Say what you will about strokes of genius and the image of a writer, possessed, slamming away at his typewriter until the last page of his/her novel is whipped out with an exhausted and proud flourish…. but writing is re-writing. Or as Ernest Hemingway put it, "The First Draft of Anything is Shit.”
A comic (Zack Galifinakas maybe?) had a great bit about getting studio notes that went something like this. Producer, “He’s wearing a hat on page 2 and then he eats rice on page 37… does that really make sense?”
I admit, I’ve gotten some bad notes in my time. One producer, I won’t name names, was infamous for receiving a script on his desk, weighing it in his hand and saying, “It’s too heavy – too muc ink on these pages for a rom com!” I wonder what he does now that everyone is reading scripts on their Kindles and Ipads? By the way, because of this producer, I developed a staccato style of action-line writing and always attempted to keep my dialogue under three lines. Oye vey.
Okay, so I also have to admit, in the spirit of full disclosure, that I’ve been a horrible recipient to notes in my time. Protective of my poor fetal scripts, I’ve seen collaborative input as a hostile fire and shot back with as much defensive artillery as my inexperienced little ass could muster.
It’s not easy for writers (as they will surely take great pleasure in telling you). You create this world and these characters from nothing… from a dream, from a spark while you were walking the dog and you nurture them on the page for (potentially) years of your life and some producer comes in and says, “Yeah it’s great, now change it.”
This gets easier over time or maybe with age or confidence in the process, in your work… There’s a fine art to caring deeply about your work while allowing others to contribute to it. When you do find that balance, a notes meeting can actually become collaborative – where you are riffing off of the producer and coming up with new stuff on the spot… impressing them with your quick creative wit and spontaneous generation of fixes, new scenes, and solutions!
10 TIPS ON HANDLING NOTES AND THE INEVITABLE RE-WRITE
- CHOOSE YOUR PRODUCER WISELY. Firstly, it helps if you work with people you like and respect and who like and respect you. This is almost impossible to do all the time so at least make sure you’re working with people you think are smart and will help make the movie good.
|The newly covered title page of my pilot script.|
Note in the lower left: "Hooker Scene - Trim?" Ha!
- OPEN YOUR MIND. Come on Young Jedi, we’ve all seen the scene in Star Wars where Luke is trying to learn to use the force and he’s all resistant and then finally he gets it. It’s like typical first half of Act two stuff… Skip it in your own narrative… Just open your mind to the fact that these people are supposed to be your Yoda and listen -- they may actually have wise things to say.
- TAKE NOTES. This sounds like a no brainer, right? You’re being given notes so you should take notes… but I think sometimes writers leave a meeting without writing down nearly enough about what’s discussed and inevitably find themselves at home (er, Starbuck’s) unable to remember half of what just happened.
Let’s assume you did take notes…
- LET IT SINK IN. Don’t rush home and pop up final draft and bust Act One wide open. You’re going to have some re-breaking to do, which is going to cause some unraveling… So re-read the notes. Re-read your script. Rinse. Repeat. Take a day (assuming that you are not being paid tons of money for a last minute polish on a 100 million dollar script that is about to shoot in say… Fiji – btw, if you are, congrats on that).
- MAKE A PLAN. I do this on paper – on the actual script, usually. I add notes to the notes. I get creative all over the damn thing – answering questions, plotting out arcs, new scenes, dialogue snippets. It's less intimidating if I'm not typing it.
- CULL IT DOWN. Sometimes after a particularly creative notes session, there will be too many ideas on the table – some of them may be contradictory, some just won’t work. Sometimes, what works out loud doesn’t work on the page - A Producer’s great pitch rings false or derivitive or just not funny… At this point, you make choices. The producers hired you (hopefully) because they trust you to make it all work… So make it work by choosing which notes enhance the script and re-thinking or ignoring the ones that don’t.
- PLOT IT OUT. At this point, if I’m doing a pretty big re-write, I go back to treatment. Sometimes I do this at the front of the draft that already exists but sometimes cutting and pasting the scenes that worked back in can get confusing. Regardless, I start from scratch and build it back up.
- DON’T THROW OUT THE BABY WITH THE BATHWATER. Even with a page one re-write, there is probably a lot that you loved about a project (you hope) that should survive – at the very least, the crux of the story? The spirit, the thing that made you care about these people in the first place…? Unless of course one of your notes is “There’s no story,” or “We don’t care about these people.” Then you're screwed. ...I kid.
- KNOW WHEN TO SAY WHEN: Sometimes notes just suck. An Executive is guessing at what their boss will want or they don’t really get what you’re doing and they’ll give a broad, unnecessary note like, “The main character, that guy who saves puppies for a living, he just doesn’t seem likeable.” I once added to a character description, “We can’t help but love this guy,” just to avoid that note. A friend of mine went one step further. She took the note with a smile, waited three weeks, turned the script back in with no changes and they LOVED it.
- DON’T BE PRECIOUS: Don’t go into the hole and shut everybody out. Call the producers if it will help to throw ideas around. If you don’t want to do that, call a buddy. If you don’t have a buddy, go to the gym and chat up the person on the treadmill next to you… a work out will clear your head at least. And then, as the late, great Bruce Paltrow used to tell me, "Get your ass in the chair and get the pages out!"
If it helps, remind yourself that when you turn the new version back in, in all likelihood, there will be more notes!