Screenwriter John August, author of the Oscar-nominated Frankenweenie and four other Tim Burton movies, is in Chicago tweaking his book for the musical adaptation of Big Fish. Screenwriter Craig Mazin, fresh off the year’s biggest comedy hit, Identity Thief, is eyeing new projects with Quantum of Solace director Marc Forster and filmmaker Todd Phillips, whom he worked with on both Hangover sequels.
Those are the day jobs.
For fun, August and Mazin get on Skype each week and record a straight-shooting podcast that critiques amateur screenplays three pages at a time, shares expertise about how to write movies, and offers an inside take on what makes Hollywood tick.
August launched Scriptnotes in 2011 after he grew weary of single-handedly answering screenplay questions on his johnaugust.com blog. "Monologues get tiring after a while," August tells Co.Create. "I needed someone else to talk with to really start digging into stuff. "
August invited Mazin to be Scriptnotes's permanent guest. "We weren’t actually friends, more like acquaintances, and because of that I figured there’d be enough to talk about," August says. "Really good friends sometimes have such a shorthand that it becomes sort of exclusionary to other people who are listening in." Mazin adds "Sometimes I think I know how John’s going to answer, but most of the time I don’t and that’s part of the fun."
August, who studied film at USC before breaking through with his rave-gone-bad thriller Go, and Mazin, a Princeton University graduate who ditched pre-med studies to write promotional copy for trailers as prelude to his screenwriting career, hope their podcast serves as antidote to websites, books, coaches, and seminars that charge money for screenwriting advice. Mazin says "There’s this cottage industry that sees tremendous desperation and desire out there and preys upon it. I get frustrated when I see people who have a very simple, pure goal—to write a movie—getting sidetracked and exploited. I love that our podcast is 100 percent free."
Scriptnotes often tackles questions from listeners about screenplay craft, but really knuckles down with fans who take part in the Three Page Challenge. Aspiring writers submit the first few pages of their script for consideration. August and Mazin then bust the writing for clichés, bad grammar, formatting problems, and believability issues while praising screenplay setups that manage to sustain their interest. "It’s so hard to talk about words on the page unless you have actual words on a page," explains August. "Three pages is enough that we can actually focus on something."
Mazin says, "It’s just like American Idol where they say 'You shouldn’t be singing.' For some people it’s pretty obvious from just a few pages: 'You shouldn’t be writing.' With other people, you go, 'Okay, you could do this. However here are some things to think about.' "
"Nobody benefits from us taking three pages and just ripping it apart," notes August. "You want to look at the ones where you see what the writers were going for but they didn’t hit it, so you can then say: 'Here are some helpful ways to think about how this could be better.'"
Mazin and August routinely use their own projects-in-progress to illustrate larger points. The personalized touch took a dramatic turn recently when Mazin offered a firsthand account of what it felt like to have his work slammed by critics.
The Mazin-scripted Jason Bateman-Melissa McCarthy comedy Identity Thief performed well at the box office but met with a blistering reception from reviewers. "It was a tough week for me," Mazin says. "The general audience for whom we made the movie seems to like it. which is in line with the way I feel about it. I’m proud of Identity Thief. But if I talk about the fact that the movie’s a hit, I also need to talk about the fact that three-quarters of the reviewers out there lined up to kick it in the teeth."
That kind of candor is rare in Hollywood, where a cone of in-house silence tends to descend around anything smacking of bad news. Mazin says, "Nobody wants to talk about this sort of thing, but I think we have to because frankly there are a lot of miserable people working in this business, and they’re miserable in part because they’re artists and artists have an inherent misery factor. But they’re also miserable in part because we can’t admit any kind of feelings for fear of being viewed as weak and chewed up." Still, Mazin chose to go public: "It bummed me out and I wanted to talk about it."
August adds, "My function in that was to point out the flaws of Craig’s logic and respectfully disagree with him for being overly defeatist."
"The mission of the podcast is to talk about stuff that is interesting to screenwriters," notes Mazin. "How do you deal with bad reviews? Every screenwriter gets them. The only screenwriters who don’t get any bad reviews are the ones who don’t get any movies made."
Most Scriptnotes sessions cover a range of topics ranging from Kickstarter campaigns and visual effects bankruptcies to fonts, software, and listener feedback. But the writers recently indulged their inner fanboys with a full-on geek-out over Raiders of the Lost Ark. They spent the entire hour going through Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay to pinpoint exactly what worked and why. Says August, "I like the idea of picking a movie out that isn’t normally looked at as a screenplay classic but getting into why it is, in fact, a great screenplay. If you want to read about Butch Cassidy, you can find a million places that do that. We want to find something new."
For August and Mazin, Scriptnotes serves as a virtual water cooler that brings together amateurs and a community of professional screenwriters who historically operated largely in isolation. And since they do the podcast for free, the Scriptnotes braintrust gets to operate with absolute autonomy. "We have the freedom to be as honest as we want because we don’t need anything from the podcast," says Mazin. "There is no quid pro quo, there is no editorial board, no ratings. I don’t care if a billion people, or one person, listen to it. We are responsible to nobody but ourselves, and that makes us a little special, maybe a little scary to a few people, but so it goes."
[Image: Flickr user Hilde Skjølberg]