Film Courage: I think we’ve talked before about how this industry wants to be able to work with people who are easy to work with. So if someone is receiving notes, what are some tips that they’re resistant (whether it’s in their body language or in the key words that they’re using) and vice versa, showing that they’re open?
Lee Jessup: You always want to really listen during a note session. It’s not your time to defend the work. It’s your time to listen, to take physical notes, to jot down thoughts, don’t defend the work. You know I’ve had occasions where writers were given a note and an executive called out something that was a problem and the writer [responded] “It’s not a problem! I don’t think it’s a problem? Do you think it’s a problem? It’s not a problem!” That sort of thing is an obvious giveaway that the writer is not listening.
It’s listening the to note. It’s listening to the note behind the note. If there is something that you think truly, truly, truly (the execute), the person giving you notes didn’t get, you can say “Well I tried to illustrate That with This in this particular scene. Was That not clear? You want to always ask those leading questions to find out where you missed the mark because ultimately, the mark was missed. Can we assume that once and awhile an executive will miss something? And yeah, usually they are pretty open to “Oh? I didn’t realize that This connects to That? Maybe we can do That better.
“It’s usually very easy to tell when a writer is resistant to a note. When the writer is instantly defensive. When the writer becomes sarcastic or passive-aggressive and there’s a lot of passive-aggression that can come out in a note session.”
It’s usually very easy to tell when a writer is resistant to a note. When the writer is instantly defensive. When the writer becomes sarcastic or passive-aggressive and there’s a lot of passive-aggression that can come out in a note session. That like “Well! I thought this or that…but fine!” I’ve seen it in note sessions with my writers and I’ve given some brutal notes. And there have been people who have just sat down and jotted notes and have said “Okay, let me go back and think about it.” And there are people who with every note say “Well, I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that, but fine!”
“For a writer getting notes, try not to dismiss the note giver because ultimately all that does is sabotage the relationship because what you’re saying is, yes you took the time, you did the work, you read the script and now you’re giving me your thoughts but I’m going to dismiss them because suddenly something about you makes you not good enough to give those notes.”
So you have those little cues that you know in a minute. Body language first, dismissal, there can be a judgment of the individual giving notes. “Well, you’re a woman, so naturally you’ll think that.” I’ve certainly gotten that feedback or anything that has to do with You’re a Woman. You’re a Mother. I’ve gotten that “Well, you’re a mother so clearly you couldn’t relate to that.” No. I’m a human being.
For a writer getting notes, try not to dismiss the note giver because ultimately all that does is sabotage the relationship because what you’re saying is, yes you took the time, you did the work, you read the script and now you’re giving me your thoughts but I’m going to dismiss them because suddenly something about you makes you not good enough to give those notes. You’re a mother. You’re a woman. You’re white, you’re black, you’re whatever you are. But it’s really important not to dismiss the note giver (especially not in front of the note giver). Oftentimes a writer can receive a note and be perplexed by the note but the thing then is to look for the note behind the note.
Okay, you gave me a note about X but does it really have to do with Y? Is this what’s bothering you? You can certainly explore this in a conversation? You want there to be a dialogue and you want to built a kind of trust where the note giver knows you’re listening, you’re paying attention, you’re taking those notes so when you say “Oh, there is one thing that’s bumping me. Can we talk about that a little bit?” That’s not defensive, that’s thoughtfulness, saying “There is the one thing. I agree with your list of 20 other notes, I totally hear you. We’re good. But there’s the one thing that is here and it’s bumping me. Can we go back to that for a minute? What was it about this character? This scene? This pivot? This escalation that bumped you? What was it that felt inauthentic? Was it that? Could it be something else?” That to me is dialogue. And it’s differentiating between shutting down the note giver which can be done physically. Just, I’m no longer interested. It can be done verbally or getting into a more collaborative environment which is what executives want to work with. They don’t want a writer to be a Yes-Person. There is a differences between being a Yes-Person and being collaborative. Being collaborative will require some pushback on occasion and that’s okay. But you’d better be really thoughtful about your pushback. You know, that is somebody people want to work with.
“You suggested X. I didn’t do X because ultimately I thought it would effect the script this way BUT the note behind the note implied that Y would work so I tried that this time.” That’s being collaborative. That’s not being a Yes-Person. And the truth of the matter is that a lot of writers think that they’re given notes and the executive just wants them to implement the note verbatim. I find that to be very rarely the case. If that was it, the executive would be a writer….you know….they’re trying out ideas. They’re trying different things and they want you to try them on for size and see whether they work or don’t work. So if there is a note that they gave on a previous draft that you did not implement, they want you to be able to answer why you didn’t implement. They want you to be able to say “Well I tried That and the way that it effected the script was This…because of That I realized it didn’t work and I took it out BUT I did something else to offset your note.”
Film Courage: Wouldn’t they want a Yes-Person?
Lee Jessup: No.
Film Courage: Why?
Less Jessup: Because they want the writer to bring their creative juices to it. That’s why they hire a writer with a specific story sensibility, with a particular skill set, with a particular taste level for a particular project. Right? They want someone who will bring their unique sensibilities to the project, otherwise hire a typist. Get the script, hire a typist and have a typist type in whatever needs to be typed in.
Of course there are a few executives that are known around town for being really locked into their notes and they want their notes implemented the way they want them implemented and that’s it and it’s not a conversation. But, by and large, I find that the creative execs, executive producers, producers, development execs, all are looking for a creative partner as opposed to somebody just looking to execute on the page. They can get their assistant to execute on the page. They don’t need you for that. They are much better off giving the material to their assistant who has a bachelor’s in English Literature to implement some changes, then going back and forth with you. They don’t want you to be a Yes-Person. They want you to provide your unique story sensibilities. Your unique writerly touch to make their notes that can be quite sh*tty come singing off the page.
QUESTION: What’s the worst note you have received and how did you react?
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