Q & A with Christopher Lockhart of WME

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Christopher Lockhart is the Story Editor at WME, the world’s largest talent agency. He has produced several feature films and is an adjunct professor in screenwriting. He earned his MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is a member of the WGA, PGA, and the Television Academy. He moderates a screenwriting group on Facebook called “The Inside Pitch.”

What’s the last thing you read/watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?

Because I deal with writers and filmmakers, I tend not to answer these kinds of questions. I’d never want anyone to think I have favorites. I’ll say that I’m lucky because I get to read the very best screenplays circulating town. In my personal life, I tend not to share my opinions on these kinds of things. For instance, I rarely recommend a movie to anyone – even if I loved it. I guess because my work day involves having to share my opinion with others (or force it upon them), I’d prefer to keep my opinion to myself when I’m off the clock.

How’d you get your start?

I wrote and taught for a decade until an opportunity arose to interview at talent agency ICM as the story consultant to Ed Limato, one of the industry’s most powerful agents. He ran his own fiefdom within the agency and needed someone to comb through the vast amount of material for his client list, which, at that time, included the likes of Mel Gibson, Richard Gere, Steve Martin, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Denzel Washington. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but met with him for the hell of it. It was a short interview and afterward I found myself being escorted into a tiny office piled high with screenplays to read. I was hired on the spot and didn’t seem to have any say in whether or not I wanted the job. I had no interest in the agency business but figured I’d give it a chance until the end of the week, and if I hated it, I’d quit. I was asked to read a particular script for Mel Gibson, who was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. On my second day, I was called into the boss’s office to discuss my thoughts. And Mel Gibson was there. We spoke about the script, and it was exhilarating. This is a business where there’s lots of talk and wheelspinning, but these people weren’t talkers, they really made movies, and I could have a small voice in that process. It was pretty cool. There’s been all sorts of ups, downs, and changes since then, but I’m now in my 21st year in the agency business.

Your official title is Story Editor. What does that job entail and what are your responsibilities?

In some ways, I do what a dramaturg in a theater does.  I’m sort of a matchmaker – looking to match projects with a handful of A-list actors. I read a lot, do research, share my opinion and recommendations, give story notes. I work with writers and directors to develop and focus their material. I work in post with filmmakers (like in the editing room) to help them crystalize their story. My whole world is story, and I do anything and everything I can to serve writers, actors, and filmmakers in reaching their creative story goals.

Follow-up – what does the Story Department at an agency handle?

A Story Department is the screenplay hub in an agency, studio, production company.  Generally, it oversees the “coverage” of material (judging the creative value of the work) through a cadre of story analysts. It also looks to bring material into the company.

When you’re reading a script, what about it indicates to you “this writer really gets it”?

The way conflict is utilized. The way it’s used in the concept, the characters, the plotting. For example, in screenplays creating complex characters doesn’t mean layers of backstory and psychology. It means how conflict is used to create the complexities. When a writer is adept at using conflict, I know she gets it.

Is recognizing good writing something you believe can be taught or learned?

I don’t look for good writing. I look for good movies. And there’s a difference. I read lots of scripts that are well written but will never be movies (for a variety of reasons), and they serve no purpose for me. Good writing can win you attention, get you representation, lead to writing assignments, and so on. But that’s not the business I’m in. I’m looking for movies for movie stars. In Hollywood, good writing is subjective, of course, so each person defines it in whatever way suits her needs. While there’s some subjectivity in what I do, I’m also dealing in facts. For example, maybe an actor doesn’t want to play a particular kind of role. That eliminates certain scripts, regardless of their quality. I think the recognition skills you ask about are both taught and learned. When I started reading scripts I was armed with what I was taught in film school. But in the 30 years since, I’ve read over 60,000 screenplays, and I’ve absorbed a lot of knowledge about what works, what doesn’t work, and – most importantly – why. My head is a filing cabinet of stories and story elements, which gives me a large dramaturgical perspective. That stuff I learned.

What do you consider the components of a good solid script?

I take a holistic approach to judging material.  I have to read and swallow the whole script. Scripts can often work in spite of themselves.  The one component I see missing from most scripts – especially scripts from new writers – is the story purpose. This is that singular goal your hero pursues through the story. More often than not, there is no goal. If there is a goal, it’s vague or not substantial enough to sustain 120 pages (or our interest). Another component is conflict (drama). A strong story purpose should create strong conflict. Many stories do not seem to be conceived in conflict. They’re born from themes, ideas, ideals that lack conflict; they  are not dramatized.

What are some very important rules every writer should know?

I guess my previous answer covers this question. I don’t believe in rules, per se. Rules only apply to bad writing. If you’ve written a great script, no one will quote you the rules.

Are there any trends, themes, or story ideas you feel are overused? “Not this again.”

Because I’ve read so much, nothing is new to me. I have seen it all. Georges Polti gave us The 36 Dramatic Situations, which he claimed covered all possible stories. Others theorists have reduced them to 12 or even 3. In theory, everything has been used and will be used again. Ideas are only overused in the hands of inexperienced writers. Great writers with unique voices will take the old and dress it up in a new, refreshing way.

Follow-up – are they are any cliches or tropes you’re just tired of seeing?

I try not to judge those kinds of things until I see how they’re utilized.

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

I’m not much of a pie eater.  I only ever ate apple pie – baked by my great-grandmother. When I moved to Los Angeles, she would write me once a month and enclose a five-dollar bill to buy a frozen apple pie to remember her. I was low on funds in those days, and that money would often find its way to buy other things like a few gallons of gas. She’s been gone 25 years, but on the rare occasions I eat apple pie, I remember her.

apple pie

What you want VS what the story needs

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Sometimes it takes a little more evaluation

Over the course of several drafts, the core elements of my scripts remain more or less the same. There might be a few changes here and there, but to me, the end result is pretty darn close to what I originally intended.

As part of the development of those drafts, I get notes from trusted colleagues and professional analysts. Everybody has their opinions, of which there were many, and I can pick and choose which ones to use.

I was still presenting my stories the way I wanted to tell them, but is that the way they should be told? Was I falling into the trap of “I’m the writer, so what I say goes! End of discussion!”?

I recently got notes on one of my scripts that offered up some keen insight regarding the antagonist’s storyline. This included the reader’s frustration about what they perceived as a lack of knowing the character’s goal and the reasoning behind it.

At first, that was pretty surprising to hear. But as is usually the case, I took a step back and looked at the big picture, trying to be as objective as possible. Was it really not as apparent as I thought?

And as is also usually the case, their comments were spot-on. I had never made any big changes to how that storyline was written because I saw it as being “just fine the way it is”, which also happened to be the way I wanted it to be.

Which was counterproductive to how the story needed it to be. It wasn’t working within the context of the story itself.

Was it my writer’s ego that prevented me from seeing this through all the previous drafts? Maybe a little. I’ve seen this kind of thing before in other scripts, but just couldn’t see it within my own material.

I knew the script wasn’t perfect, but there’d always been this nagging thought in the back of my mind that it still needed work. Something had to be changed, but I couldn’t identify what. This could also explain why I always felt compelled to keep working on it.

But with those notes, I now had a much firmer grasp of what the reader was talking about, and could begin to rectify the situation.

It took a little time to work through it, including some significant edits and rewrites. It  also entailed cutting some scenes that absolutely broke my heart to see them go, but were totally necessary. All part of the process.

I know I’ve said all of this before, but looking through the latest draft, the script really does seem different now – in a better and much stronger sense. The characters, especially the protagonist and antagonist, feel more developed. The story reads as more concrete. I’m very happy with how it turned out.

Once I was able to put what I wanted aside and focus on what was best for the story, it all came together a lot better than I expected. My hope is that this kind of self-analysis will be a bit easier for me to figure out for future drafts of other scripts.

Can’t wait to give it a try.

I see what you did there, Mr. Kasdan

Marion Ravenwood
A handful of lines + a solid right hook = insight into 2 key characters

Of all the notes I’ve received about my western, the ones that really stood out the most were about developing the characters a little more – especially the titular protagonist.

I’ve also been spending some time reading, watching and analyzing the scripts and films that influenced it. Namely, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (along with its sequels) and a few others involving female leads who kick ass.

It’s a great opportunity to explore what makes a character tick. A lot’s been written about the “exposition without being blatantly expository” scene in RAIDERS with Indy and the government men, but I’ve been paying more attention to other scenes; the ones that offer up a bit more about what kind of person Dr Jones is as seen through his interactions with other characters.

-Indy discussing with Marcus the implications of finding the Ark.

-The reunion with Marion (see photo above)

-The encounter with Belloq in the cafe in Cairo.

All of these (and a few more) present an aspect of Indy’s character WHILE ALSO advancing the plot. It takes a lot of effort to do that and do it well.

I’ve also been working my way through the infamous story conference transcript, where Spielberg, Lucas, and Kasdan work out the story based on Lucas’ idea of a “swashbuckling archaeologist”. While you can easily find the memo itself, check out this phenomenal post that also analyzes some key points of what’s being discussed.

A lot of this is what I’ve been focusing on during this rewrite. More than a few of my notes highlight certain scenes and say something like “This would be a great place to show us more about her.” So that’s part of what I’ve been trying to do.

I originally thought it would be really tough to implement those kinds of changes, but using RAIDERS et al as guidelines and knowing my objectives for each scene, it actually hasn’t been as challenging. Sometimes all it requires is a few extra lines of dialogue or a modified action line. It’s not always easy, but it definitely feels a little less daunting. Also helping – working on one scene at a time.

In the meantime, progress on the rewrite/polish continues at a healthy pace and I really like how this new draft is shaping up. I suspect the end result will be a little more than just slightly different from previous ones, and hopefully the changes will really take the script to the next level.

A change for the better

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A struggle now, but worth it in the end

Ah, the sensation of liberation that comes from not holding back AT ALL when you really throw yourself into a rewrite.

That’s kind of how it’s been working out for the latest draft of my western.

What was originally anticipated as a nerve-wracking ordeal involving constantly second-guessing my choices has actually become quite a fun, thrilling, and surprisingly eduational experience.

Part of the initial objective was to flesh out the characters some more while keeping the story intact. The former seemed to pose the biggest challenge. Tough, but not impossible.

I figured the best approach was to take it scene by scene, starting with page one and the mindset of “what can change about these characters?”

I couldn’t say if it was having not looked at the script for several months, or just going into this with a “just have at it” attitude, but there was definitely something different about this time. Both for me and the story.

The words came, and I really like how it’s coming along so far. There are the expected slight modifications to the story, but nothing too drastic, and overall it feels a little more developed.

In the meantime, the “one scene at a time” approach seems to be working out just fine. I thought the script was pretty decent before, but now think there might actually be a chance the end result could be even better.

Change is inevitable. Embrace it.

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All that red is a really good thing

A few more sets of script notes have come in. Comments in general are favorable (Thanks, everybody!), along with lots of suggestions about potential fixes. Nothing too drastic, but just enough to slightly alter things and still achieve the same results. Nevertheless, it’ll require a fair amount of rewriting.

Which is totally fine by me.

As much as I like what I’ve written, as do a lot of my readers, both sides know it can always be improved – especially my side. As the writer, it’s not as easy for me to recognize what those improvements could be and where they should go, which is why I ask for feedback. The readers start with only what’s on the page and use their knowledge and experience to deduce what works and what doesn’t, and then pass it all back to me for analysis and selective implementation.

A less experienced writer might be hesitant or even reluctant to do anything drastic that could change anything about their script.

Me, not so much. I know what the story is, and if somebody points out something that doesn’t work or suggests a different way to present it, I’m not going to say no. In fact, I’d probably be grateful for it. I might not always agree with what somebody says or suggests, but I still appreciate it and can totally see why they said it. Sometimes it might even inspire a totally new approach. Whatever works.

Used to be I would dread having to rewrite, but due to an effort of trying to write on as regular a basis as I can, which also involves rewriting, I’ve gotten to the point where I now actually look forward to it. (Helpful tip – the more you write, the easier it gets – albeit to a certain degree. Overall, it’s still tough.)

Will later drafts of my scripts be exactly the same as the first? Of course not. That’s the whole point of rewriting: to make it better than it was before. And that requires making whatever changes are necessary.

I recently got to sit in on a friend’s script review group where a new writer received some pretty brutal notes about their script (which I believe was also the first draft). If they wanted it to be better, they had a lot of work to do. They had this somewhat annoyed look and said “Guess that means I’ll have to rewrite most of the script.”

Well, yeah. This is no “one-and-done” kind of operation.

If you think the first or second draft of your script is perfect as is and doesn’t need any more work, then good for you, but I sincerely hope you never, ever show it to a writer with more experience because you will be severely disappointed with what they have to say.

As for me, I’ll be keeping busy with the usual hacking, slashing, and overall rehashing of my scripts. And enjoying every second of it.

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