TRANSCRIPT Ep13 - How to Give and Receive Story Notes with Kevin Hanna

Updated: Apr 12

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Intro: All right, welcome to the successful screenwriter podcast, where we are dedicated to anything and everything screenwriting. Here, we interview successful screenwriters and filmmakers to discover just what it takes to make it in the industry.

Geoffrey: Welcome to the podcast, we are live from Script Summit 2020 Virtual Fest. We have Kevin Hanna, the ever-affable talented screenwriter joining us. He is a staff writer at Kevin, thank you for being with us today.

Kevin: Oh my god, thank you so much for organizing this, Geoffrey! It’s been wonderful, so far.

Geoffrey: It’s my honor and my pleasure, sir. I have a bunch of writers from the Script Summit community joining us and they will be asking us questions throughout, in the comments. I will be relaying them to Kevin and then we will have a fantastic Conflab. This first question is in regard to Kevin’s seminar on branding yourself as a writer, which is so important, and also about how to take and receive notes, as a writer. I can tell you, [that] is something that needs to be chatted about.

Kevin: I have thoughts.

Geoffrey: Yes, you do, and you will make sure people hear them.

Joaquin Hernandez: What can you learn from feedback that isn’t very positive and his hard to hear, at first?

Kevin: The first thing I would say, for something like that, it’s a tough business. You’re going to get a lot more no’s than you are yeses. There’s a lot of emotional preparation that goes into just that aspect of it. When you hear feedback from someone that isn’t very positive and is hard to hear, what you really have to do is put your own personal feelings to the side and look at is as a part of work. Yes, you created this. Yes, it’s your baby, but the feedback that you’re getting is meant to make your work better. Whether you agree with it or not, it’s just meant to make it better. If it’s hard to hear, okay, you can just sit there and listen to it and let the person whose so generously given their time to read your work and give you their thoughts on it. Let them express their thoughts. If you have questions about whether they understood something, whether something made sense, if it worked, or how the pacing was, you can ask those questions. But look underneath what they are saying and find the reason why they are saying it. What made them feel that certain reaction that is prompting them?

Geoffrey: That’s a really good point. Part of it, Joaquin, is you’ve got to have a thick skin. You just have to. That comes with time, and the only way you get that thick skin is by getting that brutal feedback. That’s it. If you think you’re getting brutal feedback now, wait till you’re on set with a director whose got a budget, and they need a scene redone. Or you have talent that’s unhappy with it and they’re signed on to the gig. It’s never going to get easier, so you just have to grow tougher.

Kevin: What I would also like to add on to that is, yes grow tougher, but also stay vulnerable.

Geoffrey: Very good. Don’t be jaded…. You have to look past what their hang-ups are. That’s the notes I call the “I feel” notes, [which is] when you get feedback from somebody and they say, “I feel this, I feel that.” I don’t necessarily care how you feel, I want to know what’s wrong with the story. You have to look past who they are and try to sift through the bad notes to find the nuggets. I think Kevin’s got a good point there.

Dale Griffith Stamos: I’ve sometimes heard that if three people say the same thing, you better consider it. When one person says it, evaluate it for how it resonates with you. What are your thoughts on that?

Kevin: Sounds like what you’re saying, Dale, is “when three people say it, you obviously consider it, but what do you do when only one person says it?” There’s so many factors that go into it. Who are you asking? Who are you getting this feedback from? Do you trust them enough that you feel like you don’t have to ask two other people the same question after reading the script?

Geoffrey: Consider the source. I like that.

Kevin: Exactly…Does it hit you correctly in a way that’s true? Does it resonate with you?

Geoffrey: I like that a lot, “does it resonate with you?” … As I work with students, part of it is that they have to trust your advice and trust your word. You have to have credibility. There’s a lot of people you get notes from that’s just not credible. They have an opinion, sure, because they watch movies, but that doesn’t mean they understand story structure. It doesn’t mean that they understand character development.

Kevin: Yes, in my feedback seminar, I go into that. Be specific with who you’re asking to who you’re asking to read your script and know why. That’s all about being judicious with the sources you rely on for that feedback.

Geoffrey: If your brother or sister’s uncle’s cousin took a writing seminar 20 years ago, I’m probably not going to lean too heavy on those notes. But if I get somebody like yourself, or anybody else that we’re working with, that is actively working in the film industry whether it’s indie or not, you need to take those notes seriously. Period. It’s definitely about the source.

If somebody reads your script and they put the time into it, then they’ve earned that right to give you their feedback. If I spend time reading your script, I get to say whatever I want because that’s time or my life gone. Now whether I say it nice or not, that’s the issue.

Kevin: That’s also why my seminar was about giving and receiving feedback. Because there are ways to say things that are destructive and there are ways to say things that are constructive when you’re essentially saying the same thing. As writers, we’re going to be reading each other’s work and giving each other feedback. When you are the one doing the talking, there are ways to express your opinions, feelings, and thoughts about it in a way that is going to be constructive for the writer of what you’ve read [so they can] go into rewrites and make the work better. Because it’s not about you, it’s not about me, it’s about the work. Let’s just remove the ego, put it to the side, and discuss the work.

Geoffrey: We’re going to flip over to branding here, for a second.

Mike: Is it important to mention any successes in competitions, being it quarter or semi-finalist, as far as placements go? Do people even care? Is it a ‘if you’re not first, you’re last’ type of thing? Are awards/placements in general worth listing, or should you just stick with actual “I won first place” and finalists?

Kevin: Well if you made quarter or semi-finalist at PAGE, I’d say drop a name here or there. Or if you’ve won an award at Script Summit, I would definitely mention it.

Geoffrey: Script Summit does carry a little bit of weight. We are listed, proudly, as a Top 20 Screenplay Contest in the world, and that was by The Script Lab. You can’t take that lightly. Does Script Summit carry some weight? Yes. Are we PAGE or Nicholl? No. Are we your Mom & Pop film festival? No. I think if you do place, with us at least, it’s worth a mention.

Kevin: I do have questions because, Mike, you’re talking about branding. The only time you would ever really mention competition placements/wins, obviously in conversation, but also in your written PR material. That is something definitely to frontload in your writer’s bio. Definitely Script Summit placement, PAGE placement, or if you place in BlueCat, all the big competitions. Did you get any fellowships? Drop those names right at the beginning of the bio so anybody reading it can go, “Oh, you have credibility.” That would be the place to do it.

Geoffrey: Put it on your resume, it doesn’t hurt. I don’t lead into a conversation going, “Well I am…” I don’t go there but it’s more about providing value, at that point.

Hal Carlton: Tips for sussing out what the reason behind someone’s bad notes are. Questions to help them tease it out.

Geoffrey: I actually have killer story about this, but I want to hear what your suggestion is.

Kevin: I’m guessing you don’t like their notes. In my seminar, I go over this as well, saying something is good and saying something is bad carries inherent judgement value to it. I tend to stay away from using those terms when discussing feedback. Someone’s notes that, I’m guessing aren’t helpful to you or maybe they’re very critical, when you get those notes from someone just start asking them why. Be a journalist: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? But especially with “Why?” because this is an emotional art, so start talking to them about their feelings and impressions. “You did not like this, why didn’t you like it? What did you feel? When in the script did you feel this?” If they can’t tell you why, then that’s something to consider. But if they can tell you why, that gives you more information with which you can enter your rewrites. “They told me why, do I agree with it? Do I not agree with it?”

Geoffrey: You’re going to disassociate. You’re going to step back away from emotionally what you’re feeling, get in there, and try to take an objective approach.

Kevin: Removing thyself.

Geoffrey: I’ll give you the story, though you’ve probably already heard it. We’ve known each other for a long time, now.

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Geoffrey: I did this script, I sent it out, and I got notes back from a guy. This was paid notes from a commercial service. This was way before I decided to really try to go pro. This was when I was doing the tour across the country and winning, back then. I did the tour, got the notes back, and this guy killed my script, Kevin. He destroyed it, there were personal attacks in there, like “how dare you?!” type of stuff. I was like, “Holy crap, I paid this guy $125!” He was coming at me … It should’ve been written in CAPS at this point, he said “HOW DARE YOU DO THIS?!” At the end of the story, it’s a body-swap film but I did it as a hard drama, and I did that on purpose because more body-swap films are comedies. I wanted to break the niche, so I did it as a hard drama where two guys switch lives, and then one guy falls in love with the other guy’s wife. At the end of the script, the big question is, they have to switch back now but I have one guy look to the other and say, “Do we have to?” Then the other guy smiles and it cuts to black, so you don’t know if they switch back or not. I wanted that on purpose because it’s about trying to find love and then I want [the audience] to decide where that love is. Well it broke this guy, mentally. “Then they do what? They switch back and this other guy goes back to his wife that he doesn’t love, and he keeps cheating on her?!” He starts going on this whole long rant, and I’m like, “Dude, I didn’t write any of that stuff. You’re so emotionally invested that you’re worried about what happens to the characters after my story is done.” That’s where you find that note, I had hooked this guy so emotionally into the story that he lost his mind at what might happen after the characters are gone. Sometimes when you get a bad note, it’s because you’ve hit a cord with that person. It’s an emotional cord and they don’t even know how to process it other than just coming at you.

Question: Who are people [professionally] reading scripts? How old would they be, demographically, and are they mostly frustrated writers?

Geoffrey: I can’t answer that question because we don’t know who they are. Are some writers frustrated they didn’t make it in the industry and then become readers? Sure, there’s a percentage of that, but there’s also a percentage of professional readers that are producers who never made it in the industry. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Kevin: There’s a snarky part of me, whenever I get bad feedback, that’s like, “They’re just a frustrated screenwriter, meh.” There is always that initial gut reaction because I’m not going to deny my feelings, “Ugh! You don’t understand me!” Of course I have that reaction.