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 writer-producer-consultant Laurie Ashbourne.
After seeing Who Framed Roger Rabbit in an old theater in Philly, Laurie knew that she had to be a part of that process. Within 6 months she was in Disney Feature Animation‘s new studio in Florida working on a Roger Rabbit short and The Little Mermaid, and stayed on through the production of Lilo and Stitch. Leaving that cocoon to create and own her work, she quickly segued to live action and documentaries as a writer, producer and script supervisor.
With four features she wrote as work-for-hires in production, a dozen ghost- writing films and pilots in development, an independent animated feature in pre- production, an original story she wrote (10-31) was recently announced on the fast-track to production with acclaimed producers Eli Roth and Roger Birnbaum and a bio-pic she wrote is in early stages with Bohemia Group Originals.
Laurie is also longstanding story analyst for the likes of Amazon Studios Feature Films and Austin Film Festival.
In addition, she oversees several projects in development via her company, LA Story Studio. Her documentary work continues as well, as a producer for iconic director Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films banner where she just co-
produced, SUPPRESSED – the fight to vote (2020), and RACIALLY CHARGED (2021), featuring two-time Oscar winner, Mahershala Ali.
1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?
I recently read a screenplay for a competition that was amazing. It was so well-paced and had such a perfect economy of words, twists and great characters – I wish I could share it with you, but I have no doubt that sooner than later everyone will have a chance to see it on screen.
For watching, the film LITTLE BOY. About 4 years ago the casting director asked my son to read for the part, so I was sent the script. It was such an emotional story that read really well, even though it broke some traditional pet peeves of mine, I completely overlooked them because I was so engrossed in the story. My son ended up sending in a video read because I was on a job in Virginia AND he had just lost his 2 front teeth so we knew the read wouldn’t go over at its best. Regardless, we went to see it (and I have to say the boy they had for the lead did a great job). I immediately could see where they had to change some things but it mostly stayed true to the script. I enjoyed the film and it was completely emotional, but I could definitely see how it read better than it played.
2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?
My first job in the industry was with Walt Disney Feature Animation, and as a department head I was in on a project from development through to final reels. But I didn’t start reading them professionally until I left the company to work in independent film, over ten years ago.
3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?
The tenements of the craft can be taught easily but if a sense of story isn’t there then those ‘guidelines’ become hard and fast rules that can overlook a good story and what it needs to be brought up to industry standards. Learning story is possible, but it’s not for everyone, those that it is for can’t let it go. I’ll use my son as an example again. He will watch a movie until he knows it by heart and then pick apart the structure and characters, all by his own will. He said to me the other day, “When a movie does well, they automatically make a number two, and they do it quickly, and when that doesn’t do well they spend more time working out number three. Number twos always stink.” He’s 10, so I think it’s safe to say that a sense of story is ingrained in his psyche with no teaching other than immersing himself in something he enjoys.
4. What are the components of a good script?
Characters with an emotional want that comes across as genuine – in this case it’s the difference between a homeless person holding up a sign that says “will work for food” and one that holds up a sign that says “hungry, broke please give”. The audience is much more likely to attach themselves to a character who is willing to do what it takes to survive – the character that is willing to work for his food.
Craft contains a lot of things that get a bad name as hard and fast rules, and it’s true that if you are trying to break in you have to look like you are willing to adhere to industry standards, truth is your craft demonstrates mastery of cinematic story SOME formatting issues can be overlooked. So at the top of the mastery of cinematic language is, giving the actors something interesting to do that advances the plot and peels back the layers of their character. This does not mean writing verbose prose; that is not cinematic. Cinematic is thinking like a director in your mind, but conveying that action in words that do not include camera direction.
5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?
-Misuse and abuse of parentheticals and exclamation points
-Typos and poor formatting
-A misunderstanding of scene headings in content and purpose
-A great idea poorly executed, usually in character and pacing
-A poor balance of dialogue and action (which is usually because of way too much dialogue)
6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?
It seems to be cyclical; every year there is more of one than another, so I guess that falls into chasing trends. Right now, there seems to be a lot of smaller character pieces, which is good for independent film, but with specs that are trying to break in (rather than going out and producing the indie on your own), it’s really difficult to get behind a moody character wandering the town or country instead of facing an uncomfortable truth. So it goes back to the homeless analogy – why do I care about this person, and please make it interesting without a having a diary in voiceover.
I admit it’s a bit of a catch-22, it’s also very difficult for an unknown to break in with a tentpole, but there is a happy medium where there are just enough elements to give the audience and producers something worth the investment of time and money.
7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?
-Your material will not resonate with everyone, but if it’s not resonating with anyone, it’s time to analyze those notes you thought were shit.
-Write because you have to get a story out of your system, not because you want to strike it rich or win a contest.
-Let the audience (or reader) get to know your character through the action we see them take on screen, not via a laundry list of their traits.
8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?
Sure. I’ve had the pleasurable honor to move a lot of scripts forward and nothing makes me happier than to see writers I worked with or read be working in the industry. Frankly, most scripts that come to me don’t have a logline, and I craft one for the coverage – most contest scripts don’t come with loglines. Loglines when done well are a craft unto themselves and contests are won on these concepts, but a great logline does not make a great script. This goes back to one of my top three: Most great ideas fall short on execution and again, I really think that comes down to sense of story. I personally write a logline before (during and after) I write a script. Writing it out at the start helps shape your outline. But just as the outline will change as you write, the logline should too, by becoming tighter.
I recently read a logline on LA Screenwriter called The Muffin Men – it was really brilliant. But who knows if the script is?
9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?
Yes, but do your homework. There are more scams than legitimate career changers. It’s worth it to get your script in top-level shape and submit to the top-tier contests (which there are less than 10) the odds are tougher due to the number of submissions but if you seriously want to advance your career, there’s no use in wasting money on the Podunk USA’s screenplay competition.
10. How can people get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?
My company at LA Story Studio, my blog 1st 10 pages, or via Stage 32 – https://www.stage32.com/LAstory.
11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?
I’m not much for desserts, but I like apple if it’s fresh and not overly gooey, or key lime. When I was a kid I was all about Tastykake cherry pie.