When I first started as a director, I was pretty precious about rejecting notes and feedback that disagreed with my brilliant ideas.

One of the toughest lessons to learn in making a film, perhaps life in general, is processing notes and feedback.

If someone told me that something was too long, they didn't understand my vision; if the pace needed tightening, they were looking for MTV style cuts.

While it is true that I do generally prefer slower burns in film, like Once Upon in Hollywood, consistency to that pacing is absolutely critical to the success of the film.

Finding your rhythm, and in that rhythm a voice for what you are trying to communicate, determines how the audience will interpret the work that you're creating.

As a director, I do projects that I connect with personally for a specific reason. I don't just direct a project because it is on the table. I want to understand what I want it to be very clearly before entering the project.

If I cannot vocalize that vision, my team will not be able to execute anything.

Lucia's Voice Tulsa Opera Transgender Lucia Lucas Documentary James Kicklighter Michael Cooper New York Times
On location in Tulsa, Oklahoma

We're in the final days of editing my latest film, following Lucia Lucas and her journey through Don Giovanni at the Tulsa Opera.

In the background while editing the film, there has been press from The New York Times (the writer of the article, Michael Cooper, appears in the film), amongst other international news organizations. This certainly has amplified the pressure to deliver a great film, though I feel that on every film which I direct.

It also opens up the temptation to make the film all encompassing, to cover all of the topics that the journalists around the world are covering.

You can't give into that temptation.

I have been reminding myself constantly as I whittle the film down from our 2:30 cut down to an 1:32 minutes (as of this writing), what that initial idea was and how I can fully execute it in editorial.

In order to do that, I have brought in a plethora of test subjects, from the general viewing audience, to producers, executives, actors, and fellow filmmakers.

Processing all of their notes together, I've tried to simultaneously respond to that feedback and craft the best version of the story that I wished to make.

With the support of my producers, Russ Kirkpatrick, Andy Kinslow and Josh Bachove, who have supported that vision every step of the way, I have kept moving forward in the process.

This is the process that I have developed over the years for taking notes.

  1. Look for repetitions
  2. Discern the difference between a note and an opinion
  3. Explain your choices when questioned and question your explanations.

Let's break this down:

1. Look for repetitions

In an editorial sense, "repetitions" has two meanings for me.

First, what are the notes that are coming in across the board, from every screening and audience? If I am getting the same note over and over again, without giving any of these screeners guidance, then it is a note for which I should pay close attention.

Second, what are the redundancies in the film that cover ground I have already covered?

I believe in the power of three -- you express a critical concept, idea, phrase three times over the duration of a film to reinforce its importance to an audience. However, it has to be woven delicately and at critical junctures as not to seem redundant.

Redundancies occur when we've already exhausted or expressed the idea clearly in once scene or thematic element and its time to move along.

If you're telling a rich, multilayered story, it is about weaving those in and out throughout the duration of the film. With any luck, they'll strand together in a thematically driven finale.

Look for those repeated notes.

Listen when the general audience tells you there's enough of whatever that ingredient might be.

I'm not suggesting that you float like a candle in the wind, sometimes it is worth sticking to your guns. But make sure if you're picking a hill to die on, it is one.

2. Discern the difference between a note and an opinion

Every film ain't for every body.

I'm sure some of you didn't like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. That's okay, we have lots of options in the digital media environment.

In collecting feedback, one of the most important things you can do in the post-production process, you'll often have opinions that intermingle with tangible notes.

If someone doesn't understand what you're trying to do or would do it differently, that's okay too.

But these minority reports should not dissuade you from proceeding with that vision unless it sparks an important revelation that you didn't have in seeing your film over and over again.

I have certainly gotten those individual notes that have totally transformed the trajectory of the project I am making. These can often make the project much better than if I had stuck to my original idea.

I have also gotten quite a few that I have discarded, because I have developed my Spidey Sense for personal viewing opinions and what I want to do with a film.

It is not a scientific process.

It is a process of your own discernment, matching that vision you initially laid out with the film that you have made. You only develop it with time, trial, error, mistake and triumph.

3. Explain your choices when questioned and question your explanations.

If you cannot vocalize what your vision is, no one else will do it for you. That is true in every aspect of production, but maybe the most in post-production.

I often have said that there are three films you make:

  • The film you conceptualized
  • The film you shot
  • The film you edit

They are all different entities and you are negotiating between them throughout the entire production process. They are often shifting.

In editorial, if your producers are worth their salt, they will question your choices and you have to be able to explain them credibly.

If your explanation does not match the material and the outcomes from your tests, then you need to question your own explanation to make it clear.

A film is no good if the film you want to make exists in your head. It has to appear on the screen.

It is incredibly easy to get lost in that space, and that is why it is so important to show people the work that you are doing.

Without feedback, testing and actual application of notes, your work is unlikely to improve.

Directors do not hold exclusivity to good ideas.

They come from everywhere and everyone, so invite the people you trust to participate. They want the best for you too.

In summation: 

  • Look for repetitions
  • Discern the difference between a note and an opinion
  • Explain your choices when questioned and question your explanations.

What's your process?