This post was written by Jackie Wolf-Enrione. She’s a journalist and screenwriter. She’s sent in a few questions and she told me about an upcoming reading of her screenplay. I asked if she’d write up a blog post about her experience with the read and she generously agreed.
If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I’m in a weekly writer’s group where we bring in around 25 pages every 5 weeks and have professional actors read the pages in front of a group of other writers. The other writers and actors then critique the pages. I highly recommend that everyone who writes screenplays participate in this sort of exercise. You get a great sense about whether or not the scenes are working just by hearing actors read them aloud. You can tell if something you thought was hilarious really is hilarious. You can get a general sense of how these pages will be received by others as there is usually a consensus on what’s working and what’s not. And you can spit ball ideas with the other writers which often really helps break your script open with a fresh set of eyes.
So I hope everyone out there considers this. Below is Jackie’s experience with her own reading.
I’m a journalist by profession. I have stacks of research to draw from; investigative journalism is my strong suit. In 2005, I abandoned the notion of writing a novel about a plane crash I covered in the mid-1990’s. The story arc just wasn’t working, and my characters were like yesterday’s soup.
My manuscript collected dust until January 2010, when an A-list actor and his production company descended upon my Westchester village for an entire month to film. A serendipitous moment in time occurred when I bumped into this actor in line at my post office. After five years of mourning the death of my novel, it came to me: then and there, I took a minor character; made him the lead and the story amazingly wrote itself.
Timing and luck does factor into the equation. Of course, you have to be prepared in the event the stars align for you.
My first step on this virgin journey of writing a screenplay was to purchase a few books on how to write a screenplay. Luck has landed me two thirds of the equation: 1) After having expressed interest in writing a screenplay, a crew member on the set was kind enough to give me a copy of the script. That was the first ever movie script I’d seen. 2) I work part time for a major TV news network in New York City and coincidentally work with many actors. My first step testing the waters was a 20 page treatment I shared with my actor friend and colleague, Peter Von Berg. “Great idea,” he said. “But we’ll see how it translates with dialogue.”
Back to the drawing board: I had my work cut out for me. Along with the ‘How To’ Books, I studied the structure and content of the screenplay. I realized that was my path. Though it doesn’t seem so to a novice, the format of the screenplay is formulaic. It forced me to trim my many sub plots, focus on what was important and pump up the character studies. First draft: 145 words in Times New Roman font. What I thought was the finished product was just the beginning. In writing, all the writing is in the rewrites.
Over the course of a year and a half of writing and rewriting, my actor friend and colleague Peter was kind enough to read the many incarnations of this script and make suggestions each step of the way. My husband, a historian and editor and a friend, Homeland Security Specialist and author David Longshore, helped me with editing and military details.
Back in April, Peter suggested that we do a reading for Flight©. I was a bit reluctant but he felt the script was up to snuff. I could never have done this without his guidance and expertise. I would never have undertaken this myself. Quite candidly, Readings are a double edged sword. If you don’t have access to seasoned actors and an accomplished director to donate their time and expertise, it is my feeling a reading can work against you. But if you are fortunate enough to know professionals who are willing to take on the project, the results are startling.
Peter virtually took over the process. It’s official. Peter was the Director and the Head of Casting, just like that. First we picked a date we were both available—May 9, then a space. The logical space was Guild Hall lodged in the wonderful Episcopal Actors’ Guild at 5th Avenue 29th Street (I’m a member, too). Then Peter held auditions. He selected seven actors plus himself to read. The two leads: Tony Newfield played the airline pilot andElizabeth Keefe played his friend and neighbor, journalist Carly Foxx. Craig Wichman narrated. The other hundred or so characters were played byStephen Innocenzi, Michael Citriniti, Leslie Alexander, Sherry Skinker and Peter Von Berg (my director). Because of the scenes, locations and sheer numbers of characters, it is infinitely more difficult to stage a reading for a screenplay vs. a stage play. In brief a stage play lends itself to an enjoyable reading whereas the director and actors must work diligently to make a screenplay reading enjoyable and informative.
The purpose of a reading is primarily to help the author make final changes. If an audience member just happened to be a Hollywood type who wanted to purchase the script all the better. Quite frankly, lightening would strike first.
I watched the audience from the back, to see their interest level. Amazingly, they were absorbed from beginning to end. Whether or not they agreed with the premise of the screenplay, they were passionate about their feelings, points of view and the characters.
Timed it: 1 page a minute. Just like the pros.
Along with the accolades came the critiques. This was so helpful for the fine tuning of yet another rewrite.
At the end of my reading, 1 hour and 46 minutes later there was serious applause. After that there was a five minute break and I took the stage with the actors for the Q&A. Of course there were some gratuitous remarks by some who didn’t much like the premise. That’s to be expected and in this business, you have to be thick skinned (I work on it every day). Having said that, the constructive criticism from the audience was brilliant. In addition, the emails I received are enormously insightful and helpful for the rewrite. In fact they light my path. Interestingly, the rewrites will bring me down from 118 pages to very close to 110 pages.
Watching the fruits of my hard work was an emotional experience. I literally saw my characters come to life.
Twenty six people attended the reading. Because the screenplay is a political thriller, a fictionalized account of a true incident, which the author actually chased back in the 90’s, it seemed fitting to have journalists, homeland security types, some people attached to network news, political circles and yes, a movie critic attend.