x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Endless rounds of tedious work? Better than the alternative

In Hollywood, everybody says the scriptwriter should do the writing. Then they all pitch in to "help".

'Hey, I'm not a writer," is what writers hear all over Hollywood when they're about to get script notes from the studio or the network. "You know best how to make this script great. Don't let us mess it up."

And then they proceed to give the writer a lot of notes and suggestions that do just that.

Right now, in the television business, it's "pilot season". A pilot is a first, or test, episode of a prospective television series. For some unfathomable reason, everyone in the television business chooses to produce pilot episodes for new series during the same eight-week span, which results in eight weeks of frenzied decision-making and counterproductive script rewrites.

It's a blizzard of conference calls with dozens of executives on the line, each vying to be more "writer friendly" than the others, but each trying - desperately - to make sure the next version of the script is closer to something that the network truly needs.

What they truly need, of course, is something interesting and different and audience-gripping. What they think they need, though, is this: another version of what they already have.

"You're the writer," they'll say on the conference call, in plummy, friendly tones. "I'm just one of the 'suits'. I know you'll come up with a great adjustment here on page 33. That's why you guys do what you do and I do what I do."

All of which will be followed quickly by a blizzard of notes and suggestions and concerns - some might even make the script better - but it's that lightning-fast switch, from good-natured disclaimer to immediately delivering demands that can give a writer whiplash.

The trick to these kinds of conversations - in show business or any business, really - is to start them all out with a little sugar. We love it. We love the characters. We love the setting. We love … something.

And then there's a pause - it's like a click in the conversation, like you're selecting another track on the iPod - and the notes begin. And, as I said - often, maybe even mostly - these are positive contributions.

Despite the cliché, not every Hollywood studio executive is a cretinous moron. Here and there, dotted throughout the landscape, there are some who are positively useful.

But it's the grind that gets to you. You struggle through a new draft and it all begins again.

You turn it in to the studio, get their notes, rewrite it, turn it in to the network, get their notes, rewrite it, turn that rewrite in to the studio, get their notes, rewrite, then turn that in to the network, and if there's any time at all, do another round of notes, rewrite, notes, rewrite.

Just keeping it all straight is a job. Back when I had an assistant, I'd often look up from a typed set of notes - concerns, thoughts, whatever - and look at him with a baffled expression.

"Where are we …?" I'd ask.

"Second network draft studio notes going to the studio tonight to send to the network for network notes tomorrow," he'd say, which actually meant something.

And you have to keep trusting, all the time, that some internal voice will warn you when you're changing too much, when you're losing the thread of the show or the heart of the story. You have to trust, all the time, that all of the adjustments and concerns and notes you're addressing really do make it better.

Because, of course, writers - or at least this one - struggle constantly with the twin demons of arrogance and laziness. It's hard to know for sure whether I'm resisting making script changes because I genuinely think the script is good, or because I'm sick of thinking about it. It's a lot like being in a bad marriage - sometimes it's hard to tell if you're fighting because of some deep-seated principle, or just because it's easier to fight than it is to make up.

On the other hand, occasionally, the unexpected happens. They have no notes. No thoughts, no concerns, no questions or adjustments.

We love it, they say.

"You don't want another draft?" we ask.

"Nope," they say.

And that's when you know your project is dead. That's when you know they've decided, at least informally, to let this one go, to stop thinking about it, or caring about it.

"When does this process end?" a young writer asked me, after a gruelling three rounds of network and studio notes on his pilot script.

"Never," I said. "If you're lucky."


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood