Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Passing Notes

From a decade ago...

Part of this job is taking notes... and trying to figure out which notes to follow, which to discuss, and which to discard. Sometimes discarding the note requires a whole lot of discussion first. I have no idea how much of my life is spent trying to figure out notes - but probably more time than I spend writing the script in the first place. I guarantee there will be many more blog entries about notes.

I have a handful of buddy action scripts that feature a male and female team. After 48 HOURS, there was a flood of action movies featuring culture clashes - running all the way up to RUSH HOUR. I thought that eventually someone would want to explore a different kind of clash - and what is more different than male and female? And, it was a good way to explore my love and confusion for the opposite sex... in scripts where lots of stuff explodes real good.

But I never expected that in this day and age producers still would have trouble with a story where women have guns. Producers keep telling me to change the woman into a character some rapper could play - and not Lil Kim (even though she has firearms experience) - a *male* rap star. If it were only that easy. Imagine trying to change ADAM'S RIB into a story about two male lawyers - just can’t work.

So, when a producer became interested in one of my male-female buddy action scripts and *didn’t* want me to change the woman into a man, I thought this was a good sign. One of these scripts might finally make it to screen.

Now, no money had changed hands, yet. So it’s the beginning of the producer-writer relationship - you want them to like you so that they will pop the question: can I give you a big fat check for your screenplay? You don’t want to say the wrong thing.

The notes at this stage usually aren’t for a rewrite - they are just feedback on the project. Kind of a getting to know you stage. You are learning what they intend to do with your script once they buy it. But one of the things that often happen at this stage is a request for an unpaid rewrite. Here’s how that works - the producer says they have a great connection with a studio, and want to set up your script there. But, you see, there’s one or two little things that need to be done to make the script "studio quality" before they take your script in. You see, they only have one shot at this, and they want it to be the best shot - your best shot, too. So, if you could just do these couple of minor changes, the script will probably end up at the studio. Sometimes they pull out the "reputation" argument - they have a reputation as a producer, and they just can’t give the script to the studio like this. They don’t want the door to close on *them*.

The reputation thing frequently steams me - because often the studio they are taking this script to has already shown interest in other scripts of mine (through other production companies actually on their lot) and this producer would be *lucky* to ride my script through the studio gates. I’m the one who should get to play the reputation argument...

But that’s not the way to get them to pop the question and give you that big fat check.

So I play nice, and smile and try to explain why I think the changes they request will turn something that already is "studio quality" into the sort of cheese they’ve been making. Many notes are designed to file down any sharp edges in the script and make it... bland.

On this script, the producer doesn’t play the reputation card, but they do want me to do a rewrite before he takes it in. If the notes are reasonable, I may do that. I figure this guy already likes the script the way it is - he doesn’t want me to change the female cop into a male rapper cop - maybe the notes will be minor changes that actually improve the script?

And the first note is just a dialogue change. There’s a scene where my female cop first meets the male cop and she has a witty remark. Could that remark go to the male cop? Well, maybe not the same remark- but some witty remark. Lose her line and give him one? Sure, I think I can do that.

The second note is also a dialogue change... in fact, it’s another witty remark by the female cop. The male cop already has a witty remark - but can I lose hers?

The third note... the fourth note... the fifth note...

All of the notes are about giving the male cop all of the witty lines. Now, this is *banter* where the two trade insults - and by removing her lines, all we have left is the male cop insulting the female cop for the entire script.

The first note I get that isn’t about dialogue is about a scene where the female cop saves the male cop’s life in a scene - which is a set up for a later scene where he saves her. And throughout the script part of their relationship is based on her saving his life - so he owes her. Guess what the producer wants to do? Can we switch the script so that the male cop saves her in the earlier scene... then also saves her in the later scene?

So, I start out discussing these notes. The problem with the dialogue notes is that if it’s all him insulting her - it stops being funny. Part of these exchanges are the back-and-forth nature... they build to (hopefully) bigger and bigger laughs. Without the back-and-forth there is no build and the it won’t be as funny.

The producer disagrees - it’s just better without her responses. It just is.

So I discuss the relationship between the two - and how that will suffer if everything is one sided.

The producer disagrees again.

Anyway - no matter how I try to explain why it’s better if you have two evenly matched people playing the game, he’s not having any of it.

Now, here’s where this guy went wrong: he didn’t bring in the audience. It was all "because he knows what works". If he had explained to me that the audience for films like this are 15-25 year old males who are already insecure around women and by having a woman be an equal or even *potentially* dominant character would scare them away - and the movie would flop, I would have understood that. I’m not sure I would have made the changes - but I would have really given it some thought.

As it was, these notes were discarded. The producer obviously had problems with women and wanted me to change the script to make him happy. Just as I am going to consider notes that may change the script from what *I* want in order to make it a better script, I am also going to discard any note that will change the script just to make it what one person wants - be that a star or director or producer. Notes are to improve the script or make it more "filmable" - sometimes changes need to be made for location or cast or other practical elements in order to physically make the film. I’m more than willing to make those changes, even if they end up with some silly stuff like changing the fear of spending time in a Mexican prison onto the fear of spending time in a Canadian prison (HARD EVIDENCE). Some things just have to be done in order to get the film made.

In this case, I told the producer I disagreed - I thought the notes would ruin the script.

And that pulled the plug on the deal.

And maybe closed the door at this production company, because instead of being a discussion of what might work or not work in a movie - it was all about what he thought worked (no reason). His instincts. His experiences in the trenches as a producer.

Now, I also have instincts. I also have experience in the trenches.

As a writer, I often know what works and what doesn’t just by instinct. That might be good enough when I’m writing the script, but it’s not god enough when I’m discussing the notes with a producer. There I need *evidence*. You can’t discuss feelings and instincts and opinions. We all have those. The only thing we can discuss as facts. That means we need to be able to figure out why one thing works and another doesn’t so that we can discuss the notes. We need to be able to cite evidence when we discuss notes, so that it’s not "he said, she said" but creative decisions based on a logical reason. And this goes for both sides of the table - producers and development executives need to be able to explain the reasons behind their notes.

So, that one isn’t going to get made. On to the next chance for glory....

- Bill

5 comments:

Mystery Man said...

This was such a great post, Bill. I hope you don't mind if I give you a shout-out.

Thoroughly enjoyed this one and couldn't agree more.

-MM

Laura Deerfield said...

I suppose the need for "evidence" to support your arguments is even greater, since we have people testifying about the merits (or lack thereof) of screenplays now.

Have to be prepared to prove before a court that it's not "flawed in every way writing can be flawed."

James said...

Or how about producers that actually want to be producers?

The overwhelming majority of producers I have met are wannabe writers that have no idea 1) how to write, 2) what is cinematic, 3) or what is even topical.

What they really want is people to recognize the SOANDSO PRODUCER PRESENTS title at the start of the movie.

The one common thread these guys all share is access to vast sums of money.

The good producers I have met (and they are a VERY rare breed), not only have access to ungodly sums of money, not only have a command of all working aspects of production, not only have a razor sharp creative sense, ...

... they also have sense enough to trust a writer's instincts. Afterall that's what good producers are hiring a writer for anyway.

Bad producers are hiring a writer as a surrogate, rather than somebody they think has a compelling story to tell.

Unk said...

Jesus... Doesn't this producer know that strong female roles ARE EXACTLY what the ticket-buying demographic wants to see?

It might even shoehorn a few extra female audience members to boot.

Great post.

Unk

Rod Ramsey said...

I wonder if this particular case wasn't spurred more by fears of a male lead being unwilling to share the spotlight. They sort of read that way to me, but in any case, it certainly makes sense that you'd walk away if the producer didn't even offer any explanation.

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