Meet the Reader: Berkeley Hunt
What readers look for in a script, why reading scripts is good for writers, and what to avoid when writing your screenplay.
The self-proclaimed “black sheep” of her family, script reader Berkeley Hunt was the sole creative in a family of science. Her dad was an engineer, her mom a psychotherapist, and her siblings: a project manager, lawyer and medical school professor.
But Hunt always loved stories. She loved stories in all forms: from novels to urban legends to movies to comic books. From the second grade through her freshman year in high school Hunt wrote and illustrated her own own comics, which usually featured animal characters. “These grew grimmer and more dramatic by the year,” Hunt said, “eventually featuring at least one major character death.”
She was so hooked on stories that she chose to study acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute so she could read four to six plays a week as “scene work.” Acting didn’t pan out for Hunt: “Largely because I felt defeated before I ever gave it a chance.” And she soon found herself working retail at a Nordstrom’s department and subsequently as a bookseller Barnes & Noble (where in both she was “miserable”).
It was around this time, through a writer’s group, that she first learned that people actually read fiction and got paid for it. As a lover of stories, her interest was immediately piqued. Soon thereafter she spied the book Reading For a Living, and quickly devoured it.
“But it honestly didn’t help much,” she recalled. “So I made a bunch of cold calls, including the story department at Warner Brothers, asking questions.”
After several attempts, she finally connected with a professional reader, “who for the price of a three-course meal in her favorite restaurant, provided me with a lot of insight. And, most importantly, actual, physical story reports that showed me how to format my coverage, and gave me an idea of what execs really wanted to know about a given submission.”
With er new, improved sample coverage in hand, Hunt landed an internship with Amen Ra, Wesley Snipe’s production company. “I treated this unpaid internship just like a real job with a paycheck and was rewarded,” she said. “At the end of a couple of months, one of the execs sat down and called his buddies until he found someone who wanted to hire me. That someone turned out to work for Def Pictures/Polygram.”
Now Hunt continues reading scripts as a freelancer, both for big and small production companies and studios, as well as for ScreenCraft.
Creative Screenwriting chatted with Hunt about why reading scripts might be a good avenue for writers, her own reading process, and what are her biggest pet peeves while reading scripts.
What was your big break in the entertainment industry?
My big break, if you can call it that, was a job at New Line Cinema. Technically I was a freelancer, but we readers all drove into the office three times a week to pick up work. Typically, this would amount to several scripts or a fat book. There were ten of us and we were all kept busy with action, comedy and crime and supernatural thrillers.
What we seldom saw then was fantasy. In those pre-Lord Of The Rings days, no one thought there was money there.
Who are your usual clients?
I’ve always been a freelancer, making most of my living through companies such as New Line, Village Roadshow, Joel Silver and now, mostly through Peter Chernin Films. But I do have a few repeat clients who do smaller films. What I love most, though, is when an individual screenwriter contacts me asking for help.
You read for ScreenCraft as well. How did you become involved with them? And what are your thoughts about screenwriting contests? Is that an effective avenue for emerging screenwriters to pursue?
Judging for ScreenCraft was pure delight. I was recommended to them by a colleague who knew my work, a former exec at Silver Pictures who thought it sounded great but who wasn’t available herself.
Do I recommend contests as an avenue for breaking into the industry? Usually, I’d say no. ScreenCraft is different; I recommend them highly. But there are an awful lot of contests out there being run by people who aren’t in the industry and who have no business judging screenplays.
So by all means, enter contests but look at who’s actually judging them. Unless they’re industry professionals, take the results with a great big truckload of road salt.
How does someone become a script reader? Do you recommend that avenue for writers?
Do what I did and get an internship, but get one with a company that produces the kinds of films you want to write, direct or produce. I know a woman who interned at a virtually unknown, low-budget, Christian movie mill. She learned little, made no viable connections and hasn’t advanced one step in her chosen profession.
I do recommend reading as an avenue for writers, because you’ll read a lot of scripts and learn what producers really want from them. But know that not everyone has the temperament for it, the pay is low, and you’ll have to work all the time.
When you get a script, what is your process like? How many times do you read through and why? And when do you take your notes — do you let the script sink in first, or do you immediately do your coverage after reading it?
Unless I’m doing extensive story notes, I read a script once. That’s all it takes for me, but then, I’ve been doing this for a very long time. As I read, I focus on the key questions that the exec needs answers to: Does the story open with a bang? Is the hero in crisis? Is he or she proactive? Does he or she have a personal stake in the outcome?
Look at stories like The Fugitive, Let Me In, and The Girl On The Train to see exactly what I mean.
Also, are there more or less regular bursts of cinematic action, or constant plot twists, or clever reveals that raise the stakes? Do these come about because the protagonist makes the decisions and takes the actions needed to advance the plot? Does one scene or sequence propel him into the next, and then the next?
Naturally, different genres require slightly different approaches. Romantic comedies all end the same way, with the couple we’ve been rooting for finally making a commitment to each other. Here I would ask if the gags stem from whatever’s keeping them apart, and if the dialogue really sparkles. Obviously if I’m reading a supernatural thriller, I want to be scared.
I don’t take notes when the story requires a simple Pass or Consider. The process and the questions I need to answer are ingrained. I only do this when it’s a draft of something in development, or if I’m supplying extending story notes. Ideally, I write out my coverage immediately after reading the script, unless my inner brat is screaming, I hate it and I don’t wanna!
What I really love is teaching, so I’m happy to look at scripts from aspiring writers. In these cases I’m much less of a hardass than when I’m reading for, say, Chernin. I’ll first focus on what they did right.
But I’ll be frank, too. If, for instance, the second act is padded with extraneous material that slows it down, I’ll tell them straight out to get rid of it. If there’re too many characters with too little to do, I’ll suggest whom to cut. (When in doubt, do not add a plucky dying kid to the mix because you don’t know what the hero should be doing next.)
I’ll also explain the principles behind my criticism. A basic one, one that gets ignored all the time, is that the plot must flow from the premise. I read a script a couple years ago in which a little girl is kidnapped and her father learns that he is the progeny of vampires and because of that, she will be the most powerful vampire of all. Two different undead factions are fighting over her.
Good, commercial idea. Unfortunately, the authors used this to justify going off on all kinds of tangents. They attempted to channel Anne Rice by flashing back to 18th century France and telling the convoluted story of a couple of tertiary characters, characters who ultimately had little effect on the outcome.
What they should have done is focus on the hero, his search for his daughter and those who stood in the way of his getting her back.
How do you break down your assessment?
There’s a standard format for breaking a submission down for a company like Chernin or Village Roadshow. What it boils down to is “yes, we should buy this script because…” or “no, we should not buy this script because of A, B, C or all of the above.”
What are you looking for when reading a script? What tends to grab you? What components does a script need to have for you to recommend it?
What really grabs me and makes me want to recommend both script and writer is a hero who’s been thrown violently into the deep end, emotionally speaking.
Harrison Ford’s character in The Fugitive has not only lost his beloved wife but had life as he knows it stripped away; he’s on his way to prison for the rest of his life. Let Me In’s boy hero is living a nightmare of his own. Viciously bullied at school, his parents are absent and when he finally makes a friend, she turns out to be a vampire.
But all this isn’t enough. Too often, the writer comes up with a fabulous first act, then has no idea where to go with it. So the second act has to be rock-solid, with action, twists and/or reveals that make perfect sense given the setup, but that viewers won’t see coming.
What are your biggest pet peeves when it comes to scripts?
Meaningless action that does nothing to advance the plot. I’m talking about sequences that are meant to thrill but that actually stop the story dead in its tracks. These are the mindless car chases, shootings and explosions that have no effect on the outcome. Once they’re over they’re over; there’s no point in referring to them again because if they were taken out, it wouldn’t matter.
While these mainly occur in the second act, I’ve seen writers open with them to achieve that big bang I talked about earlier, to hook the reader. It doesn’t work, by the way. I’ve read setups that contained entire buildings blowing up and thought OK, let’s see where this is headed. I read on, only to find that said explosion is actually beside the point, and gotten really pissed off at the writer for wasting my time.
What do you recommend in terms of a writer perfecting their craft?
A writer who wants to perfect his or her craft should read. Read-read-read-read-read. Particularly screenplays. Particularly screenplays in the genre in which they hope to work.
As a matter of fact, if you haven’t read a few hundred scripts you probably can’t begin to write a saleable one of your own. I mean, how many people read five or six bestsellers and are then able to write one of their own?
Is there any particular pilot scripts or screenplays that you really loved and thought, “That’s how you write”?
Drive. It’s not often that I read an early draft and find myself wowed, but Drive did it. I also read Ocean’s 11, and remember thinking, now this is the way you introduce characters, with action rather than talk. Each of those flashbacks showed rather than told us what each of the team members was all about, what their expertise was.
I didn’t work on Let The Right One In or the American remake, Let Me In but I consider these among the most brilliant horror pictures ever produced. On the other hand, I read 11 or 12 drafts of The Dukes Of Hazzard and hated every second. Kill me now, kill me now, kill me now became my mantra.
What would you recommend to writers who ask, “How do I get my material seen?”
First, make it worthy of being seen. Too many wannabes focus on getting sub-par scripts read. They’re not willing to put in the work it takes to perfect their craft, but are obsessed with getting their work seen by studio execs.
One guy I worked with was an ex-cop who wouldn’t talk about why he was booted off the force and who was working security at a studio. He wasn’t a writer — writing was just the latest in a series of get-rich-quick schemes. He barged into an office on the lot, script in hand, to tell an exec, “just put Julia Roberts in it and you’ve got yourself an Oscar winner.”
Many readers are willing to look at the work of aspiring screenwriters but remember, it’s a business and you cannot expect them to do it for free. The internship route is a good one because if you work hard, someone is sure to read your script and give you some feedback. You’re also going to have to be willing to start small, perhaps with a short, just to get your material out there.
When in the process of writing a script should a screenwriter contact you?
I don’t have a problem looking at first drafts, because it’s then that I can have the most influence. However, it’s best if you’ve gone through a couple of rewrites, developing your vision and getting acquainted not only with what’s working but what is not.
The thing is, you have to be willing to take criticism. Don’t get your hackles up because you’re not hearing that the draft is camera-ready and that the reader isn’t immediately going to show it to her boss at Universal or Warner Brothers.
What’s one piece of advice that you find to be most helpful that you would like to pass on to writers?
Check your ego at the door. When I was at Village Roadshow I looked at a script for a guy gratis, then actually emailed an exec I was working with. The story was far from perfect but it had a dynamite first act and had all the elements of a commercial story, even if they had yet to come together. The best case scenario was that the exec would buy it and then assign her own writer or team of writers to whip it into shape.
So this guy, who worked for Radio Shack, had a real shot at making his first-ever sale. The problem: He immediately demanded a meeting and announced that he would produce. Obviously there was no way in hell this was going to happen.
The exec’s contract ran out and I certainly wasn’t about to say boo about the script to anyone else, even though on paper it looked like a viable project. I read Mr. Radio Shack the riot act and refused to look at anything else he sent. I imagine he can still be found at the local strip mall, selling phones and ink cartridges.
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