HOPES, EXPECTATIONS AND REALITY
Did you read Part One? You probably should before you read this, I’m not doing any of that recap nonsense. Go read it and come back …
Actually, before I begin, I think I should probably clarify something – this isn’t a definitive guide to being a script editor. It’s not a ‘How to’ post, it’s just my experience of trying on someone else’s hat (it didn’t fit, I looked ridiculous in it) for a short period of time. I wasn’t even any good at it; but it gave me an insight into what the people I write scripts for might be going through – something I found invaluable.
If you’re a proper script editor, you may well think my blundering attempts at your job are nothing like the reality.
In which case, I’d love to hear from you.
Throughout my time as a script-editor on PERSONA (this is a fucking recap! I lied! I lied right to your face!), I was always optimistic when I received a new script – maybe this one will be awesome and I won’t need to write any notes at all! Won’t that be amazing! Please, please be awesome …
Hmm … it’s not written in standard script format. But maybe that won’t matter? Maybe this guy’s a natural genius who hasn’t learnt script format yet because his talent is so towering it …
Bugger. Where’s that red pen?
I really, really wanted to love every script I got; because it meant less unpaid work for me on something I had no faith/interest in in the first place.
But no script is perfect. First drafts are always, ALWAYS, at least fifty percent shit. This is just a fact of life. Things need to be changed. The (at best) fifty percent which is great, often also needs to change for production reasons.
Which is frustrating.
Even knowing this, knowing the best I could reasonably expect would be fifty percent of greatness … I still hoped each and every draft would be a 100% of pure awesome.
I think this is probably true of every note-giver. No one wants to give notes. Everyone wants to be amazed and enthralled. I certainly didn’t want to give any notes at all. I wanted to just tick the ‘lovely’ box and get on with something more fun … like nailing my genitals to something poisonous.
So every time I read a new draft, I did so with nervous excitement tinged with trepidation. If it was truly awful after three rewrites, then I was going to have to politely thank the writer for their time and do it myself. Even if each draft was a million times better than the last, I’d still have to tweak the writer’s last draft for the final production pass. In the best case scenario, I was still going to have to do a lot of work.
On the occasions when the script mostly made sense, I was so deliriously overjoyed that I almost broke down in tears. This script is consistently mediocre! I only have to make a few suggestions to get it on track!
Don’t get me wrong, we had some great writers on PERSONA – I honestly feel privileged to have worked with them … but all writers need prodding in the right direction.
Or I do, anyway. Constantly. Sharpest stick you’ve got.
So my hope was I would have no work to do.
But that, of course, is an impossible dream.
Instead, my more realistic expectation was 50% of the script would have to be changed. I was still sometimes disappointed. Most scripts hit that 50% watermark, some fell short, luckily, only a very rare few were completely unusable.
Well, unusable apart from some of the shorter, more common words like ‘the’, ‘and’ or ‘nipple’ for example.
I also expected writers to take the notes politely and action every single one. That didn’t mean they had to do everything I said in the manner I said it; but I did expect them to take the thoughts I’d collated from the production team seriously and address them.
The reality is, that didn’t always happen either. Mostly, yes; but a few writers just refused to change things. Point blank. Others changed things around without really addressing the note so they were just different rather than fixed.
An example of that might be telling someone they don’t need to waste half the appisode having people saying ‘hello’ to each other – just start the scene later and get to the meat. The script would come back with everyone saying ‘hi’ instead.
The most annoying thing writers do (and I know I do this myself), is actioning a note … but not actioning it enough. Don (the producer) wanted every emotion to be heightened. He felt quiet moments, pointed silences and dramatic looks were just lost on a phone screen. Especially since he envisaged people watching it on their way to work on the tube or in some other similarly crowded, noisy environment – subtle only works if people are paying attention.
Shouting! Tension! Drama! That’s what he wanted. Don’t have characters looking hurt and upset, forcing the audience to try and remember what was said in the last appisode a week ago – have them screaming at each other!
Fuck it, it was his show, his rules.
So I would try to get the writers to up the emotional stakes – sometimes they would, but would only turn it up by 2%. Which was no good.
I often felt it was like trying to get someone to move a stick from here to a point six feet away. The person I asked to move it would nudge it a few centimetres and then look to me for approval.
No! Move it further!
In the end it was easier to tell people to take the fucking stick and hurl it as far as they could. Fling it like a javelin, all the way down the field. Hurl it a good eighty metres away … and it would finally get moved about four feet, at which point I would give up.
I think the problem is, when you tell someone something’s great but just needs to be more so; they only hear the first bit and tweak rather than change.
Writers (including me) please take this one piece of advice – be bold, be courageous … change the fucking thing, don’t just fiddle with it.
So the hope was for perfection, the expectation was 50% useful, the reality varied from bang on 50% to nearer “Oh fuck, I’m going to be up all night.”
The most interesting thing for me was no writer, no matter how good (and we had some excellent writers) turned in a script which was without flaw. Not one of them. Because the reality is, all scripts need to be developed and all scripts need time and feedback to make them work.
The best writers took the feedback, swore in private and then publicly handed us what we needed so we could film it. Those writers I would work with again in a heartbeat.
One of the best writers wouldn’t take any feedback at all – I never want to work with that person again. That person’s script was the best first draft we received … but never got any better than a first draft because they refused (or were unable) to improve it past that 50% mark.
Next time: Part Three – things which pissed me off.