BPS 093: The Art of Creating Memorable Characters with John Winston Rainey

Today on the show we have screenwriter and script doctor, John Winston Rainey. John is the co-author, along with legendary script consultant Linda Seger, of the book You Talkin’ to Me?: How to Write Great Dialogue. John has written 25 screenplays of which 3 have been produced and 10 have been optioned. He has been a script consultant since 1989 and is the author of Screenwriting Style That Sizzles: A Primer For Polishing.

John had been a writer in the film industry for 35 years and won the Writers’ Guild award for best script. He had also been head of the creative department for three different studios. He is the author of the best-selling book, “The Perfect Pitch.” He tutored John on how to write screenplays that sell, and all of John’s acting and directing experience gave him the ability to analyze dramatic writing with a fine eye and ear.

In the March/April 2003 issue of Creative Screenwriting (vol.10; #2), John’s deeply closeted script analysis service was outed when he was rated the # 1 analyst in the country. Overnight, he was flooded with work. What an astounding experience! Instead of screwing up his courage to call producers, they were calling him! And there is nothing better for learning the craft of screenwriting than to analyze lots and lots of scripts and explore ways of fixing the distractions. John started getting a reputation as a great script doctor.

As a result, he not only became a script consultant in high demand, but he has also taken numerous options (deals) on many of his own spec screenplays. He is told frequently that his scripts are easy reads and he attributes that to the writing style that he has developed, which he shares with his clients, as well as his stories. Even if producers turn down one of his scripts, they frequently ask for other scripts that he has written. He has been through many development (rewriting with the producer) processes. Taking assignments and doing rewrites have been exciting creative measures of his craft.

Enjoy my conversation with John Winston Rainey.

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Alex Ferrari 0:03
I'd like to welcome the show John Winston Rainey. How you doing, John?

John Winston Rainey 2:16
Doing well, how are you doing Alex

Alex Ferrari 2:18
As good as we can be in this crazy upside down world that we live in today?

John Winston Rainey 2:22
Upside down, upside down

Alex Ferrari 2:25
I feel like we are in the upside down like Stranger Things like I keep telling people that I feel like we honestly are in Back to the Future to in the alternative timeline. Were a bit awkward. Yes, we're Biff. Biff runs the world. Yes. It's just insane world. I mean, there's a meteor coming now and

John Winston Rainey 2:49
Night before the election

Alex Ferrari 2:51
Yes, obviously, because the universe has a sense of irony.

John Winston Rainey 2:57
Well, we're we are going through a massive transition from the third dimension through the fourth dimension to the fifth dimension. So everything is becoming energy, less matter and more energy. We have to become acclimated to that. That's why we are quarantining ourselves so that we can become self sufficient, mentally and emotionally without having to go out and grab and push and shove.

Alex Ferrari 3:25
Well, well, man, I there's definitely something happening. There's no question about it. I've never seen anything like this in my lifetime.

John Winston Rainey 3:34
It is very quantum. It's very quantum very, very

Alex Ferrari 3:38
So um, so let's talk a little bit about screenwriting and that process, but before we do, how did you get into the business?

John Winston Rainey 3:48
Well, okay, so it was late at some time. And this young lady told me she didn't want to see me again. And instead of this was over a Thanksgiving weekend, and I thought, instead of crying in my beer, I'm just going to sit down this weekend, write a screenplay. I did. And I wrote, I wrote it longhand on on legal pads, because I didn't. I didn't have a computer back then. And of course, I have a huge background in acting and directing. And so you know, like, I kind of knew what dramatic fire was all about. And a friend of a friend of mine, new Ken, Rod cop, and we got the script to him. He read it. He said, Yeah, john, come on down. And so I was in his workshop for four years. I wasn't in there. Six weeks when he asked me to be his associate, which means the gopher, you know, but he's but I mean, he loved my writing and did all the way up to the day died actually passed away this past year, unfortunately. But anyway, yeah, so I wrote that script. Play that first green play got option, actually. And by Bill Duke.

Alex Ferrari 5:05
I now know Bill. Bill's a good guy.

John Winston Rainey 5:08
Yeah. Very good guy and really, really super intelligent. Very smart guy.

Alex Ferrari 5:13
Very smart.

John Winston Rainey 5:14
Yeah. Yeah. And so I went through a development process with him on that very first screenplay. And boy went to school their school there. And yeah, but before then I had been I'd been a big fan of love The Dramatic Arts, but also Joseph Campbell. The first time I read here with 1000 faces back and God I don't want to tell you, Ben because you know exactly how old I am. But, but it was, it was a long time ago. And it was extra curricular reading, you know, I didn't I just read it. Because it was there.

Alex Ferrari 5:54
It sounded interesting.

John Winston Rainey 5:56
Well, a professor that I knew, recommended it and, and so he wanted me to read it so we could discuss it. And so I knew about here 1000 paces before George Lucas started touting it.

Alex Ferrari 6:12
Well, now you give me a little bit of your age there just by saying that. Now I wanted to, I wanted to ask you in regards to the hero's journey, because the hero's journey has been, I mean, abused in Hollywood now for a very, very, very abused for four decades now. And it has been kind of set up as like that is the only way to tell a story. And that is the only story and everything falls into that story. Where I know by my own experiences and and working in speaking to other other people on the show that that the hero's journey isn't the end all be all it is one and it has a lot of elements to it. But can you talk a little bit about that? Because I always use the example of like, if you throw the hero's journey on the detective story generally does not work.

John Winston Rainey 7:06
Hey, it doesn't because the detect unless the detective has some inner issue that that needs to be resolved before you can solve the case. Because your theme really comes from Well, I mean, caffeine has two aspects to it. And I'm getting a little off subject because you have the your conceptual thematic things like racism, people call that a theme. What it's not really a theme as much as its subject matter. You know, the theme would be how does a racist you know, like take the defiant when the black band white band chained together trying to escape the law. And they hate each other primarily because they're conditioned to hate by virtue of skin color, and that's it period. And over the course of the movie, the story, they realize they have to depend on each other and they come to respect each other. So that inner journey is really the theme, coming to respect. You know, all things all life or what is considered the other. The subject matter is racism. So it's really two different aspects. But back to the hero's journey, you know, Aristotle said, you know, he said, You know, there's every story has a beginning, middle and an end. And then Gianluca dog comes along and says, Well, yeah, every story has a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order. And so you take a look at momentum, and you say, Okay, so how is that structured? Where's the beginning, middle and end up? It's there is there but you it or you take a look at traffic. There are five different stories to traffic. Each one has their own structure. It's Pulp Fiction, and Pulp Fiction, same thing. Pulp Fiction has three different structures, but the stories are just intertwined. And as yanaka dog says, you know, the the end is sometimes the beginning. There's another great movie that I like even more than Pulp Fiction is called before the rain. It's a Macedonian film written and directed by a photographer, and I can't pronounce his name mucho something or other. But it's a brilliant, brilliant movie that came out a year before Pulp Fiction, and it doesn't same thing. The theme to that is, the circle is not round. I mean, it's just so beautiful because and he does that structurally. He shows that structurally as well as thematically, I mean, as well as the character arc. So anyway, I don't know. So yeah. I don't think I'm answering your story.

Alex Ferrari 10:01
So I mean, so like, I just I just wanted to kind of, you know, bring it to to the audience the question because a lot of a lot of specially young filmmaker or young screenwriters, when they're starting out, you know, they read the hero's journey or Chris Vogler book the writers journey, which are amazing books, but not every story needs to fit in. So if you take a standard Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes story, which Sherlock generally doesn't, it's he's not about changes, he never changes it.

John Winston Rainey 10:29
He's a James Bond type character, James Ryan doesn't change. Ethan Hawke and Mission Hospital, they don't change. The only James Bond movie that actually worked for me, in that way was Casino Royale.

Alex Ferrari 10:44
Yeah, but he changed it he changes in that movie.

John Winston Rainey 10:46
Well, that's what I'm saying. He's got an arc, he has a character arc. The rest of them, you know, they get boring after a while. Yeah, it's

Alex Ferrari 10:53
just a guy, you know, weaponized?

John Winston Rainey 10:57
You know, I think for me, actually, and this is going to shock a lot of people, one of the most boring films that I've ever watched was the hangover. Because not, you know, a lot happens and nothing changes. You know, in that in that movie, the cannabis market now there's no they don't they, they have a really nice Mercedes going to Las Vegas, they come back with a beat to shit Mercedes. And you know, and they find the guy, you know, so they succeed in their quest. But what do they learn? Now, I've had to come to terms of this, Alex, I, you know, because for me, there's no real point in telling a story, unless you have something to say in that story. And that you That's what I'm saying is really not about the plot, the plot is the vehicle, or the change that the character has to make in order to achieve whatever goal that they set out to achieve. And that goal that they set out to achieve is something that they originally were afraid to go after, but some compelling new information comes to them. And this is basic, Joseph Campbell stuff, you know, that the mentor, the boom, whatever, you know, I call it new information. And they say, oh, as strange as I am, I do have to make this emotionally challenging decision to go after it anyway. You know, and so then they do, and they get into the river, the unknown, and an act two, and, you know, and shit happens. And they have to make adjustment, inner adjustments, internal adjustments, until they finally reach some paradigm shift. And they go into Act Three. And, you know, that's the basic structure. Now, let me just say you're talking about new writers. I think that a new writer needs to learn that basic capability and structure before they try to do something really fancy when they do Pulp Fiction, or any power, or you and I think they should stick. This is for new writers. Now I think they should stick with a single protagonist. I generally separate protagonists, which is an archetypal story function story driver from main character, main character is the one that from whose perspective we see the story. And main characters, one who actually carries the emotional theme, thematic arc. They are often in Hollywood, the same character. But they are at times like a Million Dollar Baby where they are different. Right? I'm just saying Maggie drove that story in a Million Dollar Baby. But the Frankie character was the change character. He's the one that carried the emotional arc. He's the one that had to make the emotionally challenging decisions. Maggie, there was no emotionally challenging decision. I want to be a boxer. And by God, I'm going to be the best. And that was it throughout the story until she was hurt. But Frankie, all the way through. Yeah, and there are many reasons we won't get into analyzing that story. But there are many reasons why he was afraid to take her on as a boxer why he was afraid to take Iran again at the midpoint, etc, etc. Am I talking too much?

Alex Ferrari 14:20
No, no, keep going. Keep one It's fantastic.

John Winston Rainey 14:22
But But generally, I think a new writer is to combine those two aspects of character protagonist, which is the story driver, main character, which carries the emotional art makes him a singular character like Danny Kathy and a few good men. He's both protagonists he drives a story. He also has the emotional arc, he has to resolve his situation with his fear of being being compared to his very famous father litigating father and he has to resolve that And, and so he has an ally in what's his name that

Alex Ferrari 15:08
Kevin Pollak?

John Winston Rainey 15:09
Yeah, I think is it Kevin Pollak?

Alex Ferrari 15:11
Yeah. Kevin is or no Demi Moore the Demi Moore and Kevin Pollak?

John Winston Rainey 15:14
No, no, no, no Demi Moore is a conscious character. Right? He's the one yes forces him compels him to make the right choice. But the Kevin Pollak character, he's the one that corrects his his mindset about his father.

Alex Ferrari 15:31
Right, exactly.

John Winston Rainey 15:33
So really, right, what I'm saying there is the protagonist and the main character are the same. You can have in different, I'm a new writer, or someone who's you know, and there's first second third script, they need to, like, make sure they have the basic craft down the fundamentals down, then they can start, you know, playing games with it.

Alex Ferrari 15:57
Yes, the equivalent of a building a shack in your backyard before you go after a mansion or an office building.

John Winston Rainey 16:03
Well, yeah, and also, if you get it from IKEA, you want to follow the directions.

Alex Ferrari 16:08
Yeah, before you get before you start getting fancy, you should probably follow the directions. And then once you follow directions a lot and you understand the basic Yeah,

John Winston Rainey 16:16
you know, I You see, Robin, you see all these bookshelves, right? Well, I actually ordered 12 of those building Bob bookshelves or whatever, building bookcases from IKEA. And so I built one I followed the directions assiduously did I did the same thing with the second one. By the time I got to the third one, I knew what it was, by the time I got to the 12th. One, I could build those things in 20 minutes.

Alex Ferrari 16:42
Right? Cuz you have to have experience

John Winston Rainey 16:44
already. And that's exactly it. It's a craft, it's a craft. And you cannot become the artist until you first of all, have got the craft in hand. That's true of anything. You know, you go to play the piano, you start, you know, you learn your basic chords and scales and, and how to sight read in later on, you know, you start getting fancy,

Alex Ferrari 17:10
yes, get fancy. So So I wanted to ask you in regards to a specific genre film, The Revenge film, let's, I was going to use that as an example. And the revenge film, generally speaking, there is no refusal of Germany, generally speaking, like if you look at the Count of Monte Cristo, and please correct me if I'm wrong, but if you look at kind of Monte Cristo, he, it's not that he doesn't want to go is a he's afraid to go or doesn't believe he could go. But the want it's

John Winston Rainey 17:43
by going by talking about going going to break down break out of this

Alex Ferrari 17:47
event, just generally revenge and going after that, that mission. And because once he gets into jail, it's about not about his revenge sits in the background, but it's about survival. It's about trying to get and then when the moment when the moment appears that he can actually break out even if as miniscule of an idea that might be great. And then that he sees that the the old man can actually teach him all these things. And then revenge starts getting a little bit a little bit more coherent. But it's still a dream until he gets out. And then he finally go, there's no refusal there. I don't think

John Winston Rainey 18:22
well, I, I I understand your point. And, hey, you could argue that he's a, he's a, he's a victim of that circumstance. And he could be giving up, you know, like, there's no hope there's no, right that could be that could be considered as a refusal. But I'm glad you brought this point up, though, because, for me, generally, the refusal of the call is the beginning of the thematic journey. The refusal of the call bridge, you get a call to adventure, we're talking cam cam belly and structure here. For anyone who's not aware of that, me because a lot of people talk about inciting incident this and that inciting incident call to adventure can be the same, but they can also be different, right? And the refusal of the call, for me is the beginning of the thematic journey, because why would we refuse to go after something we want, except for some underlying, perhaps unconscious, like in a few good men unconscious fear, or an emotional armor that we're protecting ourselves from? And then some new information comes along, and then we said, Oh, damn, I've got to go after that. You know, I've got to take that decision. And there are there are places Yeah, I agree with you that there are Successful movies that have no refusal of the call, and I think that's a missing beat that would have enhanced the story even more. Had they had that.

Alex Ferrari 20:13
So what is the theme of a Monte Cristo? Then? Obviously revenge is the theme, but that's not a

John Winston Rainey 20:19
revenge is a Yeah, it's,

Alex Ferrari 20:21
it's the subject matter. But the thing that how does Dante change from I mean, he obviously changes a lot from before he gets, you know, you know, thrown into jail and all that stuff and to the end, but the thirst of revenge is like, towards the end, he realizes, you know, it's not worth it until he's drawn into the final

John Winston Rainey 20:42
battle. Well, and that would be if he I mean, Hamlet, the same way, right? Yeah, Hamlet, you know, he has that speech. In, in Act five, scene one with a ratio, you know, where, you know, just let it be, you know, whatever will be will be case or restaurant, you know, he's watching, you know, they take up your skull, and then they bury over you. Yeah. And, and, and he's shocked. And he, you know, he comes to, you know, there's a Providence is part of the sparrow. And then you're in So, in a sense, it's the same thing. There's another movie too. Oh, yeah.

Alex Ferrari 21:30
The graduate. Yeah.

John Winston Rainey 21:32
You have you have Dustin Hoffman going after Katharine Ross. And you know, he's banging on the windows. You know, any finding you and they run out of the church together they now this is a this is actually a Mike Nichols, Mike Nichols touch, because they rehearse that last bit where they're in the back of a bus. Yeah, of course, of course, is that iconic scene, and the actors were so tired. You know, they they completely beat it was supposed to be a happy ending. But the actors are so tired, got the shot was over. And they just kind of let go, and they start looking at each other. Mike Nichols left that in because it's like, What now? Right? What now? Yeah. What's the point of all of this? What now? And I think it's the same thing and counter Monte Cristo. And what's the other one that I mentioned? Yeah, yeah.

Alex Ferrari 22:33
Well, I forgot the other one. But Kill Bill. Let's use it because that's a very famous revenge film. Yeah. You know, how does? How does kiddo change? From the moment when she starts to where she is? Is that the bride? The bride? Yeah. I think they called her kids and her name was kiddo. I think, arguably, but the bride Yes. The bride. The bride.

John Winston Rainey 22:58
Let's just call it

Alex Ferrari 22:59
Uma. Uma. Let's go Uma

John Winston Rainey 23:01
oh my God. He never did that again. Never did

Alex Ferrari 23:08
that again. So um, so basically, at the end, I mean, that's just such a straight revenge film. There's no Yeah, I don't even remember towards the end if she actually I think she regretted it a little bit. At the end, like she was crying and this and that, that she had to go. I can't I can't. I can't remember. Yeah, she

John Winston Rainey 23:30
you know, I mean, she'd love this guy.

Alex Ferrari 23:32
Right. And she had to kill him because of that. Sorry. Spoiler alert, everybody. It's called Kill Bill. So I mean, sorry. But um, but she did love them but yet still had to to do it. And she didn't, I think towards the end. She didn't want what she got to that moment. I think she didn't want to do it anymore. But I don't even remember if she

John Winston Rainey 23:55
says yeah, but she had to watch it. Again. This brings up Hamlet again, you know, he's not really interested in killing anymore. But he's forced into this into this short bite, kind of short bite fitting thing. charities. And so you know, and everyone winds up dying. And and you know, and it's not his fault, because he's already resolved his issue, you know, with with Claudius. So yeah, and you know, like I said, Bring up hangover again. There are if you are adept, as a storyteller as Tarantino is, some movies aside. I never got through The Hateful Eight.

Alex Ferrari 24:39
I you know what, I'll go on record stating that's my least favorite of his films. Yeah, it was it was I think it was just a lot of talkie talkie but like once upon a time in Hollywood, I thought was well. Brilliant. That was brilliant. Yeah. Well, I

John Winston Rainey 24:52
there are a lot of, you know, Pulp Fiction.

Alex Ferrari 24:54
I mean, he's he he's generally has a really good batting average

John Winston Rainey 24:58
in his career in Glorious bastards I love doing that. Matter of fact, in our book, I'm gonna quote him. But the book that we wrote the dialogue you taught that

Alex Ferrari 25:10
Yeah, the dialogue books he wrote with

John Winston Rainey 25:13
us that I use that open. Thank you. I use that opening scene of the Nazi got into the bathtub. Really? Oh, you seem

Alex Ferrari 25:25
to match. It's a masterwork that that those seven or 10 minutes is a masterwork of cinema. It's Yeah, it is so good on so many levels. it's astounding how good it is. And he has those throughout his career. I mean, he is just such a unique voice in in cinema, there is never been someone like him nor I think will ever be anyone like him.

John Winston Rainey 25:46
Well, he does pay homage to a lot of people that he would that were in the heat that influenced him, or that he was influenced by

Alex Ferrari 25:54
which which is a good it's, which is really interesting, because which kind of brings me to another point, paying homage so if you watch the movie Point Break, which is a classic 90s 80s 90s but I I don't remember because it was during my generations time, like when I woke I was I was a teenager, there was a there was a

John Winston Rainey 26:18
fight in a bar somewhere, right? There was no

Alex Ferrari 26:21
bar fight, there was no bar fight in that movie. There was fights with alcohol around but there was no bar fight. But that movie essentially was taken and re completely paid homage to and fast and furious. So fast and furious is literally a blueprint from Point Break. Yeah, yeah. I feel that's a little heavy handed as far as like if you look at like it's the same other than you just switched out surfing for

John Winston Rainey 26:50
fast cars car.

Alex Ferrari 26:51
Yeah, for car racing, and then Fast and Furious turned into james bond with cars. I mean, it's ridiculous now. But fun. So but paying Oh, Mize how careful Do you have to be because I think as a screenwriter as storytellers we're all taking from everything and everybody. Yes, you know, Tarantino as much as they might be criticized for it. Everything he does is original. He might take from other people, but he just mixes it. He's like a giant mixtape. You know, he samples from everything and create something completely new.

John Winston Rainey 27:24
And and all artists do that. There. There's some famous quotes that I don't that I forgot. But paraphrase. It's like we're, we're all thieves. You're good artists,

Alex Ferrari 27:34
good artists copy great artists steal. There you go.

John Winston Rainey 27:37
Yeah. And yeah, and, you know, I've watched tons and tons and tons of movies in my time. And you know, you don't know. Like, for instance, I don't think George Harrison was consciously copying. He said fine was with his song, My Sweet Lord. But they won the copyright thing, because I think there was like, four notes that were the same. But I don't think he was consciously. But you know, he was such a sponge from using that.

Alex Ferrari 28:14
Something's gonna pop out. Something's gonna pop out.

John Winston Rainey 28:16
Exactly. It will. You know, Dylan used to take old folk songs and just rewrite them. Yeah, just rewrite the lyrics, you know, keep the melody and, you know, that's been done since time immemorial.

Alex Ferrari 28:31
I mean, shit. So as screenwriters, especially young screenwriters starting out, I mean, obviously, read as many screenplays as you can watch as many movies as you can as as a young screenwriter. Could you take structures from older films, and kind of start using them as a starting point to and start? Yeah, I mean, start using them as a starting point to get because it's not even if you start with like, I'm going to take, do the right thing. And I'm going to take its structure, and I'm going to translate it to another language or another set of circumstances or another thing like that. But at the end, by the time you're done with it, it's changed. It just naturally changes unless you're literally ripping off dialogue. And

John Winston Rainey 29:16
you can't you can't do that structurally. I mean, yeah, I mean, songs do this all the time. You have a you have a basic chord structure. And, you know, you've got your basic 1625 chord structure, which in the 50s and 60s was used. ubiquitously. You know, as a matter of fact, I was just doing a song. Oh, I was playing the theme to the apartment. Just yesterday, I think. And it is in the key of F. And it goes f D minor. What was it F. Jose. Oh, yeah. EP D minor, and then what's up with a poor boy didn't have See no see seven a back to app. So it's basic. It's a basic structure but it's got this elaborate harmonies to it and melody to it. Yeah. And you can do the same thing with screenplays I did it with North by Northwest. I took North by Northwest beat by beat and I just totally rewrote the whole thing. different characters, different situations, different locations. Certainly different dialogue. Because, yeah, I know August funnier than

Alex Ferrari 30:31
Hitchcock's.

John Winston Rainey 30:34
Yeah. And yeah, that's it. That's a good place to start. And otherwise, I started just sit down, start writing, and then structure it after that.

Alex Ferrari 30:46
Do you outline first or do you just go?

John Winston Rainey 30:50
Mostly I just go. I just started like, and I have a, something, some impulse hits me. I can. I can tell you two quick stories about screenplays I've written. JOHN Denver, you know, bought the farm back in 1997, I think and my wife and I, a few weeks later, we drove up to IOC. She was a choreographer, and she was looking for music for her next gig. And so I was touring around in the store, and I looked up at the billboards, top 10, top 100, whatever. And john Denver's three Greatest Hits albums. Were in the top 10. And his Christmas album was number 12. I turned to my wife, I said, Why this guy had to die because he couldn't have he couldn't give his songs away the last 10 years of his life, primarily because of marital issues. You know, he married after and he married somebody that was not support anyway. So I said this guy had to die in order to make his, you know, become famous again. And she looked at me, she said, that's a screenplay. So I mean, she just said that I said, What? And so on the way home, we were talking about all kinds of Elvis sightings and things like that. And I wound up writing a story about it over the hill country western star, who was Uber famous living in bel air, and they repossess his house, any he goes up in the mountains to talk to his manager, and everyone thinks he's dead. And he can't get back to LA for a reason I got to get into and winds up on a dude ranch Chevalier horseshit for a living. You know, because no one recognizes him, I'm not gonna get into why he has a major car accident. He's out for six weeks, and they have to shave his head and

Alex Ferrari 32:49
right, and then his music starts

John Winston Rainey 32:51
blowing up again, plays movie stars blowing up. And yeah, and so he has to get back to LA and cash in. But in the meantime, he's finding out who he really is, instead of this facade. Another one was, we owned some land in Iowa. And I was walking back through and 30 acres, all forests and fields and lots of Briar patches, lots of berry bushes. And so I'm out there one day, and there's this huge briar patch, instead of going around it. I said, I'm just going to go through it until I've gotten in the middle of it. And I started getting hung up on the briars, you know, as well dressed. And, and all of a sudden, I couldn't move. And this little bit of panic went through my body. And instant I had this whole story about a briar patch that eats people. And so I wrote that that's, you know, become really popular, you know, in the option world. So,

Alex Ferrari 33:48
yeah, and that I wanted also to touch on that because this is something that a lot of screenwriters don't understand about professional screenwriters in Hollywood, is that I know guys who have, you know, made one or two massive movies like they were big, you know, giant films. And yet, when you go to their IMDb, they might have not had anything else produced with the next 10 or 15 years of their life. But they've been non stop working for all of those times and and their scripts have been optioned left and right and it gets optimal once and then it gets optioned again, and it gets moved over to another studio. And they make a living off of things that never get produced. And can you talk a little bit about that kind of like, underground world that nobody talks about?

John Winston Rainey 34:36
I actually I actually make most of my money, or a lot of my money doing what I call vanity projects. You know, people come to me and they want their life story and on film and all that and your mind is so unique and everything no one lives a unique life. I mean, you talk about structure, our lives are structured similarly. Right. But anyway, yeah, people can They want a screenplay written or you know, a producer will come to me and want a screenplay written. And my spec scripts I've had numerous options on I've got about 15 spec scripts, 1500 ami. And I've had numerous options on them because my writing is very contagious. You know, you start reading my scripting you you can't I there was a story. I was in Morocco, doing a script for a producer, actually. And he was good friends with Ridley Scott. And he read one of my samples. I'll actually the one that I just talked to you about the budget over the hill country western star, which is a basically a rom com. And so he was sitting here on the on the, on the table, and Ridley Scott was hanging with his guy over in Morocco, and not Bangladesh. What's the Marrakesh marriage? Yeah. And he was gonna go to bed and he says, Can I take this to bear with me? You know, he just needed some reading material, something to put him to sleep.

Alex Ferrari 36:13
That's all what you want to hear is like, really, Scott took my script just to go.

John Winston Rainey 36:17
Well, interestingly, he comes down the next morning, he slams my script down on the table, and he says, this damn thing kept me awake till one o'clock in the morning. And he says, Is he fast? And my producer said, Yeah, well, I'm still waiting for that phone call. But nevertheless, the point is that your writing style has to be contagious. It has to be you've got don't get it in the way of your story with your writing style. And I mean, that has to do with structure, character development, and also how you put the words on the page period. So all of those things have to come together. What was the question? Oh, what do I do I just sit down and write or do I? No,

Alex Ferrari 37:01
no, the question was just to talk a little bit about the the the whole optioning and making

John Winston Rainey 37:07
Oh, yeah, yeah, well, yeah. So you can make a whole living without ever being on IMDB

Alex Ferrari 37:13
which, which I've met. I've met so many of those screenwriters, some, some of them literally have no IMDb credits, or like one or two little ones. And then there's other guys or gals who actually have one big credit one monster credit. And then silence nothing. Yeah, but there but in town. They're known as they're doing script doctoring there. And that's a whole other script doctoring. And in that kind of world that dude make a living doing that.

John Winston Rainey 37:44
Yeah, john sales, john sales. Oh, he makes a living doctoring scripts, rewriting scripts. He makes, you know, a ton of money from the studios doing that we're used to I don't know where he is now. And then he'll take that money and he'll go and make his own indie films, you know, on you know, you know, you basically Well, now he doesn't have to find that his own films, but yeah, and melius used to do that as well. back then. He

Alex Ferrari 38:11
was he was he was amazing. Screaming he's amazing script doctor.

John Winston Rainey 38:15
Yeah,

Alex Ferrari 38:16
he wrote, I don't know if you knew this. He wrote the scene. The scene in jaws when they're drunk, right before that whole scene was on the boat in

John Winston Rainey 38:26
the boat. Getting where they get out. That's Milly's.

Alex Ferrari 38:30
Yeah Spielberg Spielberg called him it's like can you do me a favor? And he's like sure. All right, that's he for he wrote that scene like the night before.

John Winston Rainey 38:37
fingerprints all over that.

Alex Ferrari 38:40
Millie's has his fingerprints all over it all the movie brats stuff he touched at one point or another

John Winston Rainey 38:46
well and the thing is is guys like that. You know, if you give them a thank you, you know they're fine with it. Just pay me basically that's what it really is. You know, just I I've got some skill. I've got the craft and you know, I got it down. Just you know, pay me

Alex Ferrari 39:03
is like gunslingers basically you're like, yeah, you're exactly. You're good. You're a gunslinger. Like, how do you how do you clear out this? Do you need me to clear out this outlaw for you in this town for me? I just I'm I'm a mercenary.

John Winston Rainey 39:17
Yeah. IBG pieces are a few dollars more exact have gotten out of Gun Will Travel.

Alex Ferrari 39:25
Yes, no, I remember those. I remember those.

John Winston Rainey 39:28
You remember, Paladin? The Richard Boone character? No,

Alex Ferrari 39:31
I didn't remember that one. I've read. I've seen so much stuff. And especially I worked in a video store. So I saw a lot of stuff when I was very young Jared, you know, I was five years in a video store for all through like before High School and after high school and then maybe a little bit after high school before I went to college. I worked at a video store. So I watched. I watched it. I was watching films at a time or I could literally watch everything released that week. Can you remember like it was like, because they would release five movies? Six movies a week? Yeah, I would watch all of that. That was a moment in time where you could actually do that. Now that's absolutely. I need multiple lifetimes just to catch up with what's right. Now, I mean, you've worked with a lot of screenwriters in your time, what is the biggest mistake you see screenwriter, especially young screenwriters make?

John Winston Rainey 40:23
Other than writing style?

Alex Ferrari 40:25
Yes.

John Winston Rainey 40:26
Other than using too many adverbs, too many passive verbs and that sort of thing. Would you guys be crazy? Or overdoing your dialogue? Another one, I'm listening a bunch of go for. And first of all, a screenplay is a lot like a short story. And people have to absorb that is not a novel. Short Story. Yes. You know, you you have to get in under two hours, because that's about as long as the bladder lasts for your audience member. Yeah, seriously. Yeah. And, and they need to sell more salt and sugar. Yep. In the

Alex Ferrari 41:06
backend? Well, back when, when we used to be able to go to the movie theaters, not so much anymore. So we'll see what we're at.

John Winston Rainey 41:14
I mean, there, there are a bunch of them. And I actually, and I talked about writing style, because I used to say the same things over and over and over again. And I finally just wrote a book. And when somebody wants me to consult with him, I just send them to book, you know, but the other thing is not setting up the emotionally challenging decision that drives the story. I, I don't know if this is proprietary or not. But I talk about emotionally challenging decisions are dilemmas and decisions and decisions of the main character are what drive the story basically. And then you have a reaction from the antagonist. And so they have to reconsider and revise. And so the intention changes, but the object, the objective remains the same. And those decisions are not well set up. And often people will put those major emotionally challenging just decisions off screen somewhere. And you can't do that. You got to put it on the page. And also overriding shame. That's another one. You know, that's a technical issue. So

Alex Ferrari 42:38
you mean to tell me this should be as little whitespace on this on the page as possible?

John Winston Rainey 42:44
As much?

Alex Ferrari 42:45
Exactly.

John Winston Rainey 42:47
Yeah, this is a case in screenwriting. This is a case where less is definitely more but you have to have the you have to have the correct less. In the right words. Choose every single word.

Alex Ferrari 43:02
I mean, I'll tell you when I wrote I mean, I've written screenplays in my career. But uh, but I've written I read I read a both I read two nonfiction books. One was based on a story of my life because my life was very interesting, sir, thank you very much. And it, but I found it so freeing writing a book. Because I did not have to be so easy. I found it's so much easier writing 60,000 words than it is writing whatever the amount of words is in a 90 minute screenplay. Because in the screenplay, you have to be so surgical, so surgical with your words, but in a novel, you could just and that he floated across the screen, and he did this. And you could just, you could just like, paint the picture. You could take a paragraph just to discuss how the wall looked if the wall is really important, but in the screenplay, you've got three words to explain the wall.

John Winston Rainey 44:00
Yeah, no, that's a designer's job.

Alex Ferrari 44:04
Right,

John Winston Rainey 44:05
but how can we make this wall important? There's a character in the story. So how can Yeah, yeah, so yeah, that and the way to do that Alex is you know, I'm a big one for avoiding adverbs at all costs. And if you choose the correct action verb, you will not need an adverb do not need the modifier. Also, never, ever I've written entire screenplays with not a single adverb, passive verb helping verb or passive present tense. And I challenged myself all the time there time. There are times when, you know, I'll spend an hour on a sentence on a single sentence, you know, and and I'm Believe me I'm, I'm not shy about going to thesauruses dictionaries and I'll look all around. So yeah, next to songwriting and writing poetry within a particular form, screenwriting is right up there with those guys.

It's like the Haiku of writing. It is Haiku. If you approach it like it's Haiku, yes, you will get you will get better. Absolutely. No, you cannot you cannot just sit there and, and splashing on the page, you have to, you know, maybe that's good for you to get your story out, then go back and rework that damn thing. So yeah,

Alex Ferrari 45:32
like if you I remember reading Shane Black's early screenplays and the the way he describes the scene, his descriptions were so vivid and so beautifully written, and so concise. It was wonderful. Then I read other scripts like that, literally, it's three or four paragraphs just to talk about like the alley. I'm like, dude, like, you need to move along here guys like I did the alleys. Not that. But in the writers I like the alley is. So

John Winston Rainey 46:00
the alley, the alley is for the location manager location scout.

Alex Ferrari 46:04
And that's something else I feel that a lot of young screenwriters make a mistake in is that they feel that they're almost proxy directing. When the writing I mean, worst thing you could do is put a camera move in, don't ever put a camera move in.

John Winston Rainey 46:17
I just took that note this morning, actually, I was working, I was consulting on it on the script. And I said leave the directing to the director, I said, you got you, you must acknowledge that you've got co creators here, you must lend them the space to do their work. Just all you do with a word is Be as specific as possible. And then you let them expand upon it.

Alex Ferrari 46:44
I mean, it's very similar like to an architect, the architect lays out the blueprint but blueprint. The blueprint is the foundation of everything as you're building the building. There's going to be a couple of shifts here and there. And there's going to be in the in the guy who's paying for it. This isn't Isn't this the way it is in Hollywood, the guy who's putting up the money that the finance this building is going to go You know what, I want to move that wall over there. I want to paint the pink cuz my girlfriend wants or the orange or

John Winston Rainey 47:12
what have you probably do is say, instead of making these, these studs 16 inches, what can we make them 19 inches apart? right? Exactly. It's it's all the time. And then a lot Yes, building code, but nevertheless,

Alex Ferrari 47:26
right? And they'll start doing that. And then that's when the building just doesn't if it all comes crashing down. But that's what happens in Hollywood,

John Winston Rainey 47:34
all the time. Where the structure just absolutely sucks. Now, I'm not a big one to talk about structure up front. Because I want because everything for me comes from character, right? Even structure comes from character because you have this symbiotic relationship between plot and theme. But if all of these elements together don't co here, because a producer wants to throw in because his girlfriend is acting as though she can't do that. Can she do it this way? No, no, we can. No it because it screws up your story. And I'm I'm actually amending my words here. But it yeah, it messes with the story. You can't do that, you know, write another screenplay. Don't use this one.

Alex Ferrari 48:20
Yeah, it happens.

John Winston Rainey 48:22
That's what happens in Hollywood, is they'll buy a property, and then they'll totally jacking around and rewrite them bringing theirtheir own kitchen sink for writers. And no one's communicating with anybody else. It's like, you know, well, I

Alex Ferrari 48:38
mean, it depends on I think the smart. I mean, look what Marvel did it the best as far as like they understand their properties, and they have complete control and this and when they went away from their model early on, and you can see that in I'm not sure how verse you are in the MCU. But the first film, I remember when Hulk came out angley did a Hulk years ago with Eric Bana. And oh, yeah, remember that one? It was a while ago when when the visual visual effects really not know. It didn't work out. Hulk was horrible. But they let the director and the creatives force rewrite the mythology of the Hulk. And it was this hodgepodge of craziness. He really was angry because of what his dad did to him and all this like supercycle, it was like, that's not the Hulk. We, we want to see Hulk Smash. That's what we wanted to see. We want to see Hulk Smash. I don't understand Hulk Smash. It's not complicated, but because all these other people came in. But then from that point on, they took control of their properties and and kept going. But

John Winston Rainey 49:50
yeah, but this goes back to our original topic of is there are there other stories other than the hero's journey, right? In this case, yeah, you know, and you know, I mentioned the hangover and other things like that, where you tell a story purely for entertainment, you know. And I, I had trouble getting on board with that. But

Alex Ferrari 50:17
apparently, a lot of other people didn't because it did very, very well and sponsored

John Winston Rainey 50:23
a lot a lot of movies, a lot of people just want like my brothers. I asked my brother, I said, Why do you go to the movie? She says to escape? And, okay, that's, you know, and that's what I think that's with a large a large demographic is I just wanted to go and let go of my life. What I mean?

Alex Ferrari 50:41
Yeah, absolutely. But if you look at hangover, hangover, I agree with you. They don't really change at all. I mean, there's not a change in the characters. They just don't

John Winston Rainey 50:52
they go on an adventure, essentially. But not only that, a lot of it wasn't funny to me. I mean, I could tear that thing apart, you know, but the funniest part to me actually was when the the naked Vietnamese guy. And that guy was funny.

Alex Ferrari 51:11
He's so great. Ciao. Ciao was great. There it looks so I mean, comedy is always relative. Some people will look at an airplane and go and be Blazing Saddles and get offended,

John Winston Rainey 51:20
like, Well, no, no. Okay, guy you just mentioned two of my favorite, which they're amazing.

Alex Ferrari 51:27
I mean, the airplane is is an absolute classic and so is Blazing Saddles. But there's a lot of people who look like my wife will watch airplanes. She's like, this is ridiculous. Why would I watch that? She's she does not get it. And there's so comedy is also relative. But on a structural standpoint,

John Winston Rainey 51:42
I'm so lucky. I'm still looking for the whacking material.

Alex Ferrari 51:49
Or the the the chanting or non chanting section, which is which is great, but they are Christians. But if you look at hangover, hangover one hangover two and a half or three are essentially the same.

John Winston Rainey 52:01
I don't I quit.

Alex Ferrari 52:03
When I went to see hangover two, which was basically hangover one. But in Thailand, it was all it was. It's just the exact same story.

John Winston Rainey 52:10
But just a bit Alex's because the audience loved hangover one. They love that structure. So let's give it to him again.

Alex Ferrari 52:19
Absolutely. But that same director then wrote directed Joker, which was arguably one of the better films in the comic book genre. In my opinion, I don't know what you felt about Joker, I haven't I haven't seen it. So Joker is basically a taxi driver. It's taxi driver, but with a comic book villain. And he's Travis Travis critical to the point where they hired Travis Brickell to be in the movie. So Robert De Niro is in the movie. And Scorsese was gonna originally produce it, he had to walk away from other products, because he had other projects. But I mean, it was it was so involved. So if you haven't seen Joker yet, you should watch Joker purely because it's taxi driver. That's why people were losing their mind. People were like this is because if you if you released taxi driver today, Peter wasn't that disguised? Oh, I mean, to anybody who's ever seen taxi driver could go, Oh, this takes place in the 70s. It's really I mean, he's not literally a taxi driver. But the themes, the everything. The aesthetics,

John Winston Rainey 53:26
it's like the psychotic.

Alex Ferrari 53:28
Yeah, the, the break the psychology, the psychotic breakdown, the the aesthetics of how its shot. It is so clearly taxi driver, and they make no bones about it. They're like, Oh, yeah, we weren't completely inspired by it was it was a combination of Kingdom Kingdom comedy and taxi driver. It's a mesh of those. Okay. Oh, go watch.

John Winston Rainey 53:48
You've got a lightweight. Speaking of taxi driver. You know, our title of our book is you're talking to me. The thing is, is it's a book about dialogue, how to write dialogue. Yes. I'm being revealed here. That line was improvised. Yeah, I know. It wasn't written.

Alex Ferrari 54:07
The funny thing is I one of my friends who passed away he was the first date. I think it was the first ad or the UPM on taxi driver, and he was in the room when they showed me that. Okay, so you know, he told me the solar He's like, yeah, that was just like the kind of Marty just gonna

John Winston Rainey 54:27
read it. No, no, Scorsese asked De Niro. He says, We need something with the mirror. Can you? Can you improvise something? And change? Oh, yeah, exactly. Did it once. And the gun mechanism didn't work. Right. So they had to do it again. Yeah,

Alex Ferrari 54:41
it was nuts. But those are the things that people also a lot of screenwriters also think that like, Oh, that was a genius writing like no, a lot of times they do come up with it on the set.

John Winston Rainey 54:51
Now here's, here's the thing. If I were directing something that I had written, we would first of all have a lot of table reads and I would make sure The script is ironed out. See, because I'm from the theater now. Yeah. And I've done Shakespeare and I've done Sam Shepard, and I've done all of these, you know, things in between. and I would want them to nail down the dialogue. Before we get in front of the camera. I don't want people you know, let's make sure that we have it. And we know what our beats are. We know what our our motives and intentions are. And let's, let's do it right, if you're good actors. I've worked with those actors who say, Oh, I don't want to mess up my creative thing when I would just say go back to acting school.

Alex Ferrari 55:38
Agreed. Actors need but like, like structure and understanding the craft, you need to understand the basics first, but have to have some leeway to play.

John Winston Rainey 55:47
Okay, I'll tell you that I watched, interestingly enough, I don't know how well, Jennifer Aniston is. But I saw some outtakes of her doing the same scene over and over and over again. She stuck to the script. Exactly. But every single take was different.

Alex Ferrari 56:06
Yeah, she just presented it.

John Winston Rainey 56:08
That's that's great skill. No, I think that she's in the moment. I think she's right there in that moment, and that's what what was it? Is it Sanford miser, or somebody who says that? a great actor. No, is Antonin Artaud is, the French crazy guy wrote a theater in his double. He said, a great actor is one who is able to repeat a moment as it for the first time. And that's what I'm getting at. If if the line doesn't work, let's fix the line. But then when you're in front of the camera by God deliver,

Alex Ferrari 56:51
right, exactly. But But with that said, there's also those magical moments that you can't write like in like a Midnight Cowboy in Midnight Cowboy crossing the street. I'm walking,

John Winston Rainey 57:01
walking here, yeah,

Alex Ferrari 57:03
that you can't write that you can't write. And then there was a taxi. He's like waving his hands like so.

John Winston Rainey 57:09
We actually had the same Bible on that. That that was absolutely a lot of people don't know that. That was an ad. And that taxi driver was real real.

Alex Ferrari 57:21
He almost almost ran over Dustin Hoffman.

John Winston Rainey 57:26
Writing character, though. I mean, it was brilliant. It was absolutely brilliant. Yeah.

Alex Ferrari 57:31
I know. We could keep talking for at least another two or three hours. So but I'm going to I'm going to ask you a few questions. I ask all my guests. What are three screenplays every screenwriter should read? Oh, God,

John Winston Rainey 57:43
I had no idea. I

Alex Ferrari 57:50
I I don't think three of your favorite screenplays any of them? Boy.

John Winston Rainey 57:58
Chinatown is a good one for me.

Alex Ferrari 58:03
And hang over obviously.

John Winston Rainey 58:06
You got that one? Yeah. China's chown

Alex Ferrari 58:19
if you can't come up with any other ones, that's fine.

John Winston Rainey 58:21
I mean, I I've got so many of them that I don't want to like

Alex Ferrari 58:26
me, it's not gonna be on your gravestone. You could just throw it out three names. It's fine.

John Winston Rainey 58:32
Okay, you know what? Butch Cassidy and back in the day, you know, William Goldman was the go to guy. And, and I constantly quote one of his or explain one of his scenes about, you know, Sundance, not wanting to jump off that cliff, but he has to make the emotionally challenging decision not because he's afraid of dying, because he's afraid of humiliating himself, which I think is just a brilliant, brilliant choice. You know, you know, for an actor to me. You know, that was emotionally that's what when I talk about emotionally challenging decisions. That's one of the things I talk about is fear of death. Is is less than the fear of public speaking or Yeah, or humiliation. Yeah, humiliating yourself. Yeah. So. Oh, god. What? I think you're good, man. It's a good

Alex Ferrari 59:31
it's such a crazy Sorkin Yeah. Sorkin Yeah.

John Winston Rainey 59:36
I wouldn't recommend godfather only because Coppola did his own thing. And I think for a new writer would be you know, it would take them off in a track they can't quite

Alex Ferrari 59:48
well. It's kind of like it's kind of like studying, you know, Beethoven and Mozart at the start at the start.

John Winston Rainey 59:56
Before Yeah, let's let's start with the baby stuff.

Alex Ferrari 1:00:02
Let's Yeah, exactly. Let's start reading hang over first and then we'll go into the Godfather

John Winston Rainey 1:00:08
would be would would be a distraction.

Alex Ferrari 1:00:13
Well, no, no, no, we got him. We got it. We got it.

John Winston Rainey 1:00:16
Well, no, I gave it to you know, I did copy North by Northwest but I totally changed the content, right? Well, my agent at the time he said take an old classic and then contemporize it and disguise it. And then so I had another very close friend say Oh, do North by Northwest. And so I did. And so I think that's a

Alex Ferrari 1:00:44
that's those are those are three. Great. Those are three great starting points.

John Winston Rainey 1:00:47
All right. Okay, so I'll leave that at that.

Alex Ferrari 1:00:49
Now. What advice would you give a screenwriter wanting to break into the business today?

John Winston Rainey 1:00:54
What advice when I give them? Yes. Well, what you just said read lots of screenplays, watch lots of movies, but read all the beginning books you know and read. I would suggest other than for the first two books I suggest for new writers is Bulger's book. And David tried two years book and read Linda's book to read Linda's making a good script. Great. Yep, read those three you can read the Sinfield book in the in the Michael Hague book. But also in conjunction with those books. Also study Darren Mark's book inside story because it's all about character character character character, DERA and I feel the same, that everything in a in a story comes from character, you name me something and I will take it I will track it all the way back to carry the only thing that doesn't is the outside the story genre. So the mood, the tone, the pace. And a good example of that is,you know who? Well you know who Dr. Anton Chekhov was? Yeah. And he wrote four great plays, you know, a seagull cherry orchard, three sisters and Uncle Vanya, and a bunch of one acts. And he wrote them as social satires. They were social satires and standard philosophy read them. And Constantine Stanislavski. But he says, No, no, no, these are not satire. These are tragedies. And so, and the rest is history. He produced them as tragedies instead of a social, but what I would love to do is take those plays and direct them as social satires. Okay, but anyway, the point I'm making is that everything comes from character except that except possibly genre.

Alex Ferrari 1:02:43
Now, what lesson took you the longest to learn whether in the film business or in life?

John Winston Rainey 1:02:50
Letting go

Alex Ferrari 1:02:53
Yes.

John Winston Rainey 1:02:55
Yes. Realizing that you cannot. And I actually, my father said this when I was 11 or 12 years old. But I didn't get it until many years of actually teaching piano and also consulting on screenplays that you cannot teach anything. You can facilitate another person's learning when they are ready to learn it. That's good. And, and even then you have to be able to I think the true gift of a teacher is understanding what doors are open that you can enter, and what knowledge can be dispensed as a result that will build upon what's already known. But you cannot teach and you cannot impose knowledge on anybody. That's the biggest thing I had to learn. That's great. In my obsessive compulsive manner, I had to learn to let go of needing to get other people to get something.

Alex Ferrari 1:04:06
Fair enough. And where can people find you and your work and your new book with that you wrote with Linda

John Winston Rainey 1:04:13
Well, the book is on Amazon,

Alex Ferrari 1:04:15
And the name of the book again.

John Winston Rainey 1:04:18
You talking to me? How to write great dialogue. And they can find me at john Winston rainy.com. And what else?

Alex Ferrari 1:04:29
That's pretty much covers and you do swip Consulting, and

John Winston Rainey 1:04:34
I do Yeah, I do. I I yeah, consulting analysis, but those are not the real fun things. The fun thing is just writing a good screenplay. And I do that on, you know, people hire me all the time to write a screenplay, and I'm pretty fast. Alright, and I actually am still not in the Union by design by choice. Because I can charge whatever I want to charge.

Alex Ferrari 1:05:02
Fair enough. JOHN, thank you so much for being on the show and dropping the knowledge bombs on the tribe today. I appreciate it, my friend.

John Winston Rainey 1:05:11
Well, it was it was a joy. It is absolute joy. I hope it works for you.

Alex Ferrari 1:05:16
I want to thank john for coming on the show and dropping those knowledge bombs on the tribe. Thank you so much, john. If you want to get links to anything we spoke about in this episode, including links to his books, you talking to me how to write great dialogue and screenwriting style that sizzles. Head over to the show notes at bulletproofscreenwriting.tv/093. And if you haven't already, please head over to screenwriting podcast.com and leave a good review for the show. It really helps us out a lot. Thank you so much for listening. And as always, keep on writing no matter what. Stay safe out there. And I'll talk to you soon.


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