Most screenwriters have to be taught the value of notes the way you teach a child to eat green vegetables. “Take your notes, they’re good for you… come on, just one note, it’ll make your script big and strong.” Writers often struggle with this process, throwing a bit of wobbler when people suggest their script isn’t already perfect. But, when you think about it, this resistance to taking notes isn’t that difficult to understand. Any screenwriter, whatever their level of experience, automatically makes their utmost effort to create the best script they can. So, when anyone criticises that effort, or suggests it could be done better, that isn’t just a criticism of the script, it is also a criticism of the skills of the writer. Regardless of how “professional” a writer becomes, getting notes is always going to hurt, just a little bit. Yes, we can all learn to take notes like a pro, but if you ever get to the point where some part of you isn’t mad as hell about the criticism, it probably is time to quit.
However, this article isn’t about how writers should “man up” and “act like a real pro” when getting notes. There are enough people out there telling us how we should behave, if we want producers/agents and commissioning editors to like us. This article is about the other side of the equation. It’s a very simple request that perhaps the professionalism of the writers, in terms of how they take notes, should be matched by an equal level of professionalism from those handing those notes out.
Learning to write screenplays is one of the greatest challenges a writer can take on, both technically and creatively. I've been working at the craft for fourteen years, on the back of another ten years of professional writing experience, and I still feel like I am only scratching the surface. It's almost impossible to describe to someone new to screenwriting just what a huge intellectual and creative process they are taking on. The more I learn about screenwriting, the more epic and heroic I understand that task to be. And, conversely, the more I study, the easier it is to for me to understand why so many screenplays are so diabolically bad. Of course they are dreadful, how could they not be? This, after all, is a supremely difficult discipline of writing to master.
If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing about filmmaking today, I would have it completely understood by every producer, commissioning editor, director, agent and wannabe writer, that screenwriting is a mind-numbingly difficult and skilled profession. It is the writing equivalent of scaling the North face of the Eiger, whilst wrestling a tiger. It is not something that just anyone can do. It is not something you can learn from a book, or a during a weekend seminar. It is hard to do well, near impossible to do superbly.
One of the conclusions I’ve come to, after years of writing for and dealing with independent producers, is that a lot of the problems the independent film sector faces, or has ever faced, are caused by a real lack of appreciation of the craft involved in screenwriting. Or, in other words, pretty many of the problems I see in independent film, are being caused by the false belief that everyone in the universe is qualified to be involved in the creative process. In particular, the idea that anyone who can read a script is therefore qualified to give notes.
For very, very good reasons (i.e. the possibility of being punched very hard in the face over and over and over again), no one in their right mind would walk onto a film set and start moving the lights about. It would also seem insane and presumptuous for anyone to walk up to the camera in the middle of a shoot, in order to change the lens, the framing, the colour balance or the focal point. It's also downright rude for anyone but the director to stroll onto a set, in order to tell an actor to play the role differently, perhaps with a Chinese accent. People generally don't meddle with the lights, or the camera, or the actors, simply because they don't feel qualified to interfere. They're right, of course, they really don't know enough about lighting, cameras or acting to do anything but leave it to the experts. It's wonderful that everyone understands that. However, this isn't true for the writing process, where everyone and their dog feels qualified to spew their ill-informed opinions as if they were absolute truths, regardless of how little they understand the actual writing process.
This is the tragedy of screenwriting. It is, by far, the single, most difficult part of the whole creative process and yet, it is the least appreciated. Everyone feels qualified to interfere and they all believe they know better than the writer, the person who, ironically, has dedicated their life to learning how to do this one thing.
So, despite all the lip-service you'll hear paid to the idea that "the script is king," it isn't. The script is the one piece of the production process that gets dragged through every hedge in town. Which is one of the reasons that a writer’s job is as much about protecting the script from negative interference as it is to create it.
Does this mean that writers should become divas and refuse to take notes? Nope, not in the slightest. When someone offers you their opinions or their perspective on your script, there is always something of value to be gained from that dialogue.
In a recent meeting with a producer, I realised the sub-text of his notes were “I don’t know how to sell this movie, so I need to transform it into something I do understand.” Once I knew this, I had to decide whether working with this producer was worth that kind of “from the ground up” genre shifting rewrite or not. In the end, I decided it wasn’t and instead found a different producer to work with, who understood the script as it was, and whose notes were about making the existing script better, rather than turning it into something completely different.
The bottom-line with the note taking process, is that as writers we need to develop an internal compass for which notes are useful tools in making the script better and which are telling us that we’re sitting in front of the wrong person. Just because one producer, or one sales agent, or even one distributor believes your script needs to go in a particular direction, that doesn’t make it a universal truth. All it means is, this project isn’t the right one for these people.
I don’t think there is an easy way to learn which notes to listen to and which should be warning signs that you’re talking to the wrong person. A lot of the skills you need as a screenwriter are developed through time and experience. And, ultimately that is the real lesson I’d like people to take away from this article. It takes time to learn how to write a screenplay, because script writing is difficult. It takes time to learn how to give notes, because script development and understanding the market is complicated. And, it takes time to develop a reliable gut instinct about which notes are serving the project and which are actually just a producer exercising their egotistical need to have some creative control. It isn’t a coincidence that the best and the most respectful notes I’ve had from producers, have been from those with the most professional experience, the ones who’ve earned the right to have opinions… and, conversely, the worst notes I’ve ever had have been from producers who were just starting out and who had no idea of the depth of their own ignorance.
As writers our overall responsibility is to get the best possible script into production. Part of that development process is learning to listen to other people’s opinions about the script and using their perspectives to improve the quality of the storytelling. However, part of our professional development is also about learning to filter those opinions, taking the best and diplomatically discarding the bad ones. As writers we shouldn’t just be passive drones, who automatically change our script to please everyone with an opinion, because whilst it’s true that everyone has the right to an opinion, not everyone should have the right to impose that opinion on the creative process.
- More Alt Script articles from Clive Davies-Frayne
- Balls of Steel: Getting Honest Feedback
- Writers on the Verge: Championing Your Screenplay
- The Business of Your Writing Career: 10 Things You Need to Succeed as a Writer
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