Notes from the other side (Part One)

WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A SCRIPT EDITOR

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Scriptwriters know that all note-givers are idiots and all their notes are idiotic. Be they script-editor, producer, director, actor or whoever – their notes will be fucking moronic.

This is a fact.

All scriptwriters know this.

We all know it in exactly the same way all children know Santa is real; and grown fucking adults who really shoud know better know homeopathy is REAL magic and not just water-infused sugar sold by quacks who should be locked up for the greater good.

In other words, it’s not true.

Well, not always true. Some notes are stupid, so are some note-givers*; but on the whole, notes are given by intelligent people who have a specific set of needs for the next draft. Those needs might be to make your story clearer or to make it fit in with the house-style or for budget/production reasons or for any other of a dozen or so reasons which you, the writer, aren’t always privy to.

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I script-edited a movie once. That was fine. I read the script, told them what I thought, they took some of my ideas on board and ignored the rest.

All well and good. No stress, no problem – just a writer/director/producer looking for a fresh opinion.

I was also once the script-editor/lead writer/co-creator for PERSONA and that whole process was just fucking horrible. I mean, it was kind of fun in a ‘ooh, this is challenging and pushing me to think in new ways’ kind of way; but overall it was just frustrating and not what I want to do ever again under any circumstances ever.

Until I change my mind.

So having been on both sides of the note-giving process, and having doubtlessly pissed off scores of people on both sides of the line, I thought it might be interesting to blog about what it was like working with writers whilst under pressure in a job I didn’t really want to do.

Does that sound interesting? If not, you probably should stop reading right now.

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You could read this comic instead. I like this comic.

I suspect this is going to be a horrendously long waffle, so I’m going to split it into three:

  • Part One will deal with the job itself, how I came to be doing it, the conditions I was doing it under and what it basically entailed.
  • Part Two will be about the difference between my hopes, expectations and the reality.
  • Part Three will cover some particularly annoying examples of things which enraged me as a script editor. That’ll be the most ranty, you might want to just come back for that bit.

So, first off, a little background.

PERSONA was (possibly still is) meant to be a daily continuing drama series which you could only watch on a smartphone. When producer Don Allen first told me about it, I thought “well that will never fucking work” and decided I didn’t want to be involved.

Don asked if I would at least help him with the format and I said yes. After a bit of thought, we came up with a way to make it (mostly) work – the details of which are all here, if you’re particularly interested.

That, I thought, would be that. Don asked me if I would meet the writers and chat to them about how the show would work … and again, I said I would; because I like Don and I like chatting to writers.

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So I did.

Then he asked me if I would just have a glance over the scripts as they came in. Just to give him an opinion (in return for a percentage of the show). Yeah, sure, why not? The scripts at that point were a dozen or so 30 second or 1 minute appisodes each and there were only four of them, so why not?

And that’s kind of where I got sucked in.

Because PERSONA was being made on almost no budget and everyone was working for a deferred cut, then there were limitations on the kinds of writers we could ‘hire’. Obviously, there are hundreds of writers who are keen to have something, anything made; but they tend to be people who are just starting out and have little or no experience of having a script produced. Don was able to choose writers with very good spec scripts from the submission pile; but because this was a completely new venture and new to everyone on the production team and the writers were (mostly) unproduced, turning in scripts we could actually use would be incredibly difficult.

There is a HUGE difference between writing an awesome spec script and writing a thirty second appisode which will stand on its own, be dramatic, end on a note which leaves you wanting more, is filmable under very restrictive production conditions, looks good on a tiny phone screen and tells part of a continuing story.

It’s hard. It’s fucking hard, in fact.

Most of the writers rose to the challenge, a few didn’t. Some needed gentle encouragement and general right-direction-pointing, some needed a complete set of lectures on scriptwriting for production.

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At this point, Don was getting writers to submit their own stories and we’d pick the ones we thought we could shoot. The plan was a secondary character in each of the first month of stories would become a main character in the second month. Secondary characters in each of the second month stories would become the primaries in the third batch … and so on. This rotating character thing is stupid for a show which wants to be a continuing drama, but it was believed this was the only way to cope with actors working for a deferred payment – we couldn’t ask them to remain available indefinitely, it’s just not fair.^

I took all the submitted stories and wove them into a narrative which kind of made sense – we could tweak them as we went along. Very early on, one of the writers for the first block of production bailed out. With deadlines looming, I stepped in and decided I would write the script. Obviously, I couldn’t write that person’s story because it was their story, so I had to do some fancy thinking and come up with a new story which didn’t disrupt the next month’s story.

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In order to provide a slightly more cohesive feel to the show, I decided I would write my story last, using a couple of minor characters from the other stories. That way it at least vaguely felt like one show rather than four independant stories running side by side.

Unfortunately, that meant my story could only be written when the other three were locked and we knew who was available on what days in which locations.

But fine, it’s only twelve pages or so, it wouldn’t take long to do.

There were two directors on the first couple of months, each giving notes to me. I was collating them, adding my own (plus a ton of explanation as to why we all felt things wouldn’t work) and sending them to the writers.

Some writers took more drafts than others. I loosely imposed a three-draft limit on the rewrites, partly for time and partly because I don’t think it’s fair to continuously ask for rewrites from people who aren’t getting paid upfront. In the worst case scenario (which happened more than once), if we couldn’t get a usable script out of a particularly inexperienced writer, then I could just do the final draft myself.

As it turned out, I needed to give a quick production polish to every script anyway, just so they all fit together in the style of the show. Nothing major, just minor tweaks because I was the only writer who was reading all the scripts and had the complete picture in mind.

So that’s two or three drafts of three lots of outlines to read and comment on, each outline being a couple of pages long. Say 16 (ish) pages. Then 12 (ish – I can’t really remember exactly) pages of script for three drafts of three stories – 108 pages to read and comment on; plus 12 of my own to write, plus a couple of my own rewrites to do, plus notes to collate from two other people, emails to answer and … yeah, it’s a lot.

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Per shooting month. So maybe up to three times that much at any one time.

Bearing in mind, we were shooting one month, in pre-production on the next and preparing the scripts on the third at the same time. Suddenly, what seemed like a simple read and comment became a full time job which had to fit around the two feature scripts I was also writing for my own career.

So if a writer then sent me a 15 page document containing their thoughts on my notes, it was quite annoying. Especially if they were disputing a production issue which needed to be resolved.

“But elephants are thematic!”

“No! No fucking elephants! We have no elephant money. We have no fucking money of any description. Do it again!”

Except, of course, you can’t say that. You have to be polite and say:

“You’re absolutely right, elephants are thematic and I love what you’ve done here. Clearly 257 elephants in one living room is very thematic; but …”

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Having to wait until all three scripts for a particular month were locked before I could start writing mine just added a lot of extra pressure. Quite a few of my PERSONA scripts were written at four in the morning.

Mid-shoot on season one, the decision was made not to do this ‘secondary character from month one becomes primary character in month two’ thing. Quite sensibly, it was decided to try and stick with the same actors for as long as they were available/wanted to keep coming back.

Hooray!

Except, oh fuck – all of my planning and half of the scripts I’ve “commissioned” (if you can call it that when there’s no money involved) no longer worked. Some could be rewritten to fit the new continuing protagonists, but some had to be delayed until the next month in order to make sense. New scripts had to be started, generating even more sets of notes for me to write.

Balls.

Month three – the decision was made not to use in house directors, but to get four outside directors to film the scripts. Oh, and half the new continuing cast wouldn’t be coming back because … I have no fucking idea. Politics, mostly – as far as I can tell.

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So not only did the planned scripts need to be delayed, or brought forward or completely rewritten; but now I’m getting notes from the orginal two directors (now working purely as producers) as well as the four new directors, collating them all, adding to them, and passing them on to the writers.

As well as still writing my own story (I think – memory is getting a little hazy here).

Obviously, the new directors wanted everything to be completely different – mainly to fit in with the resources they had available, but also because they are directors who have their own vision.

Month four was more of the same, but with new scripts written by writers I’d chosen with input from directors who were also producing it themselves. Lots of notes to write, lots of egos to balance, ruffled feathers to smooth, arguments to resolve where these two strangers had a disagreement … lots more work

The number and length of appisodes per story kept changing too as the production team were blindly feeling their way towards something which might work. Every time the format shifted, I had to rewrite the writer’s guide to accommodate the changes. I had to try and explain how to do something I’d never done before without really knowing how it would work.

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Month five – the financial decision was made to farm out the stories to writer/director teams. So they would come up with the stories themselves, using their own characters and PERSONA would distribute them. This meant all of my planning was completely pointless – all the future scripts in development were useless and my workload became …

What? Easier? Pointless?

Nope, just much, much harder.

Now I’m having to give notes on scripts which are written by a team who are going to make them. When the scripts don’t work, don’t make sense or just don’t fit in with the producer’s vision – I’m having to persuade several people to change their mind. These people don’t want to hear my opinion – they’ve already persuaded each other that what they’ve got is fucking celluloid gold. It’s hard to politely burst people’s bubbles.

Most of these guys were great and turned in excellent work. A few really weren’t and really didn’t.

I think I finally gave up somewhere around here.

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So that was the job – long hours for no reward on a project I didn’t believe in, working with writers who ranged from fucking excellent to fucking awful. Each with a differing attitude to my involvement – some were very appreciative of the time and effort I was putting in, some thought I was a twat who was being deliberately obtuse/obstructive. One even complained about the whole developmental process on Twitter. (Part Three, leave that until Part Three.)

It was a difficult job done in difficult circumstances where the rules kept changing around me. I was stressed, irritable and way outside my comfort zone. Some weeks I was working all night and on one occasion even had to deal with production issues whilst on holiday – all for no money.

Would money have made it better? Probably not. Was I any good at it? Probably not either.

But next time you get questionable notes back from someone you dismiss as bring an idiot, just pause to think for a moment:

  • What is their job like?
  • How stressful is it?
  • How many other writers are they dealing with here and how many of them are being dicks?
  • If the plot point they’re requesting is in the script – does that mean they haven’t read it properly or does it mean it’s not clear enough and they missed it because they’ve got a high workload?
  • If they missed it, is it just them being shit or will everyone else involved in actually filming the script miss it too?
  • Are their bosses giving them shit?
  • Is the production falling apart around them?
  • Are they really fucking idiots, or just out of their depth?

Next time – what it was like to open a new script. The hopes, the expectations and the reality.

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* Me!

I have no problem with people working for a deferred fee … as long as EVERYONE is working under the same conditions.

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Categories: Industry Musings, My Way, Persona | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Notes from the other side (Part One)

  1. Pingback: What it’s like to be a Script Editor… | FilmmakerIQ.com

  2. Pingback: Notes from the other side (Part Two) | The Jobbing Scriptwriter

  3. Pingback: 2013 | The Jobbing Scriptwriter

  4. Pingback: #PhonePhill – Conversation #14: Calum Chalmers (The Revenge) | The Jobbing Scriptwriter

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