Filmmaking, they say, is a “collaborative” effort. To a screenwriter, what this effectively means is that everybody gets to screw with your script. Of course, you know this going in because you understand that “auteur” is French for “the director gets to screw with your script in whatever goddammed way they want.”
But there’s a whole lot of screwing with your script that goes on before the commencement of principal photography. Most notably – and painfully – in the form of script notes meetings.
A script notes meeting – or notes meeting as it’s usually called – can be anything from a hellish experience to a gruesomely hellish experience.
Okay, okay. I’m being Mr. Negative.
[Takes deep breath]
The fact is that, yes… there are times when what emerges in a notes meeting actually benefits the story. That can happen. I mean the Mets have won the World Series twice, right?
Damn. I’m coming off as a bitter old fart. Let’s try this again.
The script development process is a wonderful opportunity to dig into a story, bring the attention of the best and brightest minds in Hollywood upon it, surfacing all of its hidden mysteries and deepest secrets, enabling the True Script, the screenplay qua screenplay to emerge into the light of day.
[Downs shot of Jack Daniels]
The truth lies somewhere in between
There are many sorts of notes meetings. Notes meetings with directors. With talent. With producers. Here is what to expect in a typical notes meeting with a studio executive:
- You show up at the studio.
- You sip flat water while waiting for the meeting to begin.
- You nervously fan the pages of your script hoping against hope they won’t have many notes.
- You enter the exec’s office and your sphincter tightens as you see your script on their desk, bulging with dog-eared pages. It’s going to be a long meeting.
- You schmooze for five minutes while a symbolic anvil hangs over your head.
- Then you, the exec, junior exec, and usually some unnamed person who sits taking copious notes, start in on the script.
- Page by dog-eared page, they provide their comments.
These comments may include the following:
“The Protagonist could be more sympathetic in the setup, don’t you think?”
“This scene is supposed to be funny, right?”
“That thing with the thing here? I don’t get it.”
“I know it’s a key part of the plot, but does it really have to be a funeral? What about a wedding?”
“I’m still not feeling much sympathy for the Protagonist. Maybe give him a pet… a dog… a rescue dog… a rescue dog with three legs.”
“I let my girlfriend read the script and she thinks this would be a great idea…”
“What’s this? A payoff? Where was the setup? Oh, page 5. Page 12. And page 35. I missed that. You should… make that bigger or something.”
“Yeah, this scene… can you make it thirty percent funnier?”
“… …. …. …. uh…”
“The Protagonist… I’m still not feeling sympathy for him. How about giving him a dead wife? I mean a dead wife, that’s like totally sympathetic, right?”
“Sorry, I gotta take this call.”
“… … … … …”
“Okay, where were we?”
“This feels slow. In fact, this whole, you know… last… whatever… since that… you know… the thing back there… it just feels like… you know what I mean.”
“I’ll tell you what this needs. Funny lines. Something teenagers who see it on Friday will be saying on Monday morning in school. Can you come up with some of those?”
“How about a rescue dog and a dead wife?”
And on and on and on it goes.
Look… sometimes it’s that bad. Sometimes it’s worse. Sometimes it’s better. Script notes meeting are a given, a fact of life for every screenwriter on every project.
How to survive notes meetings
1. Go in expecting the worse. That way if it’s a really bad meeting, you are prepared for it. If it’s a not so bad meeting, you feel like the king of the world.
2. Pay attention to body language. If they’re leaning forward, slamming their fist on their desk, and staring you in the eye, they’re probably serious about that note. If on the other hand, they’re leaning back, gazing at the ceiling, and checking the stock market quotes on CNBC, there’s a good chance you can just avoid dealing with that point because it’s likely they’ll forget about it anyway.
3. If they come up with a good idea or something that will be easy to fix, make sure to give them a hearty, “That’s a terrific idea.” They love to have their creative instincts validated.
4. Understand that a lot of notes arise from the fact that development people need to justify their jobs. So they come up with stuff just to come up with stuff. That doesn’t mean they’re right, it just means you have to deal with them.
5. Pick your battles wisely. In theory at least, they know writers understand story better than they do. So before you go into a notes meeting, decide what aspects of your script are really important to you, the ones you absolutely are willing to fight for. The other stuff? As the man says, “There is always another way”.
6. Don’t take it personally. It’s a job. Be a professional. Handle it.
7. Don’t ever pay attention to any note that arises from someone’s girlfriend or boyfriend. Chances are almost 100% that by the time you make those changes and return for your next notes meeting, the person you’re dealing with will have broken up with said GF or BF.
8. Learn to smile, nod your head, and look like you’re taking notes. Appearances are important.
9. Embrace this simple fact: If everybody can screw with your script, then there’s no such thing as a perfect script experience. And if there’s no such thing as a perfect script experience, then you don’t have to worry about your story being… you know… perfect. So you do the best you can.
10. Jack Daniels.