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 Andrew Hilton, aka the Screenplay Mechanic.
Andrew Hilton grew up in the U.K. and studied film in England and New York, before working in motion picture development at almost every major studio. Having read more than 7000 scripts, he is one of the most highly-regarded independent screenplay analysts in the film industry.
Andrew’s first produced credit as a screenwriter was the psychological thriller FATAL TRUST. More recently, he rewrote and Co-Produced the indie thriller BRAKE, and served as a Co-Executive Producer on the feature documentary WHY WE RIDE. Andrew also has several feature projects in active development, including the big-budget action picture BULLET RUN. His latest screenplay, the Dickens-inspired action thriller THE GUNS OF CHRISTMAS PAST, is being financed and produced by Voltage Pictures and is expected to go into production early 2015.
1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?
While I’m more of a feature guy, I love that NEWSROOM is back on TV. At least in terms of dialogue, there are very few screenwriters on Aaron Sorkin’s level. He has the ability to craft dialogue exchanges that are as mesmerizing as any action sequence. Some criticize the heightened reality of his rapid-fire, snappy dialogue, arguing that it’s contrived and inauthentic. Personally, I’m going to savor every episode of this final season.
2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?
I attended film school in the UK and New York, then finished my final year of university in Los Angeles so I could start interning at the studios. My first gig was working for a producer at Universal and I spent six months reading scripts for him. I then moved to Warner Bros. and worked in the story department of one of my favorite producers, Joel Silver (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, etc.). After six months there, I landed my first paying job at Paramount, as a Story Editor for Mario Kassar (First Blood, Terminator, etc.). It was there I began teaching others to write coverage and really honed my story skills.
3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?
The ability to recognize good writing can be learned, but recognizing a good movie is a skill far fewer people possess because it’s partly instinctual. Consequently, there are many agents, producers and actors in the industry who struggle to recognize a good script. That’s one of multiple reasons why so many sub-par projects get off the ground. Often, producers and studio execs are throwing stories against the wall (or into theaters) to see what sticks. On the flipside, there are people in the industry – from readers to top producers – who consistently find that diamond in the rough. For example, Scott Rudin has an amazing eye for material.
4. What are the components of a good script?
It really all comes down to two things: Can this story entertain an audience for a couple of hours? Is that audience going to be big enough to turn a profit? It’s that Goldilocks balance of art and business, and reconciling that reality is one of the first goals every new writer should work towards. You could argue that there are good scripts which won’t be profitable at the box office, but who is that script “good” for? It might make a solid writing sample, but a genuinely good script is one that’s well-written and will make some serious coin in the marketplace once it’s produced.
So what specific components in a script will ensure the audience is entertained? An interesting protagonist is essential. We don’t necessarily have to like the hero, but it’s crucial we find them interesting. Ideally, the screenplay will also feature compelling conflict, engrossing dialogue, and a brisk pace which holds our attention. The end game is to ensure the audience leaves the cinema feeling completely satisfied. Nobody likes leaving a restaurant hungry, and nobody enjoys leaving the multiplex feeling as if they just wasted $15 on a crappy film.
5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?
Overwriting the narrative to the point where clarity suffers is very common. Screenwriting is somewhat unique in that one of the best traits a scribe can have is efficiency of language. Don’t use twenty words to describe something when ten will do. Don’t try and impress anyone with your vocabulary or your grasp of metaphors and similes. Just write the most compelling and vivid movie using the fewest words.
6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?
Anything post-apocalyptic is becoming tiresome. Mad Max was released in 1979 and the spec marketplace is still saturated with clones.
Ditto for “man on the run” stories. Whether the hero is in possession of a flash-drive, witnessed a crime, or underwent some kind of experiment, these screenplays always follow the same structure and climax. There’s often a foot chase in a subway and the protagonist almost always ends up sleeping with the love interest in a hotel. I read one or two of these most weeks.
I’m happy to read big expensive sci-fi epics, but 99.99% of the time the author needs to realize they’re writing it for themselves because it’s not going anywhere. If nobody in this town knows you and the story isn’t based on an existing IP, where’s the $200m budget going to come from?
Another common formula is the comedy about the dishonest hero. Often, these are romantic comedies which feature the protagonist misleading or lying to the love interest. The charade has to be maintained throughout Act II, at which point the love interest learns the truth and shuns the hero, leading to a climatic reconciliation (often a race to an airport).
All that said, if you have a unique conceptual twist, or craft one of these stories in a genuinely fresh and commercial way, there are still plenty of potential buyers out there. Clichés often become clichés because they work repeatedly. It’s also worth pointing out that this is where an experienced story analyst can be most useful. Some people rail against spending money on coverage, but I’ve read well over 7000 screenplays so I might be able to tell you how often I’ve seen a specific idea before and can give you suggestions on how to make your work differ from past fare.
7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?
Not “rules” per se, but…
-Know your audience.
-Don’t bore anyone.
-Always remember a complete stranger will eventually have to write a huge check to make your story come to life. They’ll want that money back.
8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?
I used to read approximately 70% of major theatrical releases when they were still at the script stage, either for production companies or foreign distributors. Hence, I’ve done coverage on everything from The Sixth Sense to The Lord Of The Rings. I’ve also helped a couple of scripts get set up or made, most notably Tim Mannion’s Brake. A script I absolutely loved which has languished in development hell for almost 20 years: Icarus by Patrick Sheane Duncan. It tells the story of a fighter pilot who’s about to be put out to pasture, so he steals a fighter jet with the intention of crashing it into the ocean. His lifelong best friend, who married the woman he always loved, takes to the skies to try and talk him down. When I read it at Paramount in the late 90s, Bruce Willis was attached but the project ground to a halt when the director’s latest movie tanked.
9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?
Some are worthwhile, e.g. the Nicholl, but most are akin to entering the lottery. If you’ve written a genuinely brilliant piece of work, it may still go unnoticed because most contest judges are inexperienced and all of them are underpaid. However, there are enough lightning strikes to keep the contest industry alive, and if a writer can afford it I see no harm in rolling the dice. More often than not, it’s akin to a farm program where a small-time manager or agent may discover you. If you’re considering the contest world, target the established ones which have a good reputation.
10. How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?
11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?
I’m going savory on this one. Steak and Ale (with a pint, of course).