Sunday, June 17, 2007

Notes That Don't Make Music

Ah yes, the thorny subject of notes. Script Eds and Development Execs vary from show to show and company to company in their approach. Their brief, whether instructed or of their own volition can vary wildly in the detail of the notes given. From the broadest strokes on structure and tone to micro-managing every scene including their own take on dialogue.

How you deal with these notes, and note givers, goes a long way to determining your length of career.
Here's what not to do. Don't phone them up immediately after reading the notes and say -

''Who the fuck do you think you are? This is how I make my living. You've been in the job 2 minutes and you're telling me what to do? If you want to be a writer then fuck off and be one and stop ruining my script with your crap dialogue suggestions and take on character motivation. You wouldn't know motivation if it jumped up and bit your arse.''

Tempting I know, but it doesn't work for you as often as you might think. You see, it's all about the balance of power. If you want to move through the ranks it is not only a case of picking your battles, it is also a case of making them think it is an honourable draw when you win.
This months shavetail script ed is next months producer. Well, not quite but you get the drift. It's a small world and over the years I've seen a receptionist becoming a producer in eight years. And she likes me because I was always nice to her when she was a receptionist.

So, real life example. On Friday I got 2nd draft notes. I read them Friday night and to be honest wasn't overly impressed. 70% is suggested dialogue ''tweaks'' I.e ''this is what I would write if anyone would actually pay me to write.''

Damn I promised myself I wouldn't be sarky.

As a whole I reckon that about 15% of the notes help the script. 55% don't matter a damn to me either way as they are largely continuity issues arising from changes to previous episodes and 30% actively set the script back in my view.

Okay, what to do? Well the first thing to do is take a deep breath and not lift the phone. Think about what is being said and why. For example I know that several of the suggested dialogue changes I have been given are because the script ed has seen a line that looks jarring or out of context but hasn't recognised how it will play rather than read. Writers write with all the characters quirks, motivations and psychology in their head, and how that plays on screen, some script eds can't or don't read with the same viewpoint. A quick explanation on the phone and a ''wryly'' here and there will fix those.

The same related aspect goes for visual moments. A picture does paint a thousand words, but some script eds can't see past the words on the page. They read scripts like a novel, forgetting the potency of a visual. For a certain type of script ed, everything has to be explained in dialogue. Hopefully you won't come up against many of those but they are there, believe me. It is a writer 101 no -no, but they are not writers. Heck they are barely script eds.

I've identified the notes I have problems with. I've analysed why and come up with reasoned arguments or alternative suggestions. And on Monday I'll phone for a light hearted chat about it.

I'll be aiming for the honourable draw.

Don't get me wrong, I'm talking here about those times when problems arise. That isn't always the case.

Nice to end on a positive note!


Phillip Barron said...

The notes I recieve from people at the shallow end of the movie making pool break down like this:

10% helpful, stuff I hadn't thought of.

10% harmful, stuff which I had thought of and discarded for being stupid.

80% pointless, makes no odds either way.

The helpful ones I change, the harmful ones can ususally be avoided by explaining why it's moronic and the pointless ones ... Jesus! Those are the ones which drive me up the wall.

"Can the sister be 36 instead of 35?" Yeah, whatever. We don't see her, her name just comes up in conversation, what difference does it make?

"I think the hero would have a moustache. Can you change it so he has a moustache?" What? Why? Who cares?

They are the kind of things you can't argue with, because it's fucking pointless and time consuming. I think some people ask for random changes just to justify their job.

I keep hoping that there's some level of professionalism at which natural selection prunes these muppets away. Your blog often reinforces the opposite idea. It seems the more money involved, the more the idiots multiply.

Great. That's something to look forwad to.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently going through development hell on two different feature projects and the same problem is arising on both. Development people give you a "big note", something like "The protagonist's motivation isn't strong enough" - I swear and curse and then realise, actually they're right, dammit. So, I make changes to fix the problem. And sometimes, those changes are big - cutting elements of the story, moving chunks of action, cutting other characters entirely - but that's what the "big note" I was rightly given requires. But if there's one thing that scares development people it is CHANGE. They are the ones who freak out, even though I'm the one who has had to take the hit and kill my babies! You then end up with a shopping list of stuff from previous drafts which you MUST include (because someone important liked it), even if the big notes you are given logically require them to be cut. Sounds impossible, doesn't it? Sorry to go on. Does anyone know what I mean? How do you handle that?

English Dave said...

Phil - and anonymous actually come to think of it. The inaliable truth is that if development and script editors actually knew how to write then that is what they'd be doing.

There is definitely an element of change for the sake of it, or rather because of a subjective choice based on the editors own sensebility. I have just been asked to change 'Achilles Heel'' to Downfall - for no other reason than a subjective choice.

Because they are not writers, few editors realise what is difficult and what isn't. A page ramble can be a quick fix but an innocuous sounding request can leave you tearing your hair out.

It's all a game really. So long as you can do what they want and still retain your passion for the script then you grin and bear it. If you can't, you tell them you're are not taking that note, and if they disagree you walk. There is no answer I'm afraid.

Anonymous said...

How many development executives does it take to change a light bulb?

Does it have to be a lightbulb?


English Dave said...

lol Dave

Anonymous said...

How many writers does it take to change a light bulb?

Ot doesn't matter. The script editer'll just change it again anyway.