Tragedy, comedy, and dealing with feedback on your work. Here’s some different things I’ve been thinking a lot about this past month. Maybe there’s something here to interest you too?

HELP AFTER THE BEIRUT BLAST

Lebanon, my parents’ homeland, was hit with an unexpected blow earlier this month when a ludicrous amount of highly unstable ammonium nitrate exploded in the capital Beirut, obliterating the country’s main port and causing a wave of destruction that killed over 180 people and left another 300,000 (yes, 300,000) homeless. A tiny coastal nation bordering Syria and Israel, Lebanon was already struggling with rampant political corruption, a looming famine and the weight of a million displaced Syrian refugees (the country’s entire population, plus refugees, is only 5 million so you can imagine how stretched their resources must be). If you are in any position to do so, please consider donating to charities helping keep the population of Beirut afloat. I donated to the following:

Impact Lebanon – a British-based activist non-profit working to leverage the community power of the Lebanese diaspora.

Red Cross Australia Beirut Explosion Appeal 2020 – the Aussie arm of the global aid organisation.

A word of caution – it is well worth researching who you donate to simply because of the instability and lack of transparency available at the moment – they need every dollar to count, not to end up in yet another corrupt official’s pocket. Don’t let this stop you giving though if you can…

BE EXCELLENT TO EACH OTHER… AND LAUGH A LOT

Like pretty much every other Gen X-er out there, I’m more than a little excited about the upcoming release of sci-fi comedy Bill and Ted Face the Music. Following 1989’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and 1991’s Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, all written by Chris Matheson and Ed Soloman, it feels like a lifetime since we last saw Alex Winter’s Bill and Keanu Reeves’ Ted facing their own failings on the way to becoming our planet’s most bodacious saviours. And fans have been waiting for this for YEARS as rumours of a third film in the franchise have been around for at least the past decade. In anticipation, I re-watched the first two films again yesterday and I was delighted to find them as warm and silly and fun as I remembered, maybe even more so. In fact, the first film is still remarkably fresh, with a premise that is as ridiculous as it is enchanting, and of course comedically glorious. Gleefully upending the usual time travel genre tropes (you’ll find no bootstraps or butterflies in the B&T universe), the films also manage to beautifully capture the pop culture milieu of their eras in which they were made – the cavernous ease of the late 80s shopping mall, the grunge appeal of Battle of the Bands nights, the first stirrings of the cult of DIY… I have no idea what the third film will be like – I have been avoiding any spoilers other than enjoying the outpouring of love and excited expectation of fans on social media. I do know George Carlin’s Rufus will be greatly missed, but I’m very keen to see how Bill and Ted’s daughters play into the story. Station!

After several reliable recommendations, I finally got round to watching 2015’s Spy, written and directed by Paul Feig. And what a fun treat. Melissa McCarthy is predictably wonderful in this fantastic send-up of the usually super serious spy genre. I was also pleasantly surprised to find the film features two other women in key roles – the supremely underrated Rose Byrne and personal favourite Miranda Hart – as well as action star Jason Statham revelling in a role that totally and utterly takes the piss out of the kind of characters he’s usually known for playing (more of this Jason! More!). It also stars Jude Law, Allison Janney and Bobby Cannavale in case you needed any extra encouragement. While Law gets to swan about as a Bond-esque spy extraordinaire in the big opening sequence, it’s actually McCarthy who steals the action hero limelight through the rest of the film, with gusto. I love a good popcorn movie, and this definitely fits that category.

Speaking of good popcorn, I have watched Will Ferrel vehicle Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga at least twice now (possibly thrice). Both poking fun of and lovingly paying homage to the kitschy phenomenon that is the very real Eurovision Song Contest, it’s somewhat ironic (or a heavenly stroke of fate depending on your perspective) that this film comes out the one year the actual contest has had to be cancelled (thanks pandemic). No, it’s not perfect, but it doesn’t set out to be. It’s a rollicking modern fairy tale about the price of ambition and the love of a good pop song. It is so silly and stupid, and full of elvish lore and memorable performances, I couldn’t help but giggle the WHOLE way through. Even when I was crying – yes, crying. By the time Sigrit, played by Rachel McAdams, sings her song on the Eurovision stage, I was a blubbering, yet still giggling, mess. This film is the kind of pure sugary delight 2020 desperately needs, and I will happily admit I will no doubt watch it yet again in the next week or so. Ja ja ding dong!

HOW THE F*@# DO YOU DEAL WITH NOTES

Getting notes back on your writing can both thrill and destroy you. The minute you send your precious piece of writing off for feedback, you are desperate to hear back, and desperate for them to LOVE IT. Ha. I’ve been working on a horror feature treatment and sending it out to several friends and colleagues for their thoughts, which has been a genuinely great and rewarding thing to do. But I also sent it to two experienced practitioners – one a mentor and one a script editor colleague – both of whom I was sort of dreading to hear back from. It’s not a usual genre for either of them, so I wasn’t sure what they would make of what is a pretty schlocky commercial concept, even for me!

How you approach notes, as well as notes themselves, are always going to be different depending on the project. If you’re working on an existing property where the idea is not your own, and part of the job is to capture and maintain an existing voice and tone in your little piece of that universe, then you have an obligation to adhere to the notes you receive fairly closely.

But when it comes to original, personal projects, and you’re still in the early stages of establishing the story’s voice, it can be really hard to take in the cacophony of feedback and filter it in a useful way. What piece of feedback is right? Should you listen to it all? Is it okay to ignore some of it?What happens if the feedback differs vastly from person to person? Who is right? What take is wrong? How do you even start to implement the colourful and divergent deluge of notes you suddenly find yourself elbow-deep in?

This is my task this coming month. Those two experienced practitioners I sent my draft treatment to got back to me with two very different takes. One clearly found my story and approach hugely lacking, suggesting there was no clear antagonist nor a fully fleshed out second act, or clear and defining turning points. Ouch. The other was incredibly enthusiastic about the story, the structure and my approach but had concerns about the perspective of the central characters and the story’s shift from the satirical to the symbolic. Both thought the central character was still somewhat underdeveloped, but suggested two different approaches on how to address this.

Hmm. Two different takes from two different people who really know their stuff, and who I know want me to succeed in making this story the best it can be. What do I take on board, even if it really hurts, and what do I toss to the side?

Here’s my plan – I’m going to ask myself the two following questions:

One: What really got me excited about the original idea in the first place?

Something I picked up from years working in development is to always ask creators – what is that one initial thing that first got you hooked on this idea? I ask them to be really honest about this – what precisely made them want to pursue this project above all others? Was it the genre, or a particular concept? The appeal of a highly commercial product or the thrill of a purely artistic, straight from the heart piece? Whatever that thing was that first struck a match inside you, I say, note it down. The answer to this question is often a brilliant touchstone to have up your sleeve when you’re stuck or too in the thick of your project to feel like you can see anything objectively anymore. The reason for this is that it works a bit like a signpost, reminding you of your core interest in the project and thus helping to guide you forward and make decisions when you feel otherwise lost in the parched badlands of development.

Two: What do I really want the message of this work to be?

One of the key skills that separates newbie writers from the pros is whether a story has something thematically interesting to say, whether it embodies a perspective on or exploration of a particular topic that gives the story a greater impact than just passing entertainment. This then too becomes a touchstone for your development process – how does your story and how do your characters explore or illuminate a central theme that has relevance to you? Knowing the big underlying question you’re offering some insight on is a good way to approach re-working scenes and sequences, as well as helping you ensure your characters’ have defined motivations and drive.

So, that’s how I plan to tackle my slab of sometimes conflicting feedback. Being clear on my touchstones – what is fundamental to my personal conception of the story and what message do I hope to express through it – will help me sift through and make the most of these notes. It’ll allow me to work out what additional work is going to be worth the effort, and what suggestions don’t actually apply. This doesn’t mean the process will be easy or straightforward – whenever is it easy or straightforward?!? – but it will give me a framework that’ll keep me pushing through to another draft… Wish me luck!

Until next time, stay safe, lovelies. And be excellent to each other.

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