Some Notes.

Posted February 6th, 2019 by Ben

“The customer is always right”. What could be more British than this shopkeeper’s battle cry which quietly means nearly the opposite of what it seems. The hidden wisdom here is not that customers possess a perfect understanding of their needs or how best to fulfil them, but that it benefits the vendor to indulge any belief that they might. The privilege of feeling right, or rather of remaining unchallenged in our errors, is part of the power we gain when we agree to foot the bill.

For filmmakers this should simply remind us that debating the merits or coherence of, say, “Venom” or “The Greatest Showman”, is a matter for the pub. If audiences want to pay to spend time with a film then that in some way benefits all of us, and trying to dissuade them in no way benefits any of us. That said, when it comes to art both high and entertaining, the joy of remaining unchallenged in our beliefs is wrongly felt more as a right of birth than a benefit of purchase. Within the industry there is also often a very genuine confusion over who the customer actually is.

For a screenwriter the ineffable customer isn’t the cinema going public. They pay their ticket money to a cinema, who in turn give a portion to a distributor who, through a series of baroque accounting measures will eventually share a portion not necessarily related to their actual profit margin with the film’s sales company who will have usually already paid some sort of up front fee to the film’s production company who will then be bound to repay the investors who have, hopefully, long since paid the screenwriter what will most likely be the only financial reward they will see for their work. For screenwriters the consequence of this is very simple, the customer is whoever authorises payments to your producer. You have an idea, they give you notes, you makes those notes work, they pay you.

In this process the most complicated position is actually held by anyone giving notes. If you are giving notes you usually feel like a member of the audience (infallibility intact). However, in strict economic terms you’re in resales. Your financial responsibility is not to yourself but your customers, the sales agents or the distributors who you hope will purchase the film from you. As much as you may want to sit in the privileged seat of the audience member, unchallenged in your responses to the work, that is not your chair.

Since returning to this blog I’ve written exclusively about the culture of filmmaking in the light of #metoo and all that went with it. This theme normally maps out the territory of urgent contemporary issues like representation and abuse. So it may seem odd to end with something as banal as bad notes. However all these posts address the nature of power in the creative process, its abuse, its imbalance and its illegitimate hoarding. Notes are the basic way we communicate the creative and commercial force of our ideas and nothing is more expressive of the lazy bias and blinkered self delusion that still plagues us. From this soil grow the obstacles to us all telling better and more interesting stories. Bad notes may only be plankton but they still feed whales. 

The English abroad are famous for bridging a language gap by simply repeating themselves slowly and loudly, as if the failure of comprehension was purely on the part of the poor fool who didn’t speak the language of Shakespeare. I find myself doing the same thing when I give bad notes.

It’s an empathy failure, I’m thinking only of my own responses, rather than looking for what I might have missed. Having noticed this failure in others, I try now to start by establishing what the author of the work, the writer, the editor, the actor, thinks they themselves are trying to achieve. This helps shine a light on what I missed. Of course I probably missed it because they expressed it badly but suddenly the notes are addressing the core problems of their communication, rather than simply listing all the reasons why I’m feeling let down or underlining all the ways in which I feel I’m better than them.

Notes should expose the shortcomings of the work (be that first draft, fourth take, or nearly picture locked edit), notes need to be critical and they don’t need to be polite (though this costs nothing). Bad notes are not the ones that hurt but the ones that don’t seek to help. Any that attempt to reserve the power of not being challenged in turn. Any note of the sort “I just don’t like it”. Any that either refuses a “because” or offers only “because that’s what I wrote” or “that’s not how it’s done”. Any note that demands things shorter without suggesting cuts or cheaper without sharing the budget. To return to the economic view, any note that attempts to speak purely as a customer without accepting that by giving a note you are rolling up your sleeves and joining the creative process as a worker.

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