MEMO TO: “The Creative Staff”
FROM: Peter Bart
SUBJECT: Script notes
SEVERAL FRIENDS WHO ARE LOCKED in development hell have lately been sending me studio “script notes” on their projects and, after digesting them, I have a proposal to make:
How about a one-year moratorium? Over that period, everyone can cool down, and perhaps we can even find out whether, without these ubiquitous studio memos, movies may actually get better.
There are a lot of people in this town — filmmakers and writers alike — who believe this may turn out to be the case. Indeed, “script notes” have arguably become the two most dreaded words in the English language, and I think I know why.
For one thing, they never come from an individual but rather from a committee labeled “the creative staff” or “the development group.” Come on, fellas — people who think of themselves as artists don’t like to receive memos from anonymous bureaucratic bodies. Even the Directors Guild has informally urged the studios to present signed, not anonymous, memoranda.
Twenty years ago, studios didn’t even have a “creative staff,” and they didn’t dispense script notes. Comments about the script were delivered in person by the studio chief. Darryl F. Zanuck, for one, prided himself on never even opening the screenplay during those sessions — he’d give comments and page numbers from memory.
Talk to veterans of the film trade and you collect a litany of war stories about script notes. One producer recalls a script memo that warned, “We’re edging toward significance here — we don’t want significance.” Joe Eszterhas cites a memo that matter-of-factly advised him that the tough-guy central character in a script be rewritten as a woman — a suggestion that would essentially change every line (he quit the project). The late Don Simpson was a prolific dispenser of story notes, once coughing up 75 single-spaced pages on “Days of Thunder.” Exasperated, his writer retorted: “Why don’t you write 10 more pages and you’ll have a whole new screenplay.”
ANOTHER VETERAN WRITER recalls leaving a studio meeting with his producer, Irwin Winkler, at which the latest script notes were presented.
“What do you think?” the writer queried, only to find that Winkler was already tearing up the memo.
Now, I realize that all of you script-note writers out there have been trying to clean up your acts. Some of the cliches of your arcane trade have been banished. Most of you are scrupulous about avoiding reference to “character arcs” or advisories like “this scene needs a button” or “this scene needs a fence around it.” Admonitions to “thicken the character’s back story” have become less incessant, and only half the script notes I read urged the writer to “make the script edgier.”
“Development speak” is out, and all of you are trying to get with the program. Nonetheless, upon reading my pile of script notes, many problems still present themselves.
Why do these lugubrious memos always start by stating, “We are extremely pleased with the latest draft,” only to segue into some ominous line like: “We think the script would be well served by another polish before we move forward with the film.”
After the ensuing 20,000 words of recommendations, to be sure, the “polish” has become a total overhaul.
That, of course, gets to the central problem with script notes. Since you folks who are writing them have never written a screenplay, you don’t realize that your various “minor” fixes are in fact sweeping, that when you propose “adjustments in character” or “story clarification” you are, in fact, proposing a new movie.
IT’S A STUDIO’S PREROGATIVE to demand a new movie, to be sure, but then why make a deal for the initial one? The advantage to the original idea was that a writer and filmmaker believed in it and felt they knew how to execute it; the “creative staff,” on the other hand, cannot make a movie; they can only write memos about one.
It’s the feeling of many filmmakers around town that too many studio movies are lacking in substance or credibility because they are hatched in meetings. And meetings only serve to create other meetings, they don’t serve to create movies.
Hence my proposed one-year moratorium. During that lull, filmmakers, producers and writers will bring forth their projects, to which studios will respond either “yes” or “no.” If a “yes” is forthcoming, the filmmakers will then go forth and shoot. The creative staffs, locked in their meeting rooms, will write memos to one another and watch the dailies. At the end of the moratorium, two questions will be asked: (1) Did the movies turn out any better? (2) Would the script notes (that were not circulated) have improved or trivialized the movies in question?
I would urge you all to ponder this proposal. Consider at least all the paper that would be saved, not to mention the aggravation.