Shortly after my first movie went into pre-production, I became (for the second time in my career) Hollywood’s favorite writer. Every morning, scripts in need of a rewrite would plop onto my doorstep. Evenutally cabin fever set in and I started reading them in local coffee shops which is how I met this Middle Eastern chick, who for the purposes of this blog, we’ll call “Samira.” “Samira” was one of those odd people you meet in L.A. who seem to dabble in many artistic arenas; never content to settle on just one. When she spotted my stack of scripts, she pegged me as a person of some importance and became determined to make my acquaintance. Somehow within 20 minutes of meeting her, I’d agreed to read a screenplay she had written and give her some “professional feedback" on it. Samira didn’t seem overly concerned that I was swamped with my own work and called repeatedly over the next few weeks until I finally broke down and read her opus. It was awful. It might have been brilliant in Farsi, but in English it was awful. I managed to come up with a few vague notes and called her back. That mistake cost me two more hours of my life as she proceeded to ask thousands of questions, many designed to steer the conversation into strange, unrelated areas. Over and over, she told me how much she loved my notes. However, because of her accent, it sounded like she was saying, “I love your nuts.” According to her, my “nuts” were the smartest, most perceptive, most well-rounded “nuts” she had ever received. It was then that I discovered Samira had actually written her screenplay six years ago and had shown it to many, many people before me. Despite all the “nuts” she had received over the years, she’d yet to alter a single word of her script. Apparently, she just liked talking about it.
For Samira, script notes were just a way of getting a little attention. For the rest of us, notes are about something a tad more unsettling: change. Someone is suggesting that we change the way our story is being told. If the person giving us these notes is a producer or an exec (A.K.A. “employer”) then the notes are probably not just friendly suggestions; they are most likely requirements. Just this week, I sat down with my manager and got his notes on my new spec. One thing I can always count on from my manager is complete honestly. He had a few problems. And they weren’t exactly small problems either. Some I agreed with. Some I didn’t. Some, I might agree with next week. That’s the beauty of this process. You can change your mind as you go. I can’t say that I love getting notes, but I do recognize their importance. Once I’ve parachuted out of my imaginary plane and landed in the dense jungle of a script, I can easily get a little lost. I count on others to be my artistic GPS. Notes are, of course, only opinions. And it pays to be careful whose opinions you solicit. You also want to limit the number of opinions since that too can get a little overwhelming.
Some people are great at giving notes. Others can leave you feeling like you’ve been beaten and left for dead in an alley. I remember once being on the phone with a producer and after about 30 minutes, I had to stop him and ask that he refrain from using the adjectives “boring” and “bad” for the remainder of the note session. Instead, I asked that he refer to the sections he was having problems with as “not working.” He agreed and in time, the script improved substantially. The worst writing gig I ever had was a studio comedy with five disparate producers attached. I still recall the day the project imploded. After turning in my first draft, I was summoned to the studio for a meeting with four of the five in attendance (the fifth was present via one of those horrible “black box” speaker phones). The atmosphere was miserably tense as, one by one, my employers took turns expressing their generally low opinions of my script. The biggest problem was that each had distinctly different ideas on how to fix it. By the end of the meeting, I had 14 pages of wildly conflicting notes. As I exited the building alongside the only producer who had liked my draft, I asked him what he thought I should do. He shrugged and said, “At this point, I’d say write whatever the fuck you want.”
One of the reasons that receiving notes has gotten easier for me is that I’ve now had a little experience giving them. About seven years ago, I was asked by a local film festival to help found a mentoring program for young screenwriters. Despite the fact that I always strive to accentuate the positive, it’s inevitable that a few bubbles get burst during the 90 minute note sessions. I’ve watched perky young scribes, anxious to jot down my every comment, slowly dissolve into depressed, slug-like creatures scrawling doodles on their notepads. I’ve had writers become defensive and in one case, downright hostile. I’ve seen writers cry. I had one writer who literally apologized to me after each note as if the missteps in his script must have caused me some sort of personal pain. Over time, I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing which ones will go on to a professional writing career. They are the ones who tend to get a bit grumpy during the note process. They recognize a good idea when they hear it, but don’t like admitting that it might actually work. That’s okay. A little arrogance is needed for survival. A little ego can keep you on your feet in the 11th round.
I’ve come to believe that the best way to approach notes is to first of all, acknowledge that they are going to sting initially. Writing is a deeply personal process and the first hurdle to be cleared is separating your sense of self from the realities of work. Secondly, I try to remember that notes are not about someone pointing out my mistakes, but instead someone pointing out what could be better. Notes are never intended to embarrass me or make me feel like a talentless schlub. Their only purpose is to get me thinking; to make me at least consider the possibility of a funnier opening, a more stream-lined second act or a unique, more startling climax. They are just ideas, meant to get the wheels of my mind turning. I feel bad for the Samira’s of the world; people stuck between giving up and going back – which, in the world of writing, are the only two choices available. Which brings me back to my spec. I’m not exactly sure how to address all of my manager’s notes, but it helps to know he’s a kind, smart guy who truly wants me to succeed. As a result of our talk, I’ve now got a truckload of messy new ideas (all of which will get their chance at bat sometime this week). It’s not a solution, but it’s a start. And in the world of writing, sometimes a start is all you need.
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being happily middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv