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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Script Coverage Way Back Machine

Looking through some of the coverage I’ve done over the years I’ve picked out some doozies to share. This should give you an idea of what to expect. Script readers can come from anywhere. They range from studio readers who are unionized and VERY well compensated to unpaid interns. It’s a wide variety of people and we’re often given a wide variety of scripts to read. Here’s a sampling of coverages past. As in Dragnet, names have been changed to protect the innocent. I’m sharing these so you’ll have a better idea what the process is like. Once again these are from years back and NOT any recent scripts I have read.

THE BAD

When you’re doing coverage for a production company you don’t mind a bad script. In fact you’re kind of relishing it. That’s because your coverage isn’t going to the reader so you can really cut loose. Here’s my comment section for a vampire story I read.

This is THE worst script I’ve read for XXX. The writer has no clue what he’s doing at all. Everything right down to the formatting is wrong. The entire script is one 125 page long first act. It’s not a stand alone story….. The story starts off not bad, just cliched, introducing the archeological dig and DRACULA in prison. But DRACULA talks exactly like Yoda. Even Yoda can’t talk like Yoda anymore without it sounding stupid. The scene shifts to CROCKET and TUBBS and it quickly goes downhill. Even though they’re on stakeout they go into a dialogue scene that lasts 6 2/8 pages, during which everything is spelled out about their characters; the fact that they’re foster brothers, that TUBBS has no faith left in human kind, yadda yadda.…. CALDERONE’S present turns out to be some kind of spell book called the Kobe. Yeah as in Lakers’ forward. Forgetting the name for a moment, even though this book appears to be important it’s about to completely disappear along with CALDERONE until page 100! The gun battle that follows is drawn out and mostly meaningless. The story hasn’t really begun. This has nothing to do with DRACULA, why bother? Afterwards the boys are finally put on DRACULA’S trail. They start looking over the shattered prison and reviewing his case file on page 58! Something they should have done by page 10! By page 70 they’re just beginning to follow his trail of corpses. Finally after a needlessly expensive chase they finally meet DRACULA and learn he’s more than human at page 87! It’s taken the writer the length of a regular movie to get to what could be considered the first act break. From then on it’s a lot of talk until the big fight at the end which isn’t really the end. The writer apparently doesn’t know that even though its part of a trilogy, each film has to be its own, COMPLETE story.
Ah classic. This was an easy case of the writer not thinking much beyond his concept. But that’s really a softball. When a writer forgets every part of the story it’s easy. It’s harder when the writer has some talent and experience. Here’s one, a thriller, that actually showed some promise.

Not a bad mystery. Just not anything great. A real problem is that we never get to know JACK or JILL. I have no idea what JACK is normally like or JILL. They're nothing but victims from the word go. I guess this is supposed to make them sympathetic, but the results are more pathetic than sympathetic. The whole screenplay feels a little light. Like there's not as much material as 116, it's just formatted wrong…The mystery itself and the detective work were merely serviceable. Nothing outstanding was added to the genre. So in short, bland characters, bland storyline, no reason to go any further.

A little harsh maybe, the writer did have some good points, but he failed in the Holy Trinity of script coverage, Character, Plot, and Concept. At least ONE has to be better than good before a reader would even consider giving it a CONSIDER. Of the three character is probably the one I most notice when I’m reading. Take this PASS on a thriller that actually won an award.

I nearly gnawed off my own leg to get through this one. Just awful. The entire story consists of three very annoying people constantly yammering at each other. Every little detail is hashed out and ridiculed over and over again. Nothing much happens until the final chase at page 100. Who’s going to stick around that long?

Bottom line, I’m taking several hours out of my life to read this script. I want to spend it with characters I at least find interesting.

THE NOT BAD

In my younger days I was actually quite forgiving. I handed out a lot of CONSIDERS back then. Surprisingly I still became the favored reader at this company. CONSIDERS are really and usually handed out to high concept stories. In those days I was more interested in writer quality. Here’s a comedy that feature Elvis Presley.

A lot of style and a lot of humor in the opening. This is a wild ride through 1950's Memphis at first. Unfortunately it gets a little predictable with the crazy scheme in the middle. Then after BORIS, whose a great villain, gets killed the script almost completely stops dead in its tracks. Oh there’s plenty to be resolved, but without BORIS menacing presence there’s just no urgency. Towards the end this felt a little bit like an I Love Lucy skit…Basically the last 30 pages have to be completely redone. But this is a quirky ride and might be worth the trip.

Sometimes style can get you points. But the secret with that story was the writer created great characters, he just let the engine of his story die 30 pages too soon. Then there was this, a Rom-Com set in an Evangelical Church.

Not that bad really. ROMEO and JULIET are nice characters that you can root for. On top of that the writer manages to have some pretty good pratfalls and gross out humor. There's a scene with LUCY hiding in a trash can that would do the Faralley Brothers proud…The plot pretty much follows Rom-Com 101, with the meet cute, the build up, leading to the Misunderstanding and reconcile. I do like the church forum idea used in the resolution. That feels new. The only thing is it could use more. More jokes, more pratfalls, maybe a little more tension. Things are a little too easy for ROMEO and JULIET. She's already quit the strip club…The author's on the right track. Just needs a little more oomph and it's a nice piece of niche market comedy that has good cross over potential.

I use that word a lot in my CONSIDERS “oomph.” There’s no better word to describe it. A story exists to give you certain things, scares in a thriller, laughs in a comedy, thrills in an adventure. And how big are those laughs, scares, thrills. You want somebody to pay you a million dollars for your script you’d better be providing more than a few chuckles. Now these things are at least a little bit subjective, especially jokes which often depend on delivery. But that’s why they say death is easy compared to comedy.

Then there’s the ending. A good beginning will get a reader’s attention but a poor ending can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Talk about your blown endings. Up until the last five pages this writer had me. It wasn’t formatted correctly but that was okay. A few typos but that was okay. I thought the writer should all caps the sounds that POE was obsessing about. But it was a really great thriller, almost Foreign in its approach. You really couldn’t tell if POE was on to something or if he was going crazy. But then the ending. Nothings happens! POE’s obsessed, MARY SHELLY’s scared, and BLOCH’s looking at life in prison. Not to mention there’s a stuffed dead girl in the bedroom. Something is going to happen! That they’d all just forget about everything and move on is by far more ludicrous than even the most lame action scene. With a different ending I’d recommend this script without reservations. But I have a suspicion the writer won’t give another ending for “artistic” reasons.

THE GOOD

I think only gave two real full throated RECOMMENDs to screenplays during this time period. At the time I pegged both as small indie films which I realize now was a mistake. Even small production companies want to think big. I don’t think I was budget conscious and it wouldn’t have made a difference since the biggest budget projects I read were also the worst. Maybe it’s just because the qualities that make a script shine really have nothing to do with money and the screenplays would be great if you made them for ten cents.

The first was a drama/comedy centering around a teenage boy.

This is damn good. This writer knows drama. There is a large cast of characters each one exceptional. It's full of great scenes. It starts a little slow and little confusing because there are so many characters and it's a little difficult to get all the relationships squared away. But once you do, it's a great story. Funny, genuinely touching and ultimately very powerful. You don't really blame JOE for wanting to believe SAM which is the key to this whole story. So when it all comes apart you were expecting it, all you can feel is pity for these two characters who just can't deal with the world. The ending needs to be a little bigger. Needs to end with them kissing or embracing like at the end of Garden State. This has the potential to be a real indie gem. It's got a quirky cast of characters to rival the American Pie movies and emotional impact of a Sideways or a Garden State. A real find.

The second was a little stranger involving a mysterious item.

Sort of like Shamaylan only instead of a stupid, tacked on "twist" ending, we have an emotional, unbearably tense finale with hardly any "action" in the traditional sense. FRANK goes to sleep. MARY tries to wake him. He doesn't wake up immediately. We fear the worst. Then he finally pops awake. The story starts slow but the writer does a great job fleshing out each member of the MARY'S family and their friends. You really feel like you know them when the craziness starts. There are some problems. We never learn how MARY went from "modern day saint" to back to normal. MRS. SMITH is such an important character but we never meet her until the final act. This is not a typical story. But it works so incredibly well. This would be a tremendous indie, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Sixth Sense.

Good characters and good story. When everything’s working you get the recommend even if there are a few quibbles.

Monday, May 10, 2010

What to Worry About

DO: Worry about the story. Is it entertaining? That’s the big question. Never ever give them a reason to put your screenplay down because you never know when they’ll pick it up again. If everything else goes wrong, a great story can still save your ass.

DO:
Worry about the logline/pitch. Having an entertaining story is great. Having an entertaining story that you can easily sell, that’s gold. The next big hurdle after learning how to write well is learning how to write something that other people will actually pay money for. And it’s not about collecting a bunch of adjectives or using active voice. It’s about those few sentences that paint a visual, dramatic picture that is unlike anything else out there. I wish it were true that any well written story were automatically sellable but it isn’t. Quite often these scripts are exceptionally well done versions of movies we’ve already seen countless times or things so far off the grid there’s no point of reference.

DO:
Worry about the characters. Usually a compelling story and a great logline means you have great characters, but it isn’t always so. Characters are the doorway into your script. People follow characters, they sympathize even love them. And they are a real benchmark for a writer’s talent. Do you produce flesh and blood three dimensional characters or fall back on well worn archetypes and clich├ęs?

DO: Worry about the dialogue. Great dialogue writers are the ones who get all the ink and all the attention. They’re the ones who get the nominations, who the A List actors want to work with. They’re the ones who get called in when a tentpole script “just isn’t working.” Your dialogue should sound like real life only better. It should be what people wished they said. It’s never “realistic” but it could be performed realistically. It’s not an easy skill to acquire which is why it’s so sought after.

DO: Worry about the basic formatting of the script. Right format, right font size, right spacing and margins, right use of headings, tags and slug lines. It’s so easy now with all the screenwriting software that does all this for you. You don’t want to look like an amateur. This is probably the last thing you should be really concerned about but it’s the first thing readers notice and it will mark you at the beginning as either someone to take seriously or not.

DON’T: Worry about the advanced bells and whistles in Final Draft or the other programs. Most of those are for pre-production. Case in point scene numbers. There shouldn’t be any scene numbers on a spec script. Scene numbers are for the unit production manager when he’s preparing a budget and schedule. If you’re not in pre-production there shouldn’t be any numbers.

DON’T:
Worry about every little head tilt or intake of breath your characters make. That’s for the actor to decide with the director. Some writers have a nasty habit of directing their character down to the millimeter. This not only wastes space but it also is used as a cover for dialogue or scenes that may be a little flat. If you’ve done your job then all the drama should be in the scene with you having to circle and underline everything. The actors should be able to get the spine of the scene and build accordingly.

DON’T:
Do the director’s job either. Unless you’re going to direct yourself stay out of the director’s chair. Let the DP do his thing. Ditto the editor and all the others. Maybe the director thinks it’s better to open with an in depth staging shot rather than a quick cutting montage. Maybe a long tracking shot is required instead of a Dutch Angle. Again this wastes space in a script and often covers up dull or uninteresting writing. Give them the important elements in a scene, the mood and the feeling, give them the components of a montage but leave how they are conveyed to the people doing the shooting.

MAYBE: Worry about the budget. This is dependent on the kind of screenplay you’re writing because with certain genres part of the appeal is the low production costs like Rom Coms and horror. So if you’re writing a Rom Com it’s probably a bad move to dump the characters on a crowded ocean liner then have it sink. Action movies, science fiction and historicals command the higher budgets. You should feel free to go wild there.

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