Posts Tagged With: notes

The logline equation

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It’s not very often I don’t action a note, at least not without first explaining why it wouldn’t work – generally produces and directors are smart enough to accept reasoned arguments. Recently, however, I found a note I couldn’t action.

I tried, I really did. I tried four times, but every time I got to the middle it either fell apart or meant I had to keep rewriting the entire script.

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The change sounded like a small and reasonable one. In essence (and without giving away the terrifically exciting plot) two teen boys do x in order to y. Where x is something monstrously stupid and y is getting laid.

The problem was neither the producer nor the director believed the teens would do x just to get laid. Which I was surprised at since we were all teenage boys once and I at least would have happily brought about the apocalypse for less.

But in retrospect, doing x to get laid is both extreme and not really an obvious decision.

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So they asked if I could change y to z – after all, it’s only a minor change.

The problem is, z is revenge on their school bullies and revenge is a fairly negative goal. It’s hard to build empathy with someone who deliberately releases x on the world in an act of revenge.

Their solution was have them quickly realise x wasn’t a nice thing to do and immediately regret it … but that led to more problems as the rest of the script didn’t make sense. Also, since the audience knows x is a bad thing to do, it seems unbelievable the teens wouldn’t. For example, detonating a nuclear weapon because you’re cold and you think it might warm you up is stupid and weird, but perhaps more understandable than detonating one in an act of revenge for someone stealing your parking space.

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The problem is one of justification. I tried various ways of justifying both the revenge and x, constructing several completely different openings in the hope one of them would segue perfectly into the rest of the script … but none of the new openings ever went anywhere near any of the other scenes, the ones everyone was already happy with.

And then it hit me, the reason I couldn’t just change y to z was because it was a fundamental change to the logline of the script. Changing the character’s motivation changes everything they do and (in some cases) everything they are.

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That equation, people doing x because of y, is the DNA of the script. It runs through everything, it dictates not just story but characters and theme and … well, everything. You can’t just alter half the equation and expect to only change half the scenes which spring from it, because every scene and every character is in someway an answer to that logline equation. The only way I found round it was to alter x and y at the same time so the answers still made sense.

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I wish I’d figured that out three weeks ago, instead of banging my head against that particular brick wall. In the end I found a y which was similar to getting laid and actually incorporated getting laid into it, but was much broader in scope. The other, more significant change was altering what they believed x was. So instead of doing something monstrous to get laid, they believed they were doing something heroic to be popular.* The fact that x was essentially the same thing approached from a different angle meant the rest of the script from x onward remained similar … and the problem was solved.

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At least, I think it was. I haven’t had the feedback yet so I may well be wrong … we’ll have to wait and see.


* Imagine a world everyone made films about how nuclear weapons were just misunderstood and were actually fun and gently warming and sexy. Imagine the teens live in a town which has a nuclear weapon festival every year and all the other teens dress up as nuclear weapons and then have sex with each other because nuclear weapons are such a turn on. Then imagine a couple of desperate idiots and it seems reasonable (within the context of the story) that they might think detonating one would make them popular. Especially since we’re not actually talking about a nuclear weapon, it’s just  a terrible analogy.

Categories: My Way, Someone Else's Way, Things I've Learnt Recently | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Time to grieve

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This is a post for producers and directors, or any note-givers really. It’s about how writers receive notes.

Or maybe it isn’t? Maybe it’s just about how I receive notes? After all, I don’t speak for all writers everywhere.

Receiving notes is tricky because of two key factors:

1: Most writers suffer from impostor syndrome.

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Most of us fear we’re terrible at this whole writing lark and no matter how many people keep paying us to write and claiming to be happy with the results, sooner or later everyone’s going to work out we can’t do it and no one will ever work with us again. Lots of people in lots of occupations suffer from this sort of thing, it’s incredibly common as well as being incredibly silly. Every time I receive notes I assume there will only be one: YOU’RE SHIT, GET OUT.

Luckily, this rarely happens to me. You’d think, looking at some of the terrible films which have been produced from my scripts that it would happen more often … but it doesn’t because either those films bear little resemblance to the scripts they were loosely based on, or they are exactly what I was asked and paid to write. In all but two occasions* I can recall, the producer or director (or both) has ended the rewrite process happy.

The second reason for receiving notes badly is probably more important:

2: Writers hate writing and are incredibly lazy.

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Every note comes with a calculation attached – how much of what I’ve done am I going to have to destroy in order to action that note? How long is this going to take me and will the end result actually make the script better? Or just different?

  • Changing names or locations – easy. Two minutes and I can get back  to Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes.
  • Swapping genders – might be easy, might be tricky. Depends on whether we’re swapping all the genders or just some and how homophobic the producer  is. Could be five minutes, could be five days.
  • Changing the ending/the beginning – arghh! That might be simple, or it might be moving the point of the pyramid two feet to the left. That involves thinking through the entire script from the beginning to see if everything still lines up. Especially if the new ending involves the protagonist having a new motivation/goal which could mean rewriting every single scene from beginning to end. That might make draft two take longer than draft one! How will I fit in my afternoon naps?

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Ultimately I want the script to be better and will put in whatever work it takes to make it the best it can be … but it can be really upsetting to get one of those notes, even if it will fundamentally benefit the script in an amazing way. Some note-givers like to deliver notes via phone or face to face … which I hate. These notes are like stun-grenades which shut down my ability to do anything while I frantically try to calculate how much work it will take versus how much better the script will be afterwards.

Which is why I prefer to have notes delivered via email first – it gives me time to grieve.

Time to grieve over the loss of my favourite idea, the one I spent weeks working on which you’ve dismissed in one vague sentence, as well as time to grieve over the days I’ve just lost in the coming week or two.

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After grief comes acceptance and calculation – is this better or not? Am I being resistant because it’s not my idea or because I’m lazy? What’s best for the script? That is the bottom line – will it improve the script?

If I get that idea in an email I have time to follow the proper foot-stamping, swearing, calm down and get on with it procedure.

If I get that idea face to face or  over the phone … I’m going to go quiet for a bit. That bit might be a few seconds or it might be a few hours. Depends how long it takes me to scream inside my head and then process all the ramifications for every single event in the script.

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The point of this post is just to warn you, the note-giver, that it’s fine to give notes by phone or in person if that’s what you prefer. You just need to understand that when I go quiet or gibber a little, it’s not because I hate the idea. It’s because I need time to grieve before I can add anything to the discussion. That’s why I prefer an email with a follow up phone call after I’ve had time to think, but hey, it’s your money and you can have it anyway you want it.

 


* One of those was because the producer told me the rough, not-even-first draft was a work of genius and, foolishly, I believed it must be exactly what he wanted. The director pointed out it was shit and the producer immediately agreed with him so as not to look like a moron. The other was when I gave the director exactly what he asked for … which was a mistake because he didn’t actually understand that what he’d asked for was an extra 90 pages added to the script. Even after I told him. Twice.

Categories: My Way, Writing and life | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

What do producer’s notes look like?

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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.

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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.

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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?

or

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Page 1

Page 2

Page 3

 

Yeah.

Right.

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!

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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:

Notes 1

 

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?

Notes 2

 

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 … 

Notes 3

 

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.)

Notes 4Has he got that power? Um … I don’t know. Does it matter? Wait, do you mean in real life or in this story? Oh fuck, I’m confused now.

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.

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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.

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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.

Categories: Someone Else's Way, Writing and life | Tags: , | 4 Comments

What do script notes look like?

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An actor friend of mine recently asked if I could read his script for him. Now normally I would say no*, but I like this guy and I’ve been we’ve been chatting about the concept for a while now and I thought – what the hell?

So I read the script and gave some opinions. Just opinions, not facts, just my (flawed) perception of the script as I understood it.

He went away, did some rewrites and came back with a better draft.

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Now there’s an odd thing with a script – the better it is, the more notes it generates … until it gets really good and the notes slowly dry up.

Essentially it’s because first drafts are terrible and need major de-and-reconstruction to make them work. I expect to throw out 50% of every first draft. Notes will be along the lines of:

It’s great up until the third act (this means the first act is shit).

or

I don’t like the protagonist but her friend is really cool (usually because the protagonist was their idea and their friend was the one I wanted to write).

or

I don’t know, the (insert whatever plot element they specified) is so clichéd now.

or

None of this makes any fucking sense (which usually means … yeah, I fucked up).

The notes are big notes about big things because the big things don’t work. There are fewer big notes about big things than small notes about small things because there are fewer big things than small things in a script.

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The second draft is (hopefully) far better. It actually works as a movie.  It’s coherent, it’s funny/sexy/affecting (or whatever it’s meant to be) … it just works.

Now we can start to make it good.

Now we get onto the small notes about small things.

Now we tear out the writer’s heart and stamp on it.

These kind of notes are awful and upsetting and often feel pointless and overwhelming and … hurtful.

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But they’re not. Not really. Well, not always. They’re usually right or at least right from the note-giver’s point of view. They’re not given in a malicious sense, they’re given in a sleeves-rolled-up, let’s-get-into-the-details-and-make-it-better sense.

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These notes are polishing. And polishing, by its nature, involves methodically going over every square inch of script.

Every line, every name, every scene heading … all of it.

Experienced writers … well, we don’t enjoy getting these notes, but we expect them. When people don’t interrogate the script and just go “Brilliant! Let’s film it!” (which has happened to me), when they’re apparently not interested in refining the script … the film will be shit. Because they clearly don’t care enough to put the effort into improving it.

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Actors, like my friend, I don’t know if actors are used to notes like that. Actors get notes on their performance, true. But I think (and correct me if I’m wrong) that they tend to be along the lines of:

That was great. Can we try one where you’re angry?

Followed by an in-depth discussion/explanation of why the director thinks the character should  be angry at this point.

Actors (I think – I may be talking out of my arse here) rarely get notes which go:

Your left foot, can you move it two inches to the left? Your right foot doesn’t make sense. Let’s rotate it 30 degrees so you’re standing on the outside edge. Your left ankle is fine but your right ankle is too fat – change that …

And so on, all the way up their body, criticising every joint, muscle and sinew until they get told to make their blinking asynchronous.

Maybe that does happen – I suspect (and hope) it doesn’t.

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So I gave my in-depth, nit-picky notes on what is now a much better script, sent them off … and was immediately worried – what if he’s upset by my notes? What if he reacts to them the way I did the first time I received notes like that? I think maybe he’s done devised work and de-constructed scenes until they’ve learnt to fucking behave themselves … but what if he hasn’t?

Oh no! What if he doesn’t understand the more notes=better script equation?

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Eh … he’s a big boy, he’ll get over it.

But then I was thinking – would it be useful to newer writers to get a sense of what kind of notes they’re going to get once they’re working for a client?

Is that the kind of thing you’d like to read? Would you like me to post an excerpt from a script with development-style notes attached?

I was just going to do it, but this post is already too long and frankly I’m boring myself here … so I put it to you, is this something which would be helpful to those of you just starting out? Or even those of you far along the path who want to know we all get the same level of script-hammering?

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Answers in the comments (or by email, which seems to be your preferred means of communication – why is that? Why have you all gone so shy all of a sudden?).

Vote with silence or NO and I’ll not bother. Vote yes and I’ll post something next week … or maybe the week after since there’s a #PhonePhill to write up.

Here’s some Bohemian Rhapsody because … because.

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* Because it takes a lot of time to read, think and opine.

Because people (especially non-writers or writers with limited experience) get pissed off and take it to heart if my opinion is anything other than ‘GENIUS! YOU ARE ONE!’

Because people often think agreeing to read one draft is actually agreeing to read the next 78 nigh-on-identical drafts where nothing I say is ever taken into consideration and none of the problems are ever resolved.#

Because I don’t want to.

#This is weird – you don’t like/trust my advice enough to actually follow it … but you want more of it? Lots more of it? Are you just trying to see how wrong I can be?

Categories: My Way, Random Witterings, Writing and life | Tags: , | 3 Comments

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