The Importance of Having A Script Editor

by Richard Hammond

While reviewing the latest scripts and short films sent in to The Talent Bank it got me to thinking about the important role of the script editor on TV and film projects which have the required budget and I decided to delve into this a little deeper.

In the fraught, busy world of television drama, the script editor is an essential conduit in bringing a story from a simple concept to a fully fleshed out narrative. Fitting in between the writer and the producer, they head up the script side of a show’s team to ensure the developmental journey engenders a quality product that ticks all structural and editorial boxes. The world of film seldom uses a script editor, instead preferring to bestow editorial autonomy upon the shoulders of the director, oft considered an auteur. Whilst on the one hand lending a director creative freedom, this ‘auteur’ approach can also be detrimental to the overall quality of a production.

Hiring a script editor to work on a film is a wise move. The very presence of a script editor enhances the relationship between a writer and a production; indeed the script editor believes, rather than the director, that the ‘writer is king’, a philosophy that tends to impart confidence on the scribe. A confident screenwriter inevitably leads to a more confident piece of writing and therefore a more confident and competent feeling feature. A script editor can spend time with a writer in a way that a director cannot; directors have tone meetings, storyboard meetings, budget meetings, production meetings, casting, recces, costume meetings, location meetings and various other important duties to attend to. The script editor can nurture a writer and develop a script without being clouded by other responsibilities.

Script editors fall into a variety of sub-species, each with their own particular strengths. The first of these is The Collator. This brand of script editor is likely to be more junior than the others. Whilst the chief point of contact for the writer, they will collate the notes of the higher-ups, the producer, the director, and any key talent that is contracted to have a viewpoint, before presenting the consensus back to the writer in an easy to digest way. Their views are considered less important than presenting the overview. This type of editor is big on administration and organisation, and affords directors freedom to pursue other important directorial tasks whilst allowing them to still remain hands on in the story process, albeit at a slight distance.

The second sub-specie of script editor is The Creative. This type of script editor could be at home in the medium of film and is likely to be a proficient writer in their own right. The chief role of this editor is to provide support to the writer by presenting creative solutions to problems, providing additional material and even overwriting. In the television industry this type of editor is most prevalent in the comedy genre where they will bolster the piece with additional humour, heart and ideas. They can often become a double act with the writer, bouncing ideas around with them, and trying to better their gags. This type of editor is more at home in creating content than analysing it, but they must be wary that they are not the named writer, and must still make every effort to facilitate that writer’s needs. While directors will inevitably wish for some involvement in the scripting process, the creative script editor will enable them to keep this to the bare minimum safe in the knowledge that the script will be creatively sound.

The third category of script editor is The Analyst. This breed of editor is the likeliest to know the seminars of Robert McKee and the structural paradigms of Syd Field by heart, and be able to recite them verbatim. They will likely use phrases such as “save the cat” and “but what is the inciting incident?” and will refer to acts, turning points and beats. The Analyst inherently knows and enjoys structure. They can script report and break down scenes into their constituent parts to tell you why they are or are not working. They take particular care to ensure that structural tent poles, character arcs, and scenes’ emotional attributes are present and functioning as effectively as possible. Whether they subscribe to the doctrine of five, four or three act structure, this highly intelligent type of script editor is an underrated tool in the filmmaker’s toolbox.

In reality there is often crossover between the different subspecies of script editor. A creative can also be adept at analysis and an analyst may be strong on administration. It is very much in film’s interest to adopt the position that has worked so well in television for so many decades. It will undoubtedly lead to a better standard of narrative.