When it comes to notes, I always think about something Neil Gaiman is alleged to have said. “When someone tells you it’s not working, they’re almost always right. When they tell you how to fix it, they’re almost always wrong.” I think that’s an excellent way to approach notes.
If there is something “not working” for a reader, well then it’s not working for them. You can’t argue with them about it. The question then becomes “why”? And that develops into “Is this a UNIVERSAL problem or a personal one?” If it’s personal, then what “need” of theirs is going unmet, and what is my “strategy” for meeting that need?
Back when I was hosting screenwriting salons of six to ten writers, we would workshop one script a meeting. As we went around the room getting notes, I limited the participants to discussing a maximum of three or four notes each, in two separate categories. “Housekeeping Notes” and “Story Notes”. The housekeeping notes were easy to give. Typos, faulty headings, missed transitions, bad punctuation. Everyone screws up and it’s great to have a fresh set of eyes to spot something you’ve looked at a thousand times. There’s rarely any ‘ego’ involved in finding or fixing these. Practical housekeeping notes are a blessing to get, and easy to fix. It was interesting too, to see which typos were picked up by some readers, and which were missed by others.
The “story notes” were where the rubber met the road. These were notes about the structure, the dialog, the plot, the action. These were things that each reader had a ‘problem’ with. For one reason or another, something wasn’t working for them. As we worked our way around the circle, it was important to recognize when a note seemed ‘common’ and when it seemed ‘personal’.
”I got lost here in this scene, did he know that she had the gun before?” ”I had the same problem, I got lost…” someone else chimes in. Okay, it’s a problem; people are not seeing something clearly. Listen for the echoes of ‘me too’ with the other readers. This is a solid note.
The ‘lone note’ – may or may not be valid. “I just didn’t find Susan’s motivations to be strong enough.” If someone else chimes in with, “Oh I thought she was PERFECTLY clear…” You’re likely looking at something personal at work in either of these note givers. Maybe they ‘know’ a Susan. Maybe they’re married to one, were raised by one, or WORK with one. Something about their complaint strikes a very personal chord. It’s not working FOR THEM. But is it working for everyone else? Is it working for YOU? Is it a singular problem or a universal one? I once got a note, “Families don’t act like that after the death of a loved one…” Well, I assume this person’s family wouldn’t, but I know for a fact, that MY family did. So yeah – it worked FOR ME. And it served the needs of the plot. Now… multiply that note by potential hundreds of thousands of viewers. Is it something that needs to be addressed?
Maybe the note giver has a real, valid inside track to the problem. Maybe it’s some inside baseball note. “They don’t use that model anymore, they use a Mark 7” or “That’s not a Sergeant’s job – that’s the lieutenant’s.” Okay great. That’s an easy fix, akin to housekeeping. No problem. These are valuable. Perhaps it’s something you missed in your research. Well great. The pros out there in the audience are going to have an issue with this element. Usually it’s some technical issue. What percentage of your audience, is a professional in this area? Do you change it?
CAN you change it?
If it’s a simple thing like the type of gun, or military rank or a technical term – then sure. Easy peasy. But maybe its – “I’m a Doctor, you don’t get those tests back in four hours, that’s going to take a week, at least.”
Okay, realistically it takes an entire week to get these results back, but the bomb goes off in twenty four hours, so… No. You can’t. You need this plot point to work EXACTLY the way you need it to work. The professional might tell you “Make the bomb go off in a week, stretch the story out. That will fix it.” Well… that fits in with their world view of medical tests. It meets THEIR need for reality and veracity. But it won’t serve the dramatics of the story. “Is there ANY way this test can be fast tracked?” you ask.
“Well…. Maybe, if you had a ZEMO machine on premises… but no one keeps those…”
FINE, we’ve got one on premises. Next problem? You just finesse it. Usually it can be passed off with a one line mention. “Good thing we have a Zemo machine next door! Good thing my uncle manufactures Zemo machines!” Be creative, INVENT a “New ZEMO MARK II processor that does the test in twenty minutes!” (It’s fiction, remember. A liberal application of handwavium is useful.) Or even hand it off to the tech and simply say, “Expedite this, STAT!”
No one wants to spend precious screen time watching the hero look for a parking space. Of course there is one right in front of the building. This is screenwriting shorthand. (Hell, do we need to see him park at all?)
Then there are notes that really strike close to home. “I didn’t like the ending…” Well again, is this personal? Is it a one-off? She didn’t like it, because in her world, they did NOT wind up happily married? Or – HE has an issue because he wanted the hero to miss the meeting, and the best friend to wind up with the girl… because he’s the best friend in his own life. Yeah, again – it’s a real problem with these people. Their idea on how to ‘fix’ the script – is to make it end correctly with their world view. Is the ending working for OTHER people? Is it working for you, in terms of answering the main question of the theme? Yes? Don’t change it. Or keep your strategy, and ADD a girlfriend for the best friend. Find a strategy that meets their need, but keeps your own vision intact. (Especially if that need comes from a producer.)
These are just notes you get from group meetings, good friends, people you might pay to read your script and give you feedback. All good stuff to know, hear and decide to deal with. This is how you hammer out a script that gets to the point of submitting to the gate keepers.
Once the script has caught the attention of producers, we’re at a whole new level of notes.
I’m speaking as someone who has optioned several screenplays, and done numerous rewrites as part of those options. I’m not currently a WGA writer, so I’m not protected by the number of rewrites, or even PAID for doing them. As a low-mid level writer, usually I’m doing the rewrites as part of the option. On occasion, I’ve had an incentive to do the rewrites, in the form of a higher pay-out if no one else is called in.
Once there is money on the table, ‘Shit gets real’. You’re STILL going to get notes. And they’re STILL going to come in two flavors, more or less.
“Budgetary” notes. Hopefully at this point, the script has been gone over with a fine toothed comb, and there are no actual housekeeping typos or mis-slugged scene headings. If they crop up – change them without comment or explanation. What you’re more likely to get are budgetary type notes. These are notes to make alterations to the script, usually for some practical budgetary reason. “Cut three pages, I don’t care where.” – No, don’t cut them by altering the margins. Cut them by CUTTING them. Come in later, leave earlier in each scene – will usually do the trick. This is the least painful alteration. None of your “perfect” scenes are removed; you’re simply tightening them up. Or maybe it’s practical, “We can’t shoot this goodbye scene in the airport, can we have it happen in the car, outside?” Well, that’s how they would fix it, but maybe you can get what you wanted back at the restaurant, before they leave. Save on one whole location. “Do we need another cop? Or can this all be done by one?” Sure, cut and trim dialog, combine characters. You’re saving a day-player rate or maybe another location. None of this should be dinging your ego. It might even be challenging your creativity to RISE up to the limitations. Recently, I dealt with a “Rating Change” note. It’s currently an R rated thriller; can we get it down to PG-13? Take out the “fucks” – dial back on the sex.
Some seemingly major changes will be easier than others. “Can the hero’s gender be switched?” Unless their gender is germane to the story line as in “A woman in a man’s profession, or a man in a woman’s place at home,” – the fish-out-of-water trope – then sure why not change the gender? And for this reason, I seldom signify the RACE of my characters anymore. Unless it’s central to the story line, then it really doesn’t matter. These are battles not worth fighting and in fact, might possibly raise the stakes. Be open to them. This is the sausage making, nuts and bolts part of working with the team. Roll up your sleeves, and make the fix.
Then, there are story notes…
“I really am fascinated by the villain. Can he come in earlier? Can we START on him?” Well…. Maybe. But then again, maybe not. I once did numerous re-writes on my thriller, “Scars of the Mind”. The producers kept asking for different takes on the villain. Originally, he was a banal street thug. For me – it was a comment on the banality of evil. And he didn’t show up on scene until the third act. He was pursuing the heroine, who was on the run, and rescued by our hero. The STORY was about the impact this heroine, and her preteen daughter, had on our hero’s life. They were three lost souls, looking for help. The villain showed up late, like a force of nature, and created the final confrontation that led to the solution for our new ‘family’ of characters – binding them together. In helping one another, they found their individual salvation.
But over the course of not one, but TWO options of this script – no less than five different producers saw the story as a vehicle to examine different types of villains. He was alternately, a banal street thug, an evil street prophet, and a super-villain Drug Lord who runs an International Pedophile Ring. In each case, the villain got bigger, and meaner, and entered earlier, and earlier, until the story morphed into a different vision than I had intended. Instead of SAM rescuing KRYSTAL and her daughter MIA from a terrible life on the road… It became about KRYSTAL running from a VILLAIN, who was after the package (Mia, the McGuffin) and just happened to be rescued by a generic Hero named Sam. In short, it morphed from a thriller about a middle-aged vet with PTSD, into a “Woman in Peril” film.
Was it good?
Was it better?
It was the best version of a “Woman in Peril” film I could write. But it also inspired me, in my frustration of being sidetracked into meeting their need for their vision of my story – into writing yet another take on the film. The evil villain -“Daddy” as he was called – Never. Shows. Up. He never makes an appearance, AT ALL, in the script. In fact, he exists as a figment of Krystal’s imagination. This strategy, MY strategy, altered the final sequence, and the ending – but it remained true to my original vision of the story, and supported the original theme. When I ran this version past the investors, they were blown away. “It has never been about ‘Daddy’” I said. “It’s always been about Sam, Krystal and Mia.”
And sometimes, you have to hold your ground.
I once explained the rewrite process to my father, as the same process you enter into with the architect of your home. The screenwriter is the architect. The Producer is the buyer of the plans. “Can we have brick, instead of siding?” they ask. Sure –but that will cost more. “Can we have the back door by the fireplace?” Sure, I can do that; just put it where the window was. “Can we KNOCK OUT THIS WALL?” – No. That’s a load bearing wall. Knock it out, and the entire house falls down.
As the architect of the film, you have to know what walls are load-bearing in your script.
In the same script above, the character Mia – is described as being lost in the ‘preteen years’ – somewhere between six and ten. Her age is never stated. But part of the horror, is that her worldview has been warped by living in a sexualized lifestyle driven by her mother’s choices. Several producers asked, “Can we push her age to maybe 13 or 16? We can cast an 18 year old actress, and save money on a tutor on the set.” That SOUNDS like a budgetary note, but really – it’s not. They were looking to lower the ‘ick factor’. My response? “ That story was already done in “Taxi Driver”… so ‘no’ we can’t. And yes, it’s uncomfortable knowing a child has been living in this world. But raising her age, lowers the dramatic impact of the character’s actions and choices.” As one producer finally relented, “I get it. It’s the difference between shooting a dog, and shooting a puppy.” They finally understood that keeping the character’s age as young as we could possibly cast it, was essential to the impact of the story line. That raising her age, lowered the stakes.
And now, I have FOUR versions of this script. Which is the ‘best’ version? The one the investors want. Personally? I like the simplest version. The “All in Krystal’s Head” version. But working with the notes I was given, doing my best to find a solution to ‘what wasn’t working’ for THEM – led me to employ different strategies for meeting their needs, which led me to new ways to see the script.
This week – I’m waiting on what should be final notes from the money people on “Working Title”. I’ve already jumped through hoops on this script, working with notes from three producers and the director. A recent email said, “We may have one or two notes coming your way based on feedback from the investors. They should be minimal; we’re fleshing that out with them now. They did agree the script was much stronger, as we all do!”
There’s that word, “Minimal”. To me, that would be some small budgetary changes or additions. Perhaps cutting/combing some locations or scenes or trimming dialog to meet ratings restrictions. If it involves a new ending, or a major thematic shift … then it will be all about meeting THEIR needs, by coming up with my OWN strategy.
Forward, through the fog.