The mysterious role of the script consultant…

Recently, we had the pleasure of chatting to Phil Clarke about everything from the movies he has worked on to how he would deal with 100 tiny Steven Spielbergs (intrigued? Read on…). Phil is a London based script consultant who has worked on some incredibly successful films like The Beach, Sleepy Hollow, the Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises and more. So he clearly knows his stuff about the world of film and being a script consultant. Phil kindly offered to share his knowledge, expertise and some truly brilliant stories with our community. Of course, we took him up on that. Let’s get started!

GF: Hey Phil, thanks for talking to us, tell us a little about yourself.

PC: Thanks for inviting me! I’m a Leo, hate mushrooms and love long walks in the country… 😉

More specifically, I’m a script consultant – have been for well over a decade now – helping writers of all levels improve the quality of their projects and hone their screenwriting skills. Before this I worked as a screenwriter and author, managing to get work optioned and published respectively. And before this I worked at the heart of the film & TV industry – where the action is – on the sets of a number of major motion pictures, TV shows, music videos and commercials, benefiting from working with the likes of George Lucas, Tim Burton, Chris Columbus, Terry Gilliam, Michael Apted and Scott Rudin to blatantly name-drop a few!

GF: Would you rather fight a giant George Lucas or 100 tiny Steven Spielbergs?

PC: Hands down, the strangest question I have ever been asked. Congratulations! I’ve probably given this more thought than is truly deserved and so therefore feel the need to ask a few qualifying questions! How giant is George and how tiny are the Stevens? If we’re talking ant-sized, then I feel confident that my boot can take out a century of Spielbergs without much trouble. If we’re talking a Jack and the Beanstalk sized giant George, then that’s going to be a tough battle. So, bring it on the itsy-bitsy Spielbergs, I say!

GF: What’s your favourite three films and why?

PC: I knew you’d throw in the old favourite movie question – although at least you’re giving me three. How generous! So difficult to truly do justice. I’d have trouble picking a top 100! I may well have changed my mind when I read this article, but – for now – in this particular moment in time – here are my top three…

BRAVEHEART. It’s one of those movies that has everything I look for. I’m a sucker for a well-told historical epic. Mel plays and directs a fascinating hero driven towards a clear destiny, Patrick McGoohan’s superb villain of Shakespearian proportions should have got an Oscar nod; there’re violent battle scenes, tender romance, passion, vengeance and great dialogue all underpinned by a modern classic of a score by the late James Horner.

SEVEN. Do you know anyone that doesn’t rate this movie? It’s a modern classic. As a screenwriter, it’s one of those brilliantly simple ideas that you wished you’d thought of. And written by a lesser writer, it would likely have been handled in a rather obvious B-movie fashion. Thankfully, Andrew Kevin Walker created a tale that is engaging, adventurous and fresh. He never takes the obvious path and we love him for it. This is testament to the fact that ideas will always be dependent on execution.

BACK TO THE FUTURE. I did a lot of my growing up in the eighties so to not have one film from this decade in my top three doesn’t feel right. It just had to be in the top three. Call it density! A flawless movie. One that never gets old. It’s science fiction, fantasy and rom-com all rolled into one wonderful multi-genre story. If you don’t love this film, then I think you’re possibly missing a part of your soul. Great characters, a brilliant premise, another fantastic score.

Those that just missed out on the podium — and could well have featured on a different day — but deserve an honorable mention were:

  • Some Like It Hot
  • Rear Window
  • JFK
  • Casino Royale
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Die Hard
  • Forrest Gump

GF: What was your first involvement in the film industry?

PC: Not counting my childhood years as a member of the audience (hey, that counts, right?!) my first chance to get a glimpse behind the curtain came as a studio runner at Leavesden Film Studios. While I had some pretty menial jobs at the beginning, my first day did see me meet R2-D2 and stand behind George Lucas in the queue for lunch. I then worked my way up very quickly, becoming the studio’s liaison. Basically, the main point of contact for every production on site. At the time, this was Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Quite the baptism of fire.

GF: What are some of the films you have worked on?

PC: It started with Star Wars in a galaxy far far away. I then worked on the second episode, Attack of the Clones. Others included Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, the spy drama Enigma with Kate Winslet, The Beach with DiCaprio, The Ideal Husband, De-Lovely, and the first few Harry Potter films. I feel like I’m missing a few. I was also involved with many TV shows, music videos and commercials. Too numerous to list here, though. A select list of what I’ve been involved in is on my IMDB page.

There was plenty of excitement and tension as it was a one-shot deal – no rebuilding the windmill and going again! Explosives were attached and the special effects team did the honours — the problem was it didn’t blow it up well enough. There was only one thing for it: attach LOADS more explosives to the charred remains and blow it up again!

GF: Could you share your fondest memory of being on set with us?

PC: Thanks for asking this one as it’s allowed me to do a lot of reminiscing! Really tough to pick just one. I may have to cheat a little and give you a couple, if that’s okay. I’ll try not to ramble too much!

One of the first that comes to mind was on Sleepy Hollow. It was a night-shoot which always brings a special tone to proceedings; every night-shoot has a touch of the magical about it. This one involved blowing up the windmill on the backlot at around three in the morning. There was plenty of excitement and tension as it was a one-shot deal – no rebuilding the windmill and going again! Explosives were attached and the special effects team did the honours — the problem was it didn’t blow it up well enough. There was only one thing for it: attach LOADS more explosives to the charred remains and blow it up again! This time nothing was left to chance. It was one almighty explosion. Even with the crew standing way back (health & safety!) it rocked us. Part of the windmill actually landed by my feet. I’ve still got it as a memento.

Another memory that brings a smile to my face was on location for Enigma. We were filming at a stately home that was doubling for Bletchley Park. A long stone-chip driveway out front. A fellow runner and I were busy making sure supporting cast members were in position for a long wide shot of the mansion. (It’s the shot at the end of the movie that the end credits scroll over, if anyone’s interested) We then heard “Standby to shoot!” We both looked around and realised we were the only ones on the driveway not in 1940s period costume. And we couldn’t see the camera hidden about a hundred yards away so we had no idea where to run to. Just before the cameras started rolling, we made a dash along the driveway – right across the shot – and dived over the nearest hedge just as “Action!” was called.

There were loads of fond memories from my years at Hogwarts. One that jumps to mind was while shooting the Devil’s Snare scene on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. This set was a superb creation by Nick Dudman’s Creature Effects team. And I was underneath it with the puppeteers supporting Dan, Rupert and Emma. I recall Dan and Rupert making up ragga-style rap songs while sat on my shoulder. “Baby Ninja” was one. A very strange experience. Could have featured in the next question!

I could go on. A race against time shooting on Privet Drive before sun-up; weekend shoots at King’s Cross station for Platform 9-and-three-quarters; being an extra on Enigma; sitting around Robbie Coltrane dressed as Hagrid as he told a select few of us stories; a water pistol fight with Johnny Depp; watching the likes of Tim Burton and Emmauel (Chivo) Lubezki at work. The one part of filming I don’t remember too fondly were the interminable days working with green screen on Harry Potter!

GF: What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened on set?

PC: There are always strange things happening on set. It’s like no other place in reality. Consequently, I’ve witnessed so many oddball moments, it feels as if I’m recalling a Terry Gilliam movie! The weirdest of these will remain a secret – what’s goes on on set, stays on set – but I can give you one personal experience that was pretty odd.

It was during the shooting of the Hut-on-the-Rock scene in the first Harry Potter film. I had only been on the production for a few days when the Hair & Make-Up chief grabbed me and brought me before director Chris Columbus. He looked at me, gave a laugh and with a nod I was ordered to the Costume department. Very much in the dark, I took a golf buggy to Wardrobe, told them I’d been sent, whereupon they laughed. They then pointed to a costume. It was Dudley Dursley’s pyjamas. Yes, the chubby mean child who was given the pig’s tail. Not knowing what was going on, I put on the pyjamas and drove back to set.

Thinking it was some kind of odd initiation as there was no way I could double for Dudley (I was in my mid-twenties with several days’ of hair growth on my face and the pyjamas were ultra tight) I stepped onto set. More laughter. (I was getting used to it now) Then I was put on set with Dan, Fiona Shaw and the late Richard Griffiths and given some brief directions before the camera started rolling.

I then found out why I had been called upon. They needed to re-take a shot that may well have featured Dudley. The problem was that it was very late in the day and there were regulations about filming with children after a certain time. So, they needed someone with similar hair colour to dress up as Dudley in case he appeared in shot when the camera dollied. Apparently, I was the closest match.

GF: When did you first develop a love for screenwriting?

PC: I would have to say the first time I remember focusing on the writing of a film was when I was a very young boy, watching Star Wars: A New Hope. Having videotaped the film from the TV, I painstakingly transcribed all the dialogue from the film; playing and pausing every few words until I had all the film’s lines down in a rudimentary screenplay. I recall calling it “Star Words”. That was my first ever screenplay.

After that, it would have been a natural progression following my love of creative writing at school. I always enjoyed the power of words. And it soon merged with my passion for films.

I enjoy working out what the script needs to elevate it. It’s all very well spotting errors, but the best of those doing what we do should be able to offer solutions. This can often be quite challenging!

GF: What is it that you love about reading scripts?

PC: I love being given a chance to enter a new story world, to meet characters I’ve never met before, see how they interact with others, see how they pursue their own personal quests. That’s the first love. Ask any book or movie lover – there’s nothing quite like immersing yourself in a great story.

Then there is the analytical side of me that loves finding issues, whether it be with language, formatting or more story-based elements. I have one of those strange predilections for error-spotting. I used to proofread at a print & design company many years ago and that morbid thrill of noticing an error has never left me.

Finally, I enjoy working out what the script needs to elevate it. It’s all very well spotting errors, but the best of those doing what we do should be able to offer solutions. This can often be quite challenging!

GF: What is the main purpose of a script consultant?

PC: I see a script consultant as having two purposes.

The first is to analyse the script you’ve been sent, to ascertain where it might be improved in order that it might stand a better chance of selling. It’s such an unbelievably competitive market out there, that spec scripts need to be of such high quality. And most writers are unable to spot inherent flaws because they are too close to the project. They can’t see the wood for the trees. Having someone who can provide an experienced and objective opinion of the script is invaluable.

The second purpose of a script consultant, in my opinion, is to help a writer hone his or her craft.

GF: What are the most common mistakes you see in the scripts that you consult on?

PC: Without doubt, the most common mistake I see is a lack of focus on the story the writer is telling. You need to know why you’re telling that particular story or it’s liable to be a rambling, meandering mess. Make sure you know what your story is about. Pitch it to yourself in 25 words or less. Write a log-line. Nail down the point, the reason for why you’re going to spend countless hours on this one tale.

Next, it’s poorly-defined lead characters with indistinct goals. Your story is your main character, so if you don’t know what your hero wants, then you don’t know your story. This issue then has huge repercussions throughout the story, not least an unclear ending.

I see a lot of over-describing in narrative description. Focus on the essence of the scene. Tell us only what’s important. Do we need to know the table is made of oak? Or that the girl’s eyes are blue? If it’s pertinent to the story, then go right ahead, but more often than not I find it’s not.

That’s my top three for today!

Don’t get too distracted with formulae. Just tell a bloody good story. That’s the main focus for any writer, whether an author, screenwriter or playwright. If the story isn’t entertaining, then you’ve got nothing.

GF: What advice would you give a new screenwriter?

PC: Make sure you write. As if you’re not writing, you’re not really a writer. It doesn’t have to be great, just keep getting words on the page. If there are words on a page, then you have something to analyse, something to rewrite, something to improve upon. And then you’ll develop as a writer.

Don’t get too distracted with formulae. Just tell a bloody good story. That’s the main focus for any writer, whether an author, screenwriter or playwright. If the story isn’t entertaining, then you’ve got nothing.

Ensure you know why you’re writing a particular script. What I mean is – you must know what your story is about. If you don’t, it will show. And when you have nailed the raison d’etre of your story, make sure adhere to it throughout.

Finally, keep learning. Keep honing that craft. Never think you’ve mastered it. This way leads to the darkside. I’ve come across too many writers who think they know everything. They’ve read a Syd Field book or Save The Cat and believe they are now Robert Towne or William Goldman.

GF: What advice would give to someone looking for their first big break?

PC: In screenwriting? Re-read my answer to Question 12. Develop that idea, keep writing. Concentrate on why it’s this story you’re telling. Entertain us. Then, when you have the best draft you think you can muster, have it checked by someone who knows what they’re talking about. You owe it to yourself to make sure it’s as tight and error-free as possible. Too many flaws in layout or the story itself and it will not pass the readers that guard the gates to those buying powers-that-be.

In film? Perseverance is key. You also need a large dose of luck. I got into the business through persistent letter-writing to the big studios. I finally was invited to interview (my endless pleas for work had not gone unnoticed) and I eventually got my foot in the door. But there are other ways. Work on a short film. Get some industry experience that way. You could do a course, although I’m not completely sold on whether these are necessary for working on set. Sure, if you want to go into a specific department that requires technical knowledge such as cinematography, editing etc then you will need to get trained.

And network. This applies to both areas. It’s often not what you know, but who you know that can help you get a foot in the door.

GF: Which screenwriters do you most admire?

PC: I admire any screenwriter who perseveres with a project and finishes it as so many fail to do so. There are so many obstacles, so many opportunities to quit, that it’s easier to give in and surrender. So any writer that does stick at it and gets to the end gets my admiration.

But this isn’t what you meant… Obviously, there are plenty of writer/directors out there such as Woody and Quentin who I could talk about, but these guys always get mentioned, so I’ll shout-out some of those screenwriters I respect whose faces you’re unlikely to recognise…

I’ve always been a big fan of David Koepp. He wrote Mission Impossible, Jurassic Park, Carlito’s Way, Panic Room, Death Becomes Her and he’s writing the next Indiana Jones movie too. He’s also been an uncredited writer on countless other blockbusters. Just a consistent pro working at the top level for many, many years.

Then there’s I.A.L. Diamond whose work with Billy Wilder is stellar, writing Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, The Front Page, The Fortune Cookie and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes among many others.

And in the same breath, I forever applaud the works of John Michael Hayes, Ben Hecht, David Twohy, Nora Ephron, Robert Towne, Ernest Lehman, William Goldman, Robert Bolt, Paul Haggis, Joseph & Herman Mankiewicz, Frank Darabont, Lawrence Kasdan, Steve Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin and Shane Black. If you’ve not heard of any of these, check them out.

GF: What scripts would you recommend a new screenwriter reads?

PC: Any of them! Every script will help you learn something. Even if it’s a bad script, it’ll show you how not to do something. There are plenty of places online where you can find produced scripts these days. When I was starting out, I had to buy the physical photocopied script from a shop for around £20! Writers starting out have it so easy these days!

One thing I would always be mindful of, however… these scripts available to download are nearly always shooting scripts. They have their own unique formatting style that shouldn’t be copied in its entirety when writing your spec script. This is where a lot of new writers get confused. They think because Quentin has written something one way, that they can imitate. The difference is – they are not Quentin! Not yet.

It’s important to realise that spec scripts should ideally stick to a familiar standard layout as they are to be read rather than shot. You need to please the reader and therefore it should be written in a clear and consistent fashion. Start bending the rules when you’ve made it, by all means. But don’t do it when you’re starting out. Not with formatting. If you want to get creative, get creative with your story and your characters.

GF: And finally, is there one piece of advice you wish you had when you first started out?

PC: When it comes to screenwriting, I would probably say: Phil, you are allowed to write badly. It doesn’t have to be perfect from the get-go. Allow yourself to make mistakes with those early rough drafts.

When I started out, I fixated on every line of dialogue, every line of action. This is a very pressured way of creating a script and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. You need the freedom to write shit. I promise you every successful screenwriter out there has done it. You think Christopher Nolan just sat down and bashed out Inception in one session? No. I guarantee the vomit draft stank to high heaven. But what that god-awful draft allowed Nolan to do was to go back over it and rewrite. Then he rewrote this. Then yet more rewriting. Honing the story and its characters until he had something very close to what we eventually saw on the big screen.

Huge thanks for this. It’s been a blast!

GF: Thank you, Phil! The pleasure is ours!


Script consultant philmscribeIf you’re a writer who would like to discuss their work, a particular service or simply to shoot the breeze about the wonderful world of screenwriting, then you can reach Phil at his site:

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