Writing is rewriting, as they say, and often each new draft brings another round of notes. They may come from any number of sources: directors, producers, studio execs, actors, a screenwriter’s own manager or agent, paid readers, or your trusted circle of fellow writers. Regardless of whether you’re an aspiring screenwriter or a working professional, it’s simply a part of the development process.
And if you’ve received enough feedback on your writing, you know that good notes are truly valuable. But bad notes? Well, with enough time and perspective, bad notes can make for great stories.
Here are the best “worst notes” received by some of this year’s Oscar nominees:
Damien Chazelle (writer/director, La La Land) was asked to scrap the climactic drum solo in his first feature, Whiplash:
“[I]t ends with a kind of long drum solo, which was the whole point of making the movie. And the note was to get rid of all that. The note was written out — ‘He’s good at drumming. We get it.’”
Eric Heisserer (screenwriter, Arrival):
“It was the start of a pitch, I said ‘There’s a spy and his wife.’ The executive said, ‘There is no wife. Continue.’”
Barry Jenkins (writer/director, Moonlight):
“So, where are the white people?”
Theodore Melfi (writer/director, Hidden Figures):
“This one studio person said, ‘Do we have to have so much math?’ So I pretended to be interested but, no, it’s about math.”
Allison Schroeder (screenwriter, Hidden Figures):
“I was really excited, I was pitching this thriller with two female leads, about espionage. [The executive] said, ‘Oh! We love it! It’s great. Can you either change it to incest or two men? I said, ‘If you’ll really hire me? Yes.’”
Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (screenwriters, Deadpool):
“We wrote a parody of ‘The Sopranos’ called ‘The Tomatoes.’ It was all fruits and vegetables in the leads. it was the Tomatoes vs. The Bananas. The note came back, ‘We love it, but do they have to be fruits and vegetables?’”
Kenneth Lonergan (writer/director Manchester by the Sea):
“I’m trying to think of a really bad note that I’ve gotten, but for the past 20 years when executives give me notes I go into a kind of self-induced hypnotic trance in which I just nod and say… ‘Oh that’s interesting.’
Lonergan added: “I honestly try to blank out without appearing to do so, of course, because that would be disrespectful.”
“I pitched a comedy once and someone said, ‘Where’s the fun?’ I said I didn’t know.”
Taylor Sheridan (screenwriter, Hell or High Water):
“I was in a meeting, I wrote this pilot for AMC, and we’re all sitting there and they’re giving me all their notes and I’m listening and at one point I say, ‘What the f— are you people talking about?’
And they said, ‘Taylor, you have to look for the note within the note.’ I said, ‘OK, but why don’t you just give me the note?’ They looked at me dead seriously and said, ‘Well we don’t know what the note is.’”
Todd Black (producer, Fences):
“We made a Western called ‘The Magnificent Seven’. And the biggest note in development and shooting it was, ‘Do they have to wear cowboy hats and have facial hair?’ And I said, ‘Do you not want them not to have horses either?’ That was a huge note on a daily basis.”
Bad notes: they can happen even to the best screenwriters. Learning how to handle the notes process is a critical skill, and one that will serve you well in your career. For tips on taking notes like a pro, read 4 Tips for Handling Writing Critiques and Taking Notes.
And, though it may be small consolation at the time, just remember — the more painful the note, the better the story.
What’s your best “worst note” story?
Hat tip to the Writers Guild of America’s Beyond Words panel for these quotes.