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Sarah Golding: Working With Script Editors, Initialize Films’ Insider’s Guide

I went to Initialize Films last night with my mate Jared (yes, the one who can’t find his way to the RIGHT pub) to meet Sarah Golding and hear about her work as a script editor. Sarah’s probably best known for being the script editor on The Constant Gardener, but has also worked as a script consultant, script editor or script executive on Patagonia (2009), Hotel (2009) , Mad, Sad & Bad (2009), The Edge of Love (2008) and in TV for Zenith Entertainment. Here are my notes – enjoy!


Script editing is about negotiation: if the writer is resistant to an idea, really thinks it won’t work, etc it’s not worth fighting about; there is more than one way to tell a story, just keep going til you find the right solution. When there are conflicting voices and ideas in the development process, Sarah recommends going back to the point where it started for the WRITER. She also recommends noting what everyone – writer, director, producer principally – specifically LIKES about the story, discovering if “everyone is actually on the same page”, or whether everyone *thinks* they are.


If directors are on board early, it makes it a lot more complicated: they must be convinced from the material on the page from the offset, otherwise they can’t realise the film convincingly. All writer/directors are more “one than the other” in Sarah’s view: they’re never both roles equally. Sometimes a writer directing their own material does not get the subtleties of the script across, even though they’ve written it. Production processes or financial issues can take over or lousy chemistry between the actors. Sometimes the writer/director will simply believe those subtleties are there when it’s not, because they’re too close to the material. Sarah says readability of the script is key and very few directors realise this.


If you are interested in writing adaptations, Sarah recommends writing original scripts because “most production companies want a really good, original script” when vetting writers to do adaptations for them. Adaptation is about reinvention; they want to see if you can write as well. You need to bring your voice or your own unique spin to that adaptation as well.


Sarah was dismissive of paradigms and “methods” of structure when actually working WITH writers in actually editing their scripts together, preferring a “What if…?” approach, rather than “what’s wrong”. However she did say she might use such methods when preparing for scripts and identifying issues in the scripts during prep.


Very few people write action well: don’t slow down the read OVERDESCRIBING. Too much incidental information is “clutter” and confusing for the reader (echoed by one of my own posts, here). Also, a line of description between EVERY single line of dialogue is a bad idea in Sarah’s view.


If you feel character motivation or relationships is not coming across well on the page in your script, Sarah advises NOT revealing character via dialogue; SHOW them for who they are via what they do.


Sarah recommends writers NEVER decide on the spot about the script notes they’re given (except for those “lightbulb” moments of course); no one expects you to. Script editing is an intuitive process, questions should be asked to “open the door” to find solutions to issues in the script and writers need to think this over before saying yes or no.


Sarah recommends working as a script editor on returning series. She says it gives people a real appreciation of what goes into series, how writers can bring their own originality to it within the constraints of the show; script editors must maintain a “balance” on the show, audiences don’t want too many of the same “type” of story.

A returning drama series is the “gold standard” for any production company: if you can nab a space in the schedule, it’s “pay dirt”. However it’s worth remembering there is so much space IN the schedule for your new series – what will they need to chuck out to fit yours in? How likely is it they will get rid of a well-established show to do this? “The same old war horses trundle on”: is there room for half a dozen more new series a year? At the very maximum.

Sarah recommends working with a good independent production company in attempting to get your TV drama series to screen: she says the likelihood of getting a commission is high on their agenda, they’re less likely to throw money away on development that will go nowhere. Some companies have the “Midas Touch” as far as the networks are concerned – though these companies are more likely to have their own creative team and less likely to take your original idea.



Sarah agrees with what Phil says (link above – if you haven’t read it, WHY NOT??): she says the main reason development can be problematic is because people stay such a short time IN their jobs before “moving on”; development does not offer a proper career structure. Script editors at the networks and in indies often “grow up” to become producers. There are more people developing than ever, it’s become an industry – unlike places like France where there is NO money for development – but there ARE very inexperienced people developing our screenplays in the industry!
Great stuff. I can recommend the Initialize evening seminars: they’re very informal and relaxed. We were all sitting around a table, just a few of us, literally having a chat last: a good break from more traditional set ups. They have more evening seminars coming up in film finance, writing for online media and adaptation case studies, amongst others. Click here for a full calendar and more details.

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