Sunday, January 19, 2014

How to Give and Receive Notes, Part 2: Be Charitable

This one is especially true in the screenwriting market in recent years, which has become especially outrageous. In order to be heard above the noise, writers tend to get signed as a result of a really shocking sample work (often with a profane, unreleasable title), which will never actually gets made, but will get the writer in the door for years of tame rewrite work.

As a result, writers are putting more and more audacity into their samples, and that audacity can easily put the note-giver in the wrong mood: because the writing lacks humility, it can be easy to assume that the writer lacks humility, and needs to be put in his or her place. Don’t fall into this trap. Remember, this person has done something profoundly humble by coming to you for notes.

You may strongly suspect that the writer just wants you to say it’s great (or, even worse, just wants you to show it to your agent), and that’s often the case, but you have to act on the assumption that this isn’t true.

A bold writing style is just that, a style, and the writer underneath might still be very sensitive.  Showing someone your writing is like showing your diary: you have inevitably put a lot of your hidden emotional life onto the page, both intentionally and unintentionally, and it’s painful for anyone to have that judged.  Even if it seems like they’ve puffed up their chest and dared you to take a swing, don’t go for the gutpunch.

Never be confrontational, or derisive, or flippant. Even if you’re used to kidding around with the writer, never use dismissive words like stupid, lame, lazy, shitty, terrible, or rotten. Most importantly, never imply that any choice was made out of laziness, no matter how much you suspect that to be the case. Remember how hard this is: nobody ever finished a manuscript by being lazy. It may be worthless, but that doesn’t mean it was effortless.

No matter how much it might seem to the contrary, you have to assume that this person did his or her best possible work and wrote it with the best possible motives. What you’re reading may seem quick, sloppy and insolent, but you have to assume that’s not true, and that you actually have the writer’s tender, beating heart in your hands, and only your meticulous scalpel and delicate stitches can repair its wounds.

So how to do you do that? You have to move on to Step 3: Be a Salesman…


j.s. said...

Apropos Joaquin Phoenix, everybody who hasn't yet needs to see HER, which manages to stand out even in the huge crowd of excellent films released around the world in the past year.

Matt Bird said...

It's been an amazing year for movies hasn't it? HER is fantastic. I was so shocked that Redford got snubbed for Best Actor that it took me almost a day to realize that Phoenix had been snubbed too, which is shocking, because the whole movie is basically him in close up having subtle reactions, and it's mesmerizing.

(Even more impressive, this is the second year in a row that one of the best movies consisted of endless close-ups of Phoenix's face, and the two performances could not be more radically different.)

j.s. said...

Agreed. Much as I dislike THE MASTER, everything that's good about it starts with Phoenix's intensely committed and mesmerizing performance. He's certainly one of the greatest living actors. And it's even more interesting for me to watch him now seeing how far he's come.

I hope you'll be posting more about some of the lessons learned from your favorite films of 2013 as you catch up with them.

Matt Bird said...

Well, I certainly can't say anything until I've seen The Lone Ranger, now can I? It's coming soon, though.