“If I got an email from Adam [Levenberg] with a script attached, I would assume it was great. If he suggested I read it immediately, I would.”
VP-Kopeson Entertainment (Platoon, The Fugitive, Se7en)
It’s hard to condense a three our conversation in under 1000 words—but I’ll try.
Last December, on Christmas eve, I wrote a post called Screenwriter Gift Ideas and mentioned that script consultant Adam Levenberg read a script of mine and gave me the best notes I had ever been given. Adam is the author of the book The Starter Screenplay.
While there is an mini-controversy over using/paying script consultants, my experience with Adam was great. And to be open, Adam offered his services for free to me to show the benefits of his expertise. The bottom line is not everyone has $100,000. plus to attend one of the top film schools. (And even those that do graduate from film school and have written several unproduced scripts can benefit from great notes. Heck, even Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian can and do benefit from good notes. )
If you’re like Diablo Cody and you can write a first script like Juno and have Jason Reitman hone the script with you great. Sylvester Stallone says that after he sold his Rocky script a producer worked with him everyday for eight months improving the script. And more recently the screenwriters of the Oscar nominated Bridesmaids talked about how the studios, producers (including Judd Apatow) worked with them for two year giving then “25,000 pages of notes.”
If you don’t have Jason Reitman or Judd Apatow in your corner—Adam Levenberg is a viable option to improve your script.
In that December post, I mentioned that in January I’d unpack some of the notes and insights I gained from Adam. So even though it’s already March somehow, here’s an overview—a top ten list:
First let me say that I wrote Shadows in the Dark (along with Scott Cawelti) over a three years period and the draft I sent Adam was, I think, number six. Several writer friends had given me notes up to that point on the version I sent Adam.
1) “Where’s the backstory?”—Here Adam hit me between the eyes right out of the gate. My story involves a young inexperienced cop in a small town faced with dealing with the first ever homicide in the town’s history. While I’ve always been clear of the cops backstory—and I’m sure it was in earlier drafts—it was too thin for Adam to see. As Adam and I talked ideas came to me on how being clearer on the cop’s backstory made the story stronger. The script now has a backstory with one simple scene—actually one shot.
This also set the tone that Adam had thoroughly read my script.
2) “What blue car?”— My story is a murder mystery and one of the clues is a blue car that was seen in the area around the time of the murders. At one point the cop mentions the clue of the blue car. Adam simply asked, “What blue car?” In my re-writing efforts to hone the script I had left out a key set-up.
3) “Lose the flashbacks”— Writers are often told to lose flashbacks, but they also love them. And year after year, they watch flashback after flashback in good movies so they know they can be effective. (Moneyball had flashbacks.) Adam simply said my flashbacks didn’t add anything and in one case the flashback I showed the character having the flashback wasn’t even in the scene he was having a flashback to.
4) “You have a seven page scene”—I’ve even written a post before about how the average length scene in a produced movie is between 1 & 3 minutes. Adam not only pointed out my seven page scene, but he showed how it was all for nothing. My monster length scene not only didn’t have a monster payoff, it didn’t really lead anywhere. So now that scene is not only shorter, but has more purpose.
5) What’s in a name?— Adam pointed out how one of my cops is simply named Cop #2. I justified that I didn’t want to get confuse the reader with a minor character. (Keeping track of who’s who in any screenplay is one of the challenges of reading any screenplay.) But Adam pointed out that though a small character, he does have a key scene and should have a name. He also, pointed out how I wasn’t consistent in that I had character in a one page scene that has a name. (His suggestion there was not to lose the character’s name,but to lose the scene altogether.)
6) Play up the cops love interest— My cop has on-off relationship with a woman in town that during this investigation is in the off mode. Adam’s suggestion is to develop that character and relationship more. (I think it was Sidney Lumet, or was it Sydney Pollack, who said he wouldn’t make a film that didn’t have a love story aspect. Either way it’s true of both The Verdict and Tootsie.)
7) “Police station is not busy enough”— Even though it’s a small town, a murder has happened. Actually, a quadruple homicide. The should be constant activity—phones ringing, people coming in and out of the door, people talking over people. I missed those details and since my conversation have noticed how crime stories deal with showing a busy environment.
8) Diarrhea of the mouth— So I have this Robert Duvall character who is a retired Atlanta detective who is a major character. And, yes, I actually wrote ever line with the thought that Robert Duvall could someday speak those lines. (Gotta dream, right.) Anyway, his dialogue is loaded with Southern wit and uncommon phrases. But there is too much of it and Adam pointed that out. As Faulkner said, sometimes you have to “kill your darlings.”
9) Word search “just”: There are just some words that for some reason you just use a lot. In my script it was the word “just.”
10) “Too much speculation”— My cop is trying to solve a case, that’s the main thrust of the story. But he needs to be doing more rather than speculating what he’s going to do or what happened.
10A) The ending. Adam showed me how I had built empathy for the cop—how the reader/audience is pulling for the cop to succeed and how though he technically does, he actually fails.
There’s lot more but that gives you a good idea of what a script consultant does. Adam and I probably discussed two dozen movies in this process. There was lots of give and take. How one movie handled exposition and how another movie handled a major twist. And along with the three-hour conversation, Adam also emailed me my script with more detailed notes attached. (Way too much to cover here.)
The great thing is it will not only helped make this script better, but hopefully will help me avoid some pitfalls with my next script—and the next one after that.
I’m a little over 1,000 words now so I’ll wrap this post up simply by saying that getting good notes on your writing is invaluable in improving your writing. You’re an adult and can decide how much time and money you can invest in screenwriting. There are lot of detours you can take–books, magazines, seminars, workshops, film schools, software, script contests, etc.—but what I like about the service that Adam provides is that it confronts you face to face with your writing. There’s no room for coffeehouse posing when an x-ray is taken to a script you’ve written.
Adam’s website is Hire A Hollywood Executive.
Scott W. Smith
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