Notes from the other side (Part Three)

THINGS WHICH PISSED ME OFF

 

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I know I was no great shakes as a script-editor. I know I probably pissed people off by giving them what they thought of as stupid notes. I’ve had those notes, I know what it feels like to send in a script thinking it’s amazing … only to feel like you’ve failed miserably because it’s not loved unconditionally.

Notes are part of the process. Rejection is part of the process. Even when a script is good, parts of it have to be rejected – this is just what happens. It happens to the best writers in the world, it’s going to happen to you.

How you deal with the notes is what sets you apart from other writers. The best writers on PERSONA dealt with the notes in a timely, imaginative manner, with good humour and professionalism. These were the majority of the writers – I loved reading your work, you were, and hopefully still are, wonderful.

But I was under a lot of pressure, working late into the night every night for no reward on something I didn’t believe in. Sometimes writers, good and bad, did things which made me really, really fucking angry.

If you did any of these things during the writing of PERSONA, it doesn’t make you a bad person or a bad writer. It doesn’t change how likely I am to hug you if I meet you in public+ or to buy you a drink^. I’m keeping these anonymous because I don’t want to point fingers or name names – I just want people to understand some of the additional pressures your note-giver might be under and how a writer’s attitude, behaviour or style might come across.

These are the things I found particularly irksome, the things I will be trying not to do to anyone giving me notes in future:

 

1. NON STANDARD FORMAT

Go Your Own Way

When you’re reading a lot of scripts very quickly, then you need to be able to read them quickly. Peering at a script trying to work out if the bit left-justified, halfway up the page in a narrow block is action, dialogue or an accident is just fucking annoying. Learning the craft means learning the format – a small army of people all have to be able to read this thing in order to make it. Standard format makes it easy for everyone, if you want to invent your own, write a novel.

I’m not talking here about things like when to use caps or when to underline stuff or whether you use passive voice or not – none of that shit matters, not really. Not writing dialogue which goes all the way across the page with the character names on the same line – that’s important. Don’t do shit like that.

Or shit like this:

Morgan

Morgan

Nathan

Morgan

confused

Morgan

You're Morgan too?

Nathan

Sorry, that's the limit of my German.

Morgan

Your name's not Morgan?

Nathan

Nathan thought Morgan was saying hello in German!

Nathan talks about himself in the third person.

Morgan

What?

Versus this:

                MORGAN
          Morgan.

                NATHAN
          Morgan!

                MORGAN
             (confused)
          You're Morgan too?

                NATHAN
          Sorry, that's the limit of my German.

                MORGAN
          Your name's not Morgan?

                NATHAN
          Nathan thought Morgan was saying 
          hello in German!

NOTE: Nathan talks about himself in the third person.

                 MORGAN
           What?

Okay, it’s still shit; but at least now it’s readable shit.

 

2. HARD TO USE FILES

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I don’t know if it’s still the case, but at that time CELTX didn’t play well with any other software. Scripts for PERSONA had to be put into the house style, and collated into a master document for the editor to assemble the appisodes. If I couldn’t export the script to anything, then I had to copy, paste and reformat or retype every script by hand.

Once you get past midnight, that becomes old really, really fast.

I know CELTX is free and is probably really fun/easy to write in … but (back then) the files it produced were completely fucking useless unless everyone on the production team switched to new software. That’s not going to happen. By all means use whatever software suits you, but deliver it in a format the rest of the production team can use/edit.

I apologise to the makers of CELTX if there was a simple way of exporting their files to something editable on other other software; but if there was I couldn’t find it. I fully accept this may be my failing, not theirs.

Still made my life needlessly more complicated though.

 

3. SCRIPT GURU TERMINOLOGY

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I come from a movie background, I think in three acts. Or rather, I talk in three acts. I actually think in four. The point is, three acts is an industry shorthand most people understand. Specific TV shows might have more or less acts and that’s great – you have to be able to use the terminology of the show. Myself and the producer/directors of PERSONA spoke in terms of three acts … so when I’d get replies to my notes from writers who talked in terms of whatever script book they’d read that week – it was difficult to translate.

I wasn’t just dealing with that one writer, I was dealing with up to nine at any one time. And when those nine are variously talking about 5 acts, 22 steps, 8 sequences or 16 keystone moments … I can’t keep up. I can’t really be expected to read every theory going and translate the prodcution team’s opinions into a different script language every fucking time. If those things help you write, then great – use them; but when you’re dealing with a note-giver who’s also dealing with eight other writers and a production team … just learn the common language.

Also, if you’re going to buy into your favourite script guru’s terminology, then please …

 

4. LEARN WHAT THE TERMINOLOGY MEANS

you keep using that wordAn inciting incident is an incident which incites. It should be both inciting and an incident. Two people talking about a third person’s shoes isn’t really either. Telling me it is because it comes on page x and your favourite script guru says that’s where the inciting incident always is doesn’t make it more inciting or incident-y. You can’t just point at random bits of script and declare that they’re inciting incidents in the same way you can’t point at a car tyre and declare it’s a carburettor.

Well you can, but it won’t make building a car any easier.

 

5. FINAL DRAFT

3u75m8Writing FINAL DRAFT on the title page of your script because you think you’ve done enough … yeah, don’t do that. I’ll tell you when it’s the final draft. It’s the final draft when it’s right, not when you get bored.

 

6. THE UNDERLYING CAUSE

Missing-the-PointOne script we had generated only one note – the protagonist wasn’t really in it. The main character didn’t appear in well over fifty percent of the appisodes – that’s not good. The writer disagreed and drew up a chart illustrating that the protagonist was actually in at least 75% of the appisodes.

Bear in mind here, some of these appisodes are a week apart. If your protagonist isn’t in two in a row, they won’t be seen for over a week. Also, there are four stories running consecutively, all mixed together in a different order on different days – if your protagonist isn’t in the appisode, the audience may not know which story this piece belongs to.

I rechecked the script and the writer was completely right – the protagonist was actually in 75% of the scenes. In the background, not speaking. The wallpaper was also in the background, that doesn’t make it a protagonist.

If someone can read your script and NOT NOTICE WHETHER THE PROTAGONIST IS PRESENT OR NOT, then you have a problem. It doesn’t actually matter if the reader is wrong – the problem is still there. The difference between an absent protagonist and one we didn’t notice is exactly the same.

Because, and here’s the thing, people have to film this. Cast members have to be scheduled – if the three of us didn’t notice her; maybe no one else will. Maybe no one will notice until the day of the shoot … and then we find the actor is in Tahiti.

Or something.

A lot of people have to read and UNDERSTAND your script in order to film it. If it’s important, make it stand out – make if noticable. If the note-giver is accusing you of not including the vital information you know is there, then don’t argue – just go back and make it stand out. Put it in bold if you have to.

 

7. UNDERSTAND WHAT CONSTITUTES A SCENE

where-the-fuck-am-i-lets-ask-that-statueEach new location is a new scene. This is fairly basic stuff. The reason each new location is a new scene is because the entire crew have to move to a new place. That’s a lot of people. Okay, so you can have a continuous move from one room to the next, assuming the location has a kitchen next to a lounge (or whatever); but if the lounge is on the first floor and the kitchen is in the basement then a continuous scene is going to involve a lot of stairs. In a 30 second episode … there’s no fucking time for stairs!

There isn’t really time to move from one room to another unless they’re talking while they’re walking.

We had quite a few occurrences of:

She enters through the front door, walks up the stairs and into the bedroom.

That’s your entire appisode, right there.

It gets even worse when people write things like:

He follows her across the bridge, along the street, past the shops and watches 
her climb the steps to her front door.

What the fuck?

Unless this is a really small bridge, with shops on it, which are also really small and the flat is above the shop which is less than four feet away from the place the character started … then it’s at least three scenes. At least.

But, hey, you know … everyone has to learn. Most of these writers had never had anything produced, so we have to be kind and make allowances. So in this case, I did. I reformated it to separate scenes and explained, politely, all about camera set ups and what constitutes a new location.

HINT: AN ENTIRE CITY IS NOT A LOCATION AND THEREFORE NOT SUITABLE FOR A SCENE HEADING

But here’s the key thing – when you’ve written something unfilmable, had it pointed out and explained to you and had it properly reformatted at great time-expense by the script-editor … don’t submit the next draft WITH THE SAME FUCKING MISTAKES IN IT.

That’s quite annoying, that is.

 

8. PAGE COUNT

the-countOne page equals one minute of screen time.

Roughly.

Not always, but roughly.

The only way to know for sure is to read the script out loud and act out all the parts.

Even then, you will be wrong because actors love dramatic pauses and directors love slow panning shots. But, in general, one page equals one minute.

So if, for example, the show you’re writing for has at that point expanded it’s appisodes to a minute and a half … you need to submit a page and a half of script.

Roughly.

A page … maybe. Two pages … yeah, if it’s all fast paced banter.

6 pages?

No.

Really, no.

Most importantly, and this is really, really important, after having been told the appisode is only a minute and a half long and then having submitted 6 pages of script … don’t claim it’s a directorial issue.

It really fucking isn’t.

Also, when the script editor asks you to cut it down, saying “I don’t want to because it will lose intensity” just isn’t going to fly. I guaran-fucking-tee it will lose more intensity if it’s filmed as is and the editor randomly chops four and a half minutes off the end.

 

9. DEVELOPMENT HELL

think-before-you-tweet

If you’re the same person who did both of the above, don’t fucking go on Twitter and claim you’re “Stuck in development hell” because you don’t know what a scene is or how page count translates into screen time.

You’re not stuck in development hell, you’re just a fucking twat.

This is draft two. Draft fucking two! Draft 200 is development hell. Not draft 2, especially when it’s your fucking fault for not knowing how to write a fucking script.

And guess what, we know what Twitter is! And we can read. You just said that to our faces.

If it’s that bad, just give up. Say you don’t agree that one page equals one minute or that a bridge, a street, a shop and a flat is more than one scene. Tell us that, call us names and just fuck off. Or convince us we’re wrong.

Either would be fine … complaining about it on Twitter is just …

Well, it’s a mite annoying.

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I could go on. I have gone on. And on. But I think that’s enough, don’t you?

The essence of these last three posts, in case you hadn’t guessed, is I didn’t really like being a script editor; but (briefly, sort of) being one gave me a much better understanding of what it’s like to be giving notes on a script which is going into production. Not just an opinion on a friend’s spec script, which is a different thing; but on something which is actually going to be filmed very soon.

Essentially, what I learnt is: it’s really fucking hard, frequently frustrating and mostly unrewarding … but completely necessary. Those of you who do it on a regular basis as your profession – I salute you. It’s a hard job, congratulations on being good at it.

I’m not and I’m not doing it again.

Probably.

—————————————————————————————-

+Very unlikely, I’m not one of life’s huggers.

^Quite likely.

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Categories: My Way, Persona, Rants, Software, Someone Else's Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “Notes from the other side (Part Three)

  1. Dave Anderson

    All beginning scriptwriters – and even those like me who’ve been trying to do it for decades – should read and absorb these three articles. They deliver a vital education on screenwriting. Many thanks, Phill; you’ve taught me a lot.

  2. This was an very enjoyable 3 act article, I learned, laughed and cried (same location). Your writing is Insightful and makes me appreciate the art even more. With so much grief on a short appisode, II simply cannot fathom doing something on a 1 hour show scale, or a $200 million dollar blockbuster at this point.. Cheers.

  3. Pingback: 2013 | The Jobbing Scriptwriter

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