I’ve been on both ends of the script note process, both giving and receiving. Sometimes it’s a fun, helpful process and sometimes it’s excruciatingly frustrating. I’ve been trying to think about what shifts it from one state to the other and come up with a
short list of expectations I have when entering into the process from either side.
This isn’t meant to be a manifesto or even an exhaustive list, it’s just a few observations about what I’ve come to expect from the other person, how I want to be treated and what I want to get out of the process both as note-receiver (writer) and note-giver (script editor, producer or director).
My expectations of a note-receiver
- I expect you as note-receiver to be polite and courteous at all times. I’m aware you think my notes are moronic and ruining your masterpiece and that’s fine, you are entitled to that opinion; but I don’t want to hear that from you or see it in your face.
- I am quite happy for you to explain the reasons why you wrote something the way you did; but I want your argument to be coherent, well-thought out and persuasive rather than angry and obstructive.
- I don’t want the you to tell me I’m wrong about the way the script affected me emotionally. If I stopped caring for the protagonist at the mid-point, then although it is a subjective opinion, I am representing the people who are paying you for your work and for their purposes it’s an objective opinion. Telling me I’m wrong because the protagonist’s journey is riveting isn’t going to help. Yes, it’s possible someone else would find it exciting; but I am not someone else and am unlikely to become someone else because you tell me I should be.
- I expect you to action all my notes; but not necessarily in the way I suggest actioning them. In fact, if I give you a suggestion for how something might work better, it is just that – a suggestion. I am more than happy for you to address it in any way you see fit; but please do address all of them. True, sometimes fixing one thing at the beginning of the script will mean a note at the end becomes irrelevant – that is addressing the note and is perfectly acceptable. Ignoring the note in the belief I’m wrong isn’t.
- Please don’t tell me I’m wrong because ‘that’s how they do it on Eastenders’. This isn’t Eastenders, hence the note needs addressing. Unless, of course, we are both working on Eastenders. Then and only then does your rebuttal make sense.
- I expect you to actually re-write your script. By re-write I mean change the meaning, structure, characters or story as appropriate. Lopping out a couple of pronouns and changing the tense of a few words is not re-writing, it’s fiddling and doesn’t solve anything. To be honest, it makes you look either belligerent or stupid. Or both.
- I would like you to be conversant in screenplay terminology. If I say there isn’t a third act, I don’t want to get into an argument about structure and how you don’t conform to the Hollywood rules. I want you to recognise the story doesn’t have an end and write one. The three act structure just means beginning, middle and end. Generally speaking the beginning gets you to the point, the middle is the point and the end makes the point go away. The middle is the story you want to tell, get to it as quickly as possible.
- Try to understand that writing isn’t a science. The notes on the second draft may contradict the notes on the first draft because the solution may not be clear and might need experimentation to find the way forward. Some of these experiments will be a dead-end. Try and think of it this way: I don’t know it’s a dead-end or I wouldn’t ask you to try it. If you knew it was a dead-end, you should have explained that to me before writing it. The fact you didn’t explain why it wouldn’t work suggests you didn’t know either. Blaming me is to equally blame yourself.
- Don’t slavishly follow every note. Find out what the intention of the note is, ring me if you have to, and try to work out if actioning the note actually fixes the problem or if it just papers over a crack.
My expectations of a note-giver
- I want to be treated courteously. I expect you as note-giver to be polite and professional at all times. You can swear, you can make fun of the script or me when it’s appropriate; but you shouldn’t be rude or offensive.
- Please don’t tell me what to write. By all means make suggestions, suggest as many things as you want; but understand I probably won’t use any of them and will find my own way. Telling me exactly what to write, word for word, and getting angry when I don’t use your words isn’t helpful.
- Try to be honest with your notes. Bullshitting me or dancing around the point doesn’t help anyone.
- I don’t want to copy verbatim the thing you saw in Eastenders last night. A lot of people saw last night’s Eastenders and none of them will think that particular line, scene or sequence is cool the second time round.
- If there are several people reading and commenting on the script, please nominate one person to collate and deliver them. I don’t want to receive three sets of contradictory notes; especially if the producer is telling me to ignore the director because he’s a dick.
- Try to use screenplay terminology when describing what needs changing. Terms like protagonist, acts, mid-point, inciting incident, theme … I understand what these things are and can address them. ‘The bit where it goes wobbly’ isn’t a helpful term and makes things needlessly difficult. Page numbers are helpful too; but only if you haven’t got your printer settings set to something odd like A5 when using Final Draft.
- If possible, actually watch (and maybe understand?) the films you’re trying to get me to rip off. Telling me the characters should ‘just talk about nothing like they do in Pulp Fiction’ only serves to tell me you completely missed the point of the scene you’re referring to.
- Try and remember what notes you gave me last time. If I action something, don’t complain because I changed it. I understand sometimes a note doesn’t work in practice; it’s okay – we can change it back or find another way.
- Don’t get annoyed if I don’t immediately understand what a note means. There’s a very good chance we’re perceiving the script or character in a different way to each other. If that’s the case, a brief discussion will save weeks of fruitless tug of war.
Basically, don’t be a dick and try to understand we’re both trying to make the film as best it can be. Yes there are people who don’t know how to do their job and the process will be annoying and just shit; but try to presume competency in the other party until proven otherwise.
In fact, even when proven otherwise, assume there’s some piece of information you’re lacking before going all shouty.
Do you know what? I’ve just remembered Sam Bain wrote something very similar in his one and only blog post which is … hang on … here: http://sambaintv.blogspot.com/
His version is better and shorter too.
I had the sneaking feeling as I was ploughing through this that if all felt weirdly familiar. Now I don’t know whether to bother posting this or not. It’s slightly different, but generally covers a lot of the same ground … Oh fuck it, post and be damned.