When I do agree to read something for input purposes, I ask the person if they want the “Hey, this is great!” read or the detailed breakdown with the harsh truth.
If it’s the first response they want, then I can say it immediately and save me the read.
If it’s the detailed breakdown, they should be ready for it.
What Writers have to realize is that when someone reads their script, that person has become an “audience.” They should look at it that way. No matter what level that person is, if they have a note or comment, it is an audience member speaking. You may not ultimately agree with it, but it isn’t something you can really argue with. In fact “arguing” a read is ridiculous.
Asking questions of the reader is not.
There is a difference between saying “you just missed the point” and saying “did it come across in the script that the mistress was his wife?” The first is telling the reader that her notes don’t matter because she is just too stupid to see the obvious. The second, however, is a clarification of how well YOU got the information across. You can’t improve a script with the first, only with the second.
In fact, when I give notes, I hate the phrase “you just missed the point” because my response is “then you should learn to write it so I don’t.”
I had a friend I had known since high school who wanted me to read a script of his. He had some money and wanted to write, direct and produce his own film. So he sent me the script. I was very busy at the time and had it on my list, but he called and said he was into pre-production and needed my notes by the next Monday. So I put everything I had aside and gave his script a read. It was not a very good script, to be honest. But as a friend, I took the entire weekend to make copious notes, I wrote in the margins, I wrote separate pages detailing my comments, I did more than I do on my scripts because he had a great basic idea, just a lousy execution. And, besides, he was ready to go into production. So I called him to give him my responses. Every note I gave him was countered with “you just don’t get it,” “you don’t see it,” “take my word for it, I know what I’m doing,” and the like. Finally, I stopped the session and I told him that it was obvious he didn’t want input; he wanted praise. He wanted me to be amazed at his wonderful script and gush over it. He denied it, of course, but I said that I had given all my notes and that was that.
Now, I had started the entire session saying that my notes were based on my experience and my opinions. He could take and leave what he thought worked. So all he had to do was say “uh, huh.” But he fell into the Writer’s trap of confusing acknowledgement of the note with submission to someone else’s creativity. In other words, he felt that by just nodding his head meant that he was agreeing with me and, therefore, tacitly admitting that he had done something incorrect. There are so many things wrong with that attitude. Aside from letting his ego get involved and becoming defensive, he didn’t realize that an acknowledgement just means “I hear your note, I’m going to think about it.”
As it was, he went ahead and made his movie. And I give him credit, he made it with legitimate money, paying all his actors under full SAG contracts and union affiliations. However. . . he later sent me a tape of the movie. He has yet to ask me what I thought of it. My response would be that my notes and critiques still hold.
Taking notes is one of the BIGGEST art forms to learn in this business.
The other side to understanding this “art” is learning how to give notes.
Giving notes to someone is not an opportunity to trash someone’s work. It is, no more or less, you giving your reactions to the material and helpful solutions to problems. And the person you are giving notes to is not required to do them, so don’t get your feathers ruffled when they don’t.
When I read material, I make notes in the margins and on the front page. These notes are, initially, not to give to the Writer. These are notes for me to examine later on. The first time I read a script, I’m reading it to enjoy it, not to critique it. Still, I can’t help but have internal comments during the read, so I make little notes to remind me where things stood out. When things occur to me that are part of arcs, story or character qualities (things that aren’t on one particular page), I put a note on the front page.
Then, I go back and reread the script, paying more attention to my little notes than the actual story. I’m looking to see if, in total context, whether my notes and questions have any validity. If I have any suggestions or ideas, I’ll note them in the margins as “what if?” When I’m done reading, I’ll sit and think about what I just read and write my overall impressions on the front page.
Next, when I finally talk to the Writer, I ask questions first. This is to make sure that I didn’t miss something. These are questions that I wrote on the front page after I was done reading. Many of the notes and questions you might have can be easily explained by the Writer as something you missed. Of course, you have to question why you missed something. If it was honestly your mistake and you realize it upon explanation, then acknowledge it and move on. If it was something that you missed because the script didn’t bring it out properly, that’s a note to be addressed.
Next, I give my overall impressions. These notes are also on the front page. What I thought of the story, the characters, the structure, and so on. These are general notes and, in most cases, the Writer will ask for examples. I respond that “I have examples of this when we get into the script.”
Now I actually get into the script. This means I start at page one and move though it. I won’t have notes on every page and that’s fine. If it’s a clean page, I just move on. I only address the things that I’ve made note of.
At this point, I have to make a distinction that is hard for Writers, professional and amateur, to understand: You are giving notes on someone’s script; you are not trying to rewrite their script. Don’t get into the habit of giving a note by telling them how you’d do it better. The temptation is there. Our creative juices get flowing and we want to use them. No, avoid it. You are there to point out problems (as you see them) and allow the Writer to find the solutions if she chooses to.
Scripts are as individual as the person who is writing them. They are very subjective. Many notes are “Taster’s choice,” meaning that one person would do it this way, another would do it that way, and so on. The Writer makes the final interpretation of the notes.
When you are done going through the script, you sum up your feelings about it. And try to be positive. Keep in mind that this person actually sat down and typed 120 pages of a story. That’s a lot more than most people do.
And, for the person who is getting the notes, remember that your friend just spent an evening reading your script and making the effort to help you. No matter how much you hate the notes, he did you a huge favor and should be thanked for it. Appreciate the effort.
The process I described deals with a Writer wanting to get input from a reader. That reader could be a friend or a fellow Writer (they aren’t always the same!). But what about notes in a business setting? When you’ve been hired to write a script or have to do a rewrite of the script you sold?
In many ways, this is very much the same. But there are important differences. Many of those differences have to do with politics and power. You have to pay a lot more attention to what the notes say in this case because you are being paid to provide the script that they want. The notes have much more weight and you are forced to give more than you would normally with a friend. In short, when you are just writing a script, you are writing it for your own satisfaction, so you are the final arbiter of the note’s worth. In the business of Screenwriting, you are providing a product for someone else; you are the employee. You need to combine your sense of the creative with the needs of the entity that has hired you.
This can be an extremely trying thing for the soul. How dare these business people tell me how to tell my story, you think. I’m the creative one here! I’m the “Artist!”
Okay, let’s dispense with that attitude right now. You are not an Artist. Which isn’t to say you can’t create Art. You are a Craftsperson whose work can, on occasion, be considered Artistic. Your primary purpose is to serve a business machine. Now, that business machine wants to sell a product as Art, but the selling of the product is the main concern. Cruel, cold, but true. It doesn’t mean that your creative spirit gets squashed, but it does mean you have to keep things in perspective.
So what I am going to write here focuses primarily on this business situation. I want to talk about the room. I want to talk about the attitude. I want to tell you how every one of you can shoot yourselves in the foot in the most innocent of ways in an industry which is very unforgiving.
I’m targeting the notes you will get when you sell your script or get an assignment. How you deal with getting your notes is a major factor in whether you get your next assignment. Especially in Television, but also in features. In fact, I get worried if I don’t get notes. I’d like to think that my script was important enough to have an opinion on, good or bad. So you not only need to take notes, you should demand them.
First of all, understand that in this setting, notes are NOT meant to be an interactive procedure. It’s a one way street. You TAKE notes in a notes session. The hardest thing for a Writer to accept is that this is NOT a discussion. Your baby is about to be dissected and you have to sit there and watch it.
You don’t defend, you don’t argue, you don’t explain, you don’t rationalize. Anything that you say that falls into those categories, no matter how well intentioned, comes across as resistance. And it makes the notes session into a discussion. It is NOT a discussion. Let it go.
But wait, you say, isn’t this a collaboration? No, not really. But it also depends on who is giving the notes. And, perhaps just as important, what your opinion of that person is. If a note is given that you agree with and you see a solution immediately, you might suggest an alternative. But ONLY if the person you are dealing with is looking to hash out a solution. Most of the time they aren’t and you might just get yourself in deeper water with a quick reaction solution. And if you are dealing with someone you have no respect for, then it doesn’t matter what you say. So don’t say it. Log it for future reference and let the notes continue.
As stated before, a notes session is NO PLACE for pride and ego. Now, you may end up with someone who wants to turn it into that. Fine, that’s their problem. But you are there to get input, that’s all there is to it. You aren’t there to measure yourself against anyone else. Don’t play their game; stay focused.
The first thing you should do when you get a note is to ask yourself what problem in your script led to that reaction. Don’t automatically assume the other person is just an idiot and doesn’t see the obvious. You may come to that conclusion, but it won’t be an honest one until you examine your complicity in it first. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Explore the possibility that you, perfect Artist that you are, might just have made a mistake.
See the key here is to not get personally attached. Yes, I know, this is your baby, your sweet little creation, how can you not have a personal attachment to it? It ain’t easy. Take it from bitter experience here. There is something I keep in mind when I write a script for pay. The first draft is my baby because no one has touched it. Past that, it’s a product. I’ll still have a pure copy of my baby to show off to friends, but now it’s down to business. Stay detached.
Okay, but, even with the best of restraint, you are still human and you have feelings. There are pitfalls you could naturally fall into without realizing it. Emotional responses that might leak out accidentally. To prevent them you have to recognize them before they happen. What follows are a few of the most common ones.
REACTIONARY—Don’t be amazed and appalled that someone has notes. Expect to hear some things that will outrage you. Or, at the least, make you feel the person you are dealing with is an utter idiot. Don’t react to it. Don’t get baited by it. Stone face.
DEFENSIVE—A notes session is NOT an attack. It is not a chance for someone to tell you that you aren’t any good at what you do. It isn’t meant to make you feel inferior and it isn’t meant to imply that your script is substandard. There is NO point to taking offense unless the person takes a personal shot at you. And, even then, you had better be darn sure it had nothing to do with your script before you react.
DISMISSIVE—Every comment and note is worth attention. I have gotten notes from a few people I considered to be, let’s say, less than capable in the creative realm. But when they give me their notes, I take every one as seriously as if William Goldman gave me the note. Even idiots have observations and even if they are wrong, they can make you think. But ONLY if you allow them to. At the very least, if someone gives you a note that makes you think they just didn’t get it, stop and ask yourself WHY they didn’t get it. Was it your fault or theirs?
ARGUMENTATIVE—You’d think this would be obvious. But there is a very thin line between discussion and argument. The same thin line exists between explanation and argument. Same for rationalization and argument. Arguments have no place in a notes session. Don’t start one, don’t even start to start one. You won’t win. You may make your point, but you’ve lost the session.
EXPLANATORY—One of the things I don’t want to hear when I give notes are explanations on why certain things were done a certain way. I don’t need to hear it. I don’t want to hear your inner workings or grand design. If it isn’t there in front of me, I don’t care. And it is very true, if you have to explain it, then you didn’t do it right.
Here are the phrases you need to memorize during your notes session:
“I’ll have to look at that.”
“I’m not sure I agree, but let me look at it again.”
“Wow! Lots of stuff to think about! Thanks!”
And you have to say those things convincingly.
Now let me address what you are thinking right now. In effect, you are thinking “Well, doesn’t this just make me the obedient puppy dog, rolling over and showing my belly? Am I just supposed to take all this and give the impression that I don’t count?”
Not just that, but with that feeling, you have to bite your tongue and grit your teeth while you smile, too. And you know what the reaction from the other side is going to be? Respect. Not what you are feeling at all. The other person is going to respect you for being able to take notes objectively and professionally.
And if you don’t take the notes professionally? Well, then it gets even worse. It’s a human-interaction thing. Here’s what I mean:
If you take the notes professionally and gracefully as I have described, you put the other person at ease. You give them the feeling that you are sincerely going to address their concerns. You may not be able to implement all of them, but they know you will give them a fair hearing. The result of that is that they leave the implementation and discretion in YOUR hands. They trust you to do what’s right.
However, if you are resistant, in any fashion, they begin to doubt that you are taking their notes seriously. They see you as set in your ways and not about to make any changes at all. And when that happens, they become much more firmly set in the changes they expect you to make. They won’t trust you to be fair, so they will start to DEMAND their changes get done. They won’t leave it up to you. And when they get the script, they will go over it with a fine tooth comb making sure you did everything little thing that they told you to do.
Getting notes that you are dead set against isn’t something that happens all the time. But a lot of that depends on your mindset. And the rules of taking notes still apply. Even if you hear something outrageous, tell the person you will think about it. You don’t want to be reactionary at that moment. Take it home. Think about it. Is there something in there you can love? Or something that you can do to address their underlying concerns and still get back to your original concept? If so, no problem. It just takes some creative thinking and that’s what you are being paid for. If not, then the discussions begin.
I will tell you right up front, I follow these rules for the most part. I will also say that I have gotten into some pretty good knock-down-drag-outs with studio heads and Showrunners over notes. You pick and choose what you argue. But those fights came well after the initial notes sessions and were usually a result of greater problems than just one script.
I have also walked out of a notes session. But putting modesty aside, I am at a level in my career where I can do that. And, even more importantly, I was also prepared to keep walking, it wasn’t a bluff. Which is my next point. Never throw down the gauntlet over notes. Not unless you are ready to walk away. And keep in mind that you don’t just walk away from one project, you walk away from all the projects that one was going to generate.
Now let’s go back and talk about the “artist” versus the machine. I’m going to touch on it only because it deals with the attitude people have when they get their notes.
Again let me make this clarification: “ScreenWriters are not Artists. They are craftpersons whose work, on occasion, can be considered artistic.” If you consider yourself an “artist,” then go type up some “art” and hang out at home. Don’t sell it. Don’t make a career of it. It’s a hobby, not a business.
We certainly want to think of ourselves as “Artists” because that has a certain arrogant, self controlled, individualistic feel to it. But face it, we aren’t. We are businesspeople with a creative talent. We (Screenwriters) provide a product for a machine.
But doesn’t that sound so cold? Only if you want it to.
You are only an “artist” up until the moment that you sell your “art.” At that point, your “art” becomes “product” and you become contract labor. You are working for an employer and that employer is going to want what they bought to be fashioned in ways according to their taste and style. In short, THEY ARE PAYING FOR IT. If you can’t get your mind wrapped around that, then don’t consider screenwriting as a viable career. Studios and Producers are not paying for arrogant attitudes and righteous indignation in the name of “art.” They are paying for a product. A script. And they expect it to be something they feel they can work with.
A good Employer values the opinions of the person they hired. A good Employee knows who is paying for their talents and also knows that those talents have value to the Employer.
Someone is paying you for your talents and abilities. For the most part, they realize that it makes no sense to pay for something then destroy what it is that they paid for. So there are going to be disagreements, but obviously the Producer or the Studio value what you bring to the table. The notes you get are going to be a refinement of what they have already bought. In other words, if I buy a screenplay from you that deals with childhood friends who end up on the same baseball team, I’m not going to suddenly give notes that change the story into ex marines who decide to form a rugby squad in order to fight crime.
Now, does such a change happen? Oh, yeah. We hear about screenplays that are changed substantially, so much so that the original Writers take their names off it. Here’s the unfortunate thing: The studio can do that. Why? Because they paid for it. They bought it. Your artistic integrity is moot the moment you sell your product. You are in a business.
Now there is a tendency for some people to look at all this and start crying “Hack!” “Whore!” That’s absolute B.S. and an insult to every Screenwriter who works or has worked in this business. I’ll go back to the word that I use “Craftperson” (or “Craftsman,” if it doesn’t offend the gender specific crowd).
To put it into “artistic” terms, you have an idea for a painting. Someone wants to buy that idea. However, they have particular needs that have to be addressed. The room they want to hang the painting in is made up of predominantly brown and reds. So the colors you use has to be complimentary to that. And the wall that the person wants to hang the painting on only has a certain size space to fit into. And the person has a particular affectation for watercolors. Now that is no different from a development deal and getting notes. Your talent is that you are able to do something creative within those boundaries.
That is what taking notes is all about. If you are lucky and you play it correctly, the person giving your notes will make them general and allow you to be creative on your own. The other end of the spectrum would be the person who wants to stand over your shoulder and tell you which way the brush needs to move. Those people exist, but they aren’t that common. And, as already stated, you run the risk of creating them if you are too resistant.
I’m sure someone will be tempted to bring up the names of Writers who defy the system and stand up for their “artistic integrity.” First of all, the ones who are truly Writers (not Directors, not Producers, not novelists, just Screenwriters) are extremely few (I can only think of two). And for every one of those you can name, I can name several Writers you’ve never heard of because they sabotaged themselves getting notes. A couple of them are friends of mine. Some are people I’ve hired. Some are people I have been warned about. The commonality is that they don’t work because they are too difficult to work with. If that comment came from one person, that’s a personal disagreement. When it becomes a pattern, that’s a difficult Writer.
Bottom line: Screenwriting as a career is a business. If you want to be in the business, you have to treat it like one. Which means recognizing your place in it. Your true talent may be in how you actually handle that interaction.
If you can’t deal with the above, again, consider another career. This one isn’t for you.
So learn to take notes. I know mediocre Writers who have made careers on being able to do just that. It’s that important.
© Steven L. Sears – 2009