Magazine article Filmmaker

Note This!

Magazine article Filmmaker

Note This!

Article excerpt

"I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times - once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say."

- Bernard Malamud

"Relax and take notes, while I take tokes."

- Notorious B.I.G.

I was once at a work-in-progress screening of an independent film for which we were asked to give notes. It was a long cut, and we'd all come out in the rain. After the screening, the director sat by himself near us. When someone addressed him directly, he informed us that he was "in the box" and would not be talking to us during the postscreening feedback discussion.

This was problematic for several reasons. For one, there was no box. Second, it made us all feel awkward because he was there but not acknowledging us. Most importantly, it suggested that this was not a person who was going to take notes very well, which meant that we were all wasting our time.

In the world of both independent and studio film, this feedback-phobic director is not alone. You might even be a little bit like him. But I'd argue that if it's that hard for you to look someone who's just watched your film in the eye and listen to their thoughts, maybe you shouldn't be making films at all. Why? Because if you don't take your medicine now, you'll have to take it later.

In other words, people who read your script or watch your movie before you are totally done with it and give you their honest thoughts can save your life. Or at least your script or director's cut.

Below are thoughts I've compiled after reading scripts and attending multiple feedback screenings for my own films and those of others. For the purpose of clarity, I'm going to make a very simple distinction here between writing for oneself (i.e., independently, as a writer/director, or for no or little money) vs. a Hollywood or industry work-for-hire assignment. Let's talk about the former first.

KNOW YOUR OBJECTIVE

Before you start throwing shoes at me, understand I'm not suggesting you take every note into consideration and implement it. In fact, this is the No. 1 rookie mistake (especially for screenwriters). Trying to address every note can lead to overall confusion or script abandonment; at the least, it leads to a mishmash of ideas, plot points and tone that has no character.

This is why, before you start writing, you need to know what you are trying to say! In other words, know your objective. Know what your script is truly about.

If you don't know who your protagonist is, what they want, and why they do what they do, you're going to get confused when your Aunt May tells you she didn't like that your protagonist cheated on her boyfriend. Notes such as hers are the hard ones because you must discern between someone's simple opinion and an actual screenplay or film problem. I'll give you a couple of examples.

In Raising Victor Vargas, there used to be a scene in which Grandma, fed up with her grandson Victor's antics, slaps his face. The scene had always been in the script and was a turning point for both characters; Grandma had never used physical force on her kids up until that point. We had several screenings of the movie along the way and, consistently, that scene was brought up as problematic. It wasn't just that most people didn't want to watch Grandma slapping her kids around - it was that the scene turned people off to her character entirely. They simply couldn't get past the fact that she had slapped him. Whether it was a result of her acting, or Victor's reaction - who knows? - the scene threw off the film, and so we took it out. Not because a studio or a scary producer asked or told us to, but because we always wanted the Grandma character to ride the fence. We didn't want her to go into bad-guy territory. Our intention was always more ambiguous. That scene, whether we wanted it or not, alienated 80 percent of the audience against Grandma, and there was no turning back. …

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