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08/10/2002 - The Prodco Reader Speaketh, Part II

Today read the second half of my interview with script reader Ray Morton, who last week described what it's like reading for different production companies. Read more below...


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 writer after one-to-ten pages?

RM: I need to start off by saying I hate screenwriting gurus - lots of guys getting rich telling other people how to do what they have never successfully done themselves. With that said...

I don't have strict rules about page counts - i.e. I have to be grabbed by page 10, the first act needs to be finished by Page 22, the second plot point must occur no later than page 72 and a half, etc. - but I will say that the script does have to grab me relatively quickly to keep me interested. Ideally, the script should hook you from the very first page, but if the writer chooses to build slowly, I'm willing to give it a chance, as long as the material he/she is building with is interesting. I hesitate to assign specific page numbers, but I would say that if I am not at least intrigued by page 10 and if by page 15 I do not have a very clear idea of who the main character is and what the basic concept of the story is, then I'd say you're in trouble.

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

RM: I would say the single biggest mistake writers make is that they don't follow through on their initial premises. The most common problem I find in the scripts I read is that the writer will spend 25 pages setting up an interesting premise and then either go off on irrelevant tangents, get lost in a minor subplot or (most often) simply drop it and then begin a whole new story featuring the same characters. I think this tends to happen because it's hard to develop an idea.

As all experienced screenwriters know, if you have a good idea it's relatively easy to write the first act, in which you introduce the characters and set up the story, and the third act, where the action really kicks in and you get to wind everything up. It's much harder to write the second act, in which you have to slow down and take your time develop the story and characters, providing original and yet at the same time consistent and internally logical twists and surprises. For many writers, this part is so hard and stressful that they simply give up and change directions. However, while this may be good for the writer, it is often disastrous for the script.

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

RM: Do your job. Don't believe all that crap you read and hear about it not mattering how good the script is because as long as the idea is decent the script will sell. Don't rationalize that you don't need to make the script as good as it can be because, hey, they're just gonna hire 15 people to rewrite it anyway . All that may be true (although not as much as people think), but it's no excuse. It's nice to have a good idea, but if you want someone to pay you tons of money for it and go through all of the hassle it takes to make it into a movie, then it's your responsibility to make the story as compelling as possible from the get go, to create interesting characters, to write punchy dialogue and to rewrite the script time and time again until the script is as good as you can possibly make it.

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

RM: I know of one contest sponsor that allowed their temp secretary (who knew nothing about movies or writing) read the finalist scripts and choose the winner because it was cheaper than hiring real readers...

I once lost a reading gig because I recommended a script that my immediate superior loathed, but that his superior loved. The script was made into an Academy Award winning film, my superior got chewed out by his boss for almost letting it get by and I never got called to read for that exec again.

I once read a script about a serial killer in which the murders were described in extreme, nauseating detail. The rest of the script was bizarre and incomprehensible, as if written by a raving madman. The script itself was smeared with streaks of what sure as hell looked like blood. I have always been afraid to ask...

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

RM: My technical qualifications are that I am a graduate of NYU's film program, the AFI screenwriting program and have several years of professional Hollywood writing experience under my belt. As nice as all that is, though, I don't think any of that necessarily qualifies me per se to be a reader. I think what qualifies me is that I have a really good understanding of premise, genre and story structure, a decent sense of what makes a good story, a working knowledge of film and screenwriting history (which helps me know how original a script is or isn't), and, from my professional experience, a good sense of what kind of material people are looking for and of what kind of material has the best chance of making it through the production pipeline.

Some of this is innate, some is hard-learned (after spending many years in college and post-college drama and screenwriting classes, I realized that I didn't know the first thing about how to tell a story on screen. I then spent several years studying classic films, reading classic screenplays and taking stage directing classes {this is an amazingly good way of learning dramatic structure, because all stage directing begins with a breaking down of the script along structural lines} to learn what to do) and some is just the result of good old experience (both pleasant and unpleasant).

I think the basic qualifications to be a reader are: a good understanding of dramatic writing and structure, so you can not only tell if something works or not, but also why; a good understanding of film genre and history, so you can have an accurate sense of the freshness and originality of an idea; enough of a commercial sense to judge how commercially attractive a script may or may not be; a decent sense of the marketplace and what's going on in town (be sure to read your Variety and Hollywood Reporter) and finally (and maybe most importantly) - a love of movies (I find that way too many people who work in the film industry don't actually love movies. This leads to a cynical attitude that may sound very clever at cocktail parties, but can blind one to the possibilities inherent in various scripts and projects and lead to some very bad movies).

GL: How are you (and other readers that you know) treated by the executives you read for? How would you grade the execs' job performance as quality filters?

RM: Actually, I have been treated very well by most of the executives I have read for. Overall, I have found most of the D-execs I have worked for to be smart, savvy people with a decent sense of humor and I have got on with most of them pretty well (while I'm reading for them, that is -- some of the people I have worked for have had a hard time letting me know when my services were no longer needed and have, unfortunately, tended to become rather sneaky and duplicitous and created a lot of bad feeling that was completely unnecessary). I have also found that they are pretty good judges of material and, thus, are pretty decent filters of material. That cannot always be said of the execs and producers they work for, but, luckily, I don't usually have to deal all that directly with them.

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?

RM: I think reading is a pretty decent job. I don't think it's a job you should count on to make you rich and it can sometimes be a struggle to make ends meet if it's your only source of income (I don't recommend that you let it become so), but it's smart work, you usually get to interact with some smart and interesting people and it certainly keeps you plugged in to what's going on. Plus, there's a real excitement and satisfaction that comes from discovering a really good script or writer and seeing a piece of material you recommend make it through the pipeline. It's especially thrilling when something you recommend finally ends up on the screen (something I've been lucky enough to have happen a couple of times).

It can also be a very inspiring job if you're a writer - the bad ones convince you that you can do better and the good ones inspire you to aim high. On the negative side - you are going to read way more bad scripts than good ones and it can sometimes be quite a chore to wade through yet another bad script. If you're not careful, it can sap your enthusiasm and make you cynical, which I think is a bad thing for a reader to become. For that reason, I suggest that you allow yourself to take breaks from time to time (if you can afford it) and I'm also not sure this is a job one should do for more than a few years (again, if you can afford it).

GL: Has being a script reader helped or hindered your career goals? Would you recommend your job to someone else?

RM: Suffice to say that reading has been a very interesting job that has made me some money, made me some good contacts and even better friends and also given me a lot of inspiration and perspective on my own writing work. Yeah - I'd recommend it, but only to someone who really loves movies.


There you go. Thanks to Ray for sharing his experiences and giving us something to read about besides my half-baked opinions.

Speaking of my half-baked opinions, I'll be back next week with more while I try to break through heavy security at one of the major studios and speak to one of that legendary ilk, the union studio readers.


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