Monday, May 25, 2009

Script reading and American Idol

I haven't watched American Idol regularly at all during its previous seasons, but for various reasons I got pulled in this season with the hype over Adam Lambert, who certainly has to be one of the more talented contestants to grace the Idol stage. I'm also somewhat proud to say that I have enjoyed Kris Allen since his Top 36 performance of "Man in the Mirror." (And as long as I'm drifting off topic, let me say that Allison Iraheta was a star in the making from her performance of "Alone" that same night.)

Some of you are probably wondering, why are you discussing America Idol on a screenwriting blog? Is it because you're shamelessly trolling for hits by including the names "Kris Allen" and "Adam Lambert" in your blog posts?

Hell yes, but I swear there's a context for all of this.

As I watched this season, I realized that there are many, many days where I as a script reader feel like a judge on American Idol, particular when I'm in a position where my feedback is going straight to the writer and not a producer or an agent. It's one thing to tell a development executive that a script sucks and give them their reasons for passing on it - it's quite another to put those reasons down in black in while in a document that you know is going straight to the writer.

And at the end of the day, every script reader is either a Randy Jackson, a Paula Abdul or a Simon Cowell. (The fourth judge who shall not be named is generally irrelevant when she's not putting bikini-wearing contestants in their place, so I shall not acknowledge her.) Randy - a guy with knowledge but little deep insight, or the ability to dissect a performance without falling back on increasingly repetitive jargon; Paula - a woman with occasional insight buried under a vocabulary desperately striving for intelligence. She might nail the issue, or she might just confuse you with double-talk.

And then there's Simon - the "mean" one, the guy who seems to take pleasure in taking down weak singers. He's almost - dare I say it? - bitter that he has to endure these talentless wannabes who can't realize when they're out of their depth. Most hate him for that - but often he's the first to praise the few contestants with talent. Granted, personal taste can cloud it. (His hard-on for Danny Gokey this season was incomprehensible, and I felt he rarely gave Kris his due.) For the most part, he's spot-on and razor-sharp.

As a script reader, I hope that I'm most like Simon. I tend to blunt in my criticisms, and I don't often apologize for it. While it's always good to temper harsh notes with some praise, it's important to remember that you do the writer no favors if you don't tell him when something plain doesn't work. At times I've "gone easy" on a terrible script, pointing out critical flaws without using strong adjectives to express just how wretched the writing choices were. Guess what? Often the writers then resubmitted making only very basic changes, failing to fix the major issues.

Writers are lazy - if you don't tell them something sucks, they won't go out of their way to rewrite it.

The other issue is that I hope that by being so hard on the scripts that are bad, my praise will mean more. If my bosses know that I have no hesitation about opening up both barrels on a piece of shit script, then when I rave about a screenplay, they're more likely to take notice. (Granted, with some agency coverage it behooves the reader not to be *too* savage in his criticisms, but that's a whole 'nother column.) And writers who have sat through my nitpicking their logic, lambasting their character choices, and stopping just short of insulting their talent will know that when I say "This is strong writing" I mean it.

The other reason for being harsh is that often the worst writers are the ones most delusional about their talent. I've read those kinds of scripts hundreds of times - from writers who clone and cobble their scripts together from many other sources, yet somehow remain convinced of their own brilliance. They're the screenwriting equivalent of Bikini Girl or William Hung. These people are so convinced of their own talent that it takes harsh criticism to get through to them.

I don't have a problem offering encouragement - but giving someone false hope doesn't help them in the long run. Watch the audition weeks of American Idol and ask yourself how a person incapable of being on-key for two successive notes could ever think they stand a chance in a singing competition. In those cases, is Simon mean for telling the truth? Or is he actually doing those people a favor?

I don't think any script reader enjoys savaging a script or its writer. Don't get me wrong, the mean coverages can sometimes be fun to write, especially when the script proves to be offensive, but it takes an hour to read, an hour to synoposize and often an hour or more to write up a critique. With an investment of three hours per script, no reader looks at his stack thinking, "Boy I hope this sucks so I can tear it a new one."

Quite the opposite, most readers are desperate for that diamond in the rough - for that script that they can impress their bosses with by "discovering it." And there's no feeling like being able to tell a writer, "This is brilliant."

So the next time you get a harsh critique, give yourself a few minutes to get the reaction of "How dare that asshole!" out of your system. Then, take a deep breath, read it again and see how the reader is trying to help you.

And ask yourself, seriously and honestly "Do you have what it takes?"

Or are you up there tone-deafly crooning "I Have Nothing"?

No comments:

Post a Comment