Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Love Thy Script Editor

A writer’s job is to communicate a story through a clear and expressive narrative that includes the premise, plot and characters of the writer’s vision. It’s a script editor’s job (and to some extent an audience’s) to respond to the material and to identify the story’s weaknesses.

The writer knows what he’s trying to say (and thinks he has said it), and how he wants the audience to feel at any given moment in the story, but he may not have expressed it clearly enough and the script editor needs to question and encourage the writer to strengthen his narrative so that the work’s full entertainment value can be enjoyed.

This may sound like ‘an ideal world’ scenario (we’ve spoken about script editors before in the post about ’rewriting’) but any script editor with any ounce of sensitivity and creativity will help the writer express his story in a more detailed and improved manner. Those script editors who slash a story (and the writer’s heart) to pieces without any thought for what the writer was trying to say should be demoted to unpaid script reader for as long as they realise that their job is a bit more difficult than reading a script and offering: “it’s not very good is it?”

One of the most valuable lessons I learnt about script editing was when I attended Arista Development’s Story Seminar week in Italy 2004. I went along as a script editor to pick up some skills that would compliment and heighten my script reading analysis. I was confident with what I knew and I was confident with what I would learn.

The week is an intensive training schedule where you attend screenwriting lectures and workshops in the morning (around a very picturesque setting). Those also in attendance are writers and writer/directors who have taken their script along in an effort to understand the development process a bit more and apply some of the week’s learning to the next draft of the script. To this end, Arista team up the script editors with the writers and you get to work.

I was teamed up with a passionate writer/director who was stuck on his feature debut: a very personal and emotive script. Reading his notes before our first meeting, I got excited about the project and the prospect of us working together. He seemed to identify the weaknesses in the script that I had also spotted and, because he was a professional, I thought I could get stuck in to the script editing process in order to make real progress.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. I jumped into our first meeting two feet first and his reaction was stonewall defensive. It was a disaster. I leaped into suggestions and my own personal reaction to the script without first earning his trust or asking the right questions. It was awful.

Because of the intensity of the week, it really was a challenging and emotional experience, and because of my first ill-step on the road to development, I was left in tears every night in my room because of my misplaced effort. Still, I was determined to make matters right. I knew what I had to say was useful and my notes would help him but I had to build that bridge of communication so that he would listen and consider what I had to say.

It was an extremely tough week where I had to dig myself out of the hole of my first meeting. I managed to repair the damage somewhat, and he edged a little closer to what I had to say, but I was crushed from the effort and his reaction (and the fact that he was a patronising prick didn’t help either). But I pushed all that aside and just focused on what I was there to learn and what the week was for. I had paid my money (Skillset graciously helped me with some cash from their freelance bursary) so I wanted to get the most out of the experience.

I learnt far more than I ever imagined I would and it taught me a valuable lesson for feature script editing in that, ideally, you should ASK the writer questions and then OFFER suggestions if his replies are not as convincing as he and you would like. It’s the writer that holds the key to the story. He knows more about the plot and characters that he will ever realise or admit to so a fruitful script editing relationship is about pushing the writer to find those answers and implement them successfully into the script.

Speaking of unpaid script reader jobs, here’s an opportunity that some of you may be interested in (from Shooting People):

“Recently-formed production company, CUS Pictures, is looking for sophisticated, enthusiastic, London-based readers to critically appraise and give targeted feedback on the raft of scripts currently under the company's consideration.

Would suit those with a background in screenwriting or script analysis. Some industry experience helpful but not essential.

Reading would initially be done from home. There is scope to move to a development role in the office, working with writers to improve successive drafts. Opportunities to work in prep and production also exist over the longer term and would depend on the individual.

Immediate start. Unpaid initially.

Pls send CV and include tel no. on your reply. Initial meeting would be in Brick Lane.
Many Thanks,
Andy Coltman
andycoltman@yahoo.co.uk “


Anonymous said...

Hmm its a tricky one the writer/script editor relationship. A bit like getting the 'right' therapist (not that I've ever done that)- so better if he/she is extremely wise (and can spell!) otherwise it can go down hill pretty fast.

Anonymous said...

Very true. When I was 21 and still totally wet-behind-the-ears working for a literary agent, I came across a script that was so awful it needed burying under cement at the bottom of the ocean, but for some reason the agent loved it and insisted I meet with the guy who wrote it. He was a patronising prick as well and about thirty years older than me, so looking back I don't think it would have mattered WHAT I said, but anyway, to cut a long story short, I offered my suggestions before hearing his and it all went downhill from there. He even compiled notes on my notes making some very choice references to my age, my gender, my ability, the works. Ouch. The script got binned after about 6 mths of hawking it around production houses, so I felt justified in the end but bloody hell. Talk about a baptism of fire!!