“It sucked.” That’s what I often dread hearing as a filmmaker. That’s not to say that I expect everyone to like everything I make. That would be impossible. But it doesn’t make it sting any less when someone genuinely has a very negative reaction to something I’ve poured my heart into. All the same, I’m dedicated personal growth as an artist. This means that I first have to acknowledge I’m not always going to get it right. Sometimes, something I make might legitimately “suck.” So as vulnerable and uncomfortable as it makes me feel, I find I need feedback.
So, if someone says to me, “I didn’t like it” or “it sucked” (and most people are far too nice to just say something sucked even if it might rightly deserve such an assessment), my natural follow up question is, “What didn’t you like about it?” Basically, I ask them to tell me more. Because, when it comes right down to it, I couldn’t possibly care any less about the fact that you didn’t like my script or film. What I care about is why did they not like it. Why (and by extension, what) is where growth is possible.
In that sense, when someone tells me, “I loved that film of yours,” my next question is basically the same. “Why?” I ask, “What did you like about it?” Because, even when it comes to positive feedback, I learn nothing from vague generalities and quick praise. Don’t get me wrong. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside for sure when someone tells me, “I saw your latest short film and I loved it.” But when it comes to learning about what’s working and not working about the stories I’m telling, it all comes back to why. Why did you like or not like this specific film or script?
I can learn several things when I manage to get people to explain why. For instance, I few years ago I had a rare opportunity to show a my short film, “Always Reaching” to a rather famous Hollywood producer. He graciously watched it and then sent me an e-mail detailing why he felt the film is more or less garbage. At first I was utterly devastated. Certainly, here was a blown opportunity to make a good impression on someone with power and influence. Things had not gone the way I hoped they would. He said the film was esoteric and made a few other … well, frankly … odd observations about why he so thoroughly disliked my short film. However, once I had time to clear my head and chat with my producing partner and fellow screenwriter on that film, it became more and more clear to me that we had simply made a film that in almost no way matched this particular Hollywood producer’s tastes. Reflecting on the types of films this producer made compared to our slow-paced character-driven dark drama, it seems clear to me that his feedback, while a valid subjective reaction he’s entitled to have, did not turn out to be feedback I should put much stock in. We had more or less simply made a movie that was, well, not his type. If you’re curious, you can see “Always Reaching” right here and form your own opinion (and even tell me what you think of it): https://vimeo.com/4889017
So in this instance, I feel like it was sort of like making a horror movie that then someone watches and tells me they hated because they hate horror movies in general. Well, okay then. Duly noted. If you find yourself in a situation like this, do yourself a favor. The moment they walk away, mentally hit “select all” on their feedback in your mind and quickly and firmly hit the mental “deleted” key. That is useless feedback. There’s nothing of value to be learned there.
Over time I have also learned that not all feedback sources should cary the same weight in my mind. Some people I know have proven themselves to be very observant and capable of providing me with very specific and helpful feedback as to what’s working and not working in a story (be it script, rough cut, or finished film). These people genuinely praise what is honestly working and critique and point out the weak areas, giving reasons why those weak areas detracted from their experience of the story. Often, they even provide specific thoughts on how to make those weak areas stronger. On the other hand, I know people (many of whom I love dearly) whose opinions when it comes to my work I have slowly learned to hold loosely (some even to disregard completely) as I believe their feedback is too colored by specific quirks that I have no interest in catering to. Often such people will offer me their thoughts and I take it all in politely and sort through it later, but not putting too much stock in what they’ve said either way. One thing I’ve been learning to do more and more (I’m a work in progress here) is to not take their feedback personally. In fact, with such people, I often cease actively seeking their feedback altogether. I mean, what’s the point, right?
Now, keep in mind, there’s a difference between not seeking feedback from people because I might have an aversion to being told my work is anything but awesome. Like I said, praise feels good, but many times doesn’t help me grow. So what I’m talking about here is identifying and seeking out those people who provide truly constrictive criticism (which at times does include hard critiques of ares in which my work has seriously failed to rise above mediocrity). So it is incredibly valuable to find those people who honestly love you and want to see you succeed, but don’t necessarily automatically love everything you produce. They know your potential and are unwilling to settle for watching you fall short of it. But they also know that this whole business of being creative is hard work, it’s vulnerable, and often times, in spite all our efforts, we just don’t quite manage to get it all right. And I don’t know about you, but in those instances it’s oh so tempting to fall back on my old life as a Starbucks barista. These people don’t let you do that.
When it comes to my work, I find feedback a crucial part of developing a new project. In a real sense, I feel like a story only exists in my head as long as I haven’t shown a draft to anyone. Even though I may have succeeded in putting words in a document in a Final Draft or Pages document, the whole process is so subjectively wrapped up in my limited perspective that in practical terms, it’s like it still doesn’t exist outside of my mind. So I tend to roll out an early draft to a trusted circle of friends who have proven a track record of providing helpful feedback. They can let me know if I’m wasting my time barking up this particular tree or if there’s real potential here. They often give me specific insights into what’s going on in the story or how things are being interpreted that I need to keep in mind. I had this happen just last week with a script. A close friend read my second draft for a script I’m working on, and she pointed out how she’d interpreted one particular aspect of the story and I realized that (1) I had not intended for things to be interpreted that way at all and (2) what she pointed out was likely to be the way many people could interpret that aspect of the story. It’s a thing of beauty. In that instant, the story was outside of my head and I had to contend the reality of presenting this to an audience and trying to ensure that the audience wasn’t distracted by something I did not mean to bring up in the story in the first place. Revisions will clean that right up!
That’s why I love the feedback and revision process. I then expand my circle and show to more people and get more feedback. And usually at this stage, I start to consider trends in my feedback. If I’m showing a third or fourth draft to ten people, and one of them gives me some rather unexpected feedback, I often have to weigh that against what the other nine said. It could they are just an outlier, statistically speaking. However, if four or five people out of those ten are saying very similar things … I probably should stop and listen carefully.
Finally, often times, people will have very specific things they will suggest when it comes to fixing problems or weak areas in a script I’m working on. Sometimes such suggestions are spot on and I actually integrate them. However, more often than not, the suggestions are indicative of observing that something in a specific area of the story is not working but are not something I would want to implement for various reasons that can range from stylistic choices to how taking such advice might actually bring about other issues in the script. But what I often do in those instances is to try to listen carefully to the suggestions offered then I go away and think it all over. 99 out of 100 times, when I sit down to rewrite the script, I end up tossing the specifics of the suggestion aside and discover my own unique solution that both addresses the issue and uniquely serves the story in a much better way. So, while I hardly ever simply implement such feedback, it provides me a kind of springboard I can jump off of with my own solutions. And so, feedback and suggestions remain invaluable to me.
A word of advice for fellow artists when it comes to asking for feedback: Always stop and listen first! Respect the people giving you feedback, especially if you asked for their feedback. Really soak what they are saying and consider it fairly before implementing or dismissing it too quickly. I have been asked for my feedback by some people at times only to instantly find them arguing with me about why all my feedback is wrong or off base. In those instances, I usually discontinue the conversation as quickly as possible as it is clear to me that the person is not currently interesting in my actual feedback. They may simply need a little friendly affirmation and a change of subject. If you ask for feedback, though, don’t be that person. Don’t argue. Soak it in for the moment and work it out later if you need to implement or dismiss. This doesn’t mean you can’t discuss things. Just don’t let all the reasons why you love your project get in the way of hearing valuable feedback.
It really is a never ending process. Be it revisions on a script or considering how to make a better film next time, we all need feedback as filmmakers and storytellers (and many other lines of work too, for that matter). But do keep in mind: not all feedback is equal! Do you know who the people are you can trust to give you truly honest and helpful feedback? If so, be sure to let those people know how much you value their help! Never take them for granted.