The Toughest Challenge Of All?

August 21, 2011

I am often asked about the various aspects of establishing and maintaining a career in film. Today, I want to address one of the essential ingredients of doing just that, one that many people have a devil of a time embracing.

Many years ago in my Ray Stark days, I worked on several film projects with the legendary Neil Simon, who wrote classics such as The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite, Barefoot in the Park, and many more.

When Neil was ready to start revising a script, he would invite the actors in for a reading. I was always amazed at how brutal he was about his own material. He would make notes in his own script such as “bad”, “not funny”, “rewrite”, etc. When the reading was over, he would thank everyone and set out to do another rewrite.

When I asked him how he could always be so objective about his own work, he answered: “First of all, what I think is funny is completely irrelevant. If people laugh, the line is funny. If they don’t, it’s not. It’s then my job to write a new line that does make people laugh. And most importantly in making changes to my own scripts, I always pretend that I’ve been hired to rewrite the script of someone I don’t like!”

The ability to not only hear but really listen to and absorb constructive criticism is absolutely essential to any career in the film industry.

Despite the protestations of many self-styled “auteur” directors, film making is an intensely collaborative process. When a director takes a “Film By” credit, it is an act of supreme ego that denigrates the contributions of other extremely talented people. No single person can make a film. Writers, producers, directors, actors, and executives all have indispensable perspectives on how screenplays should be developed and then brought to life. During production, cinematographers, line producers, production designers, set decorators, makeup and hair stylists, lighting technicians, grips, and dozens more craftspeople have critical roles to fill in manifesting a film. In post production, editors, sound designers/mixers, and composers have huge impacts on the film. (Speaking from personal experience, Somewhere in Time was absolutely a different film before John Barry contributed his brilliant score.)

And then, of course, you show your film to test audiences and really find out what people think!

During this entire process, the ability to take constructive criticism to heart is of utmost importance for every artist on every film.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Brian Mills August 22, 2011 at 3:32 am

Oh Stephen, so true and wonderful that Neil Simon managed to remain objective about his work and he was a fantastic writer. As one at the moment who is waiting to hear from a producer re-my comedy screenplay
They ‘re All Nuts, your message could not have been more apt. Thank you. One of my favourite quotes is when Neil Simon was asked isn’t it lonely being a writer, to which he replied: “How can I be lonely with all these characters in my head.”


lauren simon August 23, 2011 at 2:38 pm

Stephen, this is spot on! Nothing is more unattractive and obstructive than being defensive and not open. Being able to absorb constructive criticism is a sure sign of success! This is a great reminder and eye opener. XO


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: