It’s not working! Script consultants are the go-to gurus for film

Got a problem with your script? This man, script consultant Robert McKee, can save it. AAP Image/dmcpr media

If you’ve seen Brian Cox playing Robert McKee in the 2002 film Adaptation, you probably know what a script consultant does.

Following in the footsteps of other internationally-renowned script consultants or “gurus” such as Syd Field, Linda Seger, Christopher Vogler and John Truby, McKee is perhaps the most notorious of them all: brutal and ballsy, with a no-nonsense approach. But like all script consultants, McKee is interested in just one thing: making screenplays better.

The role of the script consultant sits among other script-development roles, which can be in-house, freelance or, in the case of the gurus, public facing. Each has a its own set of expectations and day-to-day activities, making the roles quite different.

In television the script editor – along with the story editor and, sometimes, the story producer – oversees a block of episodes at a time and has to consider things such as shooting schedules, actor availability and timing (that is, scripts running short or long).

Freelance script editors are hired in for film or TV drama projects, sometimes due to their experience in the genre, and sometimes because of their ability to work well with particular writers.

The script consultant, generally speaking, is brought onto a project for different reasons, and they can possess different skills to script editors. And it’s the role of the script consultant I’d like to explore in this article.

The screenplay seminar scene from Adaptation (2002).

Like any good artist or craftsperson, the screenwriter can need the support of someone else to help them deliver a successful project. This isn’t to say the writer can’t succeed on their own – rather, they need someone who can bring fresh eyes to their project, and help to probe it when things get stale so that the writer can deliver something even better.

That’s where the script consultant comes in. An expert in the art and craft of screenwriting, they work with screenwriters on one or more drafts of their screenplay to help give it a new lease of life and, ultimately, help to make it better.

Sometimes it might be a simple case of the writer losing sight of their project, and needing some help to rein it in. Other times there might be a set of specific problems with the screenplay, such as its structure not working, its themes feeling not quite right, or its dialogue feeling tired. Writers sometimes turn to script consultants independently, but more often than not consultants are hired in by the producer, director or funder to keep a project moving.

There are many well-known international script consultants, such as those mentioned above. They become well known partly for their work on produced projects.

Linda Seger worked with a very young filmmaker named Peter Jackson, when he was starting out. Christopher Vogler routinely works with Darren Aronofsky and Will Smith. And screen agencies around the world hire in consultants when they have projects that are nearing production – or in some cases, have been shot and are in need of some story help in the editing stage.

Well-known script consultants often host seminars and workshops around the world as well, tapping into the “wannabe” market as well as showcasing their skills to those working in the industry.

Consultants often write books, too, and use the seminar and workshop circuit to drive sales. Examples include McKee’s Story, Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, Seger’s How To Make A Good Script Great, and Kathie Fong Yodena’s The Script-Selling Game. Some of the models they purport make it into screenwriting software, too, such as Truby’s Blockbuster program.

Beyond the gurus, there are many unknown script consultants working in the industry – sometimes paid “not to be known”, so as to not shatter the illusion that a screenplay is created by one person. In this way, script consultancy can often be a hidden practice – and in fact many well-known screenwriters are script consultants as well, working anonymously.

The way script consultants work can vary widely.

Some are paid to write short reports – “coverage” – highlighting a screenplay’s key successes and failures.

Some are paid more to write longer, detailed reports, often looking at the screenplay’s accomplishments on a scene-by-scene basis.

And some are paid to mentor a writer over a period of time, often a combination of face-to-face and written correspondence, to work through a number of drafts.

In some cases, script consultants are hired to work with a group of writers, taking them through a shared process of development, from idea to draft, or from draft to draft. This is often the case with screen agency development programs.

So what does a script consultant look for in a screenplay?

Well obviously this depends on the project, and what the writer, producer, director or funder wants, but here are some of the main aspects that are considered in any project:

  • A strong premise – a situation or set of circumstances that intrigue, appeal and / or put the main character(s) in physical and / or emotional jeopardy.
  • Engaging characters that compel an audience to watch their journeys – big or small – and who have interesting worldviews and attitudes, and dialogue that makes audiences want to listen.
  • Thematic resonance that makes us not just see the story unfold, but also feel it – ideally long after the film or TV drama has ended. (This helps with word-of-mouth recommendations and DVD sales.)
  • An original world – perhaps one we haven’t seen before, or a variation of a world we’re used to. This is where genre hybrids and reinventions can occur.
  • Attention to visual detail, telling the story through images, movements and motifs, not just dialogue and generic action.
  • For a screenplay reader – if it’s going to be used for funding, for example – well-crafted screenplay language that evokes a sense of style and tone, as well as emotion and theme, on the page.
  • Surprises in and unexpected story turns of all of the above.

The script consultant has come under fire, especially from those who teach screenwriting, and those who believe that screenwriters are artists, not craftspeople, whose ideas are tantamount to God. But this is a very naïve view. Everyone can learn from others, and everyone becomes blind to their own shortcomings at some stage.

Where the gurus are concerned, just because they’ve written books and speak internationally, it doesn’t mean they care less about good stories. In fact, often the main reason they’re successful as a guru is because they have a vast amount of industry experience, and they’re trained deeply in story and can impart their wisdom to others.

Either way, script consultants – whether visible or hidden – operate in a multitude of ways, and work with a variety of screenwriters and screen industry professionals.

They play a major part in the development of a screenplay, and most writers will say they they’ve benefited from one – or a version of one – at some point in their career. Many hands make light work, as they say.

Or, in this case, many storytellers make a screenplay work better than it might have done.