Pretty much anyone that works in film knows that there isn’t just one version of a film script. This is especially true of bigger budget films. The higher the stakes, the more script versions there are. Everyone just wants that thing to be golden before it’s released for the shoot and even then it’s not safe from edits and re-writes. Very rarely does a script end up the same as it was originally written. The worst part is, all this happens AFTER you have managed to climb the huge mountain of getting a producer interested in making your film to begin with!
Being a professional screenwriter is a tricky business. There are more screenwriters than ever before and, relatively speaking, still the same number of serious big producers. This makes it super tough to even get noticed. So before you even get to the stage of watching your precious story getting ripped to pieces, its weaknesses mulled over in plain sight, you want to be sure you have everything in the best shape possible to simply bring it to the table. Surely someone can help!?
The good news is, the person you are looking for in both these scenarios is often the same person: The Script Consultant. This is someone that can be hired by you directly to help you polish up that masterpiece you have been slogging over for years to be sure that you definitely are ready to approach the bench.
So where do you find such a person and what exactly do they do? I have been lucky enough to interview a professional script consultant and ask exactly those questions and more. This is for all you screenwriters out there, budding or experienced, to help see things from the other side of the fence.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you an interview with script consultant, Phil Clarke aka Philmscribe. I hope you enjoy it and pull as much from it as I did!
• For those that don’t know you, tell us a little about yourself.
Hi there, and thanks for having me. I’m Phil Clarke aka Philmscribe and work as a freelance script consultant – something I’ve been doing full-time for well over a decade now. Before this I plied my trade as a writer both for the page and the screen, having a number of projects published and optioned respectively. Further back, I worked at the coal face of film, in various guises on a host of films, TV programmes, music videos and adverts. (Okay, here comes the name-dropping! Apologies.) These included movies such as Enigma, Sleepy Hollow, The Beach and two of the biggest box-office franchises: Star Wars and Harry Potter working with the likes of Danny Boyle, Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Chris Columbus and George Lucas.
• That’s fantastic to have worked on such successful projects! So I have to ask, what is it about film and writing that excites you?
A great question, but virtually impossible to answer accurately. Even the most accomplished and eloquent of writers would struggle to put into words why they love the craft. For most working writers – and this goes for me too – writing is a necessity, akin to breathing or eating. It’s not so much that they love it, but that they have to write. I have always loved telling stories, love how there are many different ways of telling the same story. This stems from a love of the English language. So many words, so many synonyms, phrases, meanings, intentions, nuances available to us. It borders on the magical.
As for film, I’ve always been a fan of this medium. Actually, the word “fan” doesn’t really do it justice, doesn’t convey quite the level of passion. I find it captivating. I still vividly recall myself as a very young child staring wide-eyed up at the TV screen at the opening credits of a movie. And then there were those trips to the cinema; that vast dark room, the hushed anticipation, the expanding of the screen and the opening of the curtains, that BBFC classification certificate… It all had such theatre to it even before the film started.
On the silver screen, everything is larger than life, demands to be watched. (I miss the days when cinema audiences paid full attention to the screen for two hours rather than glancing at their phones every five minutes.) I love how with a good movie you can lose yourself entirely. You can be transported to different worlds, run the gamut of emotions. And the best allow you to leave the cinema with a brand new outlook on life. You’ve been forever changed.
Then there’s my love of the film industry. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked in this field for many years and have experienced the good and bad of it, but I still have a deep respect and fondness for Hollywood and beyond. I still recall my first time on a film set. Star Wars Episode One, aptly enough. As magical as my first time in a cinema. Felt like a fish out of water – but a fish that was in awe of this brave new world! It’s like nowhere else.
…a spec writer needs to ensure their project is top-notch, the best it can possibly be. Otherwise, it’s likely to not attract the desired attention…
• I really relate to your experience of the cinema, a place to lose yourself, I totally agree with that. Okay, now to the nitty gritty, what exactly does a script consultant do?
A lot of reading! My average day finds me staring at a computer screen for hours on end, poring over script page after script page. Simply put, we consultants provide feedback on the writers’ work. We aim to identify what is working and what isn’t and, if possible, give direction on how to improve the story and help the writer hone their craft. This is often vital as the spec script market is an immensely competitive one, so a spec writer needs to ensure their project is top-notch, the best it can possibly be. Otherwise, it’s likely to not attract the desired attention and pique sufficient interest.
• I think that’s important to get across and reiterate. It’s a saturated market out there for writers and to stand out you really do have to pull out all the stops and get whatever help you can. Thanks for explaining that so clearly. Looking at the production process, as a script consultant, where do you fit in?
Usually, way before a project ever comes to production, but I have been hired to help out on projects that have already started filming in the past, although in fairness what I was doing would have been better described as polishing. My bread and butter work tends to be spec scripts, helping writers get their non-commissioned projects to a level where they stand a better chance of being picked up by production companies, independent producers and agents.
I started out working for various production companies, but then expanded to include the unestablished as I felt this was where I could be of more real help. Many new and amateur writers feel very much outside that industry wall and I get a huge kick out of nurturing projects and talent, giving them a fighting chance of making it on the inside.
So if any writer is reading this and wishes to come have a talk with me, they are more than welcome. Ideally, if you’ve got a finished draft I can analyse, then I’ll be better able to help.
• I love that you decided to focus on nurturing new and talented writers. It’s a great feeling to watch someone grow into their potential after receiving help. So, from your experience, what makes a good script?
Again, a question that could take up an entire book to answer fully. To keep it simple, if a writer can tell an engaging, well-written story – something that isn’t too derivative, that is ideally a fresh take on something familiar – with a relatable, fascinating main character whose distinct journey hooks and intrigues while also subtly having a message, saying something about the world we live in, then it will automatically be in the top 5% of spec scripts out there. Easy, right?!
I get a huge kick out of nurturing projects and talent, giving [new and amateur writers] a fighting chance of making it on the inside.
• You make it sound so simple!! Fair point, it could take entire bibles to try and spell out the correct formula for success and even then it still wouldn’t be definitive. You have given us a great insight to what you do and I am sure a lot of writers out there would love to know how you like people to approach you with their screenplays.
They can approach me any way they like, within reason. As long as they are respectful and courteous. Although turning up at my door in the dead of night, script in hand is probably a no-no! The best way is via my website and its dedicated Contact page, although you can also reach me in the following ways:
But, and this applies to approaching anyone in the industry, I’d advise against attaching anything straight off the bat. Make a connection first. Think of it as a business. You wouldn’t walk into an agents and dump a script on the receptionist’s desk. You’d introduce yourself, be civil, polite. You wouldn’t believe the amount of times I’ve had pages of synopses or treatments posted to me without a word of introduction.
And I’d also say – come with an open mind and ready to learn. If all you want and expect is for me to gush over your script, saying how it’s the best thing since sliced bread, then you’re likely to be disappointed. As I am often found saying: if you want guaranteed love for your screenplay, give it to your mother. I’m here to truly help you, not blow smoke. I am the unpopular guy who is going to give you what you need to hear so you can improve.
• That must be a tough job trying to tell someone the truth about their screenplay if they are not open-minded. I agree that it’s important for a writer to be open-minded throughout any collaboration with those trying to help them get a better script. It can be tough but a necessary evil. Thinking now about the writing process, when you had days with writer’s block, what did you do to get past it?
Great question. I never saw writer’s block as a problem, merely part of the process. As a writer, you’re going to have days where you aren’t sure where to go next in a story. Not every day is a constant flow of creativity. What always got me through was asking myself questions. Why was I blocked? What am I struggling with? I used to write these questions down and answer them as honestly as I could. And this, more often than not, allowed me to see what to do to break through that wall. I know this sounds too simple, but it works.
There are other things you can do, of course. But I would always start with that self-interrogation. If I answered that I felt exhausted, burnt-out, then that revealed the answer: take a break, do something else for a while. Go for a walk, a run, a bike ride. When I lived on a farm, I used to go outside and kick a football around. If I answered that I was bored with the project, then I would turn my attentions to another idea — something completely different. Although this answer often signals to me that the project might not be sustainable.
• That complete honesty with yourself is an interesting approach, I like it. Even being honest about being bored with an idea which really can happen. Thanks for sharing that, I think it will be really helpful. Thinking about those budding screenwriters out there, do you have any advice for them?
I have truckloads of the stuff! My whole job is essentially dispensing advice to help writers better understand the craft of storytelling and how it applies directly to their own projects. My reports have often been upwards of 30 pages in length, but I’m not going to give all that here. That’s what the services are for. Such a tough question to answer as I could be succinct if a little glib and say: Write well. But that doesn’t help anyone.
Keep honing your craft. Always be professional. This is a business so don’t be inappropriate, rude, irreverent. You want people to take you seriously. Also know your story. You wouldn’t believe how many screenplays I read where it’s clear the writer doesn’t really know what they are writing about.
…this applies to approaching anyone in the industry, I’d advise against attaching anything straight off the bat. Make a connection first. You wouldn’t walk into an agents office and dump a script on the receptionist’s desk. You’d introduce yourself, be civil, polite.
• Wow, it’s that obvious when research hasn’t been made? That’s good to hear from your perspective. I guess there are no secret shortcuts to hard work and solid research. Thank you for giving some great advice there, professionalism is often overlooked in screenwriting as people often can carry this creative badge of entitlement. It’s good to remember it is a business. Looking at yourself and your career, if you had another chance to do it all again, would you do anything differently?
Don’t agonise over that first draft. Just get it done. In my early years of screenwriting, I used to strive to nail every line of action and dialogue in every scene before moving on. My first drafts used to take forever! Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
• That’s brilliant, just get it done! I always find it easier to edit something that’s existing than stare at that blank page and create something. Following on from that, what should someone do if they have a good idea for a film?
Stress-test it. Break it down. Write it out in any way you feel is best. Work out if it truly has what it takes to interest you enough to slave away over it, rewrite after rewrite, over months. Is it enough to hook others? Is it cinematic enough? Would it be better as a novel? A stage play? A poem!?
Once you have decided that, yes, you have a fresh, exciting idea for the big or small screen, then think about why you’re writing it. What’s the core point of your story? Unearth the core truth of the tale. Write a log-line. Outline the story. Then when you feel ready, start writing your first draft. Don’t make the same mistake I made when I was a greenhorn writer – don’t agonise over your scenes. Just follow your outline and write your first draft as swiftly as you can as you’ll be rewriting whatever you write. Get some semblance of the story down.
Not sure how to write it? There are plenty of software programs out there that can help. Free cloud-based programs such as Celtx, WriterDuet or more advanced ones such as Fade In and Final Draft. (I can help you with a discount with the latter if you become one of my clients.)
Once you’ve taken your story as far as you can, I would suggest you get someone who knows what they’re talking about to take a look at it to see how it fares. (Cough, cough. Hint, hint…)
My reports have often been upwards of 30 pages in length…
• I like the subtle hint there, one I hope is heeded and acted upon as it is important to get another pair of eyes on your work to help challenge and push you to that next level. I love your action steps toward writing a screenplay. I personally find it critical to write out an outline that is high level before I delve into my first draft just to prove the idea works and to stop me getting distracted from the core idea as I bring my story to life. I have to ask something now that I know has been answered a thousand times but I think it’s important to reinforce to people who are thinking of writing their idea out: How important is correct formatting for a script?
Crucial. Especially if your script is rife with layout problems. A badly-formatted script can ruin a great idea. Think about those people who read scripts for a living: agents, script readers, execs – they have a never-ending pile to plow through. So if they open a script and see odd, confusing layout, it’s going to be a struggle for them to follow your story and they are far more likely to give up and move on to the next on the pile. It’s no skin off their nose. It’s your responsibility to format your script appropriately to make sure it’s an easy read. Failure to do so will bring pertinent consequences.
• Thank you for showing the consequences bad formatting can have. I do think it is important for people to get that so their talent doesn’t get overlooked by something simple. Thinking about agents, a lot of writers have asked me about this and I wanted to get your view on it, how important do you think an agent is to a writer?
They certainly can be very beneficial, but it’s important to state you can sell your work without one. But, yes, if you’ve got representation, then it certainly improves your chances as the good ones know the industry inside and out, know what the current trends are, what the next trends are likely to be, which production companies are seeking what etc.
…[an agent] certainly can be very beneficial, but it’s important to state you can sell your work without one.
• At least there is hope for those without an agent if they have that killer script. I can, however, certainly understand your points about what a good agent can do for you, every little helps. I spoke about more screenplays being written than ever before but only a small growth in producers, how do you give yourself the best chance to get your screenplay read?
I would advise against making any of those amateur moves such as writing it in a whacky font, unusual colour or giving your story a multi-coloured title page. Sure, they might notice the garish cover, but they are likely to roll their eyes and transfer it directly to the trash. Again, I refer the reader to an earlier point: be professional. If you’re an a**hole, nobody will want to work with you!
Also, work on making sure you’re writing the best story you possibly can. The more you hone your screencraft, the more likely you’ll develop your work to meet the required standard. It’s common sense. Practice makes perfect.
• Great, so no funky covers, just good writing, a great story and LOTS of practice. Got it! Do you think you should include a cover letter when pitching your script to someone and if so, what should it include?
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. Always follow the submission guidelines of the production company or agency you’re contacting. That is the key. If they ask for a log-line or synopsis only, then don’t ignore this request and send them the entire script. This won’t go down well. Sounds obvious, but you wouldn’t believe the number of times those in script development and acquisition experience amateur writers not following their rules. It suggests if you can’t follow simple guidelines, then you’re going to be a headache to work with.
Also, do your homework, your due diligence. Research the people you’re submitting to. Make sure they are the appropriate people to be sending your script to. Don’t, for example, submit your knockabout sex comedy to Merchant Ivory!
• Good point about matching the script to the people you are submitting to. I wonder how many people have inadvertently made that mistake before!? One thing that seems to go hand in hand with the film industry is networking and events to help you meet people. In your eyes, how important has networking been for you in the film industry?
I wormed my way in through sheer drive and determination. Sent endless speculative letters to production companies and film studios and finally got a response from Leavesden Studios. Apparently, my continuous request for consideration had not gone unnoticed and they called me in. Two interviews later and I got the job and there I was working on Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, rubbing shoulders with Mr Lucas and R2-D2.
When I became freelance crew, it then became who you knew. If you do a good job and can get on with people, then a production about to start will contact a film close to wrap asking if their runner or AD or assistant is any good. So being reliable, good at what you do and easy to work with enables you to move from job to job. I was fortunate enough to move from job to job without much downtime.
If you’re a writer outside the door looking in, you would do well to network. Again, it’s common sense. And don’t just meet other writers, meet directors, producers, actors. If you can get a script – even if it’s a short – produced, then you’re on your way.
• So true, I know how powerful a personal recommendation can be on getting continued work with new people and also repeat work with those you’ve worked with before. I think people sometimes forget that one of the most powerful things you can have is someone willing to hire you again after working with you. It says a lot. I have to ask, as you get to see a lot, are there any up and coming writers we should be watching out for that you have worked with?
I’ve been lucky enough to read the work of some promising talent over the years – some of whom have gone on to become established, optioned writers of produced, lauded work. Currently, I would say Nick Deal & Jakob Barnes – a writing duo who I expect big things from – are certainly ones to watch. Also Jennifer Goodwin, the winner of my inaugural Gold Scroll Award – the highest-rated script of my 2017 consults – has a style that begs to be seen on screen and it will be no shock if she is soon rubbing shoulders with Hollywood types.
…Nick Deal & Jakob Barnes – a writing duo who I expect big things from – are certainly ones to watch.
…Jennifer Goodwin, the winner of my inaugural Gold Scroll Award – the highest-rated script of my 2017 consults…
• That’s amazing! I can’t wait to start seeing their names at the start of some great films. Speaking of great films, what’s your favourite film? (Sorry, I just had to ask…)
Ah, the must-have question in every Q&A! And I will say what I always say – that it is ever-changing, depending on my mood. So, to this end, I will give you a few of those movies that have had the honour of being my #1:
- Back to the Future
- Some Like It Hot
• Some classics in that list and some that match my own feelings. I can never pick just one either. So making it more specific to this interview, who is your favourite writer?
Again, I can’t really pick one. There are so many writers whose work and style I love – all for differing reasons. My list would use up your entire bandwidth! I’ll show restraint and say…
Writers of the page: Stephen King, Joanne Harris, Lee Child, Frederick Forsyth, Charles Cumming.
Writers for the stage: David Mamet, Michael Frayn, Neil Simon and a little-known guy by the name of William Shakespeare.
Writers for the screen: Paul Haggis, Scott Frank, David Koepp, Noah Hawley, Sally Wainwright, Jed Mercurio.
• Plenty of reading material from those lists. Fantastic. Who is your favourite director?
Again, can’t just pick one, sorry.
- Steven Spielberg
- Alfred Hitchcock
- Robert Zemeckis
- Billy Wilder
- David Fincher
- Christopher Nolan
- Edgar Wright
- Tony Scott
… all for various reasons. Each has their own look, their own style.
…don’t just meet other writers, meet directors, producers, actors.
• That is so true when it comes to directors. Finally, I have to ask, what is your favourite project that you have worked on?
Hmmm… a real puzzler. Have to say Sleepy Hollow. It was the first film I was involved with where I was present from very early pre-production to the very very end. By this time, I was more comfortable on set, not quite as rabbit-in-the-headlights and starstruck. (although you should ask me about my Christina Ricci story sometime… ) So I was able to take it all in and learn from the likes of Tim Burton and Emmanuel (Chivo) Lubezki (arguably the best cinematographer working today).
• Amazing! Thank you so much for your time, Phil. It’s been a real pleasure interviewing you and learning so much from you. I will save your Christina Ricci story for our next meeting. Got to leave them wanting more, after all…
So there you have it, folks. Some incredible information and golden nuggets packed into this interview of a real pro in the film world. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed asking the questions.
Once again, here are Phil’s details to get hold of him if you have a script you want some advice on.
Nothing more to say other than thanks again to Phil, thank you to you for reading and happy writing!
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