Death to the Script Editor! (Myself Included)

Brothers and Sisters,

I’ve been doing a fair amount of script editing over the last few years. That’s the way it goes sometimes; the work as a poacher dries up so you start exploring the gamekeeper options. Now I actually think I’m quite good at the job, and even enjoy it – and the same can be said of many of the script editors working out there today. However if we’ve learnt anything from Jimmy Savile it’s that just because you’re good at something and enjoy doing it doesn’t mean it should be allowed.

As a script editor I have looked at the state of modern comedy, made some notes, sat twiddling my thumbs, changed a few words because otherwise it’ll look like I’ve not done any work and, finally, come to the conclusion that script editors are a plague upon the earth and need to be done away with.

Worse than that, we are a possibly pointless plague. Some plagues are a necessary evil, you don’t need to be a evil misanthrope to see that – though it does help. In all honesty though, what fucking good are script editors to anyone? We are the non-Jonathan Rosses of writing. Script editors aren’t even writers. We’ve crossed the line. The script editor is the producer’s hired gun. We’re Pinkertons, Sheriff’s Men, strike breakers, Red Caps, hired muscle. We’re the deputies in a one-horse Klan town, we’re the hobbits that sided with Saruman, we’re camp capos. We’re overseers and house boy Uncle Toms. We’re some Harry Potter reference I haven’t read enough of the books to make.

Script editors are the sort of people who say ‘You see, I’m all about story’ and expect not to get punched. Our whole career is based around persuading grandmothers that there’s a secret to sucking eggs that only we know. You know where ‘script guruism’ leads? Hollywood. Not in an exciting, ‘they’re making a film version of Citizen Kahn but set in a newspaper baron’s castle’ way but to the Hollywood of inciting incidents on page 10, act one breaks on page 25 and fat chance validating your parking if you attempt anything different. It’s a structural approach that may have had its roots in something organic and artistic but now is as calcified and proscriptive as Noh theatre. It’s a system primarily geared towards allowing illiterate executives to judge a script by weight and pagination without recourse to any actual artistic judgement. It’s a world a lot of our TV execs would love to live in. Firstly, they could pretend they were big important Americans, which they love. It would also allow them to remove the difficult, unglamorous, troll-people with all the words and the ideas who keep asking them to imagine things and make decisions not based on audience research.

Is it possible that the rise of the script editor in TV comedy is part of a broader move towards disempowering the writer in the creative process? Rather than the sole originator of the idea and the concept, without whose script nothing could get made the writer becomes part of the crew, answering to their department head, attached and detached from a project at the producer’s will. It’s interesting that the BBC’s current hit sitcoms Miranda and Mrs Brown’s Boys are essentially writerless. Miranda is so focussed on the central character, and that central character is so widely accepted as a straight projection of the ‘real Miranda’ that people can con themselves into believing it springs fully formed onto the screen, like a slapstick Made In Chelsea. Mrs Brown’s Boys is obviously scripted – otherwise the actors wouldn’t know exactly when to make their ad-libs – but it’s such a collection of old jokes, borrowed set-ups and traditional routines that it’s not written so much as channelled via Ouija board from the fevered dreams of Old Mother Reilly’s deathbed. The important thing is Hart and O’Carroll are bona fide stars, so any pesky habits they may have of putting pen to paper like massive nerds can be overlooked by those starfuckers who want to make television but can’t bring themselves to be horny-handed sons or (unfortunately statistically fewer) daughters of toil craftsmenfuckers.

So, we should pick a side. Let’s just get rid of the job title. If you want to be on the writer’s side, if you want to help make scripts better, then do it as a writer. If you want to be the Head of Cotton Commissioning’s Uncle Tom, then be a producer. When the Bastille falls do you want to be tugging on the ropes of the lanterne or passing on some notes about act three from Louis XVI?

Yours,

Camille Desmoulins

PS. Let us – writer, script editor and producer alike – never forget, however, that the real enemy is, and always will be, Sam Wollaston in The Guardian.

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4 thoughts on “Death to the Script Editor! (Myself Included)

  1. Jeez, talk about shoot the messenger. I couldn’t disagree more.

    I’ve worked with amazing script editors who have brought more to the table than any producer, and shown passion, diligence and immense creativity in helping bring my work to screen. I’ve also worked with unhelpful, blinkered, dull script editors who have been a hindrance to my work.

    But I’ve also worked with producers like that. And directors. And executives. As well as some amazing ones. So do I dismiss all directors and producers? Well of course not.

    I would agree that, by and large, the standard of script editing is not as good as it should be. I would also agree that the old idea of the producer – there from the idea’s infancy – is dead and the script editor, often employed by the indie you’re working for, is now your conduit between the powers that be and your idea. But there are many problems with the system and I really don’t think that the script editor is the big one. Hell, I’d rather question the role of an exec who doesn’t read the project until shooting script and then has large, unhelpful and often baffingly obscure notes.

    You need all the friends you can get in this industry. If you work with the best script editors, you’ll end up counting them amongst them. Avoid the bad ones, just as you would in any other role. But don’t tarnish them all with the same brush.

  2. Charlotte – thank you, those are the ones.

    David – thanks for the heartfelt post. I agree with a lot of what you’ve said. The business is full of the good and the bad at every level and a good collaborator is worth their weight in gold, whatever their job title. This deliberately hyperbolic post is, I think, more about examining the script editor’s position in the power structure. Well, not examining – more ringing the doorbell and running away.

    Ideally I’d like a system where there were no gamekeepers, only poachers and landowners. Or where the gamekeepers were hired and fired by the poachers. But that, unfortunately, would stretch the metaphor to breaking point.

    Dan

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