The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. A small language warning. There are some big words, some bad words, in this episode. So this might be a good time to put in headphones if you’re in a place where it is not appropriate to hear the F-bombs.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: Craig Mazin named Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 317 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the podcast, we are debuting a brand new segment where we look at how different movies handle the same kind of scene. We’ll also be tackling listener questions about “therapy pieces” and writing for the international market.
But first we have some follow up. Craig, start us off.
Craig: All right. So we have some follow up from Anonymous Animation Writer. It would be great if that was this person’s full name.
Craig: And they didn’t actually work in animation, but I think they do. I don’t think it’s their name. Anonymous Animation Writer writes, “I just finished listening to episode 310 where you dove,” I think we dived, “into the recently passed WGA deal. I am a WGA member, but primarily I am a fairly successful animation writer.” Hats off to you.
“The reality is most animation isn’t WGA. We get no residuals. The pay rate is extremely low. And yet our material is played and replayed constantly. Kids, you know? And, our material is the primary driver for toy sales. Animation employs a huge swath of writers in Los Angeles, yet I feel as though we are the most neglected segment of the writing community. Can you address or have somebody from the guild address why all animation is not covered by the WGA?”
Yes. We. Can.
John: Yeah. It’s actually one of those rare cases where we can answer the question fairly definitively. So, animation is writing. It is completely the same kind of writing as writing for features or for television. Animation should be covered by the WGA, but it is not covered by the WGA because it never has been covered by the WGA.
Once upon a time when animated films were going to be made and when animated television programs were getting made, that writing was not covered by WGA. And it got covered by other unions, specifically a branch of IATSE covers it. So you, Anonymous Animation Writer, probably are working for a union. You’re represented by a union. It’s just not the WGA. And it sucks for you. And it’s going to be very difficult to get you covered by the WGA.
Craig: It will not be difficult. It will be impossible. So, here’s the deal with the law, Anonymous Animation Writer, and this bums us out as much as it bums you out. Well, I grant you you’re bummed out even more. You basically have two options for employment. You can either work non-union or you can work union. That’s just in general in life, right? It’s sort of binary. You’re working non-union, or you’re working union.
In closed shop states like California, if a union covers a work area, and there are companies that are signatory to that union, then you are covered by that union. Period. The end. There’s no other way for John or I to write a live action movie for, let’s say Warner Bros, unless it’s done under a WGA deal.
The union that has jurisdiction over animation is as John stated IATSE. And specifically it’s IATSE Local 839, the Animation Guild. Locals are subsidiaries of a larger parent union. But essentially it’s part of IATSE. Like most of the crew and stagecraft unions are.
The deal that 839 has with the companies is such that there are no residuals and, as you note, the pay rate is much lower than the WGA pay rate. The WGA can do nothing about this. Jurisdiction between unions is a matter of federal law. It’s like the jurisdiction police departments. You can’t have Philadelphia cops rolling on into New York and arresting people. It’s just the way the law works. You can’t overlap.
So, the choices in animation are if you’re working for a signatory company it has to be through Animation 839. Or, you may be working for a non-signatory company in which case it’s not union at all. Pixar, for instance, not union. I’m sure one of the other big ones is not union. And so really the choice that you face as you’re taking employment as an animation writer in Hollywood is whether you’re going to have a bad deal or a worse deal. And there is absolutely nothing the Writers Guild can do about it. Zero. Period. The end. And it is so frustrating for us, but it is just fact.
John: Yep. So, Craig, talk us through quickly there are certain primetime animated shows that are WGA. Why are they WGA?
Craig: Right. So, what we’ve been talking about is feature animation. Now, primetime animation was never clearly covered by any jurisdiction. So what happens is once a union makes a collective bargaining agreement with a bunch of employers to cover a work area, that’s theirs.
From what I understand, primetime animation was never seized, because there was never that much primetime animation. There was a ton of Saturday morning animation on television, of course, but primetime I don’t think there was particularly much. So when The Simpsons happened, then there was this opening. And for the first time in decades an animation football was up in the air. And The Simpsons writers very quickly organized to become a WGA shop. Because, specifically, there was no primetime deal for Fox. Fox, which made The Simpsons, had never signed, I believe, any collective bargaining agreement covering primetime animation.
So, open field. And they obviously — Fox I think, probably quite strongly, pushed them towards Animation 839. That was something that happened also with DreamWorks made a show called Father of the Pride, which they successfully got to push over to 839. But in this case, The Simpsons writers, probably because of the amount of leverage they had, were able to get a WGA deal. And once they did, all primetime animation made by Fox is a WGA deal. So Family guy, WGA deal. And what are the other ones? American Dad. And all those.
John: Bob’s Burgers.
Craig: There you go. So any primetime animated show made by Fox is WGA. Now, this does give a little bit of a glimmer of hope. For instance, I don’t think Pixar has ever signed any collective bargaining agreements. So, theoretically all of the writers that write Pixar movies could organize and demand to be covered by the WGA. And I wish they would. But easier said than done, because of the nature of feature films.
In television, you have to crank out episodes, particularly primetime network television. I mean, so that’s 26 right?
Craig: If your writers stop working for 10 minutes, you’ve got a huge assembly line problem. Not the case in feature animation, where those movies take years and years and years and there’s one of them. So, if there’s a halt for six or eight months, or two years, well, they absorb it. Much, much trickier to do. So, hopefully that answers the question of why The Simpsons, for instance, is a WGA show and not say a primetime program that maybe Sony Television is making.
John: Absolutely. So basically the way to get all animation covered by the WGA is to build a time machine and go back and have the decisions made differently. But I think with that theoretical time machine we can also be looking forward. And we need to be looking forward to what are the things coming down the pike that are going to be sort of like this animation situation. And how do we make sure that the people who are writing for those screens are covered and that they are WGA writers who are making a WGA living down the road. I think that’s a thing we need to focus on. And take the lesson we’ve learned from animation to make sure that we’re not leaving stuff uncovered.
Craig: Yeah. The legend — I don’t know if this is accurate, but the legend that I have heard is that way, way back in the day feature animation writers went to the WGA, the nascent WGA in the ’40s and ’50s, and said, “Hey, we want you guys to cover us.” And the WGA said, “Oh, no, no, no, we’re real writers. You people are making cartoons. We don’t cover cartoons.”
I don’t know if that’s true, but man it sounds true.
John: It does sound true.
Craig: Sounds super-duper freaking true. So, if there’s anything to guard against moving forward, it’s any hint of snobbery or exclusion, because whatever you think — if you look down at, I don’t know, content that’s made for YouTube, well, that will be the thing that’s destroying you 40 years from now. We really can’t afford to turn up our noses at any kind of writing for any screen as far as I’m concerned.
John: I agree. Second piece of follow up comes from Tim in Asheville. He writes, “I wanted to let you know how thankful I am for your feedback on the Reconstruction of Huck Finn over Mark Twain’s Dead Body in Episode 263.” So that was a Three Page Challenge you and I did.
“That story has reached the quarter finals of Nicholl,” and I actually just checked, it made it to semi-finals. “And although you only gave feedback on the first three pages, your thoughts engendered a come-to-Jesus type rewrite. And let me tell you, Jesus was not having that draft. Thanks for your thoughts and your inspiration.”
Craig: I like catty Jesus here. I am not having this draft. Oh no. Oh no! That’s great to hear.
John: Yeah. So congrats to Tim in Asheville. And we’ll put a link in the show notes to all the people who were the finalists in Nicholls this year. It’s the only I think competition that Craig and I both feel good about saying, yes, if you do well in Nicholl that’s fantastic. That is a feather in your cap and people actually do pay attention.
Craig: They do.
John: Congratulations to those folks.
Craig: They’ve already released their finalists?
John: Yes. So the article I read showed like the 10 finalists, but out of those 10 apparently five get fellowships, so there’s still another culling that happens. I can’t say I honestly understand how it all works, except that I’m very happy for the people who get to be a part of those lists.
Craig: So do I. And I hope that at least one or two of them, I mean, this is how crazy our business is. You think, well, there’s thousands of scripts, I assume, sent to the Nicholl Fellowship each year, and then it comes down to 10 finalists. And then five of them get fellowships. And here I am saying I hope one of them becomes a professional screenwriter. But that’s kind of — that is kind of the mesh size of this filter. It’s tough.
John: It is tough. Indeed.
All right, let’s get to our brand new segment. So this was suggested by Megan McDonnell, she is our new producer. And her idea was to take a certain class of scenes, a certain kind of scene you see in a bunch of different movies, and take a look at how different movies play that kind of scene. And so we’re going to be comparing and contrasting scenes from four different movies that are all about the same thing.
And in this case it is about the first day on the job, which is sort of a stock scene. And actually very common, I think, in features because as we always talk about features are about characters going through a journey they can only go through once. And so the first day on a new job is a very classic moment that your characters are going to have in lots of different kinds of movies. Comedies. Dramas. Everything in between.
Craig: Yeah, no, for sure. It’s a fun scene to write. I mean, we look forward to scenes like this. Sometimes we know what we have to accomplish in a story. We know how people are going to get in, and we know what we need to have them thinking or doing on the way out. And then the nature of the scene itself seems a bit, well, foggy. And then you have to figure out how to make it work.
No one has to really get lost in a fog over this.
Craig: The first day of work we’re throwing characters at you. We’re throwing responsibilities at you. I know everyone knows how that feels. We’ve all been there before. So really it’s just about what is your unique perspective on this shared experience of the first day at work.
John: Absolutely. Well, let’s jump right in. So I put out a call on Twitter for people to send me their suggestions for great movies with great scenes about the first day on the job. And, of course, our listeners are fantastic and threw back a lot of suggestions. Probably the number one suggestion was one I hadn’t thought of which is The Hudsucker Proxy. So this is a screenplay by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, and Sam Raimi.
In the show notes for this episode you’ll find links to the full PDF, but also the individual scenes we’re taking a look at. So, Craig, why don’t you read the setup to this scene? This is scene 14 in Hudsucker Proxy.
“SWINGING STEEL DOORS that read, ”MAILROOM.” They burst open as Norville, who wears a mail clerk’s leather apron, imprinted: HUDSUCKER MAILROOM/The Future is Now. The hellish mailroom is criss-crossed by pipes that emit HISSING jets of STEAM.
As he wheels a piled-high mail cart down the aisle, Norville is accompanied by an orientation AGENT who bellows at him over the clamor and roar of many men laboring in the bowels of a great corporation.
John: And now let’s take a listen to the scene.
You punch in at 8:30 every morning except you punch in at 7:30 following a business holiday unless it’s a Monday and then you punch in at eight o’clock You punch in at 7:45 whenever we work extended day and you punch out at the regular time unless you’ve worked through lunch!
Punch in late and they dock ya!
People on either side bellow at Norville and stuff envelopes and packages under his elbows, into his pockets, under his chin, between his clenched teeth , etc.
This goes to seven! Mr. Mutuszak! Urgent!
Incoming articles, get a voucher! Outgoing articles, provide a voucher! Move any article without a voucher and they dock ya!
Take this up to the secretarial pool on three!Right away!Don’t break it!
Letter size a green voucher! Folder size a yellow voucher! Parcel size a maroon voucher!
This one’s for Morgatross! Chop chop!
Wrong color voucher and they dock ya!Six-seven-eight-seven-zero-four-niner-alpha-slash-six! That is your employee number!It will not be repeated!Without your employee number you cannot cash your paycheck!
This goes up to twenty-seven! If there’s no one there bring it down to eighteen! Have ‘em sign the waiver!DON’T COME BACK DOWN HERE WITHOUT A SIGNED WAIVER!!
Inter-office mail is code37! INTRA-office mail is 37-dash-3! Outside mail is 3-dash37! Code it wrong and they dock ya!
I was supposed to have this on twenty-eight ten minutes ago! Cover for me!
This has been your orientation! Is there anything you do not understand? Is there anything you understand only partially? If you have not been fully- oriented–if there is something you do not understand in all of its particulars you must file a complaint with personnel! File a faulty complaint…and they dock ya!
Craig: That’s great.
John: It’s delightful. So this is a very classically kind of what we expect on that first day, where everything is being thrown at you. You are just barely trying to catch up with the action around you. And it’s important to set up the environment of this world they’re entering into. This is a sort of dystopian hellhole of corporate machinery. And from sound design to sort of the monologuing of the orientation agent, you get a feeling for all of it.
Craig: Yeah. Classic bit of filmic storytelling to take the normal emotions that we have in shared universal experiences and then externalize them in these very broad, caricatured ways. Even though nobody has ever experienced a first day at work like this, you can argue that this is how it feels to us. Everything is confusing. Everything is scary. Everyone around you seems to be perfectly meshed together and frantic in a way you are not because you don’t understand what’s going on. And you are laden down with rules that you do not understand and consequences you do understand. So, you don’t know what you need to do to succeed. You just know what happens when you fail. Very, very first day.
John: Yeah. They will dock you. So, this is a great example of like this orientation agent is not a major character, so he’s just going there and he’s just establishing the rules of the world. He is basically — he’s just part of the setting really. This is not a significant character.
But I want to contrast that with the first scene from Devil Wears Prada, or at least the first day scene from Devil Wears Prada. This is a script by Aline Brosh McKenna based on the book by Lauren Weisberger. Here we see the same kind of orientation where you have somebody starting to lead somebody through the office, and yet this case it’s Emily Blunt leading Anne Hathaway through. And Emily Blunt is a major character. Emily Blunt is a character who we’re going to come back to again and again. And so you can see the scene is actually taking some time to establish her as a more important significant character who has a depth to her that this orientation agent doesn’t have.
Let’s take a look at the scene on paper first, and then we’ll take a listen to it. It starts in reception. “Andy is trying to arrange herself on the uncomfortable sofa when suddenly a taller, thinner, and amazingly more groomed version of the women in the room walks in. This is Emily, who looks the part of the sleek fashionista, but is propelled by a core of barely tamped anxiety. Andrea Barnes? Emily looks up, their eyes meet, as Emily takes in how different Andy looks from everyone else. Andy springs up and follows her down the hallway.”
Let’s take a listen to the rest of the scene.
INT. RUNWAY RECEPTION AREA — DAY
Sleek, elegant, hard-edged chic. Behind the reception desk is an elegant logo that says RUNWAY. ANDY walks over.
Hi, I have an appointment with Emily Charlton–
(EMILY (and MIRANDA, later) pronounce ANDREA Ahn-DRAY-a. ANDY refers to herself as AN-dree-a.)
ANDY turns and sees a taller, thinner and, amazingly, more groomed CLACKER. This is EMILY. She looks the part of the sleek fashionista, but is propelled by a core of barely tamped down anxiety. She examines ANDY.
Human Resources certainly has a bizarre sense of humor.
INT. RUNWAY HALLWAY — DAY
EMILY briskly walks ANDY down the hall.
Okay, so… I was Miranda’s second assistant, but her first assistant recently got promoted so now I’m the first…
ANDY glimpses an office in front of them, seductively bright.
And you’re replacing yourself.
I’m trying. Miranda sacked the last two girls after only a few weeks. We need to find someone who can survive here. Do you understand?
Yes. Of course. Who’s Miranda?
You didn’t just ask me that. She’s the editor in chief of Runway. Not to mention a legend. Work a year for her and you can get a job at any magazine you want. A million girls would kill for this job.
Sounds great. I’d love to be considered.
She smiles. EMILY tries to think how to break it to her.
Andrea, Runway is a fashion magazine. An interest in fashion is crucial.
What makes you think I’m not interested in fashion?
EMILY gives her a look. ANDY smiles, like she has no idea what EMILY could mean.
Suddenly, EMILY’S Blackberry goes off. She gasps.
Oh my God. No. No, no, no.
EXT. ELIAS-CLARKE — DAY
A black sedan pulls to a sudden stop outside the building.
INT. RUNWAY – BULLPEN – DAY
EMILY begins rapid-fire dialing four digit extensions.
(all but screaming)
She’s on her way — tell everyone!
Just then a dapper man of about 40 walks briskly by.
I thought she was coming in at 9.
Her driver text-messaged. Her facialist ruptured a disk. God, these people!
NIGEL turns and sees ANDY. Looks at EMILY. Who is that?
I can’t even talk about it.
No time to discuss. NIGEL calls down the hallway.
All right, everyone. Man your battle stations!
John: First off, it’s great to have Aline on the show, even if she’s not literally on the show, we get to hear her words and see her work. I think it’s a delightful scene. And so here we’ve already established Anne Hathaway’s character in the movie, but this is our first time meeting Emily Blunt’s character. And it’s a sophisticated thing that we’re seeing here. So, you get to see that Emily Blunt is trying to do her job, but she’s also very skeptical that this girl could even possibly be working here. We’re establishing the stakes of the world and we’re establishing that everyone else who has been hired for this job has been fired very, very quickly.
And then we end this scene with this moment of like, “Oh no, the boss is coming.” And then we get into this sort of montage of Miranda Priestly arriving at the office and everyone panicking and scurrying around to sort of prepare for her. So you’re establishing this big character entrance for a character who has not yet shown up in the movie.
Craig: Yeah. In some ways, this is the opposite way of playing a first day moment than the one in Hudsucker Proxy. It doesn’t seem like it starts as the opposite, because in walks this young woman who seems to be perfect, as opposed to our protagonist. But then as they move through the building and begin to talk what starts to come out is that our hero, Anne Hathaway’s character, doesn’t even know who Miranda is. And is oddly sort of Zen. You know, “I’d like to be considered.” She just seems so much calmer and more centered than Emily Blunt’s character, who is already kind of twittery panicky.
Craig: And when they hear that Miranda is coming early, you see Emily kind of fall apart. So, what this first day is setting up in a sense probably the arc of these two characters and what is going to happen ultimately with Anne Hathaway’s character, I think.
John: What’s also great in this scene is we’re used to the sort of bulldozer coming in and our protagonist being sort of run over by the bulldozer. Anne Hathaway’s character does stand up to her. “Well what makes you think I don’t like fashion?” Basically, she’s taking some agency. She’s actually willing to sort of hit the ball back over the net. And that becomes important in the next scene where she actually is interviewing with Miranda Priestly to make it clear like, you know, you are going to say that I’m not qualified to be here, but I really am. And you should take a chance on me. She’s actually going to stick up for herself in ways that are incredibly important for the character.
What I’d like to do now is actually compare it to her first actual day on the job. So, this is clip from later on in the film where she’s trying to get through her first real day after she’s been hired. And there’s a moment, which I think has become sort of one of the iconic moments in the film, where she is dismissive of sort of what it is they’re doing in general. She makes the mistake of laughing about how absurd it is. And let’s take a listen to what happens in that scene.
ANDY lets out a little giggle. And it’s like she set off a grenade. Slowly everyone turns to her.
Is something funny?
No, no, no. It’s just…
And MIRANDA says nothing. ANDY twists in the wind.
It’s just that both of those belts look the same to me. I’m still learning about this stuff, so–
And the silence is deafening. Everyone looks to see what MIRANDA will do.
This… stuff? Okay. I understand. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and select, say, that lumpy blue sweater because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what’s on your body. What you don’t know is that your sweater is not blue. It’s not even sky blue. It’s cerulean. You also don’t know that in 2002, De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns, Yves St. Laurent showed a cerulean military jacket, Dolce did skirts with cerulean beads, and in our September issue we did the definitive layout on the color. Cerulean quickly appeared in eight other major collections, then the secondary and department store lines and then trickled down to some lovely Casual Corner, where you no doubt stumbled on it. That color is worth millions of dollars and many jobs. And here you are, thinking you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry. In truth, you are wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.
She smiles at ANDY. Who quakes.
John: What I love about this clip is that it shows a crucial aspect of first day on the job which is failure. And that sense of the protagonist comes in with a head of steam. They think they’re sort of figuring it out. And then they meet a huge obstacle and a huge setback. And that setback is generally the antagonist. In this case, it’s Miranda. And it makes it really clear that as plucky and as smart as Anne Hathaway’s character is, she is out of her depths in sort of this situation and specifically opposite Miranda.
Craig: Yeah. Most movies that are workplace movies will involve a hero who is new to the job pushing up against an antagonist or villain who is established on the job. It could be a boss, as it often is. Or it could be a rival for a promotion. But no matter what, that villain, that antagonist, needs to have some formidable weight. This is a very common note that studios will give, and for good reason. It’s a good note — make your villains formidable.
So, we could easily begin to see Miranda Priestly as a nut. Just a tyrannical nut who should be laughed at. And, of course, a lot of fashion does seem, on its face, absurd. And it makes perfect sense for us to be with Anne Hathaway and thinking I see through everything here. I can see the matrix. This is all baloney and this lady is nuts.
And it’s really important for the movie and for the character for Anne Hathaway to hear, “No, you don’t see anything at all.” And it has to be done in such a way that in the audience, in the theater where we’re sitting we go, “Oh you know what, that’s a really good point. You’re right. It’s not just that you’re mean about it, or strident, you’ve convinced me. Right? And by doing so I now understand that the character I was identifying with and feeling really proud to kind of be in the saddle with doesn’t maybe know what she’s talking about. And doesn’t see all the things she thinks she sees. And now I feel that way, too.” This is the bedrock of making people care about characters in a movie.
So, it’s a terrific way to use a first day on the job scene to not only set up what it is that people do, but also set up the basis of a rivalry. And to take your hero, and as we always should, push them down. Push them down, because there is no satisfaction in their rise if we do not push them down.
John: I’m thinking about the archetypes of this relationship and you see this all the time in military movies where you have the drill sergeant. But you also see it in teacher movies. You think of Whiplash. And this is very much the same kind of dynamic in Whiplash where you have the upstart who thinks he knows what’s going on and then meets this incredible asshole of a teacher who really can show him up and sort of prove that he knows nothing.
And that’s a crucial dynamic. I think so often we think of the antagonist as being the villain in the story. And villains don’t always wear capes and sort of try to destroy cities. A lot of times it’s how they are challenging our heroes. And that’s what you’re seeing in Devil Wears Prada.
Craig: Yeah. And it is really important for people to note, in a time when a lot of movies do seem to feature villains that only are interested in the most broad villainous desires like total power and total destruction, that the most satisfying cinematic villains are the ones who in some way at the end of a story are actually vaguely proud of the fact that the hero has risen up.
It took a long time, it took three movies for Darth Vader to get to that point. But he did. And we really liked it. It’ll take one movie for Miranda to get there at the end, but that’s exactly where it ends up with the two of them. You get the sense that Miranda is a combination of antagonist and mentor. And that’s a great combo.
John: That is a great combo. When it works, it’s fantastic.
Craig: Yeah, exactly.
John: We always think of mentors as being like the kindly old wizard or the caring teacher, but oftentimes it is a confrontational role that is pushing them to the next place. So, it’s great to see it here.
Let’s take a look at another sort of mentor figure and sort of authority figure in Hidden Figures. So this is a screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Ted Melfi based on a book by Margo Shetterly.
So in this scene we see Taraji P. Henson. She’s going to work in the larger office with the engineers rather than just being the calculator off in the little back room. Let’s take a read through the scene and then what actually happens.
So we’re inside the Space Task Group office. “Katherine steps into a cyclone of activity and stress. ENGINEERS chalk equations on blackboards, slug coffee. AIDES and SUPPORT STAFF scurry, answer phones. This is the Space Task Group: the world’s most exclusive scientific club. At the back of the room, Harrison paces in his glass bubble, talking with Karl Zielinski. For the briefest moment, everyone seems to be looking at the black woman who just entered their world. But it’s just a passing moment, there’s far too much to do.”
And so we’re going to actually skip ahead a little bit in the scene to listen to when she first has her conversation with the character played by Kevin Costner.
Ruth. What’s the status on my Computer?
She’s right in front of you, Mr. Harrison.
Ruth motions to Katherine. Harrison gives her a once over. Not what he expected either.
Does she know how to handle Analytic Geometry?
Absolutely. And she speaks.
I do, sir.
Both, sir. Geometry and speaking.
Harrison waves a finger at Ruth.
Then give her the-
She knows exactly what he’s talking about. She always knows what he’s talking about. She snatches a bundle of worksheets off her desk, rushes them to Katherine.
AL HARRISON (CONT’D)
Do you think you can find me the Frenet frame for that data using the Gram- Schmidt–
Katherine glances at the data sheets.
–Orthogonalization algorithm. Yes, sir. I prefer it over Euclidean coordinates.
That’s all Harrison needs to hear. She knows her stuff.
Craig: Right. So this is a fairly common way of doing these things. You have somebody that no one would expect to be really, really good at something because of their gender or their race or their age. And they are going to impress somebody. It’s not actually — I mean, it’s a really, really good movie. This is a fairly cliché way of doing these things.
But there is something pretty interesting in it, and that is — and you can pull out and sort of go, ah-ha. You know, sometimes when there are scenes that feel cliché, you realize that one thing isn’t. And it’s a little bit like those puzzles when we were kids, like find the things that are different, right? And those little differences are actually really illuminating. And I’m certain quite intentional. And the little difference here is Kevin Costner just says, “OK, all right. Do you do this? Do you do that?”
There’s no “I don’t think so, or is this some kind of joke?” That’s the difference. And you will see that little bit play out and grow in their relationship over the course of the movie. So there’s a little seed in what is a fairly stock kind of execution of something that is different and refreshing and kind of counter to the hyper formula of this kind of moment.
John: Absolutely. So this is a moment that happens midway through the story, I think, because we’ve actually established quite a bit of backstory with the women that we’re going to be following. And they’re sort of all going through first day experiences. They already worked at NASA. They worked as calculators in the sort of backroom doing the difficult calculations. And one by one they’re sort of being pulled into greater responsibilities, so Janelle Monáe’s character is going to work with the heat shield people. And Octavia Spencer is really managing these women and basically wants to be credited with being their manager and being paid as their manager.
So, Taraji P. Henson is of them the most lead character of them, and so she’s going to work in the biggest room with the biggest most important people. And I think we have a natural expectation that her relationship with Kevin Costner is going to be classically antagonistic where she has to impress him and change him.
He starts pretty far along the journey, and so it’s really more about his coming to see the world from her point of view. And basically recognize his own ignorance about sort of what was going on. So it wasn’t that he was this horrible racist. It’s that he had never even thought to question what she was allowed to do and what she wasn’t allowed to do and how frustrating that would be for her. And so it’s nothing like the Miranda Priestly sort of relationship. It’s not — he’s not even sort of teaching her how to grow into this bigger thing. It’s her just through her quiet competence pushing him and the rest of this group forward.
Craig: Yeah. And that is kind of the thing that jumps out of this exchange. Because it is, like I said, it’s a very — we’ve seen this before.
Craig: Many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many times. So, that’s the thing that is the little payload. I think there’s a really good lesson there, actually, that when you are writing these scenes sometimes people are so panicked that they’re writing a stock scene. And I think it’s not something to panic over as long as you are putting some kind of twist or thing on it.
It’s when you don’t. It’s when you fail to surprise in any way whatsoever that the thing just starts to lie there and feel super derivative.
John: I think one of the other reasons why this didn’t pain me when I saw it in the theaters is that it’s part of a much longer scene. So we did some of the setup, but she’s just standing around this office for a long time while people are waiting and doing other things. She has this moment, and then the scene just keeps going on where she has to — where she’s finding her desk. And so it really places you into her perspective of what it’s like to be there.
One of the brilliant tricks that this movie does is that by fully grounding the experience in these women’s lives, you see everything from their point of view. And so when we go into these sort of white male enclaves, we are going into it as her. That is the foreign territory we’re heading into and we are completely identifying with her perspective on things.
And so letting her be sort of quietly competent in this moment and not have her big speech here, but save it for later on, you know, saves our powder and lets us sort of really stick in our perspective.
Craig: Yeah. I agree completely.
John: Cool. Let’s take a look at one last first day, which was the second most highly recommended thing on Twitter when I put out the call for these scenes. This is Training Day by David Ayer.
Craig: Of course.
John: And this whole movie is a first day on the job essentially. So, let’s take a look at a scene that happens in a coffee shop. So, we’ll read through the setup here.
Craig: Yeah, it’s a good one. All right.
”INT. COFFEE SHOP – DAY
Old and tired, near Good Samaritan Hospital. Jake struts through the door, confidently looks around. JAKE’S POV: DETECTIVE SERGEANT ALONZO HARRIS, in black shirt, black leather jacket. And just enough platinum and diamonds to look like somebody. He reads the paper in a booth. The gun leather-tough LAPD vet is a hands-on, blue-collar cop who can kick your ass with a look. BACK TO SCENE Jake walks over. Slides in across. Alonzo’s eyes will never leave his newspaper.”
John: And let’s take a listen.
Good morning, sir.
A young waitress pours Jake coffee, offers a menu. Jake waves it away.
I’m okay, ma’am. Thank you.
Have some chow before we hit the office. Go ahead. It’s my dollar.
No, thank you, sir. I ate.
Alonzo turns the page. A long beat. Then:
It’s nice here.
May I read my paper?
I’m sorry, sir… I’ll get some food.
No. You won’t. You fucked that up. Please. I’m reading. Shut up.
Jake does — Jeeez, sorry. Pours a ton of sugar in his coffee.
TIME CUT TO:
INT. COFFEE SHOP – DAY
The waitress pours refills. Alonzo reads. Jake fidgets.
Sure wouldn’t mind not roasting in a hot black and white all summer.
Alonzo sighs, carefully folds his paper. Glares at Jake.
Tell me a story, Hoyt.
Not your story. A story. You can’t keep your mouth shut long enough to let me finish my paper. So tell me a story.
I don’t think I know any stories.
Alonzo waves the paper in Jake’s face.
This is a newspaper. And I know it’s ninety percent bullshit but it’s entertaining. That’s why I read it. Because it entertains me. If you won’t let me read my paper, then entertain me with your bullshit. Tell me a story.
John: This is a fantastic scene. I remember loving the scene when I first saw the movie. This is establishing the dynamic between these two characters. This is like the Miranda/Anne Hathaway relationship in that the nature of their relationship is going to be the entire movie. And this establishes it so well.
Craig: It does. And the story he goes on to tell also helps quite a bit. Indeed. We, I think, have all had an experience where we’ve met somebody that puts us on our heels permanently. Because not only are they aggressive and preternaturally in control of themselves it seems, but they are bizarrely unpredictable. They feel dangerous to us. And you try and catch up to them. You try and get into their good graces. You try and match them and their tone. You try and figure out exactly what wave length you’re supposed to operate on with this person until eventually you find out you can’t. That’s never going to happen.
And what’s interesting to me about this first day scene is that Denzel Washington’s character puts Ethan Hawke back on his heels really, really hard. Really, really aggressively. And Jake, Ethan Hawke’s character, goes ahead and does as he’s ordered. He starts to tell a story. And this guy keeps interrupting him, and he’s doing it in a way that is, again, dangerous. Until Jake finally starts telling the story kind of the right way.
You can see Ethan Hawke trying to tell it in a way that would entertain Alonzo, because that’s what Alonzo has demanded. Entertainment. And he does and Alonzo gets entertained. And Jake feels really good about it, you know? Until Alonzo smashes him down again. Verbally, of course, in this instance. You get everything you need to know in this first day on the job scene. This is not a scene where you are trying to catch up with somebody who is going to teach you lessons. This is not a scene where a large business is overwhelming to you. This is a scene where you’re meeting a dangerous person, and you’re trying your best and using all of your skills to make it work and none of them are working at all.
John: Absolutely. So, in contrast to all these other scenes, we’re not going into the classic workplace, except that the workplace of these two characters is going to be just them together in a car, in a place. We’re not going to be in sort of the bullpens. It’s not that kind of movie. And so the workplace of this movie is going to be wherever the two of them are. And so it’s a really good way of establishing what the dynamics are going to be there and telegraphing what to watch out for.
I think what’s so great about how Denzel Washington’s character is playing through this moment is he’s not boxing, it’s more like a kind of Aikido or a Judo where he’s just continually knocking Ethan Hawke’s character off balance. And so that he can’t sort of figure out what he should say or do next. And it his desperation to figure out what to do next that can sort of compromise him.
It’s just ingeniously set up.
Craig: Yeah. And the rhythm that this establishes will repeat over and over and over. And you realize that the only way that this rhythm will ever break is if Jake breaks, essentially. And the movie itself, I mean, I love Training Day in part because, for a movie with a lot of action and a lot of plot, honestly — there’s a big kind of, well, you know, internal affairs-y sort of conspiracy going on and you’re meeting characters and people are getting double crossed and all the rest of it, but it is a movie about these conversations. It really is. And obviously those of us who have seen the movie, we all understand the metaphor here of what the training is exactly meant to be.
But this scene is a good example of when you and I talk about a little seed, you know, our first three pages. This is a great little seed. All of the stuff that is going to happen in this movie is essentially all packed into this one scene. So that’s another great way to make use of these first day on the job scenes is by giving them double duty. It’s first day on the job and it is the thematic and character DNA for the whole film.
John: Absolutely. Some other choices that were suggested for these scenes included Swimming with Sharks, The Sound of Music, Hot Fuzz, 9 to 5, Men in Black, Mr. Mom, Tootsie, Soapdish. There’s a whole wide range. And so in picking these four movies we didn’t necessarily pick the best scenes, but the ones that I thought could show us a good contrast between the kinds of things that happen in your first day on the job scenes.
So, this was fun. I enjoyed doing this as a new segment. If you have an idea for a future installment of This Kind of Scene, let us know and we’ll try to do this in the future.
Craig: Yeah. You know what? We can do whatever we want.
John: Yes. But we like your suggestions.
Craig: Oh yeah. I mean, well, you do. I just like doing whatever I want. Here’s the sad truth: I say that, and then I just do whatever you want. So really that’s what it comes down to. Do you want their suggestions? You get them. I do what you want. And here we are.
John: And this is how it all happens.
Craig: This is how it all happens, folks.
John: We have two listener questions we’re going to try to hit. So, first off, we have John who wrote in a question regarding how to write for an increasingly international market. Let’s take a listen.
John Listener: Do you think that the international audience has become significantly more important to the studios than the domestic audience? And if so, when you guys are working on studio projects how do you keep in mind the international audience? Do you try to limit dialogue, for example? Add more action? Add more CGI? Or do you not really worry about that?
How do you make your projects, you know, feel like they’re not pandering? Lately it seems like a couple films have been pandering to Chinese audiences, for example, and it sort of backfired. And the Chinese audiences rejected them knowing that they were being pandered to. So, how do you avoid situations like that?
What do you think we can expect, basically, going forward in movies and how can we train ourselves to be thinking about international audiences? Does it start at the concept phase? Should we come up with stories that are less regionalistic, for example? Would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks.
John: So, Craig, what John’s referring to is there have been some movies that definitely steered things in a certain way so they could either capitalize on Chinese dollars or avoid angering Chinese audiences or Chinese censors. Basically, it could be very hard to get your movie to play in China if China doesn’t want your movie to play there. So, there have been movies that have been nipped and tucked in order to play in China. And movies that have included a scene of characters drinking a Chinese product because it was important.
But, I will say that as a person who writes some big studio movies, it’s never come up for me that I needed to be writing something specifically different for China. Have you felt this?
Craig: No. I haven’t. But I suspect that it was probably couched in something else. Sort of the way you give your dog a pill by shoving it in a piece of cheese. We do hear things from studios: casting suggestions, and maybe, oh, we need another action set piece, or something like this or that. The truth is that we are in a strange dance right now with the rest of the world when it comes to our business and how important the international audience is.
For some movies it’s kind of important. For some movies, it’s really, really important. In general, the studios get a much lower percentage of the returns from international box office. But international box office at times dwarfs domestic box office on a movie by movie basis.
I’m thinking for instance of a movie like Warcraft. Warcraft was made by Universal. It starred people speaking English. So it seemingly was intended for a domestic audience. But I suspect it was really largely intended for an international audience, because Warcraft is just so much bigger in Asia than it is here. It used to be pretty big here, but it’s huge still in Asia, and, not surprisingly, Warcraft made a massive amount of money overseas. Far more than it made here. Far more. People think of that movie as a huge bomb. It’s not.
There are, of course, movies that then — and I think John is absolutely right when he points this out — they pander. And that’s horrendous. And hopefully we stop doing that because I don’t think it’s productive. One thing I know for sure is you’re going to be very hard pressed to have a hero in your movie from Tibet. You’re going to be extremely hard pressed to have the villains in your movie be Chinese people. That’s not going to happen. Nor North Koreans. It’s hard for that, too, because again China is incredibly protective of that sort of thing. And they have a strict government control over what gets released and how long it is in theaters.
So, it has been very disruptive to our business, I think. The emergence of this massive new market, and also a lot of capital, has been disruptive. But creatively speaking, I also feel like domestic audiences are moving closer to where international audiences used to be. They just seem mostly interested in spectacle. I think that’s why we are awash in superhero movies and will remain so for some time. They are massive spectacle. And they cross all cultures.
John: I would agree with you. I think we would be making those kind of movies regardless, because those movies are incredibly successful in the US. And so you look at how our movies have become sort of bigger and flashier and sometimes dumber when they’re trying to be the giant blockbusters. But we’re also still making really good movies that are intended for a domestic audience that do really well. And so you look at Girls Trip, which was made by Universal, and was incredibly successful. Nowhere in their calculations did they say like, oh, we have to be able to release this movie in China. That just wasn’t sort of on the table for it. And so it’s still very possible to make an incredibly successful movie that is mostly playing in the US. And that’s good. We want to have a range of things being made.
Also, to date, the television that we’re making, some of it goes overseas, but some of it doesn’t go overseas. We’re still able to make television that is appealing to a very American sensibility that’s about sort of America right now. And I think that’s only going to continue.
So, I’m not too pessimistic that we’re going to lose the ability to have a culture of filmmaking that is sort of uniquely looking at American culture because we have that, it’s just sometimes not on the big screen.
Craig: Yeah. From a practical point of view, I don’t think there’s much sense in tailoring your writing for some imagined studio executive’s desires. Look, if in your heart what you really want to write is Pacific Rim, well, congrats. Good news. That is the kind of thing that studios probably will look at and go, OK, that feels like it could play really well internationally. And, yeah, that will give you a leg up.
But you have to want to write that. You have to feel that. You can’t calculate these things. If you do, you just end up with a calculated piece of crap. And believe me, we’ve got enough of it. We’ve got enough calculated pieces of crap coming from highly trained professionals. So we don’t need amateur calculated crap. What we need is stuff that feels authentic and passionate.
So, the truth is you kind of have to play the hand you’re dealt by your own passion and your own desire as a writer. And just know that there are still avenues for everybody. There are — good news — far more avenues now than there were five years ago for, for instance, grown up dramas. Because now they don’t necessarily need to exist theatrically. They can exist in a very real way on Netflix or on HBO. So, you’ve got to write what you want to write. Don’t try and game the system. You will lose.
John: I agree.
All right, our last question comes from Arvin who writes, “I’ve received notes back on several of my short scripts. One person keeps giving comments back that I am writing a ‘therapy piece’ and I’m putting my own issues into the script and not dramatizing the conflict. What is a therapy piece and how do I avoid writing one?”
Craig: Oh, well, I can guess. I mean, it’s not really a common term, meaning I’ve never heard it before.
John: I never heard it before either. But I understand what the friend is saying. And to me what the friend is saying is that if feels like you’re writing this to work through some issue that is not necessarily interesting to a reader or potential viewer of this product.
Craig: Yeah. So we have all seen scripts that feel like they’re navel-gazing. Somebody is writing a script because the events in their mind and the insights that they are having about circumstances particular to them are occupying their every waking minute. And now they’re putting it into a screenplay. It is a terrible miscalculation to do that because by and by those specific details of your life are remarkably boring to everybody.
There is a reason you have to pay therapists. It’s not just for their expertise. It’s also because nobody else wants to listen to that shit week after week after week. It would be exhausting. Literally exhausting.
We all have our problems. We are all carrying our baggage. And it is fine to be informed by that, or inspired by that, to write something that would be universal for everybody, that would be exciting for everyone.
If you are writing a screenplay to exercise your own personal demons and you’re not doing it couched in a larger story that would play to somebody who has no interest in your personal demons, then yeah, you’re kind of not doing it right. That said, Arvin, one person is saying that. I don’t know what other people are saying. And, you know, there are smaller movies that kind of do this somewhat successfully. I mean, you could argue that a lot of Woody Allen’s films are — I guess you’d call them therapy pieces in a way. But they are done with such wit and intelligence that we are entertained.
John: When people make intensely personal movies, that can be a really good thing, as long as that intensely personal thing speaks to a larger universal truth. It gives you an insight to the human condition that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. And so some of our great filmmakers make things that are intensely personal to them and yet we’re able to see through their lens a much broader perspective around us.
Speaking to the sense that this one person has read your script and it feels like you’re just working through your own stuff, you know, you’re not doing the other things well. And so you’re probably having characters speak the kinds of things you wish you could say, and in doing so you’re basically writing yourself into it, but not in a way that is entertaining for everyone else.
You look at Aaron Sorkin, I mean, you could say that most of what Aaron Sorkin writes sort of feels like therapy pieces. It sort of feels like you’re going through a therapy session with him. And yet he has such tremendous mastery of craft that you’re sort of delighted to go through those therapy sessions with him. So, it may just be picking stories that let you examine things that are interesting to you — internally interesting to you — but finding a way to externalize them in a way that they’re interesting to other people as well.
Craig: Yeah. There’s a term that has become very popularized. Mary Sue. Or Gary Sue. Depending on gender. And the idea there is a writer creates a character that is essentially a stand in for them. And this character is an idealized perfected them. So, whenever something goes wrong, it’s because this character is being unfairly wronged. And they are able to quickly fix the situation and come out on top. And it’s just basically sort of a teenage fantasy version of yourself. It’s an immature, childish expression of kind of an overpowered perfected you, which in and of itself implies a need for actual therapy, which I think is pretty universal and common to all human beings.
I’ll make a suggestion, Arvin. Check out, if you haven’t seen it already, 500 Days of Summer by Neustadter and Weber and directed by Marc Webb. Because it is a therapy piece I think. I think — I think it was based on a relationship that Scott Neustadter actually had. And it is very much that and yet manages to be extraordinarily entertaining and I think provides a kind of universal pep talk for us all.
So, we don’t feel like we’re watching one person getting back at someone or proving to themselves that they’re OK or that they were wronged. We watch someone go through something that we feel we’ve all felt. So, take a look at that and maybe you’ll get some good lessons from that.
John: I think that’s a great suggestion. And what’s crucial about 500 Days of Summer is that you see the suffering and you also see the mistakes that the protagonist is making. And so often in the Mary Sue stories or the Marty Stu stories, the character is flawless and therefore uninteresting.
Craig: Correct. That kind of is the hallmark — I like Marty Stu. I don’t know why Gary Sue. I saw Gary Sue and I did think like that’s weird, because Sue is still, like no one is named Gary Sue. So Marty Stu. I like that. That’s much better.
John: Our friend Julia Turner was talking about that on the Slate Culture Gabfest today and they were talking through fan fiction and the prevalence of the Mary Sue and the Marty Stu character in fan fiction.
Craig: Yeah. It’s definitely out there.
John: It’s out there. All right, it is time for our One Cool Things. Craig, I am so fascinated by what you put on the outline that I want you to talk me through it.
Craig: Well, this is the most — it’s just bizarre. So, George Plimpton, you know, George Plimpton knows — I don’t even know why George Plimpton is famous. I’ve got to be honest with you. I never quite got it. He was — I think he wrote some books about sports and —
John: But he was mostly a talk show guest is what I think of him.
Craig: Yeah. He was famous for being famous and for having that incredibly patrician American accent. And then he was also famous, I think, for people of my generation because he was the guy that advertised I think in television or something like that. But anyway George Plimpton was also quite rich apparently. And he purchased a 3,700-year-old tablet from the ancient civilization of Babylon. You know, and they had this cuneiform, we all learned that in school, their manner of writing which was these little wedge shapes in clay. And then eventually the tablet was gifted to some academics.
So, a guy named Dr. Daniel Mansfield, along with his team at the University of New South Wales in Australia, took a close look at this tablet. Everybody knew that it was basically mathematical in nature. What they figured out, in fact, is that it was a tool — it was essentially like a times table, except it was a trigonometric table to calculate right triangles at different sizes.
And what’s fascinating about it is it is actually a more advanced trigonometric system than the one the Greeks figured out 1,500 years later which we are still using today. So, our system of trigonometry is limited to our number system, which is basically base 10, you know. 1, 10, 100, 1,000.
But the Babylonians were using base 60, like time. So they divided things up into time. Which meant that they could have many more perfect divisions of things as they calculated them and they wouldn’t end up in these weird repeating fractions. Like if you want to take a third of 60, it’s 20. No problem. It’s exact.
You want to take a third of 10, it’s 3.33333 forever. Not as exact. So, really fascinating stuff. And we’ll throw a link here in the show notes. It actually will make sense to you when you read it. It’s not a particularly — you don’t need a math degree to understand this. All you need to know is there is a clay tablet from 3,700 years ago that may change the way we do trigonometry today. And that is awesome.
John: That’s very cool. My thing will not change the world, but it was a great observation. So this is a piece by Hana Michels writing for The Cut called Sword Guys are a Thing and I’ve had Sex with All of Them. And she talks through Sword Guys.
And Sword Guys are guys who own swords. And she really finds this sort of subculture of men who buy swords. Asian swords or other swords. And prop swords. Some are cos players, but many of them aren’t. And there’s just a very unique kind of man she’s describing as the man who owns a sword.
And she likens it to cat ladies, in the sense of like we have an idea of what a cat lady is and all the stereotypes about them, and you can kind of do the same things with any man who owns a sword. And so her piece I just thought was delightful, so I would recommend them.
It very much feels like the kind of observation you could see in a movie and say like, oh, wow, I totally get it because that guy has a sword hanging above his fireplace. It’s just very true.
Craig: I read this and I thought it was terrific but I didn’t think it was real. It seems not real. This is real?
John: Oh, this is real.
Craig: Are you sure?
John: I am going to bet $ 5.
Craig: Ok, because here’s the thing. Sword guys are real. There’s no question about that. I have sex with all of the sword guys feels made up to me. That’s not a thing. I just don’t believe that.
John: Well, I think I have sex with all the sword guys is the exaggeration of what it is like to be in a part of that piece of culture. Basically she’s saying I am the kind of girl who ends up having sex with the sword guys.
Craig: OK. I can see that. I don’t know. At some point while I was reading it I thought this is a master work of comic fiction. But if it’s real than I just am a bit confused, to be honest with you. Then I’m confused because the article seems to be both acknowledging and embracing what is — it seems to be painting this as a sort of pathetic pursuit and then also really appreciating it. I’m confused.
John: Yeah. So, you know, I think it would be delightful if I was confused and took this piece of fiction as a real fact. But I’m pretty sure that this is more on the order of a Modern Love kind of column in the Times where it’s like this is kind of a real thing. And so it’s a well-told version of the real situation.
Craig: I mean, she is a comedian.
John: She’s a comedian. Yeah. So like all comedians, there’s going to be exaggeration and things twisted around to make the joke better. But it feels real to me.
Craig: You know, she also wrote something called My Imaginary Boyfriend, Josh. I don’t know man. This can’t be real. Well, we’ll find out.
John: We’ll find out.
All right, that is our show for this week. So, our show is produced by Megan McDonnell. Edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Rajesh Naroth. 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 shorter questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I am @johnaugust.
We are on Facebook. Just search for Scriptnotes. You can search for Scriptnotes on Apple Podcasts and add us and subscribe and leave us a review. That is so nice and helpful when you do that. You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. Go there. You can download the PDFs of the full screenplays for all these things, but also the individual scenes that we talked through.
That’s also where you’ll find transcripts. So Megan gets them about four or five days after the episode airs.
You can find all the back episodes at Scriptnotes.net. We also have a USB drive with the first 300 episodes available at store.johnaugust.com. Craig, thanks for a fun new segment.
Craig: John, thank you as always for being a podcast innovator.
John: Ah, we do our best. And I’ll see you next week.
Craig: You got it.
- The Academy Nicholl Fellowships
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