The Art Of The Script Meeting – How Not To Let Your Ego Get In The Way Of A Good Idea.

For the last few days, I’ve been reading Creativity, Inc. The book is about how Pixar works, how they maintain a culture of creativity whilst still fulfilling all their corporate ambitions, and it’s written by Ed Catmull; the guy who started the company and runs it to this day. I highly recommend it (not running Pixar, the book, although running Pixar would also be cool) but this isn’t a book review…

One of the central features of the book, and of Pixar itself, is the “Brainstrust”; a collection of the company’s leading directors, writers and story experts who gather to view work-in-progress and to offer advice, steers etc. Every director working at Pixar, from top to bottom, has to submit their work to the brainstrust. This ought to be nerve-wracking, like standing in front of the class while the teacher marks your homework but the directors all seem to welcome it and find the experience incredibly valuable. Why? Because Catmull learned a lesson from countless unproductive, adversarial notes sessions with studio execs and he introduced a concept that makes the Pixar system work: the Brainstrust has no authority. Let’s look at that one more time: THE BRAINSTRUST HAS NO AUTHORITY. You don’t have to take their notes, you don’t have to pay any attention to a word they say.

Except now you will because they have no authority, they’re just there to help you make your movie better.

I remember screening my first movie for the American exec from the company who’d funded the thing. I was really nervous, my head filled with stories of iconoclastic directors battling unimaginative studios for control of their masterpieces. The screening finished and sure enough the guy had some notes. He was worried about a particular character, I think, in a particular scene and he wasn’t sure it “played”. Predictably, I dug my heels in. I even got pretty shouty as we debated his notes. Eventually, believing I sounded like Sam fucking Peckinpah, I issued my ultimatum: “If you want this changed, you’re going to have to ORDER me to change it.”

He frowned, looked at me like he was suddenly concerned for my mental health, and said, “Dude, it’s your movie. You’re free to do whatever you want and we’ll release it. That’s the deal. I’m just asking you to consider something.”

“Right then… Sorry… What was it you wanted me to look at?” It turned out the guy had some good points to make and, because I didn’t HAVE to follow them, I gave them proper consideration. His notes made the story clearer and so the editor and I sat down and implemented them. They made the film better. The fucking thing bombed anyway, of course. Sorry if you were hoping for a happy ending.

These situations are pretty unusual in screenwriting. Far more often than not, we walk into a room to be given notes by producers and execs who do have authority, who can insist on changes we may not agree with. This can make for an adversarial situation, one in which the writer is on the defensive before the meeting even starts, where even useful notes can be read as “interference” from non-creatives.

William Goldman famously used to enter these meetings, sit down and ready his pad and pen; putting the execs on the defensive, pressuring them to “come up with something smart”. To the beleaguered screenwriter, this may seem like a brilliant plan. It is, in fact, a massive dick-move. I don’t care if you wrote All the President’s Men, you just started a fight you have no chance of winning because these people pay your rent. They might be intimidated (they probably won’t) but they’re certainly going to think twice before employing you again.

The Goldman manoeuvre assumes that status can be taken. It can’t. Actors know this; status cannot be taken, it can only be given. You can’t go on stage and “act like the king”; the other actors have to behave deferentially to you, they have to give you status. Most execs aren’t going to give the writer status in a meeting. More likely, the writer will give the execs status, and often the wrong kind…

I’m reminded of an exec who once confided to me that she sometimes walks into edit suites where she knows full well that she’s the “enemy” before she even enters the room. She said that the level of hostility to her notes, before she’s even given them, is such that she becomes defensive and authoritarian; delivering her notes as straight-up orders that can’t be questioned or discussed because “if they’re casting me as the bad guy, I’ll be the fucking bad guy”.

So how do we deal? I believe it is possible to turn almost any writing meeting into a version of Pixar’s brainstrust, you just have to change the dynamic of the room. First off, as writers, we have to change our attitudes; we probably ARE too close to the script — the chances are we only finished the draft a few days before this meeting. This script ISN’T the best it can be and we may not be the best people to see that or have the best fixes for the problems. This isn’t a defence of execs. Someone said recently on Twitter that writers were unfair on execs, that they had “never met a stupid one”. Oh really? Allow me to arrange some introductions. Of course there are bad execs, just as there are bad writers (or bad accountants, builders, dentists etc.) Hopefully you have smart execs, there are plenty of them about. But even a bad exec has a perspective on your work that might be useful (even accidentally) and you’re not going to benefit from that if you close down.

We may not be able to completely banish the idea of executive authority, because these people can fire you if you are uncooperative, but we can adopt the attitude going into that room that you are not working FOR the execs, you’re working WITH them (if they could write the fucking thing, they would have done — they do need you). Try to remember that everyone wants this script to be better (and it can always be better) and everyone wants this meeting to go well because they’ve invested in you and they genuinely want this all to work out. So level the playing field; be pleasant, be open, be happy to talk about anything. The exec may propose some fixes that sound dreadful. Don’t just shut down, try to identify the problem the exec is attempting to solve. The fix may not be great but the problem could be genuine. Nine times out of ten “This needs explaining to the audience” is a shit fix but it’s a fix to the problem of “I didn’t understand this” and that’s always a problem worth addressing. Rather than just take the note and offer the standard grumpy nod in response to it (it amazes me sometimes how many writers are afraid of dialogue), try digging into the problem; encourage the exec to open up and talk through their thinking. I can almost guarantee that you’ll change the tone of the meeting this way. Once you’ve acknowledged the existence of the problem and demonstrated your understanding of it and your willingness to address it, you’re going to find that the exec abandons their solution and instead trusts you to come up with whatever you think the best fix is for the next draft. You’ll also find that you’re suddenly no longer faced with a bad note, but with a potential improvement to your script.

Dodge the solution and get to the problem. Then it’s up to you to solve it the best way you can. Everyone goes away happy, the script gets better and you work again because the execs actually felt good about the meeting because they weren’t treated as the Philistine enemy for once.

Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote The Usual Suspects, talked recently in an interview about how his career had been floundering and how Tom Cruise took him aside and told him that his (McQuarrie’s) problem was that he bore grudges against execs who had long since forgotten the cause of the grudge and that he was seen as too defensive in meetings. McQuarrie tried out Cruise’s suggestion of entering meetings with the attitude of “how can I help you make the show you want to make?” This, apparently, changed things around for him almost instantly.

The crucial thing here is engagement. With my director’s hat on (I actually have a hat) I’ve sat in meetings with writers who were obstinate and unwilling to entertain a single suggestion about their script. Those are bad writers with bad scripts that stay bad. But I’ve also witnessed writers who would change anything you asked them to without question. They were also bad writers with bad scripts but their scripts actually got worse draft-on-draft because they were doing everyone’s fixes without ever understanding the underlying problems. (Again, I’m reminded of an exec a long time ago who told the composer that the music needed to be “louder but kind of quiet” — never take the fix until you understand the problem). There needs to be cut and thrust; it needs to be a conversation, neither a battle nor an immediate surrender.

Can you always change the dynamic of the writer-exec conversation? No. There are some execs who aren’t open to a conversation of any kind, either because they’re just total fuckheads or because they have some ulterior agenda (often because they’re delivering notes from higher-up and are scared of their boss, who is an uber-fuckhead who won’t talk directly to the writer). I’ve been in this situation a few times and the only advice I can give is to walk away. No good can come of this. Suffer through to a delivery point, ie. get paid for your work to date, then bail. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’ll get better, it won’t. And don’t think quitting will damage your career; becoming bitter, miserable and, inevitably, defensive will do far more harm.

Pick your battles. Fight your corner when you need to but don’t presume that someone is your enemy just because they have a salary and an office. And don’t presume, even if they are the enemy, that you can’t learn from them. Give no shit, take no shit. You’re here to tell stories and it’s supposed to be fun.

Never Make Friends With The Actors The Worst Piece Of Advice Ever Given.

This was fairly early in my career. I was dicking about on set. Actually I was directing a TV show but, to the untrained eye, the distinction is nigh on impossible to make. We were between takes and I’d gone on to set to give notes (NEVER yell out acting notes from behind the monitors; no one but the actor in question needs to know your thoughts on a performance) and then one of the actors had told a joke and that had given rise to an anecdote and now people were standing at the edge of the set looking at their watches. This happens a lot (to me) and needs to be ignored (by me) because putting actors at ease leads to much better performances than rushing them through the day (this is my story and I’m sticking to it). Anyway, I went back to the monitor and sat down ready for another take. The producer leaned over to me and said:

“Never make friends with the actors.”

This sounded like the kind of advice that was hard-won by the giver, so I turned it over in my mind. But whichever way I looked at it, it seemed to be utter bullsh*t. It was, in fact, the WORST ADVICE EVER. It was also impossible for me to follow, even if I’d wanted to, because I like actors; I like hanging out with them and I love watching them work. How could I be a director if I didn’t like actors?

One of the most common criticisms of young directors emerging from film school or graduating from music videos or commercials to film and TV drama (yes, I said graduating, because drama is INFINITELY more difficult than adverts and anyone who says different is either lying, stupid or bitter) is that, while they may be technically adept, they don’t know how to talk to actors. I’ve never really understood that barrier between directors and actors, I suspect it might be to do with somehow not seeing actors as people but as something… other. But being able to direct actors is crucial to making drama of any kind. Learning about lenses, lighting, editing etc is easy – it can be picked up fast and improved upon with practice. Being called a “technical” director is no real accolade at all.

Orson Welles had a bee in his bonnet about critics describing a film as “well directed but poorly acted”; a poorly acted film can’t be well directed because it’s the director’s responsibility, through casting and um, directing, to make the performance work.

In the commercial world (not the world of commercials – see disparaging comments above), a director’s livelihood depends on his or her relationship with actors; the ability to attract good names to a project because they want to work with you makes you a desirable commodity. I recently made a radio play, the script for which was so hideously late (I was also the writer) that there was no way we were going to get it out to cast in time for them to read it and agree to do it before the recording dates. Fortunately, having ignored that advice I was given years ago, I was able to assemble a cast of friends-who-act who all agreed to do it without even seeing the script. Not following that advice saved me. Again.

No two actors are the same. Most are actually lovely people but some can be grumpy, temperamental and precious (this is also true of plumbers, estate agents, doctors, tramps, astronauts etc). There is therefore no hard-and-fast rule as to how to direct actors; you just have to figure out what makes them tick; what motivates them, what relaxes them, and adjust your approach accordingly. Once again, being friends with them really helps here; you already know a lot of this stuff about them and you develop a shorthand which, dicking about notwithstanding, saves time. I’ve worked with the brilliant Nicola Walker a number of times and we’ve reached the stage where she can read a slight twitch at the corner of my mouth and respond with “Yeah, that was shit, sorry. I’ll do another one.” It’s these kind of relationships we should be striving for because they make the work better and they make it a Hell of a lot more fun. If you don’t believe me, read THIS PIECE on Joss Whedon’s regular actors and tell me they don’t sound like they have a ton of fun at work.

If you’re a new director, or a director struggling to get gigs, MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE ACTORS; it can only make the work better and everyone, including the audience, benefits from that.

While I’m at it, a few bits of GOOD advice:

NEVER tell an actor to “just throw it away”. No one really knows what that means and it’s a bad note.

ALWAYS address what the character is trying to do or achieve in the scene, rather than focus on specific lines or movements.

NEVER EVER EVER give line readings to actors.

NEVER let anyone rush you when you’re giving notes to actors; the time you supposedly save is lost several times over in multiple takes because the actor didn’t get a chance to understand what you wanted.

ALWAYS know the story better than anyone else so that you can answer questions about dialogue or intention with confidence.

ALWAYS let an actor try something out, even if it sounds like a dreadful idea – sometimes it turns out not to be, or it prompts something even better than you had in mind.

If you’re filming, have your breakfast on the make-up bus. This is where the actors hang out, gossip, bitch, moan and talk about the script. This is where you get to pick up on any anxieties, answer questions and generally put them at ease away from the pressures of the set. It’s also more fun than panicking about the schedule with producers, which is usually the other breakfast option.

When an actor arrives for their first day, even if it’s their only day on the shoot and they’ve got two lines, go and say hello to them when they arrive at unit base. It takes two minutes to say Hi, answer any questions and start to put them at ease. There’s nothing worse for a nervous actor (and on day one they’re ALL nervous) than to walk on to a set full of strangers and even the director hasn’t bothered to welcome them. You’d be amazed how often this one is overlooked.

Lastly, a secret weapon I picked up from a Scorcese interview that really works: the “f***-around” take. When you’ve got a good version of the scene, let the actors know that you’re happy to move on, that they’ve done everything they need to do but, if they fancy doing it one more time with the pressure off and the chance to play around, they can have it. That’s almost always the take you end up using in the edit.

All most actors crave is a relaxed, fun environment where they are comfortable trying things out without being made to feel foolish; an atmosphere, in other words, created by friends working together.

The Information Apocalypse: Creativity Vs The Infernal Machines.

(This post originally appeared on

Nearly 11.00am. A few months back. I get a call from Karen Rose of Sweet Talk Productions. She’s the radio producer I work with whenever I do anything for BBC Radio Four. Karen is pretty much a one-woman-band who seems to work twenty-four hours a day on a gazillion radio projects simultaneously and is never anything other than relaxed, happy and encouraging. She is, in other words, the anti-me. This morning she has an announcement:

“The deadline for Afternoon Play pitches is midday today.”

“It’s nearly eleven o’clock now.”

“Yes. Do you have anything?”

“Apart from the three ideas they already turned down for this slot?”

“Apart from those.”

“Because after the Radio Drama award and the Sony nomination, you’d think Radio Four would be MORE open to my ideas, not less.”

“You would think…”

“And yet they’ve turned down three ideas in a row. They say they really want me to do something for them and then they turn down three ideas in a row.”

“That’s what happened.”

“Well then…”

“Do you want to pitch something or not?”



“I’m serious.”

“Fine then.”

“Because fuck them, you know?”

“You don’t have another idea, do you?”


“Well if you come up with anything in the next hour…”

“I won’t.”

“Well if you do…”

“I won’t. I don’t have anything. And I’m busy on other stuff.”

“Is the other stuff as self-regarding and petulant as this conversation?”

She didn’t actually say that last line because she’s far too nice, but she’s also far too smart not to have been thinking it.

I put the phone down and paced around my study, annoyed because, when you make up stories for a living, having to tell someone you don’t have an idea is a horrible defeat. I looked at the bookshelves; at a pile of books on information, memetics and computer viruses that I’d bought on a whim when I had a vague idea for a TV series about cybercrime. I sat down at my desk and opened Twitter, probably with the intention of writing something pithy (petulant and conceited) about how Radio Four were oppressing a creative impulse I actually didn’t have. The Twitter mob were out in force, attacking each other for using the wrong words to express support for an idea they all agreed with. I read a few vitriolic exchanges and something sparked. I opened up my email and bashed out a précis of the story that was now forming. I sent it to Karen twenty minutes later. Radio Four commissioned it the next day. Fourth time lucky.

What I wrote in that email was essentially this: It’s the day after tomorrow (over-morrow, in fact, because who ever gets to use that word in real life?) and a computer virus has been unleashed that has encrypted all the information held electronically in the world. Banks, medical data, debt records, criminal records; it’s all under threat. No one can get money out of the banks, no one can buy anything in the shops. Looting and rioting has already started and the governments of the world are panicking. The people responsible for taking all the information hostage want to parlay, so a negotiator is sent to meet with them in a hotel room to hear their demands and to try to resolve the situation.

That’s the basic premise but the meat of the thing is the idea, the “why?” Why would anyone want to take information hostage? This is where the books on my shelves and my experiences on Twitter had led me. Thanks to computers, there is now more information floating around the world than ever before; more, in fact, than we can actually cope with. Partly because there is so much (and partly because of the Laws of Thermodynamics, which you don’t need to trouble yourself overly with) we tend to reduce the information down to bite-size chunks so we can spread it around more easily. This is the basic notion of memes – ideas that are copied with variation and selection. We see this all the time “You are either with us or against us” was the rallying cry at the start of the War on Terror (the War on Terror is also a piece of reduced information; reduced, like the War on Drugs, to a nonsense phrase). The British government has successfully reduced the complexities of being unemployed to the word “scroungers” and the complexities of a right-wing capitalist economic system to “common sense”. As we have seen even more recently, the complexities of two men murdering a soldier in Woolwich were reduced to “terrorism”, an act of reduction so destructive that it resulted in mosques being attacked and idiots in balaclavas hurling abuse at anyone with brown skin. In this case, key phrases from a murderer’s address to camera (phrases which were themselves reduced from an existing reduction of a complex system of belief) were reduced to memetic soundbites with an almost irresistible synaptic connection to “terrorism”. And the minute the media said “terrorist”, that is what those two psychopaths became, just as the woman who bravely confronted them became a “heroine”.

So we cope with all the information that bombards us by simplifying it down to bite-size chunks, the better to transmit it to others in a form in which it’s most likely to be retained and repeated.

There is an argument that posits that all human beings are is vessels made of information (DNA) and naturally selected for the storage and replication of information. Everything we say, do, wear or make is a form of information, a meme, to be copied by others with variation and selection. Information is king and we are but subjects. That being the case then the handing over of the replication and transmission role to computers could, in a dystopian fantasy such as the one I was dreaming up for a radio play, result in the rapid obsolescence of human beings. Computers process, copy, select and transmit more information than we can and they do it faster. Increasingly, we help them along by buying into the reduction of information; by retweeting and reposting pieces about “scroungers” and “fundamentalists” and “corrupt politicians” and by accepting the boundaries defined by these reductions as the ones within which we’ll frame our arguments (“Are the unemployed scroungers or not?” rather than “Is it useful to make a judgement on any human being purely on the basis of his or her employment status?”).

We also assist in our own reduction through our use of social media; a 160 character biography becomes the sum total of who we are to thousands of strangers. A 140 character tweet or short Facebook update becomes our definitive opinion on a complex subject. Tone of voice, body language, grammar, even vocabulary itself; all the things we used to employ to illuminate and elaborate on the information we transmit, to give it nuance and texture and, for the love of God, to indicate irony, are falling away in favour of reducing information to binary components of love/hate, good/bad; the better to pass more information faster.

Are we playing into the hands of the information itself? Have we created information technology (or been party to its creation – surely all we did was help transmit the memes that led to this) to perform the task for which we came into existence, thus negating the necessity of our own survival?

This seemed like a decent premise for a radio play. It would be a play about an idea. I liked the notion of being someone who wrote plays about ideas. Then I remembered that I think those people are wankers, so I came up with a story to go with the idea. Then I threw in the Commedia Dell’Arte (because I am a BIT of a wanker) and a couple of twists that turned it, I hope, from a straight drama into something a bit more disquieting; a bit more, dare I say it, “Twilight Zone”.

Time was really running out and I still hadn’t written the thing. I’m lucky in having developed good relationships with actors through previous work on TV and radio, so Karen was able to pick up the phone and secure the services of Nicola Walker, Tim McInnerny, Hermione Norris, Louise Brealey, Rufus Wright and Robert Glenister, all without having seen a script. We had an amazing, if hopelessly naive and trusting, cast and we had a crew. But we didn’t have a script and, more importantly for me, we didn’t have a title…

It seemed appropriate to the inspiration for the thing that I get my title online. I logged into Twitter and asked for titles for a play that would be a “locked-room” drama, like Huston’s movie of “Key Largo”. The information causes us to make weird connections and the winning suggestion, by @eclecticmuses, was a good example. The phrase “Key Largo” had caused @eclecticmuses to make a connection to a lyric in the Beach Boys’ song “Kokomo”, so she suggested “Kokomo” as a title. I liked the word but couldn’t immediately see the relevance. And so to Wikipedia, where we discover that Kokomo is a town in Indiana. They call it the City of Firsts because they built the first internal combustion engine there. And the Howitzer shell. And the first aerial bomb with fins. And the first canned tomato juice was made there. That’s all great and interesting, but not immediately relevant.

And then I read about Ryan White, the fourteen-year-old boy from Kokomo who contracted the HIV virus from a contaminated blood treatment in 1984 and was given six months to live. Despite doctors assuring the town that Ryan was safe to be around, he was expelled from school and harassed by many in the local community; someone even fired a gun through the window of his bedroom. This awful story was a perfect example of information reduction; in 1984 we knew exactly how AIDS spread but this complex information had been reduced to “don’t go near anyone who is HIV positive”.

So a play about information is born of random information: books on shelves; Twitter outrage; a random title; the story of a persecuted boy. This is how creation happens because the very act of creation involves the replication of information with variation and selection. Nothing is original, everything is a combination of other things. For me it wasn’t just the books or the Twitter experience, if I listen to the play now, I can hear influences that I wasn’t even directly aware of in the writing; Global Frequency, The Invisibles, The Gone Away World, Sapphire and Steel… The list goes on because every act of creation is a mashing up of influences and experiences gained over a whole life to date.

And so maybe the way human beings combine these random snippets of information to create something new, maybe the connections we make and the way we remix the things we know and transmit them to others are what gives us the edge over the machines. Maybe our creativity is the real key to our survival. We can take that information and not just reduce it, we can make something new out of it. And the machines can’t do that. Yet.

“Kokomo” is the Afternoon Play on BBC Radio 4 on 5th June, 2013.  (BBC link)

I can be found on Twitter, all day every day, committing every crime against information detailed above: @juliansimpson1