The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Hayley McKenzie, founder of Script Angel.
1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?
In film, I loved Philomena by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope. I think it’s hard to make intimate stories in the Drama genre that feel like they deserve to be a feature film, but this one really nailed it for me. Also, Locke by Steven Knight – set entirely inside a car. I honestly didn’t think it would be possible to sustain tension with a guy talking on a phone driving a car for 90 minutes. It’s not a thriller, there is no threat to his life, no car-chase. It was a really stunning piece of writing. For TV, it was probably the second season of UK mini-series/serial drama Line of Duty by Jed Mercurio – a thriller that sustained tension and threat following one story over 6 hours of TV. One interview scene was 17 minutes long and you were holding your breath watching it – amazing writing.
2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?
After a Degree in English Literature, I started in film and TV production as a Runner, then 3rd AD. Then I discovered what Script Editors did – combining story analysis and film production – and knew I’d found my perfect role. I got a job as Development Co-Ordinator at BBC Drama where I got to read scripts for Jane Tranter (now Executive Vice-President of Programming and Production at BBC Worldwide) and Pippa Harris (now Executive Producer for Call the Midwife). I was reading all the submissions to the department as well as everything in development and production. They read all my early script reports and really encouraged me to pursue it as a career.
3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?
The technical analysis side of it can definitely be taught, and certainly improved through study. But I think good script readers are also very empathetic. Like the writer, they need to be able to imagine themselves inside the lives of the characters they’re reading about. Script Editors also need to be empathetic towards the writer themselves. As a Script Editor it’s not just your job to critique the script but to deliver criticism and useful solutions in a way that encourages rather than demoralizes the writer. You can’t not give the tough notes but as a Script Editor you’re working in a long-term development process with the writer so you can’t just tell them what’s crap and then walk away and wash your hands of it. What comes back in the next draft is in part your responsibility.
4. What are the components of a good script?
It’s got to make me feel something – almost anything as long as it’s not bored or confused. It almost doesn’t matter how you do it. If it’s a Drama I want it to make me cry. If it’s a Thriller it should be a tense, exhilarating read, etc. If it’s achieved that, even only in part, then I know there is something there I can work with.
5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?
A great plot but poor characterizations; characters doing things because you need them to do it to get the plot to the next beat, not because it is what that character would do in that situation. And the reverse of that: great characters but almost nothing happens to them. Most writers have a natural flair for one or the other and the key is helping them strengthen the areas they’re weak in.
6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?
The hard-boiled, world-weary cop. It’s particularly a problem in television development because so many of our shows are in the Crime drama. Trying to find new angles on the ‘troubled cop’ is tough!
7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?
1) Don’t be boring.
2) Don’t confuse me. Intrigue is great but utter bewilderment for huge swathes of screen-time will just make the reader ditch the script.
3) Don’t give up.
8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?
Papadopoulos and Sons, which was a huge UK indie hit in 2012, outselling GI Joe: Retaliation in some London cinemas! “Following his ruin in the latest banking crisis, a self-made millionaire reluctantly re-unites with his estranged freewheeling brother to re-open the abandoned fish and chip shop they shared in their youth.” I was lucky enough to be brought onboard as Script Editor – such a privilege.
9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?
Definitely. Placing in a well respected contest can really get you noticed. But not all contests are equal. I have a round-up on my blog of the best US & UK screenwriting contests (film and TV) which I update at the beginning of each month.
10. How can people get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?
11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?
Treacle tart – which is almost a pie! Yum!