John August | Screenwriting Advice You’ll Actually Use | Mike Birbiglia's Working It Out Podcast

Summary notes created by Deciphr AI
Summary Notes


In this insightful conversation, John August and Mike Birbiglia delve into the intricacies of screenwriting and the film industry. August discusses the deceptive simplicity of screenwriting, which has spawned an exploitative market preying on aspiring writers, and how his podcast, Scriptnotes, co-hosted with Craig Mazin, serves as a free resource to counteract this. He shares valuable advice for screenwriters, emphasizing the importance of writing the movie you'd want to see and focusing on stories with strong endings. August also touches on the challenges posed by AI-generated content, the necessity of discipline in both writing and running, and the evolution of his career from a child playing with toys to a professional storyteller. The conversation concludes with August's support for Miry's List, an organization assisting newly settled refugee families in the U.S.

Summary Notes

Scriptnotes Podcast and Screenwriting Industry

  • Scriptnotes is hailed as a public service for screenwriting education.
  • The podcast combats predatory practices in the screenwriting industry.
  • It offers a free alternative to costly resources and guides.
  • The podcast targets those who exploit aspiring screenwriters through expensive workshops and psychological manipulation.

"You and Craig Mazen have a vendetta against snake oil salesmen of the screenwriting industry."

  • This quote highlights the podcast's mission to counteract the exploitation in the screenwriting industry.

"There's just bad books written about it and conferences and all this sort of industry around it."

  • Summarizes the negative aspects of the industry that the podcast aims to counter with free, reliable information.

Screenwriting Accessibility and Misconceptions

  • Screenwriting is perceived as an accessible entry into filmmaking.
  • There's a misconception that screenwriting is easy due to available software.
  • This perception has led to an industry that profits off aspiring screenwriters.

"It feels like an approachable way into filmmaking, because, like, most people can't envision, like, okay, I'm gonna get a crew together."

  • Explains why screenwriting seems more accessible than other aspects of filmmaking.

Screenwriting Advice

  • Write the movie you'd pay to see.
  • Focus on ideas with the best endings, as they're more likely to be completed.
  • Stories are mysteries; knowing the ending helps structure the middle.
  • Good endings provide a roadmap for the rest of the screenplay.

"You should write the movie you most wish you could see."

  • Emphasizes writing films that personally excite the writer.

"Write the one with the best ending, because the one with the best ending, you will actually finish."

  • Advises focusing on stories with clear conclusions to ensure completion.

Stand-Up Comedy and Screenwriting

  • Stand-up comedy involves trust-building and thematic storytelling through jokes.
  • Good stand-up comedians weave individual jokes into a cohesive theme.
  • Screenwriters can't audition material like comedians can with jokes.

"When they can call back to it and wrap it up in a theme. That's when I really applaud."

  • Appreciates stand-up that integrates jokes into an overarching theme, similar to screenwriting.

Breaking the Back of a Script

  • Writing retreats help generate substantial portions of a script.
  • Isolation and focus during retreats facilitate understanding of the story's world and characters.
  • The process involves looping scenes in the head before writing them down quickly.

"I would book a hotel room in Vegas or someplace, go barricade myself, handwrite scenes."

  • Describes the process of isolating oneself to concentrate on writing a script.

"I tend to have what I call the scroll. Like, so working all the way back, I'm thinking about a scene."

  • Explains the mental preparation before physically writing a scene.

Scene Writing and Structure

  • Screenwriting is about crafting scenes with a clear beginning and end.
  • Writers should visualize and hear the scene before writing.
  • Understanding the shape of a scene is crucial to writing it effectively.

"Screenwriting is about scenes, and so just knowing the shape of that scene, you're gonna be able to conquer the writing of it."

  • Emphasizes the importance of understanding a scene's structure in screenwriting.

Conflict in Screenwriting

  • Conflict is essential in every scene, whether loud or quiet.
  • Conflict can be the distance between current life and desires.
  • Conflict drives the story forward and can be internal or between characters.

"I think people have this idea that all conflict has to be loud, and sometimes conflict is really quiet."

  • Clarifies that conflict in scenes does not always mean overt arguments; it can be subtle.

"The conflict is sort of, oh, God, what's gonna happen? And then everything in this, every scene feeds in some ways what's gonna happen."

  • Describes how conflict creates anticipation and drives the narrative in a screenplay.

Theme: Conflict in Entertainment

  • The podcast opens with a discussion about a movie where every character is in constant conflict with one another.
  • The guest expresses a fondness for the high level of conflict and finds it entertaining and humorous.

"And everybody's at each other's throats the entire time, and it's hilariously funny, but it's a completely different vibe. And, well, there is conflict there. There's a lot of conflict. Every character is in conflict with every other character. The most conflict. And love it. And I love it. It's so good."

  • The quote highlights the guest's appreciation for the comedic value found in conflict-driven narratives.
  • The guest appreciates films that attempt different things, such as "Bottoms," which is praised for its boldness and understanding of the audience.
  • There is a sentiment that the film industry is not producing enough experimental or unconventional movies, with A24 and Neon being exceptions as indie studios.
  • The guest wishes more companies would take creative risks like those taken in the past.

"I like that we're willing to try some different things. Like Bottoms is just a crazy movie, and I'm just so impressed and excited that it got made because it doesn't all work, but man, it's just going for it and it sort of understands where the audience is and it's just willing to sort of push ahead."

  • This quote expresses the guest's admiration for films that push boundaries and cater to audience expectations in innovative ways.

Theme: Film Industry Economics and History

  • The guest discusses the economic factors that allowed for more creative risks in the film industry during the nineties, such as the profitability of theaters and the safety net provided by home video revenue.
  • The seventies are mentioned as another era of cinematic experimentation, facilitated by legislation that encouraged competition in theater spaces and prevented movie studios from monopolizing theaters.
  • The conversation touches on how the current business model, with a focus on streaming, differs from the past and affects the production of movies.

"The explosion of the nineties was really more about home video than about the theaters, but the theaters benefited from it."

  • This quote suggests that the home video market was a significant contributor to the film industry's willingness to take risks in the 1990s.

Theme: Adaptation and Creative Obligation

  • The guest, who has worked on adaptations, discusses the responsibility to the original creators and the balance between honoring the source material and making it suitable for film.
  • The conversation includes an anecdote about the creative process behind "Charlie's Angels," emphasizing the importance of capturing the right vibe and sensation for the film adaptation.

"How do I take the stuff that is great about that, that I love so much about that and bring that to film and bring it to the media and carry across those things that will work on a big screen and not get stuck with the things that are really not movie ideas?"

  • The quote reflects the guest's approach to adaptation, focusing on preserving the qualities of the original work that translate well to film.

Theme: Comedy in Entertainment

  • The guest and host discuss the nature of comedy, including why "cool" characters often aren't funny, and the dynamics of characters acknowledging humor within a movie or show.
  • They reference the TV show "Catastrophe" for its realistic portrayal of characters reacting to humor.
  • The guest shares an experience from adapting "Big Fish" into a Broadway musical, where he was challenged to add more humor to the show.

"Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan show, is that from the start, they acknowledge that if I'm telling you a joke, you're gonna laugh at the joke. If the joke is funny, the characters are gonna acknowledge that joke actually happens."

  • This quote discusses the authenticity of characters in comedy acknowledging the humor in their situations, contrasting with many comedies where characters do not react to the humor.

Theme: Screenwriting Advice

  • The guest gives advice for aspiring screenwriters, emphasizing the importance of understanding screenplay format, reading both good and bad scripts, and starting by imitating before developing one's own style.
  • The guest suggests moving to Los Angeles is not as crucial as it once was due to virtual opportunities but still sees value in being in LA to understand the industry and network.
  • The conversation touches on whether entry-level jobs in the industry, such as agency receptionist or mailroom positions, are still valuable for understanding the business and developing a career.

"You don't need to move to Los Angeles until you have a couple of finished screenplays that you feel really good about and that you can feel good sharing and showing them around."

  • This quote offers practical advice for screenwriters, suggesting that they should focus on honing their craft and completing work before considering a move to LA.
  • The guest recommends reading the screenplay "Aliens" by James Cameron, particularly for action writers, as it exemplifies clear and effective action writing without excessive camera direction.

"Aliens by James Cameron, every action writer who grew up, who started the business in the eighties or nineties, read aliens and internalized aliens. Because just the way action works on a page is so specific and clear and you feel like you're watching the movie, but it's not overloaded with camera angles and stuff. It's just genius."

  • This quote endorses "Aliens" as an essential read for screenwriters, highlighting its influence on the genre and its exemplary screenplay structure.
  • "Aliens" is memorable due to its screenplay and character development.
  • Characters' goals are clear both in the immediate and overall context.
  • Sigourney Weaver's character, Ripley, has a significant arc, evolving from not wanting to return to the planet to facing her fears to save a child.
  • The film's supporting characters are specific and add humor, contributing to the movie's success.

"In 'Aliens,' you can pause the movie at any moment. You know exactly what every character wants and what they're trying to do."

  • This quote emphasizes the clarity of character motivations in "Aliens," which contributes to its memorability.

Significance of Movie Endings

  • The ending of a movie is critical to its structure and impact.
  • A well-defined ending provides a sense of completion to the story.

"But you say the thing about the endings of movies, I totally agree. If you don't have the ending, you don't have a movie."

  • This quote underscores the importance of having a clear ending to define a movie's narrative.

The "Murky Middle" of Storytelling

  • The middle of a story can be challenging to write, often described as "murky."
  • Filmmakers may reconfigure the middle of a movie to ensure narrative coherence and progression.

"The murky middle. It's like, what are you doing? You just don't have it."

  • This quote reflects the common struggle of developing a compelling middle section in a story.

Story Progression and Set Changes

  • Stories are composed of smaller narratives that build and release tension.
  • Progression is essential, with each scene moving the story forward.
  • In theater and screenwriting, returning to previous settings can imply a lack of progression.

"The screenwriting equivalent to that is burning the house down."

  • This metaphor suggests that in storytelling, one must keep the narrative moving forward and avoid returning to earlier, "safer" plot points.

Character and Location in Storytelling

  • Audiences care about characters more than locations.
  • It's important to establish and develop character relationships while progressing the story.
  • Each scene should contribute to the narrative and not be interchangeable or removable without impact.

"You care about characters. You don't care about places."

  • This quote highlights the importance of character development over setting in engaging the audience.

The Role of AI in Screenwriting

  • AI is not considered a writer under the Writers Guild contract.
  • AI-generated material is not recognized as literary material for contractual purposes.
  • There are protections for writers regarding the use of AI-generated content.
  • The issue of whether studios can use existing screenplays to train AI models remains unresolved.

"We wanted to make clear that AI was not a writer."

  • This quote addresses the Writers Guild's stance on AI in the context of screenwriting and the importance of defining this in contract negotiations.

Interrelationship Between Television and Film

  • The consumption of film and television differs in the level of commitment and narrative structure.
  • Television used to imply a potentially long-term commitment, but modern series may have more defined durations.
  • Cinematic television shows blur the lines between film and series formats.

"Television is kind of this kind of open-ended commitment to spend time with characters."

  • This quote reflects on the traditional view of television as an ongoing narrative journey with characters over an extended period.
  • There is a concern about AI using existing screenplays to create derivative works.
  • The Writers Guild reserves the right to take legal action if AI is used to generate derivative works from existing screenplays.
  • The ownership of the right to create derivative works from screenplays is a contentious issue.

"It could be the issue of sort of who. We know the studios own the copyright on these things, but do they own the right to create derivative works off of this stuff? It's Miss Murky."

  • This quote discusses the complex legal issues surrounding AI's use of copyrighted screenplays for creating new content.
  • Discussion about the implications of inputting Nora Ephron's screenplays into an AI system to create a new Nora Ephron movie.
  • Concerns about the legal and ethical issues surrounding AI-generated content.
  • The problem of AI systems generating material using established authors' names and characters, leading to unfair competition.
  • John August's actions, including testifying to the office of copyright and discussing with the FTC, to address these issues.

"And so what happens if you put all of her screenplays into the system and make a new Nora Ephran movie for me? Write a new Nora Ephron?"

This quote raises the issue of using AI to replicate an established creator's work, which could infringe on intellectual property rights and originality.

"We feel like it should be prohibited. And yet under US copyright law, under sort of international law, it's just not really clear."

John August expresses the need for prohibition of AI-generated content that imitates existing creators but acknowledges the lack of clarity in current copyright and international laws.

"We talked to the FTC about how this is really a restraint of trade and an unfair competition problem."

The quote explains that John August views AI-generated content as a form of unfair competition that restrains trade, impacting real authors and screenwriters.

The Inconceivable Times of AI Competition

  • John August discusses the inconceivability of competing against an AI simulation of oneself.
  • The potential for AI to generate content, including reanimating existing video to produce new material.
  • The struggle to establish rules for these unprecedented technological advancements.

"Yeah, but we're living in inconceivable times. And so that was the real frustration of the strike, is how do you try to put up rules around this crazy situation?"

John August points out the difficulty in creating regulations for the unforeseen challenges posed by AI in content creation.

"They use these really good video likeness things to create a fake microbiblia, and they create a new microbibilia special."

The quote illustrates the advanced capabilities of AI to replicate a person's likeness and potentially create new content without their involvement.

John August's Journey into Screenwriting

  • John August's lifelong passion for writing and his path to discovering screenwriting.
  • His inspiration from reading Steven Soderbergh's script for "sex, lies, and videotape."
  • The realization that movies are written and the desire to pursue screenwriting as a career.

"But once I realized that there was such a thing as screenwriting, once I realized that movies were actually written, I'm like, oh, that's what I want to do."

John August shares the moment he discovered his interest in screenwriting and decided to pursue it professionally.

"The first screenplay I read was Steven Soderbergh's script for sex, lies, and videotape."

This quote highlights the specific work that sparked John August's interest in screenwriting and his engagement with the craft.

Reflection on Personal Expectations and Storytelling

  • John August reflects on whether his life has gone as expected, relating to his early love for storytelling.
  • He describes his childhood imagination and play as precursors to his career in writing.
  • Emphasizes that he never aspired to be like Steven Spielberg but was always focused on storytelling.

"And so I think I always assumed I was going to be doing some version of that for the rest of it. And that's really kind of what I'm doing."

John August sees a direct connection between his childhood activities and his current profession as a storyteller and screenwriter.

"I just imagine stories and I just type them down."

The quote summarizes John August's approach to writing as a simple yet profound act of transcribing the stories he imagines.

Writing Discipline and Process

  • John August discusses the misconception of needing to write all day and his strategy of writing in one-hour increments.
  • He explains his ideal writing conditions and how they have evolved over time, especially with family considerations.
  • The discipline required for writing books, specifically the "Arlo Finch" series, and the importance of consistent daily word counts.

"If you're writing 3 hours a day, you're getting a lot done."

John August challenges the notion that writers need to write for extended periods, emphasizing productivity in shorter, focused sessions.

"The best discipline I ever had was when I was doing these three books."

The quote reflects on the rigorous discipline required for book writing, which necessitates a structured routine to meet word count goals.

Running as a Hobby and Its Parallels to Writing

  • John August shares how he took up running as an accidental hobby and the progression from a 5k to a half marathon.
  • He draws parallels between the discipline required for running and writing, emphasizing the need to "put in the miles."

"I think the sense that you actually do have to put in the miles is important to remember."

This quote connects the physical effort and commitment of running with the mental discipline required for consistent writing.

Screenwriting Advice and the Non-existence of Hacks

  • John August advises writing the best version of every scene and never settling for mediocre drafts.
  • He shares a unique approach to writing out of sequence and focusing on what interests him each day.
  • The importance of creating scenes that are engaging and delightful for the audience, rather than strictly adhering to structure.

"Write the best version of the scene every time."

John August stresses the importance of striving for excellence in every scene, rather than relying on later revisions or "vomit drafts."

"So many newer screenwriters get obsessed with like, oh, I have to have this structure and have to do this."

The quote criticizes the rigid adherence to structure by new screenwriters, advocating for a focus on the audience's moment-to-moment experience.

Working it Out for a Cause

  • John August highlights Mirri's list, an organization that helps newly settled refugee families in the US.
  • The organization provides practical support, such as fulfilling Amazon wishlists for essential items.
  • John August expresses his support for the cause and encourages contributions.

"It's called Mirri's list. And what they do is they work with newly settled refugee families to the US to get them sort of the stuff they need just to be set up and working and successful."

John August introduces Mirri's list and explains the organization's mission to assist refugee families with their immediate needs.

"In a lot of cases, these are families who are here now because they were like afghan translators."

The quote provides context on the backgrounds of the families supported by Mirri's list, many of whom have worked with the US and are in need of assistance upon resettlement.

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