Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"Professional Services"

They asked me to read their screenplay.

And I said okay.

I said “Yes”, not because I liked them, which I unqualifiedly do.  The fact is, however, is that in my entire history of “Would you read my screenplay?” requests, I do not recall saying no to any of them.  Whether I liked the requester or I didn’t, especially when I didn’t, because turning them down put me in fear of the discomfiting follow-up:

“Why not?  Don’t you like me?”

Cowardly as that behavior admittedly is, I would rather read ten screenplays than open up that poisonous can of worms.  How long would it be before I heard the dreaded and the opposite of anticipated,

“Well I don’t like you either!”

“Then why did you ask me to read your screenplay?”

“I respect you as a writer.  But as a person, I have always hated you.”

So I read their screenplay. 

To avoid the unpleasantness.

But like them or hate them, having said “Yes”, an unasked-for burden inevitably begins.  The nature of that burden? 

A person is standing naked in front of you.

“I want you to be totally honest.  What do you think?”

What do I need that for?  Even if it’s a metaphorical “naked.”  Who wants that kind of responsibility? 

“There are parts I like, and there are parts I’m not crazy about.”

Do you really want to be the person who tells somebody that?

At least in this situation, the script-reading burden did not involve an e-mailed attachment, a compounding obligation involving time, a concerted effort and a hundred and twenty pages of my own paper required print up the script I would, all things being equal, prefer I did not have to read.  (Not to mention the shame of e-mailing back to say that I’m having difficulty opening the attachment.)

(I have subsequently learned to re-insert the printed-on pages “contents side up” and print out my own stuff on the other side.  But not infrequently, I mistakenly insert the pages “contents side down”, and what I subsequently print out is an illegible mishmash, not dissimilar to hieroglyphics.)

Okay, we are dealing with a factual reality here.  The script is now in my hands.  And I have been asked to evaluate it.

My first question is,


My suspicions in that regard are these:  I am a professional writer, I had a certain amount of commercial success, and they know me – the latter being essential because if they didn’t know me, I would be entirely in the clear. 

They do not have to know me that well.  In this case the writer is the daughter of a woman who has some uncertain (to me) connection to my brother’s daughter in Toronto.   It takes as little as that.  And you’re reading a stranger’s screenplay.

The thing is this:

My success was in network situation comedies, of which feature-length screenplays bear minimal resemblance.  It is also not a very recent success.  And on top of that, the three spec (original and unsolicited) screenplays I wrote and the two assigned rewrites I worked on had, all five, ended in ignominious failure.  Would you entrust yourself to a surgeon with that track record?

SURGEON:  Okay, all my patients died.  Does that mean I'm incompetent?


The equivalent of that is who you're asking to evaluate your movie script.  Is that really who you want?

And yet…

Somebody asked.

I inquired of the aspiring screenwriter if they had given their script to other people as well, and was informed that they had.  Knowing this took a little of the pressure off me.  The responsibility would be shared.  (Though on some level I was also a little miffed.  Here I am, volunteering for this service, and the supplicant is already hedging their bets.  How’m I going to look if the other readers loved it and I didn’t?  Besides, is my informed judgment to be second-guessed by nonentities?  It’s outrageous!)

I went on to ask if the script had been submitted to the writing team the aspiring screenwriter had been working for, and was told that it hadn’t been, the explanation being that the aspiring screenwriter was concerned that their evaluation would emerge through the lens of  “This is what we would do” (a “this” the aspiring screenwriter did not entirely respect.)   

My response to the “through the lens” issue was, “Doesn’t everybody do that?”

And therein – for me – lies the thorniest difficulty of all.  Having seen reviewers respond to a show I had written with reactions all “over the map,” varying from huzzahs to “P.U”, I have developed the belief that reviewers, inevitably seeing through only the lens they have available to them, substantially, though not exclusively, review themselves.

Yes, I can pore over a script, red-penning the insufficiencies in logic, the inconsistencies in the storytelling, the overwriting or, conversely, the gaps in structural development, the personal appeal of the premise and the originality of its execution.

I can do the best job I can.  But I am using my brain and my highly subjective, and not necessarily transferable sensibilities.

What does that have to do with what the original writer had in mind?

I once critiqued a friend’s screenplay – this time, the work of a professional writer – and his reaction, which seemed to me somewhat prickly was,

“Your observations were so ‘Earl.’”

What the heck did he expect?  (My guess:  Unqualified approval.)

It is an onerous assignment, reading somebody else’s writing.  They are handing you their hopes and aspirations, which I find to be a serious weight, and they are asking for your help, which, despite its expertise and sincerity, may not actually be helpful.

Oscar Wilde once said,

“The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

I guess that’s how I feel about this.

The only thing worse than being asked to read somebody’s screenplay is never being asked to read anybody’s screenplay.

And there, I shall call it a day, and move on to other responsibilities.

Somebody’s “Page One” is calling my name. 


GC said...

Bonjour Monsieur Earlo,

I would judge the surgeon only about: how his patients died. If the roof fell during the surgery or if the electric power was lost…

I have been asked to read screenplays sometimes. The one problem i have noticed is that the requesters never pay attention to the readers's sensibilities. For instance, i would not ask Mr Earlo to read a spec "Fight Club" Or "Saw". But i would ask him to read a spec "Secrets and lies" or "Little miss sunshine". The right person for the right screenplay. Now, about the screenplay forms, it's another topic.

Good day

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I am amazed that this posting isn't followed by a long chain of people asking you to read their screenplay.


Anonymous said...

As I'd been a reader at the studio which hosted Barack Obama yesterday, had my own screenplays work-shopped at Sundance and made an indie feature film, I also had a steady stream of friends and colleagues who requested a read and critique of their screenplays. Give'em the studio treatment, they demanded. Slash and trash its weaknesses as I would any studio reading assignment, they said. So I did. I alienated many now distant friends by giving them the brutally honest feedback they'd requested. I'd read them as writers, professionals who could withstand criticism rather than as people who were innately vulnerable. And I thought I was doing them a favor. I hadn't yet learned the lesson you teach in this blogpost, Earl: When it comes to friends and acquaintances who ask for brutally honest criticism, they're lying. They don't know they're lying, but what they really want is to be re-assured and pointed in the right direction. Comforted, consoled and encouraged. When someone you know asks for a read and critique of a screenplay, they're presenting their bare soul to you, and your job is to protect and nurture. Let the anonymous studio readers be brutal. After all, they're getting paid to do it.