John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 291 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, it's another round of the Three Page Challenge, where we take a look at listener's scenes and offer our honest critique. We'll also be discussing techniques for letting the audience know your characters' names. Plus, Craig has been stockpiling his umbrage for weeks and may have found a worthy target. So, hold on.
Before we get to the umbrage, Craig, we have exciting news.
Craig: Yes we do. So, last year fans of the podcast might recall that we did a live show here in Los Angeles to benefit the charity Hollywood Heart, which is a wonderful charity. And our good friend, John Gatins, is the connection to that. I believe he is on their board of directors. Well, we're doing it again. This year, in fact, it's coming up fast. It's going to be March 28. Now, do we have tickets on sale yet? As of this minute of recording, no. But very, very soon.
You will want to get them. Obviously, John, you will not be with us because you're in France.
John: You have a pretty amazing replacement guest host for this event.
Craig: We do. So we have Dana Fox, who is the best version of you I can imagine. So, screenwriter, television writer, director Dana Fox.
John: Former John August assistant, Dana Fox.
Craig: That's right. Basically everybody that's successful in Hollywood is a former John August assistant as far as I could tell. But for all of you out there in film fandom, you might want to check this out because we have a number of guests, but perhaps our featured guest we'll say is Rian Johnson, director of the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson. Also, the screenwriter of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. You're going to want to see Rian Johnson, aren't you?
He's probably going to tell everybody in the audience what happens.
John: Probably so. Assuming like small nondisclosure agreements and it's the only chance you'll ever get to know what happens in Star Wars ahead of time. By the way, that's not his only credit. He's directed many other incredibly great movies and episodes of television. But, the thing we may want to talk about this time is how you go from directing those amazing movies to one of the biggest movies of all time.
John: So, I cannot contain my jealousy that you will get to talk with him then live. I will be asleep while you're recording it, but I will send through some sort of prerecorded welcome to all of you people. Or, I'll give Dana special instructions for how to really get under your skin.
Craig: Dana can't get under my skin. It's just – I love her too much. Here's the problem. You're going to tell her to do things that if you had done them would get under my skin. And when she does them, they're just going to be adorable.
John: Yeah. She's a pretty wonderful person.
John: So, if you are interested in coming to this live show, there will be a link in the show notes assuming that the tickets are actually available by the time the episode posts. If not, keep following us on Twitter because it's going to be a popular show. I suspect it will sell out, so you will want to–
Craig: It will.
John: Follow us to make sure that you will get a chance to see Rian Johnson and Dana Fox. And a third guest to be announced soon.
Craig: And it will be a third guest of high caliber. We don't just, I mean, you know what we do. Last year we had the Game of Thrones guys. We had Jason Bateman. It was a great show.
John: It was a good show.
Craig: Yeah. This time we have Rian Johnson, Dana Fox. It's only – frankly, it can only get better from there. So I presume Steven Spielberg. I haven't checked with Steven Spielberg. Maybe I should check with him.
John: You know who it should be? It should be Stephen King.
Craig: Ooh, I would love Stephen King.
John: Yeah, I don't think he's going to fly out to Los Angeles.
John: But Stephen King would be great.
Craig: But we have Rian Johnson.
John: And Rian Johnson is fantastic. So, if you are curious about what Rian Johnson might say, you may want to check out the previous episode that Rian Johnson was on. A live show in Austin where he was one of our featured guests. That is a segue to my next topic, which was the Scriptnotes Index. So, last week we talked about this idea of, you know, there's all these back episodes and people are coming to the show and they are staring at 300 episodes and trying to figure out like where do I even start.
So I proposed, and Craig stole the idea and co-proposed, doing an index for the show in which our listeners who have listened to every episode could point new listeners to. These are the episodes you don't want to miss. And so this might become a book. This might become a website. We'll figure out the best way to get this out in the world. But, so far 47 of you – this is only three days after we announced it – have written in with recommendations on the can't miss episodes.
So, if you would like to add your own recommendations for which episodes listeners need to make sure they hit, it is johnaugust.com/guide. And that's where you can leave a review for individual episodes. Let people know why they should listen to it and who it is for.
Craig: I think we should call it the Scriptdecks. I like Scriptdecks.
John: All right. We'll workshop that. So, it's definitely a contender. We'll put it on the whiteboard.
Craig: I don't like the sound of that.
John: So, at least we can always fall back to Scriptdecks.
Craig: You know what you did? You just Kellyanne'd me. You dodged. You bobbed.
John: A little bit. But people should know that Scriptnotes is actually Craig Mazin's title for the show. He was the one who came up with the title Scriptnotes.
Craig: That's right. But I'm going to be honest here. I might have Camel cased it if the typography had been up to me. So, phew. Bullet dodged.
John: But it wasn't.
Craig: Yeah, it sure wasn't.
John: Bullet dodged. But one bullet will not be dodged which is the next bullet–
Craig: Segue Man.
John: Craig has put in the chamber and he's been ready for this all week. So, this is a person who runs another website. Craig and I are not really bloggers so much anymore. I still have my site. Craig sort of let his site disappear. But this is a site called ScriptShadow. And it is run by a person names Carson Reeves, who I've never met, but I sort of encountered online various times. And a person who has very strong opinions about screenwriting, which I generally do not share.
But this was a breaking point for Craig. So, Craig, for our listeners at home or people who are driving who can't actually pull up the blog post, could you just read aloud the moments that really set you off?
Craig: Sure. So, this is from ScriptShadow who puts himself forth as an expert on screenwriting and screenplays and how to become a professional screenwriter, even though he is none of those things. And here's what he wrote recently. "Moonlight and Manchester By The Sea won the Adapted and Original screenplay awards respectively. And they're both terrible screenplays. There isn't even a discussion to be had on the matter. They're awful screenplays that display no skill in the screenwriting department whatsoever.
"How can I say such a thing? One of the easiest ways to judge a screenplay is to ask, "Can someone else have written this?" Is the skill on display at a level where other writers could've written something similar? I can say without hesitation that there isn't one writer of the 10,000 members in the WGA who couldn't have written either of these scripts."
John: Wow. So, first off, welcome King George to the podcast. So, he seems to be claiming that all 10,000 members of the WGA could have written Moonlight. They could have written the story of a gay black kid growing up in Florida over three different periods of his life. Because that's, you know, it's a universal experience and we've all had that. We all could have written that script.
Craig: How many times have we seen that movie? He's right. I mean, it's like the staple of Disney sitcoms. And not only could any of the 10,000 members of the WGA, which I wonder if he's even one of them, not only could any of them have written it, they would have all written that way.
You know that scene where he's cradling him in the water. That obviously would have written that way with those words in that sense. And similarly Manchester By The Sea just feels so obvious in all ways that, you know, it's kind of weird. Like why haven't all of these people written these screenplays? Seems kind of crazy, right? Since we all could have, why didn't we?
John: Absolutely. And it's also why are these two films so acclaimed when they clearly are just coasting on good cinematography and good performances. Because what ScriptShadow is teaching us is that the screenplays themselves really have no bearing on why the films turned out well. Which seems ironic considering it's a site about screenwriting and the importance of screenwriting. So–
John: It's all a conundrum really why these films turned out so well despite not being good screenplays.
Craig: But here's the strangest thing of all. You and I are having a discussion on this matter. And ScriptShadow has told us quite clearly there isn't even a discussion to be had on the matter. Because ScriptShadow, as far as I can tell, he is either an idiot or he is suffering from delusions of grandeur. To say that two screenplays that have won these awards are both terrible screenplays is something you're allowed to say to a friend if you choose. Your opinion is that they're terrible screenplays. I understand.
It's usually not the case. Even when movies win an Oscar award and I think, oh, I did not like that movie. It's not that they're terrible. It's just that I didn't love it that much. And so it goes. But what this idiot is saying, and he's saying publicly so that we can all see him be an idiot, is that they are objectively terrible screenplays, both of them, that display, "No skill in the screenwriting department whatsoever."
And I must ask, of course, what makes him the arbiter of skill in the screenwriting department? By the way, I've seen something that ScriptShadow has written. I've seen an actual piece of work that he wrote. Did you know that?
John: I think I do remember this. This was years ago, but yeah, I do remember this.
Craig: Yeah. He sucks. I mean, like sucks to the level where he would not be picked for our Three Page Challenge. That Godwin would just go, oh yeah, this goes in the slush pile. He's terrible. So when he asks rhetorically, "How can I say such a thing," the actual proper response is, "Idiot, delusions of grandeur."
John: All right. Enough ScriptShadow. Let's get on to our real business today. This was a question that came to us on Twitter. Erin McGinley wrote in to ask, "Can you do a bit on the ways to introduce character names? How do we escape, what's your name, or hi I'm Sally?" Erin, that is a great question.
Craig: So good.
John: I don't think we've ever done an episode about this. If we had Scriptdecks we could look that up. But I don't think we've really talked about this as a topic.
Craig: It's catching, isn't it, by the way? [laughs]
John: I know. I'll say it three more times and suddenly it will feel like, oh, well of course that's the right answer.
Craig: Yeah. This is one of those things that plagues us all, Erin, so thank you for asking this question. And certainly we all know the worst way. Actually, you haven't even noticed the worst way, because you're saying how do we escape, "What's your name? Hi, I'm Sally." Sometimes, "What's your name? I am Sally," works – depending on context.
The worst way is just when two people who know each other are taking like John and I are talking right now. And I'm like, well, you know John, out of nowhere I just mention your name. Scott Frank always blows up about this. He's like how many times do we use each other's names when we're talking to each other? Zero percent of the time. We both know each other's name. That's always the worst.
John: It is the worst. So, but I think the reason why we try to do it, and sometimes do it awkwardly is that the audience really does want to know characters' names. I think there's an inherent story sense that as we're watching something, if a character feels important, we want to know their names. And if we are not told their names pretty early on in the story, we will just assign them our own name. So we will assign like, oh, Albino guy, or French Idris Elba. Like we'll assign something that sort of takes the place of name just for simple mental categorization.
So we are always listening for a name. And so let's talk through some ways to get that name out there. The horrible way tends to be sort of like two people having a conversation and awkwardly using their name. But if you have more people in a conversation, then there could be a natural way of like, you know, you're distinguishing who you're actually talking to, or you're calling to somebody. That can sometimes do it, as long it doesn't feel forced.
John: You can sometimes show it. So, there's ways sometimes you will show a name on a desk, on a door, on some other bit of business that will naturally do it. That can feel really forced as well, but it's sometimes a way to get that name out there. Craig, other thoughts?
Craig: Yeah, you know, there are moments where your name gets called for things. You're waiting for something at an office and somebody calls your name. There's pieces of paper that might have your name on them that you're filling out a form and then we have phone calls. Sometimes the best way to learn someone's name is through two people that aren't that person. So, we see – a very typical thing in the beginning of a movie is we see our main character and she's working at her desk. And then we see two other people who are across the hallway and they're like, "What's with Virginia this morning? I don't know. She's…"
So, sometimes that happens, because it is natural at that point. You wouldn't say what's with – if there's more than one person, you wouldn't say what's with her. The person would say what's with which one, which who.
So there are ways to do this. Here's the thing, Erin, and all the rest of you. It's all annoying. It's all annoying. I hate it. It's one of my least liked – well, because it's hated – parts of screenwriting because it always feels artificial. The truth is I have no problem writing a script where nobody ever knows somebody's name. In fact, I do it all the time. And here's the crazy part. Usually people don't notice. Every now and then, somebody towards the end will go, "Is anyone going to ever say that person's name?" And I'll just no. They won't. You know what? They'll just know who they are, because they'll see them.
But, you know, everybody seems to want to try and get the name in. I hate it. I hate it.
John: I completely agree that there's characters in scripts who you don't ever need to know their name, and just whatever their category of that they do is fine. But I think she's talking about a principal character in your film. If we don't their name, and sometimes it is awkward to get that name out there. And so you can imagine scenarios in which a person is alone for a lot of the movie, if you didn't get that name out there pretty early on it's going to be really challenging.
If you can have a character speak their own name, it's simple, but it has to be sort of natural to the world of the story. So it's like they're introducing themselves or like they're signing in at a reception desk. They are on a phone call. Like, hi my name is blah from this. So, Big Fish does that. My name is Will Bloom calling from the AP. That's the kind of thing where people do actually use their name.
So, I would also just recommend as you go through life over this next week, this is sort of everybody who is listening to this, listen for times where people say their names or you learn somebody's name in a natural way. And just take note of that. And maybe you'll find other good ways to get that name out there in your script.
Craig: There's also games you can play with it. In Identity Thief I had Melissa McCarthy tell her name to Jason Bateman, and then we hear somebody else yell her actually name, so we get that she lied when she was telling him her name. So you can play around with it.
You know, I've never actually written a scene, I just thought of this, but I assume that people have introduced names in movies by having somebody order a coffee at Starbucks. Because they always ask you your name.
John: I've absolutely seen that. So, it feels kind of TV, but–
Craig: Right. It feels TV because it's such a boring scene to put in a movie. Somebody ordering coffee.
John: Yeah. But, it's a way to do it. It gets it out there in the world.
Craig: I hate the name thing. I really do.
John: I hate the name thing, too. [Unintelligible] wrote a whole movie about it, but yes, I hate it, too.
John: All right, it's time for our big marquee feature today, the Three Page Challenge. So for people who are new to the podcast, every couple weeks we invite our listeners to send in the first three pages of their script. It can be a screenplay. It can be a pilot. It can be anything that looks like a movie or TV show. And we will read it. And Godwin sorts through all the entries. He picks the three that he thinks are most interesting for us to talk about. So, what we're about to share with you are people who wrote in to say like, hey, please critique this.
So, unlike ScriptShadow, who is just critiquing other people's stuff, we are inviting people to send stuff in. And so people have very nicely agreed to let us talk about these things. We will have the PDFs for all of these entries linked in the show notes for the show, so you can read along with us. But, because you might be in a car or someplace where you can't actually open the PDF, we do a summary before we start.
And the summaries are not always our most favorite part of this. So, a few episodes ago we tried having a guest reader, and so we had Jeff Probst come on. He did a fantastic job.
Craig: He did.
John: Doing the summaries. And we thought we might try to top that. We might try to go a little bit more. So, we reached out to Elizabeth Banks to ask if she would be willing to read the summaries for this week's Three Page Challenge. And she said no. But eventually we convinced her, and she said yes.
So, this is Elizabeth Banks. She's an actress, producer, director from Pitch Perfect, The Hunger Games, Wet Hot American Summer. She's Rita Repulsa in the new Power Rangers movie.
John: So she's the real deal.
Craig: I'll tell you what else.
Craig: She's fantastic. You've worked with Elizabeth, right, at some point or another?
John: I never have. I only know her socially.
Craig: Spectacular. Very, very smart person. Sometimes I have to be like, I don't want to use the word alpha, but in working arrangements I feel like I'm driving the bus somehow, just because sometimes as a screenwriter that's what you have to do, especially if you're coming in and you're rewriting stuff. She so drives the bus. She's the bus driver. So, I sit next to her on the bus, but she's driving the bus. She is in charge. I love that lady. Excellent person.
John: I played Catan against Elizabeth and her husband. And, man, they're hardcore Catan players. They don't mess around.
Craig: Again, yeah, and Max, who is a great guy. They're bus drivers. Just there are people in life – I feel like there are bus drivers, there are people who sit next to the bus drivers. And then there are passengers. They're bus drivers.
John: They are bus drivers. So, we can ask Elizabeth Banks, will you please introduce our first entry in the Three Page Challenge?
Elizabeth Banks: Carne by John Lambert. In a sterile room we see a pair of gloved hands turn over a slab of red meat for inspection. The meat is then dropped onto the sheet of brown butcher's paper. A thump from outside. The hands freeze for a moment, then hastily wrap and tape up the meat. A pair of feet rushes down the hallway and out a set of steel doors. The package is tossed into an igloo cooler in the passenger seat of a Chevy van.
The van drives off through the streets of New Orleans. The unseen driver of the van meets up with Levi Cheval, a prick in his 30s. Levi asks the driver what he brought. Flanks and tenderloin. Levi asks about the ribs, insisting that he always wants the ribs.
The driver drops the package into Levi's trunk. Levi hands over a thick envelope. The van drives off revealing a decal that reads Cheval Funeral Home.
Later, a butcher's cleaver cuts into a slab of meat. We read the embroidery on the chef's coat. Levi Cheval, Chef de Cuisine.
Craig: So, we've got ourselves a nice little short film here to open up a pilot and it certainly is going to tell us the topic of the show which is that a chef is using human body parts in his restaurant. This is kind of a thing now. There's that, what is called Santa Clara Diet?
John: Yeah, Santa Clarita Diet.
Craig: Santa Clarita.
John: Drew Barrymore and Tim Olyphant.
Craig: Right. People are eating people now. It's en vogue.
So, let's just talk about the – there's a broad issue, and then I'll get a little more granule. The broad issue is that we are stuck, I think, in a situation where we can't see the driver's face, because we're not allowed to for some reason. I assume it's important later. And it's just too long. There's two pages and it's a two-page conversation. That's a two-minute-ish conversation, ish, where we're not allowed to see one person's face. And it's really awkward and uncomfortable that we're not seeing his face.
You can get away with that for a page, I think, maximum. A page. Two pages and I'm like, why is the camera just avoiding this? And now I'm not watching the scene. Now I'm like show the freaking face already, because there's no reason for me to not see his face. If there were a reason. If I had a better sense of why I was not allowed to see this person's face, because he was an important person, or a dangerous person. But he's not. He's actually submissive to Levi. He's clearly just a work-a-day guy. He's a little scared of him.
And so I really don't understand why I can't see his face and it's really annoying. And the second issue is that we – we kind of are a little ahead of the reveal, I think.
John: Yeah. I think we're way ahead. And this is really my fundamental issue with it is like by the third paragraph I knew what this was. By the time I see the meat on the butcher paper and it's called Carne, I was like this is going to be about cannibalism. And so that's my first thought. And then everything is just backing it up. And so I feel like I'm 2.5 pages ahead of where this three pages is. And that's a real challenge.
And so my proposal, and this is just John take this for what you want, but I think you cut out that first scene. Cut out the meat. Don't show the meat. And get to the delivery, get to something else first. And maybe then open up the package and see that there's meat inside there, because I was just way ahead of you for far too long.
Craig: Yeah. I understand that on page three when Levi says, "How is he?" And the driver says, "Same as always," clearly he knows somebody that the driver knows. So they have someone in common. And then when the van drives away it says Cheval Funeral Home. OK. And then the next thing we see is that his name is Levi Cheval. This is actually kind of bumming me out. It's one reveal too many.
I wouldn't mind the reveal that Levi Cheval, the cannibal chef, is buying meat from a funeral home. But then I would make the second reveal – I would hold it back. Because that's another thing. He's related to, I guess his dad or something who owns the funeral home.
Frankly, for something like this, I would do this backwards from the way that you have done it, John. I would start in a restaurant. And I would start with somebody eating and it would be delicious. And the chef comes out and compliments, "It's the most amazing. It's just fantastic. Thank you. We go through remarkable lengths to procure the finest." And then he goes back in the kitchen and someone is like, "Oh, the meat guy is here." And he goes, "Oh, great, great, great." And he comes outside and it's just business as usual. "What's going on man? You're supposed to deliver me blah-blah-blah and blah-blah-blah." "Sorry, I got held up. We couldn't get that, but we have these." And he's like, "All right, I'll take them. Thanks."
And the guy drives away and then we see funeral home as the reveal. I would just do this backwards. And I would also make it so much more mundane because it helps inform the audience that this is not new. This has been going on for a while, you know. I always feel like criminals who are stuck in a kind of recidivist, repetitive criminal act are as work-a-day about it as anybody at any job.
This felt very cloak and dagger and unnecessarily so.
John: I agree. You know which movie had really great work-a-day criminals in it? Moonlight. You know, good street drug dealers. Felt like it was their ordinary business.
Craig: Anyone could have written.
Craig: Why didn't ScriptShadow write that script? If only just to get the notoriety of having an Oscar. Because what he's saying is he could have written it. So, he should have really written it.
John: He really should have written it.
Craig: That's just silly. That's just business silly.
John: It is business silly. So, let's go back to John's script here. And I think it's an opportunity to look at some of what he's doing on the page and highlight some things that are working really well and some things that could work better. If you are using dashes at the end of a line, so it's an abbreviated line, it's two dashes, not one dash. In another Three Page Challenge we're going to look at, it really is just – I know this sounds horrible as a person who comes from typography, but it really is. It's two dashes. It's not an em dash. There's no such thing as an em dash in Courier really. So it's just two dashes.
So, there's a couple times here where I'm seeing a single dash, which just doesn't cut it for me.
Midway down the first page, INT. HALLWAY. Day? Night? It's just normal to put the day there. And I know it seems weird because we're not necessarily seeing the sunlight, but you put the day. It's just standard.
I liked the sort of two-thirds the way down the page, as we get to the asphalt parking lot, it sort of feels like quick cuts. "IGLOO COOLER ON PASSENGER SEAT Opened. Fresh ice. The package is tossed in. Cooler shut. THE GRILL OF A WHITE CHEVY VAN SHAKES as the engine ROARS to life." Great. I get the feeling of movement. So nicely done there.
With "VARIOUS SHOTS. STREETS OF NEW ORLEANS. DAY." That's an Exterior. Give us an EXT. It's fine to say various, but again we're outside. Just let us know we're outside.
At the bottom of page one, this is the paragraph as written. "It pulls into an empty parking lot, in a seemingly empty industrial district. Empty, aside from a murdered-out Cadillac coupe in the corner, which it parks next to." Too many empties. Kind of an awkward phrasing there.
John: A simpler version of this might be, "It pulls into a parking lot in an industrial complex. Empty, aside from a murdered-out Cadillac coupe." Great. So just simplify.
Craig: Simplify is a good thing. I like to use capitals the way that John does. I like to call out things with all caps. And I don't necessarily do it in any rigorous way. Sometimes I call out things. Sometimes I call out actions. Sometimes I call out signs. So all the things he's doing here.
When you do call out things with capitals, I think that's when it becomes helpful for the reader if you bold your slug lines. Because the capitals start to mush. And even though slug lines have an extra line break in front of them, the bolding of the slug lines really helps you kind of focus. And it helps make the other capitals pop more. Otherwise you start to feel like you're taking a slight moment to determine, especially if you're not going to put a traditional EXT/INT in front of something. Is this – am I being told a location here, or is this something that's actually happening in the scene? And any tiny little pause is bad for the read.
John puts periods at the end of his slug lines. They're not necessary. I don't do that. I don't think many people do. But none of these are fatal sins.
John: No, not at all. I will say that there's some terminology which is a little blurry here, and it's just the nature of screenwriting. So, I will apologize on behalf of screenwriting for it. Slug line can mean the INT/EXT, but you can also call that a scene heading. And scene heading is a little bit clearer, that you're really talking about the start of a scene.
Craig: That's right.
John: Slug lines can also refer to what Craig is talking about, which are these sort of intermediary slug lines. They're in the middle of a scene and they give you a sense that you're looking a different way or it's a change in the action. They're incredibly useful. It's just the terms are sort of blurry over the two of them.
Craig: Yeah. Sorry. So I mean bold the scene headings is what I mean.
John: Yeah. And I agree on bold scene headings. I was a late convert to it, but I think it's really helpful. Also I stopped doing the extra return before scene headings. If you're bolding them you can get away with the single–
Craig: Ooh. I keep those in there. I keep those in there. I know, listen, I know that it's literally six pages on top of my script by the time it's all done, but I don't know. I agree that there's a lot of really good evocative stuff here. In a sense, sometimes it goes a little too far. So I love things like, "The sound of latex snapping against skin." But then we have "INT. HALLWAY. The sound of quick feet echo, growing louder, as we peer down a long and empty hallway of white sterility, save for the red exit sign and steel double doors at the end." That's too much.
John: Too much.
Craig: Too much. Also quick feet echo, that's a rough three words. The sound of quick feet echoing is probably what I would put there. That's where I would want the [unintelligible], because "quick feet echo," it's just there's two nouns in a row there that I struggle with.
John: The reason why we say it's overwritten is because you're giving us three sentences for like it's a hallway. There's nothing actually that's going to happen here, so don't give us this marathon sentence that it's just, you know, a hallway.
Craig: Yeah. I don't mind things being described to paint the picture so I can see it, as long as they're purposeful. So, the red exit sign and steel double doors at the end, it's really not that important, especially because two steel doors swing open in the very next bit.
This is the epitome of over-writing. "Two steel doors swing open and the nervously cadenced legs hurry past us." Well, if you're going to do that, you need to hyphenate nervously-cadenced, but more importantly, no. Right? That's just crazy. Two steel doors swing open. Someone hurries past us. Or we see legs hurrying by.
This is starting to get purple, right? When we say purple we mean ornate, overwritten, Rococo, pick your – baroque, pick your adjective here.
John: Pick the most baroque word for Baroque, and that will be the right one.
Craig: And so there's little too much going on here. And none of it is impactful. What's so much more impactful is the "THE GRILL OF A WHITE CHEVY VAN SHAKES as the engine ROARS to life." I get it.
John: Got it.
John: So, I want to talk about something I really liked on page two. So Levi is having the conversation with the driver:
Fiiine. Whadya' got.
Just flanks and tenderloin.
Too skinny. You would've passed.
We've gone over this. Allow me to pass.
Okay. You would've passed though.
That feels like sort of the ordinary give and take. That feels like the flow and it tells me a little bit about their relationship. It tells me about Levi in terms of like he's just kind of being a prick there about this. But that he's looking for a specific thing. So that got me clicking back into what was actually happening here.
There definitely are moments here I can sort of see the shape of what this wants to be.
John: This is supposed to be a pilot, and so I am curious sort of like what the series out of this would be. But I'm not sure just based on these three pages if I would have made it to the end of the first act, honestly.
Craig: I think it's the wrong opening. I think that there is a – I think it's backwards, personally. I think there is a better opening and a better reveal. But, there is promise. I mean, I think that John has a very good sense of sound and sight. Maybe just needs to pull back a little bit on how much he gets into it. By the way, that one line that you read, I really liked it once I understood it. "We've gone over this. Allow me to pass." That's where you actually want an underline or an italic on the word me. Because the phrase "allow me to pass" is actually an unnatural enunciation of that phrase. Normally it's allow me to pass, as in let me go by. So, it's, "We've gone over this. Allow me to pass," and I'm like allow you to pass what?
Allow you to pass?
John: Oh, yeah, exactly right.
Craig: Yeah, so allow me to pass.
John: Underlining either allow or me would have made it clear that that's what you're trying to say.
Craig: Right. Right. Right. So you needed a little bit of emphasis on that one. But, by the way, I swear to god, the biggest issue here is you're forcing the camera away from somebody for two pages. That is nearly impossible to do well.
John: That's really challenging. All right. I think it is time for Elizabeth Banks to come back and talk us through our next summary for our Three Page Challenge.
Craig: All right.
John: Elizabeth, take it away.
Elizabeth: Cult of Personality by Nathaniel Nauert. High in the hills of Topanga Canyon news helicopters and law enforcement agencies surround an old ranch home. They're eating KFC and drawing analogies to bin Laden. Inside, 30 cult members sit in a circle holding hands. These are the Valentines. They chant in unison while their leader, Simon Ducis, stands alone. Simon decides it's time to face the music. Getting ready to give himself up. Stephanie, one of Simon's disciples, throws herself at his feet, unwilling to let him go. Simon reassures her that his physical absence changes nothing. If they destroy the school where you learned, do you lose the knowledge you gained there?
He then instructs another Valentine, Beth, to take everyone to Andromeda if the plan fails. Simon emerges from the house with his hands raised. The police captain tells Simon to lower himself to the ground. But instead, Simon begins to levitate. And that's the bottom of page three.
John: Nathaniel, I really dug your three pages. And there's some really exciting stuff here. I have some questions about certain things, but I can see what you're doing here. I would definitely have kept reading this script if this had been dropped on my desk.
First off, I love cults, so like I'm always a sucker for cults. But I really liked the tone you were able to find here. Because it's funny without trying too hard to be funny. And that's a challenging thing. It would be so easy to sort of go for the easy laugh, and you didn't do that. And at the bottom of page three we have a mystical moment that seems impossible. Well, you sort of sunk your hook there and I thought that was really effective.
We're going to talk about some things that aren't working here, but that was my sort of bigger headline is like, Nathaniel, I think you did something really cool here.
Craig: Yeah. If I get to the bottom of page three and he's not levitating, I don't love these. But he is levitating, so now I'm kind of loving them. I mean, I was a little more wobbly on the tone than you, only because some of the comedy felt weirdly broad for what was happening. Or what he was saying. So I wasn't quite sure – like at times I thought is this sort of spoofy? It's really when he was dragging Stephanie around with his leg. That felt Naked Gun-ish to me.
John: Yeah, but I could also picture it, though, because I could picture the version where like it's sincere and yet it's also absurd at the same time.
John: And some of our great sort of HBO comedies are able to do that thing where like it's both believable that that character in that moment would do it, and it's also just absurd because you shouldn't be dragged around like a child by a parent.
Craig: The tonal break in a weird way wasn't that she was doing that. It was that he calmly walked around the room and then we revealed that he's been dragging her. The reveal is a physical comedy broad way of doing that.
John: Yeah. Agreed.
Craig: To say like, oh, she's so – that was the only tonal break where I was like, OK, am I in spoof territory or not? But then we do have that last line, where he starts levitating and Jason says, the cop says, "Hold still Simon. That's an order. You hear me? Quit floating?" So I–
John: I'm a little nervous about that line, too.
Craig: Sounds like Naked Gun to me. Is this Naked Gun cult or is it – I'm not sure about the tone.
John: Yeah. I like that it was a little ambiguous about the tone, honestly. I felt like it could go both ways. So like the cultists are called the Valentines. A bit that I was confused about it says 30 people. But I felt like Nathanial meant 30 women, because I don't see any men actually singled out or mentioned. And it felt more like a sex cult kind of place because there's a waterbed and a Jacuzzi.
John: So my guess is that it's a woman-dominated cult, or like he's the only guy left in there. A major problem, we talked about characters speaking their names. The captain should be named Dixon, not Jason. And so all of his character cues, his character names above his dialogue, it gets confusing because Jason and Simon are just too close together.
John: So, you set up a character who feels like he should be named Dixon. Just call him Dixon throughout this whole thing. Even Dixon and Simon are a little bit close considering they're the only two men speaking. So if you have another name for one of these two characters, I would go for that.
I was singling out in the last script about dashes at the end of lines. Here Nathaniel is using em dashes. He's using the very long dashes. And in typography you use those all the time. You just don't use them in screenplays because screenplays are 12-point Courier. And they look weird. They look sort of strangely out of place. So I would just go back, and I know it's going to kill you, but just go back and do your two normal hyphens. It will feel much more natural on the page.
Craig: So really other than the things I've mentioned here, the only other thing that I felt needed looking at was the – and again, this implies a spoof sort of tone – is the first paragraph says, "High in the hills of Topanga Canyon, California, sits a LARGE RANCH HOME, surrounded by lush gardens and grazing livestock. It's pastoral, idyllic, and tranquil as F." It doesn't say F, but I'm trying to keep it clean here.
OK, fine. So, then the next paragraph says, "WHUP, WHUP, WHUP. Maybe not. NEWS HELICOPTERS jockey for position in the sky above the quiet sanctuary. Surrounding the compound, it's mayhem: LAPD, FBI, ATF, and KFC (delivering breakfast)" – see, it's a spoof – "crouch in silence, eyes and guns locked on the old wooden structure."
So, it can't be pastoral, idyllic, and also mayhem with news helicopters. It's one or the other. That's a joke that only works when you're reading the screenplay, but it's not really a joke that works on screen, so I would not do that.
John: Yep. I agree with you there. My other notes about stuff I'm seeing on the page is top of page two, Simon says, "He's right. Dixon's right. It’s time for me to face the music." Well, first off, he's calling him Dixon, so we should call that character Dixon throughout. But why is he saying this to himself? He's not saying it to anybody around him. And it just felt really strange. It's a weird moment at the top of page two so he says this seemingly to himself, but everybody hears them, and then they respond to him. I think you're going to be in a much better place for him to sort of reach the decision and then for everyone to react. So for him to actually just announce it to the group or somehow otherwise expose what his next step is. It just felt too odd that he's just talking to himself at that moment.
The same kind of thing happens on page three, though. So, middle of page three, Dixon is on the megaphone saying, "Okay, Simon, you’re doing the right thing here… That’s far enough. (then, lowering the bullhorn) Been waiting a long time for this, psycho." Wait, who is he saying this to?
It's always really odd the–
Craig: It's a spoof.
John: Yeah. Maybe so.
Craig: Well, spoof tone. Because that's a very spoofy sort of thing. Because the traditional spoof mode, not the crappy new spoof mode, but the old school spoof mode is to be like a bad soap opera essentially, where people do these sort of weird mannered things like mutter to themselves and turn away from camera and say, "Oh, I don't know."
So, I don't know. I feel like maybe that's what's going on here. It's hard to tell, but I think it's well done and I agree with you, I would keep reading to find out what's happening. So I think overall Nathaniel, you know, he's on to something here. I'm not sure what it is, but he's on to it.
John: Cool. Let's get to our third and final Three Page Challenge. It's our last chance to hear the lovely voice of Elizabeth Banks. Take it away, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth: Music Festival by Alexandra Gioulakis. We fly over sand dunes, Joshua Trees, and dried out cattle skulls as we come upon a massive music festival in Tehachapi, California. In voiceover, 18-year-old Dylan tells us that today is the last Saturday before high school graduation. She's at home while her friends are stuck in detention. As she lounges in the pool, Dylan's friends show up in a minivan. Dylan introduces them, still in voiceover, as they file out of the van.
There's Stephanie, Dylan's butch BFF since childhood. Steph brings the beer. There's Josh, hot, and Dylan has a crush on him. And Matt. Matt and Dylan have a history, including seven minutes of not-so-heaven in eighth grade. Then comes Madison. Stephanie is secretly in love with her, but Madison is dating Matt. Dylan is Team Stephanie.
Finally, Goldie, the nerd everyone thought would be a computer whiz, but is really just awkward and clumsy. Dylan is the only one of her friends not to get into college. She plans to either kill herself, or go to cosmetology school. That, and travel across Egypt. She's got plans. With that, we hit the bottom of page three.
John: So, interesting that we had our topic of how do you introduce character's names. Well, this is one way. You sort of shotgun them out. And as they file out of the van you identify them by name. And talk us through their descriptions. I thought this was a really interesting mess. And I don't mean that to be disparaging, really. I think there's some really promising signs of talent here, but these three pages didn't really work for me.
How did you feel?
Craig: I agree that this feels new. In that it feels like Alex – I'm going to call her Alex because that's part of her email address – that Alex is approaching this kind of from a neophyte position because it's doing that thing that new writers do, which is talk, and talk, and talk, and talk. It's very mannered. And that's not terrible. I mean, some of that's just a matter of taste, right? And I don't really like to get into matters of taste so much. But, this is a case where I think much less would be much more. Because if you clear out some of the extra, then the things that are kind of lovely and interesting start to pop out more.
John: I agree. So, you know, it reminded me of sort of Don Roos's scripts, so Don Roos, Opposite of Sex, sort of great movies with Christina Ricci and other talented young actresses moving up. It also reminded me a bit of sort of the feeling of the CW teen shows. Sort of the Riverdales where it's – everything is heightened in a way that's sort of interesting.
So, that's where I think the voice is promising. But there was just too much voice. There was just too much being in Dylan's head and hearing her talk without anyone actually doing anything in these three pages. And I thought that was the real limitation.
So, we start by flying over Tehachapi, and sort of seeing this music festival. But then our initial voiceover has nothing to do with the music festival at all, really. It's talking about these three friends who are in detention who we're not seeing, and then we're coming to her in the pool I really felt like the tone of this movie should be like when we arrive in this music festival she needs to say something about this music festival, or disparages music festivals, or do something to let us know what is her relationship with this music festival before she starts introducing all of these friends in sort of shotgun manner.
Craig: Yeah. There's also, you know, I love line breaks. I'm a big fan of line breaks. I like making – to me, the fewer words you can get away with on the page, the better off you are. However, too many line breaks in this. This is actually – so congratulations in a way. You've somehow managed to out-line break me. We have ten lines of action and description, most of which are half of the length of a line long. It all starts to turn into like – it almost feels like a teleprompter at some point. Those need to be squished together because it's actually becoming hard to read that way. When usually we break things up to make them easier to read.
And I agree that the opening voiceover doesn't really have much to do with that. And neither does what she say – I'm going to read what she says. So, the opening line, while we're watching all this music festival visual stuff is, "Today is the last Saturday before high school graduation. My friends were all stuck in detention while I was lounging at my subdivision pool." Ok. I'm going to stop there. Stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff.
Then, here's the last line, "I chickened out like almost immediately because I don't like tight spaces." Smash to black. Title card: Music Festival. I don't know what that has to do with that. I don't know what the – I don't know what either of the handles on that speech have to do with the things before and after them.
And if you're going to throw to a title, kind of needs to feel purposeful and ironic or reflective or something.
John: A big problem I had with the first sentence is, "Today is the last Saturday before high school graduation. My friends were all stuck in detention." Wait, so is this present tense narration or past tense narration? And it managed to be both in the first two sentences. So, you're going to need to pick a tense for where her voiceover is at. Is she talking about what's happening right in front of us, or is she talking like this is a thing that happened?
Later on, she's decided to stick with sort of present tense narration. So she's talking about all these people in the present tense. So, that's great, but if you're going to do that, do it throughout the whole thing. I also felt like, again, these first sort of single lines that are setting up the music festival, the last two of those, "This is Tehachapi, CA. Population: 8,451 Population this weekend: 72,107." That's kind of interesting, but it would be more interesting to have somebody say that than just to read it in a script.
Craig: It's trivia otherwise. It's just a random trivia fact.
John: It's a trivia fact. So, if you're going to use that, I would say just put that in dialogue or find a way to make that speakable, because it's not doing anybody any service by putting it in the scene description right there.
Craig: Yeah. Then we get into the body of these pages which is an iteration of her friends and a description of her friends. There is a high degree of difficulty for this. And the reason there is is because you're telling us who people are. And generally speaking we like finding out who people are. Unless they are a menagerie of interesting side characters. You know, like in Goodfellas you can kind of go, "That's Tony Two-Times. He said every two times. And that was Maury blah, blah, blah, he wore a wig." Then, OK, that's fine because the whole point is I'm going to introduce you to a bunch of side people. They're not important.
These people seem important. So, you're just going to tell us who they are. You're going to tell us everything about them. This is a massive info dump. And what – now, Alex makes it interesting because she's clever. So, she's clevering us, and that's what I mean by mannered. For instance, "She's my main chap from another mud flap." That made me laugh. That's really funny. I never heard that before. Maybe Alex invented that. It's really funny. That's not going to necessarily overcome the fact that you're telling me everything about your relationship with her, who she is, what she wants. It starts to feel like I'm being force-fed something, like one of those ducks that's being raised for foie gras.
John: You know where this voice would actually be amazing is honestly the YA novel version of this, where you actually are inside the character's head and you're right in Dylan's head as she's saying all these things. That would be great, honestly, and that would feel really natural. But here just sort of stop the movie just for these long chunks of voiceover from the main character who I think by the bottom of page three no one has said any lines to each other. It's all just been her voiceover. And it's just too frustrating here.
But, I do want to come back to like I think there's really good lines within this. And so like I had high hopes that Alex can write dialogue because she can definitely – she has a voice for how these characters speak, and at least how Dylan speaks. I suspect she can have these characters talk to each other in ways that are really interesting. I would just like to see that, because I don't think I was going to be enjoying the rest of just seeing Dylan's point of view on this.
Craig: Well, one of the things that I was sort of desperate for, and it's not here, is anything that makes me feel with Dylan. There's actually – one of the remarkable things about this run where she's describing her friends is how clinical it is. Everything that she says is clinical. There is no real emotion. In fact, there's general denial of emotion. It's this high irony, highly detached voice. Even when she gets to herself and she's describing herself, it feels so dead inside.
And so that may be part of this character's problem, but that's a problem that I want to kind of come to experience, and also frankly I never really believe anyone is dead inside. They're just hiding something. Right?
Craig: I don't even know what she's hiding here, because I get no clue. So I actually don't know how to relate to Dylan because I haven't been given that little tiny piece of humanity. A little itsy bitsy bit of something that makes me go, ooh, I love you, or, ooh, I feel for you. Ooh, I'm worried about you. Nothing. I feel nothing for her. And I want to feel something. Even if it's anger. I just want to feel something about your main character. And right now I don't. Right now I just feel a kind of intellectual superficial cleverness, but no human underneath it. And that's where I would attack this to start with, Alex.
Because you're obviously smart. I mean, you can see the intelligence throughout, but the intelligence is kind of masking a little bit of something here I think.
John: Yeah. I do wonder if this is sort of stealth Stuart Special, in that we see this musical festival and then we're actually jumping back to an earlier time. And if that is sort of what the play is, I would love to see Dylan at that music festival and we see something that is honest and real about her or genuine moment or there's something that sort of clues us in there's a real interesting character here, before we get to this sort of hardened cynical Dylan who we're seeing voiceover for her friends. That might be an interesting contrast between the two of those. Because then there's a question that I'm eager to answer.
Craig: Yeah. I agree. I mean, I was trying to think about movies that had these long runs in the beginning and I don't know weirdly Ferris Bueller came to mind, because it does have such a long monologue. Now, it's not voiceover. He's talking to us. That automatically makes us more relatable. And he's funny. And he just seem engaged with life. Actually the whole point of Ferris Bueller is that he's so alive and he loves things. There's like a double removal here, because what Dylan is saying feels removed emotionally, and then she's not even saying it. She's just thinking it and we're staring at somebody floating, which makes it doubly removed.
So there's just a cold distance. I want to feel more. So, Alex, make me feel more.
John: Aw, give Craig the feels.
Craig: Give me the feels. I don't need all the feels. I just a feel. I need a feel.
John: Give Craig a feel.
Craig: Give me a feel. That sounds weird.
John: That sounds just horrible. But what does not sound horrible is our fantastic guest reader. So thank you again, Elizabeth Banks, for doing that for us.
Craig: Thanks E.
John: And that's our Three Page Challenge for this week. So, if you have three pages that you want us to take a look at, the place you send that is johnaugust.com/threepage. There's a little form you fill out. You attach a PDF. It goes into Godwin's inbox and he will sort through them for us. So, thank you to the three writers who wrote in this week with your pages. You were very generous to share them with us and I hope that was helpful.
And it's time for our One Cool Things. So, Craig, why don't you start us off? Give us your One Cool Thing.
Craig: Sure. You know, I haven't really talked about what this HBO miniseries is that we're going to be doing. You know, I may be over where you are next year. Well, not France, but Europe. So, we might be doing a little swappy on this terrible time zone nightmare.
But one of the things we have to do is find ourselves a good filmmaker. And so I've been watching television, which as you know I never do. I don't like watching stuff. But I was pointed at a couple miniseries. They are British miniseries, because we're going to be based I think in London. And I have encountered this writer that I think everybody must have known about this guy, but I'm just discovering him.
So Jack Thorne is a British writer. He has written movies and he has written lots of television. And the two miniseries that I've seen that he's done there, one I think is six episodes and one is four episodes. So they're short run series. One is called The Last Panthers. And the other is called National Treasure. No relation to the Nicholas Cage movie here. Their National Treasure is the story of a beloved television personality in England who is late in life accused of a series of sexual assaults, sort of a la Cosby.
And they are brilliant. This guy – first of all, they couldn't be more different. And they're both brilliant. I'm kind of in awe of this guy. Jack Thorne. I don't know how he does it. I'm watching these things and I'm just thinking, boy, is there any mistake here? Won't he make a mistake? Won't he upset me at least once? Even just as a matter of opinion. No. Absolutely wonderful work.
He is really, really good. Like if I ran a movie studio, I would say, "Hey Jack Thorne, write a movie. Just write a movie. I don't care what it is. And we're making it. If it costs under $ 50 million, so you don't bankrupt my studio, we would make it." I would make any movie this guy wrote. I just think he's amazing.
John: Holy cow. That's great.
Craig: Yeah. Jack Thorne. Jack Thorne is my One Cool Thing. Plus, that name. Jack Thorne.
John: Come on, it sounds like a spy hero.
Craig: Right? Thorne. Jack Thorne.
John: Good stuff. My One Cool Thing is a telephone. And, you know, I feel like over the past couple years innovation has really sort of died in phone making. Because it feels like every phone looks the same. It all sort of looks like an iPhone. Whether it's a Samsung or whatever. They all basically look the same. They do the same kind of thing. They're like these flat black pieces of glass that are magical. And it's fine. I think we live in a time of wonder that we have such great phones. But I like it when there's still some innovation out there.
So, this is the most innovative phone I've seen this week. It's called Beat the Boss 3-in-1 J8 phone. And what's remarkable about it is it's incredibly small. So, it weighs 18 grams. It's dimensions are 68mm by 23mm by 11mm. That's smaller than many key fobs are. And it's also 99 percent plastic. You might ask well why is that so good, like who wants a plastic phone that's so small? And the answer is you could still lit up your butt. So it is a phone that is perfect for smuggling into prisons.
Craig: This is not cool.
John: It's an innovative use of technology to serve a market that was being underserved. It's like people who want to smuggle a phone into prison.
Craig: You're not supposed to have phones.
John: Well, they're not supposed to have phones, but that is a market and they see the market and they go after the market. And because it has very little metal in it, even a lot of the sort of X-ray detectors like the Boss can't actually find it. The Boss being a chair kind of X-ray designed specifically for looking for phones up people's butts.
Craig: That's terrible. No. Because hold on a second. Some guy is going to get this key fob phone up his butt. He's going to go into prison. He's going to hand it over to another guy. And that guy is going to use that phone to call somebody on the outside to murder people. That's why they use phones. Well, not all of them. But some of them. Someone is going to die because of this.
John: Theoretically someone could die because of this phone, but theoretically someone could die because of any phone. Like, we can't outlaw all phones. And so this was a market that was underserved. I just think it's fascinating that there is a–
Craig: Theoretically someone could die from any phone.
John: Yes. I'm doing the Bane defense.
Craig: I smuggled it up my butt. [laughs] Bane Craig is a whole new guy. I just want you to know that when I do Bane Craig voice I actually put my fingers over my – like I make a Bane mask for my own face.
John: It's important because it not only mimics the sound, but it really gets you into character. You have to really feel like Tom Hardy being strangled while he says that. I'm also sort of bringing up the prison phone up the butt thing, I'll put a link to the other sort of horrible thing that's happening with prison phones now is the FCC is rolling back its protections on sort of prison phone price gauging. And so if you are trying to have a phone conversation with a person who lives in prison, the prices of a phone call into or out of prison are just absurd. And they should not be absurd. And it's a weirdly profiteering way of dealing with people who are incarcerated.
Craig: Yeah. So that stinks. But also–
John: But a phone up your butt kind of stinks, too.
Craig: Ha-ha. Get it. Because it's up my butt. Bane Craig was born on, what is today, March 7. So many different Craigs. So many.
John: Too many Craigs.
Craig: I don't like the way you said too many.
John: Too many Craigs.
Craig: I said so many.
John: Too many Craigs.
Craig: You made it too many. Too many Craigs. Too many Craigs.
John: Our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Panic Moon. Oh, and it's a good one. If you have an outro, you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That's also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust. We love to answer your little short questions on Twitter. We are on Facebook. Just look for the Scriptnotes podcast on Facebook. You should also search for us on iTunes and subscribe.
You can leave us a comment there. Occasionally we read through those comments and we love to see them. You'll find the transcript for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That's also where you'll find show note, the links to the Three Page Challenges will be there, too.
Reminder that if you want to send in a Three Page Challenge, you go to johnaugust.com/threepage to send that in. If you want to send something for the guide, a review of a previous episode, go to johnaugust.com/guide.
Longer questions, send in to email@example.com.
You can get all the back catalog, including the previous Rian Johnson at Scriptnotes.net. And if we have a link to tickets, look for the show notes right now, because that link will tickets will be in the show notes. If they're not there, it will be on Twitter as soon as we have it.
Craig, thank you for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John, and I'll see you next week.
John: Cool. Bye.
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