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Behind the Lines with DR: The Ugliest Note... Ever.

I can’t say this any simpler. This is about the worst script note I ever received. Was it an unfortunate situation to be in? Hardly. It came from the mouth of a movie studio president. I was behind the doors of his Citizen-Kane-sized office, comfortably parked on his couch, at the end of a legal pad choked with my handwritten scrawl, and was well into my fifth Diet Coke. Never forget, I was getting paid a small fortune for this opportunity. Most writers would eat their young for the chances I’ve had. But first, before I tell you the content of the goo I was expected to swallow, a little perspective.

Notes are part of a screenwriter’s life. They are as real as ink. Always changing. Inconsistent as hell. Sometimes requiring a level of deciphering that would elude Sherlock Holmes.

Notes are like two sides of a coin. Good and bad. Good notes are not just easy. They’re flat out awesome. They inform. They assist. And after I execute them, the credit for whatever genius I incorporated to improve my work is usually afforded to me.

Image courtesy of Utne Magazine

Image courtesy of Utne Magazine

Good notes are also rare. And, as my pal Jeanne Bowerman wrote in her (always excellent) Balls of Steel column, Getting Honest Feedback: good notes—most often—are earned. But this blog isn’t about good notes. It’s about the flip side. And not just bad notes. I’m talking about the very worst. The kind of notes that big name writers and show-runners used to claim were not fit to use as toilet paper.

First a primer. Bad notes shouldn’t be confused with honest feedback. That kind of criticism, usually solicited, is given in order to help me turn my jumble of words into a rip-reading page-turner. And where bad notes are also a form of feedback, they’re not given as suggestions. They are usually directives from an authority with the power to fire my writer’s ass.

Bad notes can be harsh. Bad notes can be so hurtful they require some hours of cocktail therapy. Bad notes can be delivered with a smile by angels that mean well but haven’t a clue of their script-crippling consequences. They can show up in an email or a whisper or come across the walkie-talkie while I’m on a cold nighttime set in the back of a passenger van trying to fix the scene we’re about to shoot… again. Bad notes can come from an insomnia-prone movie star over the phone at four in the morning when I’m sleeping and he’s not.

One more thing about bad notes. I’m required to listen to them. I must try and discern their source. I must find if, somewhere within the bad note, there’s any merit whatsoever and try like hell to spin it into golden yarn.

I once described listening to bad notes as having to put my mouth around the muzzle of a loaded shotgun and pretending to like the taste.

So there I was, in that aforementioned studio president’s office. Producer to my right. A couple of postadolescent VPs to my left. The movie project in question was a very realistic terrorist-with-a-nuclear bomb thriller I’d pitched and sold them. Well researched. But on this crappy day, not well received. The studio president, who’d publicly branded himself as a “friend of comedy,” had just finished ninety minutes of pacing back and forth, pontificating that every “real” aspect of the script was bad for box office. His notes were lengthy, self-contradicting, and not at all in kind with the nature of the project his studio had excitedly bought from me only months earlier. The notes were so toxic, I hadn’t a glimmer on how I was going to recycle them into anything worthwhile.

Then it happened. This is where I heard the worst note ever.

“Hey. One last thing,” said the studio president, his incessant pacing mercifully ceased as he reached for the last catered bagel. “Attach Tom Cruise and you can forget every damn thing I’ve said.”

Forget everything he said?

So the last hour and a half of my life… those twenty legal pages blackened with one lousy script note after the other… the insults to my last three months of effort… could all be scrubbed from history if Tom Cruise agreed to star in the movie?

Just retelling this tale makes me throw up in my mouth.

Well, Tom Cruise never said yes. He never say no, either. Instead, a similar themed movie called Peacekeeper with George Clooney and Nicole Kidman was ramped into production and released to ho-hum results.

And that studio president? He was soon retired into a rich producing deal where he continued his reputation as a “friend of comedy.”

I moved on to other picture projects… and more bad notes.