We know you've been working very hard on your screenplay, but before you go looking for some professional feedback, you might keep in mind the following piece by A History of Violence screenwriter Josh Olson.
I will not read your fucking script.
That's simple enough, isn't it? "I will not read your fucking script." What's not clear about that? There's nothing personal about it, nothing loaded, nothing complicated. I simply have no interest in reading your fucking screenplay. None whatsoever.
If that seems unfair, I'll make you a deal. In return for you not asking me to read your fucking script, I will not ask you to wash my fucking car, or take my fucking picture, or represent me in fucking court, or take out my fucking gall bladder, or whatever the fuck it is that you do for a living.
You're a lovely person. Whatever time we've spent together has, I'm sure, been pleasurable for both of us. I quite enjoyed that conversation we once had about structure and theme, and why Sergio Leone is the greatest director who ever lived. Yes, we bonded, and yes, I wish you luck in all your endeavors, and it would thrill me no end to hear that you had sold your screenplay, and that it had been made into the best movie since Godfather Part II.
But I will not read your fucking script.
At this point, you should walk away, firm in your conviction that I'm a dick. But if you're interested in growing as a human being and recognizing that it is, in fact, you who are the dick in this situation, please read on.
Yes. That's right. I called you a dick. Because you created this situation. You put me in this spot where my only option is to acquiesce to your demands or be the bad guy. That, my friend, is the very definition of a dick move.
I was recently cornered by a young man of my barest acquaintance.
I doubt we've exchanged a hundred words. But he's dating someone I know, and he cornered me in the right place at the right time, and asked me to read a two-page synopsis for a script he'd been working on for the last year. He was submitting the synopsis to some contest or program, and wanted to get a professional opinion.
Now, I normally have a standard response to people who ask me to read their scripts, and it's the simple truth: I have two piles next to my bed. One is scripts from good friends, and the other is manuscripts and books and scripts my agents have sent to me that I have to read for work. Every time I pick up a friend's script, I feel guilty that I'm ignoring work. Every time I pick something up from the other pile, I feel guilty that I'm ignoring my friends. If I read yours before any of that, I'd be an awful person.
Most people get that. But sometimes you find yourself in a situation where the guilt factor is really high, or someone plays on a relationship or a perceived obligation, and it's hard to escape without seeming rude. Then, I tell them I'll read it, but if I can put it down after ten pages, I will. They always go for that, because nobody ever believes you can put their script down once you start.
But hell, this was a two page synopsis, and there was no time to go into either song or dance, and it was just easier to take it. How long can two pages take?
Weeks, is the answer.
And this is why I will not read your fucking script.
It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you're in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you're dealing with someone who can't.
(By the way, here's a simple way to find out if you're a writer. If you disagree with that statement, you're not a writer. Because, you see, writers are also readers.)
You may want to allow for the fact that this fellow had never written a synopsis before, but that doesn't excuse the inability to form a decent sentence, or an utter lack of facility with language and structure. The story described was clearly of great importance to him, but he had done nothing to convey its specifics to an impartial reader. What I was handed was, essentially, a barely coherent list of events, some connected, some not so much. Characters wander around aimlessly, do things for no reason, vanish, reappear, get arrested for unnamed crimes, and make wild, life-altering decisions for no reason. Half a paragraph is devoted to describing the smell and texture of a piece of food, but the climactic central event of the film is glossed over in a sentence. The death of the hero is not even mentioned. One sentence describes a scene he's in, the next describes people showing up at his funeral. I could go on, but I won't. This is the sort of thing that would earn you a D minus in any Freshman Comp class.
Which brings us to an ugly truth about many aspiring screenwriters: They think that screenwriting doesn't actually require the ability to write, just the ability to come up with a cool story that would make a cool movie. Screenwriting is widely regarded as the easiest way to break into the movie business, because it doesn't require any kind of training, skill or equipment. Everybody can write, right? And because they believe that, they don't regard working screenwriters with any kind of real respect. They will hand you a piece of inept writing without a second thought, because you do not have to be a writer to be a screenwriter.
So. I read the thing. And it hurt, man. It really hurt. I was dying to find something positive to say, and there was nothing. And the truth is, saying something positive about this thing would be the nastiest, meanest and most dishonest thing I could do. Because here's the thing: not only is it cruel to encourage the hopeless, but you cannot discourage a writer. If someone can talk you out of being a writer, you're not a writer. If I can talk you out of being a writer, I've done you a favor, because now you'll be free to pursue your real talent, whatever that may be. And, for the record, everybody has one. The lucky ones figure out what that is. The unlucky ones keep on writing shitty screenplays and asking me to read them.
To make matters worse, this guy (and his girlfriend) had begged me to be honest with him. He was frustrated by the responses he'd gotten from friends, because he felt they were going easy on him, and he wanted real criticism. They never do, of course. What they want is a few tough notes to give the illusion of honesty, and then some pats on the head. What they want--always--is encouragement, even when they shouldn't get any.
Do you have any idea how hard it is to tell someone that they've spent a year wasting their time? Do you know how much blood and sweat goes into that criticism? Because you want to tell the truth, but you want to make absolutely certain that it comes across honestly and without cruelty. I did more rewrites on that fucking e-mail than I did on my last three studio projects.
My first draft was ridiculous. I started with specific notes, and after a while, found I'd written three pages on the first two paragraphs. That wasn't the right approach. So I tossed it, and by the time I was done, I'd come up with something that was relatively brief, to the point, and considerate as hell. The main point I made was that he'd fallen prey to a fallacy that nails a lot of first timers. He was way more interested in telling his one story than in being a writer. It was like buying all the parts to a car and starting to build it before learning the basics of auto mechanics. You'll learn a lot along the way, I said, but you'll never have a car that runs.
(I should mention that while I was composing my response, he pulled the ultimate amateur move, and sent me an e-mail saying, "If you haven't read it yet, don't! I have a new draft. Read this!" In other words, "The draft I told you was ready for professional input, wasn't actually.")
I advised him that if all he was interested in was this story, he should find a writer and work with him; or, if he really wanted to be a writer, start at the beginning and take some classes, and start studying seriously.
And you know what? I shouldn't have bothered. Because for all the hair I pulled out, for all the weight and seriousness I gave his request for a real, professional critique, his response was a terse "Thanks for your opinion." And, the inevitable fallout--a week later a mutual friend asked me, "What's this dick move I hear you pulled on Whatsisname?"
So now this guy and his girlfriend think I'm an asshole, and the truth of the matter is, the story really ended the moment he handed me the goddamn synopsis. Because if I'd just said "No" then and there, they'd still think I'm an asshole. Only difference is, I wouldn't have had to spend all that time trying to communicate thoughtfully and honestly with someone who just wanted a pat on the head, and, more importantly, I wouldn't have had to read that godawful piece of shit.
You are not owed a read from a professional, even if you think you have an in, and even if you think it's not a huge imposition. It's not your choice to make. This needs to be clear--when you ask a professional for their take on your material, you're not just asking them to take an hour or two out of their life, you're asking them to give you--gratis--the acquired knowledge, insight, and skill of years of work. It is no different than asking your friend the house painter to paint your living room during his off hours.
There's a great story about Pablo Picasso. Some guy told Picasso he'd pay him to draw a picture on a napkin. Picasso whipped out a pen and banged out a sketch, handed it to the guy, and said, "One million dollars, please."
"A million dollars?" the guy exclaimed. "That only took you thirty seconds!"
"Yes," said Picasso. "But it took me fifty years to learn how to draw that in thirty seconds."
Like the cad who asks the professional for a free read, the guy simply didn't have enough respect for the artist to think about what he was asking for. If you think it's only about the time, then ask one of your non-writer friends to read it. Hell, they might even enjoy your script. They might look upon you with a newfound respect. It could even come to pass that they call up a friend in the movie business and help you sell it, and soon, all your dreams will come true. But me?
I will not read your fucking script.
Josh Olson's screenplay for the film A History of Violence was nominated for the Academy Award, the BAFTA, the WGA award and the Edgar. He is also the writer and director of the horror/comedy cult movie Infested, which Empire Magazine named one of the 20 Best Straight to Video Movies ever made. Recently, he has written with the legendary Harlan Ellison, and worked on Halo with Peter Jackson and Neill Blomkamp. He adapted Dennis Lehane's story "Until Gwen," which he will also be directing. He is currently adapting One Shot, one of the best-selling Jack Reacher books for Paramount.
Â©2009 Josh Olson. All rights reserved.