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 Amanda Nelligan, aka Scriptgal.
Amanda was born and raised in Western Massachusetts. She attended Brown University and received a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry. While at Brown, Amanda became involved with the Brown film society and its weekly comedic film magazine – The Film Bulletin – which cemented her life-long love of movies. After working briefly at a medical research lab, Amanda moved to Los Angeles and embarked on her film career. Her first job was as an assistant to a literary agent. From there, she worked at Disney, then ran development for a number of production companies. Amanda went back to grad school in psychology and worked as a therapist and as a research project manager at UCLA before launching ScriptGal. Amanda enjoys baking, hiking and scuba diving and lives with her husband in Sherman Oaks, CA.
1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?
I can’t pick just one – different movies are great for different reasons. I really enjoyed NIGHTCRAWLER – whip-smart dialogue and a character I’ve never seen before. It also had a resolution that defied convention. EDGE OF TOMORROW is a meticulously plotted, fun, time-bending action film, which is so hard to do right. And WHIPLASH didn’t miss a beat (pardon the pun.) In terms of television, TRANSPARENT was terrific. JUSTIFIED and THE AMERICANS are two incredibly well-written series I never miss.
2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?
I moved to Los Angeles shortly after college. My first industry job was for a boutique literary agent who had an A-list roster, so my introduction to Hollywood was through writers. After that, I worked as a development exec – meaning my job was to find scripts and to work with the writers to develop those projects into viable features and television shows. I worked as a creative executive at Disney, then ran development for two production companies. I didn’t like all the politics/crap in the movie business, so I left and went to grad school and worked in another field for a while. But movies are my passion and I love working with writers, so ScriptGal started as an experiment, in a way, and three plus years later. here I am.
3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?
I think recognizing good writing is a matter of natural instinct, which not everyone has, plus a lot of practice – a.k.a. reading. And reading everything – not just screenplays. Novels, essays, short stories, etc. As a script reader, you need to understand what makes a good story. I think a rule of thumb is that when you forget you’re reading, you know the writing is good – good writing transports you.
4. What are the components of a good script?
A compelling protagonist or anti-hero and a worthy antagonist. We should be able to relate to the protagonist in some way. The antagonist can be a classic villain, a disease, a monster or even the weather. But no matter what the story is, it’s essential that we care what happens. Also, a good script needs to make you feel something. Joy, sadness, fear… Bottom line, the script needs to tell a good story. It can be written in crayon and have a million typos, but if the story is compelling it will shine through.
5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?
Too much description. It’s a real skill to write just enough to give you sense of what the audience will be seeing and hearing on screen. If the color of someone’s dress isn’t essential to the story, don’t include it. Another related mistake is describing things that would be impossible for an audience to know. Stuff like a character’s face shows the pain of the loss of his wife two years earlier. That’s cheating – essential information needs to be revealed the way the audience would discover it on screen. Another mistake is not having enough conflict – which results in the story not being as dramatic as it needs to be.
A lot of people are hung up on so-called screenwriting “rules” — don’t use “we see” or any camera directions, etc. I think a) those rules aren’t true – good produced scripts do use them and b) no one working in the industry today cares about those rules one bit. Or even thinks about them. Bottom line – people want good stories.
6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?
I just read a script where a guy gets fired and comes home early to find his wife cheating on him. I’ve seen that a million times – so to me it signals a lack of imagination. I think a trope is fine if it is the best thing for your story – but you should always try to put some sort of fresh spin on it. Also, audiences love when a trope is turned on its ear – the best example is the fight scene in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK – when instead of getting into the expected hand-to-hand battle, Harrison Ford shoots the bad guy. So when writers find themselves contemplating a trope, they should always ask themselves whether or not they can surprise the audience instead.
7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?
-Writers write. You have to be in this for the long haul. If a script doesn’t work or sell, move on to the next. No successful writer I know parachuted in with the coolest script ever and then sailed on to fame and fortune. The best of the best have a lot of failed scripts in their filing cabinets. Or, these days, in the cloud. This business is a grind.
-Writers rewrite. You need to be able to make changes to your initial drafts and ideas – you need to be able to “kill your darlings,” meaning abandoning things you may love in furtherance of the story. Also, this is a collaborative business – everyone who reads your script will have notes. That doesn’t mean every note will be a good note, but it’s your job to recognize the good ones when they come along and manage the bad ones.
-“Take Fountain.” – Bette Davis. Okay, the real rule is outline. Outline like crazy – especially right after the idea comes to you. A lot of newer writers seem to get bored with their own ideas after awhile and make changes that are destructive. You need to lock in the story that got you excited in the first place and don’t doubt that it will excite readers/viewers as well.
8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?
No. To me “Recommend” means go shoot it, as is, tomorrow. I never say never, but I could probably write notes on every successful movie out there. The rewriting stops after the scene is shot. Actually, that’s not even true. A lot of rewriting happens in the editing room. For people who love the show THE AMERICANS, and even those who don’t, I highly recommend the Slate-produced TV Insider podcast about the show. It’s a conversation between the story editor and various writers on the show, often including the showrunners. They are rewriting until the last second.
9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?
I think a select few are meaningful to industry execs – The Nicholl Fellowship, Austin Film Festival, and UCLA’s Samuel Goldwyn. I think the others may help a writer’s self-esteem, but I’m not sure how many actual doors they open in Hollywood.
10. How can people 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 love ALL pie – much better than cake, in my book – but if I have to pick one it’s strawberry rhubarb. The contrast between sweet and sour – that’s drama.