hanging off of a tree. It’s incredible.

So she won this prize from 3M, the Post-It company, among other things, and I’m just fascinated by there’s this potential that we have in this country that just blows my mind constantly when I think about somebody like Maanasa Mendu. She’s 13 and she might have actually invented something amazing.

John: Yeah.

Craig: Just think of what’s going to happen, you know, when she’s 25. It’s just amazing. So Maanasa Mendu, you are my One Cool Thing.

John: Very, very cool. So that’s our show for this week. Our final reminder that this is your very last chance to buy one of the two Scriptnotes shirts, so click on the links in the show notes, or just go to, there’ll be a link on the side bar there for where you can get your shirts. So thank you to everyone who bought shirts. We’re excited to make them, and send them to you.

As always, our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe.

Craig: Yeah.

John: It’s edited by Matthew Chilelli.

Craig: Woo-hoo.

John: Our outro this week comes from Eric Pearson. If you have an outro you’d like to send to us, you can send us a link to That’s also a place where you can send questions for us to answer. I think next week we’ll try to answer some of your questions.

On Twitter I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. That’s a great place for short questions. You can find us on iTunes, just search for Scriptnotes and while you’re there you can also download the Scriptnotes app which lets you listen to all the back episodes of the show.

Craig: Fancy.

John: Fancy. So is the place for that. There are also USB drives available at that have all the back episodes.

One of the questions, Craig, we have to figure out is, the new MacBooks do not have USB drives. Or not USB-A drives and so do we still make drives anymore? I don’t know if they are going to continue to exist.

Craig: Well, if you connect them through the dongle, it should be fine, right?

John: Yeah.

Craig: I mean, there’s, like, a — because I ordered the new MacBook Pro, and with it I also ordered just a little USB-C, regular old USB adaptor.

John: Yeah.

Craig: In case, you know.

John: Okay. They’re available with Craig’s dongle and if you would like–

Craig: You know Sexy Craig has a dongle for you.

John: Probably the dongle is as much as the drive so–

Craig: You know, like, you like the drive of the dongle?

John: Ugh. We almost got through the whole episode–

Craig: Ooh, yeah, almost got through it.

John: If you listen to the transcripts, you won’t hear Sexy Craig’s voice at all. That’s a thing actually–

Craig: Not even a little bit.

John: On Twitter last week, people were saying, like, I listened to the show for the first time after only reading the transcripts. I didn’t understand what Sexy Craig was, and now they understand what Sexy Craig is. And they’re horrified.

Craig: If you can even wrap your mind around it. I mean, can you ever understand it? I don’t think so.

John: Apparently both of our voices are completely wrong for how we sound in print.

Craig: Oh, okay.

John: Yeah.

Craig: I wonder how people think I sound.

John: Yeah, probably authoritative, but I don’t know.

Craig: Crazy, sexy?

John: If you’re a person who mostly experiences the show through the transcripts, and only heard our voices recently, we’d be fascinated to know. So tell us on Twitter what you thought we would sound like before you actually heard us. That would be interesting for me to know.

Craig: Me too.

John: Cool. Craig, have a wonderful week.

Craig: You, too, John, and I’ll see you–

John: On the other side.

Craig: See you next time on the other side of the wall. [laughs]

John: Oy. All right. Take care.

Craig: Bye.


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You can download the episode here.

The Upcoming D.C. Shorts Film Festival and Screenplay Competition


The D.C. Shorts Film Festival and Screenplay Competition, an 11-day event that includes film screenings of shorts, Q&As, filmmaker workshops and free family screenings in Washington, D.C., is considered to be one of the top-tiered short film festivals nationally and around the world, and for budding screenwriters, the unique perks it offers are hard to pass up.

The post The Upcoming D.C. Shorts Film Festival and Screenplay Competition appeared first on Script Magazine.

7 Rules for Using Your Real Life in Fiction


Today we start a multi-part series on using your real life in fiction. The example I’m going to use is my own newest novel, The Knowledge. We’ll bounce back and forth from story principles in the abstract to how these concepts were applied in The Knowledge.

"Hey! Taxi!"

“Hey! Taxi!”

I’m gonna put up a new post every Mon-Wed-Fri, just for this series. Hopefully we’ll run through Christmas.

If you have any questions, please feel free to write them in to the Comments section below. I’ll answer them as best I can.


Let’s start with what was honest-to-God, real-life true in The Knowledge:


In truth, I was driving a cab in New York City. I was broke. It was a high-crime period. I was finishing my third novel (all unpublished and unpublishable so far).

I had committed a terrible crime against my wife, which had broken up our marriage. I was desperate to redeem myself, both in her eyes and my own. I had become fixated on the idea that getting this new book published would, if not atone for what I had done, at least prove to my wife (and maybe to me too) that I wasn’t the bum and the loser that she thought I was.


That’s the set-up. That’s the real-life, exterior and interior foundation of the story.


The All Is Lost moment (again, in real-life) was me finishing the book and it failing to find a publisher. In other words, that’s the crash-and-burn moment at the climax of the true-life story. The Epiphanal moment is me deciding to pack up and move to L.A. to try to find work writing for the movies.

(This move, as it turned out, succeeded. It was the decision that made me a writer for real and put me on the path I’ve been on ever since.)


Still with me? To repeat, the above is the real-life narrative that I began with, about eighteen months ago, when I decided to write this story as a novel.

[By the way, if you haven’t ordered The Knowledge yet, please do. I know it’s tempting to tell yourself, “Oh, I’ll just follow along in these posts.” But trust me, you’ll get ten times more out of these if you can follow along in the book.]

The first thing I knew, assessing the true-life story elements described above, was that they weren’t enough for a novel.

They were too boring.

Too ordinary.

Too internal.

Maybe Henry James could do it, but I sure couldn’t.

I knew right away that I had to, as they say in England, tart this material up.

I had to fictionalize.

The question was how.

How much?

And where?

Before I address these questions, a short digression:

I’m reading a great book now—Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Notebook.

The Notebook tells how Coppola, starting with Mario Puzo’s novel, put together the screenplay and screen story that would become the movie, “The Godfather.”

Coppola had the exact opposite problem I had. He already had the jazzed-up story. He had Mario Puzo’s novel, which was a runaway bestseller. sensation-of-the-decade. Coppola’s issue was how to inform that material with his own sensitivity, to bring his own real-life instincts and genius to it.

Francis Ford Coppola comes from a family of artists and musicians. Like the Corleones, it was a close-knit, ambitious, high-achieving, multi-generational, immigrant Italian-American family.

Imagine for a moment that Coppola had the idea to write a novel about his real family. He might have come to the same conclusion I did about my own real-life material. It’s too ordinary, too boring, not enough drama, etc.

Then (let’s keep imagining) he is seized with an inspiration:


I’ll tell my family’s story. Except I’ll make them a gangster family.


See what I’m getting at?

With that single (imagined) stroke of fictionalization, our hypothetical Francis Ford Coppola has made his real-life family story a blockbuster.

In essence, that’s exactly what David Chase did with The Sopranos.

The Sopranos is basically the story of an upwardly-mobile American family with issues around fidelity, child-rearing, and general panic-attack/freak-out red-white-and-blue angst. What made The Sopranos great was the translation of that universal American family anxiety into the world of gangland crime and murder.

Which brings us to the first principle of using your own life in fiction:


Make the internal external.


Is your interior story about being trapped, held captive, imprisoned in some doomed stasis?

Consider telling it as a prison story.

Make the internal external.

Too much? Then ask yourself, How can I heighten the reality of my story? How can I raise the stakes?

How can I make the internal external?

Here’s what I did in The Knowledge:

I built a parallel redemption tale on top of the real-life interior “How can I redeem myself?” narrative of my own life. Then I wove the two stories together.

My real-life boss at the taxi company was rumored to have a suspicious past. Word around the shop was that he was into all kinds of shady (and maybe-worse-than-shady) activities.

Considering how to structure The Knowledge, I said to myself,


“Let’s make the taxi boss [Marvin Bablik] an out-and-out gangster. Let’s have him hire the character-that’s-me [“Stretch”] for some seeming innocent extra-hours work. And let’s have that work spin out of control, increment by increment, until the character-that’s-me is inextricably tied up in this criminal’s affairs.”


Further, and critically important:


“Let’s have Bablik’s interior story be one of redemption as well. Let’s make his inner life a parallel for Stretch’s, only on a much more heightened, higher-stakes level. Life and death. Bullets. Murder.”


And finally …


“Let’s have a deep, unlikely, and unexpected bond develop between Bablik and Stretch. Let’s have them come to care profoundly for each other, so that the self-sacrifice of one can mean  liberation for the other.”


In other words, I stole the emotional dynamic of Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Do you remember the story? It’s a parallel saga of Woody Allen’s character, a failing film documentarian trying to woo Mia Farrow away from TV big-shot Alan Alda–and Martin Landau, a successful ophthamologist who contracts for the murder of the nutty woman he fell into an affair with, Angelica Huston. One story informs the other. The two work as one.

We’ll get into this deeper in the next post. But as a quick flash-forward, here are the seven principles of using your real life in fiction:


  1. Make the internal external


  1. Pick a genre and run with it


  1. Raise the stakes to life and death


  1. Fictionalize on-theme only


  1. Make it universal


  1. Make it beautiful


  1. Detach yourself from the character that is you


[At the risk of repeating myself, please order The Knowledge if you haven’t already, and read it. It will make these posts ten times more productive.]