Screenplay notes: The good, the bad, and the ugly…
July 10, 2012 § 6 Comments
One of my readers, Meg, asked if I could write a follow up to my article, “The Art and Craft of Executing Script Notes” with examples of common notes issues and how you could address them. The reality is there are no “common issues” because every project has a unique set of notes and every producer has a distinct point of view. As you travel on your screenwriting journey, you’ll constantly receive a variety of notes from many sources. Part of the job requirement is being able to execute the notes properly as you balance pleasing your producer or executive and yourself.
As a screenwriter, you must prepare yourself to accept a constant flow of criticism, both constructive and destructive, only to end up alone and figuring out how to effectively make the changes without ruining the original material. Unfortunately, as the screenwriter you end up as the last line of defense of your work because you’re always vulnerable to everyone’s notes—the good, bad and the ugly.
Many times you’ll get lucky and the notes are smart, page specific, and make the script better. Other times, the notes are broad strokes, general changes, and obviously rushed because someone skimmed the script. You’ll bite your tongue, grind your teeth, and figure a way to compromise and give the producer what they need while protecting the material.
The longer you are a screenwriter in the film business, the quicker you’ll learn there are good producers and not so good producers with regards to giving notes. Just as executing screenplay notes is an art and craft—so is giving notes. Many producers or executives just don’t know how to communicate with writers. A note like, “it’s just not working for me” does nothing to help a screenwriter fix a scene. I once had an executive give me notes by scratching out my dialogue in the script and rewriting his own in the margins. This was his idea of giving notes. Some of his dialogue did not even sound like the characters or what they would say. He expected me to transcribe it word for word in the new draft as if his assistant couldn’t perform this menial task. It was about as demeaning and disrespectful as it gets, but if I refused, I’d be branded as difficult and probably not work for him again. So, you suck it up, make the changes and move forward. Every project has its good experiences and bad. It’s always a mixed bag every time out.
I remember when I was in negotiations to do a script doctor job on a screenplay that needed a full rewrite. The changes were massive and included changing the male protagonist to a female, making the script less of an action movie and more of a suspense thriller, and changing the central location to another continent. Honestly, I’m glad I didn’t get the job because I know it would have been a brutal rewrite. I’ve found that when a script is drastically changed from the original during massive rewrites in later drafts, the overall script suffers from too many changes. The DNA of the story is forever altered by so many changes and producers wonder why the sixth draft is crap.
Here are examples of a few notes about character issues in a script. I believe many times a producer will ask for a change and not realize how much rewriting is actually involved. Some notes deal with motivational issues or the way characters relate to each other. How do you address these notes? You simply make the changes. Here are examples of a few note that relate to character issues:
- Consolidate these two characters into one character. Motivation is not tracking.
- Change the central character, a 12 year-old girl, to a boy. We need to change the 12 year-old boy to a 16 year-old teenager and make him gay.
- We aren’t sure that settling the case for the happy ending is playing. Do we want this to happen to them.
- We need to establish some motivation for why the kid acts out. It’s not enough just to be a “bad kid.” Maybe idea of him having been bounced around foster homes and he really wants to be heard.
Sometimes you’ll receive notes about issues in the script that were “not clear.” I find if I’m too subtle and I don’t hit the reader over the head or have things on the nose, that someone quickly reading the script will miss something and come back with a note that it’s not clear. When I point it out in the scene, they usually tell me, “Well, it wasn’t clear. I didn’t get it, so do more with it.” Many times it’s already there, but you just need to punch it up a bit. Here are examples of those notes:
- It wasn’t clear. We need a clear point/beat in the story where she shifts and decides to get her boyfriend back.
- Make it more clear that he is breaking up with her. It’s too subtle. Make it more cut and dried. Want to make sure that when we cut to a year later and suddenly he’s not in her life anymore, we understand.
- There wasn’t a clear throughline for the main character. I’m not clear on what he really wants in the story.
- Let’s have a clear understanding of what kind of lawyers they are and what kind of case this is. It may be in there already, but let’s be sure to hear it early on.
Sometimes you’ll receive notes about budget issues. Even though you may have kept in mind the budget range as you wrote the script, you can still receive notes to further alter the script due to the budget. This can also include location issues too. Here are a few examples of budget issue notes:
- Change the bar scene and rewrite it so the two characters stand on a cliff overlooking the city as the scene plays.
- Cut down the courtroom scene to reduce the number of extras.
- Cut the scene unless you can make it happen at the same location where at least ten pages of script takes place. (The production had a mandate that a location must warrant ten pages of the script to be kept intact)
- Does the film have to end in Paris?
Other times you’ll receive story issue notes about the structure of the script. Those involve cutting and rewriting usually revealing story beats sooner. You should have figured out most of this in your story treatment, but producers will still be surprised at your draft as if they didn’t okay the treatment before you started writing. Here are a few examples of structure notes:
- Get to the first party scene quicker in the beginning of the script.
- Are we delaying too long before they meet up again? They first exchange words on page 19 and next on page 50.
- Consider adding a beat in the middle where his father shows up (suggestion below) at the company. We can get some insight into why he puts so much pressure on himself to get promotion.
- I felt the cops would have looked harder for him in the first ten pages. Maybe revisit that part and look at their motivations again.
The bad notes are the general ones where the screenwriter is left to make their own choices about how to rewrite the scene. Notes like this: “The emotional peaks and valleys have to be higher and lower.” I suggest when a producer gives you general notes, before you start any rewrites make sure you are clear about the specific changes you are going to make. You don’t want to turn in the rewrite only to have the producer shocked and expecting something completely different. Make sure you and the producer are on the same page. This is why I love page specific notes. It gives a screenwriter a specific and clear guide for the rewrite and what the producer or executive expects.
The ugly notes are the ones that dumb down the script or take the fun out of a scene. As screenwriters we spend a lot of our time crafting important details into our scenes only to have a producer or their assistant tell you to cut something that is creative or funny. I hate when someone without a sense of humor tells me to cut something they don’t see as funny. I wrote and performed in a live sketch comedy show for three years—I know a little about funny.
Eventually, you’ll master the art of filtering notes and you can listen to everyone’s specific genius ideas in the story meeting, but not take them literally. They’ll think you’re writing down their specific ideas and will use them in your rewrite, but you will not. The assistant who came up with the bonehead idea believes he or she will impress the boss and will tell friends when they watch the movie, “Look, I thought of that. It was my idea!” Sorry, assistant. As a team player, you’ll listen to the bonehead ideas as an example only of what they need—but it will never end up in the rewrite. I was in a meeting once where the assistant kept offering up horrible examples as ideas and I politely smiled and wrote them down, but I was never going to use his specific ideas—never. My name is on that script and as writers we get enough blame for bad scripts, so I wasn’t going to expose my story to any of that nonsense. I felt like telling them, “Leave the writing up to the writer. Trust me. Please?”
Hopefully, these examples show the various types of notes you may receive for your rewrite. Screenwriting is hard enough, but executing notes is more difficult as you’re peppered with a constant barrage of changes that can positively and negatively affect the script. The difference between drafts is either slight or considerable. I suggest you listen to all comments, but learn how to separate the good notes from the bad and the ugly. What you don’t want to do is find yourself in the hell of “chasing screenplay notes.” If you accept that screenwriting is always rewriting, you’ll ease into filtering opinions and making the necessary changes. When you make the rewrite process a positive experience, you’ll become a master at executing script notes and live to write another day. Stay calm, stay hungry, and write on my brave screenwriting brothers and sisters.
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“It would be unthinkable for a writer to tell a director how to direct or a producer how to produce or an actor how to act or a cinematographer how to light a scene. But it is not at all unthinkable for anyone to tell a writer how to write. It comes with the territory.”—Ernest Lehman, screenwriter of Sweet Smell of Success, North by Northwest, West Side Story, The Sound of Music.
“In rewriting what you have to be able to do is read a piece of material, say what’s wrong with it, know how to say what’s right with it, and then be able to do it yourself. That’s really what it comes down to. Some people say what’s wrong with something, some people can even say what’s right with it, and some people can do all three, but, you know, the more things that are required, the fewer people can do it. I think I can do it.”— Robert Towne, screenwriter of Chinatown, major uncredited script doctor.
“Much of good screenwriting is about carpentry. It’s a juggling of beginnings, middles and endings so that they all inevitably seem to be moving correctly together. Your first draft is dangerously important. Don’t ever kid yourself into thinking, “It’s okay, it’s just the first draft.” Beware of that thought, because it’s ten times more difficult to go in a certain direction once you’ve already gone in another direction. The longer you can hold off putting a word down on paper, the better you are.”—Ernest Lehman, Screenwriter of Sweet Smell of Success, North by Northwest, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?