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07/27/2002 - The Agency Reader Speaketh, Part II

I'm back interviewing "Taylor", a reader for one of the Big Four Agencies. Oh, okay, sorry, "Big Five". I always forget about that last one.

Anyway, today let's probe deeper into Taylor's psyche and see what the reality is behind the myth of the obstructive script reader:

GL: Screenwriting gurus often claim that if a script doesn't grab a reader in the first ten pages, it's all over. Is this true for you? How many pages does it take for a script to grab you? What happens if you hate the writing after one-ten pages?

Taylor: That's a rather simplified approach with so many exceptions that it's not even worth consciously espousing. Some stories by their very nature will not "grab" you in the first ten pages. It all depends on writing style, genre, story, etc. I think that "first ten pages" crap is a philosophy that was borne of the Joel Silver/ Simpson-Bruckheimer era of the 80's - I believe it also said that there needed to be an explosion every ten pages as well. Romantic comedies had to have a chuckle on every page, a guffaw on every third page, and at least five or six "big laughs" in the movie (with one "whopper" - the one scene that people talk about when they leave the theater).

This formulaic approach to screenwriting has essentially been abandoned in recent years - at least I hope it has. To fretting screenwriters I say, don't worry about that "first 10 pages" nonsense. Tell a good story and construct complex, compelling characters.

GL: What are the most noticeable elements that writers bungle, i.e., what's the biggest mistake you think most writers make?

Taylor: Every day I bust writers who cut corners. Often, screenwriters come up with great ideas but they don't take the time to develop them. I find that many writers are talented and creative, but they either don't want to, or don't feel they have to "do the work." By "doing the work," I mean putting in the time to construct a solid dramatic framework, and then letting their characters come to life and tell the story. Many are overly ambitious, and try to do too much at once.

Screenwriting is an artistic process - good material develops over time. Bit by bit. It requires patience, commitment, and hard work. A first draft is just that - a first draft. When the first draft is completed, that's when the REAL work begins. Screenwriting is a lot of work, and most people are not prepared for that. Another problem is that many screenwriters, though they are creative, lack a fundamental understanding of movies.

GL: What would be the single best piece of advice you would give screenwriters?

Taylor: Watch a lot of movies. Watch many different ones. Watch the same movies over and over again. Learn your craft. If you want to be a screenwriter, you need to be a movie buff. Great scripts are borne of a love for movies and stories.

GL: Any horror stories, either about bad scripts or evil Hollywood folk?

Taylor: Not too much. Let's see... [Agent] became verbally abusive once when I parked in his parking spot. I once spent a sweltering Friday afternoon running around town looking for Hanes underwear for a producer I was working for. When I finally found some (at K-Mart), the producer had departed on a business trip and I had to Fed-Ex his skivs to France. The worst script I ever read was about the ghost of a turkey killed on Thanksgiving - it was called "Poultrygeist."

GL: What would you call your qualifications to be a reader? What do you think the basic qualifications are to be a reader?

Taylor: You have to be a proficient reader, an organized and expressive writer, and most importantly, you have to have a love for and understanding of movies. You have to be confident enough to declare yourself an "expert," and you must be able to analyze material qualitatively. There are no official requisites for the job that I've ever been aware of. Folks with college degrees in English Literature tend to do well in this job, but I'd be an exception to that rule.

GL: How do you feel about reading compared to most other jobs? What is it about reading that you like? Or do you dislike the work?

Taylor: Reading is a great job because it's creatively and intellectually stimulating - most of the time. I decided I wanted to be a reader because I wanted to become a good writer, and I figured there are very few jobs out there that require constant composition, and afford opportunities for improved proficiency with language usage, vocabulary, and creative expression. It's good work, if you can do it. But in large doses it can also be a grind, and it's easy to burn out.

Another great advantage is that reading can be done anywhere, and the work schedule affords the reader a great deal of free time and freedom of worktime allocation. For example, one of my favorite things to do is read while on the beach. I'll read a script, then take a surfing break, and then read another. I also like to read in cafes and shopping malls. The best thing is that, even when I'm disenchanted with reading, most people think it's the coolest job in the world! I meet people everywhere I go (especially when I travel) whenever I pull out a script. The flipside: Can't exactly complain about the salary, but I ain't getting rich either...

GL: What are your personal aspirations in fabulous Hollywood? Has being a reader helped or hindered your career goals? Would you recommend your job to someone else?

Taylor: I have achieved all of my Hollywood aspirations and have none left. My path has been an interesting one - I consider myself as having "a career in retrograde." I was at a much higher level early on, and have since found my niche in the relatively stable, outer orbits of Readerdom. Reading has definitely helped my career in that it has made me extremely smart about material - smart in expressing my opinions. As far as having a "nose" for material, well that's a subjective thing. I've been told I have "commercial taste." I guess that means I'm not a snob about material.

I'd definitely recommend the job to anyone who wants to learn about screenplays, and to improve writing proficiency. I'd never recommend freelancing as a primary income source, and most reading work is meted out on a freelance basis. Staff jobs (like the one I have) are ideal, but very hard to come by. Nevertheless, having been a story editor at a major studio, a freelance reader, and a staff reader, I can say with all confidence that there is always a need for good readers. If you are good, or think you can be, it's worth a shot. I logged a lot of scripts to get where I am. And having sharpened writing skills is a commodity for any job. As an experience, I highly recommend it. As a career... well, try it first!

GL: Finally, is it true that you memorized the entire Greedo speech from STAR WARS in, uh, "Greedo-ese"?

Taylor: Yes, frighteningly enough. Remember what I said about loving movies? Only a true psycho-movie fan would do such a thing. "Ooota toota Solo..."


Thanks, Taylor.


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