Monday, February 8, 2016

How does a reader keep from being too harsh?

I can't believe I missed it, but the 7th anniversary of this blog was just over a week ago. Time flies, especially when life is so busy.  Very sorry about the scarcity of posts on this site for a while. As I've said, it's a combination of life being busy and of me having tackled a lot of tops over the last seven years.

I got an email recently from Eva that I felt merited some attention:

I've been reading for the French film industry for 7 years now (production and distribution companies, talent agencies, and sometimes worked directly with authors), and I know I can be a tough bitch on the analysis and try to "babyproof" everything (a lot of money is involved in producing a film, but I'm sure you don't need a reminder). It wasn't such a bad issue working with producers. But I lately started to read for the Script Department of a distribution company that wants to get involved in development. And the head of development keeps telling me I'm too harsh even though he thinks I have good ideas (I mean I've only read two scripts for them so far - one I brushed off because of a repetitive and non-evolving structure and the other that I considered could be ok with some rewriting - and two drafts of a treatment).

And the thing is I know I tend to be some sort of purist when it comes to story writing but when I see patterns that don't match or a story that is being forced into an arbitrary frame, it kind of drives me nuts. Even though I always explain, with examples, why I think a script is weak, I still feel that I set the bar too high. Tell me I'm not crazy and that you get that feeling too... Because I sometimes wonder if I have too much hope in people willing to make not even great but at least good movies, or if "carelessness" is just a new trend.

How do you manage this kind of situation? And how do you adjust your reports depending on the company you work for? Because I feel that the guy I just started to work for always needs to be reassured a lot. Do you sometimes question your opinion on a script? Because I often fear I'm being too harsh and I could have missed something. 

Ah, when to be too harsh. I was pretty fortunate in how I came up. The first production company I worked for really only wanted two paragraphs of written coverage. When you're forced to be that sparse, it becomes easy to avoid beating a dead horse too harshly. Even then, every now and then one of the VPs might tell me that a particular word for phrase seemed needlessly harsh, and I'd adjust. (More often than not, the gratuitous harshness was the result of my trying to be clever, or at least an attempt to amuse myself.)

The bottom line is: I had room to learn the difference between being blunt and between being mean. And we're talking about a job where 80% of what I read was an easy pass. Fortunately, as this was just internal coverage, I was free to be as direct as I wanted in calling something awful.

And even then, I still needed a little tempering. When I went to read for one of the "Big 5" agencies, their coverage structure was more strict and called for more diplomacy. After all, you never knew when a script you panned would later end up getting a client attached to it (happened often), or if the writer would end up repped at the agency (also happened.)

The best advice about writing criticism in general is to write it like the person responsible for that work will read it. Imagine them reading it. Better still, imagine them reading it and then ending up sitting across from you at a social gathering. There are movies I've trashed where I'll totally stand behind my harshest words. If the writer created something vile or misogynist, I won't shrink from that assessment when confronted. You'll find your most fair and honest criticism is the easiest to stand behind.

Your cheap shots - not so much. (Though even then, you'll occasionally come across a writer or director so full of themselves that they're practically begging to be deflated.)

I wouldn't worry about setting the bar too high. Finding something worth of production (or distribution) is incredibly rare. You're there to be the yardstick for people sinking their money into films. If you were writing coverage for the writers, trying to help them refine their work into something people want, then I might tell you to ease up and make more effort to be constructive.

I think your boss wants to just make sure that you're an objective enough person that don't fall into the habit of reading scripts to find what's wrong with them. You might try making a point of recognizing the good, or at least calling out the attempts. That would give the review a little more balance, and show that you're smart about understanding why something isn't working.

Do I sometimes question my opinion on a script? Not often. It's more likely to happen when the script is mediocre than if it's really good or aggressively bad. You'll get scripts that don't seem to do anything wrong, but also leave you completely apathetic. That's where you point out the good, but also note that much of it left you uncompelled.

I had this happen with a script at the first company I worked at. It was a cool concept, but the script itself wasn't just dry, it was arid. I could not see the movie there. The tension was non-existent, the visual moments were few and far between and the pacing was slow.

I have never been more wrong about a script. A year later the movie was done and the director had found all those moments that weren't there on the page. He cast the right actors. He shot it the right way. He tightened the pace. In a good script you'll get a sense of these elements, but when they're gone you really feel their absence.

As a reader, you can only make the call based on what's in front of you. It's not a challenge unique to that job. People who actually have to put money into these scripts face the same crucible with a lot higher stakes. The biggest thing you have to temper as a reader is not falling victim to your own cleverness. That's where you make most of your unforced errors.

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