Phil has spent the best part of twenty years in the movie business, working 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.
He has worked 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.
1. Which stories - films/books/comics/TV shows - do you think have made the greatest impact on you?
I did my growing up in the late seventies and eighties so it will come as no surprise that the first Star Wars trilogy together with the Indiana Jones movies had an undeniable effect on me in my formative years. That period featured the birth of the blockbuster so I have always leant towards the bigger, bolder films as a rule. I’m also a die-hard Bond fan. The Fleming novels and the Eon movies. They helped develop a deep love of espionage. I now love anything spy-related or thrilleresque.
I was also an avid comic reader in the eighties. Marvel and DC. I find it quite nostalgic seeing all the old characters being given TV series and popping up in movie franchises nowadays. That’s one of the few positive feelings I have regarding the surfeit of superhero movies!
And TV... there was very little I didn’t watch, really. I was like a sponge. The only thing I don’t tend to watch is soaps. Eastenders, Coronation Street... they have never really appealed to me. We’re all a product of our time so growing up watching Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, The Fast Show etc. will have had a real impact on my tastes. I have fond memories of tuning in to watch Knight Rider, The A Team, Street Hawk (surprised this hasn’t had a remake).
2. What is your process as a script consultant – how many times do you read the script, do you scribble on the pages, now much depth do you like to go into etc?
As far as reading goes, it depends. If it’s just a Snap Read then I may only read it once, but usually I’ll go back over a client’s script as many times as I have to in order to glean where I feel it needs work. Some stories need more delving into than others. Personally, I love going as deep as possible. In fact, I pride myself on the level of detail I provide. It comes from a deep desire to help, really. The many years working in the industry together with a natural critical eye allows me to see more than the average reader.
3. What do you find most frustrating about being a script consultant?
Great question! I would have to say I find it frustrating when a writer – usually a newbie – refuses to see the light. Of course, like any script consultant, my notes are simply suggestions at the end of the day and they can take or leave them, but when I am confronted by a stubborn reliance on an element that I know cannot and will not work, it does irk somewhat. It’s always better if a writer maintains a desire to learn, keeps an open mind when requesting feedback.
4. What has been your most satisfying experience as a script consultant?
This leads on from the last question. Some of my most satisfying moments have come following a negative response to my notes. We’re often talking nothing shy of a tirade of abuse. And then weeks, even months later, some of these writers get in touch to apologise and tell me that actually they saw the light. That they now realise what I was advising worked. The problem was that they hadn’t allowed themselves to be open to any kind of criticism. At the time, they had simply wanted me to tell them their script was perfect, so obviously they were going to react badly to notes. This I find immensely satisfying; the ability to – eventually – get through to even the most unyielding of souls. And more importantly, help improve the actual script. That’s the aim of our game.
5. What is the note you find yourself giving most often?
The most common note I find I give these days points to a lack of clear focus on story and its lead character. There’s a tendency, particularly among writers fairly new to the game, to not fully understand why they are writing a particular tale. Consequently, the script feels loose and rambling. It’s crucial to comprehend why you’re writing the story you’ve chosen. Equally important is to clearly define your chief protagonist. If your lead isn’t truly fascinating and relatable in some way and misses a distinct goal, then there are going to be major consequences right the way through your story.
6. Do you think we ever stop discovering more about storytelling and what was the last major revelation you had?
No, we are all still learning. While the fundamentals of storytelling remain the same, the way we interpret and employ these techniques changes over time, so we must adapt with them. And strive to find new ways of telling tales.
7. Robert McKee is famous for his devotion to ‘Casablanca’ – is there one film that you believe ticks all the right storytelling boxes?
Yes, Casablanca is a superb screenplay. A storytelling masterclass. It’s hard to pick just one, here. There are countless movies that work as close-to-perfect examples of cinematic storytelling. I’ll avoid taking the road most travelled to ‘Chinatown’. It seems to feature at the top of most writers’ lists – for good reasons. I’m a huge fan of the Danny Rubin’s ‘Groundhog Day’ screenplay. One of cinema’s greatest, most exquisite concepts handled with such deftness and economy. Then there’s ‘Back To The Future’. Ticks all the boxes. One script that I don’t find appearing on Must-Read Screenplays lists as often as perhaps it should is ‘Se7en’. Andrew Kevin Walker takes a simple concept and injects such a depth of tone. It’s a great read. I’ll restrain myself now as I feel a queue forming in my brain of other deserving movies. Next question... Quick!
8. Who is/are your favourite screenwriter/s and why?
It’s hard to pick just one. Choosing your favourite screenwriter is much like choosing your favourite film. It changes with your mood. I have a great love of the classics, especially the works of Hitchcock and Wilder, so screenwriters like I.A.L. Diamond (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment etc.), Ernest Lehman (North By Northwest, Sound of Music) and John Michael Hayes (Rear Window, To Catch A Thief) are among my favourites. They knew how to tell stories well. Simple. More modern writers: the works of David Koepp and Paul Haggis have particularly resonated with me. Koepp was the go-to guy in the nineties for blockbuster scripts. The high concept project. He gave us ‘Jurassic Park’, ‘Mission: Impossible’ and many more. Paul Haggis also has that masterful touch of writers in the golden age. Simply knows how to draw you in and take you on a journey with unexpected twists and turns.
9. What was the last story you saw or read that really surprised you?
This was a tough one. I really had to rack my brains and dig deep for an answer. Surprise can be defined quite broadly. The last film that disturbed me was the original French version of ‘Martyrs’. That was a brave piece of cinema though one hell of a challenging viewing experience. A more positive spin on surprise came last year watching ‘Westworld’. I loved the 1973 film and wondered how they would develop this for television. They totally surpassed my expectations and cannot wait for the next season. But the final shout-out has to go for the simply superb ‘Stranger Things’. I was amazed how well the Duffer Brothers – born a year after the story takes place – managed to capture that eighties vibe.
10. How much of writing is intuitive and how much an adherence to a set structure?
I believe we all grow up learning the basics of storytelling. We absorb these principles through reading books and comics, watching TV and film, even playing video games. This allows Joe or Jane Public to know whether a story works or doesn’t work. However, most people would find it difficult to communicate what these fundamentals are. Understanding the true purpose of many of the paradigms and structures that are out there can often help writers convey to themselves what these principles are. And this, together with their intuitive understanding, can aid their storytelling. I guess what I’m trying to say in a very long-winded way is that it’s a bit of both! Writing can be intuitive, but if you’ve read the number of intuitively-written projects as I have, you’ll know that many people are in dire need of a bit of set structure! Structure shouldn’t be seen as the enemy of creativity. Structure allows you the freedom to be creative. It’s just important not to fixate, not to over-rely on it as this leads to formulaic, unoriginal writing.
11. If there was a single piece of advice you could give to someone thinking of writing a screenplay for the first time what would it be?
Don’t be afraid of writing badly. Many new writers starting out can get hamstrung by striving to write the final draft with their first draft. This is an exercise in futility. It’s impossible. Why put such undue pressure on yourself? Allow yourself to make mistakes. You’re the only one that’s witnessing this writing. All you should concern yourself with when first putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard is to write something. Once you’ve got something down on that page, you have immediately defeated the blank page. And you also have something to assess and critique. You can look at what you’ve written and ask yourself what’s wrong with it. And the answer will lead you to how you should rewrite. And as the great Hemingway once said: “The only kind of writing is rewriting.”
Find out more about Phil and his work at: