Behind the Lines with DR: The Best Feedback Notes… Ever

Having written posts for The Worst Script Ever Written and The Ugliest Note… Ever, I thought it was about time that I told of this far more positive encounter. This story goes back about seven years to a screenplay adaptation I’d written for a book called Black Water Transit. You might have read it when it was previously posted on my website. And you can still read the blog called Producers Gone Wild, a later tale about this infamous project.

Lexi Alexander

Lexi Alexander

The screenplay, initially written for Joe Roth’s Revolution Pictures, is a crime ensemble piece, often described in industry shorthand as something akin to Traffic meets Crash. When Revolution chose not to proceed to production, the script was quickly picked up by an independent company backed by deep pocket financing. Their plan was to make the movie for a magic number of around 35 million dollars, half of which would go towards paying for and scheduling the production around movie stars with foreign appeal. But first we needed to land a director. The indie company was looking for a helmer who was capable, cutting edge, and without an asking price that would break their business model.

In no time, the producers had landed on three potential helmers: Hot commercial and video director Samuel Bayer. Young Frankie Flowers, whose yet-to-be-released film Haven was generating some buzz. And lastly, Lexi Alexander, a German emigre and former kick-boxing world champion turned filmmaker. Her Oscar nominated short had led to her first feature gig, directing Elijah Wood and Charlie Hunnam in Green Street Hooligans.

Usually, a feature writer doesn’t have much say in the selection of the movie director. But in the case of BWT, the producers had faith enough to include me, not just soliciting my opinion of a director’s work, but encouraging me to meet with each of the candidates. So that’s what I did. I screened Frankie Flowers’ Haven and later broke bread with the young director, talking through how he’d execute my screenplay into a movie. The same went for Sam Bayer. Though he hadn’t a film to watch, he had hours of big budget commercials and a shelf full of VMA-winning videos to peruse. We traded stories and film references over cigars and whiskey. Sam promised me that if he scored the gig he’d be sure to make a kick-ass movie.

Then there was the weeknight evening I rolled into a Beverly Hills screening room to view Green Street Hooligans. I was met there by one of the indie company’s execs, a warm fellow I recalled from his former days at Warner Brothers. While waiting for the film to arrive, he shared with me a lone script note from Lexi Alexander, the director whose film I was about to audition. Without getting into the detail of the note itself, just follow the dialogue that transpired.

“You’re not serious,” I said, my voice already thick with incredulity.

“She (the director) thinks it’ll provide more tension, especially for the second half of the film,” voiced the executive.

“Maybe,” I said. “But it’s like dropping a big fat pink elephant into the middle of the movie.”

“Why?” asked the exec.

“Because it makes the movie about race.”

“I don’t necessarily think it does.”

“The hell it doesn’t. The second I take the racist cop and the angry black chick and put them together…”

“It’s combustible, yeah.”

“It’s an ensemble piece. Everything has to balance. Remember, there’s three other stories we’re tracking. The second we inject a race romance the scales go out of whack.”

“It’s not a romance, really.”

“Movie stars,” I reminded. “Hot guy. Hot girl. Stuff’s gotta happen. No. Bad idea.”

“Just think about it, okay?” encouraged the exec.

“Are you saying you like the note?”

“No. Just saying think about it.”

“Well, based on her one dumb-assed note. We shouldn’t hire her. End of argument.”

“Look. I’ve gotta be somewhere else. Watch her film. We’ll talk more tomorrow.”

The executive said so long and left me to stew. The film had yet to arrive at the venue so I had another half hour to be annoyed, pissed at this Teutonic twit who wanted to take my precious script and turn it into her personal polemic on race. Another Euro who couldn’t wait to lay a heavy hand on American culture. My stomach was grinding. I considered bolting, returning to my San Fernando fortress of solitude and putting my protests in a sizzling email. As far as I was concerned, why waste my own time when I was dead certain Sam Bayer had both my vote and the job?

I can’t say for sure why I stayed. I was still chewing on my decision when the film canisters arrived via messenger. Whatever, I said to myself before flopping into a plush chair three steps from the exit. Moments later, the room turned black. Green Street Hooligans unspooled. And, despite my mood, I thoroughly enjoyed the picture. I found Lexi Alexander’s work to be solid, moving in places where lesser directors would’ve relied on the action, and but for some self-limiting acting by Elijah Wood, the over-all performances were sterling.

Damn. There went my plan to torpedo the hiring of Lexi Alexander based on her obvious incompetence.

As an experienced Hollywood scribbler, I’ve learned to be pragmatic. So on the drive home, I pored over my options. One of which was the ultimate what if.

What if they actually hire her?

I gasped at the thought. Then again, stupider things have happened to me. And if Lexi Alexander ended up as the director of BWT, her lousy note would be her first order of business. Surely, I would put up a strong defense. But if push came to shove, and the company backed her, I’d have the inevitable choice of either walking… or finding some way of making the note work.

The night was calm. Traffic was nearly non-existent. In the quiet of my car, I secretly applied Lexi’s note to my complicated, ensemble story. What followed wasn’t quite cosmic. But it was a blinding moment of clarity. The note, as racially loaded as it initially appeared, not only fit with precision into the script but solved a problem I hadn’t yet fully fathomed. Suddenly, my blue collar heroes had character drives beyond their own personal agendas. Race, it turned out, was a chemical catalyst for greater purpose.

Damn.

Sometimes there’s no greater fan than a convert. I went from being a critic to a fan in the matter of five blocks. I dialed the executive’s cell and expressed my conversion.

“So you’re saying you were wrong about the note?” he asked.

“Completely,” I said. “It’s brilliant. It makes the movie so much better. I just didn’t see it. We have to hire her.”

“First we have to meet her,” said the exec.

I couldn’t wait. I called Lexi Alexander the next morning, introduced myself and invited her to dinner. Over the meal, I told her my entire arc – from cynic to zealot. She laughed back then and, sometimes when we revisit that initial period of our friendship, we still laugh.

Not that it was all wine and roses. In a fatal error to the production, the company engaged Samuel Bayer instead of the more deserving and talented Lexi Alexander (a reviling and sexist move that I’ll blog about at another date and time.) Nor was her experience a sunny bowl of jelly beans. Though we may still find amusement in the circumstances of our meeting, her brief dance with BWT was unpleasant as hell.

When I eventually sat down with Sam Bayer to begin further work on the script, I insisted on the execution of Lexi’s note as my first order of screenplay business. The result was pretty extraordinary. And, though that version of the script never made it to the big screen, I’m forever grateful for her brilliant contribution.

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