Saturday, May 18, 2013

Digesting Big MF'ing Notes.

 Although nothing really “happened” this week, it was nonetheless eventful and enlightening for me. The beginning of the week, I got notes. They weren’t the notes I was hoping to get. They were the kind of notes I wanted to hide under my covers from. They were the kind of notes that I would have to change the fundamental way I thought about my story in order to address. They were the kind of notes I wanted to ignore.

I have always said… I’ll do anything to make the story better. I’ll rewrite it any way that will help the script sell or get made. I’m not precious. I understand the business of screenwriting. I get the whole “kill your darlings” thing. Change the protag to an alien? Sure! I had no darlings. I was open.

Ha! I was wrong. I guess it’s inevitable that we get attached to our ideas. In order to work through my resistance to these notes, I did some honest digging. I wanted to know what was causing my resistance and then what to do about it.

The Honest Why’s to Resisting Notes…(in any situation, not just the one I was facing this week.)

- Burn out. I’m not a lazy person by nature, but hell, everyone gets tired. I’ve spent a lot of energy, time and effort on this story. At a certain point, even the smallest change can feel like Mount Everest.

- Being too close to it. When every word has been considered, dialogue dripping with subtext, it can feel like a colossal waste of effort to even consider ditching those crafted little details. Forest. Trees.  

- Being scared that I won’t be able to pull off something different. That I won’t be able to make all the pieces fit as well. That I’ll screw it up.

- Losing the passion for the story. I have started on my next screenplay, which is all shiny and new. This unexplored world beckons me, while I am faced with a broken world waiting to be fixed. I am a product of our instant-gratification, throwaway society. This also falls into the “too impatient” category. I’ve never been praised for my patience. I am getting better with effort, but that’s simply part of my nature that I’ll have to do battle with forever. Breath by breath.

- The person giving the notes seemed condescending. Now, this shouldn’t even enter into the equation, but it does. I suspect we all want respect. We want our hard work recognized and understood. So, when I get notes that seem to disregard my efforts, I can feel myself shut off. I try not to, but it’s like a door that has a will of it’s own. SLAM. It’s not helpful. It’s ego. Yuck. But true. I read in some management-training book somewhere that people need to hear ten times the positive reinforcement to negative reinforcement in order for the negative to be accepted. Jesus, we’re fragile beings.

- There is of course, the first reason I tell myself why I am resistant to notes. That the notes suck. And sometimes, even after an open and honest evaluation, this is true. Not every story is for every person. Not every person giving feedback is a good, objective story analyst. Sometimes, the note-giver might know something’s wrong, but they don’t know how to fix it. Or they don’t know how to express the problem. That's very common. So this is the easiest way for me to fool myself when I get a note that makes my heart sink for any of the above reasons. I will try to justify why the notes suck, instead of why I am resistant to giving them a fair chance.

So, the first thing I’ve learned to do when I get this feeling of opposition to notes is to step away. Distance myself from the whole affair. Do things that inspire me. Watch movies. Read a good book. Or as this week was the Cannes Film Festival, I engrossed myself in that. I let the filmmakers’ excitement and love of storytelling infect me. I listened to Stephen Spielberg; I read articles about the films in the festival. I watched interviews where actors talked about the scripts that inspired them. I saw audiences moved by the films they saw.

And I was back. Inspired. Full of energy. Both eyes on the prize. Flying over the trees to see the forest. Ego in check. Door wide open. A willingness to do anything to make my story better; which would eventually get my script sold or made.

I re-read the notes. It’s much easier now to resist the urge to fall into darkness and despair. Now it’s time to do the work.

The biggest decision at this point is whether to take the notes on board. This depends on how I feel about the person giving the notes. Do I trust their opinion? Are they invested in helping me improve the script? Did they put time and effort into their feedback? Are they someone who could help me with my end goal of a sale or a "written by" screen credit?

If I answer yes to any of those questions, then the next step is figuring out the reason for the notes. People DO give notes for a reason. I’d be a self-indulgent idiot if I didn’t think all my stories could be improved. That’s not a lack of confidence, or false humility. It’s just true. So I have to figure out what didn’t click for them, or make them feel the way they hoped to feel. What was missing for them? That is the art of note deciphering.

I am incredibly lucky that I have people I trust and respect that I can ask for help. My manager, John, is one, and my friend and story analyst, Joey, is another. They both have a brilliant instinct for story, and clarity for the bigger picture that is rare and invaluable. I also have a very close-knit circle of wonderfully talented writer friends, and we constantly share and learn from each other. I’d be lost without these people.

So, once I’ve accepted that I need to really consider the notes, I must leave everything I’ve done behind. Everything is liquid once again. Anything can change. Nothing is pre-determined. I’m back to “what if…?” It took me a long, hard week from getting the notes to here.

And here’s the funny part. Once I arrived at this point, and started working through the new perspective of the story, brainstorming ideas and figuring out how it could all work, I started to get excited. This was good shit. This could be a better story. I could see how it was clearer, with a better structure, and still held the mystery and emotional content of the relationships that was so important to me.

I wrote up a new 4-page synopsis of the story in half a day. I guess really it was a week and a half a day, if you count all my mucking around. Some might call that the “creative process”, I guess. I call it somewhat embarrassing, but a great week of discovery.

Onward and upward!