The Write Stuff - Interview with Joslyn Jensen, Scriptwriter and Professional Script Reader
Image credit: Joslyn Jensen
Editor George White chats to Joslyn Jensen, co-founder of screenwriting service Script Eater and reader of hundreds of scripts every year, about her unique role, the importance of a good screenplay and what it takes to make a really great story.
Tell us a little bit about what you do and how you help filmmakers.
I’m Joslyn Jensen, an LA based screenwriter and professional screenplay reader. As a reader, I work with screenplay competitions, labs and production companies, responding to the strengths and weaknesses of the material and offering recommendations for possible next steps. In addition to my freelance work, I’m in the process of starting my own screenplay coverage business with my writing partner, Frank Mosley, called Script Eater. (Stay tuned!).
What are your main tips for screenwriters? What makes a good script?
Because I have always found unsolicited writing advice to be oogey and unhelpful, I can only speak to what works for me. In my experience, reading scripts makes my screenwriting better-- not because I feel like I’m parroting other writers, but because I have found it to be invaluable in assessing what works and what doesn’t.
In my spare time (lol), I help run a wine bar and restaurant with my friends (shout out to Vintage Wine + Eats in Studio City, CA) and when patrons ask us, “Is this wine good?” We always answer the same way: “Did you like it? If you liked it, then it’s a good wine.” Just like good wine, good scripts are subjective. What I think is damn near perfect may be too weird or stylized to turn the cheek of the next script reader. And that’s fine! I’ve worked hard to develop my eclectic taste and I like the way my brain works. After years in this job, I no longer claim to dislike any genre or style - that’s how often I have been surprised by a script that, on paper, should induce some major eye-rolls. My philosophy is that every story idea can be a good one. (Note: I do insist that a “good” script be anti-racist... and that the dog must not die. Thanks in advance).
What are some of the biggest mistakes screenwriters make? Is there anything that you become frustrated to see in a script?
The rules of screenwriting are fluid. Even the most time-trusted no-nos can work in the right context. If I were interested in sniffing out every opportunity to tell a writer to ‘save the cat’ or ‘show not tell,’ I don’t think I would have the stamina to read 200+ scripts each year and I know I wouldn’t have as much fun doing it. That said, part of the reason I’m so ga-ga for film is that, as a visual learner, I find myself best able to engage with information I can see. So, if I’m reading a piece with lots of internal writing or unseen information, I’m always down to remind writers that film is a visual medium - chances are that piece of information will work even better once it is brought off the page and into a clear action or visual.
Image credit: Joslyn Jensen
Have you had any horror stories from scripts? Are there any that have been particularly strange or have stuck in the memory for the wrong reasons?
As sick as it sounds, I really love my job as a reader, so it’s rare that I feel traumatized or turned off by a script. Even a “bad” script presents an interesting challenge for me, a total nerd, in terms of how I approach my feedback. Awkwardness comes when a script blurs the line between being about bigotted characters, and actually having a bigotted point of view, but even then it's my pleasure to respond appropriately. As writers of good character, we all tell ourselves that our writing is perfectly unproblematic and anti-racist, but part of the benefit of collaborating with a reader is to get a set of outside eyes on your work, together identifying and correcting any blindspots before moving forward. That’s why I don’t just work as a reader, I employ other readers to take a look at my own writing too! (It’s like that bit in the film Drop Dead Gorgeous where the lady in the commercial pops up on the screen in a blood-spattered apron, exclaiming: “I don’t just love St. Paul Pork P
roducts, I work here now!”).
How important is having a good script for making sure a film is successful?
How important is a good pair of shoes for making a walk successful? Haha! A solid script makes every other aspect of filmmaking look and feel great - whereas if you don’t have a strong foundation in the writing, even the most brilliant actors, directors and designers are at a strong disadvantage.
Do you have any particular films that you recommend people watch to discover how a script is done right? What are some of your favourite/some of the best-written scripts of all time?
Reading the script of your favorite film is a great way to deconstruct what you love about it. The Internet Movie Script Database (https://imsdb.com/) is a great resource for free scripts to devour. Do like me and ingest the scripts of your favorite screenwriters like a rabid werewolf, harnessing their lifeforce before returning to your current work in progress, veins bulging with newfound bloodlust. Anyone really at a loss for where to start might treat themselves to the oeuvre of writer/creator Michaela Cole. If the enmeshment of her strength and vulnerability doesn’t get your blood pumping, see a doctor.
You've obviously written features and short films of your own - do you have any more projects in the works?
With my own writing, I like to set goals for myself to do new things, exploring different genres, mediums and scopes. (Gatekeepers will say this is the exact wrong thing for an unrepresented writer to do, to continually break form instead of developing a strong calling card - but reader, I’m nothing if not a stone cold rebel). This year, as my horror feature, Sabertooth, finishes its screenplay competition run, I’m debuting a Sci-fi pilot script called Pig Lake and my short film, Rosco, is in pre-production.
You've also starred in a number of very successful projects as an actor. Does getting in front of the camera help when you're giving advice to those behind it?
Ah-ha! You’ve uncovered my secret identity as an actor of acclaimed independent films of the 2010s. I’m not sure it qualifies me to give anyone advice, but I’m sure that all my on-set experience - my acting, directing, producing and understanding of other practical aspects of filmmaking - inform the script coverage that I do today. If the shoe were on the other foot, I’d want someone reading me who understood the ins and outs of filmmaking, not just film writing.
It’s impossible for me to separate my acting training from the way I write - and even the way I read scripts. I find that the same things in the material that interested me as an actor still float my boat as a writer - great characters, a great story and a great dog that doesn’t die.