Phil Clarke has been a dedicated script consultant for over a decade. He spent the best part of twenty years in the movie business, working on feature films by major Hollywood studios including Warner Brothers, Paramount, 20th Century Fox and United Artists, and production/distribution companies Miramax, Lucasfilm and Intermedia.
Phil consults on all genres, and his enviable career experience has helped him to navigate projects from pitch to production. In fact, many of his clients have won or placed highly at major script competitions, had their work optioned, and even debuted at major film festivals including London, Portobello and Cannes. He has worked with the likes of George Lucas, Tim Burton, Chris Columbus and Danny Boyle on a range of films that have a combined box office take of nearly five billion dollars. His IMDB credits include The Beach, Sleepy Hollow, and both the Harry Potter and Star Wars franchises.
Phil was kind enough to answer our questions about getting started as a screenwriter, making valuable connections in the film industry, and even offers a ‘soundbitey’ nugget of wisdom on crafting a compelling story.
How did you get started in the film industry? Would you have done anything differently?
Gaining entry into the film world really all started with me making a general nuisance of myself, sending spec letters to film studios and production companies, asking for work. Eventually, Leavesden Film Studios were looking to hire, saw how many letters I’d sent them, and due to this persistence invited me to interview.
Two interviews later and the job was mine. I then worked my socks off and quickly became the studio’s Production Liaison, where I was the main contact for all film, TV, pop promo and commercials on site. This led to making many valuable contacts deep in the industry. I then worked on a number of film and TV projects (see my IMDB page).
During all of this time – in the few hours I wasn’t working and even during work – I was writing. Anything from small independent shorts to more ambitious projects like a spec idea for the Bond franchise that, with some backing from The World Is Not Enough director, Michael Apted, was able to get in front of those at EON.
I was also fortunate enough to have other cinematic luminaries read my work and provide support and a platform for me. This led to me selling a few projects, some time working in script development, a period of time writing for the page rather than the screen, and then my decision to become a full-time script consultant in order to help individual writers as well as production companies.
Would I have done anything differently? I don’t believe so. I can’t pinpoint any moment, action or inaction that I felt led to missing out on an opportunity. I think it’s important to grab any chance presented to you with both hands when you’re working your way up the ladder. Be humble, be professional, be active.
Can screenwriters network their way to success? Is it difficult getting your foot in the door?
Can they? Yes, absolutely. Screenwriters these days need to be able to network. Need to be able to work with other people, connect with other people. They need to be their own agent, manager, cheerleader, support staff – even when they might have representation. But – and this is crucial – they still need to be able to deliver the product. There’s no point being able to schmooze with the best of them if you can’t write for shit. This will soon get found out. Maybe those people should become agents.
Is it difficult getting your foot in the door? Ask any writer, they’ll tell you it can feel like it’s impossible. It can feel like the world is conspiring against you to actively keep you out. But this is why you must persist, why you must steel yourself against the naysayers, accept rejection as just part of the process without taking it too personally, and keep developing your craft. Then, eventually, you’ll be able to squeeze your size 9s into that gap and force the door open.
Screenwriters tend to be overlooked by moviegoers. Beyond writing the story, how much agency can screenwriters expect to have in a film’s production?
Honestly, if you’re just hired to write the film, then this is likely to be where your input ends. Even if you’ve written a spec script – something you’ve agonised over for years – and you manage to luck out and get it sold and then made, the chances of you being kept on in any capacity are very slim. There will have been many chances along the way to production where you may be let go. Obviously, you’d still retain your original writing credit, but often companies decide to bring on other writers or allow the director to take full creative control.
That said, there are other experiences. You could be hired as one of those writers brought onto a project. If it’s a smaller-sized production, then often the writer is kept on to rewrite, polish and tweak even well into production. Like many writers, I’ve been asked to write or rewrite scenes on the day of a shoot. The only way of guaranteeing further involvement in a film’s production is to have a second role on the project, such as a producer or even director. At the end of the day, all these things are usually worked out at the contract stage.
From a writer’s perspective, which is more valuable to a screenplay: quality or commerciality?
I would say it depends what your intentions are. What’s your end goal? From whose viewpoint are you looking? The money men who run studios and major production companies are understandably likely to place greater importance on a rich, commercial product that packs out the multiplexes or gets people streaming in their millions. For these guys, if it makes a profit, it’s a success. However, most writers would undoubtedly choose the former because they are storytellers and so more focused on creating a quality story. But they shouldn’t be seen as mutually exclusive. Why can’t we write stories that are high in quality and commerciality? It is possible to have the best of both worlds.
Writing is by no means an easy job. What advice would you give to screenwriters on crafting compelling stories?
It’s very difficult to give general advice without generalising. There are no quick fixes or shortcuts. There’s no simple one-line maxim anyone can say that will assure you’ll deliver a compelling story. Because stories are complex entities. And writing them is tough. Anyone who thinks it’s easy, that being a screenwriter is an uncomplicated and effortless existence, needs to disabuse themselves of this idea. That said, if you must have me give some ‘soundbitey’ nugget of wisdom on crafting stories, then I would say this:
Ensure you focus on entertaining your audience. If this isn’t your primary focus, then you’ve become distracted. We are storytellers and consequently should prioritise this aim. If you can write a fresh but familiar story featuring a fascinating lead with a clear, engaging story goal opposed by a powerful antagonistic force, buckets of conflict, high stakes and a coherent theme, all told with a fresh voice, then you’ll be well on your way to crafting a compelling story. That’s a lot of plates to keep spinning, but hey – who said this screenwriting lark was easy?!
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Questions by Michael Conroy.
Many thanks to Phil Clarke for this interview.