Posts Tagged ‘Chernobyl’

What real writers follow are their characters. And what great writers follow are their characters as they evolve around a central dramatic argument that is actually meaningful to other human beings.
—Craig Mazin

This is the time of year when New Year’s resolutions are traditionally made. And if you need a little mojo before you write your first screenplay (or your next one), here’s a talk screenwriter Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) gave that may help. It was released on the Scriptnotes podcast in 2019, but just put on YouTube a few months ago. Super stuff and and another spin on screenwriting you can pour into your funnel.

Two things to pay particular attention to are his use of theme and a major dramatic argument. (Reviewing the movies Finding Nemo and Shrek will help you understand his illustrations.) Mazin also gets a little deep talking about the Hegelian dialectic but it’s an important concept to grasp.

Back 1998 screenwriter/playwright David Mamet touched on the dialectic when he wrote in his book Three Uses of the Knife that dramatic structure “is an exercise of a naturally occurring need or disposition to structure the world as thesis/antithesis/synthesis.” (So Mazin is in good company there.)

In my book, I point out what this looks like and add a helpful example:

A (thesis) + B (antithesis) = C (synthesis)

Mike Birbiglia says he used the thesis/antithesis/synthesis concept on his Netflix special The New One:

Act 1: “All of the reasons no one should ever want to have a child.”
Act 2: “How I had a child and how I was right.”
Act 3: “And then in the emotional twist how I was wrong.”

He started with a point of view (thesis), he tested the opposite view (antithesis), and came up with a third view (synthesis).

So don’t get scared away when Mazin dips into philosophy. And, lastly, there’s Mazin’s charge for you to “torture your heroes” in your screenplays.

You can download the entire transcript of Mazin’s talk at Scriptnotes.

P.S. My manic meme making continues today with Annie Wikes (Kathy Bates) from Misery (with a cameo featuring James Cann’s ankles) from the famous hobbling scene.

Related posts:
The Major or Central Dramatic Question
Screenwriter Craig Mazin on Thematic Structure—Plus 12 Conflicting Views on Theme
Oscar Winning Screenwriter Michael Arndt on ‘Beginnings: Setting a Story in Motion’ (click on view on Vimeo)
Oscar Winning Screenwriter Michael Arndt on ‘Endings: The Good, the Bad, and the Insanely Great’ (also click on view on Vimeo)

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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Walker Percy once stated that every writer secretly wanted to be Aleksandr Solzhistsyn. That they would write something so powerful that it would tick off the Soviet government to the point that they would be arrested and sent to the Gulag. A life of forced labor until you died.

But the Gulag and the Soviet Union are a part of the past so writers will have to find other ways to impact the culture.

Producer/screenwriter Craig Mazin angered the Russians leaders enough with his HBO mini-series Chernobyl last year that a month after the five-part series aired it was announced that Russian State TV was producing its own version of what really happened. That’s not as good as going to the Gulag, but maybe better than all the Emmys the HBO version won.

But if I was Mazin, I wouldn’t plan on taking any vacations soon to Moscow, and I’d be aware of anyone walking behind me carrying an umbrella—especially in sunny Los Angeles.

Apparently, the Russian backed version will correct all the lies of Mazin’s version. Mainly their version of the disaster was caused by a CIA agent.

Back in July, in my post ‘Chernobyl’: Craig Mazin’s Real Life Scary Movie Lands 19 Emmy Nominations, I said that I not only thought it was Tv’s best show of the year, but stood with the best throughout TV history. (I was glad to hear Tom Hanks just say something to that effect a few days ago.)

Apparently, a few months after the airing of Chernobyl is when COVID-19 appeared on the scene leaving a tremendous impact on the world. (The cost so far is 1.7 million lives globally.) We may never even know the truth of where and how this virus started and spread. But the shot clearly heard in Chernobyl is we need to be careful of leaders who tell lies.

Chernobyl even plays better now than it did last year. And with that mini-series Mazin joins Euripides, Shakespeare, and Arthur Miller in being a social critic.

“We’ve lost the technique of grappling with the world that Homer had, that Aschylus had, that Euripides had. And Shakespeare. How amazing it is that people who adore the Greek drama fail to see that these great works are works of a man confronting his society, the illusions of the society, the faiths of the society. They’re social documents, not little private conversations. We just got educated into thinking this is all ‘a story,’ a myth for its own sake. [There will be a return to social drama] if theater is to survive. Look at Moliere. You can’t conceive of him except as a social playwright. He’s a social critic. Bathes up to his neck in what’s going on around him.”
—Arthur Miller
Interview in 1966 with Olga Carlise and Rose Styron found in Playwrights at Work

Here are the links to the scripts of all five episodes.

Script | Episode 1, “1 : 23 : 45”
Script | Episode 2: “Please Remain Calm”
Script | Episode 3: “Open Wide, O Earth”
Script | Episode 4: “The Happiness Of All Mankind”
Script | Episode 5: “Vichnaya Pamyat”

P.S. With my junior Photoshop skills I’ve created my first meme based on the terrific Chernobyl poster with a COVID-19 twist. An idea I had kicking around in my head for a few months.

Related post: ‘Tell all the truth, but tell it slant’—Emily Dickinson

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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Both the feature film Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and the HBO/SKY TV program Chernobyl won some Golden Globe awards earlier this week including Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy  (OUATIH) and Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television (Chernobyl).

I was a cheerleader for both of those productions—and won’t confess yet how many times I saw Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood while in was in theaters. (But it was a personal record.)

Here are some links of posts I wrote on both of them:


Once Upon a Time … in Burbank 
The Unofficial ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood’ Film School
Once Upon a Time … How Quentin Tarantino Made the Leap from Unpaid to Paid Screenwriter
Once Upon a Time … in Van Nuys
Once Upon a Time in Modesto 
‘Once Upon a Time … ’ Once Again
Once Upon a Time … in the UK
Once Upon a Time … in Iowa (with Jean Seberg) 
Once Upon a Time … in Florida 
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (Soundtrack)
Once Upon a Time … in Utah
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood —in 1987
Once Upon a Time … in the Harlem of the South
Once Upon a Time … in  Jacksonville 


‘Chernobyl’: Craig Mazin’s Real Life Scary Movie Lands 19 Emmy Nominations 
Emmy-winning Writer Craig Mazin Loses His Umbrage and Finds His Happy Place 

Scott W. Smith 

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“Oh man, this is screwing with my whole reputation.”
Craig Mazin on being an Emmy-winner

Screen Shot 2019-09-25 at 3.02.57 AM.png

On Sunday, screenwriter Craig Mazin ruined his I’m not into awards-reputation by winning an Emmy for creating the HBO/Sky production Chernobyl . (Hear his acceptance speech for winning Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or a Dramatic Special here.).

And then later in the night, as producer, he won another Emmy as the TV program won Outstanding Limited Series. Chernobyl won a total of 10 Oscars including direction, cinematography, sound mixing, sound editing, and production design.

Here’s one scene where all that talent is on display and why the series was able to stand out from a crowded field of creative talent.

Mazin’s trademark umbrage was nowhere to be found on yesterday’s Scriptnotes podcast John August asked him “Craig, what is it like to win an Emmy?”

“It’s pretty cool to know that people voted for you. It’s an election, that part’s cool. And it was really important that we won the big thing (Outstanding Limited Series) because that’s for everybody. I thought that was great. I’m so thrilled that  Johan [Renck] won [for Best Directing] that was amazing for me to see. And winning the writing one was—those are our people. We’re part of this weird religious sect of writers and, as you know, we are disagreeable people. We fight amongst each other, we quibble, we argue, we complain, but we do love each other and we are our people, so to get that from our people was pretty moving. I don’t like to admit any of this. But it was pretty nice. I was happy.”
—Craig Mazin

To read all five of Mazin’s Chernobyl scripts click here. 

Chernobyl joins Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood as my two favorite productions so far this year. Check out my post ‘Chernobyl’: Craig Mazin’s Real Life Scary Movie Lands 19 Emmy Nominations to learn what I was thought was special about Chernobyl.

Mazin is also co-host of Scriptnotes which is an amazing screenwriting resource of over 400 podcasts on ”screenwriting and things interesting to screenwriters”—and where his umbrage is often on full display. To commemorate Mazin’s Emmy wins, here are 10 Mazin-centric posts I’ve written over the years:

Doubling Down on Substance (Mazin interview with  Rian Johnson)
Waiting to Be Great (Mazin interview with Mike Birbiglia )
From Houston to Hollywood (Mazin interview with John Lee Hancock)
Screenwriter Craig Mazin on Thematic Structure—Plus 12 Conflicting Views on Theme
What’s Changed? (Tip #102)
Screenwriting and a 10 Foot Concrete Wall 
Running from Failure (Mazin interview with Alec Berg)
What’s at Stake? (Mazin interview with David Wain) 
The 100th Podcast of Scriptnotes
Wanted: Writers with No Lives Screenwriting is a job where you write and also get punched in the head a lot.”—Craig Mazin

Scott W. Smith








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Note: Over the weekend, I did see Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood for the eighth time (a personal record for seeing any film in theaters) but after writing two months of posts about it I’ll take a break—until the DVD release.

Over the weekend Downton Abbey ended up number one in the U. S. box office ahead of Ad Astra (starring Brad Pitt), Rambo: Last Blood (starring  Sylvester Stallone), and last week’s #1 movie, Stephen King’s It: Chapter Two.  That had to cause 70-year-old Downton Abbey screenwriter Julian Fellowes at least a smile of satisfaction.

Especially when the actor turned writer didn’t really get his screenwriting career off the ground until he was 50.

“I did have periods I remember of thinking who am I trying to kid? Nothing is ever going to happen. I remember lying back in the bath once and just saying ‘Is [a screenwriting career] ever going to happen?’”
Julian Fellowes
The Moment with Brian Koppelman

About a month after he wondered if it was ever going to happen he got the call that changed his life. But that script only got him on the radar and was never made.

“I always say to young writers, actually, you don’t know what role a script [you’ve written] may play in your life. When their writing it they think ‘This is a wonderful script. It will get made. It will change my life.’ But the truth is most producers are looking for a writer to work on an idea they already have. And so you don’t have to dig in. If the scripts gets you the job to write the script they’re looking for, it’s done its work. It’s served it’s term in your life.”
Julian Fellowes

For Fellows that script didn’t get made led him to writing the script for directors Robert Altman’s idea that became the movie Gosford Park  (2001). It was Fellows first feature credit and also earned him an Academy Award.

“I’ve spent so much of my lie with my nose flat up against the glass and suddenly I’m in the shop. That was a wonderful moment actually. . . . And the thing about late success is it’s completely schizophrenic response. A part of you is saying, ‘What me? I can’t believe it,’ and the other half of you says, ‘What took you so long?’ And I had both of those simultaneously raging in my head.”
Julian Fellowes

Fellowes has also won two Emmys as creator of the TV show Downton Abby. He latest show The Gilded Age is currently in pre-production.

P.S. Congrats to Craig Mazin on his Emmy winning Chernobyl success last night. My next post will touch on Mazin and the quotes I’ve pulled from him over the years. After a 22 year career he may have looked at his Emmy an echoed Fellowes’ words, “What took you so long?”

Scott W. Smith

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