On the same day earlier this week, I gave notes to two separate writers about their projects. My experiences with both were extreme, but not in the same way. I had to think a lot before deciding to tackle this as a blog, but the amazing disparity of the reactions to basically the same kinds of notes makes this a very good example to new writers.
I’ll describe both. The first came through good friend, who is not in the film or TV business at all, who asked me to read a script by one of his friend’s wife. And I said, “Yes”, because he is my good friend and he’s never asked anything like this before.
Anyway… this woman, who I would guess is in her 40’s, sent her script with a very effusive note thanking me, telling me how she looked me up on IMDb and was thrilled to have her work read by a real produced writer. How she had read my website… it was a little much, but ok… She was excited I was reading it.
I sat down with my Ipad in the backyard one afternoon, glass of wine in hand, and read. Or tried to read. It was, for lack of a better description, a standard first script from someone who hadn’t done a lick of research on how to write a script. God awful.
Horrible premise. No character development or arcs. No discernible theme. Dialogue no human being would ever utter with 90% so on the nose it might cause a bleed. Plot holes in uncountable numbers. Typical first script coincidences for convenience. No subtext of any kind. Subplots that went nowhere and disappeared.
Character's thoughts and intentions told, not shown. One example of too many: “Joanie looked at him and thought about all they had been through and wondered if he was thinking the same thing. She thought about asking him, but did not want to upset him.”
I could go on (and on), but the gist of it I think you get. It was exactly what you’d expect from someone who has no idea what goes into writing a script. At all. It was a story that no one, even if written well, would want to see.
The second project came in the form of a book from my manager looking for my take on adapting it. It seems there’s money to develop it and I like money, so I read the book.
The biggest difference between these two projects was that the book has a very good premise and basic story idea, some potentially solid characters, and could be reworked and developed into a pretty good film, I think.
But the execution was, again, lacking. Not for trying. There were passages in the book that showed skill and again, a solid premise and theme. The biggest things missing from the book were good character development, a solid recognizable arc for the protagonist, and any discernible conflict. Not things that would make a good film. But fixable. And I had loads of ideas on how to fix it.
So… the stage is set. Now to tell each of these people the truth. On the same day.
I met with the woman who wrote the script for lunch. Drove about 40 minutes to meet her at a restaurant of her choosing. She was very nice and quite pleasant until I started talking about her script. Now, most people who know me know that I can be gentle about how I approach things with people that they might find unpleasant if I choose to be. Or not.
Because this was a friend of a very good friend, whose friendship I treasure, gentle was the way I wanted to handle it. So I started out with the strengths of the script. Grammar and spelling were solid… and the fact that she actually finished it was a good thing, because tons of scripts are started and never finished. It showed drive and work ethic.
Then I got into the bad news as gently as I could. I explained what goes into having a script be good. What was needed, in some detail, so I could tell her they were all lacking in her script. Didn’t get that far. She grinned and said, “Fantastic, because my script has all those things.” Uh oh.
I knew what was coming but I waded in anyway. And as I listed each shortcoming, she had an answer to each one. I didn’t get one complete sentence out. She had an excuse or answer before I could finish anything.
Finally, she asked what I was dreading, “What are you trying to say?” I told her that it was not going to sell or get made unless she paid for it herself. No one in Hollywood or anywhere else would take it seriously or her seriously as a writer at this point because she wasn’t ready. But that she should keep at it. Write another and then another and learn from it. I told her to read successful scripts and see how those writers did it. She sat in silence, listening. Or so I thought. Now, it seems to me, that she was either in shock or formulating her plan of attack.
And attack she did. Loud enough to be embarrassing to her and me. Who was I to tell her these things anyway? She saw my IMDb page and there was nothing on there I had written that SHE had ever heard of and they were probably fake anyway. I was a fraud. A charlatan (her word). Her script was an Oscar script if anyone made it. (no kidding) It was scary. Exorcist scary. I wouldn’t have been surprised if her head spun around.
I quietly assured her that my credits were real and those were all produced films, some with very high ratings, not that I had to, but so many people were now listening, it was a survival instinct, I think.
She leaned in… “I have an attorney on retainer and I would have no problem suing you if ever say any of these things about my script to anyone, you understand?”
That’s when I started laughing. I couldn’t help it. I stood and thanked her for the lunch. (Yes, I left her with the check.) I told her she was free to sue me for my OPINIONS, but it wasn’t going to be a fun time for her if she did. Then I told her that there was one specific thing she could do that would help her script. Use it to start a fire. And I was gone.
Got a call from my friend on the way home. He was very very apologetic. She had called and unloaded on him. Then we both started laughing and he said, “Never again.” And I said, “You got that right.”
So I got home and there was an email from my manager asking that I call the authors of the book I read to talk with them about the adaptation job. My first thought was, “Oh why not.”
It couldn’t have been any different. Polar opposite. On a conference call to the husband and wife writing team, they listened to what I had to say, were both enthusiastic about my ideas and thoughts, understood where the weaknesses were and recognized them, and thanked me for my attention to detail. It was like I was in another dimension.
Don’t know if I’m getting the job or not, there are still other writers to talk to, but my manager called and said they loved what I had to say. So… hopefully it will turn into a job. If not, it was a pleasure and a breath of fresh air to talk to them.
One day. Two extremes. The first woman is assured of never ever being a success. The others have a good chance. Don’t be that first woman. Please. It will lead to miserable failure.
Learn to listen to notes. If someone is nice enough to read your work, LISTEN to them. You are free to reject their ideas because it is your spec. But open your mind and really listen.
I did a Blog about notes, so I’m not to beat that horse again except to say if you want to do this screenwriting thing you’d better be open to them, because they are coming and most of the time they are absolutely what you do not want to hear. But a lot of the time those notes will make your script better. Not the same, but better.
My sometimes writing partner Jeff Willis and I sold (sold, not optioned) a script last year. “The Right Girl” is a different kind of romantic comedy that we were very proud of. If you were to read our first draft and the shooting script (which goes in July… YAY), which we were fortunate to have written, too (NO OTHER WRITERS so far), you’d see that the final product is light years from what we originally wrote.
One of the notes we got early turned the script on its head because it basically asked that we change the key story point, meaning that everything in the script needed to be redone to accommodate this change. We grumbled to each other, but we did it. Now, damn, it’s a really good script. Different. But funny and interesting and best of all, still a really good story.
We got an Email this week that we made the production team at the Production Company that bought it laugh out loud while reading it. You can’t imagine how satisfying that is.
How did we get to write every draft without the company having to hire other writers? We listened. We cooperated. We instituted their notes the way THEY WANTED THEM and still kept the integrity of our story. It’s a lot of work and sometimes very frustrating because it isn’t what we wanted for our story, but c’mon, they are going to make it and it’s going to be shown to audiences with our names in the credits as the writers. Plus, there is the money aspect.
And it’ll show up on IMDb soon and it will be yet another produced film I have that the woman who threatened me will have never heard of.