a pro script reader ponders movies, reading, writing and the occasional personal flashback

Thursday, July 13, 2006

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

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.


At 1:06 PM, Anonymous phillip said...

Very generous of you, Scott.


At 1:49 PM, Blogger Spanish Prisoner said...

On the book 500 Ways To Beat The Script Reader. I have it here and it's a real good one. Unlike the other "how to" books it is more like a big collection of ideas and tips. I read it often when I am stuck somewhere and just go through some chapters and get an "aha" effect of it. I recommend it out of all the dozen screenwriting books the most.

Just as a side note. I don't follow everything in that book like it was the holy bible. Otherwise I would get a too formulaic script. It's more for a reminder for yourself and your writing when you are feeling you are going nowhere.

At 3:01 PM, Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

Thanks for emptying your mailbag and not a colostomy bag...

At 3:07 PM, Blogger Jacky Treehorn said...

Thanks for the Q&A Scott. You mentioned the Mammoth script. Have there been other little oddities that come to mind?


At 4:10 PM, Blogger Chesher Cat said...

"One company that I work for has probably given me 60 teenage girl books over the past year."

What does this company know about you that we don't?


At 4:20 PM, Blogger Abe Burnett said...

Thanks for all the excellent advice!

I disagree about Million Dollar Baby--on the point that the third act hemorrhage "worked." I've had this argument with lots of people and I just don't think it makes jack-shite for sense.

Just because a character comments that they "fought [their] way into life" doesn't mean that it's valid for them to fight their way out. If anything, why fight your way in (essentially saying that life in any form is worth fighting to have) only to decide that you want out when you're in essentially the same position as you were coming in (an infant)--one of relative helplessness. I don't buy that simply because she couldn't literally fight (as in boxing) life was suddenly bereft of meaning; after all, she couldn't fight (as in boxing) when she was born.

In the end, that diminished the movie for me. It felt like she gave up, and worse, wasn't honest with herself that that was what she was doing. She threw in the towel but justified it. Total B.S. Doing so also invalidated all the fighting for life that she'd been doing much of the movie. Sending the story deviating from its theme so drastically really was just an easier way out of the more valid character choice: to fight for life as she'd always fought for it. As a writer though, faced with that conondrum, you think: Wow, so I'm in the 3rd act, but I've just had all my forward momentum obliterated. How do I wrap this puppy up? Do you essentially restart the story by showing her drive to fight for life taking on a new form (redefining meaning and purpose even being paralyzed)? There's not enough time for that though...

Regardless, it was still well made, well acted, and well directed, and worth watching; and this has been my two cents.

At 5:20 AM, Blogger Belzecue said...

Abe -- Maggie's end is crucial to Frank's arc, and IMO changing it would weaken both. Whose story is it really? Answer: the person who suffers most. Maggie's suffering ends; Frankie's does not.

At 9:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fact that you're commenting on it and arguing the ending with friends shows what an excellent ending it was. To me, a good drama should have people talking and debating the ending.

At 1:19 PM, Blogger Twixter Scripter said...

The Q&A's are great posts. Much appreciated.

Always amazed that the answer to every question is, "write a truly great script." The questions change but the answer stays the same.

At 1:27 PM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

People too often seem overconcerned with things like "How Can I Beat the Reader?", or "What You Shouldn't Do In Your Script To Turn Off Someone", when the goal is simple -- write a great script, that someone will want to make into a movie.

Everything you do should be geared entirely toward that, and not sweating over stuff that is only tangentially important.

At 5:44 PM, Blogger Thomas Crymes said...

I think many of us have a need to believe that there is some trick out there, some palpable and measurable thing that says that you are doing it right.

It is so much easier to justify your script as not being "reader friendly" than to own up to the idea that your story isn't as good as you think it is.

At 2:37 AM, Blogger The Gambino Crime Family said...

Uh, a little late but thanks for me also. This is a great site.

At 4:13 AM, Anonymous Lucy said...

What does snarky mean Scott? Sounds like a good thing...or am I wrong?

At 9:44 AM, Blogger Scott the Reader said...

Just for fun, I googled "snarky" (I guess it's the word of the day), and came up with this:

"The meaning of "snarky" varies, depending upon which side of the pond the source is on; while Brits may mean something like "sarcastically critical" or "overly nitpicky" when they use "snarky," most of the American and Canadian uses that I've encountered seem to use the word
in the sense of "snide," "catty," "snotty," or "bitchy."

I was using in a way that sort of meant comically cynical, without being too serious. Maybe I was off a bit.


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