For the people who aren’t writers and read this, NOTES are the sometimes mandatory changes to a script you get from producers, directors, development execs, the guy who waters the plants at the production office, other writers, your friends, your ex-friends, actors, and anyone else you can think of that might have some fleeting interest in the film and TV business. Notes you can get at every stage of production. Notes you can get up to and including the day they get shot.
They can be as small as a change of a word in a sentence to changing the entire story. And all you can think of in between.
Yep. THOSE notes.
I’ve been on both sides of them. Getting them on my scripts and giving them on scripts I didn’t write, but would like to rewrite and get paid for. The giving part usually happens when a production company contacts me and wants me to read a script they’ve bought or optioned and then wants me to give them my opinion on it. This also happens, most of the time, after the original writer has been given a chance to do it but can’t or won’t change it the way they want.
For some writers this is a hard thing to do. Change their baby. Take something they slaved over to create and then have to throw out or change huge portions of it to fit what the people PAYING for it want. These writers think that their work is sacrosanct. And when I was first starting out I felt the same way. It’s perfect the way it is and shouldn’t be TOUCHED. I learned fast you can't think like that.
The only way it will stay the way you wrote it is if you put up the money to produce it yourself or lock it in a drawer and never have it see the light of day. Every script gets changed. Every one of them. And they all get changed in significant ways.
Which brings me back to notes.
When I get a script to rewrite, I get notes from the development execs and the producers to start. They’re usually very general and sweeping, otherwise they wouldn’t be hiring me. I do, mostly, what are called “page one rewrites” where I usually take the original author’s script and change it so much it's unrecognizable to them.
I don’t do this lightly and I always feel badly for the original author, but… they again, most of the time, have had their chance to do this and wouldn’t or couldn’t. Plus they’re still going to get a screen credit and paid. Often more than me.
So how do I do this?
I take their general notes, combined with the notes I gave on the script which the producers liked, and I write a draft. Then I write another one based on more notes after they read the first draft. Then another draft with more notes. And then if they don’t give it to another writer to rewrite again, I do a polish. Or rewrite it again.
Then the director might do his own draft or give me more notes to change it again to fit his vision. Then maybe another polish. Then a production draft… then… you get the drift. Any remote resemblance to the original script is a miracle.
This happens with almost every single script. Even most writer/director ones. Don’t worry about the exceptions because you know already if you’re one of them and you aren’t reading my blog.
I’ve been on the other side, too. I’ve had to rewrite my original scripts. Some more than others. A couple of times making them unrecognizable to me and I did the rewrite. Did these notes make my scripts better? In most cases I have to be honest and say they did. The notes made a few of them MUCH better. In one case, they made the script so much better I’m grateful to have worked with this director to get it to this point. And we’re on something like draft 31, I think.
And then there are the notes that make you wonder why the hell they even bought your script in the first place.
Yep. You can get notes that may turn your script into an award winner. And notes that may make you throw up in your mouth.
Again, a fact. If you option or sell a script YOU WILL GET NOTES. How you respond to them will have a great deal of influence on your career and maybe if you’ll even have one at all.
So you need to mentally set yourself before you get notes. KNOW they are not going to be what you want to hear. You have to be open minded and not instantly reactive. Give yourself time to think about them. I know when I do that, after some serious thought, I can often see how to use them to make the script better. Even when I hated them on first take.
And then if you truly hate some of them, fight for them not to be used. But don’t do it emotionally. If you do that, you lose.
One way to do this is to know your script and story and characters so well that you can intelligently and CALMLY explain why some notes will not work if they want to keep the story you wrote. How one change they want can have a ripple effect on the whole script, changing things they may not want changed. Or that the characters just wouldn’t do that and how it would affect the story. But you really do have to know your script inside and out so you can rationally explain why. This does work because I do it all the time and, more often than not, win those arguments.
BUT… if they want the changes, it’s up to you to implement them to the best of your ability, even if it hurts. And it does sometimes. You, as the writer, are one cog in a huge machine that is film and TV. You cooperate to your best ability and do the best job you can making the script the way they’ve asked for it to be and they will expand the way they use you. They will learn to trust you and might ask you for your opinion on things that may not even have to do with the script. It’s happened to me. It’s happening to me now on the script I have shooting in May.
As a screenwriter, the sooner you realize that script notes are an integral part of your job, whether pointed at you or coming from you, and realize it’s up to YOU to be cooperative and innovative in seeing those notes through, the sooner you are going to be recognized as a pro.