Monday, October 5, 2009

Discussing September/October With Andrew Shearer, Part 2

As new writers, it’s always hard to know whose advice to listen to. In film school, when sulky students got feedback they didn’t like, they’d complain, “If the professor knows so much about making films, why is he teaching, instead of making them?” Well if we already knew so much about making films, we wouldn’t have had to go to film school in the first place. I find the best guidance comes when it’s oriented toward making your project the best based on your own vision, not someone else’s.

Upon reading Staton Rabin’s article Screenwriting Snafus, I think she offers some great tidbits of advice, particularly “A ‘Typical’ Script," “Prozac®, Anyone?,” and “Waitress #1, Thug #2.” But honestly, the rest of the advice seemed to suggest we’re writing scripts for contest readers alone, as if we’re honing them for their tastes. Don’t get me wrong, I get what she’s saying -- I’ve read for several contests, and I feel her pain. But advice requires a little more nuance.

For instance, “Let It Be.” I agree, bad idea to fill your script with popular songs. But I think new writers will read other scripts and see examples of that and wonder why other writers do it. I recently read Judd Apatow’s Funny People, and it’s filled with references to popular songs. Most of them didn’t make the final film, but it was about “the read.” He wanted to evoke a certain emotion for that scene. My advice is to follow Staton’s suggestion for the most part. However, if there’s that one scene in your script where you think there’s that perfect song for it, I say put it in there. It doesn’t really matter if it makes the final film, it’s about evoking emotion. Be specific in your choice, but not obscure.

I also take issue with a few examples in the “Omit” section. New writers will see examples of “establishing shots,” “camera/editing directions,” and “This is John Jones” in professional scripts and wonder why they can’t use those techniques themselves. You can, you might just piss of Staton. My advice -- use them in extreme moderation.

Finally -- and contest readers will KILL me for this one -- “War and Peace.” Yes, the Hollywood standard for scripts is 120 pages or less. Yes, in general, if your script is less than a 120 pages, it gives you a better chance of winning a contest, so it’s probably good advice. However, out of the 40 contest scripts I read this summer, two that brought tears to my eyes (in a good way) were 136 pages and 126 pages. Two of the most awful scripts I’ve ever suffered through in my entire life, were 88 pages and 92 pages. So my advice is make your script read well! Make it a smooth, quick read. Have friends read it, get feedback before you submit it. The 136-page script was a character-driven script, filled with wonderful dialogue, and it read quicker than the 88-page script, which left me scarred for the rest of my life. Okay, that’s my humble take for the month. If my fellow contest-reading colleagues read this, I expect them to trash me.

A redneck from Small Town, North Carolina (population 8,000, high school drop-out rate 40%), one day decided to tackle the film industry. Andrew’s film-school short, Son Up, based off his experience teaching at a juvenile hall, ended up winning seven festival awards and made the regionals for the Student Academy Awards. Andrew’s feature script version of Son Up, co-written with Nick Sherman, went on to win first prize at Cinequest. Then one day, the screenwriting gods shined their rarely shown light down from the Heavens and awarded the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship to Andrew and Nick for their feature script, Holy Irresistible. The duo is now repped by Endeavor and Brillstein Entertainment. They have two projects in development and are lucky enough to be co-writing a spec with another writer they’ve admired for years.


  1. Andrew - my take on the popular music thing has always been the expense. If you put these songs in the script you are asking the potential producer to buy the rights along with however much it costs to make the movie. It's quite a demand for a newbie, not so much for Judd Apatow who can afford them. I would argue that point -- I think "love ballad" or even "Foreigner-type ballad" is better. That's my 2 cents!

  2. Not sure if Staton's article mentioned that most (all?) script contest administrators emphasize to the judges that a script's projected budget should not factor into the evaluation of the writing. So don't worry if you've got six David Bowie songs referenced. If budgetary considerations mattered to script competitions shouldn't Staton be warning people to watch other pricey details like, oh, I don't know, locations? You wouldn't tell writers "stay away from scenes that take place on or around the Eiffel Tower -- a reader may toss your script in the garbage. France is expensive!"


  3. bottom line is there are too many rules and everyone has different ones. just write a good script and people can't turn you away.

  4. Well, I have to take issue with the last comment. We all need tips from time to time, and there are some suggestions in Staton's article that will help any writer. "Just" writing a good script doesn't happen "just" like that. Good tips keep you on your toes, remind you not to make stupid mistakes, even if you've written good scripts before.

    Andrew Shearer


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