A “Queen of Comedy” in her own right, screenwriter Kirsten Smith brings her quick wit and sharp eye to the judges panel for Final Draft’s Big Break™ Screenwriting Competition in 2010. Each year, the contest helps aspiring screenwriters get their scripts into the hands of industry professionals. Smith’s long list of successful comedies, Legally Blonde, 10 Things I Hate About You, The Ugly Truth, She’s the Man and The House Bunny, among others, puts her at the top of the list. In an interview with Script, she outlines what she expects from a winning screenplay, as a writer, a producer and a primary judge in the competition.
SCRIPT: Why do you find it exciting to be part of the Big Break™ judging?
KIRSTEN SMITH: I read a ton of scripts. I used to be a development executive when I started in Hollywood. I still love to read scripts. I never got that out of my system. The thrill of discovering a new writer is amazing. The opportunity of bringing that work out into the world is wonderful. I have a compulsive need to do that. Also, that, and when I was working at CineTel Films, I read a lot of scripts by unrepresented people and one of them was by my writing partner Karen Lutz. I called her and we talked and met and ended up writing a script together. Great things have come from discovering new voices.
SCRIPT: What do you look for in a winning script?
KIRSTEN SMITH: I’m looking for a great hook and a great voice. From the macro of the idea, to the micro of the texture of the writing. It’s like that electrical feeling from a terrific poem or any piece of great art. My particular preference, I like pithy dialog. I like description that’s bare but juicy. It’s really hard to describe that elusive voice — things that have a little bit of a delicious offbeatness in a commercial/accessible package.
SCRIPT: What is the best advice you can give a writer wanting to do well in the contest?
KIRSTEN SMITH: Keep going and finish. I like to read a writer’s third script. The third script tells me two things. They can write scripts. They can make a living writing screenplays. They have gone through script 1 and script 2 and now they’re on script 3. It’s not just a lark. It’s important to have that kind of dedication, if you want to make a career out of it and contests like this can lead to that, if you want it to happen. I would also ask them to tell their friends the idea. The one sentence idea of all their scripts they’ve written. Tell 10 friends and take a poll of what their friends’ reactions are. I want the script that their friends say, “That sounds fun, I want to see that movie.” That will tell me that they’ve found an idea that seems like it speaks to people.
SCRIPT: Do you tend read the script from an actor, producer, director’s POV or all of the above?
KIRSTEN SMITH: All those points of view actually. You have to, as a writer, think of how is this marketable. You have to think of the actor’s reaction. You have to think about nabbing a great director. These are all the things that will make your script sell and be turned into a movie. When I wear the producer’s hat, I think about the idea or the concept. Can I describe it in one sentence? Is there strong conflict that can drive the whole movie? I love watching trailers for movies, and I try to think about how the trailer will be for the idea I’m pitching. I try to think about it from the executive point of view. Executives have to sit in a room with 20 or 30 colleagues and quickly describe the movie in two minutes. It’s good to be able to think like that, too. Is that script giving the executive all the fun beats? Can he describe it in two minutes? In terms of an actor’s level, I read a few scripts recently and I think you should have a two-sentence description of the appealing physicality of the character, their personality and a little bit of inner conflict. “She talks like a sailor but looks like an angel.” You get that it’s a fascinating character; she’s full of contradictions. This is really appealing.