Ask Two Savvy Script Consultants For the Price of One!*

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(L-R) Miranda, Sandra & budgeter/scheduler extraordinaire, Hosam, who is not part of this interview
(L-R) Miranda, Sandra & budgeter/scheduler extraordinaire Hosam, who is not part of this interview

*And considering this doesn’t cost you anything to begin with, that’s the best deal you’ll get today.

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Miranda Sajdak and Sandra Leviton of Script Chix.

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

WINTER’S BONE

BUTCHER HOLLER by Daniel Shea

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

M – Started off as an intern in Hollywood doing the typical script-reading duties. Moved on to being an assistant and continued to do coverage there. Eventually found myself reading for friends and family on the side, and realized (around the same time as Sandra did) that it was a good idea to monetize some of this so as not to just be doing it in my free time. Ended up simultaneously being asked to read for various studios/companies, and turned all that experience around into Script Chix!

S – I believe I read my first script in college, though as a kid, I liked to watch movies and transcribe them. It took hours, but I loved it. The internet wasn’t really a thing yet, so there was no easy access to them. However, professionally, I started reading as an intern doing short coverages for executives during staffing season. My subsequent jobs at an agency and a cable network had me reading all of the time – for potential clients, development, and show staffing. Giving notes to clients, friends, and others who needed feedback was part of my daily life. When I decided to leave my network gig and go out on my own, doing it professionally seemed like a natural transition. As soon as friends at another cable network heard my news, they offered me a spot as one of their book readers. Around the same time, Miranda and I teamed up, and the rest is Script Chix history.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

M – Somewhat. The biggest thing here is to read as much as possible. We see scripts from writers who clearly don’t read screenplays regularly. The more you read, the more you’re able to recognize. Some of it is likely innate – and it should start early, before you get to Hollywood and decide you want to make movies – but, sure, recognizing what works just comes from reading more.

S – Reading is both objective and subjective. When we give notes, we try to focus on the objective. Even if we personally don’t like a character, a plotline, or concept, we can recognize that it written well, and it’s just not our personal taste. So yes, being able to recognize good writing can be taught; some things are obvious like formatting. However, it takes years of learning and practice to be able to both identify what is good and to be able to separate your own opinions/ taste from it.

4. What are the components of a good script?

S & M – There’s a number of things, but most importantly, a compelling story with multi-dimensional characters. Believable moments that still feel fresh. Strong narrative voice. Imagination and marketability. We would also include formatting in this list. It’s not a sexy component, but it is an important one. The story can be amazing, but if the formatting is off, it’s distracting, and most readers won’t be able to pay attention to greatness of the script.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

S & M – The biggest one we see, by far, is lack of formatting and proofreading. Bad character introductions. Lazy concept. Writing from experience, but instead of dramatizing the “true story that really happened” to the writer, it’s a regurgitation. Not understanding the difference between edgy and outright offensive or mean. One-dimensional or non-existent women and minorities. Some of these are not necessarily mistakes, but they’re all definitely problems we encounter often.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

M – Refrigerator women. Lack of women and minorities. One-dimensional women.

S – Stories about Hollywood, writers, and nights out with the boys. Every writer at some point writes a script about being a struggling writer in Hollywood or their lead male protagonist is a sensitive writer that gets their heart broken. Also behind the scenes of reality TV – this is starting to become a thing. People tend to write what they know and unfortunately, all they know is trying to make it in Hollywood. Unfortunately for them, no executive wants to read this and no audience wants to see it. So if a writer must write this story, do it, get it out of your system, and move on to something more original. Draw from life experience – get out there and enjoy the world, feel heartbreak, and get into trouble (but not too much). The “night out/ retail job with the boys picking up women” is also the most common one we see in fledgling comedy writers. It’s another case of writing what you know. These stories don’t work because they are usually re-tellings of actual experiences that are not particularly dramatic or funny to anyone outside of the people who experienced it. Additionally, the humor only comes from insulting women. Just because making fun of a woman was hysterical to you and your boys in the moment doesn’t make it funny or appealing to anyone else.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

M – Write. Read. Revise.

S – Persistence, practice, and patience.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

M – Yes! And it just finished shooting! “A teenage con artist tricks a desperate mother into hiring her as a live-in companion for her autistic daughter.”

S – I agree with M. That script is amazing. Honestly, it’s tough to give a blanket “recommend” because each company and client we work with has their own specific mandates of what they are looking for, so it needs to be tailored to their needs. A script that I loved recently, like goosebump-inducing loved is “With the help of a crotchety old neighbor and his garden, a young woman’s world comes alive.” It sounds a bit generic, but it was beautifully written and full of magic with a hint of surrealism.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

S & M – Absolutely worth it, but not all of them. Do your research. See which contests have a track record of success for the writers who’ve won. Look at what the prizes are. If the only prize is that you won the contest, it’s probably not that worthwhile (unless it’s a big name like Nicholl or Page). And look at things like fellowships, as well. If they want you to pay but aren’t giving you anything WORTHWHILE in return, it’s not worth it.

That said… if you’re starting out and still sending out queries and you haven’t won anything or been published or produced – enter contests. Get some prestige next to your name, even if it is just “winner of miscellaneous contest.” It helps in general, but it mostly helps if the contest is considered reputable.

10. How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

www.scriptchix.com/services or drop us a line at info@scriptchix.com

We also blog about writing, life in Hollywood, and host networking events, so be sure to poke around a little: www.ScriptChix.com.

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

A man after our own hearts!

M – Boston cream

S – Apple or chocolate cream

Getting my fair share of yays and nays

Always the case
Reactions will always be mixed

Details about the low-budget comedy have been kept under wraps because I wanted to develop the story some more before pitching it to my final-say editor. If she liked it, then it’s good to go.

She did. Quite enthusiastically.

So now it’s all about coming up with potential scenes and sequences, then reorganizing them to tell the story in the best and funniest ways possible.

I’ve gone back and forth about how much information to disclose, but realize it would be better to at least offer up some minimal details.

So here it is.

Working title: An Angel Walks Into A Bar…

“After literally dying onstage, a caustic comedian’s only shot at afterlife redemption is to fix three of the many lives he’s ruined.”

This stems from the “What if…?” question of “What if a Don Rickles-like comedian was your guardian angel?”

I like the concept, think it’s pretty original and see lots of potential within the story. I’ve got a primary storyline and three subplots, all of which are inter-connected. It’s a bit of a challenge to put together, but that’s part of the appeal.

Just to test the waters, I posted the logline on a few online forums. Comments ranged from “Sounds fantastic!” to “Who are these three people? Why them?” Some read like they’re ticking items off a Screenwriting 101 checklist (“You don’t have ____, so it’s no good.”)

The one that really threw me was the claim that you could replace “comedian” with another occupation and it would still be the same story. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but I heartily disagree. A proctologist, maybe, but not much else.

It all comes down to either you like the logline and it makes you want to see the movie, or you don’t and it doesn’t.

Honestly, I really need to stop posting on these forums. I’ve got a pretty solid network of trusted writer colleagues with more experience and whose opinions I put more value in than the anonymous members of the internet community.

So it looks like I’ll be keeping busy for the time being with this and the rewrites of the western and the mystery-comedy.

Updates as things develop.

Ask a Book-Writing Script Consultant!

howard casner

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Howard Casner, who has also written an e-book about his experiences – Rantings and Ravings of a Screenplay Reader.

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

Right now, screenwriting and moviemaking in the U.S. are at a crisis point. Very little is being done that is interesting or exciting. Most of it is bland, boring, or even if entertaining, falls short of a real success when it comes to quality. I feel we are treading water, waiting for a group of filmmakers and writers to come rescue us. We are in need of a new wave.

The film with the strongest screenplay this year so far has been BORGMAN, a movie from the Netherlands about someone who is pure evil worming himself into the household of an upper middleclass family. It is what I call a WTF film, strange and imaginative with strong characters and fascinating story.

However, my favorite movie of the year so far is UNDER THE SKIN, a sci-fi movie made in Scotland about an alien who seduces men to a house where they are then killed for fodder for another planet. Both are highly original, something that I feel is often missing from American films.  Right now, the two countries producing the most interesting and exciting movies are South Korea and Romania.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

Before I moved to L.A. in 2001, I was in the theater and read scripts constantly. But once here, I met someone in a coffee shop who let me use him as an intro to the person in charge of the Slamdance Screenplay Competition.

After doing a sample coverage (which worried me because I didn’t like the screenplay, but it had won an award the year before), I was taken on. That year I discovered the first place screenplay, Song of Silence by Miranda Kwok, at the last minute and for a few years after that kept discovering the first place winner.

This then gave me the background to get work, also through connections, at Here! Networks and Final Draft Big Break Screenplay Contest.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

You can be taught to find screenplays that whoever is paying you wants to find. They give you a list of criteria and you can probably get by on that.

Recognizing good writing has some element of instinct to it. You need the ability to create a vision inside your head of whatever is described and hear the voices of the characters, which to some degree, is something you either can do or you can’t.

You also need to have as large a background in seeing movies and reading screenplays as you can. The more you read, the more movies you’ve seen, the easier it is to recognize what is new and original, and you can weed out what is formulaic and has been done many times before. And, of course, you really need to be able to do this and be a fast reader (some people are slower readers than others and that can be a problem).

4. What are the components of a good script?

One problem is that what “good” means can vary from person to person. I see the words “great” and “good” often used to describe screenplays and I’m not quite sure what they mean in the context of the person writing.

If you mean “good” in that commerciality is irrelevant and the screenplay has inherent quality apart from box office and other practical considerations (which is how I use the term), then the most important component nine times out of ten are characters (there are always exceptions). Without strong and vibrant characters, almost nothing else matters. You can have the most original high concept in the world, but with flat and uninteresting characters, I won’t care.

But after that, you need a screenplay that is readable and clear with an interesting plot (though, again, interesting is ambiguous; what is fascinating to one person is a bore to another).

But perhaps even more important, a good screenplay is one written by someone who has a vision, a voice, something to say, who writes from the heart, from a need to get a story out there.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Besides the obvious, which is a screenplay that is horrendously formatted, or is almost unreadable, a story that is hard to follow and understand, with novelistic and literary narrative rather than focused and to the point narrative, and screenplays by people who don’t seem to understand the basic concept as to how to write a screenplay in the first place…

I would first have to say that it would include screenplays written according to formula, to a structure they got from a book or guru, screenplays written by people who have nothing to say and don’t have a real, interior reason to write a screenplay. That’s why the first of my ten commandments for screenwriters is to not read a book, or take a class, or use a guru in writing a screenplay until after you have written two or three first.

Beyond that, it’s screenplays that are concept and plot driven rather than character driven; overcomplicated plots; and screenplays written about a subject matter (like crime and espionage thrillers) where the writer hasn’t done the research.

Some of my pet peeves: characters not going to the police when the opportunity presents itself; cell phones lost, conveniently destroyed or losing power; not using social media when it would resolve a situation in no time; female roles that are underdeveloped, or in which women are humiliated for no reason; using lack of insurance as a plot motivator (by the time the movie gets made, the ACA may make many of these plot turns outdated). I could go on.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

The romcom where a woman just feels her life is incomplete unless she is married, or at least in a serious relationship and that is her main goal; as a corollary to that, women characters who can only be defined by their emotional relationship to men; a group of people, especially teens or young adults, getting stuck in the middle of nowhere attacked by country folk; screenplays that are about being gay, rather than have a central character who just happens to be gay (especially coming out stories).

As a corollary to this, stories that start with grabber scenes (they are a cliché and they almost never really intrigue me), especially if the grabber scene is a dream or someone being chased through some woods.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

-That the quality of the script might not help you in and of itself and the better quality it is, the harder it might be to ever get the screenplay produced.

-As a corollary to the above, it’s who you know, not how well written your screenplay is, that can make the difference (though your screenplay has to have some modicum of skill to it, or just about nothing matters).

-The way movies are getting made (at least in the U.S.) is changing. You may have to do your first screenplay yourself, and if so, do something new, original and with a vision.

I will add one additional rule: learn how to format a screenplay and learn how to write a screenplay that is a smooth and easy read. This last is far more important than new writers ever seem to want to admit. I don’t know why, but they’ll often be open to any other suggestions, but bristle when I mention their formatting and narrative.

That is why my second commandment for writers is that the exception to reading a book on playwriting is that you must read a book on formatting; no exceptions.  Your narrative can always be reduced by 10 to 20% and will not only not hurt the screenplay, but probably benefit it.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

Many. Every year I read quite a few of those. I can’t really comment on any I’ve read for current contests, since the contests are still ongoing, but one that I still don’t understand why it hasn’t ever been made is “The most successful television personality that a Middle Eastern country has ever seen has to flee the country after a revolution; years later, working in a bar in Germany, he is given the chance to reclaim his glory if he will just publically apologize for every negative thing he has ever said about the new regime”.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

It’s not so much whether they are worth it. Based on the way things work in the U.S. right now, and the way the economy is working, they are sort of a necessary evil.

This may sound odd coming from someone who makes a living doing coverage and reading for contests, but if you can bypass contests and readers for companies and agencies completely, and get to the sources themselves, to the immediate people who can make a film and get those persons to read your script, do that.

But getting to the position where you can do that takes a lot of time and in the meanwhile, you need to find ways to get some sort of resume and approval of your writing, and screenplay contests are a place to start.

At the same time, there’s little point in entering a contest unless you have a screenplay that has been honed and worked on and is getting positive responses from others. Otherwise, you’re just throwing money away.

10. How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

For more detailed and full information about myself and my coverage services, go to my blog Rantings and Ravings.

I’m also now offering a new service: so much emphasis has been given lately to the importance of the opening of your screenplay, I now offer coverage for the first twenty pages at the cost of $20.00 USD. For those who don’t want to have full coverage on their screenplay at this time, but want to know how well their script is working with the opening pages, this is perfect for you. I’ll help you not lose the reader on page one.

And of course, my e-book Rantings and Ravings of a Screenplay Reader can be purchased on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00KTM6C42

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

When I was young, my family would make Lemon Chiffon and Chocolate Pie, which were my favorites. I’m not a big fan of hard crust pies. I prefer things like cheesecake.

O comedy gods, we beseech thee

Bonus points if you know the line that came right before this
Bonus points if you know the classic line spoken right before this. If not, shame on you.

Despite a few initial hiccups, the plot of the low-budget comedy is slowly coming together. It ain’t easy, but I’m doing what I can.

First and foremost – making sure the story is solid.

Coming in at a very close second – the way the story takes place has to feel like this is the only way it could happen.

Bringing up the rear, but just as important as the previous two – it has to be funny, which may be the biggest challenge of all.

Comedy is subjective. Tastes vary.

Many’s the time I’ve watched a successful comedy, but didn’t find myself laughing that much. Maybe watching it with an audience in a theatre makes a difference.

My sense of humor might be considered somewhat on the dry side.  To me, jokes conveyed in a subtle, low-key way tend to be funnier – and sometimes have more of an impact. Tell a joke without making it obvious one is being told.

Reading and watching a lot of comedies, it’s becoming more obvious that a lot of writers seem to consider a character making a smartass comment for no apparent reason as funny. I’ll be making a deliberate effort to not do that.

Something else that’s important – making it feel realistic. I absolutely hate when “something wacky” happens that simply wouldn’t in real life.

This is just part of the list. There’s a lot to think about, but I knew this was going to be challenging when the idea first hit me.

The jokes are out there. I just have to find the right ones.

Ask a Mega-franchise-experienced* Script Consultant!

Phil Clarke
*Jedi, Hogwarts, & MI-6, if you need points of reference

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Phil Clarke.

Phil Clarke is a UK-based script consultant and screenwriter with close to twenty years service to cinema. After years working on such features as Sleepy Hollow, Enigma, The Beach and two of the biggest box-office franchises: Star Wars and Harry Potter, he turned to writing – both for the screen and the page. His screenplays have spent time with production companies both in the UK and Hollywood, including a James Bond ‘scriptment’ considered for the twentieth entry in the franchise. As a script consultant for over a decade, his clients have won or placed highly at major script competitions, had their projects optioned, while others have gone on to be produced, the best débuting at Cannes.

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well written?

The last thing of note was on British TV called The Honourable Woman written by the fantastic Hugo Blick and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. Not sure if you’ve had it yet in the States. Well worth checking out – also Blick’s The Shadow Line.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I started reading screenplays as work following my years working on the sets of movies like Sleepy Hollow, Enigma, Star Wars and Harry Potter. For example, on the latter I was Chris Columbus’ on-set personal assistant.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Absolutely. But you do need to be willing to be taught. Many aspiring screenwriters seem too keen to find a shortcut and bypass the learning side.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Tough to answer succinctly in a Q&A like this, but a good script tends to be well structured, have a well-executed and compelling premise along with engaging, relatable protagonists.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Generally speaking, I see too many new writers wanting to rush through the process. Consequently, they submit their work too early when several rewrites would have immeasurably improved the project. More specifically, I see poor grammar and spelling, inadequate formatting, poorly defined characters with unclear goals and a lack of conflict in the scenes and in the story as a whole.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Personally, my heart always sinks when I see a script open with a voice-over narration. It’s often a sign that the entire script will be uninspiring and derivative. While it’s a way to convey a lot in a small amount of time, most writers don’t use it in the right way.
 Dream sequences and flashbacks more often than not annoy because of the way they’re usually handled. Cutting back unnecessarily to explain or overload with exposition certainly grates.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

It’s hard to limit it to just three, but I would say:

1) know your story inside out and the reason for your story

2) above all else, make your story entertaining

3) never stop trying to improve your writing. Continue to hone your craft, and never think you’re the finished article.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

Yes, of course. I would be most disenchanted with my job if I hadn’t. But these stick-on, guaranteed ‘recommend’ reads are rare. As for the loglines, I’m afraid I am unable to give you one.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

It depends on the contest. Some are beneficial, others – not so much. Make sure to research which ones offer you the most for your time and money. If they can guarantee your script will be read by those who can help get your script sold then they’re definitely worth it as that’s what all writers are aiming for.

10. How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

People can find me all over the internet. I’m on Twitter (@philmscribe), Stage32.com and LinkedIn. My website is www.philmscribe.com, or check out my IMDB page at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0164947/. Alternatively, they can reach me directly at: philmscribe@live.co.uk.

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

I also love my pie. Anything from Key Lime to Raspberry Crumble. I’m also partial to a quality Tarte Tatin.