A-list Story Editor Gives Secret to His “Recommend” – Q&A with Christopher Lockhart

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Christopher Lockhart

Christopher Lockhart

 

It’s the status every script wants to achieve – a “recommend.” That means the reader thinks his or her boss should make this movie. And, when your clients are A-list actors like Denzel Washington, Mel Gibson, Richard Gere and Steve Martin, you better be sure the script you’re passing on is an excellent read. This is where Christopher Lockhart comes onto the scene. He’s the story editor for famed Hollywood agent and senior vice president at William Morris Agency, Ed Limato. In his five decades in the business, Limato has repped some of the most prestigious celebrities in town. Let’s just say Lockhart is taking his job pretty seriously. The fate of some of next year’s biggest movies are in his hands. He uses his expert skill at choosing good stories to give Limato the best scripts, and he’s also a producer in his own right. He recently completed Most Valuable Players, a documentary about musicals, which will hit the festival scene next year. Finding out what makes a winning story comes naturally to Lockhart, so Script sat down with him for a session on how to hit one out of the park in Hollywood.

SCRIPT: What kind of material do you review?

CHRISTOPHER LOCKHART: I look for material for actors. Denzel Washington, Steve Martin, Richard Gere. I’ve worked with clients like Robert Downey, Jr. and Sharon Stone. My job is find their next movie. There is a wealth of material out there. I look at scripts, old movies, magazine articles. Any kind of source. I comb through material. I started at ICM with Ed Limato, and I’ve been working with him for 12 years.

SCRIPT: Do most Hollywood agents have a story editor?

CHRISTOPHER LOCKHART: My position is actually pretty rare, because for the most part, my job is often done at a production company. You don’t see it at an agency. My boss works in a particular kind of way. He’s not just an agent to his clients; he’s a manager. He provides a full service to his clients. He has a person like me on staff to provide that creative input.

SCRIPT: How did your job become what it is now?

CL: The whole thing was kind of an accident. People introducing me to people. I was eventually introduced to Ed. He was a legend, one of the top talent agents of all time. This was at ICM, at the time, so I was like, hey, I can quit if I don’t like it. But, I really enjoy it. I enjoy the agency environment. It’s a lot of fun. It’s very dynamic. And Ed Limato is such an icon. He’s the last of the old fashioned agents, and enamored with old Hollywood. I love to watch the way this man works. It’s so different than the way newer agents work. He is so client oriented. He wants to make the client feel comfortable and safe. I’ve learned a lot over the years.

SCRIPT: How do you choose the right piece for the right actor?

CL: I ask myself some very simple questions: Is the material good enough, and will the actor fall in love with this role? If I think the script is fantastic, I’m going to voice my opinion. I’ll pass it on. I’ll say, “Hey, I know that this isn’t exactly what you’re looking for right now. But it may be something that they’ll change their mind about.” Or they can put it on hold. Some projects can take years and years to get off the ground. Years ago, I read a script called The Hoax by William Wheeler. He’s a fantastic writer. The role of Cliff Irving was perfect for Richard Gere. But at the time, it wasn’t something that interested anyone. But it remained on my radar. They would come to me and say, do we have anything for Richard? I would say, don’t forget The Hoax. Finally in the end, it came together with Lasse Hallstrom directing it. It wasn’t a big movie, although it got great reviews. And it was a great role for Richard. Ultimately, that’s what I want to do, to find that role.

SCRIPT: How many scripts do you read?

CL: Through the course of my career, and expands beyond 12 years, I’ve read about 30,000 scripts. Most of the scripts I read are studio scripts that have producers attached, and are green lit or pending on what talent attaches. In a week, I read about 30 scripts. How many of those scripts will be movies? Probably none. The majority of the scripts I read don’t get made. This town only makes 300 movies a year. I’m not reading every one of those movies. It’s amazing how much material is out there. I can sit down with someone who also reads a lot of scripts and I can talk about scripts he hasn’t read and he can talk about scripts that I haven’t read. And that’s just the material that’s getting into agencies. Don’t forget about all the material that isn’t able to penetrate those walls.

SCRIPT: Do you ever read the same thing twice, a rewrite for example?

CL: All the time. If it’s a studio project, and they want a particular client in the project and we pass on it, they do a rewrite. An example of that is Matchstick Men. I remember the first time I read it. I didn’t think it was particularly good in the third act. Then, I got a rewrite and they reinvented the third act. I was totally blown away. Other times there is a scene I love in a particular draft, and I even talk to people about it and then I read the next draft and they cut it out. Sometimes rewriting makes a script better, and sometimes it makes it worse. But I love the rewrite process. For me, it’s a lot of fun to watch the way a script evolves. I’m not involved in the creative decisions, but I certainly turn in my notes and say what works and doesn’t work. It is very interesting to watch the way that creative process works. I love to hear where ideas come from. I love to understand the thought process. I often try to guess the thought process on why a change was made.

SCRIPT: Do you believe if it’s not on the page, it won’t be on the screen?

CL: I remember reading the script for Elf and not thinking it was particularly good. Then, movie comes out, and it’s a box office smash. Critics love it. I watch the movie, and I enjoy it. Even the same pet peeves I had in the screenplay seem to play well. I thought the movie was very entertaining. That’s a very valuable lesson. A screenplay is not a movie. When I’m looking at screenplays, and there is a lot of tinny dialog, it seems like it might not work. But when it comes out of Denzel’s mouth, it sounds like Shakespeare. That is a lesson that has been evolving for me over time. I don’t want to be a screenplay fascist. It really has to work on the page, but there is definitely some leeway. Once it gets in the hands of a director, a cinematographer, the actors and an editor, the story transforms.

SCRIPT: What’s your advice to new writers?

CL: A writer has to be true to who he is and his voice and what it is he wants to write. But, he has to remember that this is a business. It’s important that he educate himself on the business. He should be reading the Hollywood Reporter. You’ve got to know what’s going on in the business. To see what kind of scripts are selling, who’s working, what production companies are looking for. Some new writers think all they have to do is write their scripts and close their eyes and send the script out there. That’s not the way it goes. You need to be able to strategize. The writer can write the script, but the other half is the business side. It involves lawyers and contracts. A lot of new writers forget that. The marketplace is so tough. Agents and managers are working so hard trying to take care of their client base. Brand new writers that have no connections and nothing going will find it really hard to penetrate. You have some strategy and plan of what you want to do and who you’re going to approach.

For more information on Christopher Lockhart’s documentary, visit Most Valuable Players, and tune into his podcast, The Inside Pitch.

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