“95% of scripts are overwritten.” Robert Flaxman on Screenwriting
It’s a situation all too familiar – the hard work of writing the script is done, now for the tricky task of getting it read.
Friends and family are too nice. Agents too busy. And producers don’t know what they want until after someone else gets it. (“How about a talking car?” “Can you make the killer more likable?”)
As one veteran manager put it recently, “First-time writers should truly consider paying to have their scripts read.”
He wasn’t being cynical. We pay for doctors and mechanics – why not professional script analysts? For first-timers and old pros alike, getting that first read may be worth shelling out a few bucks.
One of the leading script consultants in Los Angeles, Robert Flaxman, whose Deep Feedback consulting service has been relied upon by writers for more than 17 years.
What is your approach to analyzing a screenplay?
It’s what I would call a common sense approach. I play the part of an audience watching a film, and I try to play the part of a reader, a hundred fictitious readers. I say to myself as I’m reading a script – “How could any reader with a modicum of intelligence misinterpret what you intended?” And I find out what you intended as we go through your script, stopping at those places which might be confusing to a reader.
Is your background in writing or filmmaking?
My background is in filmmaking. The last thing I ever intended to do was be a screenplay consultant. After I graduated (from the University of Michigan) I worked professionally as a film editor and started making my own short subjects which played at festivals. One day someone very innocently came to me and asked if I would look at a script. After I’d studied it I spent about three or four hours doing deep feedback – before I knew what deep feedback was. A month afterward someone else came to me, and then someone else. And I was doing this for nothing.
Something tells me it’s not for nothing now. So how does it work?
If someone hasn’t worked with me before, I suggest they do the demo. First I have a phone conversation with a client, before they send anything. They need to give me a call. I like to see what kind of experience they have in terms of screenwriting. I want to find out the genre, what film or films are similar to their scripts.
They send me the first 15 pages of their script – because that’s what hits the studio reader – and I go over it with the same fine-toothed comb that I use for an entire script, and I take up to an hour and a half, which is more than what most people do with an entire script, which is what I understand anyway.
If the writer wishes to continue I then apply the cost of the demo to the rest of the process, which means they get the demo for nothing.
So the entire analysis takes place over the phone then?
It’s impossible for me to do anything like sending out notes to anybody. The writer is included from the beginning, whether I’m asking a question about anything, whether I’m making a point about anything.
What I try to do, as we’re moving along in the script is see how characters develop, how they interact with new characters. Are there too many characters? Is there any part of it that’s confusing? How is it visually portrayed? The writer is supposed to create a visual: the reader’s mental screen, as to what they’re seeing. So what I’m asking myself is, how is that visual being created? Is it confusing, is it clear?
Clients who have never gone through the process are astounded that four hours have passed. When it’s perfect it takes eight to 10 hours or more. And we have a good time! Hopefully like we’re having right now.
Does your input reflect any interactions you’ve had with readers or the studio system? What is your experience in that area?
One thing I do not do is judge commerciality. People who read, number one, are reading for a production company or studio, they’re looking for something they can toss up the line in the chain of command.
But they’re also looking for something they can read and enjoy.
Can your clients send you subsequent drafts?
That’s called a Deep Feedback 2 – it’s their choice, it’s at a discount, because we’ve created a relationship. The most I’ll do is a Deep Feedback 3 – after that, I feel I’ve lost my objectivity.
What is your criteria for turning clients down?
If it’s 160 pages then I probably won’t look at it, because that means they haven’t trimmed it down enough, and they have to understand that they haven’t trimmed it down enough. They have to know that they’re probably quite a few drafts away from a finished product.
Strangely enough I’ve had some very highly educated people I’ve had to turn down because of the demo. Some of them even professors of English. I don’t like doing it.
Thanks to the rise of e-books it seems more writers are self-publishing their work in order to get it read. Do you work with novelists?
One of the things I do is convert novelists into screenwriters.
Is writing a novel good practice for a screenwriter?
No, actually I think it’s very poor. In a novel the writer is the star, in a film, the story is the star.
I’ll give you an example. I had a client who was a not only a novelist but a poet. And this one scene involved an explorer in the Arctic, and he used the phrase, “His breath ghosts the air.” Well that’s beautiful. You stop to think about it. But that to me is deadly in reading a screenplay. Because it points itself toward the writer, not at what’s actually going on. You see his breath, so what?
But is it possible for a script to be too choppy? To be so stripped down that’s it’s hard to read?
Absolutely. (But) I would say that 90 to 95 percent of scripts are overwritten, and they’re so much easier to do than those that are underwritten. Too many characters, too many situations – as they say in Amadeus, too many notes. If it’s overwritten you can start slicing and dicing to make it flow better.
But that doesn’t mean that in an overwritten script that there aren’t scenes that should be in there that aren’t in there.
What are some of the more common mistakes you see?
Often, what a writer thinks is on the page isn’t on the page. Innocent mistakes, innocent confusion created.
One of the last scripts I did was based on a true story, an Erin Brokovich type of thing. Because it was in a particular area of the United States, a lot was taken for granted that the reader would have to know about that area. That was a situation where you have to add things. If it’s a high school that a girl goes to you and you’re not familiar with it, then you have to put a sweatshirt in with the school’s name on it. Little stuff like that that fills the reader of the script – or the viewer of the film – in on what’s going on so it all makes sense.
Here’s an example, “Charlie Jones, ex-councilman from so and so stands up.” Well how do you know he’s the ex-councilman from so and so? You don’t have the subtitle! Throughout that particular script there were a lot of those.
You advise your clients to “write their favorite movie” – what do you mean?
What I suggest they do is take their favorite film, something they would have seen 10 or 15 times – I know someone who’s memorized all the dialogue from The Godfather – cue it up, and slug their first scene header for the first scene, and then describe the action, write down all the dialogue verbatim, and think about why that scene is in there. Then go on to the second scene and why that scene is in there.
By the time they’re through, they’ve written their version of The Godfather. Then when they do their own script they’ve hopefully learned so much they will be a better writer.
That’s terrific advice.
All they have to do very simply is write what they see and what they hear. They’re under no pressure.
What kind of successes have your clients gone on to have? Any big home runs?
The ones that I have I can’t talk about. That’s the worst part of what I do, I don’t attach myself. What they do afterward with their writing is their credit to the world. Unfortunately in many cases I’m kind of a ghost. It’s one thing to work on a script with someone, and another to take part in a seminar.
This is an incredibly tough business. Have you ever had anyone overreact to your criticism? Push back too hard?
Writers can get very defensive, obviously. But most are very articulate concerning their work. I’ve never gotten into an argument. I try to get them to understand that I’m on their side. That’s not to say that everything I say is right. If I can’t prove to the writer that this particular change is necessary, there might be a compromise.
But one thing that’s remarkable is the dedication of screenwriters. I had a heart surgeon from Philadelphia. I called him up to start the process and I heard him say, “If he’s still bleeding in 10 minutes, call me.” He had just finished surgery and now was working on his screenplay!
Matthew Wade Reynolds