Monday, November 2, 2015

The wrongness of "No one knows anything"

Out in the screenwriting blogosphere and Twitter-sphere, you'll find a lot of great people, but you'll also find a non-zero number of complete idiots. After nearly seven years at this, I've gotten good enough at recognizing the signs of the worst of those people and I tend to just not even engage them. One thing I've found to be rather consistent among my least-favorite members of that population is their tendency to respond to any counter-point with "No one knows anything."

You'll generally find that William Goldman quote applied in a variety of ways, most of them wrong. The most common context I'd run up against tended to be its application as complete dismissal of any notes I'd given. It's no secret that a lot of writers are confidant in their writing and themselves. That is not a problem in and of itself. Greener writers tend to overestimate their own brilliance - my pet theory is they're still ignorant enough of what it really takes to last in this business as a writer that they have no context for what TRUE brilliance constitutes.

From time to time, I'd end up reading a script for one of these types and more often than not, they'd need a lot of work. These are the sorts of scripts that would be riddled with issues like tonal inconsistencies, completely bonkers structure, implausible dialogue, and so on. And yet, when I would point these out to the writer, they'd go on the attack. Deep down, they weren't coming to me for notes, they were seeking validation. In their mind, my role in this little drama was supposed to be limited to a pat on the back and a promise to hand the script to someone who actually mattered. In this writer's mind, how dare I stand in the way of a door he was entitled to?

And so, my talk about all the reasons why the script didn't work for me fell on deaf ears, as did my efforts to impart all the reasons why this script would be a hard sell. Instead, I could usually count on an angry diatribe telling me how wrong my opinion was, invariably invoking some form of "No one knows anything."

"No one knows anything" was never intended as a "Get Out of Jail Free" card for notes, but somehow that's what it turned into. I've been meaning for some time to put that quote in its proper context and last week on the Scriptnotes podcast, John August and Craig Mazin did just that.

First, I want to quote the relevant portion of William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade:

"Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for certainty what's going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and if you’re lucky, an educated one. They don’t know when the movie is finished. B.J. Thomas's people after the first sneak of Butch were upset about their clients getting involved with the song Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head. One of them was heard to say more than once, 'B.J. really hurt himself with this one.' They don’t know when the movie is starting to shoot either. David Brown, Zanuck’s partner has said, 'We didn’t know whether Jaws would work but we didn’t have any doubts about The Island, it had to be a smash. Everything worked. The screenplay worked. Every actor we sent it too said yes. I didn’t know until a few days after we opened and I was in a bookstore and I ran into Lew Wasserman and I said, 'How are we doing?' And he said, 'David, they don’t want to see the picture.' They don’t want to see the picture may be the most chilling phrase in the industry.

"Now, if the best around don’t know at sneaks and they don’t know during shooting, you better believe that executives don’t know when they’re trying to give a thumbs up or down. They’re trying to predict public taste three years ahead and it’s just not possible. Obviously, I’m asking you to take my word on this. And there’s no reason really that you should because pictures such as Raiders of the Lost Ark probably come to mind, which I grant was an unusual film. Why did Paramount say yes? Because nobody knows anything. And why did all the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything. And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars, a decision that just may cost them and all the sequels and spinoffs and toy money and book money and video game money totaled over a billion dollars because nobody, nobody, not now, not ever knows the least goddamn thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office."

 And now I just want to quote part of John and Craig's discussion because they nail it better than I could. You can find the whole thing here on Scriptnotes, or the transcript here.

John: Well done William Goldman. So I want to focus on what this isn’t saying. So this isn’t saying that decision makers are ignorant, that they know nothing. It’s not saying they don’t have taste. It’s not saying they don’t have experience. They truly do have the wisdom of crowds. They have sneak previews. They have all of these things. They have experience. They have, you know, their own taste. They have crowds. But they don’t have perfect knowledge of the future. And you instinctually did exactly the right thing was emphasizing the word no is that, you know, William Goldman is saying like you may have very good reasons to believe something but you can’t know with certainty what the future will hold. And anyone who does tell you they know with certainty what the future will hold is lying because you cannot predict all these things.

And so, what I get so frustrated about is they’ll use nobody knows anything as excuse for, “Well, why don’t we just try something wild because nobody knows what’s going to work.” Well, people actually may have really good sense of what’s going to work but they can’t predict things perfectly.

Craig: That’s exactly right. It’s a little bit like that exchange where someone says, “You think blah, blah, blah…” and someone says, “I don’t think, I know.” That means something, right? It means that it’s not in the realm of opinion, it’s a fact.

John: Yes.

Craig: What Goldman is saying is that essentially all this stuff boils down to opinions so you can’t know it and therefore you have to make your peace with an uncertain world.

John: Yeah.

Craig: And so, of course, people are going to make mistakes but they’re not mistakes at the time. They’re only mistakes in retrospect. That’s the thing. You just don’t know. And he even — it’s interesting, he even italicizes the word know. There’s no — so we actually know that this is what he means. We don’t think this. We know that.

John: Absolutely.

I want to add one further point - if you come to someone specifically for their opinion, having asked them to invest time and effort in a read so they can formulate that opinion, it is the height of dickery to immediately dismiss that with, "Well, that's just your opinion." OF COURSE IT IS, ASSHOLE, BUT THAT'S WHAT YOU CAME TO ME FOR.

When someone tells you something and you brush it off with "Eh, no one knows anything," that's what you're doing.


  1. I always felt that the saying was a brilliant zen koan of a joke Goldman played on the masses... I mean, if nobody knows anything, why are we listening to Bill?

    Maybe even he was surprised at the popularity of it.

    For me, the correct phrase would have and should have been, no one knows everything.

    1. EXACTLY, Joshua James: I've had this same thought-revision in my head for years now - "No one knows everything" is the far more accurate statement. And thank you Bitter, for writing the post I've been meaning to write for quite some time.

    2. I think that at the time they were made both Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark had to appear to be risky. There was no recent precedence for either film. Most studios were being cautious... which in hindsight was being over cautious.