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Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Good, the Bad and the Final Polish

Jim Mercurio is more than a mentor to the Script Whisperer, he is a champion and a friend. And he has this fantastic guest blog to share with us today:



My life as a script consultant is pretty boring. Download script, forward it to Maziar ( to print, get it in the mail, log into Paypal, suck all of the money into my bank account except for $20 for some eBay impulse buy, email client to ask for more time, play poker at Commerce Casino from Friday til Monday, do notes on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning. Repeat as necessary.

But there was one time that my profession got me into a situation fraught with danger, when I was being called a yellow-belly coward and like the hero in Kenny Rogers’ Coward of the County, I learned sometimes you have to fight when you’re a man.

I was at an Expo networking party and I stumble into a conversation with an hombre writer and his posse and one of them recognizes me, spits some chaw on the ground (okay, that part’s made up) and quips “Mercurio, what’s up with charging a grip of cash to read a script.” I laugh it off, realizing that script consultant is an oft-vilified profession. Ask Julie.

I stand toe-to-toe to with these strangers and we end up talking about Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. A quite educated bunch of ruffians, eh? The best-selling book details how humans have an amazing ability to “thin-slice,” to discern a surprisingly large amount of information from the first split-second they see something. Well, the rabble-rouser that I am, I tell these guys that this concept applies to screenplays. I say that 99% of the time you can tell a bad script/storyteller from the first page. They shrug it off.

And then I say, “Actually, from the first few lines.”

You could have heard a brad drop.

“Is that so?” growled the writer/ruffian (wruffian for short).

Before I could even take another swig of my diet coke, he whipped out his laptop. His posse was positioned behind him. Like the clicking of spurs, the whirring of a pistol barrel spinning around, his computer booted up, chastised him for not shutting down properly last time, displayed a cute little rocking horse icon and asked him for his password.

BAM! His screenplay was up in Final Draft and the computer was shoved in my face.

In true Blink fashion, an epiphany hit me hard: this guy hadn’t figured out how to clean his computer’s non-glare screen. Then I looked at the words…

“FADE IN” was right-justified and followed by a period. Two words, two mistakes. First sentence: passive voice and a ridiculously overly-detailed cheat in describing the main character. Second sentence: past tense, confusing use of “as” (as/while are scary words in screenwriting), an adjective and adverb that could have been eliminated with a stronger noun and more specific verb, several wasted words and a dangling widow. The first dialogue has a red-faced coach yelling, “What the hell?” with the parenthetical: (Angry). Cause, you know, it wasn’t clear. The next line of dialogue is clunky exposition and then there is even more exposition in the action description that is not only unnecessary but impossible to convey on screen. And then after more past tense and impossible-to-know information, we are told it’s raining. Crazy idea: maybe put that up front.

As I shoot down (hey, I gotta stick with gunslinger analogy) the 15-20 mistakes (some subjective, most not), I see the wruffian’s posse slowly move from behind him to behind me. One of his sidekicks said, “Looks like you got some rewriting to do, Boss.” The wruffian closed his laptop and galloped off into the horizon (the William Goldman Guest of Honor session). And he didn’t even have a horse.

Your screenplay probably doesn’t have THIS many problems, but on your last draft, pore over every word. The attention to detail feels like proofreading but it morphs into the craft of storytelling. Of the 3000 features I have read, only two have overcome the Blink test: started off sloppily but ended up being a riveting well-told story.

One of the wruffian’s sidekicks became a client and drove half-way across a state to sit down with me and his script. So if your safety’s stuck or your rewrite is jammed, consider a gunsmith like me or Julie and remember it may not be a coincidence that the Script Whisperer has the same initials as Smith and Wesson.

Jim Mercurio produced the feature film Hard Scrambled. You can see several of the filmmaking tutorials he wrote and directed for Hard Scrambled's bonus material by searching for "Jim Mercurio" at Stay tuned for an upcoming announcement on a James P. Mercurio/Script Whisperer alliance. "Wonder Twin Powers activate. Form of..."

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1 comment:

DougJ said...

... and Strunk & White