The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August and this is Episode 399 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
So, this afternoon Craig and I did something different. We went over to Amblin and spoke to a group of about 30 development executives to discuss what it feels like as a writer to get notes. And to offer them suggestions for how to give notes that will actually achieve what they want.
In many ways this episode reminds me most of Episode 99 where we sat down with therapist Dennis Palumbo to talk about psychotherapy for screenwriters and the weird ways that writers process emotion. In the first half you’ll hear me and Craig sort of giving a presentation. Then we open up for discussion with the whole group. Enjoy.
Ah, so nice. So this is theoretically going to be Episode 399 of our show. 399 episodes of our show, which is crazy – crazy, crazy. And on one of these episodes Craig proposed you know what we should go in and talk to studio executives about how they give notes because we as people who get notes a lot could give them insights in how to give notes. And so Craig made this offer. Someone took us up on this offer. We went and talked to some folks at Disney.
Craig Mazin: Yep.
John: It was a good conversation. A much smaller conversation than this group. Ben, thank you for bringing us in here to talk with this larger group about our notes on notes. Because usually we’re coming in here to hear these notes and we are filled with sort of this emotional response sometimes to these notes and we’re trying to figure out how to do them.
But I thought if we talked through the process of giving notes and hearing notes we might honestly be all able to do this a little bit better. So that’s the impetus behind this presentation.
Craig: Yeah. This is mostly to help you guys help us. I mean, it’s always self-interest really. Because we are kind of allies, whether we realize it or not, there’s a little journey that we’re all going on to try and make something which is impossible to do, as we know. And so we are allies and that means we have to figure out how to help each other along the way. And I think sometimes in everyone’s zeal to help the opposite occurs. I won’t say what that word is. It’s hurt. You’re hurting people.
So, anyway, we know that all the intentions are good, but hopefully we can give you some practical advice just so you can hear how things filter through our minds when we have these experiences with you.
John: Yesterday Craig emailed me to say, “That thing we did at Disney, did we have a script? Did we have anything we were working off of?” And I said I don’t think so, I think we just winged it. He’s like, “No, no, I’m pretty sure we had some sort of script.” And then Craig texted me last night saying like, “I found it. I found the shared Google doc.” So this is the shared Google doc we’re working off.
Craig: Should inspire a lot of confidence in the two of us.
John: Yeah, absolutely. So these are the notes on our notes on notes. And it keys in with this slide show, so that’s why I was hoping we could stick a little bit on this first–
Craig: Yeah, let’s do it. Where should we start?
John: Why is it so hard to get notes? Craig?
Craig: Got it. So, when our work, and I include all of you – your work, everything you do – when it is exposed or critiqued we feel emotional pain. That’s common to every human being in all circumstances. I don’t think that that is a sign of weakness, even though you may have been taught that, particularly if you grew up in the ‘70s. But rather it is a sign of being human. So congratulations.
But here’s a question that might seem obvious until you really think about it. Why? Why should being criticized or critiqued make us feel emotional pain? Well, it turns out there’s a good answer. Let’s talk about a little science. This is the last bit of science you’ll have to deal with today. So Chernobyl – no – neurologists know that emotional pain doesn’t come from this part up here. So our neocortex or frontal lobe, this is all of our rational human thinking/processing/reasoning brain. Emotional pain comes from this little lump underneath called the limbic system. I can’t get there because it’s underneath. But it’s basically an inheritance from rats and lizards and birds. And all it really does is control our fight or flight response.
And this fight or flight response happens before the human smart part of our brain even knows what’s happening. A little bit like if you touch a hot stove your spinal reflex will have your hand moving back before the rest of your brain goes, ow, that’s hot. Well, similarly when you get negative threatening input the limbic system is going to fire off messages before the front of your brain even has a chance to process what has happened. And unfortunately the limbic system only has one alarm message to send. It’s very stupid. Again, it’s from rats and birds. And the message it sends to you, to the front of your brain is you are in danger of dying. That’s the only phrase it knows. You’re in danger of dying.
So, start fighting or starting fleeing. Now, that may sound a little dramatic, but if so–
John: Craig, it sounds a little dramatic.
Craig: I can make it more dramatic.
John: But honestly I’ve had that response to notes in a room where I felt like the floor was collapsing underneath me. And so therefore I have to do something. I have to take an action right now which is not just sitting and listening.
Craig: Yeah. Another writer we know told me a story once that in the middle of a notes meeting she just asked if she could take a break to go to the bathroom and then she vomited. And then she came back. This is – I understand this.
Here’s what’s happening. When you’re writing or directing or creating something you’re creating a kind of external expression of yourself. We put ourselves into these things. And what you’re doing is essentially recreating the contents of your mind on page or on screen. And the more you care the better you are at it frankly. The more you invest of your own humanity and passion and love, the more enmeshed you become with it. It becomes hard to figure out where you stop and it starts.
If you have kids, and I don’t know, it’s a pretty young crowd, but if you do have children you will understand this. The children are not you, but if they are threatened well then you will feel fear and pain and adrenaline. The limbic system is pounding its alarm system. You made the so they are you. Rationally we understand that the script isn’t us, but the limbic system sees no difference at all.
John: Yeah, it’s sort of the mama bear syndrome. You see your cub being threatened and therefore you must protect your cub. And so how do you get past that sense of like I must protect this thing that is partly me that is in danger.
Craig: Yeah. And to try and connect it a little bit to what you guys do, if you’re not also writing things, I want you think of how you feel when somebody criticizes something that is inherent to your identity or your being. There they are. I want you to think about how you feel when somebody criticizes your appearance. Your weight. Your sexuality. Your race. I want you to think about how you feel when someone essentially says you’re not good enough the way you are. I’m talking about your parents basically.
That’s why you’re here in Hollywood. You’re not good enough the way you are. Here’s a bunch of things that are completely wrong with you. Let me enumerate them and go into detail. Here’s what you should be instead. And please listen carefully.
Well, when these things happen it’s quite likely you’re going to want to run out of the room or wring their neck. It’s fight or flight. And in these instances now switching back to writers when they begin to feel emotional pain writers will get angry, they will get sullen, they will get argumentative. They’ll get snippy or passive-aggressive. Does any of this sound familiar? Have you seen this happening? It’s fight or flight.
John: From the writer’s perspective, this sort of is a natural reaction. They feel like they’re under attack. From the outsider’s perspective it’s like why are they being so weird about all of this. We all have the same goal. We’re trying to make a better movie, a better pilot. We’re trying to – theoretically rowing in the same direction. Why are they acting so weird?
Craig: Yeah. It’s actually a great sign. I know it’s annoying to deal with in the moment. If you’re dealing with a writer who is like, oh yes, who is reacting to your notes as if they didn’t write the script at all, that’s a psychopath. And also probably a bad writer.
But John is absolutely right. That the irony is all of that emotional pain and the response to that emotional pain has nothing to do with making the movie better. And this is where writers kind of start to circle and cycle a bit because the more emotional pain we feel the worse these meetings and encounters get, which leads to worse interaction, which leads to more emotional pain. And we could even start to become viewed as the D word. Difficult.
And it’s hard because the front of your brain is saying, “Hey, they’re going to start thinking of you as difficult.” But underneath there’s this little blurb saying, “Kill them.” And that’s a rough one to correspond. Yes, you will look at it from your side as somebody trying to make some sort of intellectual or angry defense of what they’ve done, to deny what you’re saying, to essentially negate everything you are putting into this. But that’s not what’s happening. It’s just somebody who is terrified that they’re about to die and they’re trying to stay alive, whether you realize it or not.
So, John, how do we do this better for us and for them? Can we get into some practicals?
John: Let’s do some practicals. Let’s talk about some dos and some don’ts, which are almost always going to be sort of opposite reflections of the natural instinct versus what’s probably most helpful at the moment.
So let’s start with owning an opinion. And so when you have an opinion and you’re sharing an opinion, really take possession of that opinion. Really feel it. Have it be a meaningful opinion to you that you think will actually improve the project. Not just an opinion you’re repeating because you’re supposed to be passing it along.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, that’s essentially why you have your jobs. You have your jobs because somebody says, “Look, you’ve got good taste. I like the way you respond and react to things.” So it’s really important that you own that opinion. But what you should not do is convert your opinion into a fact. It’s OK. Opinions are good enough. It’s just good enough. I think sometimes there’s this game that happens in these rooms. You’ve probably watched it or maybe even participated. It’s called the battle of examples.
Here’s my opinion. And someone says, “No, because they did that in this movie and it didn’t work.” And then someone says, “But, they did it in this movie and it did work.” Someone says, “No, that movie is different.” Someone says, “No, because of this.” No because of this. Everyone is trying to [empiricize] an opinion.
Here’s the deal. The first person to do something well in a movie that works – that’s original and they win. And the first person to do something poorly in a movie that doesn’t work – that’s stupid and it was a bad idea. It doesn’t matter what happened before. There is no way to turn your opinions into fact. You might as well just say it’s how I feel. That actually is good enough.
John: Yeah. And when you try to make your subjective opinion into an objective fact or presented as an objective fact we immediately go defensive because we can see logically that’s not actually an objective fact so then we start to doubt everything else you’re saying, too. So saying your opinion as an opinion, as your subjective take on a situation, is great. And it also reminds the writer that they’re being hired for their subjective opinions, for their subjective skills and sort of negotiating this emotional terrain. So keeping it in the realm of opinion is really helpful.
John: A do. Do share your reactions and your questions. You are often one of the very first audiences for a script so share what you felt. Share what you felt as you were reading through it because as we’ve been writing a thing we’ve been living with this thing for months and so we don’t have clean eyes on stuff. You guys do have clean eyes. So phrasing what you find in what your first read was, what it felt like to you to be sitting in an audience watching it on the screen of your mind is really helpful because particularly when there’s things that aren’t clear or places you thought the story was going that it wasn’t going that’s great for us to hear.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, you guys have all been in focus groups in screenings and there are people in those focus groups who say when this happened I felt this, but when this happened I felt this. And we think, OK good, we’re getting our NRG money’s worth. And then there’s that guy who, you know, “Actually,” because he goes to cinema school and he’s thought about this during the screening. You’re like that’s useless. What we need are true honest human reactions, right?
So what you want to do is hold on to those for sure, but try to avoid announcing the conclusions of your reactions. Because that’s where you’re sort of short-circuiting a natural process. If something worries you in a script as you’re reading it or confuses you or makes you annoyed or bores you that’s really valuable. We need to hear that. Tell me where it got annoying. Like right here, or this is where I got confused. Where it becomes less useful is when people say to us as writers, “You know what, she’s too angry. This character is too angry. She’s too mean. She’s a turn-off.” That’s a conclusion. And we don’t know quite what to do with it.
And what it really sounds like is, “And that’s a fact and somehow you missed that.” When what is useful is to say, “I don’t understand why in this scene she’s so harsh with him given the circumstances. Can you talk about what you were going for because what I felt was put off?” That’s a discussion. That’s a conversation.
John: Absolutely. Because now you’re talking about what your reaction was to something that you read and we can discuss that moment. We can discuss what our intention was behind that rather than she’s too mean. We can’t do anything with that. There’s nothing we can write that fixes “she’s too mean.”
Craig: You’re kind of just inviting us to say, “Well, I don’t think she is.” And now we get into an argument over a fact that is not a fact at all.
John: A suggestion, speak towards the passion. What you’re interested in. Speak towards what you want. Even if it’s in the context of criticism. So always be discussing where you want things to be going rather than sort of where things are right now that aren’t exactly what you want. So speak towards what is getting you excited about the project, not what is turning you off.
Craig: Yeah. You wanted to do this in the first place for some reason. Something excited you about it. If the script isn’t there say, “Listen, when I got to this place I wanted it to go here. How can we get it there?” That’s a thing where you can move toward.
What we really don’t know how to process as writers is how to write away from something. There is really no way to write away from a thing. So, here’s an example. Don’t make this scene so talky. OK. You’ve probably felt that a lot of times. Don’t make this scene so talky. This scene is way too talky. That’s writing away from something. Don’t bother with all this plot language. There’s too much plot language. Less. That’s writing away from something.
And these notes are generally born of fear. That’s not a knock on you guys. That’s really useful. I mean, that fear is necessary to kind of evaluate this material. You’re scared that an audience, to whom you’re accountable to, is going to get bored, or turned off, or confused. Your fear is completely warranted. Just please keep it to yourself because we are drowning in our own fear and we cannot handle your fear as well.
And also to help us write towards something just re-contextualize these things. For instance, OK, this scene is too talky, please write it less talky. Write away from that. Not as helpful. But what you could say is, “These two characters have this great vibe in this scene where they say almost nothing, when they’re kind of just reading each other’s minds because it’s clear that their relationship works like that. They don’t need as many words as two other people might. And so they’re intimating things like for instance this point.
This scene here, how can we move this scene more toward that? Then the writer goes I know how to do that. It’s not even about buttering them up and saying, “Look, you did it really good here.” It’s not that. It’s just giving them something to write toward.
John: Absolutely. And you’re giving them characters to write towards. In all your conversations talk about characters and talk about the choices the characters are making. Talk about it in terms of these characters being living creatures within the universe of your movie or your TV show. And what they are literally doing. And so that way you let the focus of choice less on the writer and more on what the characters are doing.
Craig: Yep. Because characters are talking. Characters are boring. Characters are beautiful. Characters are interesting. Characters are illogical. What we weirdly don’t know how to work with effectively is discussion of the scene or the script, which seems odd. But the scene or the script is this other thing that is a function of characters. So, when we hear talk about scenes in scripts and stories we’re weirdly jarred out of the mindset, the writing mindset, where we solve problems. Because where we generally solve problems is in the realm of character. Well, OK, if this isn’t working how can I make it a better function of this character? Or how can I change this character to get more like something else?
If all you do – if literally all you do – is write the notes as you would normally write them and then say now let’s just funnel this through a filter of characterize it. Let’s just put all these notes now within the context of character notes, you’re already going to be literally 50% closer to getting what you want.
John: When you’re giving notes, give the notes that can lead to meaningful changes in the screenplay. So here’s an example of the most meaningful note I ever got on a screenplay. And so this was right here at Amblin. It was Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen. I was up in their office, they were in one of the bungalows. And it was the second draft of the script. And in the script I’d written Will tells a story of how his father died, but he tells it at the funeral rather than telling it to Edward Bloom while he was in the hospital bed. So their note was what would happen if you told that story to Edward rather than about Edward. And it was just – I did have that immediate like, “oh no, they want me to change something,” but then the light went on and I was like, “oh, that is just so much better.” That is a meaningful change. It is not a huge change, it’s not a huge amount of work for me to do, but it is a huge change in sort of how this all works. And it was just – it was a fantastic note. And it was a meaningful note that changed a lot of things in the script.
There were other small things which wouldn’t have been as impactful. So be thinking about what is the thing that opens up possibilities.
Craig: Quality. Not quantity. Here is another kind of note which you and I have seen. This is an actual page note that I received from an actual studio. “Let’s cut Elena saying please at the end of this scene.” Well that’s just stupid. And it’s stupid for so many reasons.
But the most – I guess the most prominent reason is anybody that has spent any time on set or in an editing room knows that of all the resources that are required to make motion pictures and television the amount that is expended to add one more word to the end of a scene is zero. You are already there. That’s dumb. And when we get notes like that it kind of starts to undermine our confidence.
It may be that you think I really don’t like that she says please there at the end. Fine. When it comes time for the editing room if people have still left it in you make that argument there. That’s a meaningful note in the editing room. But it is not a meaningful note when you’re writing the script.
John: Yeah. And there’s some meaningful notes that are meaningful on set but not in the script. So this is an example from me. “Page 71, Aladdin’s line at the middle of the page, ‘I want to show her I’m someone worth knowing,’ feels a bit too direct and declarative. Can we find a way to say this with more subtext?”
I get why they gave the note. They were trying to be specific and kind of creative and helpful, but it had no relation to the actual we made. There is not a single moment in Aladdin that is anywhere near this subtle or with this kind of subtext. I can guarantee you.
Craig: I mean, that’s already way more sub textual than the rest of it.
John: Oh yes. Oh yes. It’s a very declarative movie. And this was like an actor line reading. Honestly it was trying to get way too detailed on a moment that was not – we just weren’t at that place. And so trying to use really fine pens on something where like we’re still kind of at Sharpie level here. And that was the wrong note for the moment.
Craig: We understand, by the way, that in many ways the notes process is your last attempt to exert control over this material before other people come and kind of start doing things that you cannot control. And we know that that is terrifying. But just be aware that controlling the script is really a thin substitute for controlling the shooting of the script and the editing of the script and the performance of the script and the direction of the script. It’s not going to get you what you want.
So the real thing is how can you work together with the writer to build in those protections so that you do get what you want?
John: How do we set up the world of the movie where this note makes sense? That’s sort of the macro.
John: Do – present a unified set of notes. Try to give one set of notes to a writer rather than three conflicting sets of notes to a writer.
Craig: He said try.
John: And the converse is don’t pretend you’re giving one unified set of notes because that’s even more frustrating.
Craig: That’s the worst. Because sometimes you will get like the three groups of notes. They don’t overlap whatsoever so you are essentially paralyzed. By the way, paralyzed after reading three different documents explaining why essentially you’re stupid in different ways. So then you call up, say can you guys just agree on why I’m stupid. That would be fantastic. And then they send you an agreement of why you’re stupid and then they call you afterwards and say, “No, no, no, that’s not why you’re stupid. You’re stupid because of this, not because of that.”
And so it goes. Again, you’re trying to do your jobs. And we know that your jobs are difficult. We understand that there’s a lot going on back there. We don’t know what to do. We are – I mean, I will tell you this much: we’re naïve about how the situation works back here. And you want us naïve. You don’t want us thinking about that stuff. We just don’t get it. So if there are battles to be fought and battles to be won, fight them and win them, but do them before you get to us. Because it just stops us dead.
John: When you make a note stand by your note. If you truly have an opinion on material it shouldn’t change based on outside opinions or based on what worked last week at the box office. And so we’re going to believe your opinions if your opinions are consistent through time rather than they feel variable. Because if it feels like it’s a moving target it’s tempting for us to just kind of wait and see where the target is next.
Craig: It takes effort on our part to get past our pain to absorb the value of your reactions and your opinions, your honest thoughts and your honest opinions. Then we do. And we take them in and we become enmeshed with you and with your opinions. And then someone else comes along, like a director, or an actor, and they say, “Nah, what if we did this instead?” And you say, OK. And it’s all gone, like that, in an instant.
I’m not accusing any of you individually of doing this. But it has happened to me many, many times. And you start to think well then why am I ever listening to you about anything. If you’re not going to stand up for this, if you’re going to be so fastidious and insistent and specific with me, and then so flippant and casual once somebody else comes along, why bother?
John: Yeah. And I’ll say that sometimes it just naturally does happen that a director or some other powerful person has a note that directly conflicts with everything else you’ve been trying to do. In those moments acknowledge it to us privately. Otherwise it feels like we’re being gaslighted. That this was all – they never said that thing before. No, they did set it. This really is a change and this is why we’re making the change.
Craig: This is a really important point because I think sometimes it’s a natural instinct to think if I call up a writer and I say to them, “You know that thing that I was really on you about that I finally convinced you of that you believed in too that I just rolled over on completely?” If I call that writer up and admit that I’m going to look weak to them. I assure you it is the opposite. You only look weak to us when you pretend it didn’t happen. We know it happened. We know it happened. And we know why it happened. And if you call and say, “I fought as best I could but this is the deal, so I’m saying my powder for another bigger fight. And I apologize, but this is how it’s going.” We get it. And then we love you again.
John: Indeed. A do – do make it your goal to love the script. And that your notes are on a path towards loving it even more. The converse would be don’t attempt to win the who-can-complain-more game, which is a thing that happens. Sometimes it has happened in rooms where there’s multiple people all trying to fix a problem. Or sometimes it’s not a thing that I’ve written but it’s a project that I’m being brought in to rewrite and it just becomes this who can bitch most loudly about this thing that’s a problem.
Craig: Yeah. A little bit like those nature movies when the gazelle gets brought down and then all the hyenas come in and it’s just like fun at that point. It’s happened. The dam is broken. Let us tear this thing apart. Obviously if you’re doing it to a writer and she’s written something and everybody in the room is tearing it apart that’s incredibly traumatic. And it also begins to feel cruel.
The whole point is that we’re trying to improve something. If the point of the meeting is let’s all try and outdo each other to see who hates this more, why are you having the meeting? Just fire her and move on. You know?
But if you are going to have that meeting then you have to sort of get back to first principles. Why we loved you. Why we hired you. What we hope for you. And it may be that she can’t get there. But she’s definitely not going to get there if the tenor is a kind of one-upmanship of critique. Somebody among you must be the advocate in one way or the other.
John: Do ask writers how they like to receive notes. And so what is most helpful for the writer. And so you may have a process that’s your normal process and maybe that’s going to work great, but ask them first. And if there’s a way that you can actually communicate with them better try doing it their way.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, some of us like conversations. My preferred mode is a conversation. I don’t actually read the printed out notes. Just totally admitting it. I don’t read them. It took me a while also to realize that they’re not real. That they are a representation of a lot of – like some sort of power-brokered consensus among a lot of people. And that eventually you get to these notes and you’re like well this is a weird one. And then someone goes, “Yeah, none of us really agreed with that, but X wanted it, so it goes in.”
And the reading of it just for my brain when I just flip through and it just becomes like mush and it doesn’t work. But if I have a conversation, if I can see your eyes, and I can feel your emotional response, because those things are so dry. They’re so dry. Then I feel like I’m getting somewhere and I can have that conversation and you’ll actually get way further with me just talking than handing me the document.
But other people do not get – like the face-to-face thing tears them apart and they run into the bathroom and throw up and they really do need that document to kind of ease them into the process.
John: And also because we’re writers we will dwell on a specific word choice far too much. And so “it feels gloomy,” I’m like gloomy? Gloomy? What does he mean by gloomy? Foggy London gloomy? And so I end up getting on the phone and I’m like what do you mean by gloomy? And he’s like, “Well it feels like serious.” And I’m like, oh, serious, OK, serious. That’s not gloomy. It’s like you went through your thesaurus and found gloomy because you didn’t want to say serious, but–
Craig: Yeah. You’re bad at wordsing.
John: Yeah. You are bad at wordsing. So, that’s why actually conversation is so much more helpful usually than a document.
Finally, do reread your last set of notes before you get the next set of notes before you give the next set of notes because we will and we’ll remember and it’s not a good sign. But at the same time don’t feel like you have to defend your old notes with the new ones. If they’re bad ideas don’t feel like you have to defend them. You can move forward. Just make sure you’re moving forward in a consistent direction.
Craig: You’re allowed to be inconsistent. You’re allowed to change your mind. Just don’t pretend that you’re not. That’s the most important thing. It’s the gaslighting factor that makes us feel like we’re going insane. Just say it. I changed my mind. I change my mind all the time. I change my mind while I’m writing. I’ll do an outline and then I’ll do the script and some things are going to change because I changed my mind. It’s totally fine.
But if I was like, “No, that’s what I said I was always going to do.” What? It’s insane.
And, you know, that will kind of get you out of a lot of problems, too. It’s also OK to admit that you made a mistake in notes. Very frequently what will happen is because we know the script better than you do just because we wrote it – that’s not a knock on you – it will say, “On page 86 she says this, but she couldn’t have known that because she never ran into so-and-so.” Yes, she did, on page 5. You just missed it.
“Oh, OK. You know what? My bad.” I’ve been in meetings where they’ve been like, “Yeah, but not really.” And I’m like we’re going to change the movie because you skimmed? Nah. That’s bad policy. Yeah.
John: Let’s imagine some perfect notes. So if we could ever see some perfect notes in the world they might describe a movie that you want to green light, not a draft you want to read. And that’s really helpful for you talking in general about notes, it’s like always talk about the movie, don’t talk about the script. The script is a way to get to a movie, but don’t get so focused on this 12-point Courier. It’s always talking about the vision you have for a movie that’s going to be in a theater.
Craig: Yeah. I refer to it as the document. And I know that it’s tempting in those meetings to talk about the script, the script, the script, but in every other meeting you have you will talk about the movie. In casting, in pre-production, in budget, in hiring directors, in lighting, locations, movie, movie, movie, movie, movie. You sit in the room with the writer, document. The writer will go along with that completely. The writer will follow you right down that document hole and perfect a document. That’s not what you want the writer to be doing.
What you want the writer to be doing is to helping you perfect a movie, the theory of a movie, the imagination of a movie.
John: Perfect notes celebrate what’s working and not just what works in the first paragraph of notes.
John: Yes, congratulations–
Craig: On a terrific first draft.
John: There’s so much stuff we love here.
Craig: However, we have a few remaining concerns.
John: Yes. I have to tell you, you know, 20 years at this and very rarely do I get notes that midway through will say like, “This is a fantastic moment. We’re so happy with this scene.” And they may feel that. There’s moments that they’ll independently say it, but they don’t ever acknowledge it in a notes session about how much they love a moment. Telling us what you love about a thing is so helpful because it lets us steer the ship towards something. And lets us know that we’re not crazy. We actually were able to do something good here.
Craig: This may be the biggest piece of advice for you guys. Because it does two things at once. Obviously we are desperately craving love and attention that we didn’t get from our parents. And so you can help provide that. In a very real way in the psychological phenomenon of transference you become our parents in this process and we are desperate for your approval, no matter age we are. No matter what level we are.
So, dropping those things in the middle makes us feel good. But John is absolutely correct when he says us knowing what you love is just as useful to us from a writing towards point of view as us knowing what you aren’t responding to because now we get like, OK, there is an aesthetic that we are forming together as part of our relationship. We had an opinion, you had an opinion, we’re finding points of commonality. And from there we make more points of commonality. And the notes process somewhere along the line just became a Negative Nelly list. Which is fine. We’re not running away from Negative Nelly. But we need to know Positive Patty because if we don’t all you really are doing again is writing away from something.
John: Finally, perfect notes inspire the writer to explore and create. The times in my career when I’ve had just great notes I’m excited to get back to that next draft because I’m seeing all the new things I can do. I don’t have the answers to things, because the notes didn’t provide answers. They provided really good questions that made me want to explore new things. And they got me past some of my hang-ups. They got me to realize like oh you know what if I did cut all of that then I’d have this space to do all this other stuff. They got me excited to build new things. And that’s what notes should ultimately do is it’s a plan for what is possible to create going forward.
Craig: There’s a phrase in family therapy, “Do you want a relationship or do you want to be right?” And that’s kind of how it works with this. You want a relationship. And you can be right, but through the lens of the relationship. If your goal at the end of a notes meeting is to make sure the writer has heard every single thing that you want to change, shape, control, move around, or alter, you haven’t done it right.
Your goal at the end of that notes meeting should be that the writer is excited to get back to the computer to make this new thing better. And that takes effort. And it also means you’re going to have to kind of sublimate some of your needs and your desires, too. But just keep in mind in the emotional tally sheet we’re taking it much harder than you are. Even though you’re the guys that paid all the money. We’re still emotionally taking it harder than you.
John: So this is not meant to be just a lecture. It’s meant to be a discussion and a conversation.
Craig: I wanted a lecture.
John: Yeah, he wanted a lecture.
Craig: I’m all about the lecture.
John: So now we’d love to talk with you guys about sort of about your response, questions you have, push back on anything you want to push back on. Who would like to ask a question or raise a hand? A silent group.
Craig: We also may have just been perfect.
John: Yeah, it’s entirely possible.
Craig: Oh, no, not perfect.
Male Voice: What do you find the note that comes up again and again most frequently in a general sense that you guys either don’t like or you don’t know what to do with? And I know that you’ve given some examples here, but something more specific that, you know, the scene isn’t working, or yeah. Go head.
Craig: The, and I think we’ve said this on the show before, the note I hate the most, the note I respect the least, and the note I think should be stricken from everyone’s development vocabulary is “this character isn’t likeable enough.” Good. Those are the good ones. Every movie I’ve ever loved was full of unlikeable characters. We are here – are we allowed to say where we’re doing this? We’re recording this at Amblin, the home of Steven Spielberg. Go watch Jaws and find me the likeable character. It’s wonderful.
So, it just has to go. And I know that it comes from places. Marketing has wormed their way into things and so on and so forth. But just fight back. Fight back as hard as you can. And if you can’t, if you lose that battle, then preface that note by saying, “I am so sorry to say this and I don’t believe it myself, but I am forced to say this. This character isn’t ‘likeable’ enough.”
And it’s particularly bad when it’s about a female character. I find that at that point we’re starting to drift into the whole like trope, you know, she’s got to be, you know. That one.
John: My biggest one is probably “faster.” Basically like can we get to this moment faster and basically like can you not do all the stuff that you’re doing to set up the world. And somehow have everything already be set up so we can get to this moment faster. And I think so often because we are rereading scripts and rereading scripts again we know what’s going to happen, and so therefore we’re always anticipating the thing happening and we forget that for an audience watching it they have none of that information. And so they are coming into it at a speed and they have to get that information.
So, I would say that we are constantly in push to get to those moments faster and faster and faster in ways that are not helpful usually for the story.
Craig: Yeah. The classic one is the first act is too long. And this ending is a bit abrupt. And I’m always like the first act should be longer and the third act should be shorter. I love first acts in movies. It’s when the people are meeting and I’m discovering them and this world is being built. And when I get to the climax I just want them to blow stuff up as fast as they can and get me back to the relationship because I know like, ugh, [croaking noise]. So yeah, rushing the first act in particular, I think try and fight that one as best you can. Because it does translate into movies where you end up reshooting because people don’t connect with the characters.
John: Funny how that works. Yeah. Moments you cut out. Other questions.
Female Voice: When someone gives you a note of like this is the bad pitch.
John: Oh yeah.
Female Voice: Is that a more or less preferable note in general, and also do you prefer having more specific direction or the response and then you guys decide?
John: Great questions. So I would say the bad pitch or the bad version, so the bad version is this, I can hear that and understand why it’s being said that way, which is basically don’t do this thing that I’m telling you to do because I know how incredibly cloying it is or how it is just clunky. But the effect that I’m hoping we could get to is this, so that I can take that really well. Some people will bristle more at it, but I’m actually fine with the bad version.
It’s kind of like giving an actor a line reading. You’ve got to be a little bit mindful of that. In terms of specifics, specifics help if they are giving – if it’s specific to what your response was. But if it’s trying to provide a solution then we’re going to be like then why do you need us in a certain way. So it’s trying to be really clear on sort of why you are feeling this way, you’re feeling it as you’re reading it, but not sort of like therefore this must happen.
Craig: Yeah. I think that that’s exactly right. It’s a little bit writer dependent. I mean, the only thing I’ll caution about the bad version is it’s the bad version for a reason. And so John’s right. You’re trying to get at kind of an effect, but just make sure that you’re policing yourself that the effect that you’re not going for is also just bad. In other words, sometimes it’s like, god, that would really solve this here and also make it boring and same-y. Right?
And for suggestions, I find that if someone says, “Here’s a solve, and take it or leave it if you want, but maybe in my proposed solve you find some interesting thing to take off and blah, blah, blah,” that’s great. If it sort of comes down as, “Here’s what I want you to do. Do this and this and this.” Then you begin to just lose your will to live.
John: You feel like a typist rather than a writer and that’s frustrating.
John: More questions?
Craig: Yes, come on down.
Male Voice: Honestly, I kind of want to dive in more to the likeable character question, because I think I gave that note yesterday maybe.
Craig: Of course you did.
Male Voice: And it’s not that I want a perfect Disney princess as the protagonist, but I usually will be feeling that when I’m not connecting to the character. I’m not engaged in their journey.
Craig: That’s exactly right. And so there is a mistake that happens in our brains when we are not connecting with a character and that character has qualities that are difficult or confrontational or testing we associate it with that. But those aren’t the problems. I love a great villain. I feel deeply connected to great villains. Like I watched The Little Mermaid again the other day and Ursula is the greatest.
Craig: She’s not likeable. I mean, she’s a bad octopus lady.
John: You understand exactly why she’s doing what she’s doing.
Craig: Correct. And so the issue is how do you find a way to make that person’s unlikableness relatable. Relatable is not likeable. Relatable means that I understand it. You know, a lot of Melissa McCarthy characters work this way. And we just talked about this with Mari Heller. She was on the show talking about How Can I Ever Forgive You. Is there an Ever in there? No. How Can I Forgive You? Can I–
John: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Craig: Can You Ever Forgive Me? Will she ever forgive me? And the entire process was managing someone who is not likeable. And about finding moments where you can relate to the not likeableness because all of us go through our lives having moments. I mean, unless one of you is just a saint everybody has moments. And so you don’t want to push things into likeable. You want to push things towards relatable, meaning make me understand and sympathize with the conditions that make her or him unlikeable.
John: Yeah. Mari Heller was also talking about Diary of a Teenage Girl and how important it was for that character to have a voiceover at the very start, or not even a voiceover, where you’re picturing the world through her eyes so you can see how she perceives herself before she tells you that she’s having an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. So, you know, that is an unlikeable character thing to do is to have that relationship, but we loved her before we sort of knew that thing that was happening. And so it sounds like what you’re describing in this note that you said unlikeable is that you were having a hard time connecting with the character to see the movie through that character’s eyes and to really want to sign up for the journey with that character.
And so Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day is very unlikeable.
Craig: The worst.
John: But also funny.
John: And because he’s funny you’re willing to go on this journey with him and sort of see him grow and change. So, phrasing things as not being able to click into them is I think going to be much more helpful to than saying unlikeable because then a writer is going to be like, “Well, can I just spackle something on them? Can I just spray a little likeability perfume on them so that they’ll pass the test?”
Craig: Or sand off the edges. Unsharpen the pencil.
Craig: And then everything just gets sort of generic and soft. And we just lost interest.
John: Or you give them a puppy to make them likeable.
Craig: Give them a puppy.
John: Give them a puppy. Other questions or things you want to push on?
Craig: You can tell us we’re wrong. We’re OK with that. You can give us notes.
Yeah, so the question is what do you do when you’re developing a comedy and people, meaning the producers, the executives, don’t like the jokes versus the story. So that comes down to sense of humor. And there is no note. The note is we don’t think you’re funny. The note is you’re fired, I’m pretty sure.
Now, there is obviously a lot that goes into a comedy, but I’ve always felt from the work that I’ve done that if the plot and characters aren’t connected inextricably with the sense of humor and the comedy and the jokes and the set pieces then just something is wrong. I don’t know if you can properly write a comedy using somebody over here dumping character and plot sauce on it and someone over here doing the jokes.
I mean, I’m sure you guys have been in a lot of those roundtables where we do like the punch-up. And everyone just laughs for six hours and maybe get one usable joke out of there because none of it is connected to anything. It’s just floating on top. Like that goop on top of soup. So, I think in that case the note is you’re fired. I just feel so bad about saying that, but I mean why torment somebody. They’re not going to become funny the way you want them to be. I don’t think that’s how it works.
John: No. The other thing to remember about comedy is that if you’re reading the same script ten times, 15 times, it’s going to stop being funny. And nothing changed about the jokes, it’s just that it’s not fresh to you anymore. And comedy is about surprise and unexpected twists and characters doing things you couldn’t expect. And once you expect them it’s not funny anymore.
I’ve been to so many test screenings where suddenly the audience is laughing, they’re like, oh that’s right that was a joke. I completely didn’t remember that that was a funny thing, but that’s a joke apparently. And that absolutely happens.
One of the most edifying experiences for me was I did the Broadway version of Big Fish and I’d have to swap out jokes from one run to the next run to the next run. And you’d just see like what gets a laugh and what doesn’t get a laugh. And you just don’t know until you try it. And that’s the hardest thing about comedy. You won’t know if that script just in 12-point Courier is funny until you get it on its feet and sort of see it with people. That’s why if you can get a reading together that’ll help.
Craig: I will say for comedy features that generally speaking the people that write them are technicians. And so they’re way more concerned about getting laughs than you guys are. Way more concerned. I mean, every first screening of a comedy I’ve ever done I’ve gone with a Xanax in my pocket, right here, and I’ve had to take it a couple of times because when you’re not getting laughs it’s the worst feeling in the world. So, partly I would say if they have a track record trust the track record. If they’ve made people laugh in a dark room before, they’re going to make people laugh again.
You may not necessarily see the connection from the page to the room but they’re working it and they know what they’re doing in theory. So, some of it is an act of faith. Which is scary.
John: So the question is what are the best practices for when a writer is brought on to rewrite a different project. How can you set them up for success as an executive? So what I always tell writers who are being brought on to a project is if at all possible talk to the previous writer. And that way you can sort of know where the bodies are buried. What things were tried that didn’t work? It’s a cleaner handoff. It won’t always be possible. Sometimes it’s not a happy situation and it’s just not going to be realistic.
But for you as an executive who is like bringing in a new writer to the project I think having a discussion about some of the things that have happened before, but most importantly is where you see this headed and sort of what the overall goal is and what the intention is. Again, talking about what the movie is going to be rather than what the script is right now. And the times that I’ve come on to rewrite projects where it’s gone well I could take a look at the script and say like I can see what the intentions are here. I can also see where there was a bunch of just crud that built up over time. A lot of my job is just to scrape away the crud and get you back to what the clean movie of it is and make it all read better so you can see like, oh wait, we had a really good movie here and I couldn’t see it anymore because so much stuff had been built on top of it.
Craig: Yeah. When a movie works it all seems just intentional, like it just fell out of a camera in one big chunk. And there it is and it’s done. And sometimes when you arrive as a rewriter what you’re looking at is a script that’s more like, you know, the way the city looks in Blade Runner. It’s like a city built on top of a city with a thing that’s sticking out this way. And it doesn’t look intentional at all. Nor will it ever look intentional. And it has to be kind of torn down.
One thing that helps me when I come in is an understanding that the people involved are aware that they’ve gone wrong. I mean, unless it’s one draft – unless it’s one and done, and even in that case there has to be some shared culpability for kind of it just didn’t work. We’ve made mistakes. We as a group have made mistakes. There is no shame in that. And being able to say, “You know what? We think our mistake is this, but what do you think our mistake is? And we definitely shouldn’t have done this, and what do you think we should do?” That’s all fine and good.
But the dangerous thing is when you come in, the jobs that I will routinely turn down are ones where people say, “It’s just two weeks. We just need two weeks.” And I go you do not. You need all of this – there’s no way to – “Oh, we just have to fix the first act. That’s it.” What? Oh, we’re going to change the first act and everything – all we have to do with this house is fix the foundation. That’s all we’ve got to do. That’s all we’ve got to do. The rest of it will stay just fine. We’re just going to undermine everything and it will magically float and then we’ll put…
No. And so owning it a little bit I think and just being honest about the work that’s going to be required and thinking about your rewriter as a craftsperson. You know, like if a plumber says to me, “Look, I could do this, but you don’t want me to do this,” then I go, you’re right, I don’t. Don’t do the thing that you don’t think I should do. Let us be plumbers. If we say, “You need to do this the right way,” and then you go, “OK, do it the right way.”
Craig: OK, so the question is how do you breakup with someone? It’s coming to an end. You can’t continue working with the writer. You would love to. That was your intention. But it has to end. What’s the sort of best way to end it and still stay in a relationship and maybe something in the future will happen?
John: The best example I can give you is Dick Zanuck. So Dick Zanuck produced a zillion things but the first time I met him was on Big Fish. And I remember he called me on Dark Shadows. And he called to say, “John, I’m so sorry to tell you but Tim and Johnny decided to bring on a different writer to do this next pass. These are the things that they said they want me to do. I talked with them about it, but I wanted to make sure you heard it from me before you heard it from anybody else.”
And he was so awesome and such a gentleman. I was upset and he let me be upset and angry, but I wasn’t upset and angry with him. I was upset and angry with the situation and sort of the stuff that was going on. But I would have willingly worked on another movie with him tomorrow because he was so straightforward with me about what was going on.
What kills you is when you’re just ghosted. Or when you find out from somebody else. When Craig texts me and says like, “I can’t believe they hired this writer.” I’m like, oh, on that thing that I thought I was still on. That’s–
Craig: I didn’t know that that was happening. I swear to god. I thought you knew.
John: Yeah, I know. And I didn’t know. And like that is what kills you when you find out, you’re like I assumed this was my movie and it’s no longer my movie. That is what sort of really kills you. And so just as soon as you can and being really clear that you value them and the work that they’ve done. And that you would like to work with them again. I think that’s the message you want to–
Craig: The spirit in which you ask the question is your answer. You feel something for this person. You have a natural empathy for them. Let them know. It’s OK. I mean, this is business. Things happen. Things are going to happen to us. Things are going to happen to you guys. But let them how you feel. And let them know that you tried your best and they tried their best and if it’s your decision let them know why and how it’s sad for you, too, but it’s what needs to happen.
It is always I think about intention. And if we feel seen and heard and treated like a human being. Of course, there’s no way to make us not feel sad if we want to stay, but at the very least we know that the relationship that we had with you it was legitimate. Because you’re feeling something, too. That’s why I would come back because I know, OK, if you’re all puppy dogs and sunshine and then one day it’s like ghosted, bye, or oh, sorry yeah, we’re moving on, OK, well why would I ever go back to you? The puppies are not real. That sunshine is a lie.
So, just, yeah, and that requires you guys to be vulnerable. And I’m sure somewhere there is a kind of like executive and producer school where they’re telling you don’t be vulnerable and don’t show any of this stuff and don’t get embedded with these people. And stay like tough. And all I can tell you is it’s not going to work well with us. You won’t get better work out of us that way.
It requires you to feel. I mean, my favorite development person in any capacity is Lindsay Doran. And Lindsay Doran feels more for my work than I do. The hardest arguments I’ve had with Lindsay are about things that I wanted to cut. I’ve literally had a discussion with her where she read it and she said, “Well, you cut that one line and now I just don’t care about the characters anymore.” I’m like that’s not possible! It was a line.
But she is so emotionally invested and, you know, we have a movie together that’s set up here and we had a director on it that we loved and then the studio just wanted to go a different way. And we had to say goodbye to somebody. And we both felt a lot. And we shared that with that person. And I would like to think that that mattered. It may have not made things better at that moment, but it means that we showed what is true which is that our relationship with this person was real.
So, do that. And you will be rewarded with repeat business.
John: Cool. Last question.
Craig: Oh, she’s reading a question. Oh, this is a great question. Boy did you just stand in front of a target and ask us to wheel a cannon in front of you. So the question is what should be achieved in a producer’s pass. And the answer John is?
John: Ah! I mean, we should just stop on the term “producer’s pass.” Producer’s pass does not exist. You won’t find it in any contract. You won’t find it written down anywhere. Here’s the reality from a writer’s perspective is that we think we’re done. We hand it into producers. I think I’m done. And they’re like, great, there’s just a little fix up. And it’s like, OK. And so we do this little bit and it’s like, oh a little bit more, a little bit more. And then we find out they actually did turn it into the studio and we’re actually getting the studio development executive’s notes back. And so it’s a whole extra pass before we’ve turned it in.
I get this at my level, but when I talk to newer screenwriters it’s endless drafts for them to actually get a thing in. And producer’s passes are a useful way of pretending that it’s not a real thing but it is a real thing. So here’s what I’ll say is that if a writer is choosing to give it to this producer for a weekend or whatever for sort of last looks/clean some stuff up, that’s fantastic. But it can’t be about profound changes to the script. It can’t be a week’s worth of work or two weeks’ worth of work. That’s just crazy.
Craig: Yeah. There is no producer’s pass. And producers have gotten away with murder. They really have. Congrats. Good job.
John: I will say some sympathy for producers. I think they have a really tough job right now too because they are scrambling to get movies made in a tough environment. They have tremendous expectations on them. Writers are often dealing with one-step deals which is a problem.
Craig: No question.
John: I don’t want to slam producers for trying to get too much free labor out of us, even though I sort of am slamming them for getting too much free labor.
Craig: Well, but it’s logical. I mean, look, the economics of producing are such that you don’t really get paid unless the movie gets made. Development isn’t a job. Getting movies made is a job if you’re a producer. That’s where all the money is. And everybody deserves to make a living. And then on top of that the studios have taken away two-step deals. They give you one step. You now have one shot with this person that you argued for to make it work. And if you don’t maybe this whole thing dies. So of course you want a thousand drafts for that one draft.
The problem is that’s not fair to the writers. What we should be saying to our partners at the studios is make two-step deals. If you want a producer’s pass how about we all get the pass together? It’s called the second draft. There used to be a thing called the second draft. It’s less important honestly for me or for John than it is for new writers. I really strongly urge you guys if you know a writer is getting paid less than twice scale, which is lot of writers, give them two steps.
It removes this panic. And then you’re able to get the draft. If you want to do your three days of twinklies, do your three days of twinklies. And then turn it in and then everybody can talk about it. And everybody can have the conversation. And then they write a second draft.
But if that’s not there what ends up happening is people do get abused. So, that’s my big thing there. For me, when it comes time to – and look, we’re going to have this experience. You and I are about to have this experience. I’m going to hand over a script to Samantha. You know, if you need a couple days here or there, no problem. A couple days, here or there.
John: But let’s say you need more than a couple days. Let’s say you have a writer who is making scale or twice scale, but not a lot of money. And you do need more than just a couple days. It’s gone into the studio and they’re like, there’s just this little thing before it gets up to our top boss before we can actually get it – we just need a little bit more work.
There’s already a provision in there for a little bit more work. Everyone has a weekly. And there’s a scale weekly which is not expensive. Pay that writer for the one week or the two weeks of work it takes to get that next thing in between their real steps.
Craig: Pay them an optional polish if you want.
John: Move stuff out of order, but it’s when you hold somebody on with the promise like maybe they’ll get to that second draft that’s where it becomes exploitive.
Craig: And the say like, “Look, if you don’t do this then you’re going to get fired and the movie is not going to get made.” And it just becomes this kind of thing of, well, if what you’re telling me is I’m going to get fired unless I work for free, yeah, I’m fired. That’s what fired is.
John: You’re taking a person who is making scale and making them the villain in the situation, which isn’t good. Them not doing that free thing is–
Craig: We just got all Che Guevara on them. I love it. That’s great.
Craig: But it’s true. It really is true. And I will also say that for – if you can – if you’re working with a writer and they agree early on, before deals are made or anything, if they agree early on to write a treatment, some writers don’t write them. I don’t think you’re a big treatment guy. You know I’m a huge treatment – I love a treatment. I’ll write a 60-page treatment. I’ll write the hell out of that thing. You’ll know what the movie is before I ever write in Fade In or Final Draft.
If that happens, then your producer’s pass is baked in because you’ve had a chance to discuss and go through that. And I like to do that specifically so that when I’m done with the draft I’m done. There it is. Now you know what the weekend is going to be like. But you’re going to like it. It’s good. It’s good.
John: Thank you guys very much.
Craig: Thank you guys.
John: And thank you for putting this together.
Craig: Thank you guys so much. Thank you guys.
John: And that’s our show. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It was edited by Matthew Chilelli. Special thanks to Ben Simpson and Samantha Nisenboim for putting this session together and for the folks at Amblin for hosting us.
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