By Sean Tuohy
One of the most difficult parts of writing is sharing your work with someone. Screenwriter Andrew Hilton has made a career of reading other people’s scripts while also creating his own. A former story editor and screenplay reader, Hilton runs The Screenplay Mechanic, a fantastic service where he provides his clients with great feedback to better their screenplays. I’ve consulted with Andrew twice and his feedback is always pitch perfect.
In between writing his own screenplays and saving someone else’s, Andrew sat down to talk to me about how he got into the business.
Sean Tuohy: How did you get into screenwriting?
Andrew Hilton: I attended film school in the U.K. and New York, then finished my final year of university in Los Angeles so I could start interning at the studios. I have a photography background so my goal was always to become a camera operator and work my way up to cinematographer, but my first studio gig was working for a producer at Universal and I spent six months reading scripts for him. From there out, my path kept me in the development world and one of the execs I worked for encouraged me to start writing myself. My first script landed me an agent, almost sold for big bucks in the late ‘90s, and I was hooked.
In the meantime, I began working in the story department of one of my favorite producers, Joel Silver (“Die Hard,” “Lethal Weapon,” etc.). After six months with Joel, I jumped to Paramount to become a story editor for Mario Kassar (“First Blood,” “Terminator,” etc.). It was there I began teaching others to write coverage and really honed my story skills. Throughout this time, I was writing on the side and every script I wrote was optioned. I was getting just enough success (and came close to huge success) to keep that carrot dangling in front of me.
ST: Which screenwriters did you admire?
AH: When I was starting out, like many other action writers, I was inspired primarily by Shane Black. Today, some of my favorite writers include Martin McDonagh, Scott Rosenberg, Charlie Kaufman, and, of course, the greats like Aaron Sorkin. He can write a dialogue exchange as exciting as any car chase and I’m in awe of that ability.
ST: What are the most common mistakes you see in first time screenwriters?
AH: Overwriting is a common pitfall. Screenwriting is somewhat unique in that one of the best traits a scribe can have is efficiency of language. Don’t use 20 words to describe something when 10 will do. Don’t try and impress anyone with your vocabulary or your grasp of metaphors and similes. Just write the most compelling and vivid movie using the fewest words.
A poorly kept secret in Hollywood is that few execs and producers like to actually read. That’s work for them. So when they sit down to read a script, they crave a fast-paced, page-turning experience. If the first few pages of a spec are dense and verbose, they’ll skim-read or toss the script and move onto the next one.
Another common mistake is failing to create a character we can become emotionally invested in. We don’t always have to like the protagonist, but it’s essential they evoke our interest. If we feel nothing but apathy for the characters, that screenplay is DOA.
ST: What makes a stand out spec script?
AH: A spec’s potential really comes down to two things: Can this story entertain an audience for a couple of hours? Is that audience going to be big enough to turn a profit? It’s that Goldilocks balance of art and business, and reconciling that reality is one of the first goals every new writer should work towards. You could argue that there are good scripts which won’t be profitable at the box-office, but who is that script “good” for? It might make a solid writing sample, but a genuinely good script is one that’s well written and will make some serious coin in the marketplace once it’s produced.
Obviously, a script that offers something I’ve never seen or read before is going to stand out, e.g. look at something like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” However, that level of originality isn’t essential. One of my favorite films of 2017 was “Logan,” yet I would hardly say it reinvented the conceptual wheel. I also loved “Wind River,” but that script worked because of the execution and character work, not because the murder-mystery setup was mind-blowingly fresh and inventive.
ST: What are agents/managers looking for in a script and in a screenwriter?
AH: This may sound cynical but that’s an easy question. Reps want a script they can sell, and a client who will crank out promising material consistently and have a long career ahead of them. Most reps live for the deals more than the end product. Hell, some agents don’t even read the scripts they send out but I bet they read the checks that come in.
ST: How has market changed since you started?
AH: Globalization, flat-screen televisions, and Streaming or Subscription Video on demand have changed the market completely.
The domestic box office used to be king. Now, the international box office is worth two to three times domestic, so America is really just another distribution territory to be sold off. Consequently, producers and financiers want projects that will work worldwide, not only in America. So, for instance, no more baseball movies and rom-coms because they won’t translate well in, say, China or Germany. It’s for this reason action and horror are perennial favorites.
Theatrical is dying because most folks have a 42”+ widescreen TV at home now, so the appeal of the multiplex has declined. Add to that the sheer glut of original product now available at home thanks to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. I wish those entities would support more theatrical releases of their projects or else I fear the cinema will go the way of the dinosaurs. Big spectacle projects, i.e. all those comic book pictures and IP tent-poles, are currently keeping the domestic theatrical market on life-support. But we’re in a weird evolutionary stage that is tough to predict. My only hope is that we can still go see original features on the big screen in 10-20 years.
ST: As a screenwriter, what is your writing process like? Do you outline or write a vomit draft?
AH: I write in my head for months, and then transfer that story onto the page. I once read about a famous screenwriter, it might have been Billy Wilder, who was caught sleeping in their office. Their boss angrily asked, “Why aren’t you writing? You’re supposed to be writing!” The screenwriter replied, “I was writing. And later I’ll type it on paper.” (If I butchered that quote and anyone has the accurate anecdote, please get in touch.)
That said, sometimes I’ll simply sit down with a glass of wine, a legal pad and a pen, then see where that takes me.
ST: What is new projects do you have in the future?
AH: I have a sci-fi thriller and another action picture I’m writing. Right now, however, I’m focused on my project “The Guns Of Christmas Past.” I’m a producer on the project too, we’re fully financed, we have a director, and we’re currently making offers to lead actors.
ST: What is one random fact about yourself?
AH: I’m a pathological chocoholic and won’t hesitate to steal it from children.