Every writer who has pitched a story, received studio notes, or listened to a network exec talk about ratings and ad dollars instead of character and nuance knows the true meaning of the term “development hell.” Some producers and execs are skilled, smart, and conscientious when it comes to giving notes on a script, and some are… not.
When we talked to Life After Beth writer/director Jeff Baena last week, he shared his own story from the trenches of development hell, saying, “I had to do another draft that was the complete opposite of what I had just done, which was worse than a page-one rewrite because it was a conceptual flip. It was god-awful; it was the lowest moment for me.”
It’s good for writers to get another set of eyes on a script, talk about character arcs and hash out plot points. If the notes are communicated in a savvy, intelligent way, they can help take a project to the next level. Creative freedom is valued in some sectors of entertainment (indie film, Netflix, HBO), but all too often writers have to butcher their creation, unravel a well written and taut script because a financier wants to add dragons to an indie relationship comedy so it’ll sell overseas, or make a female character sexier… just because.
There’s definitely a balance when it comes to giving notes and allowing a creative person to flourish – and trusting the people you hire. In honor of all the writers who have sat across a conference table while someone tells them to “just make it funnier,” we talked to ten anonymous feature and TV writers about the worst notes they’ve received, the issues they see with some studio and network notes and the most ridiculous mandates they’ve had to endure.
If you have your own story from development hell, feel free to share in the comment section below.
“Early in my career, I was hired to co-write a script set in the Yucatan, drawing upon myths and legends of the ancient Mayans. Shortly before we were set to deliver, the producer called to ask: ‘Could you just re-set the script in Liberia?’ (It turned out that he had a shady financing arrangement with the then-President of Liberia.) We said no.” -Academy Award nominated screenwriter
“About six years ago, when we were still in the thick of the Iraq war with no end in sight, I was hired to write a studio project that was set in the military. Part of my pitch was a careful way to acknowledge the war as a part of the landscape (which we all agreed was essential). The producers loved the first draft and told me that the studio loved it – they just had a few small notes. When I finally met with the head of production I was told, ‘We love it. Just one small thing, can we lose the war?’ What a classic studio note, essentially: ‘We love this script about the war but can you just lose the war? We thought we wanted it but it’s kind of a downer.’ Of course, turns out the head of production was right because the development of the script outlasted the war.” -Feature writer
“I love the set pieces, but no one wants to watch a female action hero. It doesn’t sell.” –Award-winning feature writer
“The only gripe I have, on the feature side, is that the bull’s-eye changes so quickly depending on what’s working and what’s not working at the box office. The needle moves too easily in feature development because the development process is so slow. TV, fortunately, doesn’t have that problem as much… getting too microscopic on certain details and losing focus on big picture character and story arcs.” –TV writer
“Everyone who has ever said ‘We’re worried this character is too unlikable.’ Right, because if there’s a theme people hate in movies, it’s redemption. And God knows if your main character is kind of a dick for the first half of the movie, paying audiences will get up and walk out.” –Film/TV writer
“I turned in a first draft of a wedding comedy that was meant to be a dark indie comedy, and one of the producers asked me to ‘make a few changes’ – one of them being to ‘rewrite it with Titanic in mind’ because he wanted something ‘bigger.’” –Feature writer
“This just needs to be… I don’t know… fifteen percent funnier?” –Film/TV writer
“I don’t’ get it.” –TV writer
“I once had a producer who decided it would be ‘cool’ if there was a hurricane threatening NYC during our movie. A category 4. There was no reason for it. Just because. Then the director decided to change the vessel on which the final battle scene takes place to a submarine. And it was an all out battle amongst hundreds. On the deck of a sub!!!! During a category 4.” –Film/TV writer