Meet the Reader: Phil Clarke
"The good news for fledgling writers is that it's okay to suck." Phil Clarke talks about about lessons he learned from the greats, common mistakes that drive him crazy, and the differences between the film industries in Hollywood and the U.K.
By Brianne Hogan.
Phil Clarke is a London-based script consultant who’s never known a time when he wasn’t interested in films.
From a very early age, Clarke would “stare mesmerised at movies playing on the TV,” he recalls. “Not just the magnificent visuals, the larger-than-life characters, but also the strange list of names at the end scrolling upwards. My parents used to buy me film guidebooks listing thousands of movies and I would just pore over them, soaking up details.”
His fascination with filmmaking eventually landed him a gig as a studio runner for Leavesden Film Studios on Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. From there, he quickly moved onto becoming the studio’s Production Liaison and worked on a variety of Hollywood movies, including Sleepy Hollow and An Ideal Husband, and was also Chris Columbus’ on-set assistant for the first two Harry Potter flicks.
After learning from some the great masters of cinema – Columbus, Tim Burton, George Lucas — Clarke soon turned to screenwriting and found success, having had his work optioned numerous times. He says he turned to script consulting because “it married perfectly with my love of film.” Having always loved stories in all of their forms, for Clarke, script reading “also followed on seamlessly from my years working in the film industry and then my own writing. I always enjoyed collaborating with other writers in the early days, especially when receiving my co-writer’s work. I found it came naturally to me to see what’s working and what isn’t from reading the pages as opposed to discussing a scene verbally. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how well you work out a scene through chatting, it’s what’s on the page that counts.”
Creative Screenwriting talked to Clarke about lessons he learned from the greats, common mistakes that drive him crazy, and the (general) differences between the film industries in Hollywood vs. the U.K.
What do you love about script reading?
They aren’t like books, which begin and end with being read. Scripts have a different raison d’etre. They are written to be read, but are intended for more, for a completely different medium: for the screen. Consequently, they are difficult to write, but when they are done right, they create a visual masterpiece in your mind.
It’s also immensely satisfying and rewarding being able to help a writer with their script. I so want all my clients to do well and if I can play a small part in their quest for success, then fantastic. There’s nothing better than connecting with a writer who is keen to learn, eager to develop their craft in order to get their abilities and their script where it needs to be. Seeing a writer grow is most fulfilling.
How did you break into it? What was your first gig?
My first experience of a script reading gig came from my time working in film production. A director of some note asked me to take a look at a screenplay, give them my thoughts. This came after they had taken a look at some of my work, saw my commitment to the craft and spotted I had promise. From that moment on I was bitten by the bug. I felt at home working out where the script could be improved, why the characters weren’t jumping from the page and engaging me.
Who do you usually consult for? Production companies, the aspiring screenwriter, both?
I began consulting within the industry for a couple of production companies, but then opened up to individuals as I felt I could better help that way. I prefer that personal touch, not only assisting a writer in the improvement of a particular script, but also helping them hone their craft. Nowadays, my focus is on the aspiring screenwriter, but I do still get the call from my industry contacts.
What’s your reading process like when you sit down with a script?
It starts off much like sitting down to watch a film. There’s that initial excitement where you’re about to embark on a journey and immerse yourself in a set of characters’ lives. I always try to come at a script as if it’s a produced film. That’s what all writers should be aiming for: to create an entertaining tale that can be seen in the reader’s mind’s eye.
Then once I start the read, the analytical side of my brain kicks in, but it’s a fine balance and not everyone can do it. You need to have both your left brain and your right brain focused when you read a script as a consultant. You need to be able to think creatively and logically.
What does every script need to have in order to avoid the slush pile?
There are many things a script needs to avoid in order to sidestep rejection and to list them all here would crash your site! And to answer in such a Q&A interview invites generalisation. But I want to give you something!
What I will say is that if you can write a well formatted, error-free screenplay that has an engaging main character with a clearly-defined goal and strong conflict to that goal with sufficient twists, turns and emotional highs and lows then you stand a very strong chance of making a positive impact. How’s that?
What are some common mistakes that drive you crazy?
Again, I could ramble on for hours… but now’s not the time! Here’s a handful that come to mind:
- One-dimensional characters with unclear aims.
- Rambling scenes that go nowhere and do nothing.
- Over-described action.
- On-the-nose dialogue.
- Unnecessarily unusual layout.
- Poor spelling and grammar.
You’ve worked with the likes of George Lucas, Tim Burton and Chris Columbus. What lessons have you gleaned from them that would be useful to the aspiring screenwriter?
The best nugget of gold I received came from Chris Columbus who was a great help and not just a director but an experienced screenwriter, too. I was picking his brains about three-act structures and paradigms one day and he stopped me and told me: just write an entertaining story. Sometimes writers, particularly ones new to the game, get too focused on creating a regimented structure. Whether it’s Syd Field’s 3-act paradigm or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, it’s important not to lose sight of what you’re trying to do: you’re trying to tell a good story, plain and simple. To a fledgling writer starting out who was always so focused on the minutiae, this was invaluable advice and I am always passing it on to others.
You’re also a screenwriter, and an author. What are some writing tips that you think are essential to an emerging writer?
Well, following on from the last question, I’m going to paraphrase Chris. Make sure your story entertains. Particularly when writing a screenplay you wish to sell, it’s not sufficient to write something that you find entertaining but that will also entertain others.
I, then, would also add that you need to know what the purpose of your story is. If you don’t know this, it will show in your writing. Uncover the core truth of your tale and make sure everything relates to this.
When writing any scene, communicate with clarity and consistency.
How long do you think it should take to write the first draft of a script?
There is no definitive answer to this. It takes as long as it takes. Some writers write quickly, others need more time to get scenes down on the page. It also depends on where this first draft is coming in the whole process. Some writers dive straight into their first draft and go where the characters take them, others prefer to outline heavily first in order to make sure that opening draft is more structured, has more direction.
It’s fairly likely, though, that the quicker you complete that first draft, the more rewriting you’ll need to be doing afterwards.
At which point in the writing and editing process should a writer approach you for your help?
Again, there is no single answer to this. You can come to me for help at any stage in the writing process as I offer services that aren’t solely focused on the script, but also the logline, the synopsis, the treatment etc.
However, writers usually come to me after they’ve completed at least a first draft. I would certainly advocate a writer get to this stage before seeking help as it’s much easier for a consultant to gauge what is going wrong or where it isn’t hitting the right notes when there’s a completed script to read.
As a writer, what’s a good indication that your script is “good enough” to make the rounds?
The truth is I can often tell as early as the first page whether a script is going to be good enough. If that first page is littered with spelling or grammar errors or the writer has broken formatting rules just for the sake of it, then I know I am in for a rough ride. These cosmetic concerns are often indicative of more problematic issues as if a writer can’t get the easy stuff right, then it’s unlikely they’ll have nailed the difficult elements of writing a screenplay.
You live in the U.K. What kind of advantages does that serve you rather than being in the hubbub of Hollywood?
I don’t see it as having either advantages or disadvantages. The world is a much smaller place nowadays. Writers can work anywhere. As long as their products are “good enough”, they can succeed. It’s the same for consultants.
What are the key differences between the film industry in the U.K. and Hollywood when it comes to development?
Another big question that needs more time to answer properly, but I’ll do my best here. Forgive any sweeping generalisations!
Hollywood is a filmmaking machine and has been for what’s getting on for a century now. It’s the establishment; a business dominated by the big studios that can provide colossal budgets. And the bigger the budget, the more focus there is on making money back. Consequently, the Hollywood approach is to do their best to ensure profit. It’s a business, remember? This means favouring stories and characters that have a solid fan base as it’s the closest they can get to guaranteeing a profit – although it’s not always that black and white. That’s why we’ve had the proliferation of superhero films and remakes and bestseller adaptations in recent years.
The UK industry doesn’t have the same financial clout and is made up of smaller production companies. This tends to mean lower budget films. And the lower the budget, the lower the financial risk, allowing for the UK industry to be more encouraging of new writers and directors. Though this doesn’t mean Hollywood are anti-newcomers, not at all. I’m really talking about the main focus.
Another difference is that Hollywood is able to spend larger amounts of money on marketing and distribution. This can often have a huge bearing on the kind of movies that are developed.
What film(s) do you think has a well-crafted screenplay?
There are so many, but I’ll pick a handful… and I am going to avoid saying Chinatown, because everyone cites this screenplay. It’s a given.
Groundhog Day by Danny Rubin is one of the best screenplays when it comes to craft. Based on an idea that we’d all have killed for, it’s a concept movie that’s flawlessly executed – something so difficult to pull off.
Back To The Future is a great example of a multi-genre story and fulfils all necessary conventions. It works as a sci-fi film, a comedy, a romance and adventure. It’s one of those beloved films that brings a smile to your face just thinking about it.
Se7en is also one of my go-to scripts. It’s a beauty of an idea that could have so easily descended into B-movie shlock. But Andrew Kevin Walker creates a gripping, smart, risky tale packed with invention and it’s brutal without being gratuitous.
The Apartment is well known within the industry as being a stunning example of an easy read. Sad as well as funny, Diamond’s screenplay drips with class and hits all the right notes throughout.
The Silence of the Lambs is considered as the perfect adaptation. Centred around a strong female lead with one of the most memorable villains of cinema, it’s structure, characterisation and tone are top notch.
Others include: Raiders of the Lost Ark (not merely a B movie), Shakespeare In Love (by the peerless Tom Stoppard), Die Hard (redefined the action genre and a great example of pace), Rear Window (one-location perfection), Forrest Gump (magical, inventive example of the travelling angel narrative) and finally you can cite nearly all of the screenplays to Pixar films.
Any other advice for writers?
Absolutely! I’ve got plenty, but I’ll keep it short. If anyone wants more, they can always get in touch with me. First of all, be honest with yourself. This can be tough to pull off, especially when you’re so determined to make it. Think of all those wannabes in the early rounds of The X Factor or Britain’s/America’s Got Talent. They’re sooo eager to make it, they get lost in a cloud of self-deception. We stare open-mouthed at the TV, wondering how they can lack such self-awareness. What goes for singing can also be applied to writing.
The good news for fledgling writers is that it’s okay to suck. You’re new to the game. Screenwriting is a craft that needs to be learned, honed and perfected and you’re not going to achieve that straightaway. What you need to do is acknowledge that it can take time to get to the level you desire. So be open to learn, be open to criticism.
Never stop trying to improve. The best writers rarely consider themselves the finished article. The worst think they can pick up a pen or hit the computer keys and knock out a Chinatown or Reservoir Dogs at the first time of asking. It just doesn’t happen.
Visit Phil’s website at http://www.philmscribe.com
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