Emptying My Mailbag
About 3 months ago, I opened the floor to questions. I answered many of them, but I just figured I'd knock out the rest... then open the floor to more.
(Answers to previous questions are in April and May postings).
Q: Does it happen often that some exec in the firm totally ignores your coverage and goes in another direction from what you absolutely believe is the best course?
Absolutely. Obviously, mostly in the case of good scripts that don't get made.
But it works the other way too; sometimes bad scripts have continued life. The biggest problem, though, is the lack of communication between exec and reader in many companies I work for.
Often I will get scripts without being given pertinent information, the most common being that it is a script in development at the production company, often a new draft that they just got in, though they don't bother to tell me that. So if I hate it they are still going to develop it, maybe because it has someone attached they want to work with, or because they have already sunk a lot of money into it.
Of course, if they'd told me that up front, I could have focused my notes more creatively.
The most heinous example of this was when I read "View From The Top" for Miramax. I think I was told that Gwyneth Paltrow was attached, but the script was a mess, and I gave it a pass/pass, and trashed it in my comments.
Turns out it was going into production the next day, to beat a possible writer's strike. Why no one told me, I have no idea. I rarely have contact with actual execs; it's assistants who physically hand me (or messenger me, or e-mail me) the work.
Of course, in retrospect I was right about that script. And I worked there many more years, so honesty didn't hurt me any.
I like to think that I write coverage where even if I don't really like it, I still bring across enough information regarding plot and potential that the exec might spark to something and decide to take it forward. Plus they are much more obsessed with commercial potential than I am; I just like good scripts.
Q: How would you rate the quality of the "site favorites" scripts at Triggerstreet.com?
I have no idea. I've cruised the boards over there, but never actually read any of the scripts there.
Still, the whole "site favorites" and grading thing just seems problematic to me. I'd say that the vast number of scripts there need real work, and the point of other people reading it is to give you feedback on how to make it better.
Grades shouldn't be important, unless you've polished the hell out of it from previous notes that you have gotten there. But too many people seem obsessed with bad grades on first drafts, and miss the whole point of the process.
Q: How significant is the size of a script on your first impression of it? I've been told that a reader will reach for your script first if it's shorter, but I've also been told that if a script is not long enough a reader will assume that it is missing something. I ask because I have the unusual condition of writing shorter scripts.
Because I'm a pro reader for multiple companies, I generally have an order in which everything has to be back somewhere, so I generally just grab what is on the top.
I'll usually groan if a script is over 120 pages, though with many genres (like historical dramas) this winds up being necessary. The 158-page romantic comedies, however, already have a strike against them.
It is extremely rare that I get a script under 90 pages. Anything in the 80s just feels real short. Generally, I think the golden page length is between 100-110... but ultimately it's about doing what's right for your script. Don't tighten it down needlessly just because it's 121.
Q: Have you read any great and/or awful adaptations of books lately? Any that were better than the source material (like with the Godfather)?
My problem is that I never get to do any leisure reading, at all. So it's rare that I get an adaptation of something that I actually have read. I read a lot of books for work, but it's rare that I'll then get the script based on it to read.
I did read the short stories that "Million Dollar Baby" was based on, and I didn't really see the movie in it at the time; it all felt very familiar, while the depressing third act twist felt wrong. Haggis and Eastwood made it work somehow.
I read the novel of "Mystic River", and thought the movie had a lot of the same flaws that the book did, though some good writing and acting elevated it.
There's a really good screenplay adaptation of a Stephen King novella called "Dolan's Cadillac" that is floating around, that I read years ago. Sylvester Stallone was attached at one point, though he would have been terrible casting. Hopefully someone will make it with the right actor.
Q: Can a reader truly give a non-biased and accurate review of any screenplay that is just not his "cup of tea", so to speak? If a reader is heavily into Sci-Fi, or action flicks, how can he fairly critique something, such as a family film?
Hey, storytelling is storytelling. If it's an interesting tale, it shouldn't matter that it's not something that I'd likely see in the theater. Plus, I'm just the first gatekeeper; if I'm just being asked to put a consider on the top 30% of family scripts (or period dramas, or gritty urban rap scripts) that I read, I'm probably not going to let a good one slip by.
Many companies will know what their readers like, though, and steer things to them accordingly. But I like to think that I get a broad base of genres. One company that I work for has probably given me 60 teenage girl books over the past year.
Q: Some folks insist that loglines are CRUCIAL. What's your take on it as a reader?
If you are querying an agent, manager or producer, trying to get them to read your script, a great logline can be crucial to sparking their interest. But as a reader, I rarely ever see them, and they don't matter to me at all.
Q: Are the mistakes that you see via your $60 notes much different than the mistakes you see on the agent/studio stuff?
Not really. Both contain a solid percentage of scripts by writers who make a lot of format errors or simply can't write very well, but I've also given notes to a lot of people whose writing is right up there with the stuff I read on a day-to-day basis.
It still all comes down to story. Most of the notes I give are on story.
Q: What have you learned, by reading so many scripts, that you didn't know or wouldn't have ever occurred to you, or have never seen mentioned in a screenwriting book?
I'd say that the biggest thing I've learned is that it's a myth that there are all these amazing, unproduced scripts out there. Everyone is looking for a great idea they can turn into a movie; all you need to do is find it, and execute well enough to show the potential in it.
Q: The book 500 Ways To Beat The Script Reader. Ignore or absorb?
I don't know; I haven't read it. But here's my 1 way to beat the script reader: write an original, entertaining, well-written story. It'll get a consider every time.
Q: Robert McKee's book Story. Essential reading and useful for the creation of a Hollywood script or strictly a tool for non-creative development types that helps them judge creative work?
I haven't read that either, though I did go to one of McKee's weekend seminars back in the early 1990s, before the book came out. It was about 30 hours, and was riveting, and I filled half a notebook with notes, and then never opened it again.
My feeling about the top screenwriting books is that most have a lot of good advice, but that ultimately they push formula much too much. Read the books, get the sense of the rhythm of filmmaking that they are essentially trying to clue you in on (keeping stories moving, turning points, basic three-act structure, character through action), absorb it all into some part of your brain, and then stop obsessing about it and just write.
Q: What are things that make you stay with a script and do things like remember the premise, remember the title, and remember the writer's name?
It's funny the scripts that stay with me, and the ones that don't. I've gone to see movies, and not realized until well into it that I read the script years earlier.
Odd scripts stay with me for one reason or another. One that comes to mind was by Garrison Keillor (of all people) called "Mammoth", about a teen waiting on line all night for concert tickets. It did a lot of things right; I'm not sure why no one has taken a whack at it, since it seems easily castable and doesn't have any real budget issues.
I grew up on teen films, and the good teen scripts I read seem to stick with me. There was a short story I read for Miramax years earlier that I loved and which they bought; they had a good script written from it, but then the project died. No one is making good teen movies any more, unless they are weird and out of the studio system (like Napoleon Dynamite) or snarky (like Mean Girls).
If you slogged through all that, congratulations.
Any more questions? The floor is open again.