Feedback and the Rings of Development

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by Fin Wheeler

While screenwriters must be open to taking any and all feedback, we should be very judicious in deciding which comments to employ.

Feedback on Staffed TV

For a staff writer on a successful, long-running show, the feedback process is clear cut. You write your script, your head writer gets notes from the studio and the network. The head writer gives those notes to you. You write your new draft incorporating all those points and submit by deadline. In return you get a nice big television salary.

You may not always agree with the notes, but you can’t argue for two reasons. One, the writing gig is allowing you to pay off your mortgage. Two, network execs know their product. A writer doesn’t have to deal with advertisers, shareholders, Broadcast Standards, Legal, Family Values lobbyists, or shifts in audience trends.

Staff writers might not like what the notes are, but there’s an acceptance that the notes are there for reasons and must be implemented.

Feedback on Pilots

Working on a pilot is in many ways the same. It’s your producer who pitched it to a studio, they pitched it to a network. It started out as your baby, and they loved it, but now they’re requiring endless changes via an endless series of notes passed down from the network to the studio via the producer to you.

Episodes is a BBC/Showtime sitcom about an American producer who offers two BAFTA-winning writers the chance to make an American version of their hit sitcom in LA. Episodes does poke fun, but it also goes a long way to demystifying development.

Feedback on Features

The development process in film is fundamentally different because, as William Goldman famously said, “No one knows anything.” A TV show, and even a pilot, has a ready audience. We know when to park ourselves in front of the tube (or hit record), we know how long the show runs, we know how many episodes we’re in for this year and we know what emotional highs and lows we’ll be given.

A film is different. There’s a leap of faith with a film audience. The studios research the hell out of test audiences, but by that point in the film-making process, most of the budget has already been spent. There’s a limit to what more can be changed.

Sometimes it is deemed necessary to re-shoot an entire sequence, or a new ending. If only the problems had been identified earlier, way back in the script stage, so much of that time, money, and effort could have been saved. Hence, development.

The First Rewrites

To begin with, it will likely just be your producer who is giving the notes. There are two reasons for this round of rewriting. One, the producer is seeing whether you are a professional who can take notes and do rewrites without complaint or argument. Two, the producer can’t show the script around until it’s up to scratch.

A lot of screenwriters never make it past this stage. Their most common grievances: “Why should I take notes from someone who isn’t a writer?” and “Why did they option/buy my spec if they did’t think it was already perfect?”

(In the professional world, the only person taking notes from a writer is a writer’s assistant. And no script is ever “perfect.” A good producer can see the potential of a story and/or a writer.)

A producer has to juggle several balls. It’s the most complex, thankless (and powerful) role that there is in the making of any film. Producers invest the bulk of their time networking, researching, and doing.

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A professional screenwriter always gets notes from their producer, or their assigned development exec.

If another writer is brought onto the project, they weren’t hired to hold your hand and walk you through the rewrites; it means you’ve been fired.

If you want to make it past the first gate of development hell and head down the road to becoming a professional screenwriter, you need to nod as you write down each note, then go home, open Final Draft and tick off each note as you implement them.

But remember, you’re the professional writer on the project. It’s up to you to use your craft, skills, training and experience to understand the root concern and subtext of each comment. That’s what you’re expected to respond to.

The Next Step

If you make it past the first stage, the producer will then start the packaging process.

A project needs a director and star(s) attached for financing to happen. This means several rewrites, because each director and actor has their own brand and their own creative concerns.

Of course, a screenwriter shouldn’t just sit back and take crap from anyone and everyone who cares to dish it out, but when you’re an early-career screenwriter on a high-stakes project, such as a feature film, and you’re surrounded by professionals who have been successfully making a living for decades, then you can have faith that they know their appeal.

They know what they need to see in a script before they feel comfortable with a project. A huge part of being a screenwriter is respecting what the other artists on the project need in order to feel secure.

When we were writing those initial drafts of the spec, we had the safety and anonymity of our writing desk. Directors and actors have to do a lot of their work in front of crews and extras, it’s fair enough that they need to test the strength of a script and the attached writer; it shows they truly care about their work.

As William Goldman puts it, “There is one crucial rule that must be followed in all creative meetings. Never speak first. At least at the start; your job is to shut up.” If a screenwriter ego-trips at any point on their first few projects, it’s usually terminal.

Pre- Production and Production

Once a project is greenlit, the money comes, which allows an accurate budget to finally be settled and approved. Some chase scenes just can’t happen. Some locations aren’t available. They can only afford one scene with rain. The script has to be rewritten based on these limitations.

There are also the creative concerns that have to be addressed. Because there are so many variables, often the rewrites continue throughout shooting.

Then, all of a sudden the shoot is over. There’s that deathly silent period while the director, the producer and the editor disappear, and then it is test audience time (or festival time for indie productions). The screenwriter is left feeling out of the fold and lost, regretting they didn’t do more rewrites earlier.

I’ll leave you with my favorite quote about feature film development from the late, great screenwriter/director Nora Ephron:

Here is what I say about screenwriting. When you write a script, it’s like delivering a great big beautiful plain pizza, the one with only cheese and tomatoes. You give it to a director, who says, “I’m willing to commit to this pizza, but I really think this pizza should have mushrooms on it.”

And you say, “Mushrooms! Why didn’t I think of that? Let’s put some on immediately.” Then someone else comes along and says, “I love this pizza too, but it really needs green peppers.”

“Great. Green peppers, just the thing.”

Then someone else says, “Anchovies.” There’s always a fight over anchovies.

When you get done, what you have is a pizza with everything. Sometimes it’s wonderful. Sometimes you look at it and you think, I knew I shouldn’t have put the green peppers into it. Why didn’t I say so at the time? Why didn’t I lie down in traffic to prevent anyone’s putting green peppers into the pizza?

I guess the lesson is, try not to get caught up in the egos and the excitement. And good luck navigating the rings of development.

~

Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.

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