Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Chip Gets the Script Editing Evils

Many thanks to my good friend Mister G, who convinced me to write this entry without naming names – there’s career suicide and career suicide he said in a sagely fashion (however, it does help if you have a career to ruin first).

A little while back, I attended a script workshop arranged by a notable media organisation and run by a script editor whom I shall call Nina (after the best popular song ever released, 99 Red Balloons).

The idea of the workshop was very simple: a week before, a script from a participating writer would be distributed amongst the eight writers or so taking part. Nina would then lead a critique centred on that script, the idea being that the writer went away with enough material for a rewrite. The fact that Nina was a professional script editor meant that the advice you would be getting with regards to your script was potentially going to be top notch. The price was a couple of quid so that croissants and coffee could be laid on. It sounded like a good deal to me.

My script was scheduled for about week 5 or 6, which was fine.

The scripts from the other writers started to come thick and fast. To be honest, I only really remember two: the first was a short, impressionistic script about conscientious objectors that was actually wasn’t bad. The writer had a couple of short films under his belt for which he had managed to wangle positively huge budgets out of various regional film bodies (£20,000 for a 10 minute short anyone? Yowsa!) – and good luck to him.

The second script was written by an ex-lawyer, so when the package thumped onto my welcome mat, I looked forward to a good read.

It was probably the most insane thing I have ever read.

The script was constructed from three completely disparate narrative threads which confusingly featured the same character throughout. Thirty pages in and the protagonist did a one eighty about face and marched into a completely different script that bore no relation to the thirty pages that had gone before. The same happened after seventy pages. To call it schizophrenic would be doing the word a disservice. About the only logic that applied was the fact that act three followed act two, which followed act one. I was convinced that if I kept reading it would make some sort of sense, but it didn’t – not one iota. I was confused. My head hurt. I had to go and lie down for several hours until my nervous system rebooted.

Whilst not exactly lavishing praise on the script, Nina was careful to extol its virtues and suggest some areas for improvement. The other writers in the group sat around looking stunned. Everyone had read the script and had come to the same conclusion as I had – it made little sense, and even bordered on being severely mentalist. I even said as much as well. Nina took my comments on board and moved on, unconcerned. I don’t know if it was just me, but I got the feeling that everyone felt a little intimidated, too afraid to speak up to say what they really felt about the script.

Ordinarily I would not slate the work of a fellow writer in this way, but this script was most definitely out there. It’s also handy to gauge reactions to this script in comparison to what happened to my own a few weeks later.

The script I had selected for critique within the group probably wasn’t that good (then again, that’s the point isn’t it? The whole reason I was attending was for the feedback). The Player and After Hours are two of my favourite films, so I had written a script that was essentially a mash-up of the two – a washed up American actor with a crashed marriage behind him visits London to promote a rubbish action flick. After absconding from an interview to get laid and wasted, he wakes up in a hotel room next to a dead body. The script follows the actor as he tries to clear his name with the help of a friendly dominatrix and an assorted cast of screwed up hangers-on.

Well, when I say that it wasn’t very good, at least it had what I thought was a fairly coherent narrative to it. It was my attempt at writing comedy – OK, so it may have been derivative and naïve, but it wasn’t as out there as the schizophrenic script, surely.

Nina hated it.

Perhaps ‘hate’ is not a strong enough word. She despised it. There was nothing in it that was redeemable, she stated, nothing at all. And to make matters worse, Nina stated that I was writing about a milieu I knew absolutely nothing about, which, in her book, was a crime akin to being a fully paid up member of the Hitler Youth. She gave me no suggestions as to how I should improve it whatsoever, so the whole morning was dedicated to the wholesale trashing of my script.

I came out of the room at midday feeling dazed. What on earth had happened? I felt victimised and humiliated. I had no idea why Nina had gone for me in such a way – in comparison to the ‘schizo script’, I thought mine would have had at least the semblance of a sympathetic reading, some suggestions for improvements or further development. But no. It got the exact opposite.

Later that evening, I had a call from another participant in the workshop who stated that Nina’s criticisms had, for whatever reason, gone completely over the top, and for no good reason. Had she been having a bad day? Was the journey in a complete nightmare for her? Or was it really my script? Was it really as bad as she thought? Or was it me? Did my accent wind her up? Did my haircut annoy her? Who knows?

As the good Lucy Vee states here, there’s a fine balance to be struck between being pragmatic and trampling all over something that someone has spent hundreds of hours writing and tweaking just because you can. For whatever reason, Nina got the balance wrong that day and decided to go for the jugular.

When it’s constructive, I can take criticism as well as anyone else – after all, I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t expect what I write not to get criticised. When it’s not constructive, rightly or wrongly, it’s all too easy to take things personaly – when you’re face to face with a script editor who has apparently taken a pathological dislike to you and your writing, it’s difficult not to.

Nina has moved on to bigger and better things since that script workshop, to the extent that Mr G warned me against naming names – and that’s cool. Let’s hope that she doesn’t treat the scripts she comes across in her professional life with the sort of disdain she treated mine with.

Anyway, I took Nina’s advice and wrote a script about what I knew: a sci-fi drama about remote viewing with a tip of the hat to Cronenberg’s Scanners (yeah, okay, I’m joking). It’s still a script I use today, and has got me meetings with Hammer Films and September Films amongst others, so I know that I’m not a complete numpty (although I do have my moments). Besides, if I wrote solely about what I know, then everything I churned out would read like The Office on crack with a lot of premature death thrown in to lighten the mood, so I’m not about to do that at any point soon.

All the above said, I’ve just applied for METLAB this year ;-)


English Dave said...

Bad luck Chip. Unfortunately the industry is full of these twats who probably haven't written a thing in their lives but decide they are experts.

I'm assuming the bigger and better things she has gone on to is actually working on a show in a capacity above tea girl?

You are right not to name names though, some of these fuckers have survival instincts like verrucaes in a swimming pool. Despite a complete lack of any discernable talent they somehow float from job to job.

Chip Smith said...

Thanks Mr Dave - to my knowledge, she hasn't written a single thing, which I'm not sure qualifies her to issue an opinion on anything! But that's just my own prejudice coming to the fore I reckon...

And I think you might be surprised as to how much success she's had! It's difficult not to name names, but she script edited quite a major UK/US feature a couple of years back. Don't know what she's doing now - brewing up the tea if there's such a thing as karma!

Oli said...

The whole 'write what you know' thing has to be taken with a fair bit of salt; as Jane Espenson says, that means that nobody would get to write about spaceships.

Jane's advice is to write what's emotionally true for you, even if it's about spaceships, or vampire slayers.

Chip Smith said...

Oli - I didn't really take that bit of 'criticism' on board to be honest - I think it was just another little bit of ammunition Nina used to complete my ritual humiliation (for whatever reason she had).

You're right, if we all took that as advice, that would effectively mean the end of sci-fi as a genre!