February 19, 2014

Jesse’s Letter – What are Script Readers looking for?


When I was assessing feature scripts for BBC Films, I must have read 2000 film scripts. I have to say – there is nothing like reading a lot of bad films to be able to spot a good one. The relief to find yourself in the hands of a genuine story teller with a story to tell is an almost physical act of surrender as you replace your resistance with the desire to be carried wherever the teller chooses to take you.

After reading 2000 scripts one begins to be able to discern a pattern in the scripts that you respond to – or rather a hierarchy of questions you ask of the material in order to decide if you are going to pass it up the line to people with even less time than you to read too.

I thought it might be useful to share the list I ended up with – which although it was only ever my own personal shorthand, I think still serves as a useful checklist for people who are submitting their own work to the editorial gatekeepers at the production companies and distribution platforms across the UK.

Note: unless the answer to all these questions was an emphatic “yes” – I passed.

OK here goes:

1: Did it move me/did I care?
For me the most important question I asked was – “did it move me – and did I care?”

Did it connect with my humanity, did it speak to my experience, was I able to empathise meaningfully with the dilemmas, choices and mistakes of the central characters? For me – it doesn’t matter how clever an idea is, or how tricksy it’s construction – if I didn’t care I passed.

To create a piece of work with the power to move people is an incredibly difficult thing to do – and requires the confluence of many skills of character, plot, structure point and counterpoint – but the answer to this most important question is immediately apparent as soon as you ask it – it either did – or it didn’t.

2: Did it surprise me/was it original?
Script guru Robert McKee advises all his students to reject their first idea – as it is almost always there because you have seen it somewhere before. Like all McKee’s grand pronouncements, I think there is a grain of truth buried beneath the man’s glorious hubris.

The question of what makes a story original is clearly open to a thousand answers – but I suggest it is not in big wacky plots (after all every story has probably been told in some form or another at some point) – but in new ways to surface hidden human truths.

e.g. We’ve all seen drug dealing stories before – but have we ever seen a chemistry teacher cook meth to provide for his family after his death, and have we ever seen that man turn into a monster with the power that choice gives him?

3: Is it well structured/told?
You know that crap movie you don’t want to watch but somehow you’re still there at 2am watching it limp towards its hackneyed climax?

Good Structure.

It is a sad truth that almost every American script I read was better told than most of the British scripts I read. American writers, maybe because movies are their primary culture, see it as their absolute business to master classic, three act structure. Once they have done that – they start to play, to bend and subvert – but just like Picasso knew how to draw an anatomically correct human body before he deconstructed the form – so great writers know how to structure  a story in the classical Platonic mould before they break the rules. Charlie Kauffman – you are the man and Adaptation your gift to the writers of the world!

Oh – and not knowing the rules isn’t the same as breaking them – it’s just ignorance – and it always shows.

4. Is the supporting cast well designed?
I think that the issue of whether or not I cared is intimately linked to the central protagonist – but, obviously, the overall experience of watching a film is clearly deeply affected by the cast design. Sorry, very obvious but…

Often you’ll find badly written films populated by a cast who are kind of all doing the same thing – or merging into one another. You close your eyes and it could be any one of a number of people delivering a line. Bad sign.

I think a well considered script is built with the ambition that each of the supporting cast performs a different role in the story. I don’t just mean in a Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey) archetype way (Herald, Mentor, Threshold Guardian etc), I mean in a more Freudian way too – i.e. how do the cast members unpack different corners of the hero’s psyche?

5. Does it know what it is and does it execute that well?
British commissioners are very snobbish about genre films – as if they are somehow lesser than arthouse or literary films.

Personally I find this sort of snobbism unbearable – especially as I suspect it is a cover for the fact that these people are daunted by the insanely difficult challenge of producing a good genre films – how on earth do you wring originality and truth out of such well worn and cliché ridden pathways?

So I always asked this question – perhaps because I saw so many scripts that were mutant hybrids of three genres – not because the writer was a maverick genius (see above) but because they simply couldn’t be bothered to understand let alone follow the conventions of the genre they were writing in?

Inside this question, of course there are specifics to do with genre – like if this is a comedy – is it funny enough, is the gag rate high enough, are the twists excruciating enough – and so on?

6: does the size of the movie match the size of the audience?
I know – I know – such an uncreative standard to measure anything by – but hey “this is show business, not show friends” right?

Put simply – if you write a big SFX heavy movie with a hundred period locations you better be writing something with very very broad appeal – if you want to write an intense and personal piece then great – but maybe leave the CGi monster for the next project?

I would assemble these answers into a one page readers report – which I learnt is very different from a piece of literary criticism – it is an analysis of a film script’s viability as a blueprint for the production of a functioning product called a feature film. In each of the answers I would always try to talk about how well the film delivered – and how the writer might improve it with a redraft.

This principle – of never pointing out a problem unless you had a constructive suggestion for a way through it – has stayed with me throughout my career and remains the single most powerful guiding principle of them all for me.

I hope some of this helps you to stand outside your work and ask the questions that the people who will be assessing it are asking themselves – and to perhaps be your own reader – or to equip the people around you to help ask/answer the questions for you.

So – next time you give your mum something to read – why not give her a questionnaire to fill in too? Come on –she’s done worse – she used to wipe your bum!

Good luck out there and as Robert McKee says – “write the truth and let heaven fall”.

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