Thursday, September 02, 2010

How NOT to give notes (part 1, even though part 2 was yesterday)

This was supposed to be part one of a two part article until I screwed up the timer. If you think I'm bad with programming a blog you should see me on heavy machinery. Anyway, the other part was yesterday and yesterday's is today.

This is a post for executives, studios, networks, pod producers, critics, D-girls, professors, wives – anyone who gives script notes. How you present notes is often as important or more important than the notes themselves. There are times when the messenger should be killed. Here are some do-nots when delivering notes. And there are enough of them that this is a two-day article.

First, understand that we writers hate notes. We begrudgingly do realize that they’re sometimes helpful and under the influence of Ethanol will admit they can improve a script, but we hate them. You’re going to get much better results if you present them in a respectful way.

Try to say some nice things about the script first, even if you have to be creative, even if you have to lie. Again, it’s about respect – real or otherwise. And try to make the compliments credible. We can see through, “really nice font” or “we’re generally very happy”.

Don’t lead us on. Don’t say, “I just have a couple of little things” and then bombard us with an hour of notes.

If there is a group of you, consolidate and assign one person to give the notes. I said we hate notes. That’s nothing compared to how much we hate being gangbanged. We once had a notes session with twenty executives – and it was a conference call. Twenty voices all yammering at once, all offering conflicting notes, arguing with each other. We heard nothing. So we did nothing. We did whatever we wanted and turned it in. They were happy. I guess they assumed that whatever we did we were addressing someone’s note even if they didn’t remember it being given. Pick your best guy. Distill all the notes into one coherent presentation.

Don’t use the expression “this bumped me” before giving a note. It bumps me more that you say that. Do they teach a “suit slang” class at Bennington now?

Don’t say, “Sure, it’s funny but…” Do you have any idea how hard it is to MAKE something funny? You can convey your point without dismissing the key component of a comedy script.

Be specific. This is a big one. It’s hard enough to satisfy your concerns without having to hire a Navajo translator or psychic to help decipher them.

There was a network executive we dealt with for years. Very smart, excellent programmer, and a good guy. I’m very fond of him personally. But he gave the worst most obtuse pilots notes on the planet. Here are some examples.

He’d say “this script is here” and hold up his hand, then raise his hand higher and say, “but I want it here”. And that would be his only note. What the fuck?!

He’d say, “this script has the meat and vegetables, I would just like to see what’s for dessert.” Yeah, right. Go off and write that.

This same executive was giving notes on a friend’s pilot and said, “If CHEERS is a place where everybody knows your name, then your place is…?” My friend answered, “Well, gee, we haven’t written the title song yet.”

I know it’s tough when something bothers you and you can’t put your finger on it but try as best you can to be specific.

Tomorrow: Friday questions -- Debunking CHEERS myths. Unless I screw up again and schedule it for next Thursday or last Tuesday.


Mac said...

Spot on. Trying to act on vague notes is the surest way of having a massive breakdown. I got one once; "The script really speaks to me, now make it sing!" How? Stick it in front of Simon Cowell?
When I used to direct, there was one exec for whom everyone knew you had to put in what we called the "straight banana" shot - something so obviously wrong that he'd make a big deal of explaining why it was wrong. You went through the motions of realizing your error and took it out. He'd have to find one thing to change, so if he ditched the "straight banana" he'd usually leave the rest intact.
Having said that, some are excellent (damn few but they're out there). My favourite was a guy who always began "this isn't a directive, just a suggestion. . . " You both knew it was really a directive, but it was such a considerate way of putting it that you were automatically more willing to comply.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Beyond just screenwriting, the general theme of these tips applies to almost any workplace situation where feedback has to be supplied -- be specific, be respectful.

But I'll give Simon Cowell a pass on that principle.

ro said...

The first part of your post is HERE and I want it HERE.

On the other hand I can read the whole post in order without having to scroll back up.

Eric said...

Those vague script notes sound like Homer Simpson yelling at the TV "Be More Funny!."

Tom Quigley said...

Network note: "Could you make the food on the plate in the picture look a little more kosher?"....

Anonymous said...

try being an editor & getting conflicting notes. one guy says faster, one guy says slower - those aren't compatible at all!

Let's see, how many times have I heard bumped & nothing explaining HOW it bumped them on this project? 1...2...3... hang on this may take a while. 52...53...

Anonymous said...

This blog post bumped me. Can you make it better? I know it's funny.

scottmc said...

In the next to last scene in 'City of Angels', the Larry Gelbart/Cy Coleman/David Zippel musical, the screen writer has a speech that while not exactly about receiving notes is worth mentioning: "...Jesus, where the hell is everybody when they first deliver the typing paper? Where are all the 'helpers" when those boxes full of silence come in? Blank. Both sides. No clue, no instructions enclosed on how to take just twenty-six letters and endlessly rearrange them so that you can turn them into a mirror of a part of our lives. Try it sometimes. Try doing what I do before I do it."
I recently saw a production of 'City of Angels' in Brooklyn and that last line really put an exclamation point on the show. It isn't a long speech but it's pitch perfect.

bevo said...

"He’d say, 'this script has the meat and vegetables, I would just like to see what’s for dessert.'"

I had a boss who say during 1 on 1 meetings and performance reviews, "you are so competent and professional but I want to be delighted."

When he fired me two years later and with that constant line, I nearly said, "my c*ck would delight you. Would you like that?" I refrained because I am wimp.

A. Buck Island temp.closed/St. Croix said...

Well if that’s the way you really feel, then what are you doing with us?

Friday Question:
Can you please find out for us if KTLA already has its crack weather team enroute to Kill Devil Hills to get up close and personal with Hurricane Earl?

I only ask because, I know at …by Ken Levine, public safety is far and away always your primary concern. That, and this is what happens when there’s still this much band width left going into Friday questions.

The venturesome intrepids from our local in channels are always good to go, theyalwaysgo. They have the expertise because as you also may know, we’ve never had a hurricane in D. Of course when the power goes out, they don’t hold a candle to MSNBC weather mavin Mike Sidell.

Everyone’s seen the Sidell classics, where he assumes the garb and persona of super crime fighting meteorologist Mike Sli>dell, We’ve seen it over and over and over again. But really, can one ever get enough?

Here Mike being blown completely out of the frame with Brian Williams by Hurricane Isabel in ’03.

And then
again in the Midwest.
I can’t believe twice Buster Keaton had previous commitments. Note, you really should ice the contusion down when something like this happens.

So why, you ask, would a Dallas news team-- like thousands of their counterparts from all over this great nation of ours – stream like lemmings onto either Tyra or the outer Banks ( I forget which, but I’m guessing pretty much the same experience) this time of year? Because, just like viewers everywhere, our huddled masses cannot comprehend the idea of anyone who is “not from here” telling them the wind is blowing. Meanwhile, Karachi Pakistan – meh. That and you can never get enough of watching people buying plywood, hammering up temporary shutters, pulling together, pitching in to help, trying to remember where they put the candles, refusing to leave and making the best of it. Besides how often during the summer months does one get an opportunity to keep up with minute by minute reports on how many families are still without power, and just don’t know what they’re gonna do if this lasts much longer. BTW, what an opportunity for J.Lo to not only re-release The Back Up Plan, but to resurrect her “In the Eye of the Storm, I’m Still fragrance -- not to be confused with her husband, Cleopatra’s ex’s, Eye of the Round and I’m Still Hungry body spray.

But that’s why I hope, whenever something Earlish this way comes I always think of Brian Williams and over his PTSD (Post Traumatic Sidell Disorder) So when we come back from this break we’ll check in with him.

A. Like a Bad Penny said...

And we’re back. This is Brian Willams at the NBC Hurricane Earl Stormwatch Center where we are tracking the awesome power of mother nature before Earl gets downgrade again to “Just Moist” and somebody’s going to have some ‘splaining to do about the overstaffing. Can you hear me Kelly Kelly O’Donnell? Yes I can Brian, I’m here with down on his luck former Louisiana shrimper Jim Bob Tebadoux-Robadoux-Gotnodoux who came north to North Carolina with his family trying to eke out a living offering to claim to be the real father of Rielle Hunter’s baby by John Edwards – but lost out to another candidate Andrew Young, who produced the better sex tape as collateral and was also able to answer the toss-up question, is the term bastard gender-specific? Jim Bob, I understand you broke your pelvis trying to board up your house with plywood on a ten foot ladder. Have you learned anything from this experience, Yes, Kelly, shoulda’ used a hammer. Oh, back to you Brian I can’t get that image out of my mind and I’m stuck here up in the air with this cracker for another 20 minutes. Well hang in there Kelly, and might I say, hurricane or no, you’re still looking mighty fine. Better than Natalie Morales, Brian? I’m sorry we seem to have lost our signal from Kelly O’Donnell. But I understand we can look forward to Kelly’s full coverage of the entire pelvic saga on tomorrow night’s Dateline NBC – 9 o’clock Eastern 8 o’clock central time. Or you can follow Jim Bob on Twitter. And by the way, for the one-hundredth and forty-fifth time America, no that’s a different Andrew Young. Brian, this is Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski. Yes Jim, where are you and what have you got for us on Hurricane Earl. Nothing really Brian, I just wanted to say Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski, because few others can. OK Jim good luck with that. We have now NBC Foreign Affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell. Andrea is with Andy Griffith who’s now in retirement on the auxiliary police force in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, which of course we all know, because the chamber of commerce keeps telling us is not only Andy’s boyhood home, but the real life model for Mayberry RFD. Andrea, how’s it look up there. Uh Brian, this isn’t Andrea Mitchell. (Really annoyed now) well who is it then? It’s Elita Loresca in Palmdale. Elita will you get off the line, we’re expecting a call from Andrea Mitchell. OK I’m being told we now have Andrea Mitchell. Andrea I understand you have Andy Griffith up there with you. Yes Brian, as you know I like older men. Well Andrea I know this isn’t your normal beat, so while I’ve got you, it’s not really your day job, maybe you can tell our viewers what made you decide to become a foreign affairs correspondent. Well, my husband Alan Greenspan had a torrid one with Ayn Rand, and since then, well I’ve always felt I’ve just never been good enough. Now Andy, we’re up here in the Smokeys, 300 miles from the ocean, not a cloud in the sky, Earl’s been down graded to a Category 2, which I understand is the force of a fart in the bathtub. (thank God we’ve got the new oil rig explosion)and it’s well on its way to Nantucket. Yet you’ve issued a mandatory evacuation for people living in low lying areas. What’s the story. Well, Ma’am, once had one of these suckers circle back and git me from behind like a cape buffalo. Here in the country you never forget somethin’ like that. I’m not prepared to call this thing off until Earl’s a good 30-40 miles north of Manitoba. Now I understand Andy that you’ve had some hoarding going on, and a run on your own supermarket. That was a false alarm, Winn Dixie’s havin’ a sale on Ramen Noodles.

Thanks for making the lemonade ro.

MikeN said...

Did you ever get notes that I feel you have the scenes out of order?

escalante blogger said...

I like those foods. I really love to eat that kinda foods. :-)

Too Many Zombies said...

The culture of notes is completely arseways. It amounts to people who know little or nothing about a project scanning a script while also checking their blackberries or eating children or something telling people who live with a project, spending every waking hour (and even non-waking hour) working out every possible scenario, what to do.

Anonymous said...

I don't work in TV, but last year, I began writing a new radio series that has become one of the fastest-growing shows the network has brought out in 10 years. Despite its success, I occasionally get directives to change what I'm doing. The last time was a major change that I argued against, but was overruled.

Recently, the network paid a top name consultant to listen to several weeks' worth of the shows and write a critique. Overall, he loved the writing, etc., but had one major criticism. The one thing he didn't like is the new direction they'd ordered me to take. His suggestion for what we should be doing was exactly what I was doing before they ordered me to change it.

Now, we're going back in my original direction because someone they respect from outside told them to, not because the guy (me) who actually writes the show that's been such a success told them to. So I guess the point is, at the network level, radio isn't really much different from TV.

BTW, sorry for the anonymous posting. Just keeping my job security.