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How Decent Drafts become Great Scripts

From Episode 5: "Magic Doesn’t Work Until You Lay Down the Laws with Max Rissman"

SAM: What I want to talk about today is drafts. For example, we’re working on a show right now — well, we’re working on Carnival Row, but we’re actually also writing a sample script, a pilot that we like, maybe we’ll sell it, maybe it’ll be a sample, but we thought — it was an idea that really captured us, and we got into it, and —

JIM: Several years ago. We’ve now been at this for a while at different iterations of it.

SAM: Yeah, ‘cause we keep getting hired. So what happens is, we keep getting a paid job, so we put down this job, put down this script, and then we’re done with that show in six months or a year, and then we pick it up again, and then we keep working on it.

JIM: Well, wait, you gotta put in — and then we don’t want to look at each other for about two or three months, and then we go back to work on the script.

SAM: And what I’m struck by is how much this script has changed.

JIM: Hugely.

SAM: The original title — we always come up with goofy titles, right, that are in-jokes, and the first title for this was “Jacob’s Mustard”. And we called it that because we like Jacob’s Ladder, that was a favorite old movie of ours that we like, and it’s supernatural and creepy, and we liked the tone of it, and we liked what was happening in it.

JIM: And very briefly, there was a moment where a character found themselves a little bit of mustard on their cheek from eating a hot dog, and that revealed this huge supernatural twist in the story, so it became “Jacob’s Mustard”.

SAM: So now, we’re on draft number…I don’t even know, seven?

JIM: Ten.

SAM: There’s no Jacob. There’s no mustard.

JIM: Both of those things have been gone for, like, four or five drafts now.

SAM: It’s just completely different. And the thing is, I remember them in, you know, when I wake up sweating in the middle of the night I might remember an old version, but every time we write it, it’s almost like a new script. And that happens a lot of times. It happens when we’re on a show, and we get word from the network — uh, they didn’t like the outline, and they want to toss it — this happened on a show a bunch of shows ago, we found out they tossed the outline, and now we have to write a script by Sunday with no outline and it’s Tuesday. And that literally happened on one show. And you’re just, you’re like — you don’t even remember what the old version was, ‘cause you just keep moving.

JIM: Yeah, and it’s funny — this particular thing we’re working on, it’s very high concept sci-fi, right? So the question is, you have this concept, and it’s really just a concept we started off with, and how do you turn that into a good script, right? Sample script, series, whatever you think it’s gonna be. And we set off in one direction, and the reason we called it “Jacob’s Mustard” is ‘cause we like the Tim Robbins movie Jacob’s Ladder, came out a while ago now, but it had these great, sorta creepy moments, you didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t, it was all kinda in his head, and you weren’t sure as an audience what was going on. And, so we thought we’d approach it from that point of view and do this sort of cerebral, very internal story where we’re all in one character’s point of view, not knowing what was real.

SAM: And you know what happened? Nobody knew what was real.

JIM: And all we got were questions like, “But I don’t understand, is it — what’s going on?”

SAM: And I have to believe when someone read their Jacob’s Ladder script, they didn’t know what was going on then either. So I don’t want to compare ourselves to that beautiful piece of work, but it was a thing that we were struggling with from the beginning, which is it’s so internal.

JIM: And once you start, like, trying to make something like that make sense, well, you’re pulling threads, right? Like, what we wound up basically doing was just pulling all the yarn out of the sweater and knitting a different sweater.

SAM: That’s a pretty good metaphor.

JIM: Thanks.

SAM: And there’s high points and low points. We’re in a high point right now, ‘cause I think we’ve actually cracked some important things right now —

JIM: We think it’s almost done.

SAM: We think it’s almost done, and we’re working on it now on a little break, and then we’re gonna have to, we’re hurrying to get it done before we go back to our job. But, the thing that has happened with this is that it bears — not only does it bear no resemblance to what we started with, but there was a point where you said to me, “I don’t want to work on this anymore. If you want to work on this, you can work on it and do your pass on it, and then I’ll take a look at it at that point, but do not make me work on this anymore. I don’t want to do what needs to be done to make this make sense.” ‘Cause we were so attached to that really cool thing. So I sat there and basically went through and cleaned it and got some semblance of a story that made some sense —

JIM: And what really pisses me off Sam is when you were done, it kinda made sense.

SAM: Well, I feel like that is a chunk of what we do now as TV writers, is try to make stuff make sense. And I have to say, when I work with younger writers, I always talk about what a miracle it is to write a fifty-page or sixty-page pilot script that makes sense. If you can make something make sense out of nothin’, even if it’s not good, that is a miracle by itself. Then to make it good on top of that, holy — that’s a, that’s an incredible feeling.

JIM: I wouldn’t know, I’ve never had that happen.

SAM: We’ve done it once or twice. And with this script, I think we might’ve done it again — it just took ninety-seven drafts and really good readers that gave us really good notes.

JIM: It’s all about the readers.

SAM: So that’s the process for us, Sam and Jim this week.

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