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By Valerie Kalfrin · February 20, 2020
So many aspiring screenwriters are like horses at a starting gate, eager to burst loose, captivate a crowd’s attention, and win representation or a sale.
Literary manager Scott Carr encourages those eager writers to think of some other sports metaphors.
“If someone wants to play in the NFL, they don’t do two years of high school football and say, ‘I want to go to the NFL.’ They go to college football, and they work their ass off. That’s no different than screenwriting, for the most part,” Carr said in a TSL 360 video. “A screenwriting career is an ultra-marathon, and you get representation at the end of the first marathon, not the start.”
Carr founded Management SGC in 2013, where he represents writers, producers, and directors in books, film, television, and digital content. Although he’s worked with new writers such as Jonathan Perera on the script that became the 2016 political thriller Miss Sloane, starring Jessica Chastain, he said it’s rare to find someone whose first script rises to the right level.
“It’s such an anomaly. It’s the exception. It’s not the rule,” he said. “Most of it just isn’t strong enough, and maybe in some cases, it never would be.”
Vetting your material through writers’ groups, contests, consultants, fellowships, and other avenues for objective feedback helps ensure that it’s strong enough for the industry. “If they are talented enough, but they’re just trying to prematurely get themselves out there, then I think they’re doing themselves a disservice,” he said.
Here, Carr describes more about what appeals to him in a script, what development entails, and how to decide where you want your words to run free.
Learn more from him and other industry experts with a TSL 360 membership, which grants you access to dozens of masterclasses, interviews, and lectures from Academy Award-winning screenwriters, Emmy-winning TV writers, producers, agents, and major studio executives.
When Carr read Perera’s draft of Miss Sloane, which sets a formidable D.C. lobbyist against the gun lobby, the first thing that struck him was the colloquial and distinctive dialogue.
“He created intelligent characters, and I think on some level we all vicariously wish we were that smart. You see people that are speaking like human beings, but they’re using words that just make them feel like they’re in a whole other stratosphere of intelligence,” he said. “It was very Sorkin-esque, and frankly, it’s very hard to come across a young writer that can write in that space well.”
The story was also well-crafted. “It had a hook. It had a payoff. It was surprising throughout. It was a page-turner.” Yet Perera’s writing voice wasn’t showy.
“He really drew me into the story with the storytelling itself. His voice was not even trying to be anything special,” Carr said. “It was the storytelling that was trying to be special, and that’s what translates to the screen. The voice is going to eventually be diluted by a director’s vision and the actors and everything, but the storytelling was on the page, so I was pulled into his storytelling and his character work.”
As much as Carr liked Perera’s script, he still wanted the writer to elevate it and polish it. Perera had never done any formal development with anyone, so Carr explained that this was “an iterative process that we’re not going to know when we get to the finish line.”
Over the next six-to-seven months, Perera went through several more drafts, which included Carr changing the title to Miss Sloane because he was sure that would appeal to a potential lead. Perera was patient and professional the whole time.
“It’s just a function of continuing to manage expectations and keep someone engaged, and fortunately, that did work out,” Carr said. “He was very collaborative and did not get dismayed by how much work we were having to do.”
Miss Sloane grossed about $9 million worldwide on an estimated $13 million budget, but it was a critics’ favorite, with a 76 percent “fresh” rating on RottenTomatoes.com. It earned Chastain a Golden Globe nomination for her performance and won Perera a Best Screenplay award from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain.
Part of the vetting Carr urges writers to do is to explore whether they’d like to work in television or film. Television has a structured system where newcomers start at a certain level, usually a staff writer, and then climb through the ranks. “What gets them in there is usually an original pilot that they wrote, and then they have to fight for those coveted spots to get in the [writers’] room,” he said. Television involves writing collaboratively, breaking story with about a dozen other people, and working in service to the showrunner. “It’s their show and ultimately their voice. In television, your job is to have your voice fit into the construct of the show.”
In features, you try to stand out as much as you can. “Once you write a script that’s very distinctive, you take that script to market. If it sells, great. Then you hopefully get hired to do some rewrites on it. And then you look for more work—and that’s a new piece of material with a new script and assignment or a new thing that you’ve written.”
Remember those sports metaphors? A screenwriting career, with all its ups and downs, involves strategically improving your work and hanging in there.
“If your material is really strong enough, it will rise to the top and it will find its way to us,” Carr said. “So I encourage writers to do all their due diligence creatively before they even try because … a lot of them I read, they just feel like they weren’t ready, first and foremost, and they could have done more work to be ready.”
Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist who now dives into fictional mayhem as an author (Quicklet on The Closer: Season 1), essayist, film critic, screenwriter, and emerging script consultant. She also writes for The Guardian, Bright Wall Dark Room, ScreenCraft, Hazlitt, Signature, and the blog for Final Draft, the top-rated screenwriting software used by the filmmaking industry. A member of Screenwriters of Tomorrow, she’s collaborated on short films and features, and she’s affiliated with the Tampa Bay Film Society. She lives in Florida. Find her online at valeriekalfrin.com.