Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Script Killer Notes!

From 2009...

When I learned how to drive, I was taught to not just pay attention to the car in front of me (and the cars beside me and behind me) but look far enough ahead on the road to be prepared for whatever might come my way. If there’s a big accident ten cars down the road, I need to be prepared for that. If there’s a swerving driver a dozen cars ahead of me, I need to start worrying about *why* that driver swerved - what’s in the road that will soon be in *my* way? I have a rule when I’m driving on the freeway (like I-5 between Los Angeles and the Bay Area) - better to have a reckless driver *behind me* than in front of me.

Of course, many people in Los Angeles seem to be more interested in talking on their iPhones and eating soup and texting their new screenplay idea than keeping their eyes on the traffic in front of them. Many people have no idea what’s happening more than a car in front of them, because they’re not even paying that much attention to the car in front of them. One day, I’m driving down Santa Monica between Westwood and Century City - and see the cars in front of me stopping... so I slow down and stop. But the left lane is empty, and a car speeds past... and hits the old man in the crosswalk. That’s why the other lanes were stopped, but this driver wasn’t looking ahead nor thinking ahead. The pedestrian was alive when the ambulance took him away... the driver told the police he never saw the guy in the crosswalk. Of course he didn’t - he wasn’t looking that far ahead. Many people in Los Angeles live for the moment... and never think about the moments after that.

What the hell does this have to do with screenwriting?

Well, as writers, part of our job is to see the whole story, and be able to see the chain reaction some script change might make. Actually, that should be everybody’s job on the film - especially the people *giving* the notes... but for some reason they don’t kick the short sighted development execs and producers and directors out of Hollywood... or at least prevent them from giving script notes. Because this biz is filled with people who can’t see the effect a note will have ten pages from now, let alone throughout the rest of the script. The problem is, the note that you and I can see just won’t work, they can’t see... and often want you to “just give it a try”. Hey, why not? It’s only work... work that *you* are doing while they play tennis and come up with more notes that we can see have no chance of working.

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Of course, part of our job is to be a good typing monkey and do even the rewrites that we know are pointless. William Goldman tells a story in ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE about working with a director who wanted Goldman to give him “all of the riches” - which is director code for write all kinds of stuff that will never end up in the final draft, and the director will pick and choose which scenes he wants to keep. I’ve worked with directors like that - they have you write hundreds of pages of scenes and then whittle it down to 110 pages that they will shoot.

There are two schools of directors, by the way: movies and TV. A movie director has a plan (often storyboards) and shoots the shots they need to make the movie. A TV director shoots a ton of footage and then figures out which shots he (or she) is going to use in the editing room. Live TV and most sitcoms are shot with multiple cameras and they piece it together in the editing room (or on the editing console). Movies tend to be scheduled and planned, and shot over a period of time (rather than a live performance like a sitcom). But many film directors either come from TV or just fly by the seat of their pants and have no idea what they are shooting until they shoot it, and may not even know what the movie will be until they edit it.

I would rather work with someone who knows what they want than work with someone who knows what they want when they see it... which means after you write a dozen different things that weren’t it. But you usually don’t know which kind of director you’re working with until it’s too late. And there are plenty of producers and development people out there who want you to give them “all of the riches” - and you do draft after draft after draft that weren’t it. (Though I don’t believe a writer has only so many scripts in them and then they run out or something, I do only have so much time on this earth and could get hit by a bus tomorrow... and would rather write stuff that has a snowball’s chance of getting on screen (like a new spec) than something that has no chance at all (like that version of the script with the director’s wild idea that you know just will not work). Do you know how many spec scripts I could have written instead of all of the drafts I knew wouldn’t work before I wrote them.

But, like I said, my job is to write. And if I want to keep getting hired to write, I need to be a good employee. One who doesn’t say things like, “That’s the dumbest note I’ve ever heard!” Though I might be able to see far enough down the road to know the note won’t work, my job is to write it anyway and let the producer or director or development person see what I already know.

One of the things that directors and producers and development people often don’t understand is that you have already considered the change they are suggesting - you looked down that road when you were outlining the script and realized it was a dead end or the scenery wasn’t as interesting. You looked down hundreds of different roads - every scene, every line, every action in a script is a fork in the road - and you’ve looked at the different ways your script might go and combinations of ways it might go, and already selected the best possible route. You know where their changes lead and your road is better. But some folks need to see that for themselves... and my job is to write up that version.

You get all kinds of notes, crazy notes, and it’s your job is write them up. You have to pick your battles when it comes to notes, and discuss the notes that you mildly disagree with and when you get a note that will completely ruin your script - strongly disagree with the note and explain *logically* and *calmly* why the note will take the script in the wrong direction. In fact, if you can explain why it will lose the producer money you’ll have a much better chance of winning the battle than if you argue based on art or craft or character or quality. Money talks. But sometimes (well, maybe even usually) you don’t win these debates and end up ruining your own script (or quitting, and some other writer comes in to not only ruin it but completely change it into *their* script). A writer’s job is to write... and sometimes make the changes that break your heart.

When you get a bad note, you might think you should *not* give it your best work and *try* to make that version of the script suck. But I've learned that executing the note poorly always backfires - there is still a sex scene in CRASH DIVE. I thought for sure once they saw how silly that sex scene was (on a submarine where the crew is 110 *men* and no women... except the one in the sex scene) they would want it removed. I went out of my way to carefully write the end of the scene before the sex scene and the beginning if the scene after the sex scene so that they cut together *prefectly*. That way the scene could be removed without harming the script. And when it stayed in the script and they actually filmed it, I thought for sure it would be cut out before the movie aired on HBO. The network wanted the sex scene in the script, but sooner or later they had to realize it was stupid, right? They had to cut it out before they put it on the air, right? Wrong. They want what they want and if you write the crap version, that’s the version they will film.

And if they *do* notice you have done a crappy job of executing their brilliant note? That’s often a good way to get replaced by someone who doesn't care.... and will make enough changes to not only claim a screenwriting credit but completely destroy your script. So I will give a note I don’t agree with my very best shot and really try to make it work... even though I know it can't work. You try to make it work - and that’s your job.

NOTES THAT KILL

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But every once in a while I get a "script killer" note - one that will destroy the screenplay. One that you can not ever make work. One that *no one* can ever make work. Can the hero and villain just be friends and stop fighting? Got that one about three times, now. Can all of the characters talk and act the same? Had that a couple of times. Does there have to be a resolution to the conflict? I’ve got that a couple of times. Does there have to be a conflict? You would think that no one would ever give you that note, but I’ve had it a couple of times. Do the characters have to be motivated - why can't it just be a bunch of coincidences?

I have a friend who had a director order him to change all of the dialogue into cliches because "People understand cliches". He suspected this director *only* understood cliches. You get these notes, and try to find some reason for them - and often there is not. The problem with the notes that remove conflict or motivation or make the script bland and boring or remove the “engine that runs the machine” is that they are script killers. Story is conflict - remove conflict and you permanently damage the script. It will not work. The story dies. These are notes that can never work - and you don’t even have to see that far down the road to figure it out.

You would think that “script killer notes” are rare, but I get them all too often.

A couple of years ago on a project that eventually died, the producer and I had a meeting with a director I was in awe of - one of his films is a classic. I was not worthy. He the usual list of silly notes and notes that I knew would not work... but he also had a couple of script killer notes: Can we remove the emotional conflict? Why does the story conflict need to be resolved at all? Does there have to be an antagonist? Why does one event have to cause another - can’t it all just be a series of coincidence? After the meeting the producer asked how I was going to make those notes work, and I said I did not know - but this was a big director, I wanted him to direct my script, I was going to find the way to make the notes work. I struggled, could not find a way to make the notes work. You can’t remove the conflict and have a story, or make the story a series of coincidence and have it still work. I called the producer and explained my problems trying to make the notes work - and (for once) the producer understood. He thought the notes wouldn’t work when the director came up with them. I asked if he might call the director and ask what the reason behind the notes might be (because I could not figure it out). Sometimes a note is about the symptom, not the disease - and that throws you off. Well, the producer called director and asked him what his reasons were for the (script killer) notes. And the director answered, "Because I'm the director and that's what I want." Producer, bless him, said: No, you are not the director. And the project died.

Usually they don't die, they get turned into crap then filmed.

I have this script called STEEL CHAMELEONS about a Westworld-ish theme park with androids that have "liquid skin technology". Say you want to sleep with Angelina Jolie - if she's in the android's program it becomes Angelina Jolie. Or if you're interested in Russell Crowe, it turns into an anatomically correct Russell Crowe. No chance of diseases, they hose them down afterwards.

Well, with a minor upgrade, these things can change into people not on the program - they touch you, they can look just like you. And some bad guys come up with a scheme.

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The script is kind of like Carpenter's THE THING or INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS - you don't know who is real and who is one of them. There's a scene where one replicates a Senator, and our hero (and agent with Alcohol Tobacco Firearms & Androids) doesn't know which one is real - and both insist they are the real one. There's a scene where he's chasing one with a distinctive look... into a crowd, and the android disappears - none of the people in the crowd have that look. And there's an infiltration of the hero's team. And a character who seems to die... but it's really an android that looks like them, and they are still alive. Basically, anything that has to do with duplicate people is used in the script. When it was written (ages ago) the idea was to use a handful of morphs, and the rest is just actors playing androids. Cheap!

So a couple of years ago it gets read by a production company who claim to love it, and they have a meeting with me, and the big cheese has this note: Just a minor change, he wants all of the androids to look like the androids from I ROBOT.

Because I'm oddly practical, I ask if they can afford to do all of that CGI, and he says they'll have to cross that bridge when they come to it, but there have to be all kinds of unemployed CGI people who will work for pennies...

And I asked if he was talking about the androids looking like robots just in the factory scenes (where they didn't have to replicate anyone as part of the story) and he said, No - in every single scene. All of them. The androids throughout the film will look just like the androids in I ROBOT... and the whole liquid skin thing would be dropped.

Now, I suspect the note under the note here is that this guy really liked the androids in I ROBOT. If it was about the trailer or production value, the factory androids would have solved that. But it was something else...

And that note would ruin the entire script - it *could not work* with that note. The *concept* was androids who could replicate specific people and take over their lives to infiltrate places and do very bad things. If the androids couldn’t replicate specific important people and do very bad things, there is no story. And the "cool stuff" was all of the scenes where the hero couldn't tell who was real and who was an android. So I turned down the sale and walked... but wondered what would have happened if they had bought the script, *then* given me this note. How could I have ever made it work? The “engine that runs the machine” is that these androids can look like anyone, can infiltrate even the most heavily guarded location... they could replicate the President of the United States! How would you know he was an android if he looked and sounded and acted just like the President? And had his fingerprints.

When you get a note like this *after* they’ve bought your script you wonder why they bought it in the first place - isn’t there some other android script out there where the androids look like the ones from I ROBOT? Why don’t they buy that one and ruin it? And why can’t they see that they are taking a reasonably cool idea and making it either something bland and something that just can not work. Because once I change the androids into obvious robots, the whole infiltration thing doesn’t work, so we’ll need a new plot... and we have these machine looking androids, so it’s probably going to end up some story where the androids battle the humans and... well, isn’t that I ROBOT? It’s my experience that many bad notes are there to turn a silk purse into a sow’s ear - they sand off all of the creative and interesting parts and then take the mess that’s left and turn it into something they’ve already seen. They kill the script... and either film the corpse or try to Frankenstein some sort of script from the dead parts... and that usually doesn’t work either.

When I get one of these notes, I want to ask if they are out of their fucking minds. But, you can’t really ask that... because they probably are. Many in Hollywood are, you know. You want to fight the note to the death... but that’s a good way to get fired off your own script. You want to grab the producer or director or development person and shake them... but I suspect that would land me in jail. You want to ask how they could be so stupid, but that’s not going to earn you any points, either. And the big problem is, even if you make your case and lose it and then do the very best job you can trying to write a script where the serial killer and FBI profiler don’t fight each other and are friends who pal around and there is no conflict at all in the screenplay... that script will suck big time and you’ll get fired and some other writer will be hired because you just weren’t creative enough to make it work. And then that writer will be fired and the next writer will be fired and the whole project will crash and burn and never get made... and after all of that pain and work and heart-ache... you won’t get your production bonus.

I don't know the answer to this question of how to deal with Script Killer notes. Suspect I never will.

- Bill

9 comments:

ObiDonWan said...

I had this happen (wacky notes) on a book I was writing. An editor read the first part and asked for more...but asked me to lose the gun that is an integral part of the story. He just wanted the romance but no gun. I don't understand these people.

Shanerology said...

Why couldn't a civil conversation be used to explain to the person that the liquid skin MADE the story? Was it expected of you to redraft the entire script to match a story about the I-robots? If that's the case, a different story certainly could've been used. It sounds to me like that guy was just a dickhead. Did his father own the company? How does he get a job of that caliber when he doesn't have the foresight to see into the NEXT page.

I guess the greater question is how do open minded individuals coerce narrow minded ones into seeing the bigger picture? Answer: it's an impossibility.

You probably should've shopped that script around.

JabberWocky said...

What you should of done, Bill, is to have these androids have a skin made of light, on a spectrum only visible to the human eye. You could of had a few quick shots of people looking at these sterile robot faces from POV where they would see, whoever it might be that they are pretending to be. But then we the audience see these sterile machines. Cool Effect. Better give the producer a call.

ashes1998 said...

Ah, the old story-- Killer script is killed by killer notes.

Ryan said...

Special sunglasses, like in They Live.

Phill Barron said...

I've been in that same situation several times and what I've come to realise is they haven't really read and certainly haven't understood your script.

Basically, they've picked up on a couple of words in the concept and imagined a completely different story around them. Sometimes the way forward is to recognise that and say so:

"Okay, I think we're talking about two completely different stories here. Why don't we just forget about this script and I'll write the one you've got in mind. Tell me what you want."

That's worked for me in the past. Or at least it's worked up to the point where the idiots in question failed to make the new script too.

kgmadman said...

I can see the director's point of view. Giving the robots a very mechanical look, and perhaps changing their dialogue to simple expressions like "MEEP-MOOP-BEEP" while changing nothing in the original plot would have made great comedy. Especially as the protagonist struggles to determine "Which one is real?!"

Aric Blue said...

Sounds like an awesome script though--I love those kinds of flicks. Get it made! :)

Rick M said...

Maybe I'm giving Hollywood stuffed shirts too much credit, but is it possible that this type of thing is an exercise? I've been in creative management, and a classic technique is to poke open-ended holes in a project to make the creator rethink everything. Does it really work? This is the kind of thing MBAs get taught. The story killer seems calculated to force an examination of the whole plotline. Of course I could be way off -- plenty of crappy, written-by-committee movies get made...

New to the blog, and love what I'm reading so far!

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