Navigating the Notes

Screenwriter Randall Jahnson

Screenwriter Randall Jahnson

Getting notes on your screenplay is never fun. Thirty years of writing scripts for studios, producers, and directors has taught me that. The reason is simple: They only address what’s wrong with your work. Rarely do they applaud what you’ve done right. In fact, they can be so devoid of praise that by the time you’re finished reading them (assuming you’re still upright and sober) you’re left wondering whether you did anything right at all.

Notes can be disingenuous too. And contradictory. Confusing. Highly subjective. Illogical. Annoying. Full of inanities. And downright stupid.

It’s enough to drive you to drink, the kind of spirit-breaking stuff that sent F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner staggering to the bar at Musso & Frank, and pushed (supposedly) Raymond Chandler to include a proviso for a case of Scotch in every studio contract.

Yeah, notes are not for the faint-hearted.

That’s why I was on red alert when the five finalists of this year’s FilmLab scriptwriting contest received theirs from celebrity judges Kim Guidone, Virginia McCarthy, and Luke Ryan. The next step of the contest called for the writers to incorporate said notes into a revision due the following Monday – surely an anxiety- inducing process! As the contest’s designated mentor, I was standing by to help, ready to apply ice packs and martinis to their battered egos or talk someone off the ledge. How were they going to react their first time under critical fire? Could they take the heat? Or would they run screaming down the hall? Collapse into a catatonic state? Maybe they’d fight back with righteous indignation or act out the age-old cliche of the thin-skinned screenwriter throwing an on-set tantrum with the director (“You’re ruining my movie!”) before storming off in tears.

Portland’s Claire Soister was the first of the finalists to reach out to me. I knew something was wrong right away. Her voice on the phone was… cheerful. I mean, positively perky. She had devoured her notes and was already incorporating them into the rewrite!

It was the same for Margaret “Peg” Wallis. I expected her head to be in a sling. But when she Skyped me from her home in Burns, I could see that her head was held high. She was gleeful, energized. Notes – schmotes! It was all good!

And the smiles and enthusiasm kept coming. Marc Scarbrough in Texas – he took to his notes like the daily crossword puzzle. Portland’s Irene Parikhal, the most solemn of the bunch, methodically decoded each comment of her critique with the focus and passion of Indiana Jones interpreting hieroglyphics.

Then I heard the word “fun.”


Are you kidding me?

What is wrong with you people? Don’t you know that notes equal angst? Where’s the agony and insecurity they inspire? Where’s the suffering for your art?

The last of the finalists to contact me was Beaverton’s Ted Blasche who was on a cross-country road trip. Ted’s a retired career Army officer. Surely, here’s a guy, I thought, who’s no stranger to chafing under SNAFU’s and bureaucratic non-speak. In an email Ted wrote, “I’ve read the judges notes and reworked my script overnight to comply with their comments (as I understood them)….”

His rewrite was already done and we hadn’t even chatted yet!

When we did connect on the phone the next day, we reviewed the notes as I understood them. Ted listened carefully. Asked a question or two. Then was done. Hardly fifteen minutes had elapsed.

I glanced at his original email again. It ended with, “Thanks for volunteering as shepherd. I hope we sheep don’t give you grief.”

Good grief, Ted – it was no grief at all

And that’s what threw me.

I had expected a prolonged, angst-ridden, hand-holding session where every finalist puzzled and struggled to rework their scripts before the impending deadline.

Instead, it was a rewarding endeavor that reminded me of the joy in what we do.

It was… fun.