Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Script Developing

One thing I’ve noticed recently about ‘script development’ is the huge difference in reading a screenplay completely cold, i.e. with no prior knowledge to its development, and one that you’ve been working on with a writer or script editor. The ‘completely cold’ assessments are usually done by readers or execs, and their opinion on the work is usually of a damning nature. However, when you’re more familiar and close to a project, everyone (from producer, writer, script editor and other staff) can see the value of the story and how it’s favourably taking shape. Obviously, they have a less critical eye over the script because they’re already attached to it, emotionally and financially, and certainly there’s no amazing insight in saying that a script reads differently ‘cold’ versus ‘knowing its development’.

But it goes deeper than that. There’s an element of ego and ignorance involved. A kind of moral superiority over the work, as if everyone should have known better, or should have identified the script’s obvious flaws much, much sooner. The ‘cold’ read never acknowledges or thinks about the writer’s choices, the ones he took, or was forced to take. You read the script and think: “ppfhht, nothing special, I could do MUCH better than that”. And there’s the key. “I could do MUCH better than that”. You might, but you probably won’t. This is not to say you don’t possess the talent, it’s just that you may go through a similar experience of development and choices (forced by a producer/script editor, or not) and you end up with a script that’s indistinguishable in terms of content & delivery as the one you’ve previously dismissed. Worse, you think it’s head and shoulders above that script - because YOU know how much work has gone into it, and how difficult it all was - but then someone reads your script ‘cold’, and is suitably not impressed.

Basically, I think what I’m getting at is that my days as a script reader are pretty much over. At least, the times when I would read ten scripts a week and give breezy judgement on them, and deem the writers unworthy of further attention. I remembered that I had read the script for The Accidental Husband a few years back so I revisited my report to see what I had said. I was balanced about its overall content but also quite smug and superior that the script didn't have much going for it. And all I could think when re-reading the coverage was: gee, that might appear balanced but it's actually a touch arrogant and completely subjective.

I’ve been script editing a couple of projects lately (a feature and a new TV series) and have been talking to the writers about their inspiration, their process and generally trying to help them with their scripts. And it’s been a real treat. I love writers, and love experiencing both sides of the coin as a script editor and writer. When working with other writers, I enjoy listening to them explain their passion, excitement, ideas and craft. It gives you a whole new appreciation for them and their work. But when you read a script ‘cold’, you don’t have that benefit. That’s fair enough, there’s nothing you can do about that ‘cold read’. However, professional script developers should be able to recognise some sort of craft and merit in the script, and not be so judgemental. Screenwriting is such a difficult and subjective medium, so whatever you think might be ‘rubbish’ could actually make a mint at the box office. Your opinion could be right, it doesn’t matter. What’s more important is understanding the script - its background, its development and where it can go from there. Keep the ‘cold reads’ for private reading, and keep an open mind for everything else.


Anonymous said...

I dunno, Danny, I've read and edited novels professionally (script readers, hah! Lightweights! A couple of hours reading rubbish? I've had to put in *days* of reading and editing the same utter dross ... I've edited over five million words in my time).

Sorry. :-)#

The thing is, to me, a cold read is the whole point. An emotional attachment to the script is a liability. I mean I've had my main WIP read by Lucy three times and I appreciate her feedback, but I always try to get a new (cold) professional view as well.

I do agree with you 100% if someone thinks "oh I could do that" and will, likely as not, end up with an equivalent script.

But personally I want the cold read, and I want my script to work for that person, read cold. After all, the audience will be coming to it cold, won't they?

Lucy V said...

I agree with Danny AND Steve.

A cold read can be invaluable - flaws can be picked out with abandon, etc.

But also an attachment to the work and seeing it through various incarnations can work well too.

Depends what you need at what particular stage you're at, personally. Sometimes I'm a cold read, sometimes I'm like well hot man, innit.

Danny Stack said...

Yep, you'll always get 'cold reads' and some will be beneficial, while a lot will be unhelpful or not read correctly because the project's still in script form, and thus open to discussion and opinion until something is actually filmed. More and more, I'm coming round to the notion that a writer knows best (but certainly take the good advice), and should stick to her guns when he's convinced the work has hit the mark they intended.

Anonymous said...

And that Danny is why I've stopped entering competitions. No disrespect to the RP prize which I know you're involved in but I think in many comps it's just too dispiriting to hope to stand out in a crowd of so many others when the reader knows nothing about you, what you're trying to say or why you've chosen this particular way of saying it.

And I disagree with Steve...audiences very rarely come to a TV show cold in these days of so much choice. They may not have heard of the writers always, but they usually come to something because they like the genre, the lead actors, the subject matter or the advertising campaign. They don't tend to sit there thinking, 'Go on then, show me you're better than me at writing a TV show' which is the nagging thought many script readers have, whether they admit it or not!

Lucy V said...

Anyone who chooses to write is competitive, else they'd never get anything finished and "out there". What's more, script readers will always say, "How the hell did this script get here?" in the same way any person in any job despairs at the judgement of others from time to time. That's just the way it goes.

And what's more, it never stops, even when the piece is done, because audience response has to be factored in. Look at the Diablo Cody backlash and whether Juno was "worth" an Oscar or the furore over the ending of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.

In an industry where everyone considers themselves an expert just for having an opinion (not having a go there anyone, I include myself in this!), then it's no surprise what one person thinks may not marry up with another's.

Personally I think the format of certyain "cold read" script reports is more to blame in antagonising writers, since many do not allow readers to offer opinions and make them write assertions instead about certain aspects or even the quality of the work. I don't see how that helps anyone.

Anonymous said...

Danny - I feel your pain on the reading front, but I wonder how much the situation would improve if a) a reader's reports were valued and - most crucially - b) you were paid properly for writing the reports.

When I gave up reading, I felt similarly miserable and angry about it all as you, but my greatest anger I suppose was directed at myself. Why was I busting a gut for piss all money to give reports to people who felt that even reading the report was a chore?

Imagine a world, then, where your (well-paid-for) reports were published in the Culture section of the Sunday Times each week... and you'd probably find you could carry on. I certainly would. So: the killer for report writing I always felt was self-esteem rather than the quality of the work I was having to trudge through (WHICH WAS OFTEN SHIT, don't get me wrong). But great post - as ever. x Robert

Oli said...

"the furore over the ending of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN."

The version you saw had an ending? Mine must have been missing a reel or two...

Danny Stack said...

Ah yes, competition reading is a little bit different but still boils down to the same thing I suppose. That's why the RP was so difficult, so I certainly understand the 'pass' mindset, especially with such volume. And the pay & recognition stinks, most def. Being a reader is just a small and anonymous part of the process but a good place to build your career if you're serious about script developing.