We'll Take a Look at That

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

When a writer gives you his script to read, he usually says something totally dishonest like, "Hey, let me know what you really think, okay?"

In other words, he wants you to be honest. He can take it, he says. "I know there're some rough spots in the second act," he may say, "so just give me your honest opinion."

There is, though, only one response that he will find acceptable. He wants you to read his script in a kind of rapture, laughing yourself in tears at the right spots, emitting low moans of pleasure or surprise here and there, until you finally wipe the mist from your eyes, hold the script to your breast, look at him with awe and gratitude and a dash of what-a-terrible-burden-such-insight-must-be pity, and say in a low, quavery voice, "this is one of the greatest scripts I have ever read. It is absolutely perfect." Anything short of that - anything even a fraction short of that - will be a crushing disappointment. The writer will say something like, "You hate it, don't you?" And you will say something like, "No, no! I love it! But you're right about the second act. But I love it!"

The writer will respond with "You hate the second act? I thought that was the best part." And you will counter with: "I like the second act. But it's just a little slow." The writer will say: "Why are you trying to destroy me?" And you will say: "I'm just being constructive."

Writer: "You call that constructive?"

You: "What do you want me to say? That it was one of the greatest scripts I have ever read? That it's absolutely perfect?"

Writer: "Yes!"

You: "I thought you wanted my honest opinion."

Writer: "I want that to be your honest opinion."

But every writer, at some point in the process of writing a script, has to get notes.

"Getting notes," means, essentially, that everyone at the studio will read the script, digest it, identify the one or two things about it which make it unique and special, and then ask you to remove those one or two things. Really talented executives know all the traps of giving a writer notes, so almost ever y note session begins with, "This is the best script I have ever read. It is absolutely perfect." Followed by: "But we have a few notes." Knowing how to make enormous changes sound like tiny "adjustments" is, in fact, the only useful skill most executive types possess. "Is there any way," we were once asked by a studio executive, "that you could show the main character do something incredibly heroic and totally save the day in a simple one-page scene we can slap on the top?"

We shook our heads.

"C'mon, guys," the exec said, "a simple one-pager. Boom, he does something heroic, everybody loves the guy, boom, back into the story."

But Hollywood is a collaborative place. Everyone has to work together in some kind of harmony, after all, so getting notes takes as much elaborate courtesy as giving them.

"Good idea," we usually say after hearing a particularly asinine suggestion, "we'll take a look at that." And we assiduously write down every idea, no matter how foolish or nutty or destructive. Another trick we use is to lavish praise on the most innocuous note - can the main character have a dog, say, or can his bicycle be bright red? - something easy to change and totally irrelevant, which enables us to ignore several other stupid suggestions that aren't irrelevant and would hurt the script.

Once, though, in a notes session, we went too far.

"Great notes," I said to the executive . He looked at me uneasily.

"Really? You writers usually hate getting notes from us."

"Not from you," I said. " Yours are particularly good. Especially the one about the red bicycle. I think that will clarify the core conflict in that character's arc."

"You're full of crap," the executive said. "Now, please, just listen to the notes and see if you can't implement them without screwing up your...what do you writers call it?...your vision. Stop trying to BS me and just fix the script."

I looked up from my paper, where I have been assiduously copying down everything he said.

"Good idea," I said. "We'll take a look at that."

That's it for this week. Next week I refuse to pitch.

For KCRW, I'm Rob Long. This has been Martini Shot.



Rob Long