Writing for Film & TV | How to Survive the Room: Notes on Nightmare Notes

Pictured above: David B. Carren wrote and directed in Texas the film, “Waiting for Sandoval.” The production utilized a cast and crew made up entirely of students from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Writing for Film & TV | How to Survive the Room: Notes on Nightmare Notes

Written by David B. Carren

 

In Next Level Screenwriting: Insights, Ideas and Inspiration for the Intermediate Screenwriter, the advanced screenwriting book I wrote with David Landau, we devoted all of Chapter 12, Rewriting, the Pain and the Gain, to the harsh art of absorbing notes on your material.  To quote from that chapter, “Usually the most difficult aspect of working in a professional situation is taking notes in the Room – the production office, staff area, or writing space where the creative principals will meet to discuss a particular project. Working the Room isn’t limited to pitching an idea, getting a job, or having lunch with your boss; it’s also about a creative continuum that almost always involves clawing through many, many notes on draft after draft.”

To add to the anxiety, the Room may be packed with a dozen or more executives, producers, co-producers, executive producers, staff writers, and story editors, all offering contradictory or even nonsensical ideas: a creative Tower of Babel. But the worst situation is when you’re dealing with people whose notes are so dictatorial or arbitrary you can barely understand them, let alone incorporate them, into your work.

This occurred several times in the course of my career. During a brutal staff tenure on a show at Universal, I spent 12 hours a day in the producer’s office, using its bathroom, having three meals brought in, while my boss strutted around the room, dictating story beats into a mini-recorder, shouting me down if I offered ideas. On another series at Paramount, the producer would issue notes on every line of every page of a script, down to eliminating conjunctives and correcting grammar, on scenes that had already been rewritten or cut. Even in animation there’d be madness. On one series, its star-producer-creator threw out an entire story – and it had been his idea!

But the worst was the tree house man. I knew I was in trouble when I met with my executive producer on a big budget network television series to receive notes on the first draft of my episode and didn’t understand a solitary word he was saying. As his thoughts and ideas tumbled and fumbled, connected and disconnected, I just assumed, as a young and inexperienced writer, I simply hadn’t reached his elevated level of expertise.

However, as I meandered down this increasingly unpredictable road, there were clues my self-assessment was incorrect. The first was when I’d call my producer-genius-boss’s office and his secretary would answer, “the pig is not here.” The second was, when the man finally did take my call, he appeared to mistake me for an individual named Mike who was tuning his Pantera GTS. But my Eureka moment occurred when, after I’d received no response on my second draft, and I called my producer-genius-boss’s office once again, his secretary said, “the pig’s not here, he’s in rehab.”

It turns out this guy was so high on cocaine his mind was literally sailing through the stratosphere. When he insisted on meeting with network executives in a tree house behind his mansion, they forced him into treatment, and he vanished for a few weeks. During that time, I met with the other producers on the show, got notes I could work with, and turned in my final draft. They shot the episode, and I’m still getting residuals on it. In fact, it’s one of my best efforts and I even discuss it in my writing classes.

The point is, when you get notes, even if they are incoherent, misleading or simply insane, you don’t quit. You persevere until they fire you, or they kill your script, or they cancel the show, or the world ends, which ever comes first. Stand your ground as best you can, offer your strongest effort, and never let them see you sweat. That’s how you build a successful screenwriting career in the Room. Writing for Film & TV | How to Survive the Room: Notes on Nightmare Notes

Writing for Film & TV | How to Survive the Room: Notes on Nightmare Notes

David Bennett CarrenDavid Bennett Carren has written or produced more than 200 films and television shows, including Star Trek, The Next Generation, Stargate SG-1, and Diagnosis Murder. His theater credits include Hollyweird, a farce which was a Semi-Finalist in the 2013 Eugene O’Neil National Playwright’s Conference. He also co-wrote and directed the thriller The Red Queen, which earned a Silver Palm at the Mexico International Film Festival. Other recognition includes a Writer’s Guild Award Nomination, a Golden Remi Award and multiple Finalist and Semi-Finalist honors at the Austin Film Festival screenwriting Competition.

Medallion Books released David’s first novel, No Power on Earth, and Stonelock Pictures optioned his second, I’ve Killed Mother. His short story, If She Dies, was published in Twisted Tales before he adapted it as an episode of The New Twilight Zone.

David earned his Bachelor in Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and his Master in Fine Arts at Spalding University. He is a tenured Associate Professor at the University of Texas Pan American where he teaches screenwriting, location production, and film history.

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