Paul Peditto authored the book The DIY Filmmaker: Life Lessons for Surviving Outside Hollywood, wrote and directed the award-winning film, Jane Doe, starring Calista Flockhart and has optioned multiple scripts to major companies. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College-Chicago, has professionally consulted on thousands of screenplays since 2002. Follow Paul at www.scriptgodsmustdie.com and on Twitter@scriptgods.
When I began writing I was awful at it. I’d take six months to write a play and then sit there and listen to my child get dissected, hammered at, picked away at, and freaking nitpicked. Some self-anointed expert rides in, spends two hours in my world, then makes judgments and rides off into the sunset leaving me with six months of rewrites?! Screw that!
Over the years, I’ve pretty much done a 180 on this thinking. I now welcome qualified notes. They’re hard to find. People who know their stuff just don’t have the time. Thus was born the script consultant. I came to appreciate the time people put in trying to help me to my goal, which was to get my movie made.
So how did this metamorphosis come about?
When I consult with a writer on his script, our note sessions (three hours, by Skype or phone) are valuable if only for answering these three questions:
1: What is the subjective screenplay in the writer’s mind?
2: What is the screenplay I read, objectively, that the writer delivered on paper?
3: How can we bridge screenplays 1 and 2, bringing out the movie in the mind of the writer for the audience?
Note-giver and taker come to the process from opposite ends. You, the writer, know your world inside-out. If anything, you’re too close to it. What is needed, and what is of value, is a set of objective eyes. Someone who will not bullshit you. Someone who can be critical but who can also offers solutions, not just problems. This is the job of giving notes.
Taking notes is an art. Some Hollywood finochio (or worse, minimum-wage earning ex-Columbia Film & Video student) ripping it to shreds? Good Reader, I get the frustration, 100%.
Here’s what I recommend you do: Question authority.
You are allowed to make sure the person giving you this invaluable advice isn’t a mental midget. I mean, what qualifies them? Who are they? I’m talking about a paid consultant here, not a production company development person or producer with whom you just signed an option deal or, praise Jesus, sold the thing. Then you might not care as much because you just deposited a six-figure check, you’re walking the sunny side of the street.
To get to that sale I’d suggest you develop an “inner circle” of people you trust; people who won’t bullshit you (no Moms in the inner circle), people who have some experience with writing or critique or movies. You’re not paying them so you’re at their mercy when it comes to when you get the notes back, what the “notes” are, or if they’re of any use. If you give it to five people and all five have a problem with your female lead, that’s where you need to focus the rewrite. If all five give you five different problems, well, that’s tricky. I always liked what Pinter said on this subject. Paraphrasing: “When I get 12 different notes from 12 people, I do the 13th thing.”
This is where you might consider a “professional.” You’re paying, so there’s accountability. A consultant will bring objectivity and a track record. Usually they have a terrific website too, which must mean they’re for real (!) The danger is that with objectivity you get distance. I mean, you never meet these folks. You talk to them afterward, what, a single hour on the phone? You get a package of notes back and are left to interpret what it’s supposed to mean.
I’ve been a script analyst for eleven years. I’d recommend, if you’re looking to hire someone, that you find a consultant with whom you have access. Can you email the script analyst directly? Is there a telephone conference? Are there line notes that you can read written into the script? With the bigger sites you won’t get this personal attention. You won’t have a clue who actually read your script, nor if they were in a foul-mood when they read the script you spent four months writing. You’ll never know. When looking for a professional, look for access.
One more thing on taking notes…Don’t defend. You paid for notes, keep an open mind! That’s not to say you have to agree with every note. You don’t. But you should at least listen to what the objective reader has to say. Otherwise, why pay for the opinion? I’ve always thought if you took 5 notes out of the 10 I gave, that’s a victory.
Don’t get angry. Don’t take it personally. Don’t explain what you meant to do. The script in its present form may not work for the reader. The question is: How do we get it to where it needs to be?
The reader has a responsibility to give notes in the context of your movie. If I read your script, I don’t talk about what I think it should be. Notes should be within the bounds of the existing story. What you don’t want to hear is, “It’s not working as an apple. I’d go with a tangerine, maybe a whole fruit salad.” “Your kitchen-sink drama about Italian-gelato-vendors-in-space isn’t working for me. I’m seeing it more as a musical period-piece set in France…” If you’re hearing the equivalent of this, well, you’re screwed. Too late to cancel that Paypal payment?
#1: “Thank you for a powerful piece. It’s a world you seem to know well. Authentic, original…so much is appealing about this… I can see it as a first-rate movie.”
#2: “The script was good–for what it is. A genre piece, a “Showtime” movie, like drinking a can of Coke. Not much new here.”
What was I to make of these? Is my script the new Memento, or a fart in a spacesuit? Which review do I believe?
The answer is: Neither.
If you believe them when they tell you you’re God’s gift, do you have to believe them when they tell you script is like drinking stale beer, or a can of Coke?
Stay grounded; consider the source.
Recall the Pinter advice: Listen to 12 people, then do the 13th thing. Meaning: Look for consensus. Look for correspondences. If 12 people tell you your protagonist is flat as a pancake, you know what you have to do with the rewrite. What if it’s not so conclusive? This is where inner resolve and instincts must enter. Do you still believe in the writing now that the world has weighed in and given you back negativity? How you respond to critique will go a long way to determining the success or failure of this project.
Don’t toss in. Take the notes that make sense, flush the rest.
Remember the poet, on his way to the toilet, reading the critic’s review of his new volume of poetry. Responding by letter: “I am in the smallest room of the house. Your review is before me. Soon it will be behind me.”