Brad Riddell has written feature films on assignment for Paramount, MTV, Universal and independent producers. Brad’s first film, American Pie: Band Camp, sold over a million copies in its first week of release on DVD. Brad serves as an Assistant Professor at DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts in Chicago. Follow Brad on Twitter @bradriddell.
I once taught a BFA Thesis Class at USC, which consisted of six very talented men and women, each about twenty-one years old. These writers had been in classes, workshops, and at parties together for three years. Over that time they had dated each other, broken up with each other, fought and loved each other, and at one point, when the script notes started flying, the tension popped and things got personal. I ended class immediately, called my fellow professional writers, other professors, as well as the managers, agents, producers and executives I knew, all in an effort to codify a set of principles for the process of giving and receiving notes.
The rules below apply to workshops, classrooms, writers’ groups, and in most ways to professional meetings. Obviously, when someone is paying you to take notes and deliver a specific vision, some of this must be observed through a different set of shades. But, as a writer, professor, and now a producer, I try to abide by these rules as best I can in every creative setting involving script notes.
1. Note givers should always begin with what they like about the work, even if it is just a single image or turn of phrase. It’s important that the good things are reinforced. We are not coddling writers; we are reinforcing and appreciating what is working so that it doesn’t get tossed.
2. Don’t just point out problems when giving notes, but try to offer solutions with each note you give. Barring that, attempt to be as specific as possible about what is troubling you. Whether in features or TV, “working the room,” thinking on your feet, and collaborating with others to solve problems is an essential business skill. Resolving problems will get you much further than simply calling them out.
3. The writer is interested in what you took from the material, so give him/her your interpretation and your thoughts. Questions like, “Why did you write this scene?” or “What was your intention?” shift the onus away from you. Do the work of forming a well-reasoned opinion for the benefit of the writer.
4. Delivery is everything. Beginning a note with, “What I need to see is…” or, “You need to…,” often alienates the writer. Foster a tone of “what if” or “maybe.” Offer possibilities, not absolutes. When giving notes, do your best to remove emotion from the discussion. Be helpful, remain invested, but be as objective as possible. Avoid sarcastic, superior, and condescending tones. Such deliveries imply judgment. Receiving notes is never easy. We almost never feel good after getting notes. Do not exacerbate this problem for the writer by delivering your thoughts with an attitude.
5. There is great benefit in riffing or brainstorming in the room. However, talking to talk, or talking in order to seem as if you are smart when you have nothing truly helpful to say, can cause dangerous digressions, waste time, and make you look inconsiderate, unprofessional, and unprepared. Better to keep listening, keep thinking, and wait until you have something clear and helpful to say.
6. When receiving notes, a writer should employ a poker face. Looking demoralized and defeated, or acting wounded and depressed will not change a producer or agent’s mind about what they read, and it only makes you look weak. Getting angry is even worse. No rolling of eyes, scoffing, or grunting. Writers must strive to be objective about their own work. You want your story to be better. A note is not a setback, it is an opportunity to improve. Defending your material with an answer to every note comes off as uncooperative, insecure, and precious. Writers are inherently insecure people, but you must set aside fear, tuck away your ego, and listen for ways to make your movie better. The goal is to put a poster on the wall. There are always fights worth fighting, but make sure you’re not just fighting for fighting’s sake.
7. Readers are your audience. They are visualizing a movie in their minds as they read your script. You cannot argue with the audience in a movie theater, therefore, you should not argue with your readers. They feel what they feel. Attempting to prove yourself right or someone else wrong – be it as a note taker or a note giver – simply wastes time and hinders efforts to make the script better. When receiving notes, you should be listening. You may disagree with what you’re hearing and choose to disregard it, or ask to discuss it further. That’s fine. You may also express your point of view, but arguing gains you nothing. Take the note, be grateful, and move on. If you are giving a note that is not well received, be the bigger person, consider it his/her loss, and move on.
8. It’s not unusual for writers to develop a sense of the readers whose sensibilities match their own. This is okay! You can’t please everyone, and much of workshopping is determining what to take and what to leave. Some writers paint themselves into a corner by taking all notes, which can be as dangerous as taking none. Use your discretion.
9. After receiving script notes, do not panic. It is wise (unless you are being pressed by a severe deadline) to leave the material for a day or two. You will find yourself in a better, more objective frame of mind to work, and therefore feel more creative when it’s time to rewrite. Large issues at the note table usually seem less daunting once the swelling has gone down, emotions have subsided, and a more distant perspective has been gained. Your logical, problem-solving brain can’t function until you’ve found a bit of peace.
10. Know when to say when. Unless you are being paid, this is your story. At some point, you have to shut out the noise and remember why you are writing this script, what it means to you, and what you want it to be. Always trust your gut first. Brains are tricksters, but guts tell the truth.
Related Articles and Tools to Help:
- More Back to the Chalkboard articles by Brad Riddell
- Indievelopment: Taking Feedback Notes
- Balls of Steel: Getting Honest Feedback
- Screenplay Development Notes from The Story Specialists