Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Notes on Notes

In the last blog post, I mentioned a brilliant edition of UK Scriptwriters podcast with writer and Script editor Andrew Ellard, who tweets interesting writer stuff here. In the podcast, he talks about the three kinds of script editors that are out there. The Conduit, Contributor and Consultant. (More on these here.) He sees his job as the Consultant, that is a script editor work doesn't collate the notes of others or throw in gags, but gives details notes to get the stories and characters working properly. Essentially, this kind of Script Editor is the writer's friend.

Huh. I can already hear you splurting out your fourth coffee of the day. "I'm a writer! It's Me vs The World. No one understands my creative vision! Blah blah blah."

Are you done?

Different shows need different kinds of script editors. I don't plan to addressing that here. But what is worthy of note is the nature of notes of this kind. Andrew said he sees his job as a script editor as trying to help the writer execute their idea in the best way possible. This highlights one of the key issues around note giving and note receiving

My rule of thumb on notes is that the best notes are an articulation of an awful truth you’ve been suppressing all along (which I say here). But the worst kind of note is one appears to be about one thing, but is actually about another. This is why experienced writers advise rookies to think about 'the note behind the note'.

The note behind the note, however, is often  'I hate this idea' or 'I wish this episode were about something else' or 'I've never liked this character'. These notes are profoundly annoying and unhelpful because they're dishonest. Worse, you can't really do anything about them.

If you're giving notes on a script, it’s worth asking yourself ‘Am I trying to help the writer achieve their vision? Or am I trying to change the writer’s vision?’ It may be the latter, and that may be entirely justified and reasonable given the state of the script, but one needs to have an honest conversation about that. In fact, one should probably have had an honest conversation about it earlier at the outline/treatment stage.

But you didn't read the treatment properly, did you?

Because the treatment, or Scene by Scene Outline, was 1500 words of dense text. (See Deadly Sin 1: Skimming here) Okay, maybe I'm being a little harsh here. We're all busy, and outlines are not exciting to look at, or inviting you to read them over and over to get them in your head so you can imagine the episode and respond constructively. But we all have to do things we don't enjoy. And I guess that's why you're paid a decent monthly salary, with job security, serviced office, assistant and a pension. Sorry. But you get the point.

So let's take a silly example.

Your characters go to a theme park in the second act of your episode - and you've written your outline, which has been approved, and now you've written the script. Maybe it's a second draft. And you get a note along the lines of 'Does it have be a theme park? Maybe it could be a zoo. Or a themed hotel?'

What are you meant to make of that note? There could be any number of reasons for it - which could be that the notegiver knows for a fact that theme parks are expensive to film in; or had a bad experience at one as a child and never liked them; or has some hare-braned notion that 'Theme Parks aren't funny'.

To be honest, if an experienced exec producer says that 'Theme Parks aren't funny' and then makes a case for it, I'm all ears. You're a fool to ignore the advice of someone with decades more experience than you. You could make the case, for example, that 'Fashion Shows aren't funny'. The reason for that, you could argue, is that they are already inherently preposterous. It's normally funnier to make something run-of-the-mill preposterous. But the skill of good writing is that it finds new ways to do all kinds of things. I'm sure there's a funny Ab Fab scene or two at a fashion show.

Occasionally, you do get silly arbitrary notes. Writers are always swapping stories of daft notes they've had. (It's a way of the over-educated powerless writers asserting their intellectual superiority. I know. Pathetic, really). If you follow Network Notes on Twitter you'll see some of the most ridiculous examples that I'm not entirely sure I believe (or are ripped out of context but a furious/frustrated writer). eg.

“Maybe instead of an alcoholic, she should be a well-adjusted woman who everyone likes and respects?” – ABC

"We like your dialogues and scenarios very much. But gangsters can't be Chechens. Nazis?" - Canal Plus

“You know what would help this story? Seven high fashion models.” – NBC

"I haven't seen Moneyball, but could you make this more like Moneyball?" - FOX

So, that's the silly extreme stuff.

One more example, which is a little more nuanced. It's also a more common one in which are faults on both sides, so it's a fair fight.

Bottle Episodes
You're writing Series 2 of your sitcom so decide you want to do a ‘bottle’ episode in which all the characters are trapped in one confined place for a whole episode. It’s a fairly standard sitcom trick that makes writers feel like they’re being clever. It’s often a broken lift, but it can be an overnight prison lock-in (Porridge), a psychiatrist’s office (Miranda) or a Chinese Restaurant where a table is never available (Seinfeld). So far so trad.

Initially, producers like episodes like this because they're cheap to produce. If you're in a studio, you probably don't need any location filming at all - and ideally no outside characters. Budget saved. Tick. Line producer happy. Writer happy. And actors normally love this sort of episode too, because it feels like theatre - which everyone respects more than TV - and someone might have an emotional breakdown or a big character revelation. Aah, the sniff of awards.

An exec, however, is probably going to worry that the episode is going to be boring. And, to be honest, that is a real danger. But, rather than say so, the notes make various tactful suggestions about 'opening out the episode' and 'moving things on' - which are the only thing the episode can't do given it's parameters.

It's clear from the subtext of the note that exec/producer/channel has lost confidence in the idea and think that either you don't have the talent or experience to pull off this episode - and that you've written a tiresomely derivative, unfunny Beckett play - or that the audience don't have the attention span. They may well be right about one of more of these things. It may well be that you, the writer, have bitten off more than you can chew in you bottle episode, so you might do well to rethink the whole thing.

So, let's stop being British, tactful and embarrassed. Notes need to be clear. That is the only way they can be constructive. But notes also need to be timely - this conversation about the troubled bottle episode should have been had way earlier, before the writers spent three of weeks sweating over the first two drafts of this script, so don't be surprised if they're not wedded to it and resistant to major changes. Bottle episodes always run into problems like this, so have the conversation at the outline stage - ideally even earlier.

Post Script: Nota Bene
TV is made fast, and there's never enough money (especially with the BBC's ludicrous Delivering Quality First idiocy), which is why it is a collaborative medium. Therefore, trust is essential. Notes which don't say what they mean don't help this. So, if an episode idea, scene or moment has been agreed, let's all try and find a way of making it work, rather than undermining the entire process with oblique comments that don't really help anyone. Or we're honest enough to say 'this isn't working, and isn't going to work. So let's have a new idea'.

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