A couple of weeks ago, whilst panicking about possibly offending a friend with my callous note-giving, I asked if anyone would be interested in seeing what script notes look like.
Apparently, a few of you would be.
Although only one of you is prepared to say that in public.
I should probably mention at this point that this post will largely benefit writers who have yet to enter production or receive notes from anyone who isn’t either a friend (being nice) or someone they’ve paid to get notes from (being polite). If you’re a more experienced writer, you may like to chuckle along in recognition or perhaps be outraged because you’ve never had notes like this.
Don’t be outraged. Be thankful.
So these notes are second or third draft notes. First draft notes tend to be a bit more general and hand wavy:
I know we’re doing a live-action remake of Dumbo, but I’ve just found out how expensive elephants are … so can we make him a hamster?
The first act is great. The second act flags a bit and … well, there isn’t a third act. Can we fix this?
In essence, they like the concept and see potential … but want everything else to change.
By the second or third draft, all these things have been fixed. The big pieces are (mostly) in the right places (even though they’ll all change next time round) and attention can be spared for the finer details.
So that’s what these notes are … but there’s a problem. In order to show what notes look like, I need a script to make notes on.
I had considered writing a deliberately early-stages three page script … but decided it was probably impossible to write something I thought was good enough to hand in and then immediately find all the flaws in it as if I was someone else reading it for the first time.
Then I considered asking someone to send in a short script … and quickly decided it would be a fairly unpleasant thing to tear someone’s script apart like this.
So instead, I opened up my long-forgotten short-scripts folder and picked the first script off the list. This one is alphabetically and chronologically the first short script I ever wrote.
Boy is it shit.
But, saying that, it got optioned twice and won a short script competition … so some people saw some merit in it somewhere.
Fuck knows why.
So here it is: 1939 – 1945 pm by (the young) Phillip Barron – it’s the entire history of WWII told in one afternoon in one street. Ish.
First off, have a read of the virgin, un-noted first three pages of a 14 page script. Imagine you’re a fresh-faced writer who thinks he’s written a work of genius.
Try not to form your own opinions just yet.
Okay. So let’s now imagine you’ve sent it off to a producer and they’ve gushed on about how wonderful it is and made your head all big and swollen. Maybe you are a genius! They love it! They’ve optioned it!
Fame and fortune here you come!
Because that’s exactly how this business works – you option a short script and are instantly catapulted into a full-time, fully paid professional position where people are hurling Oscars and BAFTAs at you.
Sometimes I want to build a time machine so I can go back in time and beat some sense into myself.
Anyway. You’ve had a meeting, you’ve made some big changes … which they love! They love you! Here comes the teeny, tiny little nit-picky notes:
Wait, what the fuck? (The bits in bold are me then. The bits in brackets are me now. Me now doesn’t like me then much)
What’s all that red? I thought they loved this? How come they no longer seem to understand what’s going on? I deliberately left out all the scene descriptions because they told me the script was too long and needed to be trimmed! They know the answers to all these questions!
How fucking dare they point out a typo (damn it! I missed that!) in the same paragraph they make a typo!
Do they really not know what ‘etc’ means?
(Later on you’ll find out they’re asking exactly how many Germans ‘etc’ means since they have to work out how many people to hire. For now, you’re just wrongly outraged.)
Why are they asking about the uniforms? How is that my decision? That’s down to the wardrobe department, surely? Isn’t that what they tell us in scriptwriting school?
Christ, it gets worse!
Hitler’s accent is up to the actor playing him, surely?
(Yes and no. They will make up their own mind (and possibly accent), but you still need to give the reader some clue as to how to read it.)
What does ‘too political’ mean? Do they want me to whitewash the Jews out of history? I can’t just not mention them, but the holocaust isn’t funny – what do they want me to do?
(They don’t know. Neither did I. Or do I. That note probably means we need to talk about this.)
Why bother giving me a note saying they understand something when they could just wait to the next line and find out?
(Because they’re giving you their impressions as they read. They think you’re someone they can just chat to through their typing. They probably found it easier to type an apology than to go back and correct it. Anyway, sometimes things like this are useful – knowing where you lost a reader (or viewer) can be the difference between someone finishing a script and hurling it at the bin).
More rousing? Fuck!
(Typically, writers will make it five percent more rousing for the next draft instead of 3000%. When someone wants more, give them MORE!)
I genuinely can’t remember if Arthur is historical or not …
Two beats? What the fuck does two beats mean?
(Doesn’t mean anything – it’s just an observation. There are two beats in a short space of time, one in dialogue, one in parentheses.)
Who’s confused? They are, obviously! It’s so fucking clear who’s confused!
(Yes … but will it still be clear when there’s dozens of people standing around on set?)
Himmler was always a child!
And where’s the typo on that line? I’ve been looking at it for ages – there fucking isn’t one!
(Usually, when queried about this, producers can’t remember what they thought was a typo either.)
Discuss black and white? Okay: You’re a fucking imbecile for considering it.
There, how was that?
(It’s a whim. The producer will probably have forgotten why they thought that when you actually talk over these notes).
Of course Hitler wasn’t Himmler’s dad! Don’t be a fucking moron!
Chevy Chase? What the fuck does that mean?
(They won’t remember. They won’t even remember writing it. Just move on.)
Why do they love the word ‘promise’?
(They just do. Don’t question it, it doesn’t matter.)
Several means … I don’t fucking know! You choose! How many can you afford?
The English house looks like whatever the actual house looks like in the fucking location you pick. How is that my job to know that?
(Because someone has to go looking for a house which matches the picture in your head. It’s helpful if they know what that picture is.)
Peace and piece … those are Chamberlain’s actual words, you fucking idiot! And I’ve just realised you spelt his name wrong on the last page. Hah! I win the notes!
Swearing … yeah, okay. I like swearing but maybe you don’t?
No? What does ‘no’ mean on the last line?
And so on until your liver explodes in a shower of bile.
If you want to know how to deal with notes, the answer is here.
The main problem with receiving notes like these is they’re all right. All of them. Even the ones which aren’t. They hurt because they feel like everything you’ve done is wrong … but that’s not what they’re saying. If everything you’d done was wrong, there’d either just be one note:
This is shit.
Or, more commonly, no notes because you’d never have heard back from the producer in the first place.
These notes, the myriad of tiny notes on every line, are the notes of someone who is on your side and is trying to help finesse the details. They may feel like a personal attack, but they’re not. This is just what the job is and how the process works.
Forewarned is forearmed. If you’re expecting this sort of evisceration then you can prepare yourself for it. Script editors tend to be more woolly and lovely about giving notes. Directors and producers tend to be more technical and clinical, brusque even.
As is always best practice, don’t respond straight away.
Think it over, get a face to face meeting or a phone call and go through the notes. You’ll get the chance to explain and defend the bits you’re certain are right (I’m rarely certain and like being persuaded) and they’ll get the chance to explain what they actually mean by things like ‘Chevy Chase’ … if they ever meant anything in the first place.