The art and craft of executing script notes…
January 29, 2012 § 3 Comments
Yes, it’s an art and a craft indeed. Your script will always garner varied opinions and notes, but if you’re lucky enough to be paid to write the script, the most important notes come from the producer. In the wee small hours of this morning, I completed my third draft of a recent script assignment—my 28th feature length screenplay and turned it into the producer. The notes were more specific this go around and they really helped guide me to creating a much tighter and fast paced script. The key is to trim the fat and make the writing effective. An added benefit was that I able to cut out five pages without even realizing it and this helped refine my story. Each draft has moved the script closer to the production draft and that’s important for many reasons including getting paid the production bonus. As a writer, it works to your benefit to do everything to move the project along to attracting financiers, a director and the actors. Remember this absolute tenet: only write what is necessary. A lean, mean screenplay will always trump a bloated over-written one.
It’s an ongoing process with script notes. Hopefully you’ve turned in solid first draft and the notes will only concern redefining the characters and their motivations and not end up being a page one rewrite horror show. If your treatment is solid going in you should be in great shape although a producer can decide that certain story elements now don’t work in the script and you’ll need to revise your draft. Sometimes the notes are budget related changes and the script must be scaled down. Should you be conscious about budget when you’re writing? Some of my script assignments involved a first draft and two light polishes and others as many as eight drafts. It all depends on what the producers have planned. Nail the first draft and you’ll save yourself more headaches later. Sometimes the notes seem to never end and other times you finish quickly but wait for the other shoe to drop.
Notes and changes often come after the script is supposedly locked and moving along in pre-production. I’ve had to make script revisions during pre-production and on set during shooting. That is when the pressure is on and it’s crunch time and with no turning back. It’s a whole different ball game and the pressure is on to fix what doesn’t work. You might be given a few hours or a day heads up, but regardless you must deliver the goods. The set changes can be rough as everyone turns to you for all of the answers as to why the scene doesn’t work. It’s either praise or blame. Again, the scene may not work because early on the producers gave you earlier notes to change it, but now these changes have come back to haunt you. As I previously stated, it works to your benefit to move the script closer to working even when the film is in production. Be the writer who understands and is willing to do anything to make the scene or script better. No one likes to work with a temperamental writer who grimaces at every change. That’s why producers and directors generally don’t allow the writer on the set. There are just too many tiny changes to a script during production. If you aren’t a team player and feel that script changes are death by a thousand cuts, you will not last a day on a movie set. The minute your frustration shows, they will not invite you back. So make it, “Smiles everyone, smiles!” If they fire you, think about the lavish crew meals you’ll be missing and the fantastic craft service!
If you want to be a working screenwriter in Hollywood, you must be able to execute notes quickly and effectively. Usually you get one crack at your second draft and if you haven’t mastered the art of rewriting, they will fire you. It’s business, not personal. Producers don’t have time to deal with a writer who is unable to effectively make the necessary changes needed. I’ve been hired several times to work on a script written by another, as the original writer exhausted their ability to effectively make the revisions. Writing your own spec script is one thing, being hired for a script assignment, working from a treatment you didn’t create, and then executing script notes is an entirely different talent. It’s an ability that you must have if you want to stay on a project and eventually see your name in the credits. Masterfully execute script notes and be a writer who is a team player and you’ll work again — we hope. Keep fighting the good fight and remember: screenwriting is always rewriting.
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“This morning I took out a comma, and this afternoon I put it back again.” — Oscar Wilde
“Half my life is an act of revision.” —John Irving
“You have to understand that people feel threatened by a writer. It’s very curious. He knows something they don’t know. He knows how to write, and that’s a subtle, disturbing quality he has. Some directors without even knowing it, resent the writer in the same way Bob Hope might resent the fact he ain’t funny without twelve guys writing the jokes. The director knows the script he is carrying around on the set every day was written by someone, and that’s just not something that all directors easily digest.” —Ernest Lehman, Screenwriter of Sweet Smell of Success, North by Northwest, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, among others.
“I think of the script as an organization, like an engine. Ideally, everything contributes—nothing is in excess and everything works. I feel as thought I’ve cheated in a script unless everything has a function.” —John Huston, director of The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The African Queen, The Man Who Would Be King
“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, Shampoo, major uncredited script doctor.
“Dramatic economy, which includes the ability of a writer to cut what at one point he might have considered to be his best work ever, is one of the most important skills a writer can have. It is learned only through much experience, combined with a ruthless attitude and utter lack of sentimentality.”—Alexander MacKendrick, The Lady Killers, Sweet Smell of Success.