How Do I Tell My Boss His Script Sucks?

I found this question over on r/screenwriting about giving notes, but I thought the answer might be useful for my readers, as well–

I’m a recent film school graduate, and like every film school graduate – I’m desperate to work. I saw an ad for a script supervisor on a local filmmakers page and jumped at the chance.

Today I got a copy of the script to read in advance of meeting the director. He sent me a meandering 170 pages of the worst writing I’ve ever read. There are sixty-freaking-two named characters and they ALL sound the same. Reading it made me want to drown myself in a sink. The plot (or rather 4 plots, 3 of which he could lose and they wouldn’t be missed) revolves around a shady businessman trying to force a couple off their land. I think, I think that’s the main thrust of it.

While that sounds like a simple and possibly interesting story, he manages to bloat the script with the interplay between two respective families (not the farm family, different families), a stalking, historical child abuse, THREE characters named ‘Inspector’ something, and a detective with a dark past investigating… something. I don’t want to say too much on the off chance he sees this, but what the hell do I say? I’m in shock. This is a local indie guy, and I don’t think he has any concept that filmmaking costs money. Sorry for the rant, but I’m still recovering.

Generally speaking, r/screenwriting is a hive of scum and villainy, except when Craig Mazin shows up to knock some heads. This time, however, the consensus is correct: it is not your place to criticize the script.

When you’re a film student, most of your productions are very collaborative. The DP helps the art department; the PAs hold the boom pole; there’s zero distinction between grips and electrics. That’s fine in film school, because you’re all learning and no one really knows more than anyone else.

The Real World

But on a real, professional set, every person has a clear, specific job to do. Leaning over into another department will, at best, get in their way. Quite possibly, you’ll endanger lives if you don’t know what you’re doing.

A script supervisor is meant to track the continuity of a scene, and write notes on the takes for the editor. She’s not supposed to re-write the script for the director. She doesn’t give notes.

And, quite frankly, I wouldn’t trust a recent film school grad to be able to distinguish Citizen Kane from Plan 9, or even recognize Casablanca if they read it. If you’re working on your first movie, my very best advice is to keep your eyes and ears open, but your mouth shut.

Let’s suppose that it’s a terrible movie. That doesn’t matter. A gig’s a gig.

The sad thing about working below-the-line is that you never get credit for how great a movie is. The fantastic thing is, you don’t get blamed when it’s bad. You’re free to work on any movie or show that’s willing to pay you to do the job. Just do your job.

What If I’m Right?

Someone reading this is going to say, “But what if you have a really great idea, and it makes the movie better?”

To that person I say, “Congratulations on working on your very first film.” Because anyone who’s worked in Hollywood for long would know that the higher ups aren’t taking notes from just anyone.

Besides the aforementioned points of “it’s not your job” and “you’re probably wrong, anyway,” there’s another key factor. Any film has between 50 and 150 crew members on set at any given time. Can you imagine getting notes from every single one of those people? You’d never get anything done.

It’s a director’s job to create a singular vision. A large part of that is making a decision and just going with it. Even if your notes make the script incrementally better, you’re interrupting the flow of production, which will almost certainly make things worse.

Can I Ever Give Notes?

Sometimes, on a small production, the producer or director may ask what you thought of the script. They probably don’t want to hear from a PA that it’s overlong and poorly written. They’ll drop you like a sack of potatoes and find a PA who’s more positive and enthusiastic.

Find something nice to say, do your job, and collect your paycheck. Learn from what they did wrong, and maybe even from what they did right. Stick to it long enough and someday, you’ll be the one getting whiny notes from ungrateful film students.

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