Meet the Reader: Nicole Saltz
Growing up, script consultant Nicole Saltz was more interested in reading books than screenplays. Heavily influenced by her mother, an English teacher, and her maternal grandmother (“A great lover of literature”), young Nicole, a Toronto resident by way of South Africa, could be found with her nose in a book rather than glued to a screen.
That all changed in high school. Nicole was introduced to cinema through an after-school gay-straight alliance club, which featured films by Todd Haynes and John Waters. The movies “really captured my imagination, but also taught me about the world beyond the one I lived in,” says Nicole. “So, my understanding of film came out of this notion that it wasn’t just entertainment, but an artistic medium with the potential to wield great power to mobilize people, to enlighten them, to show them aspects of humanity they’ve never seen before.”
It’s no surprise, then, that when Nicole went to off to film school at Toronto’s York University, she would study documentary filmmaking.
“I really thought that would be where I ended up,” Nicole says.
However, in her third year, she took a screenwriting class with Amnon Buchbinder (Whole New Thing) and, as they say, the rest is history. Nicole found herself immediately hooked by the intricacies of story telling as well as the challenges of making all of the pieces of a good one fit into a larger picture. She continued with her studies at York University, earning a M.F.A. in Screenwriting. After grad school, she completed additional story editing training in Vancouver at the Praxis Centre for Screenwriters before completing the Cineplex Entertainment Writers’ Lab at the Canadian Film Centre.
Now, Nicole works as a freelance script reader (she’s read for Godcrest Films, Darius Films, Whizbang Entertainment, and Amaze Film + TV) and is the CEO of House of Stories, which provides script consulting services for both professional and aspiring writers.
With her impressive story telling background, we thought Nicole had a lot of insight to share when it comes to writing and getting your script a “green light.”
How did you start reading scripts?
One day, I confessed to my mentor, Amnon [Buchbinder], that I got as much pleasure from reading a well-written script as I did from watching movies. I expected him to tell me to just go study literature, but instead, he said “that just means you’re a writer”. I’ll never forget his saying that, because until then, I always felt like I enjoyed a good script too much, that I was somehow betraying my appreciation of films by being so interested in what was on the page versus what the actual filmmaking process produced. I began to read scripts voraciously – especially the greats, like Billy Wilder and Budd Schulberg – figuring out how they worked. At the same time, my mentor was working on a number of story editing projects himself, and he started having me give notes on some feature films that he was story editing. When I finished grad school, I did some script reading internships for a few companies, and saw that there was a gap in the market for affordable script readers who weren’t just story editing as side gigs, but for whom working with other writers was a primary interest. Along the way, I met a handful of other story editors who had really blown me away with perceptive, constructive and insightful notes, and I rounded them up to start my company, House of Stories.
What is it about script reading that you love?
For me, it’s invigorating to help unlock the mysteries of a script for a writer who’s perhaps too close to their own material, and to inspire them towards new revelations. Equally, when I’m reading for producers or production companies, I love to discover exciting work, and to champion its worth whenever I can. I think that having a certain level of screenwriting fluency means that I can go to bat for projects that might otherwise fall between the cracks just because they’re not there yet. Recognizing potential is just as important as recognizing a strong final product, and I’m not afraid to fight for projects that I believe in. I sometimes joke that I’m slowly turning into an agent, but really, I read scripts because they fascinate me, and I story edit because it’s so rewarding to see writers benefit from good feedback.
Is recognizing well-written scripts something that can be taught or learned?
It’s definitely something that can be taught and learned, but perhaps not in traditional ways. For example, the readers I employ in my company are phenomenal, and they didn’t study story editing in the same intensive way I did.
However, they did study screenwriting at the graduate level, are deeply familiar with the fundamentals of story, and they know what the “rules” are. I think that’s really important on so many levels, because often there are writers who try to buck convention, and as a reader, you need to be able to speak confidently as to why their approaches do or do not work. Of course, it goes beyond the fundamentals. I think of understanding story as a language. If you only understand the basics, you can get around; but you need a certain fluency to be able to appreciate and understand the poetry and nuances of any language. It’s the same with recognizing well-written scripts. You need to know the foundational principles of story, but the fluency required to really understand what’s at the heart of a script comes from reading, from watching a lot of films and television, from engaging with writers on a regular basis, and from knowing the marketplace. It’s engrossing, but if you’re willing to immerse yourself fully in that world, then you can certainly acquire all that’s needed to be a strong reader.
What are the components of a well-written script? What are the must-haves?
Of course, there are no hard and fast rules, but perhaps the most common problem I encounter is an unclear protagonist. In other words, by the time the first act’s over, we don’t know what the character wants or why they want it, on both a practical or an emotional level. I’d say for about ninety percent of the scripts I read that aren’t quite there, this issue, in varying degrees, is what holds the projects back. Another must-have, in my view, is that the writer knows what the story is trying to say, or is at least working, towards discovering a point of view. It may be that a story is written as fluff or gore for the sake of it, but even then, I believe this should be clearly intentional, and writers should be able to speak to their thematic choices. Good questions for writers to ask themselves are, “What will people get out of seeing this film? What am I giving audiences with this script, and why do I think they need what I’m offering them?”
Does structure trump character? Or vice versa? Or is there some leeway with both?
I believe it all works together, so there’s no trumping for me. Usually when there’s a problem with character, it’ll impact the structure, and it can happen the opposite way as well. Screenplays are pretty complex machines, and all the pieces need to be in place for everything to run smoothly.
What are the common mistakes you see a lot in scripts?
As I mentioned earlier, unclear protagonists are easily the most common. When the protagonist isn’t working, it deeply affects all other elements of the script, so it’s vital for writers to have a firm handle on the needs and desires of their main characters. Protagonists are kind of like North Stars in that when you get lost in your script, you can usually get back on course by asking yourself what your character is after, and why. Repetitive dialogue is another common mistake – usually we don’t need to be told the same things over and over. Finally, the absence of a thematic point of view is pretty commonplace. A flawed script that’s clearly about something is always preferable to a structurally sound project with nothing to say.
What are some of the tired, worn-out tropes that you are tired of seeing?
It definitely gets pretty tiresome to read women described solely as “beautiful”, “pretty”, “sexy”, etc. I always push writers to go beyond the physical when describing their female characters, but it’s very frustrating to see this happen so often. Similarly, I read a ton of female characters that don’t have their own goals and motivations, and exist simply to further the storylines of the men in the script. Well written female characters, with goals, flaws, and motivations are, sadly, still the exception rather than the rule.
What’s one thing that you’ll automatically give a “Pass” for?
This is a tough one. I don’t know that there’s something I could see in the first few pages that would be an automatic pass, although a lot of careless typos and bad dialogue are clues that you’re not reading a polished draft and the proverbial ship is sinking. I certainly don’t have any kind of “pass policy”, but if I’m reading for a company, I’ll keep the kinds of projects they’re looking for in mind. Sometimes I have to pass on projects that may be strong, but are out of line with the kind of material a company is looking for. It never hurts to get in touch with a development executive and find out if there’s anything specific they’re looking for or are averse to making.
Why are there generally more “passes” than “recommends”?
Frankly, because it doesn’t cost any money to write a script. If writers suddenly decided to “become actors”, they’d need to invest in head shots, a demo reel, some classes, and maybe a personal trainer. Conversely, actors, and anyone else for that matter, can produce a screenplay at no financial cost. So often, many people believe that being able to write coherent sentences is all that it takes to become a writer, and that enormous amounts of study and dedication aren’t required of them. Besides simply underestimating the skill involved in dramatic writing, a lot of scripts just don’t have a point. They may be structurally sound, but they lack heart, soul, and a unique point of view.
If you could give one solid piece of advice for an up-and-coming writer who hasn’t sold a screenplay before, what would that be?
Dissect your favourite films. Take them apart, scene-by-scene, line-by-line, and figure out how they work in every aspect. This kind of deep knowledge of dramatic writing will inevitably bleed into your own work, and you’ll find yourself much better equipped to overcome script problems that before may have stumped you. I believe this practice is as important to screenwriters as working out is to athletes. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to see Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) speak at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference, and he gave a riveting lecture about breaking down some of his favourite films and applying those lessons to the challenges he faced writing Toy Story 3. I say this to point out that there’s a certain humility that storytelling requires. The best writers I’ve worked with are the ones who are always working to better their crafts.
What are your feelings about screenplay contests? Are they worth the investment?
I’m not a huge fan of the idea that you should pay to have your script read, but then again, many writers have enjoyed career success after placing highly in competitions like the Nicholl Fellowship. I think the best thing to keep in mind is that, by and large, you need to be somewhere in the top ten for those contests to be beneficial to your career. I know several writers who were quarterfinalists in the Nicholl, and although that looks great on paper, it didn’t advance their careers at all. There are so many competitions out there now, so I think the key thing to remember is that you should be entering those contests to win them, and not just to be read. People will always want to read scripts with strong and exciting premises. Contests are not the only way in.
What’s the last thing you watched that you thought was extremely well-written?
Oh boy, this is a big question. I’m currently re-watching The Sopranos, and I’m blown away by the quality of the writing on that show. It was so far ahead of its time, and so incredibly detailed in terms of the writers really making use of very complex and exceedingly well-drawn characters. I’d be surprised to find any throwaway lines or actions – it all counts. It’s rare that I see a film that I feel is perfect in every way, but I thought Foxcatcher had a few scenes that I’d use as examples of flawlessly executed characterizations. In terms of my favorite scripts this year, I’d have to say Alexandros Avranas’ Miss Violence is an outstanding exercise in tone and suspense. I also loved Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! I think he’s highly undervalued as a writer, and he’s also a great example of a male writer who writes well-rounded, multi-dimensional female characters. Lucky McKee’s The Woman is a horror film that I watch over and over – there’s a lot of great writing there, in particular, a very strong thematic centre and point of view. He’s also further proof that male writers can write strong, complex and believable women. It can be done. I’ll end on that encouraging note!