I have a policy. It pretty much goes as follows: Thank you for asking but I can’t read your script. Such is the nature of having a public profile and the danger of receiving unsolicited material not vetted via my reps. Liability law makes it so. I recall once attending a baseball game with my ace attorney. I argued with him that I shouldn’t have to worry about accepting a screenplay or book or manuscript written by a neighbor or some Little League dad who might have turned into an every-weekend bleacher pal.
“Maybe,” I said. “But that’s what I have you for.”
“I’m not a litigator.”
“I know that.”
“I can recommend one of two if you continue your plan to get sued.
“I don’t plan on getting sued.”
“No? Then keep reading scripts every Tom, Dick, or Harry shoves in your mailbox.”
In the interest of accuracy, I’m not entirely certain my ace attorney, The Werth, ever said “Tom, Dick, or Harry.” He probably said something far more witty and crude. And I want you to like him. On with the story.
Days later, my fax line rings and the machine spit forth a single piece of paper. There was a note attached from The Werth. It read, “Make copies of the attached release form. Anybody who wants to you to read their script must sign this first.”
Cool, I thought. The Werth was on the job! Then I read the form. It was short and closely resembled a release form models are often asked to sign before they shed their clothes for the camera. Essentially, it indemnified me, the reader of said document, from any and all liability should I consciously or unconsciously chose to plagiarize any or all of the aforementioned script, story, character, manuscript, etc…
Yup, I said to myself. That oughta do the trick. A blanket get out of jail card signed by the victim himself. If I recall, I used it once. I even had to re-explain that what the poor sod was signing was a permission slip for me to commit theft. Not that I would ever think of such a crime. It was just for liability’s sake. That’s all. No worries whatsoever.
I felt sleazy. Filed the form deep in a bottom drawer and haven’t used it since. It did, though, cure me of saying yes as often as I used to. But it hasn’t cured me from being worn to a nub by some who can’t take no for an answer.
“Would you please read my latest?” asked WW (Writer Wannabe,) not quite a friend but a common enough acquaintance that proximity would eventually demand such an obvious ask.
“Sorry,” I said, adding the usual excuse. Liability. Time. Etc.
“I getcha,” said WW, who proceeded to kindly pepper me for advice over our next few encounters. But there came the inevitable second bite at the apple.
“I know I asked before,” said WW. “But I’ve just finished a TV pilot. It’s only sixty-two pages…”
“I’d like to,” I answered politely. “But if I read everything I’m asked I’d never get around to the stuff I have to read.”
We left it there. The subject of writing and the like remained unmentioned for months. Then came this conversation.
“Whatcha workin’ on?” asked WW.
“This and that,” I said, instantly feeling like a douche. I was already defending myself against another ask. WW was in the midst of the hardest struggle a writer can endeavor. Getting somebody that mattered to pay attention.
“I get that you don’t have time to read everybody else’s stuff,” WW began. “But I’m getting nothin’ but slammed doors out there.”
“I hear ya,” I said. “But you don’t need me to read your stuff. You need the right agent or manager or producer. I’m just another guy trying to get stuff made.”
“I understand,” said WW. “But I’ve been doin’ this for awhile. And I’m just at the point where I want to know if I’m wasting my time. Am I any good at this thing or not?”
“Hard question to answer.”
“Getting harder with every script.”
“You wanna know if you have what it takes?”
“It’s not just about writing skill,” I said. “A lotta people can write well. It’s whether they can tell a story. Make it compelling. And keep at it.
“Know I got the work ethic,” said WW. “Just want to know if I’m any good.”
“That’s all you want?”
“Just one read.”
“I don’t candy-coat stuff.”
“I don’t want smoke blown up my butt.”
“One script,” I confirmed. “Unvarnished response. I’m not your mom. I’m not here to tell you you’re awesome.”
“Just need somebody to be honest,” WW confessed.
“Alright,” I said, half-biting my lip. “I’m breaking my rule. And I’m not gonna make you sign a release. One script. Don’t bug me. I’ll read it when I get to it. And I’ll tell you what I think.”
“Thank you so much.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” I said. “I can be brutal.”
“So which script should I give you?”
“Your call. Just make it your best.”
“Movie or pilot?”
“I don’t care. Just make sure it’s your best stuff.”
The look on WW’s face was easy to read. I could practically hear the spindles whirring as the dogged wannabe tried to weigh which writing sample to hand me at our next meeting.
I didn’t have to wait that long. I found it stuffed in my mailbox the following afternoon.
Now, I have a bad habit of blaming my housekeeper on my forgetting stuff. Items I leave on my desk or nightstand (especially missives from the DMV) somehow get shuffled to the bottom of piles as she dutifully cleans up and somehow forgotten by yours truly. I didn’t want that to happen to WW. That and knowing how much I hate waiting on my work getting eyeballed, I decided not to dally. I got to WW’s script in a matter of days.
And it stunk.
Buy hey. I’m just one opinion. Still, I warned WW that I would be blunt and to the point.
“So I read your screenplay,” I said over the phone after a moment or two of verbal dancing.
“And?” asked WW.
“It wasn’t for me,” I said. “I had a rather hard time following it.”
“The story,” I said more acutely. “But that’s a function of the writing, too.”
I went on to explain some of the fatal flaws in the script, keeping it pretty general and rather bloodless. WW had wanted to know if writing movies or television was real or just a pipe dream. I didn’t think it was my job to out and out say it. Just to give WW the tools to come to hos own logical conclusion.
“Really sorry to have wasted your time,” said WW, slightly bitter, yet also buoyed by some face-saving hope.
“You didn’t waste my time,” I conceded. “You asked. I agreed to read it. No harm.”
“Is there anything you liked about it?”
Though I’d already passed that information along, I repeated the few moments I could appreciate, underlining what few strengths there were in order to salve the gaping wound I’d eventually get blamed for inflicting.
“You know what,” said WW. “My fault. Really. I see what you liked about the script and clearly I gave you the wrong sample. I have something else that that you woulda appreciated so much more.”
“You have another script?” I asked, more rhetorically than WW could get the gist.
“Something a lot better,” said WW. “Just finished it.”
“I told you I’d read one script. And to make it your best,” I reminded. “Was the script you gave me your best?”
“Well…” thought WW. “I guess not.”
“You guess not.”
“Well not now that I know what you like-”
“It’s not about what I like. It’s about if it’s readable or not. Yours was barely that.”
“Because it wasn’t the right script. Now I know -”
“So this is not your best? Yes or no?”
“No. Not my best.”
“So when I asked you to give your best, you chose to give me something that was less than your best?
“Which was it?”
“Okay. The script you read wasn’t my best. I just thought it’d be the one you like. My best is the one I just finished.”
“Well, good luck with that one.”
“So you’re not gonna read it?”
“Okay. I get it.”
I don’t think WW did get it. But at least that was the end of the conversation.
Because it was unavoidable, I continued to bump in to WW. Though as our kids moved on to different schools and sporting interests, the encounters were less frequent. And now it’s been years. Mind you, since then there’ve been plenty other WW’s to come along. Some with talent. Others, not so much. Some are neighbors and Facebook friends. Others are frequent readers of this weekly blog. And to one and all, I truly have wished them the best of luck.
As for if I’ll read your screenplay? Thanks very much for asking. But I really can’t.
- More Behind the Lines with DR articles by Doug Richardson
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