Producers Notes: Kill Your Darlings Without Killing Your Writing! #LondonSWF

Writers Danny Brocklehurst, Roland Moore and Ashley Pharoah, and Producer Angus Lamont came together with Script Editor Karol Griffiths at this year’s London Screenwriters’ Festival to talk about the process of receiving script notes, what it feels like, why it happens, how you cope and what you gain.

Starting Out

For writers beginning in the industry it can be a shock to receive notes, sometimes the sheer volume of notes can be daunting and sometimes  criticism and do-overs for work that you’ve toiled over, loved and carefully crafted can be disheartening. For writers who’ve struggled to get into the business the response can be really emotional. Ashley Pharoah admits feeling pressure when he started out, to incorporate absolutely all the notes he received, and Danny Brocklehurst broke a keyboard once in a moment of overwhelm. Roland Moore remembers how his first notes were funny as he was working on a children’s animation about a football playing elephant but despite the oddness of getting serious notes on this character’s motivations, he thought he had the best job in the world. Even for established writers every new project is a starting out of sorts and all the writers agree, getting notes means you’re a working writer, it’s part and parcel of what you do, and you’re given notes because your talent and craft have put you in that position. That is a wonderful place to be in.

Protecting the Work

For producer Angus Lamont, notes often mean financier notes. Lots of people can come together to get a project off the ground and at different stages, but each may have different interests and perspectives coming into the work. When a project gets moving often it’s the writer, director and producer who will come together as a triumvirate to protect the project and ensure that they use any notes to get the best version of the story they set out to tell. Ashley adds that over the years as  budgets have gone up, there are more voices in the room and note wrangling can become a difficult part of the job. When you have acquired the ability to choose, then picking your team carefully and choosing those you think you work well with is important, but even new writers with less choice tend to end up gravitating more often to work with those they get along with, and it’s usually the case that you come up in the industry alongside others who began when you did. Roland points out that there’s a hierarchy of notes, sometimes they’ll conflict, and you need to know where the power lies in order to know where to prioritise. Broadcasters for instance can have a lot of clout as they’re spending the money and they have remits of their own to fulfil.

Navigating Improvements

For whatever reason notes appear, everyone has a vested interest in the work being the best it can be. Roland faced some extensive re-writes for some of his work which was tough but he tries to always understand why a note will make things better. It’s harder to write around notes you don’t believe in, and it’s then that he tries to justify his take instead, but if the notes still must be done, then one has to find a way to make them work in the story the best way you can. You have to pick your battles, let the minor things go. Danny knows sometimes you just have to be brave and throw work away to start again. He has sometimes written an alternative take on what’s been asked for that achieves the same thing, and that can work too.

You Are No Longer Alone

Producers know that notes can often be taken quite broadly and they can be really, really helpful. For a short film Angus recently produced a major dramatic element had to be changed because they didn’t have the budget to shoot it, something the new writer hadn’t considered or understood the cost and complications of. Producers, Angus says, can really help writers to understand how to write the story in a way that can be realised effectively. Discourse is important. Ashley agrees, for screenwriters he feels you really need to enjoy the collaboration and all it can do for your work, personally he loves the back and forth of it. Roland too points out that writing at first can be an isolated process but once you get into development you have lots of voices around and that has rewards.

Parameters of Production

As a writer and showrunner of many years Ashley sees how British writers have tended to be more budget restricted, but this is changing for some network shows and also with the expansion of new creative platforms like Netflix who have American sized money to spend. Notes can help you utilise available resources in ways you may not have envisioned. Certain actors might have insight into a character or a network can focus you on a target audience they want to reach. Roland points out that there are also things available to production companies and studios that you may not be aware of but could add new scope to your drama, like being told they have a submarine if you want to use it! This aspect of notes and feedback can add a new dimension to your writing and help you expand a story. At other times, knowing restrictions can force you to be innovative.

Being Specific

Sometimes, Angus tells us, in the banter and enthusiasm of talking about a project people say things they don’t really mean or haven’t entirely thought through. It’s very useful to get people on all sides to write stuff down. A written summary by them and/or you allows more thought to take place and for people to commit to a path before the team goes in that direction. Writing things down can help you speak to yourself also. Danny puts frustrating notes aside for a bit and then when he goes back to them he makes notes on the notes as to what he can and can’t do with them before beginning to work on the piece again.

Getting Along

When people talk about liking the people they work with, it needn’t always mean you have to become great friends or attend each other’s weddings etc. At a minimum though, Angus points out, you need to be able to get on with people professionally.  For Roland, an important point to remember is that you’re in this process with people for the long haul, it’s a big part of your life so for your sake and theirs it helps if you get along with those you’re working with. Different individuals and companies may be more or less hands on with a project and that can vary depending on who you’re working with. Danny wrote something for Netflix recently and they’ve been quite hands off, while Karol knows someone in the same boat who’s experience was the opposite so it can be down to the individual executive how much freedom you get and whether that’s a good or bad thing for your writing. Understanding the dynamics and learning to work around it with your team in a way that boosts your own creativity and achieves the best for your project is what it’s all about.

What began as a discussion about the sometimes tricky process of receiving screenplay notes revealed a rich collaborative dynamic of working writer’s lives that felt like something to covet. One of the joys of panel discussions at the festivals is enjoying hearing writers talk to one another as well as the room. Thanks to these wonderful creatives for coming and sharing  their candid thoughts and love of their work with us.

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