Screenmancer Exclusive presents
On Getting from Draft to Final Draft
Script Makeover's Stephany Folsom
Interview by Quendrith Johnson
QUENDRITH: What are the typical recurring script blunders you've seen?
STEPHANY FOLSOM: You always run across blatant script formatting mistakes, but the biggest blunder is writing like a novelist instead of a screenwriter. There are only two senses you can use when writing a screenplay: 1) what is seen 2) what is heard. Don't tell me the character's mood or how something smells. Convey everything in the action and dialogue.
QUENDRITH: How does style/tone figure in a screenplay for writers crossing over from other genres?
STEPHANY: You have to adapt your tone and pacing to fit the genre you are working in, but your style (i.e. your voice) should remain consistent. Every genre has certain style/tone characteristics that clue the audience into what they are watching or in this case - what they are reading. A comedy will have a shorter page count and the pacing of the dialogue is very important. In a drama you can get away with larger blocks of description and your characters should have juicy monologues and rants. Horror scripts and thrillers are all about the action sequences and using carefully chosen words and short sentences to convey the momentum.
QUENDRITH: What did you learn from the scripts you saw get made?
STEPHANY: The scripts I saw get made had a firm foundation when they were submitted to the company. The script's structure had to work or else it would require too much time, money and effort to fix. An executive can easily work with a script that has a scene that runs too long or one too many characters, but a flawed structure usually requires a page one rewrite. Every rewrite costs the company time and money. They are not going to put that kind of effort into a first-time writer. Ultimately, a studio or production company wants a script they can immediately shoot. Having a script that requires minimal rewrites is a good first step to getting it made. Then there's the politics of attaching stars and directors to push a script forward; that's a whole other ball game.
QUENDRITH: Did the execs' personality sometimes get in the way while making a script?
STEPHANY: A good executive will work with a writer to make the best script possible, but there are a few bad eggs out there. You'll run across the occasional executive that uses the writer/executive relationship to work out some deep psychological issue. That's why it is so important for a screenwriter to have a good internal editor. I suggest a writer goes into any meeting knowing the key elements of their story (it should only be one or two elements that would cause the entire story to die if they were removed or changed). These key pieces should be the only thing the writer will fight to keep no matter what. Everything else in their script has to be fair game for rewriting. A good executive won't make you throw out your baby with the bath water. Most executives ultimately want to deliver a good product that will make money. It's in their best interest to help the writer enhance their work.
QUENDRITH: How do you pick your creative surgical tools and what are they -- page one rewrite, tweak, redo of characters?
STEPHANY: Everything depends on the condition of the script's structure. If the climax is in the right place, the beginning has a quick and clean introduction and it ends on the right page - then the script is in pretty good shape. It probably needs some character work or a dialogue polish, but that's only a tweak. If the structure is a mess, then you have all kind of problems. I equate fixing the structure of a script to ironing a shirt. You iron out the collar and suddenly realize you created a crease on the back. You have to keep rewriting and rewriting until you have a script that is wrinkle free.
QUENDRITH: What if the writer doesn't 'get' why the changes need to be made?
STEPHANY: As a consultant, I'm much kinder when a writer doesn't 'get' why changes need to be made. There's a big learning curve with script writing. You are putting free-flowing prose into a strict structure. It's often hard to understand why something seems to work on the page, but ultimately wouldn't work in a film. Unfortunately, I had far less patience when I worked at a production company. I had to deliver a script to my boss and there was zero tolerance for writers that didn't 'get' what needed to be done. There was always room for compromise and discussion, but the writer ultimately has to implement the notes. If the writer didn't deliver, we'd bring in someone else to make the changes.
QUENDRITH: Is there a commercial voice in screenplays you've read, a definite way the stage directions are written?
STEPHANY: I don't think there is such a thing as a commercial voice. In fact, I think a lot of writers get in trouble by trying to cater to some bland formula they think will sell. What gets a writer attention is having a distinctive voice. It's important for writers to think about how they want to convey their distinctive vision and personality. How can you infuse your writing with style, but still make it fit all the conventions of screenwriting? It's extremely hard and it's why John Logan and William Monaghan get paid the big bucks. I suggest that novice writers learn and practice structure and formatting until it becomes second nature. Once the basics are ingrained, they can really start to have fun. It's your voice - say something we haven't heard.
QUENDRITH: Can 'damaged properties,' old scripts, even rejected scripts find new life in a retool?
STEPHANY: Definitely. You see it all the time. There's always the story floating around about a script that sat on the shelf for ten years at a studio and then it becomes the big summer blockbuster. They have been shelving and rewriting INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULLS since 1989 and now it's the most anticipated movie of the summer. The script for TRANSFORMERS was in development for 3 years before it went into production. Sometimes the zeitgeist isn't right for a script the first time around and sometimes a script just needs a fresh perspective that will point the project in the right direction.
QUENDRITH: What if the subject matter is controversial; how do you handle it?
STEPHANY: Controversy is a good thing. Just don't be controversial for the sake of controversy. The story should never be sacrificed for something gratuitous or preachy. If the controversial subject matter gels with the characters and the plot, then push it as far as it will go.
QUENDRITH: Do you discourage any genres, 'dust and feathers' (Westerns) or musicals?
STEPHANY: There was a time when studios would only buy high concept ideas geared at the 16-34 demographic or the family audience. While this is still somewhat the case, the market has opened up quite a bit with more lucrative financing coming from abroad and outside the corporate/studio system. I suggest that if a writer has an amazing take on a western, a musical or any genre - just write it. One of the best spec scripts I read was a western about a group of hardened cowboys that are forced to herd tiny Shetland ponies across several states. It was a completely new take on the genre and it was very well written. The script ended up not selling, but the writer's name was on everyone's lips. He was hired for several writing assignments and that western launched his career. Basically, any genre is fair game as long as it has an interesting take and is well written.
Screenmancer welcomes Stephany Folsom of Script Makeover as a Screenmancer Executive On Call.
While still in film school, Stephany learned the realities of movie making by assisting director Tony Scott on Enemy of the State. She soon took up the mantle of script development by doing coverage, script notes and project tracking at the Kennedy-Marshall Company (The Sixth Sense, Snow Falling on Cedars), The Jim Henson Company, Chuck Roven's Atlas Entertainment (Scooby-Doo, City of Angels, Fallen) and Lucas Foster's Warp Films at Sony Studios (Wild Things, The Mask of Zorro). She worked as a d-girl (slang for a film industry executive who considers scripts for further development) for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Granada America (Celebrity Fit Club, Nanny 911, Hell's Kitchen) and Disney-based producer Jane Goldenring (My First Mister, Five Dollars a Day). For nearly a decade, Stephany Folsom has been a story analyst, reader and development executive at some of the top production companies and studios in the business. (Courtesy of ScriptMakeover)
Executive On Call Stephany Folsom is available for your questions and comments. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She will be available through the "executive-on-call" klieg light on Screenmancer shortly.
Check out ScriptMakeover for more info.