At this year’s BFI London Film Festival, Women in Film and Television (UK) hosted an interview with one of the UK’s most experienced and well-respected script editors, Kate Leys. During an engaging and amusing discussion with Briony Hanson, Director of Film at the British Council, Kate revealed her insights into the role of the script editor, how she works with writers, and some of the common problems she encounters in other people’s scripts…
From childhood Kate Leys was a script editor, albeit subconsciously. She would edit scripts in her head as she sat in front of the TV, and only realised as an adult that wasn’t what every child did. She never stopped reading and watching movies as a kid, so when someone handed her a screenplay to read on a film set one day, where she was working as a caterer, something clicked. She knew, instantly, that this was what she wanted to do.
Since then, Kate has carved out an impressive career, which has included working in development and commissioning for Film Four and Capitol Films, and has worked with some of the most talented writers, directors and producers in the industry, including Roman Polanski, William Boyd and Tony Grisoni.
As a freelance script editor, Kate says, “the majority of the time you're involved when (the script) isn’t working. If there is a norm, that's it.” A producer or financier often brings her on to a project when there’s strong potential but the story needs a fresh pair of eyes, someone to peel back the story and ask some difficult questions. “I also come in very, very early on some projects, where there's just an idea, and very, very late on others, during pre-production in some cases.”
Speaking about her process and approach, Kate describes herself as the engineer to the screenwriter’s architect. When she first receives a script she reads it then parks it for a bit to let it fester. “Then I return to it and climb inside. I start swinging around in it, like on scaffolding… I’m there with my hard hat on.” She sees her main role as trying to identify the core of the story, to ask the writer what it’s all about. "A lot of the time I'm trying to get people to stop writing. Writing draft after draft is the slowest way to go about writing a screenplay. You need to find out what it is you're doing!” Sometimes that means going right back to basics and asking the writer to remember what it is that made them want to write the story in the first place.
Kate also sees it as part of her role to “make sure the writer does not feel attacked and defensive” by, for example, screening script notes and feedback that might be coming in from other stakeholders. As a freelancer, Kate believes it is key for her to remain impartial, to speak her mind, and to give her honest advice on how to improve the film: "it is my job to be right. If I am not right, I have no meaning in the process. I have to make the film better. If people don't want to hear (my advice), that's alright too."
For someone so honed to editing other people’s scripts, it seems like the natural progression would be to write her own, but Kate is clear that’s not at all her intention, stating vociferously "I don't write, I don't know how and I don't know why anybody would want to!” She is also very clear that her role is not to re-write other people’s scripts. “I work for the script… screenwriters have to take responsibility for their story. I can shine it back to them, but it's their story, they are in charge of it."
"Writing is about going to the places the rest of us don't want to go, getting naked, and then coming back to tell us what it was like. Which is why not everyone can be a writer, it's a very hard thing to do!"
Kate’s Top 10 Common Problems She Sees in Scripts...
1. Nothing Happens
The story is too soft. It’s OK to be obvious, just not clichéd.
2. Plot Not Story
There's a strong plot but no story, we don't know who the characters are, you're not delivering the meat.
This is the biggest risk in screenwriting. The story has veered off course, and it can be hard to spot when this has happened.
4. Accidentally Leaving the Story Off the Page
The main point of the story is not on the screen!
5. A Passive Character
The character has to want something, that's what drives the whole story! They can be massively wrong about the thing they want, but they just have to want something!
6. Whose story Is It?
Even the biggest ensemble film in the world must be organised fractionally more around one character than the others.
7. It’s Not About Anything
Similar to point 2, Plot Not Story. There's no meaning to it. The story needs to be about something that you want to say, that you want people to know.
8. Whose Voice Is It?
As a writer you need to find your own voice.
9. Enacting Not Dramatising
You should reveal your characters through the drama of the story, rather than trying to explain them before letting the story begin.
10. Easy Conflict
It’s very tempting for a writer to create problems in the story that they can easily solve. But if you can see the easy solution so can the audience! Throwing trouble at your character creates story. Give your character big problems to overcome, that’s when storytelling comes to life.
11 October 2012.