The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Oscar-nominated screenwriter to neophyte scribe: I won't read your [#%&*$@#] script!

September 10, 2009 |  5:45 pm

I have one tiny piece of advice for any aspiring screenwriters out there. You can ask many people to read your script, starting with your old college buddy, your sister-in-law, that bartender you know who supposedly sold a pitch to New Line, the hot babe workout instructor who lives next door and your cousin Vinnie whose wife's best friend from high school is married to a personal manager.

History_of_violence But don't bother asking Josh Olson, who earned an Oscar nomination for his script for "A History of Violence." If you do, you might turn up in the sequel to a wonderfully acerbic rant that Olson just wrote for the Village Voice about all the hapless young knuckleheads who bug him to read their scripts, convinced that they've dreamed up the next "Reservoir Dogs" or "The Hangover."

I've heard other screenwriting pros voice many of the same sentiments Olson does, but no one has ever put it down on paper in such a marvelously blunt, take-no-prisoners fashion. What I especially love about Olson's rant is that it's actually a passionate, if prickly, defense of the art of writing, which has been debased in many ways, but especially by the distinctly modern-day attitude that anyone with a slim but catchy idea can somehow think of themselves as having been instantaneously transformed into a serious writer.

Olson was apparently moved to write his rant after giving in -- during a moment of weakness -- to the request by a friend of a friend to read a two-page synopsis of someone's script concept. Olson says he's normally way too busy reading his friends' screenplays or scripts for work to have time for amateur stuff, but as he put it, "sometimes you find yourself in a situation where the guilt factor is really high, or someone plays on a relationship or a perceived obligation, and it's hard to escape without seeming rude. Then, I tell them I'll read it, but if I can put it down after ten pages, I will. They always go for that, because nobody ever believes you can put their script down once you start."

What clearly aggravates Olson the most is that hardly anyone views the art of screenwriting as, well, an art, much less a serious craft. As Olson sees it, most aspirants "think that screenwriting doesn't actually require the ability to write, just the ability to come up with a cool story that would make a cool movie. Screenwriting is widely regarded as the easiest way to break into the movie business, because it doesn't require any kind of training, skill or equipment.... [So] they will hand you a piece of inept writing without a second thought, because you do not have to be a writer to be a screenwriter."

He offers a damning summary of the synopsis ("what I was handed was, essentially, a barely coherent list of events, some connected, some not so much") before revealing his biggest error -- he offered an honest assessment of the script idea, since the young writer had insisted that he wanted some real criticism, not the puffy compliments he'd gotten from his pals. Being a true screenwriter, Olson actually tossed out the first draft of his critique before offering what he thought was a succinct and considerate thumbs down. As he put it: "I did more rewrites on [his e-mail to the aspiring writer] than I did on my last three studio projects."

Of course, no good dead goes unpunished. As he put it:

"Because for all the hair I pulled out, for all the weight and seriousness I gave his request for a real, professional critique, his response was a terse: 'Thanks for your opinion.' And, the inevitable fallout -- a week later a mutual friend asked me, 'What's this dick move I hear you pulled on Whatshisname?' So now this guy and his girlfriend think I'm a [jerk], and the truth of the matter is, the story really ended the moment he handed me the goddamn synopsis. Because if I'd just said, 'No' then and there, they'd still think I'm a [jerk]. Only difference is, I wouldn't have had to spend all that time trying to communicate thoughtfully and honestly with someone who just wanted a pat on the head, and, more importantly, I wouldn't have had to read that godawful piece of [junk]."

Maybe this is way too blindly idealistic on my part, but I wish USC would let Olson run the screenwriting program for a couple of years. He might empty out most of the classrooms, but at least the people who survived might take their craft more seriously and actually have a chance of becoming real writers.

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