Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Script Reader Q&A (Seeking Pot O' Gold)

Arctic Circle along Dempster Highway

Last post introduced the "script reader," who can be an early hurdle on the screenwriter's journey towards a script sale. Today, we have a Q&A with three of those gatekeepers, who each kindly gave their time to answer a few questions from the reader's perspective.

They all work in the same industry, and to some degree have similar parameters to follow when covering a script, yet their answers are each unique to themselves.

Ladies And Gentlemen, Your Readers

Synthian Sharp - Synth is the reader I began a dialogue with on John August's site. He has read for independent production companies as well as the Jules Verne Adventure Film Festival, and Valley International Film Festival. He was lead composer on Val Kilmer's American Meth, and co-director of the film, How I Became An Elephant (heartbreaking, but check it out).

Jeanne Marie Spicuzza - Jeanne Marie reads for her own production company, seasons & a muse, where her film, The Scarapist, is currently in pre-production. She is a published poet, has performed at poetry slams worldwide, and has been featured at such events as Lollapalooza and Ladyfest.

Chip Street - Chip is a screenplay competition judge for the Shriekfest Horror Film Festival, and a pre-screener for the Santa Cruz Film Festival. He's optioned two of his own screenplays, and has worked in film production as a director, art director, and production designer. This is Chip.


(I could use a new kind of free fall)

Matt Shields: You're having drinks with a visiting out-of-town amateur writer and he gets you loose enough to let him/her on some secrets... He's read the blogs, attended the Expo, subscribed to the magazines, taken McKee's course, read twenty-five of the WGA's "100 Best Screenplays," and his latest script placed well in a top comp. He's ready to take on Hollywood. What is the most important thing he still doesn't know?

Chip Street: That now it's time to stop thinking like a lone writer, and start thinking like a producer, like a collaborator. In many ways, Hollywood works like indie filmmaking, just with bigger checks. It's still a small community, where relationships matter and news travels fast. Where people want to work with other people who are fun to work with, and who are invested in the whole process. Writers who just want to take their check and disappear are less attractive than writers who are going to be involved in the project, help build the relationships with talent, be in on meetings or whatever else is needed. And for God's sake be pleasant. I've been told "I'd rather spend six months locked in a room on a project with a reasonably talented writer who's fun to work with than a brilliant writer who's an asshole." Those writers - the fun ones - are going to get more projects, and more referrals. Better yet, be the brilliant writer who's also fun to work with, and you're a god.

Jeanne Marie Spicuzza: A friend of mine and fellow poet, actress, playwright, once shared with me a great secret that stuck with me: When someone tells you they're a writer, always ask, "What are you reading now?"

Synthian Sharp: Ok, that person doesn't exist. Seriously. What you've just described is the big-fat-wet-dream submission. Primarily because, "He's read the blogs, and read twenty-five of the WGA's 100 Best." It would be hard for me to express just how far from that person most submissions are, but let me try. If even half of the raw naked spec submissions that came into Hollywood came from that person - meaning they had not only actually done these things, but had actually taken them to heart, and had actually studied and understood them - the world would not at all resemble the world you live in now. The very face of art, and, I dare say, even the political map, would have changed as a result of the severe alterations to the world's most powerful art form.

Indulge me for a moment, so that I can explain. I can say, absolutely and without hesitation, that every single spec screenplay I have ever been handed has been guilty of crimes against the standards of preparedness you mentioned above. All of them. This is coming from someone who doesn't just claim to respect the craft, but has actually taken the time to read the complete works of my favorite screenwriters, and learn from who they learned from, and count their sentences and parentheticals. If you asked me what Terry Rossio [screenwriter Pirates Of The Caribbean, Shrek, National Treasure] has to say about a given aspect of screenwriting, I can probably tell you what the blog post was called and which paragraph it's in, because I care. That's who your competition is.

Terry Rossio took the script of his idol and retyped it letter for letter, comma for comma, until he could hold the original and his copy lined up when he pressed them against a window, and see the structure standing out like an x-ray machine. Because he wanted to be a goddamned, mother-fucking millionaire. And he wanted to do it by telling stories.

As a second answer to the same question I would give you this: Read more than you write... Also, people can tell the difference between things that were inspired, and things that were manufactured. Don't ever manufacture. If you've got five screenplay ideas and four are what's hot right now, and one is that bizarre sub-genre period piece that you know Hollywood can't possibly have the balls for, but its still on your list cause you just can't get it out of your head, that's the one.

MS: Would a Preston Sturges (or any top writer from another era) script make it past any of you today?

Jeanne Marie: Yes. Especially Dorothy Parker.

Synthian: Yes. Top or not, I would lobby for rebellious material. I'd love to see "Brave New World" come across my desk. That must have been what it was like for whoever was handed "Memento". In the same sense that a hip-hop artist could make his bones today by recording over the phone from inside a prison, a Dalton Trumbo script I would beg for an excuse to get made simply because he'd been blacklisted. And the truth is, if you're a respecter of dialogue in the first place, you know that our standards have all but collapsed in that realm due to the rush-cycle of pop-culture production. Watch "Casablanca" with a pen and pad, and literally write down every single line of dialogue that became a catch phrase throughout our culture. You'll run out of paper because it's truly amazing. No modern film can do that. The dialogue in "The King's Speech" was written thirty years ago. Much of the dialogue in the Coen Brothers' "True Grit" adaptation was even older. But it's not that the capacity for good dialogue has disappeared from our fingers. We just don't respect it enough to raise it, and water it, and feed it from the ground up anymore...

Anyone interested in proof that great small-focus dialogue is still being written today should immediately head over to Amazon and watch a random episode of "Lark Rise to Candleford."

Chip: Had to Google a Sturges' script to see what it looked like. Found a copy of "Nothing Doing." It's not exactly a spec script, it's a production version, and includes shot descriptions and other details that I would hate in a spec. But setting that aside, it still suffers from many of my pet peeves: long solid blocks of description with no breaks (fifty lines!), overly specific description - down to explaining exactly how a logo is designed, and a parenthetical on nearly every dialogue slug. So, from a purely technical format standpoint, I'd have to say "no." That's the stuff that drives me nuts, and makes me want to shitcan a script instantly. Though I probably won't, not on page one. But, it will put me off, and it has to work really hard to win me back quick.

But that's the technical. Then there's the story. I do believe there's something brilliant about the economy of story in a lot of older films from the thirties and forties with regard to structure and character. It's almost poetic. I grew up on a lot of those old films, and still return to them. That's something I like to see in a script, and would be happy to let past me.

MS: You seldom (if ever) write a "recommend." What's so bad about "consider?" Don't they get a look?

Synthian: No. Writing "consider" already has some natural weights against it. Most prominently, that you didn't love the script. As a brilliant screenwriter once said, when asked what a screenwriter's job really is: "Simple. Make the bicycle fly." This of course in reference to "E.T." And they've either done it, or they haven't. Nobody wants to give a heartfelt "Eh?" Consider means: it ain't what you asked for, but the writer was so good that you didn't have a choice.

Chip: Screenplay contests are like American Idol. 10,000 people show up. Maybe 25 have some real potential, ten are uber talented, two or three are savants, and, if you're lucky, one is a true artist for the ages. You have to put 25 in the finals. That's just the rules. Those finalists are getting their look and they better deserve it. The winner's not likely to be an artist for the ages, but she damn well better be uber talented, if not a savant.

Reading for contests my "recommend" means move it to the finals. I'm not into putting William Hung, or Bikini Girl through just cuz it's good TV. I want the finals to be a steel-cage match of highly capable and brilliant contenders, any one of whom deserves to be the champ.

If I were reading for a prodco [production company], I'd probably be more demanding than I am as a contest reader. And I have a reputation for being a mean and ruthless contest reader. I get angry, physically pissed, at a truly shitty script. I hate the idea of rewarding mediocrity. And I hate the idea of wasting anyone else's time - those other hapless readers, say, who have to read all the finalists. Mostly, though, it's the rewarding mediocrity I hate. If your crappy script gets to the semis, you're going to think that what you're doing is good enough. It's not.

Jeanne Marie: Depends on the level of good, or bad.

MS: What keeps a reader honest to the slush pile of countless unknowns, instead of just promoting friends' scripts?

Jeanne Marie: Probably very little, unless he/she is of high moral character.

Chip: I got into production initially to understand how the script evolves into a finished film, the whole production process, so I'd be a better writer. I took acting classes to help me understand what actors need, so I'd be a better director. I take the opportunity to read as an opportunity to learn what really matters to a reader, what makes for a "recommend," or a "fail." I can't learn if I'm not honest - with the scripts and with myself - so, it's invaluable to put on my reader hat, be ruthless, and see what makes a great script great, and what kills a script.

As a reader, I'm looking for what most writers seem to think they're delivering: greatness. I always crack each script open with high hopes that it'll be great. I want people to be awesome. I want to find a script that makes me glad I spent ninety minutes of my life with it. If the script is truly great - it likely won't be, but I hope - it'll get a fair shake. I want the screenwriting universe to be peopled with great writers delivering great stories through great scripts. Finding great scripts by great writers - whoever they are - and rewarding that work, helps create the kind of universe I want to be a part of, and that's good for everybody. In the end, being honest to the slush strengthens the industry, and makes me a better writer.

Synthian: I have read every one of my "friends" scripts. Some, as many as three revisions, which is why the word friends must be in quotes. Their scripts are abusive weapons just like everyone else, and there is not a one I would make a "recommend" to risk my reputation for. Sorry. Nobody spends umpteen million dollars on something because they're a friend of that nice intern. Talent comes first... I'm in a luxurious position of being able to have my newest script read by some of the best and I wouldn't dare shame their desks with it. Not until it beats the ever livin' out of whatever else they may see. To illustrate that perfectly clearly to you: Last week I made a new title page in Final Draft for my current screenplay, so as to change the written by line to "Anonymous." That's how confident I have to be. Before I turn anything in, I have to be able to ask myself the question, "If this were to appear on [producer's] desks as an anonymous writing tomorrow, would it burn straight through this village like wildfire?"

I'll turn it in when the answer is yes. And if you can write that well first, then you'll beat me, and you deserve to.

MS: If the writing is entertaining, will you keep reading past standard benchmarks if things that are "supposed" to happen by then, have not happened? Or is your world hard-wired to three-act structure, etc?

Synthian: Ugh. Okay, I'm almost tempted to say I'm offended when a screenplay is Syd Fielded [Syd Field is an author of popular screenwriting books]. It just tends to show a hell of a lot less heart, passion, and instinct, than organizational skill. This is strictly a personal thing, but I just can't see myself recommending a script that doesn't at some point break at least one solid rule. Your job is to further the format. Yes, we all know what the restrictions are, but your job is to push it till it breaks. So, if you've had to make up some new convention of the thing just in order to be able to fit your universe into the limitations, I admire your needing to do that. Roll on with your Jedi self. However, you will find out very quickly that the opposite of that is true as well. Meaning, I seriously fucking challenge you to find me a script that, one, we don't know who we are or where we're going by page twenty, and two, is also entertaining writing. It just basically doesn't happen. Good writing is invisible. The three-act structure is supposed to be invisible. If you're looking for it, it's because you're an asshole. Good is good. Bad is bad.

There are basically three types of "reads." The third one we're just going to do away with because we're not talking about that here. It's where you're reading a legend, and you're there to learn from them and anything they do now becomes the new format... What we're concerned about as readers is the difference between the two first types of reads. One, the proof read, and two, the professional free-fall. What I'm asking for from you when you hand me your script, is for me to have the right to trust you're more than a pro, and that I can simply pretend your script is a skyscraper and I'm about to jump off the top, and as I fall I will hit nothing. I will keep turning pages as I plummet straight down through your story until I arrive at the inevitable conclusion, and stand up feeling only, exactly, the emotions you designed me to feel. That's what I want. Every legendary writer gives us that. Every single time. You can go pick up any David Webb Peoples script [Blade Runner, Unforgiven], or any Brian Helgeland script [Mystic River, Man On Fire] off the shelf and you will drop straight through, and the number of speed-bumps, or girders, or format errors, or confusion sessions you will hit on your way down is zero. Its what we dream of...

But, the mistakes of the amateur take our expected free fall and, one by one, page by page, slowly convince us that we cannot trust them. They little by little stop us from watching the story and turn it into a "proof read." And that makes you suck. Because the only way of avoiding that was a decision you made forever ago, because you didn't care about my time, and you decided not to read your free 150 or so Writer's Guild Library scripts, because you're a dick. Don't... be... a dick.

Jeanne Marie: My life allows me 12-15 pages. If it isn't moving me by then, it's all over.

Chip: Hell yeah. I'm big on structure, but what that means is flexible. Some of my favorite movies are slow builders and develop very organically over four acts. I look for escalation - within a scene, a character relationship, through a story - but hitting certain marks by certain pages is in no way a requirement for me. I think deconstructing stories to find those patterns is academically interesting, and sometimes those beats work. But I also think assuming it's some kind of template for success is what leads to, at best, uninspired work, and, at worst, a lot of predictable garbage.

Have a great idea. Execute with excellence. Know your formatting (spelling is a huge deal for me). And use whatever structure your story demands.

MS: Forget that paradigm! I want to write the next rule-breaking indie hit! Do indie production companies have readers? Do they follow different rules?

Chip: I don't read for prodcos, but I submit my work to them. I've optioned two scripts to indie prodcos, so I guess someone's reading scripts. Different rules? I'm sure they want great stories told well. That's the universal thing, right? In that sense, they follow the same rules. But, indies can take greater risks with films that are less commercially driven, that tell smaller stories, and that take structure apart and put it back together in a new and interesting way. In that sense, they can have a broader range of creative or commercial expectations. If you've got a rule-breaking script that's non-traditional, an indie prodco is probably your outlet. Thanks, indie prodcos!

Jeanne Marie: I'm too indie to answer that!

Synthian: Yes, they have readers, but the slush-pile is exactly the same. You'd be surprised how many writers with indie scripts are absolutely certain their script is "Independence Day," and how many "Independence Day" writers think their script is an indie. The lines are blurred now, and nobody can tell you you're wrong if you send more to one direction than the other.

Yes, they follow different rules. An indie production company I read for had a producer who, himself, had written a 165-page screenplay, which he had perceived as having done very well... ergo, the page limit for submissions at that particular office had arbitrarily become, 165. I've been sent on a hunt for the "world's greatest chamber piece" - a chamber piece is a film that takes place entirely, or almost entirely, in a single room or location, ie, "Buried," the first "SAW," "Reservoir Dogs." Its hard for me to imagine being asked to do that for a major. And one guy had been given an ice skating rink for the summer, so he needed all the best indie ice-skating rink scripts.

By all means, make your rule breaking screenplay, but don't assume its an indie. "Good" is what's wanted on posters tacked to every signpost in the production spectrum. So, if you know what you're doing, and still break a whole bunch of rules, then yeah, I could use a new kind of free fall. Send it to me.


Rhonda B. said...

Awesome interview!

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

Great post, and I appreciate that you give these interviews the length they deserve. I look forward to sharing this with other apprentice-screenwriter friends, especially the advice about really doing your homework (especially reading lots of great, classic scripts).

The only other question I wished had been asked: how does one BECOME a professional prodco reader (especially outside CA). Seems like a fantastic (low-paid I know) way to learn how to write better.

Matt Shields said...

Thanks Andromeda.

To try and answer the question you "wish" had been asked, I have asked this myself and usually the answer is along line of "move to LA/NY, get an entry-level job with a prod-co, and start asking to take home scripts" ... As far as working outside of LA a competition organizer told me it is easier if you're already established (obviously), but you can always write coverage on a few scripts, send them as samples to a prod-co, and ask for work :)

treehousedaddy said...

Thanks for the great interview. Really helpful. Reading widely is so important; it's easy to forget that when pressured with deadlines.

Your insights will be somewhere near the front of my mind as I go through the third write of my script. The first was great. The second felt like it lost something. The third feels like it might be getting there.

Matt Shields said...

Thanks treehouse!

I just got around to your comment as I've (obviously) been away from the blog for a bit working on my own writing.

Best of luck with yours!

Anonymous said...

Synthian names some of the best screenplays ever written. Out of all the hundreds of thousands may I dare say millions of screen plays written in the last 30 years Synthian uses these as the gold standard to get by her as the gate keeper? That it must be to this caliber? Look at the crap that hollywood has been churning out! Its a fact that even the bad scripts have a good shot at making it through and the good ones have a better and god bless you if you write a great one.

Matt Shields said...

Hey Edward, Thanks for visiting!

Yes, crap gets made, but nothing wrong with a person demanding high standards is there? I've worked on films I love and films I didn't, and they all get made for a variety of reasons, but if our grasp didn't exceed our reach we'd never find any gold at all :)