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  • Writer's pictureSophie Black

Don't Fear The Feedback



   So you’ve done your first cut of a film, or you’ve written a screenplay, and now it’s time to show it to people. Getting feedback can be a slightly nerve-wracking process, and sometimes it still makes me nervous today, but I’ve learned a lot along the way about how and when to listen to notes. When you strip away the noise, film is often an opinion-based medium, and feedback can both make or break your finished product – so it’s important to tell the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ advice.


   I’ll start with a story my tutor told me during some of my old director training:


   Some filmmakers went to a production company. They wanted to make a horror film about a group of friends meeting inside a disused warehouse. They had the script available, and perhaps more importantly, they’d already secured the location through a friend. The production company said, “ok, we’re interested in making your film, but only if you add a love interest.”


   This was a small change, so the filmmakers agreed. The production company came back with more notes. “Can you make all the characters teenagers so that it will appeal to a younger audience?”


   This was slightly more of a stretch, but still not too big of a change, so the filmmakers agreed again. But the notes kept coming. “We think this would work really well as a drama instead of a horror…”


   After many more revisions to the script, the filmmakers ultimately realised that the production company wasn’t interested in their story at all. They just wanted to take advantage of the cool location they’d secured.


   I don’t know if that story is true; it’s likely very exaggerated. But even if it’s a fable, it highlights the importance of remembering – and holding onto – the film you wanted to make in the first place. Don’t lose the thing that gave you joy in the first place. Life is short, and filmmaking opportunities come around so rarely (particularly in the current climate!), so be sure you’re really working on something you love and not just doing what it takes to get the money.


   That story reminded me of an experience I had very early on in my career. I was writing a script for a director, adapting his original story, and the production wanted to invest in script development, so we sent it out to all the official sources, at quite some expense, and received notes from multiple people. We listened to all the notes and implemented every bit of feedback we received. The script changed and changed again and, like a game of Chinese Whispers (which we really need a better name for!), the end result was so far removed from the director’s original story. Even the genre felt different. And you know what happened? The finished film wasn’t good. The script may have been technically better, and the original story may have had its flaws, but that was the film the director wanted to make, that was the story that gave him joy – and if he’d made that film, the passion would’ve shone through. It always does. We’ve all seen films with bad screenplays that are still really fun to watch, because you can tell the filmmakers had the best time making it.


   That script development process did teach me how to structure screenplays immaculately. I learned so much about ‘correct formatting’ and what should or shouldn’t be included in action lines. But around that time, my scripts became slightly formulaic as a result. It wasn’t until I read the first draft of Stop/Eject – beautifully written by the film’s director, Neil Oseman - a couple of years later, that I remembered how vibrant and passionate scripts could feel, even if that means breaking the rules a little. I’ve carried a ‘best of both worlds’ approach to my own writing ever since.



[During the development of 'A Different Place', multiple voices were added to the mix to create authenticity in the dialogue. DOP: Luke J. Collins.]

   But script feedback can be fantastic, and I’ll share an example of when it was really beneficial. When A Different Place was being developed, the script had already been through multiple revisions when the execs suggested that it needed work – but we couldn’t quite figure out what the work was. They brought the legendary script editor Kate Leys on board, and she spotted the issue straight away; apparently the characters were so good that they were almost writing themselves, and had taken themselves on a journey that the writers could no longer control! So we were tasked with stripping the film back to its essence, really distilling down exactly what the film wanted to say, and who the characters were, and simplifying the structure as a result.


   And do you know what’s really fascinating? After the feedback from Kate Leys, the final draft we ended up with was very, very similar to the first raw draft of the film, that co-writer Tommy Draper had written two-to-three years previously, particularly in terms of the structure – even though numerous drafts had come in-between the first and the last. Which again highlights the importance of staying true to your original vision, and always remembering what made you want to write the film in the first place.


   (I’ll also note, however, that the character of Cleo in A Different Place definitely did change from the first draft. We brought in Z. Igbe as a co-writer on the film after the first couple of drafts, to add a sense of authenticity to the project, as well as bringing in a much-cherished fresh, younger perspective. They helped to shape the character of Cleo, and completely re-wrote the dialogue to better the suit the character, and those changes were preserved through the script editing process and final re-writes. The project was all the stronger for it.)


   What if you receive feedback on your script which just seems ridiculously mean? Well, I’ve been there a few times (trolls are a thing!), and sometimes even over-the-top feedback can teach you something, be it getting a thicker skin, or highlighting a deeper flaw in your writing. I have another memory from very early on in my career, when an actor rejected a script I sent to him because he believed it was “the worst thing ever written.” That dramatic statement upset me, but it also prompted me to show the script to Tommy – it’s one of the first times we ever collaborated – and he said, “it’s not that bad, the issue is that your characters both speak the same way, so the dialogue doesn’t distinguish their personalities for the audience.” That was a really important lesson, and yet I wouldn’t have realised my mistake if I hadn’t shown the script to him. Although I laugh about the tone of that actor’s feedback now, I did get some great writing advice in the process, and a great writing partner, that I’ve kept with me ever since.



[Shot from a deleted scene in 'Songbird', which was removed from the festival cut after feedback. DOP: Christopher Newman.]

   Jumping forward slightly, to after a film has been shot; how should one take feedback on a raw cut of a film? Taking Songbird as an example, when we’d done the first cut of the film, and got it to a place where the crew were very fond of it, we realised that it was over 20 minutes long – and therefore wouldn’t qualify for film festivals, which mostly require films to be under 15 minutes long (ideally under 10). And a short film that can’t be shown to audiences won’t fulfill its life’s purpose!! We therefore knew we needed a ‘festival cut’, but because we were so attached to the material, we didn’t know what to take out. So we sent the film to a few trusted sources, to see if this would help make things a little clearer, and here’s what I learned from that process:


-          Some of the feedback was just personal opinion – people not liking the film, because they weren’t fans of fantasy or fairytales, or just saying that they might have ‘done it differently’ if they were the director. That feedback was interesting, but not useful in this case.


-          Some feedback was potentially useful: for example, one person wasn’t keen on the shots of the extras in the film’s first bar scene. So we made a note of that feedback, but then when no one else said the same thing, we realised that it was just one person’s opinion, and didn’t change these shots.


-          But multiple people had issues with the opening of the film (either they thought it was weak, or they liked it but wanted the story to ‘get going’ quicker) and also the ending. Because we’d heard the same response from multiple sources, we knew that there was a problem in these two areas, which we addressed – through trial and error – in subsequent cuts.


   Overall, this feedback really helped us to cut the film down to the length we needed, whereas before we were perhaps being too precious, and couldn’t ‘see the wood for the trees’ (literally, with this film!).


   The above does highlight the importance of sharing your film with different, individual sources – so that you can get peoples’ opinion and compare notes that way. Test audiences are fantastic, and they can be really useful (it’s also fun to get your film on a big screen and show it to an audience for the first time!), but people can be a bit shy about sharing their opinions in person – so asking them to write down notes and then email them afterwards can help – and you also sometimes get a bit of a mob mentality in test audiences, where one person suggests something, and that influences the opinions of the group around them, so a lot of emphasis might then be placed on one problem which originally only affected one person. Similar to how your experience of a film changes if you go and see it after reading a review, rather than going in blind and forming your own opinion.


[If you want to know more about test screenings, and see a sample audience feedback form, I recommend you read Neil's blog posts on the subject.]



[Some very entertaining audience feedback after a 1983 test screening of David Cronenberg's 'Videodrome'. Images via Mubi.]

   I will quickly say, though, that none of the above applies to client work (or when you’re making a film for a big studio, or a television show for a showrunner, to a degree, as they are essentially clients too). When you’re being paid to make a piece, the person paying you has the most important opinion. You can make suggestions, and if you think something is working really well in the edit, you can explain why this is and hopefully influence the final product that way. Many clients hire you to ‘be the expert’ and will listen to your opinions. But ultimately, you’re not there to make a piece that looks good on your showreel; it needs to work for the client and whatever they’re trying to sell. You can make the most beautiful film in the world, but if it doesn’t match the client’s branding, and it doesn’t work for their purposes, you need to listen to them and make changes accordingly.


   But back onto narrative work; in summary, sometimes you should listen to feedback, and sometimes you shouldn’t:


-          If someone can recognise the world you’re trying to establish on screen, and they are making suggestions which will improve the characters and scenarios within that world, then that’s fantastic. It makes you go, “wow, I didn’t think of that, but I love it!”, and that’s the best feeling, it’s collaboration at its finest.


-          If multiple people are highlighting an issue with your script or edit, then you definitely have a problem and they’ve saved your bacon, because it’s good to fix that problem before critics can get their hands on your work.


-          But if the feedback is taking you too far from the film you wanted to make in the first place, make sure you’re still happy with what you have on the page, otherwise that lack of love will show through in the final film. You may get a pay check, but you’ll end up with a slightly flat, lifeless product as a result, and you might regret that for the rest of your life.


   Any and all of the above could happen when you receive feedback. But the one thing you shouldn’t do is not ask for feedback. Always get it. Even if you disagree with it, or you decide not to use it, in the very least it’s interesting to hear the opinions of others and what someone else might have done with your story. Maybe they would’ve taken it somewhere better, or maybe not, but you’ll never know what you might’ve missed out on if you don’t let other people in. And if the feedback is horrible – as I said, I’ve had a few trolls in my time! - if you’ve got a group of trusted peers around you, maybe a glass of wine or two, you can always breathe your way through it, and the process will still be worthwhile.

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