Ask a Decidedly Ingenious Script Consultant!

Ryan Dixon

The final installment 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 Ryan Dixon of the now-defunct ScriptShark.

Ryan Dixon is the manager of ScriptShark, a creative consultation company, and a screenwriter currently writing projects for Universal, Disney and WWE Films. Previously, Ryan worked in development for Oscar-nominated producer Michael Nathanson (L.A. Confidential, Draft Day) and at such companies as Paramount, MGM/UA, IMAX, World Wrestling Entertainment, Endemol and Good in a Room. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama and Entertainment Technology Center, Ryan co-authored the graphic novel Hell House: The Awakening and co-wrote and exec-produced the upcoming feature film backstage comedy OPENING NIGHT starring Anthony Rapp (Rent) and Cheyenne Jackson (30 Rock).

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

EX MACHINA’s screenplay was masterful. It reminded me of a sci-fi version of those great meta-thriller plays of the 1970s, like DEATHTRAP and SLEUTH. P.T. Anderson did an extraordinary job with INHERENT VICE. His adaptation added a layer of depth and Los Angeles historicity that was missing in Pynchon’s fun, but flawed and rather juvenile novel.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

As a movie-obsessed child, I used to buy shooting scripts at the late and belated Suncoast: The Movie Store. In college at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama, reading scripts was part of the curriculum. My first job in Hollywood was interning for Tom Cruise’s former company CW Productions, so from that point on, I’ve been reading and covering scripts professionally in one form or another.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

I think it’s a matter of taste. Of course, one must have a certain degree of training and skill in order to fully recognize and appreciate any craft. A classically trained musician or a fine arts scholar is better able to pinpoint the minutiae of Beethoven or Picasso. At the same time, taste is a separate sort of knowledge and instinct. A layman can find beauty if they’re a person who can digest and appreciates art for art’s sake. Nickelback’s members are studied musicians, Lisa Frank is a trained artist, and both are wildly successful in their fields. Study can hone and illuminate the elements of a craft but that can only take you so far.

4. What are the components of a good script?

The basic elements (structure, character, theme) must be superiorly executed. Next, there should be something special in the piece. Even if it’s basic genre fare, the script should include elements that make the reader sit up and say, “Wow! I haven’t seen that before.”

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

From young writers it’s always basic mistakes: mechanics, too much dialogue and/or scene direction. Sadly, these mistakes are also the easiest to avoid. What they reveal is that that writer hasn’t bothered to learn the fundamentals. This is fascinating because I can’t think of any other vocation where a similar incident would occur. If one were serious about learning to cook, a cookbook would be the first purchase. If you wanted to scuba dive, you’d take lessons before jumping head first into the ocean. While all the fundamentals are usually outstanding in the work of veteran writers, there is often a lack of courage and conviction in terms of content, as if they’re afraid to try something different for fear of being tossed out of another development meeting. If you are going to make the huge time commitment needed to write a spec script, swing for the fences. The creative dilution process can come later, once the script’s been optioned.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

One is when characters (particularly female characters) are described solely on their looks. It tells you nothing about who a character is and often times a bit too much about the writer’s psyche.

Another is the oversaturation of beautiful people playing everyday characters. Even if you look at a movie from as recently as the 90’s, a man could be a regular guy with full chest and back hair and a woman could do a nude scene with a soft, everyday body. In contemporary films, everyone is sculpted, plucked and dyed to perfection. In this renewed Golden Age of Television, character actors are able to once again shine and it really strengthens the storylines and characters (Breaking Bad and Mad Men are obvious examples).

My wife is a screenwriter as well (and very opinionated to boot), so for better or worse, this is a constant discussion and analysis in our household. A big one for her is that men can have high-risk jobs and a strong drive, but if it’s a woman is in the same position, she needs a tragedy or a backstory. GRAVITY most recently did this—George Clooney is an astronaut because of his skill but Sandra Bullock is an astronaut because her kid died.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

-The believability of characters is often more dependent upon the execution of other elements in the script (e.g., plot, theme, dialogue) than anything else. A trap writers (myself included) often fall into is to confuse “believable” with “realistic.” Thus the ever-present tendency to write characters who are mill workers, teachers, office drones, etc. While there’s nothing wrong with this if that’s what your script dictates, it’s also important to remember that some of the most believable characters in cinematic history were also some of the most unrealistic: E.T., Yoda, Kermit the Frog, Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, etc. They’re believable not because you could see them walking down the street, but because the creators of those characters did an amazing job of creating the world in which they existed.

-Master the art of writing a “skimmable” script. We all dream of studio execs, producers, agents, etc sitting down in a quiet space and focusing fully on our script, but the truth is that they are often read in a rush during limited time frames. This is why it’s important to craft your script in a way that a decision maker can easily understand it if they are forced to skim it. You want your script to FEEL like a movie. That means, a reader should be able to zip through it in about 90 minutes. If a first time reader can’t do that, they won’t be able to envision you script as a movie no matter its other strengths.

-This is stolen but golden: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” (Stephen King, a favorite author, from ON WRITING). Lightning doesn’t just strike and no one will just hand you anything in Hollywood. Nothing comes easy in writing and you have to work yourself to the bone to get success. I track my time using my iPhone timer and a writer’s log. I make sure to always get in 6 to 8 hours of writing a day. If I’m blocked, I take a brainstorming walk. I’m not perfect. I can procrastinate with the best of them and it took a few years to build to that point. But like any exercise, it works if you keep working at it and pushing yourself.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

Elizabethtown by Cameron Crowe. I read the script while it was in development and was never so moved or in awe of a piece of screenwriting. In the end however, the final lesson I gained from the experience was that great scripts don’t always make great movies. For whatever reason, the alchemy needed to successfully transform material from page to screen failed. This specific incident was doubly disappointing since the writer directed the piece himself and has shown time and again that he’s an immensely talented director.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

There are only a handful of contests that will have an impact on your career if you are a top finisher. I’m hesitant to state that all the others aren’t worth it if only because placing high can be a great confidence boost to any young writer (if they have the money to spend). But if you are cash-strapped, go for the big guns and ignore the others.

10. How can people get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

You can visit www.ScriptShark.com or email us at ScriptShark@gracenote.com

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Boston Cream. As a writer and eater, I like synergy and mixing genres. There’s no pie that does this better.

2 Responses to Ask a Decidedly Ingenious Script Consultant!

  1. jguenther5 says:

    Nice post. My favorite parts: (a) The deadpan “…The creative dilution process can come later, once the script’s been optioned.” (b) The implicit challenge in Item 8: Why did Elizabethtown fail? (d/l’d it for autopsy and logline.) (c) Skimmable writing–(probably has other good qualities.)

  2. jguenther5 says:

    I just read the 139 page, March 2003 version of the Elizabethtown script. The actual shooting script, I’m told, came in about 18 minutes shorter. The discrepancy between the great early read and the actual film may have come from cutting some of the wrong 18 pages, leaving weaker scenes to turn in the wind, unconcealed. The long script does a lot right, but has problems–the magical flight attendant, etc. Even so, it’s a fairly decent read and a good learning exercise.

    Oh, yeah, the logline: “Rising designer’s professional fiasco and his father’s death propel him, his mother and sister into an unfamiliar world of death, remembrance, and family unity.”

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